by Melissa Coleman, June 3, 2011 2:00 PM
Don't miss Melissa Coleman's visit
to Powell's Books on Hawthorne! Monday, June 6th, at 7:30pm.)
It was so much fun blogging for Powell's in April that I had to come back to say, "Portland and Powell's, I love you!" (Explanation point used to show great emphasis, at the risk of scorn by some editors.) I'm also looking forward to returning to my old stomping grounds to read from my memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, at Powell's on Hawthorne on June 6.
I had to laugh when I read Claire Dederer's post about Portland vs. Seattle. What she says is true: If you're not so lucky as to live in Portland, you're jealous of those who do. So at the risk of sounding like I've been hired by the chamber of commerce, here's my top 10, okay 15, things I loved about living in Portland:
15) The quick bus ride (or rigorous bike ride) from our apartment in the West Hills down to my office in the Pearl (this was BR, before rail)
14) The Warhols at the Heathman Hotel
13) Local farmers the Portland Farmer's Market
12) Portland Art Museum and Portland International Film Festival
11) The community at the Bikram yoga studio on Fremont and going to what used to be Wild Oats, now Whole Foods, after yoga
10) Skiing at Mt. Hood on Saturday and surfing at Short Sands on Sunday, an hour and change in either direction from home
9) Escaping to Hood River for kayaking, windsurfing, and old friends
8) Hiking the trails of Forest Park and getting a snack at Elephants Delicatessen afterwards
7) Going to Laughing Planet or Hot Lips Pizza at the EcoTrust Building after visiting the Patagonia store
6) The color-coded stacks at the Burnside City of Books and, of course, the author readings
5) Local author Ursula Le Guin, who wrote the amazing Earthsea Trilogy
4) Writing art reviews for D. K. Row at the Oregonian
3) My boss, Andrew, and the gang at what used to be Wellmed, now WebMD
2) Jessica Morrell's writer's group and Tom Spanbauer's Dangerous Writers workshop
And the top 15th thing I love about Portland:
1) Friends Karen, Audrey, Sean, Mark, Leanne, Heather, Doug, and my step-aunt Eloise and the rest of her family, who made me feel at home when I lived there, and Janie Beebe at PDX Contemporary Art, who did the same.
See you all
by Melissa Coleman, April 14, 2011 1:56 PM
Since I've always wanted to be a writer, I fancied going on from my BA in English to get an MFA in fiction and finding my literary path with the great teachers at Columbia or Iowa ? drinking gin at late night salons with famous writers, spending summers at MacDowell or Yaddo, and having affairs with Pulitzer Prize winners whilst penning my magnum opus.
Of course, the business of life took over, and by the time I moved to Portland, Oregon, I began to imagine myself instead as a participatory writer in the spirit of George Plimpton, pretending to be an author as he pretended to be a football player or circus performer. I kept journals and joined a writers' group run by the wonderful writing coach, blogger, and teacher, Jessica Morrell, author of Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction.
Most of all, I spent a lot of time reading and a lot of time at Powell's. My office was just down the street from the Burnside City of Books, so I'd work late and head up to the readings at 7:30 p.m. It was my mini MFA with authors of all stripes and colors. I'd sit in the front and listen intently for words of wisdom about the writer's life and habits.
There was T. C. Boyle with his crinkly mop of red hair and book of stories After the Plague. I remember his animated reading about a man and a mail-order bride in Alaska and that I raised my hand afterwards and asked what it felt like to get the recent positive review by Janet Maslin in the New York Times. I don't remember his reply, except that it might have been something snarky about reviews in general and that he seemed to like the idea of young females asking him such questions. (If I could make a snarky comeback 10 years later, I would tell him that in my opinion it feels absolutely wonderful to get a positive review from Janet Maslin in the New York Times.)
I was especially excited to see Salman Rushdie and took to carrying a copy of Midnight's Children on the bus to show how cool I was, though never actually finishing the book. Then 9/11 happened and the event was cancelled because the FAA placed restrictions on Rushdie due to a Muslim fundamentalist threat to his life, harkening back to the Iranian fatwa of the 1980s.
There were so many great events... Michael Ondaatje talking about the success of The English Patient to a large audience in the church across the street for the "famous authors." National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman reading from Paradise Park and providing an example of a young and successful writer not much older than I. Candace Bushnell hawking Four Blondes in mix-matched plaids and heels and talking about female mating rituals in a way that might have been a tad racy for the assembled crowd.
Susan Minot, one of the talented and beautiful female writers I sought to emulate, came to read from her new book Rapture, which I didn't love as much as Evening but was thrilled that she signed it "Have a rapturous Maine wedding" when I told her I was getting married in Maine that fall.
My all time favorite Powell's reading would have to be that of my participatory role model, none other than George Plimpton. He looked exactly like himself in pinstriped oxford, blue blazer, and khakis, with his silver flop of hair and a collected edition of his best essays. He told one of my all time favorite stories about playing the gong in the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein and how the piano came loose and started rolling across the stage while the poor pianist hunched after it, trying to keep playing as if nothing was wrong.
Yes, I was the girl in front row laughing my head off. Friends of mine knew George from New York, so I went up afterwards and told him my name so he could sign a book to me. Then I said something like: "Our mutual friends Chris and Hilary would never forgive me if I didn't make sure you had company for dinner tonight." Of course he begged off, saying he had a previous engagement. This so happened to be the night I got home to find out my future husband had received a voice message from former President Jimmy Carter asking about a guided fly fishing trip. (This was not the norm.) Later that night we heard the phone ring and vaguely wondered if it was the President again, but we were nearly asleep so let it go to voicemail. The next morning I checked the messages, beeping past but of course re-saving the first message from Carter, only to hear an amiable voice I didn't immediately recognize:
"Yes, hello, oh Melissa, George Plimpton here. I've just finished with dinner and am at the Heathman having a nightcap. Seeing if you'd like to
by Melissa Coleman, April 13, 2011 11:58 AM
Recently I spoke at a local Slow Food
chapter about the evolution of health food since the time of my memoir in the 1970s. I was inspired by a flyer I saw this fall at Whole Foods Market advertising items for a healthy school lunch. "Gone are the days when it was weird or snooty to show up at school with a natural and organic lunch," the headline announced. "Everyone knows there's been a revolution, so wear your colors proudly!"
And I thought: Wow. When I was a kid, my embarrassingly healthy lunch was often packed in a Ball mason jar. Today kids have these cute reusable sandwich bags called Snack Taxis, "as seen on Oprah!" My family and I lived on an organic farm before we even knew what the word meant, where we grew our own food, used an outhouse, had no electricity, running water, or phone. We weren't trying to be hippies; we were just different. This was around the time of the Brady Bunch. The only people even remotely similar to us were on Gilligan's Island, and they were shipwrecked.
In the early 1970s there was one farmers market in the state of Maine and nearly as few health food stores. Processed foods were the new miracle. There was Spam. Wonder Bread. Hostess products. I think everyone in my class had a Ho Ho or Twinkie in their lunch. Let me tell you, I would have given anything for one of those Ho Hos. I would have traded my Ball jar filled with homemade yogurt and a dollop of homemade jam on top. My jar of sunflower seeds, raisins, and carob chips, and my whole carrot as big as my arm, with fine white roots on it from the root cellar. I would have even traded my sprouted wheat berry bread made from a recipe taught to us by our neighbor Helen Nearing, who with her husband Scott wrote the homesteader's bible, Living the Good Life, and sold us our land. I just wanted to be "normal."
Yes, I've since realized that Ho Hos — once you get your hands on them — taste like crap, and while it's hard to admit mom and dad were right, my parents' passion for healthier food was truly one of the best gifts they gave me. The 1970s back-to-the-land movement may not have survived in its original form, but it started people growing their own food without pesticides, which in turn birthed the organic food movement, which today provides us with an option to chemically-grown food. (And as for fast food, well, see Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.) This food revolution we're enjoying today, one that's helping many people lead healthier lives, wouldn't have happened without the vision and struggle of a bunch of weirdos who believed in whole foods when fast food was the next best thing since sliced bread. I'd like to say thank you to all those weirdos out there, my parents included.
Today, I prefer to eat my dad's homegrown vegetables, which he teaches others how to grow in The Winter Harvest Handbook, or those from a local farm or farmers market before organic store-bought, but most of all I'm glad that we have so many options. Kids have a tough enough time eating well without the added stigma of food being weird and snooty, and I'm grateful my own children can enjoy their healthy lunches — packed in SnackTaxis, no less — in relative
by Melissa Coleman, April 12, 2011 11:25 AM
Today I want to share a few more words about writing the hard stories, on this, the official pub day of my memoir This Life Is in Your Hands
. These words are from a recent talk on a memoir panel at the Maine Festival of the Book
, with fellow authors Caitlin Shetterly
, whose memoir Made for You and Me
came out in March, and Susan Conley
, whose The Foremost Good Fortune
debuted in February. All three of us had to write hard stories, Caitlin about losing everything during the recession and Susan about moving to a new country and finding out she had breast cancer.
The hard stories are usually the ones you know you need to write, whether for publication or not, but you're often coming up with excuses not to write them. As mentioned in my last post, I'd always thought I wanted to write about growing up during the back-to-the-land movement, but I kept getting out of it, even after the revelatory Dangerous Writers workshop experience. I thought I didn't have enough memories because I was so young. And that the things that happened, like the death of my sister and break up of my family, were too difficult, and I didn't want to write hard things about my family and myself.
Then my husband Eric and I had baby twin girls, and I found that having children of my own made me even more afraid of the events of my childhood. I thought everything that happened then was my fault. My girls would soon be three, the age my little sister was when she drowned, and I worried that if I couldn't save my sister from untimely death, how could I save my own children? That's when my husband sat me down and said my excuses were all the reasons why I needed to write about what happened, and now.
So with one-year-old twins to tend, I started to write in the early mornings, with the goal of finishing before the girls turned three. I'd sneak out to the café at the L. L. Bean flagship store near where we live in Freeport, because it's open 24 hours, and write with a ball cap on so people couldn't see me crying. It was hard going, and I had no idea what I was doing, but slowly, as stories do, it started to find its rhythm, and then the memories began to come full force. People like to give memoirists a hard time, but it's amazing the things we can remember if we really focus on it. I filled notebooks upon notebooks with little snippets of memory, then I'd do research by talking to my parents and others who were there to fill out the details.
After a year and a half, I had a rough draft of the book, though I hadn't met my goal of finishing by the girls' third birthday. But by then it didn't matter anymore. Somewhere in the writing I'd made peace with the past. Set it free. Even if this book never saw the light of publication, that would have been reward enough.
I was lucky to sell the book just after the girls turned four, and now they are wonderful and wise six-year-olds. And the result of writing this book is no longer sadness over the loss of my sister but joy that my sister has come back to life on its pages and is part of my world again.
If I have any advice about writing personal stories, it's to learn how to write well and then write the scariest thing in your life, and don't stop writing until it's not scary anymore. Then not only will you feel better, but you might have a story that will make others feel less alone, as
by Melissa Coleman, April 11, 2011 11:30 AM
I've been looking forward to blogging for Powell's, not only as a chance to revisit a bookstore and city I love, but as a full-circle kind of thing. I didn't know it at the time, but it was when living in Portland in the early 2000s that I wrote the first bit of what would become my memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands
, debuting tomorrow.
It was the peak of start-up dot com hullabaloo, and I was working as a web designer at some failed companies (Utour.com) and successful ones (Wellmed.com, now part of WebMD), but I wanted to be a writer. I often thought of the story I've now written about growing up on a homestead in Maine in the 1970s without electricity and running water and the tragedy my family faced then, but I kept avoiding it. I was afraid I'd find out some of the things that happened were my fault. A novel seemed much safer. Fun, in fact. I sought out workshops and writers groups, and spent a good deal of time at Powell's, browsing the aisles and going to readings.
That's when I saw the Dangerous Writers workshop flyer in the coffee shop next to Powell's. There was a certain mystique surrounding this exclusive group run by Tom Spanbauer, author of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. "He's a Raymond Carver minimalist," someone said, "and he inspires his students to go for the heart." I heard Chuck Palahniuk cut his teeth with Tom before he wrote Fight Club, and Gordon Lish, Amy Hempel, and Ken Kesey were whispered to be Tom's friends. The weekly writer's group had a forever waiting list, but this weekend workshop was a rare chance in the door.
The first night we gathered in Tom's basement while he sat beneath the glow of a lamp at the head of the table and put his peculiar spell on us. "This weekend we will bare our true selves," he said to the group, or something to that effect, and my cheeks immediately began to burn. "We're here as writers to describe things both as they appear on the surface and the truth that lies beneath," he explained. Perhaps sensing my growing anxiety, he looked down the table and said, "Take Melissa there in her white sweater. She looks so clean and neat, but what's going on inside?"
I stared mutely back at the eclectic gathering of short story writers and want-to-be memoirists. There was a sweet-faced young gay guy next to me, and a woman sitting near Tom might have actually been a man. Tom himself was celebrated as one of the first openly gay novelists. Some of these writers were penning their truths at the risk of public disapproval and hatred. How could my own fears about my relatively simple childhood compare to that? I didn't feel I had anything to share.
Then Tom gave us an assignment to write in the first person about an event we didn't fully remember. I went home and wrote as if a pipe had burst. A scene from my childhood emerged, involving a drama going on between my mother and father.
The next day Tom made us condense what we'd written into one page — like the father in A River Runs through It — "make it half as long, and half as long again." Mine turned into something about how my parents had barely spoken to each other in the 20-some years, since my sister drowned and we'd abandoned the Maine homestead. My childhood had been locked away in that silence. When I read my essay aloud I began to cry, I couldn't stop. The group sat with me patiently. Then the sweet-faced guy leaned over and said, "Right there, there's your book." Tom took the page and read it aloud for me in a kindly gesture of praise.
It would not be until five years later, when I was struggling after the birth of my twin daughters, that my husband sat me down and said I needed to write this story about my lost sister. At times, it was as hard as I'd feared, but I'd found the beginning of the voice for it in that workshop and the voice carried me through. I may not have learned to write the beautiful minimalist sentences that Tom is known for, but I did learn to go for the heart, to write the hard stories. And that, as they say, has made all the