I Was a Memoir Class Dropout

Photo: Daniel Hjalmarsson

The fall of 1999. I’ve just begun my 2nd year of grad school, after taking a year off to live in Tucson, where my soon-to-be husband was completing his MFA in short fiction. I’m studying and writing only poetry, though the pull to memoir and nonfiction is there, an undercurrent that threatens to pull me out into unknown waters.

I finalize my course list for the semester and my work schedule on campus, where I am an academic advisor to international students. We live in a small one-bedroom apartment on Summer Street in Somerville, about 20 minutes on the red line from downtown Boston. I’ve made the decision to stretch myself by registering for a memoir class. It’s taught by a young woman whose name I don’t remember.

What do I have to write about? I’m 25. I am engaged. I have recovered from bulimia. I am the youngest of three sisters. I grew up in socioeconomic comfort as my parents climbed the academic ladders. I have one student loan but no other debt. I’m fluent in three languages. I want babies. I’ve started smoking again, after quitting, but don’t want my fiance to know. I work out at the gym before class, then smoke in the alley adjacent to 180 Tremont Street, where I take the stairs to my three-and-a-half hour night class with Bill Knott.

I have a love-hate relationship with workshops; I love the conversation that occurs around my classmate’s poems, and hate sitting quietly while they talk about mine. I hate writing poems on a deadline. I love the classes where we read Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. Where we talk about whether poetry has to be hard. I don’t think so. I think that’s a crock of shit and say so. We have lively discussions and I’m in my element in a small classroom with a passionate teacher.

But the memoir class? I go once. I drop out.

I am not in my element. It’s not time yet.

And instead of exploring this, instead of seeing what happens when I try writing in a new genre, I run. I run to the gym. I run to the alley with my Marlboros. I run to my wedding planning and the dreams we have for starting our life together, all starry-eyed and excitedly talking about what cities or towns we might like to live in after I graduate in the spring.

But I do not write memoir.

My fear of not having anything to write wins this round. I stick to poetry, which feels safer, like I know the landscape, the terrain, the things to avoid and the parts to dive into. My advisor and I meet for beers and I wonder if he has a crush on me, even as I know how inappropriate this wondering is. He is an accomplished but relatively unknown poet himself, whose loneliness and broken heart seem to fuel his existence.

* * *

What I don’t know now is that in ten years, I will begin writing what I think is going to be a memoir. It will feel urgent, not unlike when I knew it was time to try to conceive each of our future children — a drive I can explain only as biological. I have a story inside of my body that needs to be born. I don’t know what its gestation period is, how long it will take. All I know is that I have to nourish it. I start writing as if every word is a prenatal vitamin for this embryonic someday story. I make lists of names. I use giant pieces of sticky paper on the walls as charts and maps and timelines, circles and topics. I print out every blog post I’ve ever written, scouring my own words for themes.

Bulimia, closet smoking, motherhood, marriage, mindfulness, discovering my Jewish identity — these all show up. And yet something is missing and I can’t put my finger on it. I write for several hours a day. I write chronologically, from the very beginning of my life. I’ve never done anything like this and it’s all-consuming, exhilarating, and also frustrating and confusing. Why can’t I figure out what the book is about?

* * *

Eventually, I take everything I’ve drafted and put it in a 3-ring binder. I roll up the charts and put the sharpies in a drawer. I go back to therapy and tell her I’m sitting on a landmine. Everything in me has been activated by the writing.

A few months later, I come out. I come out with so much force that my own body transforms within weeks into a barely recognizable version of myself. It’s as if I literally shed all the padding I’ve worn, of who I’ve tried so hard to be. In an instant, I understand. I understand why I dropped out of that memoir class. I understand why I couldn’t finish my book.

It still wasn’t time. Because I was still living it.

I couldn’t know what the book was about because it was buried too deeply in me.

And it was only then that I could finally begin again. Only after I’d given up on the whole thing. Let the writing go that had brought me as far as it could. It wasn’t a book; it was myself. And yet without the whole journey — the avoiding writing and later the deep dive into it — I would not have found my way to myself.

* * *

I am 25. I am too scared to try my hand at writing true stories. I stick to poetry, where I can swallow my voice and see it move through body or a poem, like an egg through a snake, whole. I can tell it slant, paying homage to Emily Dickinson, with whom I identify so closely that the first stanza of her poem #640 becomes an anthem of sorts:

I cannot live with You — 
It would be Life — 
And Life is over there — 
Behind the Shelf 

I fail to see the writing on the wall, the writing inside of my self-reflexive mind and hungry heart, that might have seen this anthem as something of a red flag for a woman about to be married. All I know is that some things don’t feel safe even though I can’t say why. What I am unable to see for another 11 years is that I am the unsafe thing.

* * *

There are many ways into writing memoir and some stories can’t be discovered without writing in big, looping circles. Once you open one door, there’s no telling what you’ll find — and this can feel like scary ground. At 25, I wasn’t ready. And with nearly 20 years between me now and that time, I can look back with great compassion for my younger self. I also feel that same compassion now every time I begin to write something new.

When you sign up for the Mini Memoirs group (March 5-26), you might feel nervous.  Maybe you’re not sure what memory or moment in time you want to write about — or maybe you know exactly which one and yikes, this is a first. Maybe you worry you won’t be a good enough writer. (This fear was undoubtedly another reason why I dropped out of that class back in 1999.)

Here’s what I will tell you about this group:

It’s limited to 12 participants. Prompts are three days a week, to give you some breathing room on either side of each. And each prompt asks that you sit and write for just 10 minutes without stopping. It might not sound like much, and on the one hand, it isn’t. It’s manageable, no matter how busy you are. On the other hand, it is so much more than you think, in terms of just how much we can access and write in so short a time. I’ve seen the power of this over and over now for the past three years, and it never ceases to me how much beautiful and true writing can emerge with such seemingly simple and short assignments. I’ve moved through this series of prompts several times, learning more about myself at ages 9, 16, and 38 along the way.

You do not have to know in advance what you want to write.

Last but not least: This is safe and brave space, confidential and contained. What happens in the group stays in the group. Whether you’re writing to heal, explore your past, or generate new material for an essay or book, you will be welcomed, witnessed, and cheered on — by me and your fellow mini memoirists.

Is it time to plant and water those seedlings?

If you have questions about this (or any other) group, or if you want to set up a payment plan, just contact me and we can chat. Learn more about the group here, or register for your spot below. I can’t wait to write with you.

Choose one:


Revealing the Magnificent Mural

In the shower this morning, I was noticing how the “shoulds” have a way of creeping and covering up my sense of clarity and purpose, like overgrown ivy on a beautiful mural.

Closely related to this is a habit of questioning myself, what I’m doing with my life, and whether I’m “on the right track.” This thinking is binary and constricting — right/wrong, clear/confused, all/nothing. It doesn’t leave much if any room for being, for process, and for just letting life and work unfold. For trusting myself.

Just when I think I’ve outgrown it, it comes tickling at my toes and threatening to climb up my bare legs. In an effort to cut it back before it can do this, I’m coming here to write. I’m interested in how things open up when we bring some breath and curiosity to what gets in our way.

How can some experimenting enable us to get clearer on our priorities, so that we spend less time pleasing others or repeating Sisyphean tasks and more time feeling purposeful and fulfilled by our actions?

Do questions like these occur to you too, while bathing or driving or writing or just going through your day? In the spirit of teaching what I have to learn, here’s an exercise for us to try.

You’ll need some paper and either markers or colored pencils. Two different color pens will do.

Make a fast and furious list of all the shoulds you’re carrying around, consciously or subconsciously. Don’t stop to evaluate, assess, analyze, or vote on any of them — just list.

What do you see?

Now, using a different color, circle the items on your list that are actually time-sensitive in some way or otherwise urgent. Pay attention to how you define “urgent.” (You might to read Seth Godin’s the why of urgent vs. important.)

Notice the different categories showing up in your list. For example, you might see things that relate to your physical health, others that have to do with relationships, and some that are vague and free-floating, with no real action attached.

On a different piece of paper, make three columns: At the top of one, write “need to.” The second is “want to.” Lastly, include a “not mine” category. This last one is where you can move all of the shoulds that don’t belong to you, i.e. the ones you’ve internalized that are in fact coming from outside sources.

When you’ve completed this step, how many items remain in the “need to” column? Are you seeing evidence of anything you WANT to do? How much of your life is shaped by other people’s expectations, how much by practical need, and how much by habitual striving and drivenness?

This can be a one-time thing or you could let it be a slower, longer-term exploration. Take your time playing with it. If you’re feeling pulled to take it in a different direction, by all means, do so. The intention here is to bring into focus what you can put down, as opposed to what you must and/or choose to carry.

Unlearning empty striving and returning to the power of who you already are isn’t a one-shot deal. Sometimes I forget this and think, wait, aren’t I supposed to be done with this already?

Then I remember, it’s like trimming back the ivy. You don’t just do it once. You come back, again and again, to revealing the magnificent mural of your life.


The Awesomeness of Being Wrong

Story: “I suck at following instructions.”


It may not sound like much. But when the new kitchen island arrived on the side porch and Aviva and I attempted to lug it inside, that was my first thought. I slit the box open and carried the pieces upstairs, two or three at a time. I recycled and/or discarded the cardboard, styrofoam, and plastic. I winced at the packaging and got dizzy from the off-gassing. (As an aside, did you know that off-gassing emits as many as 99 known toxins into the air for up to 10 years? We are seriously reconsidering purchasing anything again that uses formaldehyde).

By the time I plunked the bag of hardware on the kitchen table and surveyed the dozens of pieces of pressed wood, I thought: Welp, my work here is done. Time to wait for Mani to come put this baby together.

After all, I suck at this kind of thing. That is the story I’ve told my whole life. Yes, I did manage to assemble a cute night table from Ikea a few years back (one of the drawers wobbles, but still…). And wait, I put together those two yellow desks in our room… No, no, I think. Those don’t really count. They were relatively straightforward jobs, nothing so big and complicated as this thing.

When we got a new bookshelf and TV stand for the living room, we even called friends over to help. Granted, it was as much an excuse to see them and hang out as a bona fide need for help. But still, the reassurance of other eyes and hands has historically brought no small comfort.

I used to be someone who waited for a man to put together the furniture. Then lo and behold, I married a woman who happens to be really good at this (she once spent hours and hours putting together a loft bed — with a slide — in Pearl’s room). I still didn’t have to look at my own learned helplessness.

* * *

Story: “I am someone who likes being taken care of.”

WRONG. Well, sort of wrong. 

At the same time, I remained ignorant of my own capacity and ability and power by wanting other people to take care of me. “Other people” most often implied people of the male persuasion. Fathers, husbands, guy friends — who can come put this damn thing together?

Now, I still like being taken care of. But being taken care of while knowing I am fully able to take care of myself is a whole different ballgame. Since my first marriage ended and I came out of the closet, so much about who I thought I was and the stories I told about myself have undergone seismic shifts — including this one.

I’ve been the breadwinner for the past three years, bringing in more income on my own than I did previously in my full-time job. I work a lot. I also get to be home when Pearl gets off the school bus, and go for spontaneous coffee dates with my teenage daughter who’s not in traditional school this year. Mani and I are both home all day, a reality that began as necessity when she was sick and became a choice when I became self-employed.

I was so scared to leave my job. SO scared.  That was 2015. Now I still have bouts of insecurity, both they don’t come quite as often or last as long. The fear no longer feels like terror or panic, more like an annoyance, a stinkbug that got in the house from under the garage door. I open a window and flick it back outside.

It feels good to let this story fall away. The one where I need someone else, probably a man, to make the money and to put together the furniture purchased with said money.

It also feels good  to redefine “being taken care of.”

* * *

I AM taken care of. I have a wife whose unconditional belief in me, patience, and presence is beyond anything I’ve ever known. She doesn’t coddle my rehabbing addiction to praise, and this in turn makes her support that much more reliable because I know it’s not contingent on her expectations of me. It just IS.

I can’t say what got into me last week, but I tackled those instructions like a boss. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. One step at a time — ABC, 123, bird by bird — I put that baby together. I could hardly believe it myself — I was doing it! I’m someone who can read and follow assembly instructions, who knew?!

The best part, in addition to some mad satisfaction at my newfound badassery, was how WRONG I had been about myself. Wrong, wrong, wrong! All those Instagram posts saying how the mere sight of the instruction booklet stressed me out? Completely, fabulously, gloriously, magnificently WRONG.

Now we have a little more cabinet and counter space in our kitchen, and I have added a bit more evidence for myself of a new, true story. One where I’m capable, grown-up, and able to earn money, care for my family, put furniture together, stay when things get really, really hard, and forgive myself when I fuck up. Thankfully, finding out who I really am is an ongoing thing. I wonder what else I’m wrong about, and can’t wait to find out.

* * *

Story: I’m so much more than the stories I tell myself about myself.



There are no white exceptions

Photo: Ricardo Gomez Angel

When it comes to talking about racism, I’ve started to see more and more frequently that many white women want to focus on:

Unity and “we have more in common than not.”

Compassion and “how far we’ve come.”

Labels (i.e. “white women” or “white people”) as divisive and counterproductive.

Non-violence as a way of keeping the conversation focused on progress. 

Feel good stories of racial harmony. 

I’m starting to get it. I’m started to get how all of this represents a perspective that is oriented to and centered on whiteness. White feminism. White liberalism. White hopes and dreams. White myths. White fears.

In my understanding — imperfect, informed by conversations with and articles, books, essays, and posts by people, mostly women, of color who are speaking to this particular form of violence — it means every time a white woman makes the focus of a race-related conversation about one or more of the above, she is de facto erasing the reality that progress and unity are NOT what people of color in America actually experience.

Yes, it’s hard to talk about. It’s hard partly because we desperately don’t want to be lumped together with the “bad guys.” You know: The 53% of white women who voted Trump into office, the 68% of white women who voted for Roy Moore, the white people who wear hoods, carry tiki torches, and wave confederate flags from their monster trucks.

We are not like that, right?

What I am learning — long past due beginning to fully seep into my bones — is that “our” form of “not being racist” is in fact deeply racist, and harmful, and unacceptable.

It is hard to get your head around at first. It’s a complete paradigm shift. It means noticing all the times you just want to explain where you’re coming from, justify your perspective, or push back when someone says “white women.”

Look, I hate being labeled and boxed in as much as the next person. HATE it.

But guess what I hate more?

This: “Black women have to work around 18 months to earn as much as white men do in a year.” [source]

And this: “States with high rates of residential segregation are significantly more likely to have fatal police shootings of unarmed black victims.” [source]

And thousands of statistics and stories that would take lifetimes to list.

Speaker, mentor, and entrepreneur Sonali Fiske writes:

“Listen to Women of Color.
We are baring souls.
We are breaking patterns we had no hand in building.
We are coming undone.
We are tenderizing your hardened parts,
to let you see the supremacy that must move through you
Shed. Bend in two. Curve in at the spine.
Don’t ask us to remain silent. We are not the moon.
Listen to Women of Color.
Yes, you have never experience an upheaval like this before.
We have.
Ride our current, we will pull you forward.
You will fall. You will err.
But it is better to lose face and die of humiliation
rather than under the covers of your bed
Listen to Women of Color.
Sit with our stories. Our narratives. Our pain.
Without making it about you.
Sit with it, as in, ‘tell me more’ and ‘thank you.'”

By listening to women of color, I am recognizing the places where I have thought I was the exception. News flash: I’m not. And if you’re white, you aren’t either.

If reading that makes you bristle or hate me or want to change the channel or eat cake or tune out or keep scrolling, maybe you can pause with me and just stay here a minute. Stay here where we are complicit in the very systems we say we’re against.

I will undoubtedly say and write many wrong things on this journey of unlearning and changing my own interior landscape. I’m ok with that. What I’m not ok with is continuing on, worrying more about seeming combative or about pushing people away than I am about the reparations we owe people of color, the harm we have lived alongside and contributed to knowingly or unknowingly, and the pain and suffering we have been able to keep at a comfortable distance.

Jessica Xiao writes:

“….the truth is many people are comfortable with a sugarcoated feminism that unites people by choosing to ignore our differences. Many people are more comfortable with performative allyship than with having to face the, sometimes painfully, truthful feminism that lies in exploring our conflicts that has potential to drive transformative, at-the-roots kind of radical, change.”

That’s why I will keep listening, practicing saying: Tell me more. And also doing my own work rather than relying on women of color to carry the burden of showing me what to do.

I will not hide from this truth in order to make sure I’m being nice and looking good or because I am so attached to seeing things a certain way. I hope you won’t either.


TREEFALL: A Personalized Monthly Subscription

Ever have something you need to write, but you don’t want to share it in a group or with someone who’s part of your day-to-day life?

Ever just need a witness to your words — not to coach, advise, or critique, but just to be present to your process?

Ever say you’re going to stick to a writing practice… then don’t?


I get it. Some of the most healing and creative connections I’ve had over the years were premised on sharing words without agenda, without expectation, and without advice. On having someone to simply witness me in whatever personal, professional, spiritual, or creative process I was facing. And on being a person who could hold space for others in this way.

Life gets super busy. We say we want to write, and then the car gets a flat tire, the kid gets the chickenpox, the toilet backs up, the boss emails you in the middle of the night. It’s always something, and your poor notebook sits there, neglected.

That’s why I’ve created an eminently do-able way for you to keep your writing life alive, to honor your need for getting words on the page, and to meet the desire to have someone hear the tree as it falls in the dense forest of your days.


1. On the first Monday of the month, you’ll receive a writing prompt from me, just for you. You’ll carve out just 10 minutes to freewrite by hand — no editing or polishing or fixing or fussing, just letting the words come out.

2. You’ll send me your words for safekeeping. What kind of response you receive is completely up to you: I’ll bear witness to whatever needed to be written, simply acknowledging receipt without comment OR I’ll reply with a reflection of your words back to you.

What you will not get from me: Advice, praise, judgment, agendas, or questions.

What you will receive from me: Acknowledgment, witness, and encouragement to be good to yourself as you keep going.

3. We repeat each month. You may sign up with or without a monthly call where we meet face-to-face to talk about whatever’s coming up for you as your writing + life unfold. You may start, change, suspend, or cancel your subscription at any time.*

That’ll it. So simple, so powerful. A sealed vault for your tender places, your big decisions, your raw material, and your messy first drafts.


Anyone who…

  • wants to maintain a writing practice without the commitment of being in a group;
  • desires spacious witnessing;
  • loves writing — and falls off the wagon easily; or
  • wishes to have an impartial reader and witness as you get words on the page.


For prompt + witnessing only: $39/month.
For prompt + witnessing + 30-minute coaching call: $89/month.

Choose one:

*Fine print: When you sign up for this service, you agree that everything you write and share will be treated in sacred confidentiality. Jena will only break this agreement if your writing gives her reason to believe you are a danger to yourself or others. This service is not therapy nor is it intended to be a substitute for mental health counseling; the process is intended to use writing as a powerful tool and practice. You may change, suspend, cancel, or restart your subscription at any time. Jena reserves the right to cancel any subscription that isn’t adhering to the above boundaries.