I’m in search of passion. A huge bowl of it. I want to find the relationship between passion and the creative life. And hold on forever. The connection seems obvious, but it’s not. At least not to my students. Every week they search for subjects to write about, hoping to develop a memoir by the semester’s end. They try, really hard, but nothing grabs them. One student confessed that she was making up stories from her childhood, because she just couldn’t find anything to write about. I was shocked. It’s the ninth week of class and only two students have “found” their stories. “Allison” is writing about coming out as a lesbian to her family and “Maria” is writing about fulfilling “The American Dream” as a first generation college student. Both students are engaged and passionate about their topics.
“Sexuality” and searching for “The American Dream” are great topics for anyone. They’re the kind of topics that find you, holding on tight until you let go and write absolutely everything that’s in you. But what about all the other students, without stories to write? Most seem to think that they have to have tragic lives to write a memoir: an alcoholic or physically abusive parent, sexual abuse, drug addiction, a bullying brother all make the list. I tell them, “Write about your passions, what grabs you the most!” They stare back, faces blank, as if they have no idea what I’m talking about. I have to keep myself from screaming at the whole class, “WAKE UP!” Somewhere along the way, these students have stopped feeling, shut down and closed up.
Then a student from France did a free-write on American men and the suits they wear and how awful and ill-fitting the suits are. He went into great detail about bad weaves, poor American tailoring techniques, the lack of quality in the material, and the flatness of the colors. He wrote gloriously about his own smart European suits. It was fantastic. The class applauded. I was relieved. Here was something “Albert” was passionate about without realizing it. Until now, he’d had enormous difficulty with the weekly assignments, saying he couldn’t remember his childhood and nothing unusual had ever happened to him. Then the story of the suits came pouring out. I’m still not sure what happened, maybe Albert was desperate and wrote about men’s clothing because he simply couldn’t think of anything else. Or maybe, he stopped comparing his “bland” life to everyone else’s. Not focusing on “the tragic childhood” freed him to be creative.
Beginning memoir writers often think they have nothing to write about. I think back to when I first started writing. I never ran out of ideas, even if I was blocked and couldn’t write. What’s the difference between my students and me? In order to feel passionate about something, you have to let your imagination go, give up control and let loose. You have to embrace a nonlinear perspective and give up chronology. I was lucky. My parents nurtured my imagination at every turn possible. I played the harp one week and the next week became a majorette in the marching band. I lacquered the basement walls of our house with “Newsweek” magazine covers and then took up tie-dying all my father’s tee shirts. Even though he was furious, he loved the color scheme—deep reds and purples. My mother laughed, wondering what was next. Passion and imagination were always connected for me.
I want to tell Albert to write a memoir about his love of men’s clothing. Describe all the different fabrics. Compare the European cuts with those in America. Talk about what suit to wear in a particular situation. And what his first suit looked like. Coming from a privileged background, did he shop for his own suits or were they tailor-made? “Write the suit story, it’s what you’re passionate about,” is what I’ll say next week. I’m hoping he doesn’t stare back at me. I want him to “get it” and laugh. I want the class to understand that they can write about anything as long as the passion moves across the page with them. But to risk the “passionate life” is to risk being disappointed, possibly over and over again. Passion in writing is being able to make a fool of yourself and not care what anybody else thinks. It’s more than writing what you want; it’s about putting your whole self into the story and letting the story take over. You can’t plan passion, like planning the beginning, middle, and end of a story. Passion in writing is about having a bowl of fresh fruit right in front of you; and taking a bite of the juiciest red apple. And being hungry for more.
Jyl Lynn Felman
Jyl Lynn Felman is the author of three books, Hot Chicken Wings, Cravings, and, Never A Dull Moment: Teaching And The Art of Performance. Her many performance pieces, include “Burning In Cuba,” and “Silicone Valley” about lesbian sex after breast cancer. “If Only I’d Been Born A Kosher Chicken” is available on C-SPANS’s performance series. She is currently touring with “Girl Kicks Girl” about her experience in Israel and Palestine. She can be reached at www.jyllynnfelman.com.