how i did not become hettie jones
It is a Monday night in late fall of 2010 and I am one of 13 students sitting around a large table in a preschool room at the 92nd Street Y. A hand-written poster on the wall announces, "We are from the Blue Room / We couldn't be prouder / And if you can't hear it / We'll say it a little louder." Our ages range over a span of more than half a century. Four are men, the rest of us are women. Two are black, the rest is white. I am the only immigrant. We are within the various spectrums of the middle- and upper-classes.
Hettie Jones, a tiny lady in her mid-seventies whose hunching gait makes her appear even smaller, hands out some pieces of paper to her memoir students. Jones has been teaching this class for the last ten years, and the handout has been copied so many times that some of the edges are smudgy and the text is blurred. This is the last time the handout surfaces in class, but an excerpt from Virgina Woolf's Moments of Being sticks with me. "They leave out the person to whom things happen," Woolf wrote about memoirists. "The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being."
Thirty years ago, Jones, who's had moderate success as a poet and children's book author, published How I Became Hettie Jones, a memoir describing her years with the poet LeRoi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka. The book put Jones on the map as a beatnik and memoirist. She was friendly with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O'Hara and the like, but didn't write much in these years. She married LeRoi Jones and assisted him in getting published and launching Totem Press and the literary magazine Yugen. How I Became Hettie Jones also describes her struggles in raising her biracial daughters during the civil rights movement era. I thought the book was written elegantly, without much sentimentality, finger-pointing or pigeon-holing, issues I commonly have with memoir writing. This made me curious to see what happened to this young feminist-cum-hipster mom who lead a life diametrically opposed to that of her Jewish parents and who declared herself a mutation. "I am not by nature obedient," she wrote in How I Became Hettie Jones.
While reading her memoir, I happened to see an ad for her master class workshop in Poets & Writers. At the time I was toying with the idea of writing a memoir about my first ten years as a German immigrant in New York. In an email Hettie assured me that she had chosen a very interesting group of people, all of them good writers. She wrote, "I am always looking for students who have interesting stories that are a little out of the ordinary. Everyone's story is unique! Not to worry!"
Coming from the woman who once told her ex-husband's lover, "Call again and I'll fuck up your face," I eagerly looked forward to the class.
In the Blue Room at the 92nd Street Y carrot pieces cover the floor and multi-colored paper hands stretch out on a board listing the day's activities: Playtime, meeting, snacks, story, work time, outside, rest time. Fast forward 25, 40, 50, 80 years and our highlights have evolved. On this first day of class, Anna reads about engagement rings, and Tom about his academic successes and his previous efforts at writing a memoir. Antonio reads about his son's allergy to nuts and Wilma about her mother's allergy to bee stings.
Wilma is moved to tears by her ER scene.
"Bravely done!" Hettie calls out. "Everyone cries in this class."
I make a mental note: No crying—and no stories about allergic reactions. Meanwhile Hettie announces that we are all great writers and that she was able to choose from the A list only. She will repeat this statement for the next eight weeks. Once she'll even recall bragging about it to a friend on the phone.
It is worth noting that none of my classmates are absolute beginners. They all want to get published. Most have written for several years and all of them take writing seriously. Sure, there are too many emotional bonds being formed and too many lumps in the throat in my classmates' writing, too much honeycomb light and voluptuous splendor, but nothing a good teacher couldn't handle.
At the end of the first class the most common themes are established. My classmates write about sex and marriage, about child rearing, cancer, war and—always looming— death.
To follow up last week's story about the Kafkaesque process of becoming an American citizen, I'm reading about my early encounters with other immigrants in New York. My story has its funny moments, but none of them are funny enough to warrant Hettie Jones's excessive cheers and laughter. This makes me wonder whether my story hits the right note.
"Germany, ahhh, Germany... Do you know Hitler?" George said.
"Not personally," I said.
George started to giggle. "Did you know that Hitler had a German Shepherd?"
"Did you know that in the Philippines we eat dogs?"
"Why do they hire Filipinos in African embassies?" one of my classmates wants to know.
"Because they are cheap," I say. This statement snowballs. Now everyone has something to say, particularly Wilma with the mother allergic to bee stings and the husband who is a physician. Many nurses are Filipinos as well, she says. Nurses, whom she considers "a potential threat to my marriage," work hard and are underpaid. The conversation devolves into everyday chatter. No one comments on my writing.
Judith, who is in her early eighties, still suffers deeply from her husband's death three years ago, and her suffering is apparent in each of her handwritten lines. Judith used to work as a freelance illustrator in New York in the 1940s. She has painted and drawn all her life, but doesn't own a computer, hence the handwriting. Hettie tells her to enlist one of her grandchildren to type up her prose.
Where Judith's eyebrows once used to be are two bent orange lines. One night over after-class drinks she tells me how her rheumatologist recently hit on her.
"Are these eyebrows real?" he asked.
She told him she draws them on because she doesn't have any eyebrows anymore.
"Because they are very attractive," the rheumatologist continued.
I wish Judith would read about her rheumatologist and her eyebrows, but instead she reads a story about her love of roses and how she and her husband used to make up after fights at a little Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
I like Judith because she is the only one who admits to the struggles one faces when writing a memoir. "But what does it mean?" she asks. While aware of her writing's therapeutic quality, she knows that a memoir has to transcend it.
Chatty Tammy with the curly hair and the perpetually upbeat demeanor interrupts my thoughts. "You know what would be great," she says. " If you could fudge a little and put a rose on the table at the restaurant."
Hettie thinks that Tammy's is a great idea, but warns that the memoirist mustn't lie: "You could say, though, 'I wish there was a rose on the table.' " Shortly after Tammy drops out of memoir class, which, I secretly hope, means she decided to write fiction.
If it appears that I am leaving out the parts where Hettie Jones teaches us how to write a memoir, it is because there weren't many. She mainly ooh'ed and ahh'ed, coo'ed and sighed after each reading. Often she called out, "Bravo!" (Or, if the reader was a woman, "Brava!")
Toward the end of this session I ask one of the students how her excerpt fits into the larger scheme of things, but Hettie quickly silences me. "It doesn't matter. The goal is to produce work," she snaps. "The I links a group of personal essays."
But who is this unknown "I," I wonder? A memoir is more than a string of loosely threaded personal essays.
As I walk up Lexington Avenue toward 92nd Street I see Jane getting her nails done. I have noticed how the former actress in her late eighties—or maybe even early nineties—wraps her hands around her cane. Her white, spidery hands are blemished with dark purple bruises and contrast her fire red nails. A thick cloud of snow-white hair emanates from a scrunchy immediately above her forehead. While her hairstyle certainly gives her an edge, Jane is a WASP. She mostly reads about Sugar Grove, her childhood home in Connecticut. She writes about Sugar Grove's cellar and its many rooms, its eight toilets, her family's high boys, its German china and grandfather clock. She reads and reads, and sometimes even admits to having forgotten what she has already read to Hettie's class last year. There is no end in sight. I feel like a message in a bottle, hopelessly hoping to be washed ashore.
Jane somehow fails to capture the parts of her stories that interest me. It is as if she doesn't see herself. I am interested in the way I see Jane's character, but her endless stories about Sugar Grove's images of past glory delivered in an NPR poetry voice bore me to death.
But my disapproval or judgment means nothing. I am interested in neither bad mother nor good dog memoirs. I am also not interested in memoirs by alcoholics or heroin addicts. Then it occurs to me: I am more interested in other people and how we relate to them than I am in myself.
Good nonfiction explores its characters and their surroundings without fear. Writing about myself, my own life and those who are closest to me, evokes tremendous fear. What if my father, my mother, my husband, my classmates are all incompetent assholes? What if I am a loser? What if I lack empathy? Those are some scary thoughts to explore. These questions are hard to digest and even harder to answer. And, most of all, who cares? Clichés, on the other hand, are safe territory and so are the communities we join: Sugar Grove at the 92 Street Y.
Helen, a fragile-looking single mother and marketing person in publishing, is yearning for community as well. Today she reads about last week's Yoga class, about falling apart and about kindred spirits putting her back together. The story is about yogis and incense and downward dog, and everyone likes "the mood." Helen's eyes fill with tears.
"How long did it take you?" Hettie asks.
"An hour," Helen says. "Did you have to edit it much?"
"Just like Jack Kerouac," Hettie says.
"He didn't edit his prose either."
I picture Kerouac turning in his grave and wonder whether memoir is inherently sentimental.
"Now I have to learn how to text," Hettie says, playing with her new iPhone as we wait for people to arrive. She recalls how she recently explained to a friend how to copy and paste in Microsoft Word.
"I will never learn how to text or iPhone," says Tom, a former sociology professor who has written several academic books. Now he wants to write a memoir about his wild, sexual youth. Watching this old man with his protruding belly reminisce about sex makes me uncomfortable. So does seeing him choke up. Last time Tom had somehow managed to weave his sister's murder into the story, which, understandably, moved him to tears.
"This time I won't choke up," he promises.
"You are allowed," Hettie says. "That's what's great about this class."
Like Tom, Antonio has written several books. He is the author of a collection of short stories and a novel. A Mexican American from El Paso, Antonio could easily pass for an Italian from Long Island. As a matter of fact, Antonio looks exactly like Ray Romano from "Everbody Loves Raymond." Even his voice, the way he hugs each word with his mouth, resembles that of his Doppelgänger. His first name is, in fact, a common name in Italy and his last name of ambivalent origin. In his stories, Antonio always mentions Harvard and Yale where he studied, but focuses on his low social status as a Mexican American and on his attempts to cross over into the mainstream.
Antonio wears old-people comfort shoes and prefers talking about himself over listening to others.
Never mind that the readings take away two thirds of our class time, the way someone reads distorts the text's meaning and style. And vice versa: I'm feeling uncomfortable reading my own stories out loud. At the 92Y, the easiness with which I've previously read at public venues vanishes. I don't want my classmates to get my accent, my crooked smile and the way I respond to their writing mixed up with my story. We are too close to each other to hear each other's text.
Today Antonio reads about his best day at Harvard. This day was exceptional because Antonio met his blond wife with the big blue eyes and an easy smile. He takes her jogging, and stops by a clearing at the forest where the wind is chilly and gusty. He and the woman sit down on a rusty rail and he offers to gives her a backrub. In the end, he marries the woman. I forgot how he weaved his fondling of a young, Mexican badminton player into this story. I also forgot what prompted Hettie Jones to sing a line from "This Masquerade": "We tried to talk it over but the words got in the way." All I remember is that the story was sappy and smoothly written. As always, I have taken as many notes as I possibly could, but sometimes my memory refuses to fill in the narrow gaps in between scribbles. Memory—and memoir—are inherently unreliable agents.
Today Anna has brought homemade cookies. But this isn't the reason why three of the four men in the class strategically sit right across from her. Anna is a tall, pale, dark-eyed, beautiful actress from Ohio who is well aware of the impression she makes on men. She has shocked us in previous sessions by reading about death hovering closely over her head and about her grandfather's funeral. I have a feeling that there are more surprises in wait and that Anna won't disappoint. Today her story starts out with a photographer shaving her labia. He uses her wetness to glide his finger in, his finger out. Despite the graphic content, Anna's work is charming. But as she reads in her passionate, whispery voice, she comes across as exhibitionistic and needy.
"Holy macaroni!' Hettie exclaims, and the class suddenly feels a need to distance themselves and talk about structure: We should have found out earlier that the man shaving Anna's labia was a photographer.
On my way upstairs to the Blue Room I run into "the Marine." Mike made his debut in class with his Vietnam War story about Queenie, the service dog he was assigned to work with.
"It can't possibly be that hard to get published!" Mike huffs in the elevator.
Where to begin? Thankfully, Mike, whose stories usually span over four or five single-spaced pages, continues talking. He brags as we enter the Blue Room that he has edited his 24-page, single-spaced story down to the allotted three double-spaced pages. Hettie's repeated reminder to edit his prose has finally sunk in. Sort of.
"Now I know how to edit," Mike says proudly.
Mike's three pages are about how he made a lasting impression on his teenage girlfriends in the 1960s by dancing "the Hustler Bob." He has taken out all the important information about the Hustler Bob, but eagerly fills us in on the cut 21 pages: He invented the Hustler Bob's many intricate moves, and only two dozen New Yorkers could dance it. Abandoning all hope that we will ever talk about writing, I ask him to show us some of the moves so we can understand the dance a little better. Mike says that he would need a partner. I offer myself. No one laughs.
Unfortunately what I am reading today isn't funny either. Still thinking about Virginia Woolf's words, They leave out the person to whom things happen, I spent the previous week writing a story titled "A Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit."
Unlike rabbits, the stereotypical German is stationary, predictable and consistent, it begins. I go on to describe myself through rabbits with whom I have shared a lifelong affinity: We rabbits are able to suddenly reverse directions and land in unforeseeable places.
"I'm so glad you have rabbits!" Hettie calls out. "What are their names?" The class wants to know how to litter box train and what to feed a rabbit.
Everybody agrees that rabbits are endearing, but stories about ER visits, hot women and cancer are far more popular among my fellow memoirists.
Anna, Helen and Wilma's stories about their cancer and breakdowns stand in stark contrast to Antonio's delirious afternoons and Tom's encounters with sex-starved girls. In the Blue Room women write about disease and men about women.
Wilma, who previously detailed her family's genetic predisposition to all kinds of cancers—most notably breast—today "entertains" us with a visit to her nana's grave. To commemorate her, she puts multi-colored M&Ms on top of the gravestone. The colors of the rainbow smiling up at me.
Beautiful Anna wears hot pants and very thin, transparent tights on this cold day in mid-November. She follows up her labia-shaving/ finger-penetration story with a vividly described Pap smear and the resulting diagnosis of cervical cancer. Hettie is so taken that she suggests Anna send the story to Wilma who had to leave early. Wilma, after all, writes about cancer, too.
On my way out Silvia approaches me. Silvia is a young, chatty assistant professor at Rutgers who mainly spends her time in class editing her self-proclaimed "drafty" prose. She looks up whenever the subject matter approaches a certain crassness, which generally happens when it is Anna's turn. "I seriously didn't expect this cancer story from Anna, after last week's story," Silvia says, astonished.
I am more interested in whether she seriously believes in ghosts. Today she read a story about her previous apartment being haunted by the ghost of a past resident. This, of course, motivated her classmates to exchange their ghost stories. I look at her. "Yeah, I was wondering how Anna was going to top last week's story." Silvia gapes at me, then looks down at her feet. We ride the elevator in silence and she disappears before I can say goodbye.
From the social worker building next to the 92 Y exudes the smell of a burning joint. I am envious. I would enjoy the donuts and cookies and stories more if I were high. The security guard lets me pass through the metal detector without checking my bag. Despite the change in my purse and the keychain dangling from my jeans, the detector fails to sound an alarm.
I am feeling confrontational and, after having sat in silence for the previous five classes, I decide that if the opportunity arises I will speak my mind.
A pediatrician, Robert mainly writes about his work in a New York City hospital for children. He usually saves innocent babies and sometimes he gets into fights with their mothers. I think Hettie has a crush on Robert. Whenever Robert finishes reading a story about inserting butterfly needles into children's backs or about the life of a two-week-old being in jeopardy, Hettie coos particularly emphatically.
"It's very human," she says, and "I want you to get published!" I am not surprised to see Hettie go wild after Robert's abortion story. Not only is it the first abortion story she has ever heard written by a man, Hettie had her own abortion story in her memoir. Only hers took place in the late 1950s. It was a short, matter-of-fact interlude that told more about the time in which the abortion took place than about her feelings. I liked it. I wonder whether the person to whom things happen and the writer who recounts the event can ever be close, one-and-the-same-close.
I feel free to suggest in class that Robert's story, which brims with sentiment—Theonly kids that I will ever have are the ones that I have at work—still follows the old female pattern that reinforces the idea of guilt and regret one should feel after an abortion.
What Hettie seems to like most about Robert's story is that it is ripe with rhetorical questions: "the most wonderful device." (Maybe she would have had the same nose? Robert writes.) In my experience rhetorical questions are the reason that important issues remain unexplored. In most cases, rhetorical questions are shields.
"Maybe," I carefully phrase my rhetorical question, "you could write about why your girlfriend had an abortion?" The "why" would help to provide a foundation; it would ground us. People have abortions because they have no money, no love, don't like to spend their day with a one-year-old, don't like all the cleaning and don't like to cook bland food.
"It is enough to know that the two ended up separating," Hettie says.
"But if he wrote about why they broke up, maybe those sentimental feelings of guilt and regret would be obsolete?"
"I mean, we all know that experience..." Anna brings the conversation back to herself. She is ready to read about her cervical cancer procedure and about Bruno, the guy who gave her the virus that led to it. After the cancer is removed she finds out that the growth was "only" precancerous. Not surprisingly, in her story she worries that she will get less attention once her diagnosis has been downgraded.
Today I sit between Wilma and Antonio. Having bonded with Anna over cancer stories and feeling encouraged by the Doctor's abortion story, Wilma reads about being raped by an acquaintance. Mysteriously, apart from one shoe, which she loses as she's leaving the crime scene, she stays dressed throughout the rape scene. A clean rape story. Although a lawyer at the time, Wilma never pressed charges against her attacker.
I wonder out loud whether she ever saw the rapist after the event.
"He emailed me recently," Wilma says, nonchalantly.
I am appalled. "But why?"
"To reminisce?" Antonio asks, grinning.
Antonio is up next with his experiences as an intern for a member of Congress the summer before he went to Harvard. His story is titled "Real and Phony." During his internship in the House of Representatives he meets voluptuous women, women in tight skirts, and an amiable and affable African American. He admits to having lied to get his foot into the door. He has not really worked for the newspaper as claimed. A discussion lights up. Antonio says his stories are about how you go from nothing to something and how lying is a part of it. This strikes me as wrong, but since the class agrees with Antonio I don't make a stink. Besides, Jane is ready to read about Sugar Grove. She's dragging her voice, describing the cellar. Then she wonders out loud whether she's ever written about the candy before. "See, that's my problem," she says. "My memory! I've been in this class twice."
Hettie encourages Jane to write some more about the people with the mismatched gloves.
"Oh, I made that up," Jane says. "But I suppose I could make that up, too."
To my surprise not even the revolutionary revolts. Nor did Hettie protest when Lora, a young woman who only came to class a couple of times because she suffered from writer's block, read a story that was "half fiction, half nonfiction."
Never trust a memoirist.
By our eighth and last meeting almost all barriers have been crushed, and it becomes more of a challenge to find a topic that pulls on our nerve-strings. Hettie, Silvia, Antonio and Wilma exchange photos of their children and grandchildren whenever the opportunity arises. The cookies have advanced to homemade. The class has shared secrets and lies.
Struggling to stay within one of the themes—sex, wanted and unwanted; death; cancer; death through cancer; survival of cancer; deceit—I wrote a story about how the previous owner of our house deceived us. Meet Mr. Lau: impostor, slob, sloth, sneak and scrooge. The physique of a helpless child housed a very special mind. It sucks to be on the other side, it sucks to be lied to.
Someone asks whether we still live in the house. Hettie wants to know about our inspector. I am more concerned about my description of the house in the first paragraph. Very little response from the class, I note down.
Retiree Tom, who previously shared the story of how he lost his virginity in a pup tent in the woods, today undresses yet another woman. "Aren't you hot in that thing?" He asks his pick-up and makes her take off her sweater. The woman was bewitching him and intoxicated him with a musky perfume. A magnificent feast for my eyes.
Once he is done with his prose, he apologizes to Silvia, who, while he read, was lying on her desk laughing. He didn't mean to embarrass her. Silvia says it is very hard to embarrass her. To prove her point, she pulls out her laptop and shows a lascivious picture of herself wearing a dress made out of Ritz cracker boxes. She has used this photograph as her profile picture on a dating website. Some men responded to her profile picture with I want some cheese with those crackers. Everybody laughs except for the WASP and I. That's the one thing we have in common. We are not easily amused. Not even by each other.
I have always liked writing about other people. I am fascinated by the prospect of looking through the keyhole into the unfamiliar, the unexpected. But why it is so hard to look through the keyhole and see yourself? Caught in the preconceived ideas our parents, teachers and community have planted in our minds, we only see the upwardly-mobile Mexican American, the confused misogynist, the cancer patient. We could admit that we are far more than that, but then the characteristics of our life would be much harder to wrangle. To create cohesiveness from the confusion of one's own life without falling into the trap of stereotypes and clichés is a challenge. In her memoir Hettie Jones overcame this challenge. But at the 92nd Street Y, it once again caught up with her.
*The names of the students have been changed, reluctantly.
*note: To read the rest of the Epiphany Winter/Fall 2011-2012 issue, please subscribe or buy the issue!