this is not a review: ‘this is not my life’, by diane schoemperlen

 
I confess I pretty much enjoy everything Diane Schoemperlen writes. I’m fond of structure and she plays with it like nobody’s business but never in a way that sacrifices story. I can’t figure out if her approach is egg or chicken first but, either way, she manages to create the perfect stage for each book, each story, each telling, so that you cannot imagine each book or story being told another way. (Is she post modern in a way that isn’t post modern at all?
I haven’t a clue what post modern is so I wouldn’t know… but possibly.)

This is Not My Life,  is told more or less chronologically about the years between 2006 and 2012 when she met and fell in love with a man serving a life sentence for second degree murder. So deeply personal is this story that very often I’d stop reading and actually think: good lord, how is she able to share this and this and this??

“How long did it take me to understand that he thought it was perfectly okay to come into my formerly peaceful home and turn it into a battleground? How much longer did it take me to understand that he was proud of himself for having won the contest, torn away my dignity and self-respect, reduced me to the lowest common denominator, and driven me into a violent rage?”

It’s a wild ride and the honesty of her self-analysis touches a lot of nerves.

The extraordinary thing is that all that sharing, that exposing of private ‘self’ isn’t in the least gratuitous. She tells us what we need to know in order to understand how and why she fell for a murderer. This is, after all, a big question, one she is asked repeatedly by friends, and continues to ask herself. I’m guessing the need to find an answer was a strong motivation in writing the book.

And this is precisely what the best kind of memoir does: it excavates rather than simply reveals.This-is-Not-My-Life-low-res

Schoemperlen avoids the icky places so many memoirists go when they talk too much about themselves (I was born on a dark and stormy night…) which usually amounts to a lot of nothing, more interesting to the author than the reader. Who cares if you were born in the crawl space at the Taj Mahal and your mother was a unicorn if it has zip to do with the story you’re telling? For the record, Schoemperlen was born in Thunder Bay. She tells us this because it’s important we know the vulnerability she felt coming from a small town and a family where thinking too highly of yourself was not encouraged.

Remember: she’s trying to work out why she’s dating a murderer.

And so are we, the readers. We’re trying to understand it too; we’re working it out together because, really, the book speaks to anyone who has ever fallen for the ‘wrong person’. (So, yes, her guy was in for murder. A questionable choice of beau perhaps. But only one version of questionable.)

“Who would we be without the pain we so desperately cling to?”

In every scene, Schoemperlen shares the process of walking the road of this ‘choice’ while teasing out the why  of it. Why has she chosen to spend ‘dates’ in penitentiary visiting rooms and conjugal visits in locked-from-the-outside trailers? (The insider’s view of how prisons work is, by the way, a whole other brilliant element of the book. Short story: it’s insane. For instance, she had to wash her drivers license every time she went because it was scanned and might set off the drug detector if she’d touched it after touching an Aspirin, or something. However, those conjugal visit trailers? They were equipped with kitchens and carving knives.)  An irony to the whole thing is that these ‘prison days’ were the best days of their relationship. Once her chap is released on day passes, then weekends, then moves into her house, things become progressively unmanageable. This is, after all, a guy who’s been inside since he was twenty-something, and prisons aren’t big on teaching you how to function on the outside. The insight she shares in these chapters is heartbreaking.

“This was when I had to go into the bathroom several times a day and look at myself in the mirror, checking to see if I was still me, if the extent to which I felt diminished and demoralized showed in my face. It did.”

Though we know from the beginning the relationship ends, it’s still an edge of your seat ride trying to work out the how and the when, and what will be damaged in the process.

“He’d said often enough in the early days that we would fall in love and become one. By ‘one’, I knew now, he meant him.”

I kept expecting the mushy middle of the story to present itself but there isn’t one. It’s a solid read from start to finish. (I read it over a weekend, taking it everywhere, sometimes reading as I walked from one room to another.)

In a nutshell: This is Not My Life  is Schoemperlen looking back, finally out of the forest, and seeing the madness in a way that was impossible at the time.

“That night I understood that for all those years, I’d been in love with the story—0not the reality—of my life joined to Shane’s. The story of myself as the one who could lead him out of the darkness, the one who could make him whole, healthy, happy. The story of myself as the one who could save him.”

The best memoirs are not a list of who, what, when and where, but are, instead, a study of human nature from the inside out. They tell us about the author while making us think about ourselves as we ask what would we  do in this or that situation…

This is one of the best.

to list IS divine

The New Quarterly’s List Issue has arrived on my doorstep and it’s completely gorgeous. (True, my own listy piece is included, but even so, and even if it weren’t, it has to be said: the thing is a work of art—the cover, layout, design.)

And, yes, the contents. Who knew (Diane Schoemperlen, that’s who) that lists could evoke so much and in so many ways?

There are found poems from lists, lists written on the backs of things—regrets on a black and white snapshot from the 50’s—and on a Good & Fruity box, the contents of a pocket enroute to jail. There’s a list of things taken to a nursing home to visit a mother (so simple and stark and perfect it made my eyes water).

A collection of lists found in a large purse; drawings and random jottings; glossy pages of collage, photographs, observations— things that otherwise get missed because they’re tiny and ordinary, seemingly insignificant and therefore don’t merit a whole story—but fashion them into a list and you realize they are a whole story.

The cover art and collage pages inside are done by Diane Schoemperlen (who also guest edited the issue), as is a piece titled ‘A Nervous Race: 22 Brief Notes on the Study of Nature, Human and Otherwise’— which begins:

This is not exactly a story. It is a construction or a deconstruction or a reconstruction (or maybe all three). I did not exactly write these lines. I discovered them (like a continent), mined them (like gold or coal or potash), unearthed them (like bones), excavated them (like archaeological artifacts), solved them (like a crossword puzzle), deciphered them (like a secret code), erected them (like a building or a flag), organized them (like a filing cabinet or a clothes closet), choreographed them (like a ballet or maybe a barn dance), arranged them (like a symphony or a bouquet of flowers). Let me explain.”

And then she does.  And, frankly, if there were nothing else between the covers but this and the collage, it would still be an amazing and beautiful issue.   

The launch is tomorrow in Kingston. (Oh to be in Kingston in the Spring!)

this is not a review: at a loss for words, by diane schoemperlen

I happily discovered Diane Schoemperlen’s At a Loss for Words after entering “Writers’ Block” in the subject line of a library search. It is indeed about a blocked writer, but expression through words is not what’s blocked.

Billed (unfortunately) as a post-romantic comedy: narrator meets a former lover after thirty years and they begin a relationship, much of which takes place via email because they live in separate cities.

It’s that simple. And that not simple.

Schoemperlen’s use of lists, daily horoscopes, pointers from self-help guides, actually become part of the narrative, moving the story along at the same time they move (or not) the narrator’s life along, but it’s not really the narrator’s story; it’s the reader’s story. Once we begin to realize the truth of what’s being experienced and the uninhibited hopefulness by which that truth is being conveyed we, the reader, can no longer just observe—we begin to recognize something about it as our own.  And the recognition makes us squirm.

I doubt that it would matter whether the reader is a man or woman, how young or old, straight or not, or what background or part of the world they came from because what Schoemperlen has done is more than tell a story about relationships—she’s deconstructed the obsession of neediness.

The book has less to do with relationships with others, than the way we see ourselves—romance is merely the vehicle Schoemperlen has chosen to convey a much broader truth.

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—Purchase At a Loss for Words online at Blue Heron Books.