Monday, July 1, 2019

My First Time: Susan Rudnick

My First Memoir Writing Class

This year I will turn 75, and my first book, a memoir of how my mentally challenged sister Edna has been my life’s greatest teacher, will be published.

It was never part of my life plan to write a book. For the past 40 years I’ve been a psychotherapist, learning to listen and understand the stories that my clients bring me. So I’m used to keeping my own life in the background, while drawing on it to understand others. I also grew up with a reputation of being flighty. My parents told me I lacked sitzfleish, the capacity to sit for long periods and accomplish things. Until ten years ago, having internalized this message, it would never have occurred to me to even dream of such a lengthy project as a book.

Yet here I am, pre-publication galley in hand, trying to understand my journey. Looking back, I find some seeds: a few poems I had written about Edna over the years, and, about twelve years ago, I had contributed a chapter to a book with personal reflections by psychotherapists on psychotherapy and Buddhist experience. In it I described my sister’s unconditional acceptance of me as integral to my spiritual path. Many people told me they wanted to hear more about her. Chancing upon a catalogue from the Open Center with a workshop in writing spiritual memoir, I signed up. Maybe there was some way I could go further.

For me, why and how I wrote the book, are inextricably linked, one reinforcing the other. To unlock why I needed to do this, or to even conceive that I could express my story, there needed to be a how: how to begin and how to allow the words to flow. As I found a way, I kept learning more and more about why I had to keep going, which helped to find more ways how.

I sat around a table with ten people as the teacher, a woman half my age with soulful brown eyes, gave us the first prompt: write without stopping for ten minutes about a difficult experience in our lives that was still affecting us.

Edna’s face in her coffin was the first thing to come to mind. It was unadorned or made up, as she had lived in a spiritual community that didn't do embalming.

I gasped in the same way I had when the moment had actually happened. Hers was the face of a beautiful, strong intelligent woman at peace. It expressed who she would have been, if she hadn’t faced the challenge of a brain injury at birth, as well as the subsequent suffering because of it. I totally recognized and knew her.

I began to write furiously, describing the batik dress I had picked out for her to wear, the color of her skin, and the strength and wisdom I was witnessing. A rush of feelings: awe, wonder and grief washed over me. The prompt gave me the how, and in writing I felt the immensity of my gratitude to her, the why. I wanted to keep going and explain more of who she was and what she meant to me. In so much of my day-to-day life, my sister had remained invisible. Friends and colleagues barely knew she existed. Now I wanted her to be visible.

When I was done writing, I raised my hand to share. After I finished reading aloud, the teacher and I made eye contact. I could tell she was moved. A plan was already forming. My how would involve getting help and feedback. There was no way to do this alone. I needed a guide. When the class was over, I would ask to work with our teacher privately. I had to keep going.

A story was waiting to be told.

For over forty years Susan Rudnick has been listening to people tell their stories in her Manhattan practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. In Edna’s Gift, she tells hers. The seed for her memoir was “Coming Home to Wholeness,” a chapter she contributed to Into the Mountain Stream, a book of personal reflections on psychotherapy and Buddhist Experience. Rudnick, a Zen practitioner, has published haikus as well as articles about psychotherapy in professional journals. Culled from thousands of submissions, one of her haikus appears in New York City Haiku: From the Readers of The New York Times. She and her husband live in Westchester, New York, but also love to spend time at their cabin in the Catskills.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Author photo by Chris Loomis

No comments:

Post a Comment