24 April 2013

Judy Gumbo Albert : Writing for the Hell of It

Yippie Girl: Judy Gumbo Albert on the cover of the Berkeley Tribe, 1970. Image from Babylon Falling.
How to bug a Yippie Girl:
Writing for the hell of it
My 1960s and '70s had been a Dostoyevskian drama of love, honor, loyalty, and betrayal embedded in the American revolution of my time.
By Judy Gumbo Albert / The Rag Blog / April 24, 2013
Listen to the podcast of Thorne Dreyer's April 13, 2013, Rag Radio interview with original Yippies Judy Gumbo Albert and Nancy Kurshan at the Internet Archive and read about it on The Rag Blog. Also, see Jonah Raskin's Rag Blog interview with Judy Gumbo Albert.
I recently entered a contest for women writers that focused on personal narrative of life-changing experiences that evoke the '60s and '70s. I submitted an adaptation of a chapter from Yippie Girl, my memoir-in-progress -- and won third prize!

My piece, “Bugged,” is about the time I discovered an FBI tracking device on my car in 1975. It will be published this fall in an anthology, Times They Were a Changing, edited by Kate Farrell, Linda Joy Myers, and Amber Lee Starfire. Here’s what one of the editors said about "Bugged":
We are all so pleased to include your work in the anthology -- it does embrace so many wonderful elements in one short piece: romance, humor, revolution, urban & country. Brava!
If you're interested in the story of my writing process -- how I came to write Bugged -- read on. Updates on publication will be available here at The Rag Blog or on my website, www.yippiegirl.com, or The Times They Were A-Changing website.

Bringing It All Back Home

My submission to the Times They Were A-Changing contest is titled “Bugged.” It’s adapted from a chapter in Yippie Girl, my memoir-in-progress that I began in 2008. The previous two years could have occupied any psychotherapist’s A-list of major life crises.

Stew Albert, my lover and husband of almost 40 years, died. We had five weeks between diagnosis and death. I quit my job as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, sold my bungalow in Portland where Stew and I had raised our daughter, and with two months remaining of that excruciating first year during which widows are not supposed to make major decisions, I moved to Berkeley.

I bought a new house, got a different high-level job, got fired and was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I wrote my outline between radiation treatments. I’d deflect depression with fantasies of publication. Mine would be a traditional love story with the 1960s and 1970s as backdrop: girl meets boy, girl dumps boy, girl and boy get back together and live happily ever after until boy dies. Grieving is not linear. Writing helped me work through loss. Writing “Bugged” helped me remember the Catskill cabin Stew and I shared, and reminded me to laugh.

But I did get frustrated writing the book. I lacked a memoirist’s technical skills. I wallowed in adverbs and piled on descriptive adjectives like the proverbial kid in a candy store. I had no idea what a sensory detail was, how to set a scene, to go from close in to distant view, to write narrative summary.

Thanks to a terrific memoir teacher, I came to feel more confident in my craft. At the same time, the voice of my mother -- a busty, blonde, Jewish alcoholic, long dead -- reminded me that whatever I wrote would never be good enough.

Bugged: Stew Albert, William
Kunstler (top), and Judy.
Daniel Handler once remarked that there are times you must throw the baby out of the lifeboat. I’d waste weeks rescuing an anecdote with rewrite only to throw it back, like the striped bass I used to catch in Lake Muskoka as a child. I learned to recognize and discard the sentence or paragraph that, no matter how well written, took a reader out of the story.

My 1960s and '70s had been a Dostoyevskian drama of love, honor, loyalty, and betrayal embedded in the American revolution of my time. I agonized over how much information to disclose after 40 years.

“Tell the truth,” one friend, an editor at a major university press, told me.

“Cover your ass,” a former Black Panther said.

I’d been told that an individual loses privacy rights after death. Luckily for me but not for them, most of my characters were gone. I could disclose without being disloyal. Until I discovered that individual rights of privacy for the dead vary by country and state.

To be safe and ethical, I decided to pass a draft by anyone still alive who might be hurt. One friend turned out not to care that I’d revealed her husband’s infidelities. She volunteered the name of his lover, but got incensed when I intimated her husband might have been an FBI informant. I’d wasted my agony on the wrong sin.

I still struggle to keep the charisma of the 1960s and '70s from overwhelming my narrative. In that sense, writing “Bugged” was easy. I could move from Dostoyevsky to Thoreau, and turn my cabin in the Catskills into Walden on a grey-green mountaintop without a pond.

Arriving in the slush of New York City represented a metaphoric transition from rural peace to paranoia. When I mixed in comic FBI agents and a chase scene, I had “Bugged.”

In 2010, I ended “Bugged” with this statement, “Every illegal act the FBI committed against Stew and me in 1975 is entirely legal today.” In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that police could no longer place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car without a warrant. In the space of f40 years, this act has gone from illegal to legal and back to illegal again.

I am learning not to make statements that appear definitive in the moment that I write them. My chapter “Bugged” and my memoir Yippie Girl need to rise above time.

This article also appears at The Times They Were A-Changing website.

[Judy Gumbo Albert is an original Yippie, along with Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Nancy Kurshan, Paul Krassner, and Judy’s late husband Stew Albert. Judy has remarried, lives in Berkeley, California, and is currently writing her memoir,
Yippie Girl. She can be found at www.yippiegirl.com. You can contact her at judygumboalbert@gmail.com or on Facebook at Judy Gumbo Albert or Yippie Girl. Read more articles by and about Judy Gumbo Albert on The Rag Blog.]

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