The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 6

This is the sixth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

When my children were small, I took them on short walks in nearby wooded areas. As they got older, I showed them the pleasures of hiking the trails of Yosemite National Park and other places of beauty. No matter where we went as a family or how easy or how hard the path, they loved to dash ahead to seek new adventures. Parental pace was much too slow for them. They ran ahead and then came back quickly. They wore themselves out by covering each distance twice. But that was part of their enthusiasm.

Reflecting on the different paces we manage at different times in our lives, consider this sixth and last Tao of Memoir Writing:

The child in us runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout cautiously leads the way.

In writing, we tell others of delights or dangers, yet we are the same person.

There is more than one storyteller in each of us. We should let each of these voices come to the fore at different times to help others understand the many textures of our lives.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: Writing about a time of passionate youthfulness? Try using short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. You will convey some of the boundless energy of that period. Writing about a period of aging or time spent caring for your elderly parents? See if longer sentences and paragraphs better reflect the slowness of those experiences.

If you think about music, recall that there are fast passages and slow passages. Similarly, words create a tempo for the reader and the memoirist controls this by varying the length of the sentences and paragraphs.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Find a paragraph in a memoir that is particularly vivid for you. Analyze it: Count the number of sentences. Count the number of words in each sentence. Do several long sentences follow each other? Are short sentences used to create impact?

Then rewrite the paragraph. Try making long sentences short. Make short sentences long. You can do this by combining sentences or by cutting some in half. How do the changes alter the rhythm of the story? Which do you like better?

In what ways will you use the craft of writing to show: “The child in us that runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout that cautiously leads the way.”

by Matilda Butler

Dropped Chops, Salmonella Speculations, and the High School Hypothesis

I love urban myths. Few things get me more excited than fanatically hunting down questionable Facebook memes and skimming the latest Snopes updates for the truth, whether it’s the high price tag of Hillary’s designer jacket or
the impending invasion of sea lice.

There are many questionable claims out there, hitting us from all sides. But there is often little credible evidence to support them. So today, when I came across an article on CNN about scholarly research on the validity of the 5 Second Rule, I had to put down my lemon biscotti. And. Read.

Most of us are familiar with the 5 Second Rule. We triumphantly announce it when we drop a piece of food on the floor, then proceed to eat it. “Still good! Five second rule!” The reasoning is that if the food stays in contact
with the floor for fewer than five seconds, germs have no time to attach themselves. The 5 Second Rule has been a unifying mantra that knew no color or creed, until recently, when CNN ruined it for us all. Apparently, we have
all been wrong. Our claims have been unfounded. And guess who we have to thank for it?

A high school student named Jillian Clarke.

Yes–this urban myth, the origins of which have erroneously been credited to Julia Child, was brought into question by a high school student. After Clarke’s initial research, a study was conducted in 2007 through Clemson
University, which backed up Clarke’s findings, and then was again confirmed by another study last year in the UK. The study outcomes were the same, and I do take some liberties in summary: if it hits the floor, it’s no good.

What is the moral of the story here? There are many possibilities, but what resonated with me is that this urban myth has been debunked because a high school student had the gumption to question something that didn’t sound
right. She questioned it, then set about to prove whether her questions were merited.

Not only should you remember this story when you drop your food on the floor, but you should remember it when you conduct research for your writing. You will likely come across all sorts of articles, texts, and claims that sound similar to this: someone says something is true, and you believe it, even if something deep down inside thinks it’s fishy.

Listen to that little voice. Listen, even if means that you have to go back and do more research. Don’t plug the first thing that sounds intellectual or unique into your writing without vetting it. Be sure you understand
everything you’ve read and that it makes sense. Be Jillian. Be brave enough to say, “Maybe I should do more research…”

Be brave enough to question everything you read, because sometimes the experts haven’t caught up to the common sense-driven writer, and sometimes YOU may be the only one who questions the propaganda.

Be brave, and leave the food on the floor.

Lisa Hacker supervises a community college writing center where she finds immense joy in helping students become better writers. She also teaches writing at a local university. She lives in Texas with her husband, David, and has three adult children. She is also the grandmother to Julia and Graham. Recently she started a new writing business, The Queen’s English. Visit her website.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

This reflection on the Tao of Memoir Writing begins with an understanding that not all stories are created equal. Some vignettes we write evoke pleasant memories. It is tempting to tell these stories as if we are still experiencing them. Other vignettes evoke quite the opposite memories. When we tell these stories, we want to “keep our distance.” Consider:

Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.

There is a best distance for recalling each event of our lives.

Some stories may be pure delight; they invite us to recount them from an intimate distance. Yet if we stand too close, we may miss their meaning.

Other stories may be too painful to tell without distance, without a narrator’s voice that lets us step outside the situation. Yet if we are too far away, we may lose sight of the emotional and factual truths hidden within.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: We write memoirs for many reasons. But a common outcome across all the reasons for starting is a better understanding of ourselves at the ending.

A TAO TRY THIS: Take a magazine article. Hold it up so that it almost touches your eye. What do you see? Take that same article and put it on the other side of the room. Now walk back to where you usually sit. What do you see?

If you do this exercise, you’ll understand what we mean in this Tao of Memoir Writing. “Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.” When the article was next to your eye, you couldn’t make out a single word, possibly not even a single letter. The parallel in memoir writing is the story when you include many details but forget to bring out why it mattered.

When the article was across the room, you couldn’t read words. In memoir writing, this is the equivalent of crafting a vignette in such a remote way that the reader wonders why you bothered to include it. Again, to “see clearly” our lives, we need to write at the mid-range, neither too close nor too far away.

This is not to say we write about all events in the same way or from the same distance. Be prepared to move in as close as comfort allows. But before you conclude your story, move back. Put the story in context. Consider its impact on your life.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Write a paragraph about an event or person in your life. The first time, lavish details on this vignette. Get as close as you can. The second time, write with coldness and detachment. Reflect on how you feel after each effort. Write a second paragraph for each version. In the second paragraph take the story and put it in context, personal, cultural, or historical. Give the vignette perspective, personal perspective. How did you feel? How did it change you?

As you write your memoir consider the implication for you and your reader of writing at various distances from the story.

by Matilda Butler

So Many Benefits from Journaling


The advice below is excerpted from a piece I published in Inspire Me Today, three years ago.

Since then I’ve had numerous articles published in print and e-publications. I’ve also published my YA, Talent, after starting, stopping, revising, reshaping, and adding new strands for years, and I am almost finished with a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62 to a two-time widower seeking his third wife on … Craigslist.

None of this would have happened, though, without the benefits of journaling. At the risk of sounding like I am writing in my journal, where anything goes, I am living proof that journaling works and you don’t lose until you quit trying.

Here is some advice for starting or reviving your journal:

Record what matters. No one can tell your story but you.

Who’d be interested? Kids, grandkids, spouses, your siblings who remember each moment differently, and generations you may never meet.

Write as often as you can. Add photos. Remember you’re writing to friends and family who may live a very different life. What do you want them to know about you and the way you lived?

Don’t worry about rules. Your journal—your rules!

Not sure how to start? There are two surefire ways:

One is to start with a sensory image:

I’m writing on my laptop and listening to the muted clicks of the black keys that glow from the light underneath.

I’m at Starbuck’s, listening to the snatches of conversation that whirl around me.

Afternoon sunlight makes the leaves on the ivy outside my window look shiny.

The second surefire way to start is with a sentence start:

  • I want…
  • I remember…
  • What if…
  • Today I feel…
  • On the best day of my life…
  • Love is…
  • A year from now…

Where can you find sentence starts?

There are over 200 of them listed in You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers. This isn’t an ad; it’s a resource.

You can also take them off of TV and out of books, but why reinvent the wheel? Don’t let the subtitle fool you. It should be Journaling for Everyone.

Can you reuse a sentence start? Absolutely! It shows your change and growth.

As you’re writing, trust your instincts. Trust yourself. Who do you want to be? How do you want the world to perceive you? What do you want the reader to know? Let those questions guide you.

Want to share your results? Leave a comment here or share it with me through www.writeradvice.com.

B. Lynn Goodwin owns Writer Advice . She’s written You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and Talent (Eternal Press).  Goodwin’s work has appeared in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; GoodHousekeeping.com; PurpleClover.com; and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at 62.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Today’s Tao musings focus on the habit of writing. Consider:

Good habits are good friends; we return to them gladly every day.

A ritual or habit creates a path that is shaped by use.

We seek to release ourselves from rituals that bind or restrict. We seek to open ourselves to habits of creativity that we gladly practice daily. The habit of writing, once established, carries us forward toward our goals.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: How often have you said, “I’ll work on my memoir when I have more time.” If you are busy today, it is a safe bet that you will be busy a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, and five years from now. Time doesn’t suddenly become available on its own. You need to put writing into your admittedly busy schedule.

Do you know the memoir by choreographer Twyla Tharp The Creative Habit? In describing her life, her creative art, she has given us a way to understand that a set of habits, habits for creativity, can keep us moving forward.

Try writing daily for two weeks, even 10 minutes per day. You’ll be amazed at how this one creativity habit lets the ideas begin to flow. This habit will become like a good friend, one you look forward to greeting.

by Matilda Butler

Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]
1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold.
origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what?

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day.

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained.

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.


Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane,
at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary.

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown.

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago—the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday—and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now).

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilarating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books.

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe.

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 3

This is the third in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Today in the Tao of Memoir Writing, I’m reflecting on the telling of our life journey. Consider this:

The journey begins at the gate or the journey begins in the middle of the garden.

Wherever we are appears to be the center. And wherever we go, there we are.

Let me ask an important question for memoir writers. Where will we begin our stories? There is no single answer, no right answer.

Perhaps we should start where we are–wherever our thoughts are focused now. The structure will grow from that. “A tree broader than a woman can embrace is born of a tiny shoot.”

THE TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: If you are just getting started on your memoir, the most important thing to do is to just begin. As your ideas and words begin to flow, there will be plenty of time to consider the structure of your memoir. If you are bogged down, don’t worry about a cohesive flow. Pick up your writing at another point in the story. Later you can organize the material.

Many years ago, so long ago that I was using a Smith Corona Coronet Super 12 electric typewriter, I developed a three step trick for getting my writing started:

(1) Insert a blank piece of white paper into the platen and roll it until about an inch is visible;

(2) Type the word “The”;

(3) Cross out the word with a series of xxxs.

Voila! I didn’t have to worry that the first word or first sentence was perfect, engrossing, or even vaguely interesting. The blank page wasn’t blank. I was already launched.

That old trick seems silly today, but it conveys a message. You can start any place. You cannot imagine where the memoir writing journey will take you. You simply need to get started on the adventure.

Remember: Wherever you are in the process of memoir writing is the center of your thought. Wherever you go, you will find yourself.

by Matilda Butler