Author Archives: Amber Lea Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 2 — Mapping Your Story

This is the second in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 1.

One of the great challenges (and satisfactions) of writing memoir is dealing with fragmented memories. We may remember only a snippet of an event; we may be haunted by a key images or emotions but don’t remember enough of the context — surrounding moments, people, places, and conversations — to write about it. Or at least that’s what we think.

What I have found is that the context to all our important memories is there, stored in our minds and bodies; it only needs a little probing to be released. So today I want to share with you a technique I learned from Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories — a technique that has helped me and many of my students trigger and expand our memories.

Map Stories

Though we don’t often realize it, our memories are associated with the places in which the events occurred. Drawing maps of places you’ve lived, worked, played, and gone to school can expand memories in surprising ways, recreating whole worlds of experiences. By encouraging our minds to remember the details of those places, we unlock the details in each of those places’ nooks and crannies.

Try this:

Get a piece of paper, the larger the better, and colored pencils or crayons. If you don’t have colored pencils, a regular pencil will do the trick.

Now, draw a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember living in. Draw the streets and neighboring houses with as much detail as possible. As you draw, ask yourself:

  • What were the names of the streets?
  • Who lived where?
  • Where were my secret places?
  • Who were my friends? Where did they live? What about the friends of my brothers and sisters?
  • Where wasn’t I allowed to go?
  • Where did the good and things happen?
  • Where did the bad things happen?

Don’t worry about making the map perfect or to scale. Don’t worry about getting the lines straight. Allow yourself to sink back into the mind of the child that you were as you draw. As images come up, draw them. (You can use a symbol that you’ll remember.) Take time with your map, drawing surrounding trees, geographic details, and so on. You’ll be surprised by how much comes up. Powerful memories will surface that you didn’t even know you had.

Once you’ve finished your map write a story, starting with, “One day ….”

Wrote about what happened in that one place on that one day.

Go ahead. Write.

What’s Next?

Put your map story in a binder. Then draw a map of another time and place in your life: another home, your school, your favorite place as a teenager. Write that story and add it to your binder.

In the next post we’ll discuss Making a Scene.

Photo Credit: neonzu1 via Compfight cc

Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 1 — What is Memoir?

Our greatest desire, greater even than the desire for happiness, Is that our lives mean something. This desire for meaning is the originating impulse of story.   ~Daniel Taylor

I believe that everyone’s lives, however “ordinary,” are filled with experiences that speak to universal human experience and are therefore interesting to other people. Today I’m beginning a ten-part article series intended to help you begin writing about some of these meaningful experiences in your life. Over the next ten weeks or so, I’ll discuss memory-triggering techniques and writing exercises to explore the stories your memories have to tell and (hopefully) help you get started telling them.

I know it’s  a busy time of year, and it might seem strange to begin a ten-part article just before Christmas, yet it’s also a reflective time of year —a time when we think back over what we’ve done and achieved during the previous year; a time when we think forward to the new year. If you have a little down time between now and the New Year, you might consider embarking on some memoir writing during the next few weeks. And if you don’t have time now, bookmark this post and come back to it when you do.

What is Memoir?

In its simplest definition, memoir is a written account of an aspect, period, or series of events from your life. An autobiography, on the other hand, is an account of your entire life. Memoir can be centered on certain people, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, and colleagues, or themes, such as marriage, divorce, death, and loss.

A memoir is an attempt to express your perception of the truth as remembered, while autobiography sticks more to the facts. Of course, it is important to remain as factual as possible in memoir, but because memoir is an accounting of memory — and memory is understood to be faulty and inaccurate at best — we also understand that memoir may express your experiential truth while, at the same time, not necessarily being factually accurate. (Did she really wear a red dress that day, or is it only the way I remember it?)

Writing about a sequence of events over a particular period of time, in an of itself, does not make a memoir. A memoir that is a story reveals or explores something about our humanity. It’s an expression of what matters about those events.

E.M. Forster famously said about plot (I’m paraphrasing): “The king died and then the queen died” is not a story. However, “The king died and then the queen died of grief” brings meaning to the events. They become story. Memoir applies the elements of story to your own life.

Truth in Memoir

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach writes, “Information is almost never the first goal of memoir; expression often is. Beauty—of form, of language, of meaning—always takes precedence over mere accuracy, truth over mere facts.” (p13, italics mine.)

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about truth in memoir. And we all know the story of James Frey, who became the poster child of what not to do when writing memoir. It’s never acceptable to fabricate events or exaggerate something beyond what we remember or know to be true in order to make something more dramatic or interesting. On the other hand, a child’s memories of an event may naturally be exaggerated, compressed (where several events are remembered as one), or in other ways untrue to the facts. In this case, the memories themselves are true. When a writer puts those memories to the page, she acknowledges the fact that she is writing from the child’s viewpoint. Her memories of events are part of her personal story, as much as the events themselves.

Journaling/Writing/Discussion Prompts

  • What, for you, is the essence of “memoir”?
  • Where is your personal line between “the truth” and “the facts”?
  • What kinds of research can you perform to assist with writing your memories?
  • If you find out that a memory is inaccurate, how might you still write about that memory as true?

Photo Credit: ZedZap. via Compfight cc
Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

The Online Learning Experience

by Amber Starfire

I was asked how teaching and learning via the Internet is different from teaching and learning in a traditional classroom. My questioner wanted to know what the pros and cons of each environment are, and what is important for teachers and students to know as they enter the online learning experience together?

Having taught in both environments for a number of years, I can say that, although online education is a very different experience than a traditional classroom setting, it is no less rewarding for teachers and students. Both online and traditional learning environments have teachers, students, instructional materials and resources, and a schedule or outline to follow. And both the virtual and physical schools follow the same basic model, including the presentation of lesson concepts and materials, discussion, student interaction, and completion of tasks and homework assignments.

In a traditional classroom setting, we have the advantage of body language, and the synergy and excitement that comes from interacting in the same room at the same time. Questions and answers are realtime. We can look in each others’ eyes and connect on a personal basis. On the other hand, dominant personalities sometimes take over the discussion, while the shy students, or those who feel less secure about their writing, hold back.

Internet-based learning environments usually offer freedom from having to be in a particular place at a particular time. They offer a way for people from all over the globe to connect, and freedom to be “in class” whenever it’s convenient for the students and teacher. They also offer the opportunity for thoughtful reflection in response to questions and comments. While virtual classrooms don’t have the warmth and synergy of personal connection, some people feel encouraged by the relative anonymity of the online environment, and they are able to be more honest in their writing and in what they submit to the class. In addition, there are usually fewer students at a time in an online course, allowing the teacher to give each student more personal attention.

Discussions can be lively or dead in either environment, but for the teacher, if the online “room” is quiet it can be more difficult to engage the students, because you don’t know who is really “there.” In a traditional classroom, you can look at a person and say, “Okay, Sheila, why don’t you read your writing exercise to the class?” But online, you might ask someone to post a response and not receive anything for a day or two, because Sheila is not checking her email.

Some teachers like to meet live via teleconferencing technology. I love the idea, but in my experience, it is difficult to get everyone to meet at the same time, particularly with the time differences due to location. So you’ll always have students absent. However, teleconferencing is a great way to hear “voice,” particularly when students are able to read their own writing. For both teachers and students, an online course can be more time intensive than in a regular classroom. For example, if  I’m teaching “live,” I show up, we have class, then I go home and I don’t have to think about it again until the next session, except for
some papers to review and correct. However, online classes are always in session and, due to the nature of the Internet, people expect nearly instantaneous responses and can feel ignored if they don’t hear from the teacher or each other within 24 hours. If I’m not careful, I can spend hours every day reviewing posts, responding to writing and to student conversations. I find that teaching online requires me to manage my time more effectively.

As a student in an online class, it’s important to be committed and self-motivated. Learning online is very much like independent study. At the community college, when I teach an independent study course, I can expect a 50% dropout rate, because many people simply need the structure of a traditional classroom to motivate themselves to do the work. If a student enrolls in an online course and doesn’t “show up” by posting her assignments or responding to other students’ comments, everyone loses. So when you enroll in an online
course, it’s doubly important to be dedicated to the course and schedule your study time.
Bottom line? Online courses offer a great deal of scheduling freedom, autonomy, and teaching and learning satisfaction. In order to give and get the best from it, it’s important to be organized, committed, and to know your own strengths and weaknesses. The benefits of the virtual learning environment are limited only by our willingness to grow.

The Story Circle Network offers a variety of courses to meet a wide range of interests and abilities. There are a few courses beginning in April, and the next full session opens in May. Click HERE to see the current list of classes and/or to enroll. If you’re interesting in teaching an online class, course proposals for the May-July session are due April 9th. Either way, you’re invited to join our learning community and experience first-hand the benefits of the virtual classroom.