Tag Archives: Craft of Memoir Writing

Accountability

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By B. Lynn Goodwin

Writing is a lonely business. Sometimes. Other times it’s a joyous celebration with friends or a slog through one’s own unique valley of despair.

Frankly, I’m glad I’m not on a writing team at the moment, though that might be an interesting project if the subject matter was right. Since I work alone, though, it’s up to me to keep myself motivated.

Lately, my husby has helped. He became my accountability partner last night when he asked, “Did you put in two hours on the memoir today?”

“No. Not today.”

I got up and got in the car by 9—okay 9:10—so I could give my journaling workshop for the Family Caregiver Alliance over in Menlo Park at 11. Then I was going to find a Starbuck’s on or near the Stanford Campus, but frankly, I was too exhausted, so I got in my car for the long trek home, and when I got here I was so tired I fell asleep for an hour and a half.  “I didn’t get it done because of the workshop. I don’t mind your asking though.”

I never mind accountability, except when it makes me feel small or irresponsible. I won’t mind if he asks me tonight, but he won’t because I already e-mailed him that I put in two hours. I might not have done that without his asking me about it last night.

If you don’t have an accountability partner right now and you need a little encouragement, here’s my question: “What did you write about today?” If the answer is nothing, think about your reason. You know I’ll understand. Why not post an answer below, and then you will have written today.

If you need a little encouragement, here’s something I shared yesterday in the journaling workshop, where I encouraged caregivers to vent, rant, process, discover, and find peace. I offer them to you, because every time I read them, I remember the value of what we all do.

Why Write?

“It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”  — Gustave Flaubert

“For many of us, writing is a form of prayer, and when our lives become too busy and we don’t give ourselves time to write and develop our writing, we feel diminished.”    –Sheila Binder

“We cannot live through a day without impacting the world around us – and we have a choice: What sort of impact do we want to make?” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall 

“Problems are opportunities in work clothes.”  – Thomas Edison

“Words, like eyes, are windows into a person’s soul, and thus each writer, in some small way, helps to enrich the world.”   –Mark Robert Waldman

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.Samuel Johnson

“A birddoesn’t sing because it has an answer,

it sings because it has a song. — Maya Angelou, poet

“There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”  —– Edith Wharton

BlynnP B. Lynn Goodwin is the owner of Writer Advice,http://www.writeradvice.com, and the author of both You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and TALENT (Eternal Press). Her blog is athttp://blynngoodwin.com. Goodwin’s stories and articles have been published in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; Good Housekeeping.com and many other venues. She is currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.

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Aside

by Susan Wittig Albert Last week we published part one of our interview with our Stories from the Heart Conference keynote speaker, Brooke Warner. Want to see Brooke in person? Make sure and sign up early for the conference! Brooke … Continue reading

Aside

by Susan Wittig Albert Brooke Warner is the keynote speaker at Stories From the Heart VIII. She is the founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher at She Writes Press, and author of What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get … Continue reading

Why We Must Tell Our Stories

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by Susan Wittig Albert

As women, we have always found ourselves in story. From the beginning of human existence, while we planted and harvested and prepared food, spun thread and wove cloth, tended our babies and cared for our elderly parents, we told one another the stories of our lives, and the lives of our grandmothers and mothers and daughters and granddaughters. Our shared stories became a many-voiced chorus singing the same song: the story-song of women at work and women at play, women loving and living, women birthing, women dying. Those stories were full of pain because human lives have always been like that. They were full of joy because lives are like that, too. Pain and joy were woven like golden threads through the full, rich, round stories of women’s lives, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter through the generations, so that the experiences of women would not be forgotten.

Of course, the urge to shape our lives in story is not just a woman’s urge. As women remembered themselves in story, so did men, telling tales in which men worked and played and fought and died, honorably and dishonorably; tales in which men governed, wisely and unwisely; tales in which men loved women, fathered children, revered parents.

Then men learned to write and wrote these stories down so that they could share their experiences with other men and pass their knowledge of themselves from generation to generation. When writing became printing, these stories, oral and written, were gathered into books, so that men’s triumphs and tragedies would be remembered.

medieval-woman-writing-detail-150x150But what happened to women’s stories when men learned to write? In one sense, nothing happened. Women still remembered themselves in story as they worked, played, and rested, and those stories still echoed through the generations, from heart to heart. But through the centuries of recorded history, far fewer women than men were initiated into the mysteries of writing, and those who did learn to write did not often write about the lives of women. Because ordinary women couldn’t write, their stories of ordinary life were lost or misremembered or changed. It was the same cycle of decay we find elsewhere in the oral tradition, in primitive tribes or among the enslaved in assimilated societies, overwhelmed by the rush to technology. Because the stories weren’t valued, they weren’t written. And because they weren’t written, they weren’t valued. They were just . . . well, women’s stories. Tittle-tattle. Old wives’ tales. Idle gossip, created to pass the empty hours when men weren’t around. Not worth writing down. Not worth much in the coin of the realm.

This is not to say, of course, that women’s stories vanished. A few women could write, but the stories they preserved were mostly the stories men taught them, or wanted them to write. Women appeared (often in starring roles) as characters in men’s stories, first orally, then in writing, then in print, and much later in movies and television. But these were (and are) women’s lives seen through the eyes of the male storyteller. Men told what they knew about women, what they had been taught, what other men expected to hear. That Adam was evicted from Paradise because he listened to Eve. That women are unclean (and dangerously mad) during their menstrual periods. That women can’t participate in business or government because they have inferior intellects. And until women began to have unmediated access to the printed page, we had no way of crying out, “Wait! These are not our bodies, or our minds, or our lives! They are only men’s imaginings of us!”

So men’s stories about women were accepted, uncorrected and unchallenged, as true stories, and everybody was fooled. Including women. For writing is such a persuasive medium that most of us believed that we were (or ought to be) like the women in men’s stories. We should wait patiently at home, while men discover new continents. We should love men, while men love ideas. We should give birth to children (preferably male children) while men give birth to writing and the electric light and the airplane and the bomb. Of course, there were many women who did not want to wait for men, or love men, or give birth to men’s children, but their refusals were scarcely heard and rarely heeded. Theirs were the deviant voices, singular, sinister, frightening. For many women, it was necessary (and easier) to be agreeable, to be what they were expected to be—at least on the surface.

But underneath the facade of conformable docility, beneath the appearance of a life shaped by men’s stories of how women ought to think and act, there has always echoed a different story, a true story. My story. Your story. Our stories, our real, true, different lives.

 

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Susan Wittig Albert, founder and current president of Story Circle Network, is the author of several books including the long running China Bayles mystery series, two nonfiction books, and two memoirs. She currently blogs at Lifescapes

To Those Who Write the Words of Their Personal Experience:

by Sheila Bender

It isn’t an easy path to write from personal experience. There are no guarantees that editors will want to publish what we have to say and no guarantees that we will successfully find a way to say it, publication or not. What is guaranteed is that committing words to the page and revising our writing until it successfully makes contact with others changes our lives in unexpected directions.

Writing takes courage and affirmations about writing help us value our personal writing and acquire this courage. After a Writing It Real writers’ conference during which participants shared fresh work and enjoyed time to help one another craft their early starts, I wrote these:

Acknowledging

That we write because we feel the need,

That we write because we want to reflect on the meaning in our experience,

That we write because we want to get something down for others to read after we are gone,

That we write because we are alive and writing makes us more alive,

That we write because it is a form of play,

That we write because it brings us into contact with other writers whose minds and hearts we resonate with,

That we write because it makes us the people we want to be

makes writing a gift we cannot refuse to accept.

Sharing our writing with trusted readers and learning to hear what our writing wants to discover, we not only grow our poems, our essays, and our stories but we grow ourselves, creating a path toward self-actualization.

Mary Amaryllis

By Susan Schoch

Mary Amaryllis is something of a friend to me, though it’s a one-sided relationship. I have come to know and appreciate her, but she had only the glimmer of a future connection with a reader to help her imagine me.

Mary Amaryllis kept journals from 1861 to 1879, beginning on her thirteenth birthday, and through enormous changes and challenges, and over many miles, preserved those journals into her old age. She went through them with an editorial eye when she was in her 70s, making notes in the margins, clearly envisioning that one day they would be read. There are 1700 transcribed pages waiting, perhaps with some of Mary’s impatience, to give her voice again. A rather distant cousin did the Herculean task of reading the tiny script and carefully reproducing it on the computer. I believe that she and I are the only people who have read every word that Mary Amaryllis saved for us, her unknown audience. It’s become my task, and my honor, to edit those words into a book, without altering the character, tone, or intent of that remarkable young woman.

I can just see Molly (as she was often called by family and old friends) curling up with a scrap of paper and a pencil under an appealing tree in the southern Ohio countryside. She was a great one for long rambles to visit friends and family, and liked to keep a record of them. Often, she would later rewrite stories and events in pen and ink in her faithful journal, and sometimes published them as she matured. She also wrote lots of letters and notes, and enjoyed the essay assignments at school. From the very first entry, she had me charmed.

 “Home in the Country. Rome Tp., Athens Co., O.

            Sunday, May 12, 1861          

I am quite too young to write a worthy dedication for the record of my life which I propose to keep from this time thence-forth upon the clear pages of this handsome book, so I will leave such things to older and wiser heads, and begin on this, my thirteenth birth-day, a simple jotting down of the small events of my back-woods life, which seem to me, with my rustic training, great ones. My father is by trade, a blacksmith, but at present is “carrying on” a small farm, upon the Marietta and Cincinnati Rail-road two miles from the handsome little village of New England.”

Molly’s parents valued education, and she did well in school. She was a bright light in her small village, a talented singer and dancer, popular and full of fun, happy to be in the spotlight, definitely flirtatious, and a loyal friend. There are countless mentions of Sunday evening singing schools, and spontaneous late nights of dance and music at home, whenever a friend came by with an instrument. She mentions, too, sitting up with dying family and friends, and caring for younger siblings and neighbors.

As a teenager she was typically self-absorbed, even as she was affected by the traumas of the Civil War. The tedium and restrictions of war seemed to be as troubling for her as the losses. Until tragedy struck closer to home. Mary’s mother died when she was just 15. She had to bear much more responsibility at home, where there were still four younger children, one just a baby. Then her father remarried and the stepmother was a nag. By 17, Mary was charmed and pressured into marriage with a dashing young officer. That decision rapidly proved to be a disaster.

Mary Amaryllis did not, however, give up on anything easily, and through the rest of the War, and for some years after it, she was the mainstay of the marriage, running boarding houses and working as a seamstress, growing as much food as she could, and enduring often-miserable living conditions, illness, awful bouts of homesickness, and her husband’s errant ways. She had a baby. Her sister often came to help. The family kept moving, from the post-War rebuilding of Chattanooga to the booming oil fields of West Virginia, from coal-mining towns to rural isolation. At each place, they made a fresh start and her ne’er-do-well but handsome husband brought them down.

Then he was killed in a construction accident. Their little girl was still a toddler. There is a year missing in the journals, and a silence that surrounds this event all through the rest of her writing. Did she journal during that time? Did she later discard the writing of that year, as too private, or too painful? Certainly she was changed. Mary Amaryllis came out of that loss determined to do more than just survive, and intent on transforming herself into the woman she wanted to be.

How she did that is wonderful to discover in her journals. Starting life over as a widowed seamstress in a shirt factory in Chicago, she worked and studied hard, overcame tremendous challenges, and saw history made. Happily, the ending of her saga is a good one. And having traveled those years with her as her editor, she has won my affection and admiration through the strength of her words. I find myself devoted to helping her achieve her real ambition – publication.  This will likely be an unpaid effort, but there will be enduring compensation nonetheless. It feels right to help Mary Amaryllis tell her story. Her struggle to raise herself up in life, to gain independence and to achieve the love and lifestyle that she longed for, her persistence, strength, creativity, political and social concern, and even her vanity, all are still relevant to women 150 years later. By employing some of that same perseverance, her personal yet emblematic life’s work may yet find many readers like me, who see themselves reflected in some way in her experience, and come to feel enthusiastically a friend to Mary Amaryllis.

The task of editing such historical documents carries much responsibility, and I am discovering resources that may be helpful to other writing women. One such is this book: Editing Historical Documents, (http://tinyurl.com/qcv55od), recommended by Giselle Roberts, author of A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson.  Another is The Journal of American History, (http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org). If you have old family records, don’t hesitate. Mary Amaryllis is surely not the only one of our foremothers who is waiting to be heard.

Working with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Advice

by Sheila Bender

The real topic of any piece of writing, the part that provides the emotional growth for both the writer and the reader, the part that holds everyone’s attention and lingers with them after reading, is the part that portrays the author’s search for an answer to some persistent question. It may be a question that is an obsession of the writer’s such as, “How will I live now that what I believed as a child seems wrong?” and it can occur for years after the precipitating event. The question might be, “If I don’t feel like a good parent, can I be any good at all?” or “Why do elephants always make me laugh?” It might be “If the city I live in is so polluted and crowded and violent, how come I haven’t given up on it?” or “Will I ever believe that I am a master?” or “What is my calling?”

The poet Rilke addressed the need for questions in an author in his famous Letters to a Young Poet:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Here is a writing practice to help you learn how living the questions facilitates writing:

Fill a piece of paper with questions. Write any question that comes to you. Allow yourself to mix silly questions with esoteric ones, mundane questions with ethereal questions, questions that might have a simple answer with questions that undoubtedly have complex answers. This mix will free your unconscious to suggest questions that might lead you to writing well:

Why do I like Rice Chex more than Raisin Bran?

Why is blue my favorite color?

What is the hardest thing to talk about as a woman?

What is it about housework that draws me away from writing?

What is the most important thing in life to me?

Keep writing questions and then choose a question that interests you. Draw a balloon on a piece of paper and print that question inside of it; draw a string on the balloon. Just like when you were a kid and you let helium-filled balloons go once you were inside your house knowing they would reach the ceiling and stay inside, imagine your question balloon floating aloft yet remaining in your eyesight. Let this question balloon keep you company like those magical balloons of our childhood.

Over a few days or a week, write down the specifics of where you are and what is happening when you remember the question you “left hanging in the balloon.” Describe where you are, what you see and what you feel, taste, touch and smell in the moment the question occurs to you, whether that is on city streets, a hiking trail, caring for grandchildren or standing by the stove where you are cooking oatmeal. Write about what you are thinking and doing when the question flashes in your mind and you see, taste, touch, hear and smell the world in which your question lives.

You might be groping in the dark for a light switch when you think about your question, and you can write about that — the feel of the carpet beneath your feet, the sound of the switch going on, the way the furniture looks as soon as the bright light comes.

Collect many such moments on the page. And after you have collected them, set about writing a longer piece from the notes you have kept. You might entitle it, “A Question” and repeat the question like a refrain, followed by sketch after sketch of the moments your question attracted to you.