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Memoir writing: Make a list of memories and then cull from it

Write a list of 25 memories. The note for each memory should be short.

Example:

  1. the time I sledded into a tree
  2. the summer I spent with my brother’s grandma
  3. taking the shortcut to school through the woods
  4. shooting the rapids in the Santa Ana aqueducts with Mama
  5. the night my mother attempted suicide
  6. ice skating in 7th grade
  7. Greyhound road trip from CA to NC with my 70-year old foster mother
  8. road trip to my mother’s funeral
  9. road trip to wedding when I was in college
    (I see a pattern with road trips so now I’m pursuing it on this list)
  10. weekly trips to gay bars to dance with friends when I was attending a Christian college
  11. road trip to Oregon after my father and stepmother retrieved me from foster care
  12. taking the train from Oregon to California to see my Nana (age 18?)
  13. shortcuts I learned from my Nana when she planned the routes for Daffodil Days
  14. the sole trip to see my mother when I was in foster care
  15. moving to Forest Falls after Mama got married to Schuy
  16. trips to get firewood
  17. trip to Vermont
  18. trip to Wallowa lake the summer I had nowhere to go–driving past house on Stone Road
  19. trips to see friends during failing years of my first marriage (theme: escape)
  20. finding roots in Danville, VT and searching for the Pettingill cemetery
  21. visiting the Evergreen cemetery with my now-missing son
  22. my mother’s story of her road trip with my dad and then her running away from him
  23. the day I realized Jake was missing
  24. walking ditch banks with my sons when they were small
  25. flying kites with my sons out in a field off West Ross

This list is fresh; I’m going through the process myself to show you how I work with it.

When I got to #9, I realized I was free-associating road-trips, so I just focused more attention on that theme. All the road trips or trip-related things I could think of, fast. As I wrote, I started thinking about why I took those trips.

I took some of those trips to escape to a place that felt safe, and now, when I think of traveling, I think of how present I can be in every place. So I ask myself now, when I am running away, can I actually see where I am at any point? In the leaving place, the journey, or at the destination? I think perhaps my own sight was limited. I tend to recognize my surroundings no matter what, but I am not always present.

So now with this list I’m looking for themes. Escape. Fear. Longing. Curiosity. Friendship. Adventure. Connection. Family.

I see that in three parts I can identify a theme for my mother:

  • the summer I spent with my brother’s grandma
  • the night my mother attempted suicide
  • trip to see my mother when I was in foster care
  • my mother’s story of her road trip with my dad and then her running away from him

They all relate somehow to escape. I spent the summer with my brother’s grandma the summer Mama got married to Schuy.  Pushing us off for that time is, in my mind, a form of escape because Schuy didn’t want kids, and this kept us at arm’s length for a while. (It could also have been their honeymoon, I realize.)

This escapism is also seen in some of my own trips:

  • road trip to my mother’s funeral
  • weekly trips to gay bars to dance with friends when I was attending a Christian college
  • road trip to Oregon after my father and stepmother retrieved me from foster care
  • trips to see friends during failing years of my first marriage

In each of these trips, I was escaping something. When I went to my mother’s funeral I was driving from misery to misery, but it was all about escape.

If I were to pursue this, I might explore the things my  mother and I each fled from, and why, and then I might explore what I see now.

Some patterns don’t stand out immediately, so you may have to ponder for a while.
Right now, even as I write, I’m thinking of other ways I escape–reading, browsing thrift shops, binge-watching Criminal Minds or Bones, eating–and I see that those are dimensions I would have to add to the narrative.

My goal in creating the list is to identify a framework on which to hang my stories. The theme of escape here is my through-line, my thesis, so to speak. Everything I then would write about these memories would be with this through-line in mind.

Likewise, you should pay attention to that common theme so that you are writing for a purpose. Because this is your narrative, only you can decide what to cull, only you can decide what the themes are.

Keep in mind that each of the items on your list may also serve as a launch pad for other themes. My weekly trips to gay bars with friends while I attended a Christian college have many layers, not the least of which is rebellion. I have a lot of memories in which that theme resides, along with the themes of belonging, faith, and connection.

If you make a list, please feel free to tag me in your post so I can come read your list.

 

 

 

 

Edited: April 29th, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Still in the starting process.

After you’ve written several memories down, you can keep going, you can take a wee break and make a list of memories to come back to, or you can pause that part of the process and focus on fleshing out one or more individual memories. Sometimes it’s best to vomit everything onto the page. Sometimes it’s better to flesh out a handful of memories to give you a clearer idea of where you’re headed thematically. Either way is productive, and they’re certainly not the only ways to approach writing your memoir. If you’ve got a way that works, keep at it.

Writing a list of memories is a compromise between the two. You can take a step back from the close writing necessary for the other two approaches, but you are still moving forward. It doesn’t matter what order the memories are in. The point is to get them on the page. I know from experience how difficult this can be, so I’ve developed a couple of tricks to help me write. I bought a kitchen timer–the kind that ticks because the that is an important part of this for me–and I set the timer for 5-15 minutes, depending on how loud my inner censor’s being. The five minute trick always tricks me into writing more because I’m not even done thinking the first time the timer goes off. Fifteen minutes works, too, because it goes faster than I expect.

The other thing I do is tell myself that I’m going to play with words for a while. Part of what has kept me from putting things on the page is that I know they won’t be perfect. So I remind myself that I can play, and that I can always come back and fix mistakes.

As you write your list or blast through another handful of memories, be thinking about where you want to go in your memoir. What is your “so what?” You may not really know this for a long time, and that’s fine. But the sooner you put that pot on the back burner, the sooner your ideas will bubble up.

Who is your audience? This can guide you to your “why.”

Look for patterns.
Start with the obvious, and go beyond it. For example, in my family we have abuse, but we also have strong, bossy women.
And in several generations, on both sides of my family, we have various name issues: either someone had a name constantly misspelled or mispronounced, or it was not what it should have been–in the case of my great-grandfather, he and his brothers had his mother’s maiden name instead of his father’s. This happened in a fervently religious household, one in which at least five of the brothers were Methodist ministers. This helps me understand why my grandfather was judgmental toward me when he found out I was pregnant before I got married. It also sheds light on other family issues. I myself have two sets of names. My mother changed her middle name in her 40s; my son, Josh, has two middle names (not on purpose); and back in my roots lived a woman named Rhayerdagowy. One census taker just left her name blank on the census. I imagine she said her name and he just threw his hands up in despair.

Perhaps there’s a pattern of violence, but it’s a peculiar, particular type of violence.
Perhaps hoarding is an issue.
Or addiction.

These are all generic, but how your family manifests them is unique.
When you explore, be aware that you will likely find discrepancies and contradictions. Write anyway. Write your perception of the events and be true to your inner eye on these things. Right now, you are writing your story and no one else’s. You will come back later and add the other interpretations and your own adult perspective. How you view your childhood events gives you a strong clue about your worldview. The discovery process is fascinating and surprising.

Press on, even when it’s difficult. Your story is important.

“We can, by telling our individual truths in the most authentic way, touch the universal truths that can change us all” (xv).
-Hal Zina Bennett, in the foreword to Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton.

Edited: April 19th, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Getting started on your memoir

When you want to write a memoir, it’s difficult to know where to start. You hear people discuss themes, and character arcs, and think, “I just want to tell about my life. Just start at the beginning, y’know?”

Yes. And no.

Where exactly is the beginning?
And the beginning of what?
A memoir is not an autobiography. It’s a themed piece of writing about your life.

For example: The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham, is about how she mentally puts her father’s suicide in some kind of orderly context (the point being that you really can’t, and this is her attempt to deal with a very messy situation.) Dry, by Augusten Burroughs is about his struggle with alcoholism.

Most people cringe when they hear the word theme, but it need not be intimidating.  Think of it as a belt that holds pants up or cinches a dress at the waist. If you don’t wear it with your pants your crack will show, and without it the dress is bland. Likewise, the theme helps eliminate cracks in your story, whether they’re jumps in time or missing details. Theme also gives the story completion.

So you need to choose your theme, but often that’s difficult if you haven’t written anything yet. So choose a memory that sits in your chest so heavy that sometimes you can’t breathe. You know. That one about the thing on that one day?
Write it.

Don’t worry about fleshing out details and such the first time you write a memory. You have to give the memory words on paper so you can massage them later.

And when you sit down, it helps to create a small ritual that puts your psyche in the right place. For me, it’s having a cup of coffee or tea in my Bad Kitties mug, my headphones, and the sound of a train. (Here’s what I listen to: Train Sounds)

So you write that memory, and it looks pitifully short. Just dashed-off paragraphs that don’t seem to mean much now that the memory’s there in black and white. Don’t stress it. Put it in a folder, and write another memory. Maybe it’s about a guy. Or your sister. Or your mom or dad.  Write that memory, too. Put it in the folder with the other one, and write another memory.

After you’ve written four or five memories, take some time to write some lines  about how you felt at the time, in each of the memories. What did you feel then? Did your feelings have the same tone, so to speak, in all of them, or were they different?
What stands out in these memories? What compels you to share them?

When we have this strong sense to tell our story, it often means an underlying theme resonates and will resonate with readers. I think many times we instinctively know this, even if we can’t articulate it. Find the feeling and write more about it. Find other memories in which you felt this way. Write the bare bones and stick them in the folder. You will come back to them later. For now, you must get the memories on the page.

Please tell me if you’ve started to write. I’d love to hear about it.

 

Edited: April 13th, 2017

Character Development: Character Flaws

If you’re looking for a way to flesh out your characters, check out this site: Character Flaws: The Seven Chief Features of Ego.

What I find fascinating is how  each flaw is exhibited in people, and why.

For example, The Martyr Complex.  Someone with this flaw is convinced that s/he’s persecuted, and believes that s/he’s been robbed of choice. This can be because of childhood abuse, or it can be a coping mechanism a person developed under any number of circumstances. What’s fascinating is that the flaw has a polar opposite; in this case, it’s selflessness.  What I’m playing with is how both poles live in us (and our characters).

My main character’s chief flaw is Self-Destruction. She’s homeless and alcoholic, and she fiercely guards both of these things because she feels like she has control over them. The opposite pole of self-destruction is sacrifice; this ties in neatly with martyrdom, which is her shadow because she is unaware of it.

I find it’s much easier to craft characters by starting with their flaws. Flawed people are more interesting, and we expect them to let us down, so hints of nobility surprise us. I think those hints give us hope for our own selves, that there might be something redeeming in our own persons that makes us lovable.

 

 

 

 

Edited: January 25th, 2015

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Wisdom from McKee

I’m reading McKee’s Story along with one of my writing partners, and we’re both finding gems. Sure, screenwriters are the intended audience, but story structure is story structure. My favorite lines so far:

“But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t.” Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed” (24).

Reminds me of quantum physics. Y’know how an electron seems to know when it’s watched? And it won’t move if you’re looking at it? At least, that used to be the case, but now they’ve found a way to trap an atom in a vacuum so they can watch it jump. Kind of sad, really. No more mystery. But Truth–now that is not something you can trap in a vacuum.

Sometimes little “t’ truth can magnify big “T” Truth, but the writer must lay those words down lightly, respectfully. For example, please don’t write an overwrought scene between a victim and her abuser and expect the reader to take away anything but a grimace. Seriously. Knock that shit off.

If you want to portray abuse, and you want to use “accurate reportage,” as McKee puts it, show everything but the victim, and refrain from telling your reader what those facts mean.

For example, a living room snapshot:

A clear glass ashtray sits neatly upside down on the rug, empty, but Shelly smells cigarette smoke. No, it smells more like a barbecue, she thinks.  It’s a distant scent, like it’s coming from the patio down the street, wafting through the window. The front door slams and she ducks in reflex, and suddenly the scent is up close. She hears a car peel away from the house at the same time she realizes she is sitting, naked, on a small pile of burning cigarettes.

That needs tweaking, but it should give you an idea of how you can give small details without hitting your reader over the head with angst. I think the angst is inevitable in a rough draft. Just eradicate it in your rewrites so your reader doesn’t want to stab his eyes out.

 

Edited: February 27th, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Back to GMC

I’ll be writing about how I’m using GMC, which I got from GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon  (Clean link)

I’ve begun working on my novel again, and recently had a breakthrough because of an app I found online that utilizes Dixon’s GMC. I dumped what I knew about my heroine into it, and came out with something I can work with. (I am waiting for this writer to get back to me with feedback. *ahem* ps: You did ask what character issues I’m having, Ms. Tammy.)

The GMC wizard was created by author Shawntelle Madison, and it’s on her site:
GMC Wizard
(http://www.shawntellemadison.com/writer-tools/gmc-wizard/)

Plug your info in and go. Here’s what I got for my heroine. This is a work-in-progress, particularly the internal goal part. For some reason I wrestle with understanding that.
GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT GRID
Name: Diana
Age: 35
Occupation: homeless. Previous occupation: ?
Basic Information: Sober b/c of dog Bart. Son died a few years ago & she is beset by guilt.
Eventually she will save Pax, hero’s nephew, which will release her from her self-imposed guilt-shackles.

INTERNAL EXTERNAL
GOAL forgive herself for the death of her son. own her own house where Bart will have a yard to play in.
MOTIVATION she will die on the streets if she doesn’t. He’s been beaten before and shot after she claimed him. She wants him to be safe so she doesn’t have HIS death on her conscience, too.
CONFLICT she keeps falling back on alcohol to drown out the pain. She has no job. She’s been out of work for years. She struggles with sobriety. She has no place to shower, even, and has no idea if she even HAS any skill sets. No confidence.

Another link I found useful has a blank GMC chart found here: http://www.midmichiganrwa.org/gmc-charts.pdf — 6 pages of character-building here.  RWA stands for Romance Writers of America, and it is one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my writing.

The key is to know your characters, which means you have to sit down with each one and listen to them. If you don’t, you risk writing your character into an unbelievable situation, or you risk pushing your character into unbelievable action.  For example, I know that my heroine, Diana, loves books, so while it is believable that she would be found digging in a dumpster to rescue a book, there is no way she would burn one to keep herself warm on the streets. She would burn a building first.

What would your character do/not do?

 

Edited: February 25th, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Excavation via fresh hurts

Sometimes I only have a scent.  Ivory Soap. Pine sap. Old Spice. It’s faint, like an afterimage, as Atwood writes in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other times, I catch a memory when I noodle about something peripheral, like the weather of my childhood.

And other times, I am knocked into a pit by something that happens, like my son telling me he will not be seeing me again.  As of this writing, I am 18 hours and 40 minutes from that revelation, and all I can think is, ‘if I’d known it was the last time I’d see him, I’d’ve lingered over dinner. I’d’ve drawn out the conversation, which would have been easy because our conversations have always been interesting. I’d’ve found some way not to be the mother who drives him crazy.’  Okay, nix that last one.  I actually don’t know how to do that.

(He is not suicidal.) (And he doesn’t read my blog.)

There’s more to it. There always is. But that is not what this post is about.   This post is about how present events harken back to old wounds.

I often identify old hurts by rooting around in the new ones (when I have the clarity to do so.)  Today, in this fresh hell, I can identify the pain of many old things, but I will name only two:
1) giving my son up for adoption almost three decades ago, and
2) my mother washing her hands of me when I was 11, and again when I was 19.

So my next question for myself is, which pain am I feeling?
Here’s the thing: I have seen enough of life to understand its cycles. The grownup in me knows that nothing stays the same. So the enormous pain I feel is not just about my son walking away.

So what does this mean? How does the current issue illuminate the past hurt?
I see that by linking them I am telling myself the old story of abandonment, and that’s a story I’m done with. Being abandoned means I have no power.  I’m not an abandoned waif, I’m a grownup, and I will not be undone by grief.  I do leave my arms open for him should he return. But I also accept that it could be years, even decades, before that happens, if at all.  My mother was dead ten years before I understood some things in our relationship, things about her.

I’m writing this because I am devastated and I have to work through this or go crazy. I have to be back at work on Monday and I can’t be dissolving every time something reminds me of my son. I have to see some meaning.

Still working on that.

What I do know is that I can model the grace I now recognize for myself.  I can be thankful that he has new-found faith and that he is seeking his own right path. And I can trust that everything will be okay. Mostly.  Still working on that, too.

Edited: September 29th, 2013

Exploring grace

My assignment this week with my writing partners is to articulate my definition of grace because I’m finally narrowing my focus on the theme for my WIP, Out of the Woods.  I thought I knew this definition, but when my partner asked me, I fumbled for what I meant.

After our meeting, I stumbled across this:

The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self–to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.  (Barbara Brown Taylor/An Altar in the World) –reference found here.

Her quote reminds me of people who point fingers at others in condemnation, not realizing that what they condemn is what is inside them. You are my mirror. If I hate what I see in you, chances are I loathe it in myself.  I recognize my shadow in someone else far more easily than I do in myself.

Grace forbids condemnation because there isn’t room for both.

And by accepting the other, we are sprung from our prisons.
By other, I mean that which is different from us.

I’m riveted by the notion of .grace because it was absent in my family. Actually, it pretty much still is. We are awkward in giving it, and we don’t recognize it when it is extended to us. I am convinced that my mother’s grief and sorrow over her choices made her sick. She never knew how much I loved her perhaps because she couldn’t accept it. If you don’t believe in something, can you recognize it? Ever?

Another assignment I have is to identify points of grace in my life, and in my mother’s life.  I’m surprised by how difficult it’s been to identify such moments of grace for her. In my own life, yes, but not Mama’s.   Not sure what that means.

 

What is grace to you?

 

 

 

Edited: August 19th, 2013

Wrestling with the story

For the past few years I’ve struggled with what I –and others–have perceived to be a gaping hole in my memoir.  Today I realized that the gaping hole is actually the end of that part of my story; I think I need to focus on excavating what I already have and delete what comes after.

I have wanted to fill the hole with my years as a mom, since I learned to understand my mother as I learned to understand myself.

But I have resisted this, and now I get why:  those years are not about Mama and me. They are part of another story.

Such a freeing revelation.

I realized this as I was reading Emma BrockesShe Left me the Gun at 2am this morning.  She writes,

It is a virtue, we are told, to face things, although given the chance I would go for denial every time–if denying a thing meant not knowing it. But the choice, it turns out, is not between knowing a thing and not knowing it, but between knowing and half-knowing it, which is no choice at all.  (I don’t know the page number, only that it is location 99 on my Kindle.)

I half-knew my mother was dying, but it felt like not knowing because every time I re-read a letter from her, I re-discovered that she had cancer.  I, too, choose denial.

So as I’m reading Brockes’ story, I’m inserting myself into the text and peripherally excavating and then I read this:

If the landscape that eventually emerged can be visualized as the bleakest thing I know–a British beach in winter–she stood around me like a windbreak so that all I saw was colors. A therapist once described my mother’s background…as the elephant in the room….” (location 122/Kindle)

Did Mama windbreak for me?  I see that I have been resting in that choiceless place of half-knowing.

Resting. Resisting.

Because I’m afraid of what I’ll find in the excavation. Not about Mama, but about me.

I relate to both the author and her mother–I see myself in both roles because my childhood experience is similar to her mother’s.
So I am excavating my own childhood, too, and evaluating my role as mother, since I severed ties in an attempt to protect my children from the poison of my past.

 

About the book:

Buy it.
My favorite thing right now, a third through, is the way Brockes keeps the reader at her side on the journey. I have an idea of what she will discover about her mother, but I am hoping for more details (which, by the way, reminds me that memoir IS story, and suspense is delightful).  The story–and the way she tells it–will make you reflect on your own relationship with your mother, which to me is the mark of a terrific storyteller.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited: July 14th, 2013

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