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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

Harbinger Bird

Natashia Deón is light. She has a tiny frame, but her laugh has serious heft. You feel it in your chest and want to laugh with her. She is aesthetically stunning; I could look at her face all day long and not get tired of it. But it is her soul that captivates and awes. She does not look at you, or through you, but into you. And she likes what she finds. She likes you, and she wants your story. And by golly, you give it to her.

Her novel, Grace, is the story of a runaway slave girl whose first words to the reader are, “I am dead” (1). This catapults the reader into a riveting story of mothers and daughters, a story that breaks your heart but gives you this: “What’s done is done. Ain’t no justice. Only grace” (186).  Buy it at Powell’s Books, or the independent bookseller of your choice.

 

grace cover

I had dinner with Natashia recently, and it struck me then that I did most of the talking. About my stuff. I remember thinking, wow, Stace, ask her something about her life. And I think I did, but it came back to me.

I am self-conscious about this, a little, but I forgive myself this time. I’m weighing it as a whole: she’d just spent an hour talking about herself, and about her book, before a large group of students at SDSU-IV. This is exhausting. One needs a break.  And my story is interesting, anyway.

I want to say I feel wry, but it’s more that I’m awry, and I should talk more about my stuff. But I’m caught in an in-between. Some might call it a rock and a hard place, but that denotes an inability to move between two hard objects.

My in-betweenness is ethereal; I move between two difficult choices regularly. Don’t talk about the emptiness of having a missing son and thus spare people from feeling helpless, or talk about it and empathize with their helplessness even while I am bereft of true connection. You can’t connect with people who simply feel helpless or sorry for you. They are there and you are here and that in-between space is impermeable. Unless someone knows how to get there.

Natashia sat with me in that space. I think she got there by talking about my writing. She was sad for my experience, but she was determined that I see that I must share it because the stories will light the paths of others. I told her that Babes in the Wood was a harbinger of loss in my family, and she said, “No, Stacy. You are the harbinger here. I see a beautiful bird with many feathers with strands of jewels hanging from it, and that is you.”

Now I am obsessed with bringing this harbinger bird to canvas and to writing pad, and I’ve done some research on kiwis, ostriches, and other flightless birds. Note: Natashia said nothing of flightless birds. She may be imagining a peacock. lol

I’m dismayed by the idea of comparing myself to a fat, flightless bird, although it is funny. Wry again.

I’m also dismayed that the term “flightless bird” is derogatory.

Look at this revolting definition from the urban dictionary:
“A passionless woman who, though superficially attractive and financially independent, is romantically unfulfilled due to emotional underdevelopment.”

However, through further research I uncovered the Inaccessible Island rail. Smallest flightless bird in the world and it lives on Inaccessible Island. What an amazing name.

And the Elephant Bird of Madagascar, now extinct.  A terrifying flightless bird. Also large.

And the cassowary which, according to one writer, has “a face perpetually frozen in an expression resembling that of a frat bro who just challenged you to a bar fight” (Gonzalez). Take me on, bro.

I like the idea of flying. ‘Flightless’ has heretofore seemed powerless to me, but now I think, no. Not powerless.

Consider another connotation of flight: Avoidance. Escape. Retreat. Evasion. Never mind that they’re all nouns derived from active, lively verbs and not one of those verbs is related to the soaring verb to fly.

Oh, how I have flown. But this kind of flight isn’t freeing. It’s not even really flying. Fleeing is not flying.

This kind of flight traps you in a loop. You run from what scares you but you can’t get far enough away to feel safe. There is no safe just like there is no justice. But life is as safe as we make it for ourselves. We have control over what we feel and how we perceive the world.  We create our experiences even as life thrusts uncontrollable events in our paths. Maybe Harbinger Bird has broken feathers earned in the fray and in the flight. Still beautiful, I say.

Stop and square off, says Harbinger Bird. (I hear this in the voice of Randall, who narrated the Honey Badger video.)

Harbinger Bird. I can dig it.
p.s. Natashia, I’m writing. Thank you.

 

Note: This flyer is posted after the speaking date.

grace flyer

Edited: April 7th, 2017

200 days

The last few weeks have been exceptionally difficult. Does it have to do with the holidays? I can’t tell. If I could just ferret out why I keep finding myself on the edge, I think I could control it better. You know, not tip into the abyss.
I hate having this continual ache because now it seems normal.

I found myself searching ditch banks on my way home from work a couple of days ago. On the way to work each day I see the Calexico cemetery along the way, and it normally doesn’t elicit an emotional reaction, but that day I remembered searching the cemeteries for his body throughout May, thinking maybe his body had not been discovered. Before class. Ugh. Mondays are just difficult. I got it together and was fine till I drove home, and there my brain was, on the ditch banks.

I don’t know what the trigger is. What’s the switch? If I could find it I could duct tape it off, right?

My son is still missing. No one I know has heard from him, and his Facebook account shows no signs of life that I’m aware of.
There’s this tension between dread of knowing the truth and grief at not knowing. Occasionally I find the sweet spot of peace in knowing that this is part of life, suffering is, and that I am not alone, and that I can do meaningful things in the meantime. I give away books, I quilt, I teach, I write.

And other times I forget.
Today I realized afresh how fleeting life is, and how thankful I am to have today, to have irons in the fire, to have things to look forward to. If you’re in my life, I’m thankful for you, too.

Edited: November 17th, 2016

Empty garden

A few days ago, I told a friend I hadn’t seen in a while about Jake being missing since May 1.
Aghast, she asked, “How are you still sane!?”

Moms always ask me this. Because, you know, they get it. I think every mom imagines this horror a thousand times before her child is a year old. I remember flying up north to see my mother when Jake was 7 months old. In the airport bathroom a stranger offered to watch my son while I went in the stall. A chill prickled over my skin and my brain froze for a second till I remembered that I had him right there with me. He wasn’t even gone but I’d imagined all the possibilities in that second.

Empathy always comforts me. It comforts me when you hug me tightly and tell me you keep me in  your thoughts.
Yes, yes, I always want you to ask about Jake.

I saw a post from little *Kylie Rowand’s mom today that reminded me to pray for her.  She states,

…it is important to us that our child be honored and remembered. It is our biggest fear that our children will be forgotten. They so easily fall off the radar because they aren’t here to engage you anymore. This breaks my heart. If you know of a child who has passed away from cancer, today, please honor them. Say their name. Talk about them. Send a quick note to their family that they were thought of today. That one simple act can change that parent’s entire day.

This is the picture of Kylie I hold in my heart:

2015-02-07-PrayersforKylieBubbles-thumb

This is what has reminded me to take peace and contentment where I find it.
That little baby — I still weep for her, and I don’t even know the family. I don’t know her mom.
But her mom’s faith made relax my grip       –well. The grip I thought I had, the control. No, what do I mean….

It made me unclench my fist. The fist that both holds tightly and expresses anger.

Her mama’s faith inspired me to trust God when my son stopped talking to me. With her baby in one arm, that mama held out her hand to push back death, but she also trusted that everything would be okay.  Kylie would be okay. She would be okay. Even if Kylie was not healed.

It’s so much  … muchness.

Neither Kylie nor her mother ever lost their muchness. And in this whole ordeal I saw the grace of God.

So. Now.

Now my own muchness has been on the line.

I’ve not been insane, but I’ve been contentious, and I’ve felt glued in place in the face of a slowly encroaching mudslide. It’s still coming, and I’m still stuck, although, frankly, with this heat (115!) you’d think the glue would’ve melted. But no. The heat only makes me crabby.

Jake’s still missing.
I’m still grieving.

And I have this line from an Elton John song on repeat in my head:  “Hey, hey, Johnny, won’t you come out to play in your empty garden?”

I’ll be okay, but half my garden is empty.

*Read about Kylie in this Huffington Post article.
Read her aunt’s blog here.
I hope you will remember her, too.

Edited: June 27th, 2016

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

Best Year Ever. Still.

Nothing like committing to do something in public to make you see your own flaws.

My best year isn’t done, and it’s still the best I’ve ever lived, and I’ve been busy living it. Eh, but I’ve been busy procrastinating about all sorts of things. Like posting here. Seems as soon as I give myself a rule it makes me want to break it. Makes me wonder if there’s an app that’ll impose deadlines that make you unable to post after a certain time. (I do this for my students on Blackboard, and as a fellow procrastinator, I understand the value of having a deadline with consequences.)

So.
Some of the best things right now:

  • I’m rediscovering Jesus. And praying every day that it doesn’t turn me into an annoying conservative twat. I’d annoy myself. Gag me.
  • I am learning a lot about my absentminded habits. Thank God my husband is so laid-back. Couple days ago he said, smiling, “Honey, do you not like bending over?” I gave him a wtf look and he said, “When you lay something down, it stays there.” I–ah–well. That explains a lot. What amuses me is that now, because of that tiny, indulgent smile of his, I catch myself when I lay something down, and I remember that my actions affect someone else. And I don’t lay it down.
  • I am writing! I am noodling about scenes, I am plotting, I am creating characters I love, and I am regularly in my writing corner.
  • I am actively growing as a teacher. This semester I’m implementing a couple of tools I developed last semester and the feedback I’m getting from students is helping me to make them more user-friendly. (A worksheet on thesis statements and topic sentences, and an online workshop on developing a solid thesis.) Geeky, yes, but fun for me.

From Notes from the Universe:
“The absolute, most sure-fire way
of physically moving in the direction of
your dreams, on a day-to-day basis,
without messing with the “cursed hows,”
is living them, now, to any degree that you can.

And you can.

My dream is not only to write, but to create a space for others to explore writing, so I’m committing to starting a group for writers here where I live. Instead of waiting to move to somewhere green and cool (O! Vermont!) I’m going to do something now.

Funny. No one really cares what you can do, only what you do.

 

 

Edited: February 16th, 2014

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