Lucy Farewell and Kim Stafford’s Memoir

23 Oct

Lucy at Walker Lake

Two weeks ago we had to say goodbye to a dear friend, our dog Lucy.  She was with us for fourteen years and was a champion soccer player and wonderful hiking companion.  Yellow labs have to be the best; she never stopped trying to please us, never stopped loving us.  She’s featured in Second-Chance Summer, my latest book for kids, which gives me another good reason to get that book out into the world.  This photo is of a quilted wall hanging made for me in 2004 by writer Bett Kearl.  She kept asking for a photo of Lucy, and this beautiful piece was the result.

What am I reading?

I’m excited to share a new book — memoir — written by Kim Stafford, Director of the NW Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.  I’ve loved his writing for years.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is Stafford’s attempt to make sense of his brother’s suicide at age 40.   Beautifully written in short memory bursts, he shows us the closeness of two brothers, only a year apart in age, as they grow up in the fifties.  They are there for each other until, imperceptibly, the disappearing begins.  A kind of unknowing, a not paying enough attention,  Seeing changes that are at first overlooked and then denied. 

I learned about this book from the Grassroots Bookstore newsletter and, best of all,  the fine people at the store added a link to Stafford’s blog about writing the book.  He called it “How a Book Can Set You Free.”

From that essay, we learn that Stafford “built” this book using techniques that my former students will recognize, going back into memory to reconstruct little pictures — vignettes.  For example, he writes a short piece about their night-time ritual when they were small boys.  Another piece is about the time he had no gift for his brother.  There was a camping trip to the foot of Broken Top, and so on.  The book is made up of these short pieces, not necessarily in chronological order, but making sense, adding up to a whole.  In his post, he tells us how he sat down with the newly published book for the first time in his hands and began to read a story that might have been written by someone else.

I followed him through the 1960s—a puritan in the summer of love, a pacifist in the era of the Draft. I followed him through the drama of early love, first jobs, wandering, then marriage. Working the fire crew in high peaks, as lightning played over the mountains chanting with his buddies, “Strike! Strike!” Eager for fire . . . his music . . . his reticence . . . I leaned closer. What was about to happen?

I cried for him as I read. He caught me. But his story was no longer a stone harnessed to my heart. My heart was not carrying him any more. I had been released from this lonesome duty, for his story was in a book in my hands. And the story had a resolution that consoled me, as by a voice beyond myself. 

As you write your own story, I hope this wondrous thing -this sense of resolution — will happen to you.  During the writing, we worry about what people will think –especially family members.  We recoil from going back to face the demons, relive the horrors.  But as we keep writing, we rise above our fears and regrets; we make a kind of sense of them.  And maybe, (I hope) we even forgive ourselves.  It’s this powerful, supremely satisfying sense of resolution that makes me want to read (and write) memoir.

I respect those of you who dare to write memoir.   I give you my deepest sympathy for the pain you may have to relive.  But I also send my hearty congratulations!  You are strong.  Keep rowing that boat.  We’re there rowing with you, all of us together in this life.

Do You Need a Prompt?

Probably not, after reading what’s above.  Get going on those vignettes.  Little paragraphs, filled with as many sensory details as you can manage.  Toss these into a shoebox for safe keeping.  Who knows?  One of these days, the little pieces will add up to a book.



10 Oct

“Turkey Monster Thanksgiving” in the forefront

Weekend before last, I signed books in Florence, Oregon, at the second annual Festival of Books.  A very nicely organized, easy-to-do festival, but still not enough children coming through.  Perhaps, next year, the organizers will get more buzz into the schools.

Can you see the wall hanging in the photo?  Created by my friend, Jan Dymond, it’s a Velcro-The-Beak-on-the -Turkey mural.  At book signings for kids, we hang it lower and let the kids go at it. 

The children who came by loved the cover illustrations of the Katie Jordan series.  Almost every child who picked up a copy, wanted to own one.   Check out Tuesday Mourning, the illustrator.  I’m hoping she’ll illustrate the cover of Second-Chance Summer.


Here it is, the famous wedding necklace.  It’s done; it’s beautiful, and Amy loves it.

Amy’s necklace

Made of pearls and silver-lined crystal seed beads, it sparkles more than in the picture.  One of the nicest pieces I’ve ever beaded, and it went beautifully with the gorgeous gown my daughter wore last Saturday.  What does beading have to do with writing?  Think about how they both get done:  bead by bead, and WORD BY WORD!  Tiny building blocks that eventually lead to something good.


One of my favorite books about writing, this book by Anne Lamott is full of good solid advice and enthusiasm about writing.  Why this title?  She tells us that many years ago, her ten-year-old brother was assigned a paper about birds.  He had spent three months, gathering information, books, paper and pencils,but was immobilized by the project. The night before the paper was due, with nothing yet written, he went in despair to his father.

“Then my father sat down beside him,” Lamott writes, “put his arm around my brother’s shoulders and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird’.”


Lamott believes that we are often stymied by the huge task in front of us.  She suggest “short assignments,” writing only as much as will fit into a one-inch picture frame.   For example, she suggest we write one paragraph that “describes the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch.”  She continues:   “I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame. “

Can you limit yourself to such small writing exercises?  Of course, you can.  Will they get you closer to writing a book?  Of course, they will.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Lamott is famous for her advice about SHITTY FIRST DRAFTS.  Good advice, because it gives us permission to let go of the perfectionism that halts us in mid-sentence.   Writing a shitty first draft, she says, is how we get to good second drafts and terrific third drafts.   This is the way all writers do it, she says, except for one person, and she doesn’t really like that person.

Humor.  Insightful advice.  The certainty that she encounters the same problems that challenge all of us.  We are not alone. 


20 Sep

Emmett’s vest — done!


It’s been more than two weeks since I last wrote.  What’s going on?

Too busy finishing the little baby vest?  As you can see, it DID get done.

Have I been too busy with “stuff” for my daughter’s wedding?  Too busy camping on the Metolius River and listening to great folk music in Sisters?  I did add a page to this blog about my illness.  That was writing, but I kept putting off writing this post.

I know myself after all these writing years, and I see a pattern:  After a major rejection, it takes me a while to regroup.  When I pull out my writing spirit and look at it, I see it’s squashed flat.  And like those Chinese papers that you drop into a glass of water, it needs to slowly unfurl and plump itself back into shape.

My book.  My time, my energy were all in that book that was rejected.  Besides that, the story says something important to kids.  About families.  Privacy.  Sorrow.  Hope.  Courage.   All of it — good stuff — rejected.

Self-publishing it is still an option, but right now, I need to find myself, my writing self, again.

How do I do that?


  • I’ve been trying to treat myself — smell the roses that are on my coffee table.
  • Acknowledge that I’m grieving.  Whine a little. (or a lot.)
  • Diddle around on the computer.  Okay, that means playing quite a few games of Mahjong solitaire, but before I leave my desk, I try to write a few stupid sentences in my journal.  Gently now.  I’ve left the Wordperfect file open so I can get to it easily.  I even left the cursor set on the next sentence.  I’ll write a little something.  Maybe I’ll call it “practicing typing skills.”
  • In the meantime, I should probably tidy up my office.  Who can possibly work in here anyway, in this mess?
  • While I’m at it, maybe tackle the utility room?
  • Time heals.
  • The most important thing:  I must keep writing.  Anything at all.


Writers in my classes, and most recently, a friend last week in Sisters, have told me they want to write a memoir — about a parent.  About a daughter.  About a grandmother.  Their eyes glow with excitement.  What a life that person had, they tell me.  It will make a great book.

I beg to differ.

Please consider writing about YOU!  YOUR life.

It’s the story only YOU can tell.

Let’s turn this idea around and imagine that YOUR son or daughter has decided to write your story.  “Gee, Mom, your life is inspiring.  I want to write it.”   A compliment.  But at the same time, an affront.  How can they possibly know the things you know– the deep-inside things, like the smell of the hollyhock dolls you made, the touch of your grandma’s hand on your forehead, the softness of the bunnies that were in the backyard pen, the agony of wearing a homemade dress to the prom.

WRITE YOUR OWN STORY!  Don’t put it off for your children or anyone else to botch up.

As you write your own story, chances are your own parents, your grandparents will be part of it.  In that way their lives will be captured, but through an honest, more valid viewpoint.


How to get started?



Taken from Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories, a book I highly recommend.

Make a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember.  Add the streets, the neighbors, the hiding place, the scary neighbor.  Name these; be specific.  Or make a map of your house — your bedroom, the kitchen, any part of the house where important things happened.

If you’re like me, your map will be a sketchy thing.  The main thing is that you’re opening a memory drawer and rummaging around in it.  One memory after another is bound to pop up.  Start writing about these with as many specific and sensory details as possible.  Go back and add more smells, tastes, sounds to these.  Capture the emotion of the event, if possible, by giving us a bit about the light, the darkness, the weather, the way your stomach felt.

Remember, if you’re writing about an event, you can begin with the action of it.  We usually don’t need all the background and all the intro.  Just begin with something happening.  Get to it.


On the left side of a paper, list the years of your life in five-year periods.  0-5, 6-10, etc.  Try to recall a major event in your life for each five-years.  For example, at age 9, I got my first bike.  Independence!  How sweet it was!


When did your life take its turns?  What events forced you to move out of your usual rhythms.  What set you back?  What helped you grow?  Write about these — and again, just give us the actions, the people who were there, what they were doing.  Imagine that you are capturing a pivotal moment in a snapshot on your camera.  Who else was there?  Where exactly did it happen?  Was there weather?  Furniture or props.  What were people wearing.  What did their faces look like?

Photos are limited, however, so you’ll need to enhance your imaginary photo with details of smells and tastes and sounds.  Write, write, write.

Don’t worry about polishing any of these.  They are great jumping off places, however, for what you may eventually want to write and polish.  Save them, get them out every now and then and see what other memories come to you.  Write those down.  Are you getting pages and pages of writing done?  Yes, you are.

And that’s how it all begins.


3 Sep

Too soon to sit on

Is everyone’s life like mine?  Full of half-finished projects?  This chair was in my childhood home.  When the seat fell apart and had to be ripped out,  I ordered a kit of directions and new cane and started in.  That was July.  It’s slow going.  No sitting on that chair for a while!  

And then there’s the necklace I’m beading for my daughter’s October wedding.  After I make three more leaves, it will be pretty, won’t it?  Ah yes.  All good things take time. 

Also not done: Last Monday, I printed out submission guidelines for five literary journals that accept  memoir.  However, according to my critique readers, the essay about artichokes and getting to the heart of things isn’t ready to send.  Years of writing on that essay, and it’s getting close.  But it’s not quite done.

On Wednesday, my latest book, Second-Chance Summer, was rejected by Albert Whitman.  My very nice editor says she STRONGLY objects to this decision  (Thank you, Wendy, for saying that.) because this is the very book the editors asked me to revise for them in February and I mailed to them in April.  It was to have been the fourth in the Katie Jordan series.  No chance another publisher will be interested, so do I drop it into the drawer with other books in progress?  Wendy suggests I rewrite it with a different protagonist.  Do I want to do that?   Whatever I decide, the book is not yet done.

Well first, I need time to grieve about this.  I love that book.  Kids have asked for more Katie books, and this one, in my opinion, is the best of the four.  Deeper, more developed, more important! than the first three.  I’m biased, heh, heh, but I’m right!

On the other hand, I no longer believe what I learned in Girl Scouts –  that we must always finish what we begin.   I’m now capable of starting to read a book and slamming it closed after fifty pages because it doesn’t hold my interest.   I’ve begun quilting or stitching embroidery projects that for some reason I lost passion for and then gave away — unfinished.  Living with cancer, knowing that my life may not go on forever (true for everyone, but ominously true for those of us who have cancer), I’ve lost patience with that old rule of finishing everything I begin.  “Off with their heads,” the Red Queen shouted when something annoyed her.  Forgive me.  I seem to be turning into a red queen.  

Do I decapitate Second-Chance Summer?

I grieved for my novel through the week, but now that it’s Monday, a new plan is creeping into my brain.   THIS book is surely the perfect candidate for self-publishing.   I don’t yet know how to do that – to create an e-book or one that is Print-on-Demand.  It’s time to learn.  Linda and Liz recommend Amazon’s Create Space, and the Kindle e-book.  The cover will be important, so I’ll contact the illustrator who drew the sweet covers for the three paperbacks.  Will she say yes?  Can I afford her?  Hope so.  

So I’ve decided.  Second-Chance Summer gets its own second chance.  And once it’s published, I’m hoping the other three books will carry the news of it to readers.  

The chair seat, however, may be in danger.  My arthritic fingers are finding that those canes resist more as they tighten and as I move to the later stages of weaving them.   Besides, unlike the essay and the novel, I didn’t build the chair from scratch; it didn’t grow from the tiniest idea into thousands of words, thousands of ideas that needed to be crushed and blended, molded and shaped into coherence.  

Still unwearable

September is the deadline for another unfinished project – this little vest that needs seams and ribbed edges with buttons and buttonholes before the child can wear it.  October 6 is the deadline for the wedding necklace.  As I bead and knit, I’ll puzzle over how to take my essay and my book to the next levels.

Any words of wisdom about self-publishing? 

Are you out there?  I’m listening. 


23 Aug

Notice a couple of new links on the right.  Thought you’d enjoy them.

Piano Lessons, by Noah Adams

I just finished re-reading a good memoir, Piano Lessons by Noah Adams, the host of NPR’s “All things Considered.” When I read it five or so years ago, I liked it, but thought its appeal was limited to music lovers.   I’ve changed my mind now.  This book is really about any person who has been an “adult beginner” at anything.  I think of me and my harp,  and me and my Spanish lessons.

Why is it so hard as an adult to learn something new?  I think it’s because we worry so much about being perfect right from the start.  Kids know better.

Piano Lessons covers one year, the year Adams decides to buy a piano and learn to play. He’s obsessed with the challenge, but avoids taking lessons.  Later, he invests in a home study course.  Late in the year, he attends  a wonderful retreat in Vermont, in which he learns to play better, but mostly learns the courage to perform in front of others.  (Getting rid of that need for perfection?)

It would take more than a week in Vermont for me to start speaking Spanish to a live person, or to play my harp with anyone else in the room.  But Adams overcomes all kinds of shyness and reservations, and gives himself (and the reader) a very satisfying ending.  His voice is so “normal,” you forget he’s a celebrity and is used to broadcasting to millions of strangers every day. He sounds like the guy next door.

My friend Bill read this book in June, loved it, dusted off the keys, and plans to sign up for that workshop in Vermont.  He’s starting to write again, too, a great story about growing up in Texas.  Bill is renewing old loves – piano and writing.  It’s never too late to act on our passions.

As we breathe new life into our lives, let’s talk a bit about writing craft.


Fiction writers want to know how to make their characters come to life, how to make them walk off the page, how to make the reader identify with them.  Here are the highlights from a workshop I’ve presented.

Remember Old Mother Hubbard?  The one with the hungry dog?  Of course, you do.

We recall how she looked in our book of nursery rhymes – gray hair, wearing the long skirt and the apron.  So 20th Century.  Let’s toss that apron.   OUR Mother Hubbard will be a modern woman.  We don’t know her yet.  Let’s start with how she looks.


We must ask questions about her age, height, weight, posture, hair color, face, voice, and on and on until we can SEE her.  Perhaps this hip lady rides her bike to the farmers market wearing jeans  and a sequined sweatshirt, singing Beetles songs in a low alto.  Her huge purple tote bag  holds her little dog (the hungry one) as well as her current knitting project (caps for newborns) and a big bunch of sunflowers.   Can you see her?


Where does she live?  LA?  Pacific Northwest?  Dream up her house, her furniture, what’s in her refrigerator, what’s in the trash can.  I see her living In Philomath, in a house that she inherited from her dad, with fruit trees out in back and a big porch in front.  Her refrigerator and her trash can are empty.  Oh yeah, – the cupboards, too.

What’s going on? Has she been robbed?  Was there a fire?  In my mind, she’s been giving things away, and it’s gotten out of control.  Because her former husband (the one she threw out) was a pinch-penny, she’s been too generous.  Her kitchen  (and her bank balance) have gone from bountiful to bare.  How does she feel about this?  I think she’s oblivious right now, but that will change as soon as her dog asks for a bone.  Or, maybe something else will happen?


She has kept a few favorite things.  What are they?


What about that former husband?  Any children?  Have they abandoned her?  Time to do some serious daydreaming.  If you’re like me, you daydream on paper.  We’ll start writing about her.


Let HER explain things to you.  Give her a journal to write in, if she won’t talk.  Place her in sticky situation and listen and watch how she reacts.  Listen to the unique way she speaks.


Ask penetrating questions:

What does she fear more than anything?
What keeps her up at night?
What is her plan for five years from now?
What is her dream?
What is her biggest regret?

Take time for these very important questions.  Accumulate many pages of notes.  They will provide the clues to your character, and also for the entire story.


At this point each writer in my workshop has imagined a unique Nora Hubbard.  No wait!  For some, she’s turned into a Monique, a Frankie, maybe even a Barbie!

Developing a character should take days – days of daydreaming, clustering, free-writing,   Please do that work for your own characters, major and minor ones.

Once your main character is up and alive, we can bring a complication into her life – something significant that will get her story rolling.  Plot will be the subject of a later post.


Now that we have a character who interests us, we can describe her (telling) and we can put her into action (showing).  Both methods will work fine for us.

Here’s an exercise adapted from a good book on writing, “What If?” by Bernays and Painter.

TELLING:  My character (name) is the sort of person who . . .

SHOWING: Put the character into a scene of action, so we can see and hear and deduce what she is like.

My example from memoir:  My mother was the sort of person who loved to control a roomful of people.  I remember one Sunday morning when she called us to the living room.  There, heaped on card tables were her treasures – trays, butter dishes, candy dishes, glittering with  sterling silver, silver plate, silver look-alike finishes.  Her gray hair stiffly waved, wearing her dark blue skirt and a no nonsense top, she pointed each of us into a chair.  “I am not going to live forever,” she said, with a slight tremble in her voice.

Can you see her?  Lucky me.  My mother provides great material.

Please let me know how this works for you.


17 Aug

Dog-eared and loved

Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, tops my list for writers of fiction or memoir.  I have two editions, the third (1992) and the seventh (2007).  There’s now an eighth, that sells for $66. 

It’s possible, however, to buy an earlier edition for much less, and any edition will do.  (Try checking for used books at your favorite independent bookstore.)  They’re easy to find since it’s been used in countless college writing programs.  I found my first one twenty years ago in the used books section at the OSU bookstore.  

“There are a few lucky souls,” Burroway writes, “for whom the whole process of writing is easy, for whom the smell of fresh paper is better than air, whose minds chuckle perpetually over their own agility, who forget to eat, and who consider the world at large an intrusion on their good time at the computer.  But you and I are not among them.”

She’s definitely speaking for me!  ANY excuse will keep me from beginning the first draft of anything.  Somehow, over the years, I’ve learned that getting through the pain of that awful first draft is the only thing that will lead me to the revising, the part I love.

Chapter headings:   

  • The writing process
  • Showing and Telling
  • Characterization
  • Fictional Place
  • Fictional Time
  • Story Form, Plot, and Structure
  • Point of View
  • Theme
  •  Revision

Every section in this book contains writing examples.  Discussion questions follow these.  Then, come the exercises that give us a chance to practice.  (My former students will recognize some of these.)

My friend Naomi used this book with her writing group,  going chapter by chapter, doing the exercises and discussing them.  Took many months.

In the first chapter, Burroway advises keeping a daily  journal (where no editor can see and make comments), doing free-writing (like doing scales on the piano to keep the writing muscle strong), and clustering (which frees up the mind to make meaningful connections).  Ten minutes a day will lead to twenty or thirty, and suffices to get words down.  Then, if you’re like me, you can go through the rest of the day saying, “I AM a writer.  I wrote this morning.”

Snarky, but it works!


                                — has to do with showing and telling.  

Details — using lots of them, she says, will lure the reader into the world of your book.   But these can’t be Lands End Catalog details.  We need to select the best ones.  What does she mean by “best ones”? 

CONCRETE details that appeal to the senses of smell, taste, touch, vision, and hearing.  My friend Ken assessed each of his pages in terms of the “The Smell Factor.”  He tried to get at least one smell onto every page. 

 SIGNIFICANT details that convey an idea or judgment.  For example: “The windowsills were painted green” is concrete because it’s visual, but it’s not especially significant.  Try this: The sills were a peeling, pea green.  (The reader “gets it” that there’s decay here.)  Of course, when you go back to make your sentences more active, you might write: Strips of dull green paint hung from the window sills.  It’s obvious that this place is going to be a fixer-upper, and we didn’t TELL it; we SHOWED it.

Writing Prompt 

(with thanks to Janet Burroway):  

Look in the mirror.  Jot down all the details of your face, hair, mouth, eyes, etc.  Make your details as concrete as possible, using the five senses. 

Decide which of those details will convey how you would like others to see you.  Do you want to be seen as sophisticated?  Intelligent?  Younger and full of fun?  Older and wiser? 

Select the details that will convey this picture to others and leave out the rest. 

Write a short description of this face, using the “best” details and leaving out any adjectives that simply tell that you are older and wiser or whatever. 

Share this with a friend to see if the details you chose did the work you intended.  
Imagine significant details for each of your characters, this time, describing more than his or her face.  How about posture, actions, voice?  

When you write in this way you are in collaboration with your readers. When we describe everything for them, readers miss part of the fun.  When they can draw their own conclusions from a few significant details, we’ve entered a grand partnership.  

Good writing?  Yes!

Anyone out there who has used this book?   What’s YOUR  favorite part?  Please share!


10 Aug


Those of us who belong to writer’s critique groups may resist the rule of the “Vow of Silence.”  Let’s say someone has read your piece and is giving feedback.  Can you be quiet?  Can you listen?  I know, I know.  It’s darn near impossible to listen to someone who obviously doesn’t understand your piece.  You feel MUST tell them they’re not “getting it,” and besides, they are probably talking about the part that is your favorite part.  Or the part that REALLY happened that way.

I tell my students to wait.  To listen.  To be silent!

Why is that?

When you defend instead of listen you’re going to miss good feedback.

  • Open your notebook, not your mouth.
  • Write down everything your reader says.
  • Clarify any confusion.
  • Say thanks.  Tell them you’ll look at it in the morning.

The next morning may show you that the reader was way off-base (they often are, by the way), but it will also tell you that something  about your writing needs fixing.  Perhaps your words confused him; perhaps your character is acting in an unbelievable way; perhaps you added distracting info that threw your reader off (See the writing prompt below).   In any case, by writing the comments down, your attention was drawn to a section that is possibly flawed.  Now, you can work on fixing whatever wasn’t working.


What is it about compliments that gets us confused and embarrassed?  We say, oh yes, I’m good at dialogue; I don’t need to write that down.  Or we say, they must be kidding about that grand metaphor or those good sensory details.  Please write positive comments down and look at them in the morning along with the comments that weren’t so positive.  Enjoy a compliment.  Learn to recognize and value the good things you do so you can REPEAT them!

What a concept!  Repeating GOOD habits? Am I crazy, or what?


Think of a place you love — a particular beach, a forest, a room, perhaps a place you can no longer go to.  Using lots of sensory details (smells, tastes, touch, sights, and sounds), describe this place in ways that will show the reader how much you love it there.  Do not use the word “love” and do not tell the reader how you feel about this place.  Let him “get it.”


Write again about the same place, but this time notice that it’s no longer pleasant.  (Any location will have details that speak one way to us one day, and another way on another day.)  Perhaps this time you will notice a bad smell, or a disturbing sound that you never noticed before.  Perhaps, there was always decay there, but you overlooked that before.  Show the reader how much you dislike this place without telling him.  Let him “get it” through the sensory details that are in this new piece.


The sensory details we select for our descriptions will influence the reader.  Out of all the possible sensory details you might use, be sure to choose the ones that will do the right work for you — will convey an emotion or evoke a certain response in the reader.