Tag Archives: memoir


23 Nov

My last post was six months ago.  I’ve missed all of you.  DSC01687

My excuses?  Being back in Corvallis where we can hang out with dear friends and family; several birthday parties including my own; two Saturdays of highly successful fiction writing workshops (See the underexposed photo of Linda Elin Hamner and me, both of us excited about sharing with a roomful of writers).  Add in several delightful Monday afternoon memoir workshops — a new teaching setting for me — each writer with an important  story to tell.

My last session of chemo was in mid-July, and so, now with new energy, I’m walking, swimming, and getting many things done for the first time since last December.  What joy I took in pruning the neglected roses, washing some musty windows, doing research on how to self-publish the fourth Katie book, Second-Chance Summer. By the way, my first step was to read the manuscript through — the first time in a year.  I was overjoyed to find it’s still a good book!

Some self-publishing companies mark up their printing costs to cut into author royalties.  Some have unfriendly contracts.  CreateSpace offers a direct line to Kindle and Amazon and uses its own printer; the others use Lightning Source as a printer.  BookBaby seems to be user-friendly, mostly because fellow writer Margaret Anderson says a real person will answer the phone when you call.  I’ve almost decided, however, to go with Wasteland Press because of its friendly contract and ratings, and because it has a policy of a good number of “free” paperbacks to the author, which recoups some of the cost.

The cover artist, Tuesday Mourning,  has sent the new cover artwork, and it is beautiful.  When Second-Chance Summer is available in paperback and e-book, you’ll see fireworks in this part of town.

DSC01705The newest member of the family

Salty, a rescue dog, came to us in late October after a long search.  She’s too big to be on Jerry’s lap (notice her long legs dangling off), but try telling her that!  Seven months old, and growing.  Yes, we call her “Salty Dog” after the bluegrass tune (and the drink).

Some good books

DSC01690The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston.  (One of the “Top Ten Literary Memoirs” on a website I found.)  I’m a third of the way through and am captivated by her ability to tell stories.  Her message, which isn’t immediately apparent is a powerful argument against the denigration of girls in Chinese culture, and for recognizing the worth of writers.

I also re-read The Grapes of Wrath along with Working Days, which is the journal John Steinbeck kept while writing the novel.  He wrote the entire book during the summer of 1938 after doing what must have been a marathon of mental plotting.  His goal was to write 2000 words a day.  I loved it that he lost confidence in the middle of the writing and had to force himself to continue.  Sound familiar?

A Powerful Prompt for Memoir Writers

The writers in my summer memoir workshop could not stop writing once they got going on this.  Furthermore, the resulting drafts were good ones:  filled with emotion — anger, understanding, compassion.  This three-part prompt will also work for you.  Try it!

1.  Write for ten minutes about the mysteries that existed when you were young.  Begin with “When I was young, I didn’t know . . . “

When I was young, I didn’t know why my dad scolded my mother for loading up the kitchen cupboards with canned goods.  “One of these days, they’ll fall down,” he said.  I also didn’t know why Mother insisted that I dress up more than all the other kids.  Hat and gloves?  Sheesh!  Or why I could invite some children in to play, and not others.  The more I think about this, the more questions come up.

2.  Write for ten minutes about what you DID know about those cupboards or the dressing up or whatever.

3.  Finally, write as long as you can, beginning with the word “MAYBE.”

Maybe my mother remembered the depression and thought we might run out of food.  Maybe Dad thought she was hoarding, and did she think he was going to lose his job? Maybe he was embarrassed by her need to hoard . . .

If you can write in response to this prompt, I would love to hear how it went.

Happy Thanksgiving!  And to all of you who are participating in the “Write a Novel in a Month,” I send the best of luck.  You’re almost done!



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.


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.