Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

Writing from Sacred Story
It begins with a snake.

Once upon a time, a serpent in a garden tempted the first woman to eat forbidden fruit. The woman fearfully remarks, “But God says we’ll die if we eat from that tree.” The serpent scoffs. “You won’t die. God knows if you eat that fruit, your eyes will open and you’ll be like divine beings, who know good from bad.” So, the woman takes a bite. And we take a bite. The luscious juice of story dribbles down our chins. We know what happens next. We are never the same. Is this sin or salvation? I’ll come back to that later.

The cultural role of sacred story
Whether or not we are religious, we know these stories. We have heard them in school, listened to them in songs and seen them depicted in movies and art. Moses parts the Red Sea, Raven steals the sun, Thor wields his mighty hammer, Buddha sits (and sits and sits) beneath the Bodhi tree. These stories live inside using that vast collective unconscious of our dreams.

These stories, like pearls buried in the flesh of oysters, become seeds around which cultures grow. The rich heritage of oral tales and written texts glues us together, binding us in a tradition of communal story, whether we experience this history in a literal or figurative form. Sacred stories can tell us more of who we are if we venture inside them and overlay our lives with theirs.

Using sacred story in memoir
Similar to Jungian archetypes, characters and symbols in religious or folk stories can represent parts of our own psyche’s struggles and triumphs.

Let’s return to Eve and the snake. When you hear the word serpent or snake, what associations and emotions spring up? Are they evil, holy or something else? Snakes and serpents figure in mythologies throughout the world: Africa, the Amazon, Ireland, Italy. In Voodoo/West African lore, for example, the snake represents a rainbow, a bridge to God, and infinity. Your reaction to, and interpretation of, Eve’s serpent will depend on your personal history with that and other snake stories you may consciously or subconsciously bring into the mix.

I often don’t know how I will relate to a particular story, and what it can illuminate about my personal life story, until I step inside its world and write about it. That relationship changes as I continue to work with a story. I’d like to share my process for going about this work.

Writing exercise: You are the story
Pick a sacred story you have some relationship with or connection to.* It could be one you have read from a religious text, or heard from a parent or teacher, or seen a movie rendition of that has moved you to tears.

Make a list of characters from that story (the serpent, Eve, Adam, God). Make a list of symbols from that story (forbidden fruit, tree, garden, nakedness, eyes).

Pick one character or symbol from the lists and use as an “I am” prompt, like this:

I am the serpent … or I am the tree

Freewrite from that prompt for 10 minutes. Don’t put your pen down until the time is up. Don’t plan ahead. Just allow the words to bubble up from your subconscious and spill onto the page.

Notice what happens. Did you learn something about your own story, or gain a new perspective on the old story?

Keep going. Choose another story, one that feels foreign or unfamiliar in some way — one outside your usual conception of the world. Repeat the exercise above. What does it feel like to enter that story?

Compare your two writings. You may be surprised to find that you could enter the unfamiliar story just as easily as the familiar one, and still discover something about your own sacred journey through life.

I believe all sacred stories originate from the same great, collective creative well. As we live our lives and struggle with obstacles in our path – as every great heroine or hero must – we are living our own sacred story. When we engage with the powerful tales that are our birthright, we reinterpret them, searching for relevance in our modern lives. As we do so, we renew them for today’s generation and allow ourselves to become renewed, as well.

* Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions by Marilyn McFarlane (Aladdin/Beyond Words 2012) is a compact source for tales from different traditions.

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s thirteenth (and last) article in a series by writing coach and teacher Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, her series is the perfect place to start. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the first installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started. 

When Lyssa Tall Anolik agreed to write a memoir column for our website, little did she know her commitment would span almost a year and a half. Her first article appeared on October 14, 2012 and introduced readers to what memoir is and is not. Each subsequent column was not only highly polished but engaging and practical. We kept encouraging Lyssa to think about transforming these “chapters” into a book. We hope that happens someday.

Lyssa has given us concrete ideas, craft ideas, inspiration, how-to’s and encouragement to write memoir – the personal stories hardest to tell. Thanks, Lyssa, for enriching our readers with your experiences, examples and wisdom. We will miss you on the pages of VoiceCatcher and are grateful to hold you in our community.

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

A picture’s worth a thousand words
On cold gray days, do you ever cozy up on the couch beneath a blanket, with a mug of coffee on the side table, and an old photo album on your lap? Yes, you read right: a real photo album. Remember those days before digital cameras and, well, digital everything, when we printed photos and pressed them into physical books?

Those old albums, it’s true, are weighty and take up a lot of shelf space, but for me, there is something visceral about turning those physical pages. I succumbed to the ease and space conservation of digital photo storage over a decade ago, but the big stack of actual albums that I painstakingly put together during my younger years are one of my most treasured possessions. I love the musty old paper and ink, the crinkly plastic covering each page, the way the past stares out at me with heft and weight, as if I could crawl into each scene and go back there again.

There I am at two-and-a-half, sitting on the floor of my bedroom with a curly-headed friend, staring up with a mischievous grin. Every one of my toys has been pulled off the shelves and lies strewn across the white shag carpet – baby dolls with splayed legs, Raggedy Ann, a plastic Halloween pumpkin, toy cars, a Playskool telephone with rainbow rotary dialer, books.

There I am at twenty-one, wearing a Stetson hat and army green jacket with the arrowhead-shaped National Park Service badge. I’m standing in the trees at Olympic National Park, holding out a “tree cookie” (a cross section of a tree trunk), explaining growth rings to park visitors. This was my summer job when I was in college.

And there’s that giant otter in the Amazonian rainforest, gnawing on a silver-skinned fish. My husband snapped a series of photos of those fierce, Gollum-like creatures on our 2005 excursion to Peru. I can still hear them crunching fish bones and growling with contentment. The memory makes me shiver.

Photos as fodder
For memoirists, photos are goldmines of forgotten information about our lives and families. All the old people and places, the clothes we wore, the objects and décor captured in those images can supply us with details to make our memoir pieces come more alive on the page in a way that memory alone can’t always achieve. Sometimes a single object in a photo can pull us into a story or help us make a new connection.

Old photo albums my mom put together during my childhood were recently sitting out on my sister’s kitchen counter. We flipped through them together. The leather binding has split and the pages are loose and yellowed, but there we all are, in our bell-bottoms and big hair. One photo especially grabbed me:

My young father is holding out a plate of steaming food – it’s unclear what it is – his hands in oven mitts. He wears a self-satisfied smile. My mom, sister and I sit around the table, smiling, too. I am around ten. The caption, hand-written in my mother’s flowing script, reads: “Craig’s first cooking class.”

Looking at that photo, I remembered when my father took that class, but wait a minute! Those plates we’re eating off of – those light brown ceramic plates with the chocolate brown raised flat lip around the edges – “I still have those plates!” I shrieked to my sister.

Because I use them daily, I take them for granted and had forgotten the history behind them: How after college, I scavenged the family attic for old, discarded furniture and kitchenware to furnish my first apartment. I took those plates. I have always liked them, so I’ve kept using them. That photo reminded me of all the detailed history I do not regularly remember – all those family meals eaten on them during my childhood: from Mom’s homemade, slow-cooked mac ‘n’ cheese, to the burritos and salads I subsisted on in my twenties, to the gluten-free lasagna I baked last week.

The plates became a pressure point in my memory. When I pushed on it, hundreds of associations flooded up – the progression of foods my family ate, the progression of foods I have eaten as an adult; how during a long stretch of chronic illness in my thirties I did not have the energy to cook, so meals were often pre-packaged mac ‘n’ cheese or scrambled eggs. But now that my health is recovered, I relish preparing more time-consuming meals – like my mother did when I was a child – still served on the same brown plates.

Mining your photos
I invite you to retreat to the couch once again with your mug of coffee and your old family and personal photo albums (digital are ok, too!) and try some of the exercises below to rejuvenate your memory and enter into that place of story.

For generating new work or seeking inspiration
Peruse your photo collections and pick a handful of pictures you’d like to explore.
Make a list of details present in as many photos as you want:

People: describe clothing, hairstyles, facial expressions, body language/posture
Places – exterior: describe the landscape, weather, landmarks, signage, architecture
Places – interior: describe the décor, objects, lighting

Pick one photo as a prompt. Enter into the world of that photo and freewrite for 10 – 15 minutes. See where it takes you.

Pick one object in a photo that is distinctive to you (a green chest of drawers, a brass clock, a street sign) and use it as a freewriting prompt. Write for 10 minutes.

For works-in-progress
Search for photos that represent the time/place/people you are writing about. Follow the instructions above to generate a list of details found in each photo. Use details from your lists to layer into the descriptions of people and places in your writing. If you’d like to go deeper, use one or both of the freewriting exercises above to explore further.

Through this process of exploration, new layers of meaning will often emerge in your stories, essays or poems. Each photo is a time portal, beckoning you to enter.

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s thirteenth article in a series by writing coach and teacher Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started. 

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

Metaphor in memoir
A torch illuminating a dark corner, a metaphor helps readers see something – an object, person, place, action or idea – more clearly. For example:

Bunches of purple balloons adorned the banquet hall like shiny grapes.
Like a stealthy fox, I crept into the darkened room.

A metaphor, simply put, is one thing that represents or stands in for another. Often – as in the two examples above – we see metaphors in the form of similes in which two things are compared using the words “like” or “as.” Metaphors can take the form of nouns, verbs or adjectives. In memoir, as well as fiction and poetry, metaphor adds texture and layered meaning to our work. It can make a mundane image pop, as in the balloon/grape analogy. It can also bring a reader deeper into a writer’s emotional and physical experience. For example:

My heart drummed a steady rhythm as I danced … .

Another function of metaphor is to show the reader how an author feels about a particular situation. Here are two different ways to write about the same place, depending on the author’s response to it:

The New York street was alive like a thrumming heart.
The New York street seethed like a mass of giant ants.

Metaphors give us an artful tool to help avoid passive or bland statements like, “I felt overwhelmed by the crowds on the New York street.”

Here are two more examples:

Tree branches grabbed at me like witches’ hands.
Tree branches rustled like fairies’ wings.

Here, “witches” and “fairies” help expand the two possible meanings, because they are archetypal images. Every reader has his or her own association with them. They conjure deep-seated fears or magical delight drawn from the fairy tales we learned as children, which are mirrors to the different parts of our own psyches. (For more on writing from archetypes, see my December 2012 column.) By employing symbols such as these, we invite the reader to do more of the satisfying work of unpacking meaning, allowing the writer to do less!

Using sustained metaphors
Sometimes a single metaphor can be introduced at the beginning of a piece and carried through the entire work – a story, poem, essay or book – giving it a structure:

I rebuilt my house stone by stone, piecing together what had crumbled in the wake of my failed marriage.

There may not be an actual house that this memoirist is building, but she uses the metaphor of a house to represent the rebuilding of her life. The house, a physical object, lends solidity to an intangible concept, helping readers grasp and relate to it more easily.

In the memoir Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, author Sandra Steingraber uses the different phases of the moon to represent the phases of her changing body during the nine months of her pregnancy. Each chapter is a different moon metaphor in itself with titles like “Hunger Moon,” “Sap Moon,” “Egg Moon.”

Often life presents us with natural metaphors. Returning to the house/divorce analogy above, let’s say the author’s real house burned down at the same time her marriage fell apart, forcing her to literally rebuild or seek a new home at the same time as she had to rebuild her personal life from the embers of her former one. She can use the two events in her narration – one physical, the other emotional – to inform each other and explore a richly-layered experience both for herself as a writer and for us as readers.

Terry Tempest Williams took advantage of two such simultaneous events in her life when writing Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Williams, a naturalist and avid birder in Utah, learned that her mother was dying of cancer. At the same time, the Great Salt Lake was rising to record heights, flooding crucial bird habitat in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, which had long been a personal refuge for Williams. She intertwines the two analogous stories of refuge and loss throughout her narrative, allowing them to build off of and lend tension to one another until the powerful climax at the end (which I will not give away!).

Mixed metaphors: words of caution
As much as I advocate the use of metaphor, I also advise moderation. Like adjectives and adverbs, a few metaphors sprinkled here and there go a long way. Too many metaphors begin to compete with one another and weaken each other, because they no longer stand out. Also, be careful not to mix metaphors to describe the same thing. For example:

A boat adrift at sea, I wondered if I would ever find my way “home” after leaving the cult that had claimed ten years of my youth. Like the veins on a leaf, I now retrace the pattern of my life.

The boat and leaf metaphors create divergent and confusing images in the reader’s mind. Instead of the leaf, this author could use a metaphor that ties in and builds off of the boat image:

… Like a mariner charting by the night sky, I now navigate the course of my life.

If, however, you’re writing lyric essays or poetry, you can get away with more metaphors than in standard prose, because you’re using denser language and relying more heavily on the use of imagery to tell your story for you.

How to find metaphors
Metaphors are often the work of the subconscious mind. Try one or more of these brainstorming tools to help generate metaphors for situations in your own life:

  • Brainstorm a list of symbols that have personal meaning for you: e.g. tree, moon, key, sea.
  • Go through old magazines or calendars and tear out images you feel drawn to. Put them in an “image” folder.
  • Write a list of images or symbols from your dreams.
  • Write a list of personal objects that have meaning for you. They can be items from your childhood, family heirlooms, a pair of shoes you are particularly attached to.

Choose an item from these lists/collections of images that you feel compelled to explore, then use it as a freewriting prompt. Write for ten minutes and see what unfolds. Often these objects or symbols that hold emotional weight have become metaphors for some aspect of our lives. Do one freewrite or as many as you like. Try not to overthink the writing. Allow your subconscious mind to be the torch, illuminating something you have not yet seen.

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s twelfth article in a series by writing coach and teacher Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started. 

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

Character development in memoir
Do you have a favorite novel, one that you return to again and again? Chances are the characters in a fictional world feel as real as the living people you know. Their mannerisms and behavior are so well defined that if they suddenly popped off the page and wandered past you on the street, you’d recognize them instantly.

Characters in memoir, too, should be this real to readers, perhaps even more so because they are real! But that’s the clincher: We are so used to the mannerisms and speech patterns of those we know well that we forget our readers aren’t. It’s hard to step far enough back to describe them fully on the page. However, if we want to immerse our readers in the fully embodied experience of who we are as characters, as well as who the other people inhabiting our stories are, we have to do just that. Here are a few ways to go about it.

Physical descriptions
What does a character look like – hair, body type, facial features? It’s helpful for readers to be able to picture a few of these details, but use them judiciously – just a couple of physical details to give an outline. Too many of these descriptions can bog a story down. Instead, move on to other indirect physical details which reveal who that person is: What kind of clothing does the character wear – a mini-skirt with knee-high leather boots, or business casual slacks and button up blouse, or a flannel shirt with jeans? This gives us a sense of what kind of person this is (racy, conservative, or casual) without your having to tell us directly.

How does a character hold him- or herself: Does she stand tall with shoulders back or does she slump a bit? Does he make direct eye contact or look away? We can show a great deal about who a character is through their physical movements and gestures, or in how they react and behave in certain situations. (See my April 2013 column on body language for additional examples.)

The details of a person’s physical environment can also reveal much about the character; for example, “Aunt Gladys’s house was filled with cats and teetering stacks of Good Housekeeping magazine dating back forty years.” Enough said, right?

Dialogue
Another important way to develop a character is through capturing his or her unique voice on the page. This is especially challenging. It’s easy to accidentally write everyone’s voice exactly the same. When writing memoir, you will not usually remember a conversation word for word, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to capture the cadence and style of a particular voice and the essence or kinds of things a person would say. This takes a lot of practice and the patience to listen carefully.*

Go back to that favorite novel of yours. Look closely at how that author uses physical descriptions, body language, dialogue and other cues to make your favorite characters come alive. Pay close attention especially to language and dialogue. Do this also as you continue to read other fiction and memoir. See what tricks you can borrow. If you’re looking for some reading suggestions, here are three classic memoirs that capture the details of character and voice especially well: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter.

Your turn
Below are some exercises and prompts to help you capture your own cast of characters and make them three-dimensional on the page:

Make yourself a character. Try writing a character sketch of yourself in third person (“she” or “he”), as if you are looking at yourself through someone else’s eyes – a stranger’s, your sister’s, or one of your parents. What do you look like to them, inside and out?

Pick a photo of someone whom you’re writing about and use that as a freewriting prompt. Do a character sketch of that person: physical details, gestures, things that person might say. What do you know about his or her history or how they behave?

Pick one or more of the character prompts below and freewrite for ten minutes on each. You can change the people around; for example, substitute “father” for “mother.”

My mother always said …
My sister’s smile …
My father’s eyes …
My grandfather knew …

And, finally, this season at your holiday gatherings with family and friends – or at the annual office party – practice observing people. Note how they express themselves through clothing. What particular gestures does each person around the table have (pushing glasses up on the bridge of their nose, clearing their throat regularly)? Listen to what people say and how they say it. Keep a small notebook in your pocket or purse – or use your smart phone – to surreptitiously take notes. Remember, we’re all characters – on and off the page!

*For more excellent tips and examples on revealing character through physical details, setting, dialogue, and character arc, see Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach (London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2007).

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s eleventh article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started. 

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

Teasing the taste buds
My CSA box is overflowing with fall produce, so I’ve been busy cooking: buffalo chili, corn and squash stew with lima beans, roasted eggplant with caramelized onions and bell peppers, and my favorite – my mother’s garlicky, herb-dusted roasted tomato slices. Is there anything better than tangy-sweet dried tomatoes adorning a salad, ooey-gooey in a toasted cheese sandwich, or layered into an artichoke and kale quiche? I think not! Sometimes I eat the glistening red jewels straight from the mason jar with a fork, olive oil dripping from my chin, summer ripe on my tongue, remembering fall gatherings in my mother’s kitchen. I will give you the recipe at the end of this article.

The literature of food
What would a memoir be without food? The things we eat – or don’t eat – flavor our memories, sweet and bitter, engage all our senses, and build emotional texture into our work. Food evokes a specific place and time. My mother learned to cook from her Czechoslovakian grandmother who began every recipe with, “You take an onion … .” My mother-in-law, who grew up in Israel, makes chicken schnitzel every time we visit – chicken breasts pounded thin, battered and fried, a quintessential Israeli dish by way of eastern Europe.

Food is complicated. It represents abundance and comfort, family and fellowship, nourishment, a sense of history – but it can also speak of hunger, poverty and loneliness. What does it mean for you? Layering descriptions of food into your work will bring your readers into a direct and intimate experience, both sensory and emotional.

Here are some titles that left me hungry for foods and places – literal and figurative – I never knew I craved:

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, Diana Abu-Jaber (memoir)
Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, Steve Almond (memoir)
Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments, with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies, Laura Esquivel (fiction)
Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, Frances Mayes (memoir)
Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt (memoir)
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Ruth Reichl (memoir)
Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, Nigel Slater (memoir)

Food prompts
Now it’s your turn! The possibilities are endless, of course, but here are a few to get you started:

Bring your writing notebook to a meal and catalogue the sensory experience of eating it: What does the food look like? What does it smell like?

Take a bite. What are the different flavors? Textures? What does it sound like when you chew? What memories does eating this food elicit? What emotions?

This exercise will help you build a food vocabulary which you can then use as you write about past meals from memory.

Pick one – or more – of the following prompts and freewrite for 5-10 minutes:

A recipe I know …
The secret ingredient …
Ripe tomatoes …
Mashed potatoes …
An egg …
Forbidden fruit …
The best thing I’ve ever eaten …
The worst food I’ve ever eaten …
A family meal …
While traveling, I tasted …
My grandmother’s kitchen …
A meal I remember …

Keep going. Follow where the food leads. Often when I use these prompts, they take me to places in my past and within myself I did not expect – but perhaps needed – to go. Food is powerful. Sometimes this writing will knock you to your knees and make your stomach ache with longing or grief or love. Sometimes it will just make you hungry.

Now, as promised, here is my mother’s recipe:

Mom’s Oven-Roasted Tomatoes (with my notes)
Roma tomatoes halved, thirds or quartered, depending on size (I have also successfully used heirlooms, beefsteaks and plums which I grew in my garden this summer.)
Garlic – chopped into chunks
Oregano, thyme and basil (dried)
Olive oil, salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Using a large cookie sheet, place tomatoes on the sheet so they’re not touching one other.
Sprinkle garlic, dried herbs (rubbed together), plenty of salt, pepper. (I skip the salt and they’re still delicious.)
Finish by drizzling olive oil so tomatoes are well coated.
Place in center of oven for 4 hours.
Check at 3 hours to see if some are finished.
They should be dried to a glisten, not a burn.
Cover completely with oil in a jar.

Buon appetito!

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s tenth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started. 

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

Starting fresh
September, with its crisp mornings and falling-leaf smells, is a good time to embark on new projects or re-energize old ones that have lost steam.* This month, I invite you to join an expedition.

Memoir as archaeology
You are squatting in a dusty pit, scraping and sweeping, scraping and sweeping. Day after day you uncover bits of broken pottery, pieces of old water vessels, cups, ceremonial bowls. Then one day, a shiny, amber-colored tip appears in your plot of gray-brown earth. You work around it with brush and chisel, layer by layer exposing the piece of pointed stone. You wiggle it gently like a loose tooth until it finally pulls free from the bed of soil that has held it these many years. A stone arrowhead lies in the palm of your hand. Sunlight bounces off its translucent surface. The point is still sharp, connecting you to the last human who used this arrow and left it lying on the ground, or perhaps propped against the wall of a dwelling lashed to a wooden pole. You’re connected to the last animal, perhaps a deer, whose hide this amber arrow pierced. You have joined the chain of history that belongs to this single artifact.

Memoir is like this. We dig into the strata of our personal, family and cultural histories. Layer by layer we uncover the artifacts that have shaped and informed who we are, and who we are becoming. It’s a dynamic way to learn about ourselves and our evolving place in the world. It’s a process of discovery, of exploring our histories through multiple lenses, resulting in a textured story that we had not considered before.

Don your digging duds
Now it’s your turn. Below are some thematic lists of questions to help you mine your life history for hidden (or not so hidden) stories. Spend a minute or two listing answers for each question. They can be a single word or short phrases. Don’t over-think; just write the first things that pop into your head. If you’re overwhelmed by the number of questions, pick one or two of the topics to work with and go … .

Name
Where did your name come from?
What does it mean?
How does it influence who you are?

Family history
Name three things you know about your family history.
Name three things you’d like to know more about your family’s history.
Where could you go to find this information?
How does this history influence who you are?
List three (or more) family artifacts (old photos, diaries/letters, recipes, a piece of jewelry, a porcelain figurine, etc.)

Culture and religion
What culture(s) and religion(s) do you come from historically?
Name three things (objects or ideas) that represent these (traditional dress, incense, language, etc.)
What myths/stories/sacred texts tell you where your ancestors came from and how their world was created?
What is your relationship to these stories?
What culture do you most identify with today?

Landscape and place
What is the name of the land/place where you grew up?
What are three words that describe it?
How long has your family lived there?
Who else lived in that place before your people? What common history do you share?
Where do you live now?

When you’ve completed this list, read through your answers and star the items you’d like to explore further. Pick one starred item and use it as a freewriting prompt. (See the October 2012 column for how to freewrite.) Write for 5-10 minutes. Repeat with as many prompts from your list as you like.

Whether you’re just beginning a memoir project or seeking renewed inspiration for an ongoing one, this process of digging deep can help you make connections and see old stories in new light. Don’t be afraid to get dust in your nose and grit between your teeth as you work. You’ll know that translucent amber arrowhead when you see it.

*If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started.

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s ninth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.

The Writer’s Craft: Writers on Writing

Using Family as Fodder
by Julia Clark Salmon

Before I started writing memoir, I couldn’t find my voice. After taking my first memoir writing class at the Multnomah Arts Center in Portland, I couldn’t shut my voice up. All those stories I’d been telling about my family over the years – to my friends, to my husband, to anyone who would listen – came pouring out on the page. Writing memoir seemed so much easier than fiction. Why make up characters, I finally realized, when I have so many good ones right in my own family?

When I turned to my siblings and parents, I found so much to write about. There’s the funny stuff like how we all suffer from “directional dyslexia” and end up in strange and unusual places. There’s the sad stuff like when my dad died from throat cancer. There’s the miraculous stuff like when my mom died from her heart attack, then came back to life after the priest gave her last rites. Then, of course, there’s the usual stuff: alcoholism, family feuds, misunderstandings, interventions, car accidents, weddings, divorces – all the things that happen to an American family in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I’m not sure if my family is quirkier than most. It is possible – indeed, probable – that all families are equally quirky. But I do know that my family places a high value on our quirks. We are all readers and writers who love a good story, even (or especially) if we are the butt of it. So when VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions accepted “Bennett’s Outing,” I assumed my family would celebrate.

The story is about how my father reacts when he finds out his oldest grandchild, William, is gay. While writing the story, I tried to be honest, loving and funny … in that order. I used my family’s real names and, as much as possible, tried to replicate their conversations. Before publication, I sent the story to William’s mother (my sister, Jill) who responded, “I love it! It’s perfect!”

I sent it to William himself who said he was too shy to actually read it, but he “would never come between an artist and his or her art.” Since William is a writer himself, I took him at his word. I sent the story to my mother, a bit nervously because I call my dad “somewhat pompous” in it. My mom’s response? “I love it, Jule! And Dad WAS somewhat pompous!” So I agreed to publication with a happy heart.

The big day came and the reaction from my family was not what I had anticipated. Yes, two out of my three siblings sent comments saying they loved the piece. Lots of friends posted “likes” on Facebook, along with encouraging compliments. But there was a strange silence from Jill’s family. No “likes.” No comments. Nothing. Finally, late in the day of publication, one stray “like” came in from Jill. But no comment. I knew all was not well.

I got on the phone and called her.

“Hey,” she said. “I saw your story. Congratulations!” I could immediately tell by her voice she wasn’t that happy. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Didn’t you like it? You’ve seen it before!”

“Yeah, but, I don’t know. Are you sure you’re not making fun of William?” she asked.

“What do you mean? What part are you talking about?” I was feeling really nervous. I love William as much as my own kids and I would never intentionally hurt him.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “Well, maybe the part about him wearing the Little Orphan Annie outfit when he was little? I don’t think he actually did that.”

“Jill! Why didn’t you tell me that before? You said you liked the piece!”

“Well, I wanted to encourage you. I didn’t really think about the publishing part. Or that you would post it on Facebook. And I think maybe I look kind of like a fool in it, too.”

My heart sank. Now I had embarrassed my sister, the sister I look to for my best advice about life AND writing. “What does William think?” I asked.

“Well,” she replied, “he’s seen it, but he still hasn’t read it. He’s okay with it still, but he kind of wishes you hadn’t used his real name.”

Oh, shit. Now I felt really bad. I felt like crying. But I tried not to, because I didn’t want Jill to know I felt bad, because then she would feel even worse.

“Oh, well,” I said. “Maybe no one will read it. Anyway, you guys are on the East Coast. I’m sure this is just my own little flash in the pan.” I got off the phone as quickly as I could.

Later that day, I emailed William and said I hoped I had not offended him in any way. He wrote back a most generous reply, saying, among other things, “Psh! Don’t worry about it one bit! I use real people and situations in my fiction all the time, so it would be hypocrisy for me not to expect others to do the same. Please be happy that you wrote a thing that everyone likes and that has been published!”

A few hours later, I got a text from Jill saying, “William now worried about you! God, this is ridiculous! He says you should be enjoying your success … I agree so let’s leave it at that. You did a great job!”

So I will try to leave it at that. But the bloom is off the rose. Publication has its problems. I think, in the future, I may try to limit the things I say about my extended family – although they are a huge part of my life. Or I may not. We’ll see. In the meantime, the names in this essay have been changed to protect the innocent.

 

Welcome to the latest article in our Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.

Julia SalmonJulia Clark Salmon is a writer who works as an instructional assistant in the Beaverton School district, teaching reading, writing and shoe-tying to children in the primary grades. Before having her own children, she worked as a writer and editor for two national newspapers for children. She is also the co-author of Quarky and Quayzoo’s Turbo Science.

 

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

Summer writing doldrums
Are you more interested in lying on a lawn chair and watching the clouds float by than sitting at your desk, trying to reshape the same scene for the umpteenth time? If so, you’re not alone! Personally, I have a hard time editing in August, when the weather is at its finest here in Portland. I’d rather grab my notebook and get out of the house – to a park, on a camping trip, or road-tripping. This month, in honor of the lazy dog days of summer, I’m taking a break from writing about craft elements. Instead, I’ll share some writing prompts and exercises you can take outside as you explore or just laze around in that lawn chair and watch the world go by.

Writing from now
Memoir isn’t only writing about the past; it includes what’s happening right now, which, of course, will shortly become the past. I suggest taking a notebook wherever you go, so you can capture inspiration anywhere. Watch people on the street, in a park, or at a cafe and practice observing and writing down their mannerisms, walking style, and facial expressions. When you return to editing characters in your writing later, this will help you build a vocabulary.

If you’re hanging out in one place for a while – a city park, a good sitting log along a hiking trail, or a bench in a museum in front of an inspiring painting or artifact – pull out your notebook and use that place as your prompt. Freewrite for 10-20 minutes. Allow yourself to experience and record all the sensory details of that place. Let your mind and pen wander into a deeper experience of yourself in that place. Then let those freewrites marinate in your notebook for a few months. Look at them later – in the fall or winter – and see if there’s something to develop. Some of my own favorite essays have emerged from this exercise.

A tourist in your own life
Sometimes, when traveling or moving around, you may not have time to sit and luxuriate in a freewrite, but it’s still helpful to keep a record of where you go and what you’ve experienced, for fun or for possible future writing projects. I keep a journal of the places I visit on my summer wanderings, whether it’s around the block, to a historic home or on a camping or road trip. I invite you to do the same.

Here are some ideas about what to include:
In each entry, record the date and place/s you visited. Jot down notes about what you saw/did there. What moved you in some way – a juggler in a funny hat, a raven tilting its head to look at you, a bend in the road or the river? You needn’t include every detail, just a few broad strokes and selective shading to sketch an outline of the experience. These details will jog your memory later. When you have time, you can go back to your journal and pick a place or moment you’d like to write more about, then use one of those details as a prompt.

The number one thing to remember: Have fun! Give yourself a vacation – even a mini-vacation – from your works in progress and seek outside inspiration to stoke the fires.

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s ninth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.

Reaching for Words: Eight Quotations That Matter

by Carolyn Martin

In her engaging essay,“Perfect Ripeness: Eight That Mattered,”Jodie Marion discussed eight books that buoyed her during flash points in her life. She motivated me to pay attention to the words that flash through my mind when horrific news breaks on TV, when my writing stalls or when a moment of beauty moves me deeply. Here are eight quotations that, without fail, show up when I need them.

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom …
The night is dark, and I am far from home …
I do not ask to see the distant scene;
one step enough for me.
– John Henry Newman, “The Pillar of Cloud”

These lines arrive whenever I feel lost in the world’s “encircling gloom” – whether it’s the Boston bombing, a hurricane, or the massacre of innocent people. I begin to fear a world where, in W.B Yeats’ words, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … .” Newman reminds me the only control I have is to move forward one moment at a time, one step at a time with trust that a “kindly Light” will make the lost-in-the-dark times bearable.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

I am a Taurus who is deeply connected to Earth. This line thrills me for its double entendre: The world is both “in charge” of that grandeur as a custodian of its magnificent and also is electrified by its beauty.Whether standing in my backyard swaying with Douglas firs or standing eye to eye with hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, saguaros in Tucson or sea turtles in Maui, I’m enflamed by the grandeur created by a Loving Energy – no matter what I call it. These words smash through the dark night. Another kindly Light.

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
– Robert Frost, “Birches”

Frost is one of my favorite poets.His words remind me that Earth is the playground, the schoolroom, the battlefield where we need to get love right. If not here, not at all.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence …
– ee cummings, “somewhere I have never travelled”

I am an unabashed romantic and ee cummings has written one of my favorite love poems. His imagery brings me to tears: “… the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses … .” Oh, to be the recipient of that line. Or, better yet, the writer of that line! Treat yourself to the entire poem.

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
– Marianne Moore, “Poetry”

What is more useless than spending days writing a poem? And yet, how joyous to fiddle with imaginative and emotional truth; to twist and turn with the richness of language; to listen to the music vowels and consonants make as lines take shape and images appear; and, perhaps, to discover a “place for the genuine” where someone, somewhere, might just discover me and join me for a stroll.

The more I practice, the luckier I get.
– Gary Palmer

Ten thousand hours of practice: That’s what the experts say it takes to become a master musician, artist, athlete, dancer, writer. Practice is a better indicator of success, they say, than raw talent. But “practice makes perfect” is not quite right. Practicing the right things in the right way is. If I want to become a better poet, I need to find those right things and that right way – which are different for everyone. And, I need to find poets who are better than I am to practice with.That’s forging my “luck,” not waiting for it to happen!

To have the deep Poetic Heart/Is more than all poetic fame.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson

When rejections arrive in bunches or poems get stalled, Tennyson’s words buoy me. Cultivating the “deep poetic heart” is the essential work of everyday and more valuable than any recognition.It demands attentiveness and openness to those moments of insight breaking through life’s distractions. It challenges me to feel deeply, love deeply, fail deeply, practice deeply, and to find genuine words for all of these experiences. Fame passes; the heart beats on.

It is beautiful to do nothing and rest afterwards.
– A Spanish proverb

As a recovering work addict, I have always defined myself by what I produced. Now in retirement when there are no planes to catch, clients to please, deadlines to meet (except for VoiceCatcher’s!), I’m learning the art of “being.” An enlightened friend recently told me if I did nothing more with the remainder of my life, what I’ve already accomplished is enough. Now that’s freedom – and I’m resting with that thought!

Take the “eight that matter” challenge: What are the eight songs, poems, movies, sites, relationships that have nurtured, supported or inspired you? Send your eight and why they are meaningful – in 800 to 900 words – to info(at)voicecatcher(dot)org. Let’s share what matters.

 

Carolyn MartinCarolyn Martin is a poet, gardener and traveler. Her poems have appeared in publications such as Stirring, 5/Quarterly, Drash and Naugatuck River Review. Currently, she is president of the board of directors of VoiceCatcher.

Writing Memoir: What’s Your Story?

By Lyssa Tall Anolik

What makes readers turn the page?
Conflict and tension. I touched on this back in January with the introduction of story arcs. A story arc is based on an initial conflict, followed by ever-mounting episodes that hold the line of tension and build to a final climax in which all that is at stake comes to a head and finally resolves, for good or for ill.

But maintaining conflict and tension goes beyond story arc. It should be built into each page, each chapter, each vignette or poem. It’s the taut line that pulls the reader through the work, compels us to turn the page because we must know what happens next: Will the injured mountain climber make it out of the blizzard alive? Will the middle-aged father be able to put himself back together after the tragic death of his wife?

Examples of conflict & tension in memoir
In Bill Bryson’s humorous A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, the conflict arises when two out-of-shape guys set out to bumble their way along the mountainous ATC. Will they be able to survive on candy bars and dumb luck? Tension occurs along the route in the form of physical obstacles as well as encounters with bizarre or just annoying people met along the way.

Robyn Davidson, in Tracks, treks solo across 1700 miles of Australian outback with a dog and seven camels. She maintains tension in her narrative by placing us right there in the desert with her, sweating and thirsty in the searing heat, learning about and grieving for the loss of Aboriginal culture, and daily facing her fears, discovering what she is capable of along the way.

Conflict and tension should even drive a personal essay. In Annie Dillard’s “A Weasel is Wild,” the author grabs us by the jugular when she – and we – locks eyes with a wild, ferocious creature. She holds that line of tension throughout the short piece by drawing us ever deeper into her impassioned exploration of that primal part of ourselves that is still wild.

What if you don’t have a “dramatic” story?
Not to worry. Life, even the most serene moments, contains inherent conflict. Let’s say you are a Zen poet admiring a still pond with lily pads and a heron. Tension exists because the moment will not last. The heron will dart for a fish or wind will disturb the clear surface.

Maybe you wish to chronicle the seasons of your garden. Show us your emotional and physical relationship to the lives you’re tending: the sowing, the weather, the waiting, the thrill of first shoots pushing from the ground; the flowering, the harvest, the withering and dying. What are the frustrations and obstacles that make the joys so rewarding?

What about vignettes of sweet moments with your grandmother? Even if there is no conflict in your relationship, conflicts from her life can pepper your stories. My grandmother saved stacks and stacks of empty margarine tubs in her basement. When she sent me home with homemade applesauce, she always said, “Now be sure to bring this back when it’s empty, dear. It’s a good size.” It was the 1990s and she still had not let go of depression-era hoarding. Even if Grannie led an easy life, you can still capitalize on the tension of age: She will not live forever.

What’s at stake?
No matter what your subject matter, this is the question memoir writers should constantly ask. What is the physical, emotional, spiritual or intellectual struggle – large or small – for your main character/s? Even watching a tiny ladybug labor up a blade of grass can be edged with conflict.

Keep a little mystery in your writing
Don’t give everything away at once. Right from the beginning, when you’re setting a scene, even before you introduce your readers to your main conflict, you can create tension by creating questions. Start with an incomplete scene: There is a green room with a chair and a bed. A window is open. A red scarf dangles over the sill. A half-written note lies on the desk. A reader will ask, “Who lives in this room? What does the note say? Why isn’t it finished? Why is the scarf hanging out the window? Where is the room’s occupant?”

Now you can slowly begin to answer the questions by telling your story, but not all at once. Parse out the information, creating new questions along the way, daisy-chaining questions and answers to keep the tension building. The reader enjoys the thrill of discovery. One word of caution, though: Allow your reader to keep guessing for a bit, but don’t string them along for too long or they’ll lose interest.

Your Turn
Take a piece of writing that needs spicing up. Try reading it as if it were someone else’s story and ask yourself the following:

  • What questions does this piece raise and how soon are they answered?
  • Where is the conflict and tension?
  • What’s at stake for this character?

If any of the answers are unclear, brainstorm ideas on where/how conflict and tension can be pulled out or built in. Even better, ask a friend to read your piece and answer the questions above. Getting outside opinions is essential to the revision process. Others often see things we miss, especially connections and elements of tension that our subconscious mind may be hinting at in the work, but our conscious minds don’t yet recognize.

It may even be the right time to join or form a writers group if you don’t already have one. Multiple opinions about one piece create a different kind of tension – one that pushes us to consider trying new approaches to our work, which stretches our comfort level and makes us better writers.

 

This is VoiceCatcher’s eighth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.

Lyssa Tall AnolikLyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.