Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Memoir and Remembering

Craft books can be a huge help, but I don’t always read them straight through. I often find some nugget that inspires me enough to make me go off to write instead. I figure the more helpful the book, the less I have to read, and I save the rest for later.

This semester, I’m teaching a class on writing memoirs. As I usually do when I’m preparing to teach, I checked out a stack of books from the library. A couple of them are familiar, reliable resources—I’ve read them before and found them useful: Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington. Others were new to me, and I enjoyed exploring the subject from their varied points of view.

Even if you are not writing a memoir, such books can help in several ways:
  • by providing a glimpse into another writer’s approach
  • by reminding you that writers keep writing in spite of obstacles
  • by bringing up true stories that can inspire leaps into fiction, memoir, or something else
  • by sharing exercises that might help you move forward
One book grabbed my attention not only for its playful tone but also for its helpful format: Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas. Instead of suggesting exercises and then giving examples of how they might be done, Thomas tells stories first and then provides writing prompts on topics that flow from the stories.

She writes about seeing a buzzard far away on a beach. After watching it awhile, she decides to walk up for a closer look and discovers a stick with a plastic bag tangled around it. Her instruction is to write about mistaking something for something else.

She says her sister suggests that “a good way to get going on memoir is to write your will. You have to decide who gets all your treasures, and this involves looking at them, and remembering where you found them.” Her assignment: write about your treasures.

She describes a trip with her sister after they had each been given a box of six truffles. “The tiny print said two pieces contained 310 calories,” she writes. “We were sitting on the bus headed downtown, quietly doing our calculations: Judy was dividing by two and I was multiplying by three.” This story cracked me up; the assignment that follows it is to write about a time when you recognized a difference between you and another person.

In the spirit of Thinking About Memoir, I’m including a memory from my childhood and a choice of writing prompts that stem from it.

Writing Workout: Begin with a Memory

One Sunday morning when most of my family had gone to church, I decided to make everyone breakfast. My father was asleep upstairs. I remember scrambled eggs and bacon, so I must have been old enough to use the stove on my own.

I was thinking about how surprised my family would be when I heard a loud crash outside. I ran out and saw a car halfway up our front steps.

My father came out and discovered that the driver was a woman whose husband had recently died. She was on her way to the cemetery with a vase of flowers on the seat next to her. When the flowers started slipping off the seat, she reached to grab them and lost control of her car.

As soon as he found out she was not hurt, my father told her not to worry. He would fix the steps himself. I don’t remember the woman, the car, whether anyone called the police, or what happened when the rest of the family came home, but I do remember his kindness.


Write about a time when you were home alone.


Write about someone being compassionate to a stranger.

1 comment:

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing this twist on writing exercises, and your personal story, JoAnn. I'll try your prompt next chance I get!