Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Power of Place: Does the Home of Your Past Influence Your Present Preferences?

Marcia Moston

Think about a place of your childhood. What do you first see? Whether it’s the family kitchen, the grandparents’ woodshed, the baseball field, or the big tree in the backyard, our earliest memories are attached to a place. Places stick in our minds because they embody something more than the physical space they occupy. The places of our lives, especially those of our childhood, are saturated with emotional and psychological associations.

 According to builder and home designer Chris Travis,* the emotional and psychological attachments we associate with those places, even though we aren’t consciously aware of them, affect our responses to our present-day surroundings. Understanding the root of these attachments helps him design homes that take these buried associations into account and satisfy his clients’ preferences.

For example one couple was deadlocked about having a basement; the husband wanted it, the wife inexplicably against it. Through one of Travis’s Truehome exercises, they discovered she was claustrophobic and had negative childhood associations with closed spaces like deep closets and basements. This discovery helped the designer come up with something that satisfied the husband’s space needs and the wife’s aversion.*

Memoirists know that examining the past helps to understand the present and possibly affect the future. So of course, being the inward-looking person I am, I started thinking about the homes of my past and how they may have influenced the many other homes of my life.

My husband and I have moved about eight times over the years of our marriage. Although we haven’t always had a choice about our dwellings—the two-room adobe house with outside sink and scorpions climbing down the walls in Guatemala, the four-room downstairs parsonage apartment with the slanting floor and upstairs tenant in Vermont—I realized every house, from the first cape on Long Island with the ugly green asphalt siding to our present white, light, bright one—had great yards.

The yard is the first thing I look at when considering a house. When I thought about the places of my childhood, I realized my memories were mostly about being outdoors. Despite my mother’s efforts, the house I grew up in usually looked like someone had opened the door and let a hurricane pass through. But we didn’t care because we were allowed to roam the meadows, rivers and lakes from dawn to dusk. (What was my mother thinking!)  And that penchant for living outside while snug inside is always with me--as is the need for order--(Bob’s gotten used to it too.)

I’ve used the following example a gazillion times—and yes, I remember that I have in case you think I'm getting forgetful—but it is so good it deserves to be repeated. C.S. Lewis writes about the place of influence in his childhood. His father moved the family to a large house. Lewis’s brother went away to school, leaving Lewis alone much of the time. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the impact this house had on him:

The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.
Your Turn:

1.  Model Lewis’s format and write about a place that had an impact on you as a child.
2. Start a sentence with It was a place where . . .
3. What was home like for you? How has it influenced your idea of home now? What emotional or psychological impact does it have on your present preferences?

These are two fascinating resources about what the objects and places of our lives say about who we are:

*Snoop--What Your Stuff Says About You, by Sam Gosling, Ph.D.



Thursday, May 7, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #8: Family Legends: Are Memories True?

Marcia Moston
My father used to play baseball in high school, in a semi-pro league back in the thirties and later, after the war, in the 50s. He was a catcher and apparently a good hitter. His batting average for one season was .436--although he writes about striking out against Satchel Paige, the great pitcher from the Negro League.

Each of my siblings and I have a mental image of Dad bending over home plate with a big rip up the seat of his uniform. Whether this is from an old newspaper clipping or from one of his games we might've attended as young children, I don’t know. But the picture doesn’t seem to exist. It makes me wonder if it were a family story, told so many times we collectively imaged it.

Today as I was going through his scrapbook from the earlier baseball days, I found a news clipping about the last game in a series in which the other team had a clean sweep so far. My father’s team held on for ten spirited innings, but finally lost 2-1, although it seems Dad did his best to annoy, confuse, and de-energize the opposing team:

The Cathedral catcher, Chadwick, caused much discussion because of his constant delay of play throughout the game. Twice while on base the fiery backstop, advancing a base on a foul ball, took an unnecessary amount of time in returning to his rightful position. Before going to bat in the eighth he walked out within ten feet of the batter’s box and took off his shoe and stocking, replaced it, tied the other shoe, and to top off the performance tucked in his shirt and pulled up his pants before proceeding to the plate. Finally immaculate, he struck out. 

After all that posturing he struck out! For those of you familiar with the famous baseball ballad “Casey at the Bat” this looks like a 1936 replay of a poem written in 1888. And maybe it’s the source of my memory.

Memories morph into images in the retelling. Although the actual account may change, I think what stays true is the emotional meaning the original had for you. That’s the part that memoirists and family storytellers need to explore. Not that I’m suggesting fabrication—verify facts where facts can be verified, but own your side of the story as you remember it.

So what do you do when you remember something but someone else remembers it differently?

1. Tell your version but give your reader an alternative option: Although my sister remembers it this way . .  .” Or—The family version is . . . That’s what Rick Bragg did in the excerpt I used last week about his birth:
“I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate—an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle—but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf  . . . I elected to emerge.”

2. Use identifying words like perhaps, maybe, it could have been . . . to let your reader know you are filling in gaps or surmising something that may have happened another way.

3. Check facts where they can be checked, ask family members their versions, but in the end own your story—use the memory you have to make the point you want to give away.

Your Turn:

1.Write about an event the way you remember it and then ask someone who was involved what their version is. Where do you disagree? Are there “facts” you can verify? If not, does the difference matter to the story you have come to tell?

2. What are your family legends—stories handed down to which you may or may not have memory? How have they influenced you? What about them makes them special to you and yours?



Friday, May 1, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #7: Stories of Birth and Origin

Marcia Moston
Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.—Sue Monk Kidd

When we were kids, my brother, sister, and I watched the Lone Ranger on our black and white TV, and then spent hours playing cowboys and Indians in the woods behind our house. This was particularly fun because part of our family legend was that we were descendants of, what I imagined to be, a fierce and noble Indian tribe. 

Recently one of my sisters showed me a book that muddied the family myth. Apparently a distant relative was a fur trader of dubious character in Nova Scotia. He took up with a Micmac woman from whence the few drops of my Indian blood flow. Not to disparage the Micmac woman, but that wasn’t quite the glamorous narrative I had imagined about my origins.

Nevertheless, way back then I knew I belonged to something older and deeper and greater than myself. But my family didn’t tell many personal stories. I didn’t know until I was an adult about the lifelong effects my father’s experience in the Battle of the Bulge had on him. 

I didn’t think to ask about the dreams and longings and memories my mother harbored within herself. I didn’t ask about my grandparents and their parents. I wish I did. Because they are all gone and the stories with them. 

Family researchers say one of the best things we can do for our families is to pass on our stories. Kids who have a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves are better able to handle adversity. 

Stories of Origin
When we moved to the South, I was surprised when someone asked me, “Who are your people?” All I had to do was open my mouth to speak and they knew my people certainly weren’t from anywhere around there. But linking me to a people and place was a way of identifying me, of knowing something about this “stranger.” In some cultures this is particularly important.

In her memoir Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says that as a child growing up in Somalia she was expected to memorize her lineage. Under her grandmother’s drilling, by the time Ayaan was five, she was able to recite her forefathers back three hundred years:

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

I am sitting with my grandmother on a grass mat under the talal tree. Behind us is our house, and the branches of the talal tree are all that shields us from the sun blazing down on the white sand. “Go on, my grandmother says, glaring at me.

“And Magan was the son of Isse.

“And then?”

“Isse was the son of Guleid . .  . Was the son of Muhammad. Ali. Umar.” I hesitate for a moment. “Osman. Mahamud. I catch my breath, proud of myself.

My grandmother nods, grudgingly. I have done well, for a five-year-old. I have managed to count my forefathers back for three hundred years—the part that is crucially important. Osman Mahamud is the name of my father’s subclan, and thus my own. It is where I belong, who I am.

 In her identity/adoption memoir All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung writes about her need to know her origins. The only story she knew was the one her adoptive mother told her.

Your birth parents had just moved here from Korea. They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.

It’s the first story I can recall, one that would shape a hundred others once I was old enough and brave enough to go looking. When I was still young—three or four, I’ve been told—I would crawl into my mother’s lap before asking to hear it.

How could they give me up? I must have asked her this question a hundred times and my mother never wavered in her response.

“The doctors told them you would struggle all your life. Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you, but they thought adoption was the best thing for you.”

Your origins may or may not play a meaningful part in your written story. People often think memoirs are cradle-grave accounts and start with I was born on February 10, 19 . . . Snooze. While this is certainly a momentous occasion it doesn’t necessarily belong in your story, or at least in the beginning. But for now, let’s get the elephant out of the room and talk about some of the ways you can tell a birth story. We’ll worry about when, or if, you should include it.

a. Your birth story can showcase your storyteller voice. Don’t you feel like you’re sitting on the front porch listening to this 92-year-old woman talk? Notice how she chooses a humorous (in retrospect) detail to highlight her birth.

I was born in 1905, at home, and I found out the doctor’s bill was five dollars. And my brother came three years later and his cost eight dollars. My sister was eight years younger than me and she cost ten dollars. But I was the cheapest one.—example in The Gift of Memoir

b. In Growing Up, Russell Baker includes information about the historical setting of his birth, as well as makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of the themes in his story: his mother ‘s insistence he make something of himself. 

I was born in {my uncle’s} second–floor bedroom just before midnight on Friday, August 14, 1925. I was issued into the governance of Calvin Coolidge. World War I was seven years past, the Russian Revolution was eight years old, and the music on my grandmother’s wind-up Victrola was, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Unaware of history’s higher significance, I slumbered through the bliss of infancy, feeling no impulse whatever to make something of myself.

c. Rick Bragg, the South’s storytelling darling, doesn’t insert the occasion of his arrival until several pages deep in his story. Notice how he fills in information he wouldn’t have known at the time with phrases like “I am told” or “it might have been.” Also, note the characteristic Bragg attention to detail.

I was almost born there, (at the Midway Drive-In Theater) during the stirring closing moments of the Ten Commandments.

I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate—an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle—but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf and disowned the Children of Israel as idol worshippers and heathen sons of lewd women, I elected to emerge—All Over But the Shoutin’

Your Turn:  Each of these writers turns the straight facts of their birth into an engaging read by adding details, humor, or reflection—and does it in fewer than 200 words. Choose one or all of the following to write about your birth or about some aspect of your origins:

1. Model Russell Baker’s passage and write about what was happening politically or culturally at the time of your birth. Even if you have no information about your birth, you can research some of the major events happening at the time. Perhaps you’ll see a connection to your own life.

2. Respond to the family narrative you’ve been told about your birth. Include some humorous tidbit, interesting fact, or retrospective observation.

3. Write about the people or places you came from. Use the Where I’m From”
poem, by George Ella Lyon as a model. Here's how it starts. Note the concrete details.

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

 Have fun with these, and if you write one in two hundred words or less and want to share it, please do.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #6: What's in a name?

Marcia Moston

During World War II the ubiquitous Kilroy popped up on German walls, shelled-out tanks, latrines, tents, ships, and assorted other places, but in spite of his popularity with American soldiers, few people knew who the original Kilroy was. (You can find the story on several Internet sites.)

Although most of won’t find our names scribbled on bathroom walls and sides of railroad cars, our names are important. They are part of who we are. They identify us. We pass them down; we shelve them, change them. We labor over what to name a child, a pet, or even a car.

Whether we love them or hate them, our name is one of the first things anyone learns about us. (Personally, I always liked the strong sound of my name, Marcia, with its link to Mars, the god of war. Plus, my mother spelled it with a CIA, which I thought appropriately reflected my love for information. But as a child, someone nicknamed me Butch. I think it was because my mother had to chop my hair off when I got it caught in the wheels of a wind-up car I held up to my ear. I’m glad that name didn’t stick.)

When writing your story, think about the names of the people in your life as well as your own name. You might find some fun fodder to write about. Consider how you feel about your own name, or the story behind a nickname, or the family history of someone’s name.

Here’s what three class participants had to say about their names:

a. My name Jane is a gem and a lump of coal. At first I relished it. Imagine going to school to discover Dick and his sister Jane romping through their golden life. I was thrilled. Nobody in my class of Debbies and Kathies had my name but all read it every day. And I could spell and write it while my friend struggled with all the letters of Christine.

I am the oldest of five and it was just a matter of time before I noticed my siblings had names like George Alexander and Elizabeth Marjorie. Jane Anne? Could my name be less glamorous? And what about this Jane Doe I read about in the news. She was usually dead.

Then there was the gossip about the Plain Jane neighbor and total confusion about Calamity Jane, the Jane following Tarzan around the jungle and the doomed fates of Lady Jane Grey. The evidence was mounting. The name Jane was an insult, which nicely fed my seething puberty.

The shiny fifties of crinolines and black patent shoes were collapsing into jeans and beads but the gifts of my name started to come in. Everyone wanted to smoke Mary Jane, Jane Fonda was strong and GI Jane was no longer just a nurse. 

I’ve grown into my name and made Jane my own. Funny, my short name reflects my ‘get to the point’ nature. Not sure which came first.       

b. Arcada inherited an old family name—“its meaning no genealogist has ever unearthed.”

An Arcada surfaced every generation, the first in 1640. The poor child was christened “Arcada Hazzard” as if portending the burden that identically named ladies would later carry. Down through the ages and even in the fairest broods featured in early daguerreotypes, the one dark and somber Arcada stood out among her siblings. For some reason, the family felt compelled to bestow this name as routinely as it willed its engraved silverware.

The name’s nearly 400-year run has ended with me. With no female heir to tag with the dubious label, my husband and I, with a respectful nod to all the ghosts of Arcadas past, laid this dutiful legacy to its final rest.

c.  Although many people inherit family names, this woman discovered hers came from a different inspiration:

Throughout my childhood, I made repeated attempts to give significance to the name my parents chose for me, their first child: Jean Marie. At first, I assumed I had been named after my Aunt Jean, but I was told no. That revelation was okay with me because none of us kids liked her very much and we certainly weren’t close to her.

(Later) Mom explained that she often went to a local butcher shop for meats. When the owner of the shop was particularly busy and needed help, he would call his daughter from the back of the shop. Her name was Jean and Mom liked the sound of the name. I was named after the butcher’s daughter.

d. In her collection of personal essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett writes about discovering something she never knew about her grandmother:

My grandmother was a good scrabble player, and a patient one. She would play with me after school when I was ten and eleven and twelve. I was a bad speller and she was always working to improve my skills.

“DRAIN,” I said, and put my tiles down.

She thought about it for a minute. “I don’t like the word drain,” she said. “How many points?” Scrabble was, after all, a lesson in simple arithmetic as well.

“Why don’t you like drains, “I asked, though I was already picturing things clogged in the sink, toothpaste and hair.

“It used to be my name, “ she said. “When I was married before.”

Children have a real failure of imagination when it comes to thinking of the adults in their lives as having done anything of interest, anything at all, in the time known as before.

If you are a fiction writer, you consider the sound as well as the meaning of your character’s name: Sherlock Holmes sounds like an official, steady, thoughtful sort of man. But if you’re writing nonfiction, you don’t get to make up names (well, unless you’ve changed them for a particular reason). In either case, here are a few points to consider:

1. Be consistent when referring to someone. Don’t call him Bob one minute and Mr. Moston or Robert the next unless you have clearly identified him as such.

2. Don’t introduce too many names in the same paragraph. You know your characters, but if your readers haven’t had a chance to picture a person in their minds, they will get confused and have to stop and re-read the passage to sort everyone out.

3. If several people have the same sounding names—each beginning with the same letter or having the same number of syllables as in Bob, Ben, Bub, try to space them out or use alternate nicknames or formal names.

Your Turn:

1. Look up the meaning and etymology of your name. Check all the names you’ve gone by. You may want to check a few sites—some have different information. Write about your name. How does or doesn’t your name fit your character? How it has influenced you or impacted you through your years?

2. Write about your or someone else's nickname. Where did it come from? 

3. Write about a family name. Are there any stories attached? This would be a way to give your passages about ancestors a little more character.

4. Write about a name you chose for someone or something--pet, boat. .  . Why did you choose it? 

Hope you have fun with these and are discovering hidden treasures in spite of the darkness passing by,


Thursday, April 16, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #5: Me—Ways to Write about Yourself

Marcia Moston
I know “notorious badman” Sam Bass didn’t write his own “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster, but I couldn’t resist using the description of him with its surprising last sentence to make a point for this lesson. The fine print on the poster reads:

A handsome young man, 5’7” tall, with sandy-brown hair, black eyes, light complexion, and large even teeth. He sometimes wears a sandy-brown mustache. He is a poor dresser.

Ha! Bass sounds so appealing at the start—so dapper for a train robber. But then all that handsomeness is betrayed by his mismatched? sloppy? apparel. A dead giveaway as far rich train robbers go, apparently.

By nature we are complex and contradictory creatures. Our emotions and behaviors are not always consistent with what we usually present to the world: When riled, the sweet-faced, elderly neighbor comes out with an expletive that makes the cat cringe. The hardened ex-gangster secretly rescues abandoned kittens. None of us are a one-note song. As P. G. Wodehouse says, I’m not always good and noble. I am the hero of this story, but I have my off moments. 

Whether writing about yourself or anyone else, it’s important to be real on the page. That’s not to say you have to spill all your sordid secrets, but there are ways to use self-deprecating humor to present some of the less flattering aspects that make you the human you are.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff is his coming-of-age story. Constantly on the run with his mom, suffering at the hands of a mean stepfather, Wolff learns to survive—by hook or by crook. The book opens with the following scene, important for how it reveals the crafty aspect of his character that he relies on to get through some of the treacherous terrain he travels on the way to self respect and identity. Note how guilelessly he presents this unflattering moment and how much it tells us about him. Can’t many of us relate to that enterprising moment in childhood when we knew mom/dad was weak?

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool, we heard from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”

The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded into the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.

By the time we got there. Quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet though empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out into the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.

For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn’t help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tool-leather saddle.

In her book Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin contrasts herself to others. She let’s us know who she is by telling us who she isn’t:

Unlike some people who like to go out, I love to stay home. This may be caused by laziness, anxiety, or xenophobia, and in the days when my friends were happily traveling to Bolivia and Nepal .  . . what I liked best was hanging around the house. 

I am probably not much fun as a traveler, either. My idea of a good time abroad is to visit someone’s house and hang out, poking into their cupboards if they will let me.

 Who you are on the page and what you present depends on your audience and your intent for the story. What you would write for your grandchildren would probably be different from what you would write for a war journal.

In her Great Courses class, Writing Creative Nonfiction, Professor Tilar Mazzeo uses dating ads as an example for honing the details you would use about yourself to interest a partner. Think about what the following ads reveal about each person:

SWEET LADY, mother and now grandmother. Interesting and interested in the world. Scientist, birdwatcher, intrigued by beautiful art and smart people. Still loves fast cars. Active mind. Decent soul. Hopes to meet accomplished, responsible, sensible, hopelessly handsome man for good laughs and much merriment.

ECCENTRIC EUROPEAN ADVENTURER, 72, former revolutionary, award-winning artist, trim, brilliant, lives part-time in Africa, part-time in France, married, seeks permanent mistress or second wife in complete agreement with the first. Requirements: 30-40, sensual, talented, open-minded.

SEXY LADY needs one decent guy: witty, responsible, available. So we can dream about all the things we once believed in and make love again like teenagers. In my mind, I will        be young and beautiful. If you close your eyes, you will be too. We will dream together    and you will read children’s stories and The Economist to me. All night, we will touch fingers and dream of soaring. Me, late 40s. You, as young as you wish to be.

Your Turn:

1. Write your own Wanted poster. Model the description on Bass’s: Physical description followed by a one-line surprise.

2. Write about a specific time when something happened that you took advantage of to get what you wanted.

3. Make your own personals ads. Write one for a date, one for a job, one for your public media face. Notice how you have to fine-tune each of the adjectives depending on the purpose and audience.

If anyone would like to share their responses, please do. Love to hear how you’d be described on a wanted poster or a personals ads.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #4: Looking back—how you changed along the way from there to here

Marcia Moston
The interest in any story, yours included, is not so much what you did, but what you made of it—what you learned, how you changed. That’s not to say if you walked across that bridge in the photo, you wouldn’t have a story to tell. But more than just the fact that you did it, how did you do it? What did you experience when you first saw it? Why did you decide to tackle it? If your feet bolted to the boards halfway across, how did you manage to make it the whole way? How did you feel after you accomplished it? Did it change you in any way?

These are the kinds of considerations that make your personal story become your readers’. We all may not have crossed a chasm on a swaying bridge, but we all have faced a challenge, maybe a fearful one. Reading about how someone else dealt with a situation helps us to absorb his or her experience and apply it to our own. So it’s not “just the facts, ma’am” you want to record when writing your story, but why those moments are important to you. Not only will your reader benefit, but you will too.

When she was arrested for her former involvement with drug traffickers, Piper Kerman, a Smith graduate from a supportive, well-to-do family traded her designer clothes and comfortable lifestyle for a prison jump suit and fifteen months behind bars. In her memoir, Orange is the New Black, Kerman shares the lessons she learned during her incarceration and how that experience changed her. Including this reflection provides readers with both an intriguing story and insight into the complexities and dynamics of a world most would not ordinarily experience. (*The book is not at all like the TV series, by the way.) Here are some sample passages:

I had learned a lot since arriving in prison five months ago: how to clean house using maxipads, how to wire a light fixture, how to discern whether a duo were best friends or girlfriends, when to curse someone in Spanish, knowing the difference between “feelin’ it (good) and “feelin’ some kinda way” (bad) . . . which guards were players and which guards were nothin’ nice.

However, most of all, I realized that I was not alone in the world because of the women I lived with for over a year . . . .We shared over-crowded dorms and lack of privacy. We shared eight numbers instead of names, prison khakis, cheap food and hygiene items. Most important, we shared a deep reserve of humor, creativity in adverse circumstances, and the will to protect and maintain our own humanity. .  . I don’t think any of us could have managed those survival techniques alone; I know I couldn’t—we needed each other.

Before and After
There’s wisdom in the rear-view mirror. Looking back and examining the pivotal experiences and events—both in our control and out of it—which have impacted our life, helps us to understand our present. As Danish philosopher Kierkegaard says, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Or, if you prefer John Wayne’s take – “Tomorrow hopes we’ve learned something today.”

Try organizing some of those pivotal moments into pairs of themes. That’s how Bob Goff arranges the stories in his book Love Does. Each chapter is a self-contained story from his outrageously large life. He subtitles each chapter with variations of before and after, following a I used to . . . but now I . .  . pattern:

I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.

I used to want to fix people, but now I just want to be with them.

I used to think I had to act a certain way to follow God, but now I know God doesn’t want us to be typical.

Times of Reversals
Looking back over our lives also helps to see how we got through times of reversal, when something difficult or downright awful later turned out good. This is a particularly helpful exercise for those who want to pursue their spiritual journey. You might discover recurrent themes in your life. What helped you get through trying times—people, prayer, divine intervention, gut and grit?

The Friday of this post, Good Friday, is a perfect example of reversal for those of the Christian faith. The day Christ died on a cross was a dismal day for those who hoped in him. All their expectations and hopes hung there, lifeless, about to be buried like any other man’s. Little did the people know that in three days the most life-changing, glorious event was about to take place and what looked like death was actually life.

Regardless of your faith or whether or not you want to embark on a spiritual autobiography, you can learn much by noting these times of reversals in your life and examining how you overcame them. Consider what you lost and what you gained.

Your Turn:

1. Model Bob Goff’s pattern to write about a change in your thinking, beliefs, wants, or actions. Explain what happened and why and how you changed.

I used to (believe, think, want, like, etc.) but now I ________________.

2.  Make a timeline of your life. Divide it into periods of time—decades, or childhood, adolescence, etc. Mark some of the turning points, pivotal moments, or life changing events in each period. Write about the event and explore what you lost and what you gained from it.

3. If you could choose one event, experience or specific time of your life to write about, what would it be? Why is it important to you? What would you want your reader to know, experience, feel, learn or take away from it?

I know I said I’d post these mini moments for a month, but as my former students used to say, “Mrs. Moston doesn’t just go down rabbit trails, she goes down elephant trails.” So since I’m having fun doing these and I’ve used up all my mulch and outdoor project supplies, and since several of you seem to be following along, we’ll keep going down this trail for a while longer. Hope to see you here next week. And if you have something to share, contact me.



Image: Michael Luenen, Pixabay

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Mini Memoir Moment #3: Writing about the relatives

Marcia Moston

If you shake your family tree, you may be surprised at the nuts that fall out. People—both present and past—in your life are a rich source for your personal stories. Even if you are writing a straight genealogical account, try to find an incident, a particular characteristic, gesture, habit, or saying that captures some essence of a person and contributes to the heart, as well as the fact, of your story.

My father gave each of us kids a copy of his research into his family tree. I confess, many of the details were just that to me—long ago names with no meaningful point of contact other than we shared a bit of blood. But then I came upon a news clipping about one of those relatives and suddenly “real” people stepped off the page.

Turns out over a hundred years ago, some relatives—a poor, landless family—made their living ferrying firewood and goods in their canal boat around Lake Champlain. When they were caught in a terrible storm, they tried to take shelter at the nearest dock, but the caretaker refused to let them. He untied their boat, which subsequently crashed. They sued the millionaire owner and won. The case Ploof vs. Putnam is still used by law students today. Heartless as the caretaker was, he did have a reason for wanting to protect the owner’s property: the Ploofs were known as “Pirates of Lake Champlain” with a reputation of stealing from summer cottages up and down the lake.

Pirate thieves. Now that puts some life into an otherwise static name and face in a book. Although we are natural storytellers, so often when we put pen to pad, we write some dry, fact-filled piece which is about as interesting as an insurance contract. Here are a few suggestions and examples how to enliven the people who populate your stories:

1. Follow a general statement with a specific image or action: In describing himself, Bob Goff writes:
“I am always in a hurry. I put my socks on two at a time.”

 He later re-emphasizes this characteristic with an anecdote about impatiently waiting for a slow moving rental car attendant who Goff had seen “glaciers move faster than.”—Love Does

2. Use dialogue to reveal character. Look at how much we glean about Mary Karr’s mother and Mary’s childhood from this passage in The Liars' Club:

Not long before my mother died, the tile guy redoing her kitchen pried from the wall a tile with an unlikely round hole in it. He sat back on his knees and held the tile up so the sun through aged yellow curtains seemed to pierce the hole like a laser. He winked at my sister Lecia and me before turning to my gray-haired mother, now bent over her copy of Marcus Aurelius and a bowl of sinus-opening chili, and he quipped, “Now Miss Karr, this looks like a bullet hole.”
Lecia didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Mother, isn’t that where you shot at daddy?”
And Mother squinted up, slid her glasses down her patrician-looking nose and said, very blasé, “No, that’s where I shot at Larry.” She wheeled to point at another wall, adding, “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.”

3. Choose descriptive elements that both paint a picture and contribute to character, as Rhoda Janzen does in her memoir The Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.

My mother, unlike my father, is not classically handsome. But she does enjoy good health. She is as buoyant as a lark on a summer’s morn. Nothing gets this woman down. She is the kind of mother who, when we were growing up, came singing into our bedrooms at 6:00 a.m., tunefully urging us to rise and shine and give God the glory, glory. And this was on Saturday. Upbeat she is. Glamorous she is not.
Besides being born Mennonite, which is usually its own beauty strike, my mother has no neck. When we were growing up, our mother’s head, sprouting directly from her shoulders like a friendly lettuce, became something of a family focus. We’d take every opportunity to thrust hats and baseball caps upon her, which made us all shriek with unconscionable laughter. Mom would laugh good-naturedly, but if we got too out of hand, she’d predict that our Loewen genes would eventually assert themselves.

But be careful what you write:

On her deathbed, Pat Conroy’s mother reportedly told him she found it hard to relax while dying because she knew he’d write down every word she said. (He did—Beach Music) Our stories naturally involve others—some living, some long gone. So what can or should we say about them?

Well, first, if it’s true, not some fabricated slant intended to hurt someone’s reputation, then you may be safe in what you say. Without getting into libel legalities here, I think the more important point is to ask yourself why you are including that particular point. Revenge or discredit doesn’t make good memoir. Then ask yourself if you are willing to live with yourself and accept the consequences of whatever it is you’ve chosen to say. You might show the person involved the part that concerns them, but in the end, it’s your story. Be truthful. Be responsible.

And then there’s this advice from writer Phillip Lopate:

1. Befriend only people who are too poor to hire lawyers to sue you.
2. If you plan to write about friendship, make lots of friends, because you are bound to lose a few.
3. For the same reason, try to come from a large family. 

Your turn:

1. Model Rhoda Janzen’s piece about her mother. You could start with “He/she is the kind of person who . . .  and then give an example to illustrate the statement.

2. Gestures, expressions, family sayings:
Make a list of sayings you heard growing up: Who said it? How did it reflect their beliefs or values?

Think about a particular person. How did/do they register different emotions—worry, joy, disapproval? Do they take their glasses off? Twitch their nose? Twirl a curl? Whistle?

3. Sketch a scene, an anecdote that illustrates your relationship with a person. For example, if your grandfather was a quiet, patient man, how did he express love to you? Take you fishing? Patiently teach you how to do something?

4. Think of someone who made an impact on you for better or for worse. Write about a specific incident. Try to capture the emotion of the moment without specifically naming it.

And as always, love to hear from you.