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.