Where I write

Where I write

May 26, 2016

Memoir Writing 101

Ever want to write a memoir? Getting started can be the hardest part. There's so much to say and yet...where to begin? 

This is an advertisement for a home similar to the one I grew up with in a suburb of Chicago. Beside the yellowed paper, another clue that the ad wasn't in today's newspaper, is the $14,950 price tag for a three bedroom house on a half acre lot. Today, for that price, people could buy only the front porch. Or maybe just the porch steps. 

The floor plan of the house is simple, empty square boxes. Yet when I applied my memories to the lines signifying space, I saw my bedroom there in the back. And what do you know, there I am sitting in front of my mirrored dresser listening to Motown music on my pink and purple record player. I liked to pretend I was the fourth member of Diana Ross and the Supremes. As I sang off key and danced around my small room, I felt as if any moment Diana might telephone me and ask me to join her and the other girls on a concert tour.  Alas, I never got that call. 

 In the front bedroom, I saw  my little brother Billy in his bedroom with baseball cards splayed out around him. In the kitchen my mother wearing an apron prepared our meal, something with meat and potatoes.  Afterall, this was the Midwest and a meal without meat was like going outside in a blizzard without boots. Just wrong. 

My father was more of a shadowy figure. He was gone a lot at his job in Chicago so we could live, as the ad states, in our "miracle of a house" in the suburbs. I was shocked to see the total square footage of the house where four of us lived was less than the home I live in now with one another person. And yet, I don't remember the smallness. I remember stories triggered by this old ad.

When I taught a Memoir Writing class, I would suggest the class draw a picture of the house where they grew up, or a home that had a great significance in his or her life.  Don't worry about drawing abilities, just sketch and then start writing. Keep writing and remember no one ever has to read what you wrote. Unless you want to be published, and then you must be very brave and tell the truth. Splashing your life with pink paint and sprinkling glitter on it might make you feel better but it will bore your readers.

Photos are helpful when writing a memoir. Us old-timers still have those relics called photo albums stashed in a closet.  When I look at this photo  of myself I see so much more than my big tummy, bunchy swim suit, and pixie hair cut.  I remember minnows nibbling my toes, burnt red shoulders that my mom  slathered with Noxema. (Now I try not to think about skin cancer.) Then I remember I almost drowned in Lake Michigan and my father saved me. That would be a good place to start a story. 

The writer Margaret Atwood said people get bored at looking at other people's happy vacation photos of, for example, serene picnics by waterfalls.  She said add a swarm of bees to that picnic and people in a panic. The glazed-over look in people's eyes will vanish and turn to excitement. People like drama. 

I've had many students say they could never publish a memoir until their parents had died. I understand that. We don't want to hurt our loved ones. Or people will say they would never want their children to read about their pasts. Okay. Then write just for yourself or edit your life and give that version to the family. If you want to tell the complete story, with all the warts and toads, then it's courage time. 

If you want to get published, or even self publish, the one telling the truth is the one that will get read and purchased. I'm 100 percent certain of that.

If possible, visit a significant place that holds memories. I once lived in a trailer park. That is a difficult sentence for me to write. I like to think of myself as a non- trailer person. Silly. When I revisited my former home in Colorado, I stared in disbelief that I had ever lived there, in a place where it snows ten months of the year surrounded by hippies on a Rocky Mountain High. Wait. I was a hippie.  I remember and yet I had forgotten. I've met many people my age who have rewritten their past. Tuned it up. That's fine. But if you write that story it is fiction. Not memoir. 

The longer I sat in the dusty parking lot, did more memories return. All those long haired people with blue jeans unmarried and living together, unconcerned with ambitions or  material things. I had never heard of tofu until I moved to the trailer park.  The black lab I had that ran away. I named him Too Far. No joke. My neighbor, a skinny hippie who kept only vitamins in her refrigerator. I loved to go to the free box at the laundromat and dig out clothing. Is that a detail I want to share with the public? Not really. But it tells a lot about my lifestyle and who I was then. And who I was then, made me who I am today. I love thrift stores. 
Another tip. Read memoirs. There are too many to list. We all have our favorites. Read as many as you can, on all topics, written by all types of people. Start with Anne Lamott. She's my favorite. But you might have your own.

Finally, listening to music can reconnect us to our past. To this day when I hear Stop in the Name of Love I remember singing in my bedroom. Still waiting for that call from Diana, though. 

1 comment:

SunsetCindi said...

I can see you in your room and hear you singing, and why not tell the world you lived in a trailer and scavenged thru the laundromat freebies! It's what makes you the appreciative, understanding person you are today.

How right you are about exposing yourself to the world in your memoirs. None of us want to be judged harshly, but it is the dirt that people want to hear and we all have it. The older I get the more I realize that if people judge me wrongly, then it is their own insecurities that are coming to life, their problem, not mine. It's when we take the dirt and make mudpies and throw them with abandon that we fully experience life and that's what it's all about, right?!

Fabulous memoir piece!