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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Writing Memoir


“I never thought of you as being rebellious,” Dee said. She was half way through reading a part of the writing I had been working on recently. We were sitting in a neighborhood café called “The Family Restaurant”. Not much creativity in that name! I had chosen a table in a far corner where it was as quiet as possible. We wanted to talk and I wanted to give her a chance to read a part of my memoir.

Four young construction workers on their lunch hour in a booth nearby were having a fine time talking too loudly and laughing and joking together. The television sounded off above the counter. The waitress greeted a customer with,

“Hi! Bill! How are you today? As usual, our specials are on the chalkboard over there…….The baked ham sure looks good.”

Through the noise and clatter of very informal “dining” Dee and I tried to visit. Then, while she read, I looked around the room. I tried to appear nonchalant about Dee’s reading. I didn’t want to rush her. I wanted her to be able to get the full import of what I was trying to say on paper. It seemed she was really surprised about what she was reading.

“I just can’t believe that you were ever rebellious”, she reported about the teenager I was revealing to her. She stopped every once in a while to comment on things like, “You really felt that way?” and “Is this really true? About you?” After a bit more reading she questioned, “But when I knew your mother she was such a beautiful lady, so gracious and kind. I never thought she could have been like that”.

“She was very loving then too, but as she was raising us, she was really still affected by her earlier attitudes as a flapper in the ‘20’s and her responsibilities as "Mother". Our relationship changed through the years since then, and we did too”.

Dee stopped reading every once in a while to tell me something she was reminded of about her childhood. Although I was impatient for her to get on with the reading, I realized that I was accomplishing my purpose. I was tapping into my reader’s bank of experiences and she was finding common ground with me although we had very, very different backgrounds and personalities. Since I was sitting there with her, she could share these thoughts with me. If she had been alone while she read, those thoughts would have come to her but remained silent. She would not have paused in her reading, I hoped! I mentally noted where she seemed to pause to reread something. I intended to go back and check out those places to see if I could reword them to make them clearer. She finally finished reading and said that she enjoyed it very much.

We ate our lunches. Dee had her fish and chips and I had my sandwich of freshly baked ham and lettuce and tomato. As usual, we both asked for white styrofoam boxes. We put the remaining halves of our lunches in them as “carry outs”. Dee was a widow and lived alone and her carryout was for her supper that night. I always took mine home for breakfast the next morning. I never liked traditional breakfast food, except for bacon and eggs. There was nothing special about the food but the place was convenient and on the way to the supermarket.

Later in the car on the way to shop, Dee made a pensive remark, “You know, I think I like you better since reading that you weren’t perfect when you were young.”

I thought, “Whoopee! I’ve hit the jackpot!”

Dee always said that she considered me her closest and best friend. We had known each other for almost thirty years. We knew each other’s joys and sorrows. We confided to each other on many of the events in our lives. I knew I had told her about my teen years, but this time she “heard” something that hadn’t registered with her before. I had managed to break through the mystique that she always seemed to attach to me, her “teacher” friend.

. . .

“Why would I want to expose my faults and imperfections to my readers?” That was the question my husband asked me after reading another even more revealing part of my writing.

“Because it’s “Me”. I’m striving for absolute honesty.”

I was still fumbling for a more complete answer. There’s no sense in writing if I don’t give people some meat to chew on, something that causes them to dip into their own being, to grow, to change, or to understand me better.

I wrote about my life ever since I started keeping a diary in grade school. The diary is long gone but as an adult I threw the sheets of longhand into one of several cardboard boxes out under my worktable in my craft room. I don’t know but what the silverfish have gotten into the boxes by now and reduced my literary jewels to flakes of well shredded paper! I frequently used journaling as therapy to help get me through some very difficult times.

Recently, I began to do some serious writing that I hoped will be interesting to my descendants, if someone values it enough to save it! It is my intent to tell them what life was like in the late 1900’s and the new twenty first century. I recognized my writing as journaling. I became bored with “Just the facts, Ma'am” as Joe Friday, the detective used to say on “Dragnet”, a popular weekly TV serial program in the 1970’s. I began including reflections and attempts at reasoning in my journaling.”

When someone asked me what I was writing, I’d reply almost apologetically reply, “Oh, just stuff about my life.”

Then another good friend, Lynne, told me of a class offered for seniors ("the elderly") at nearby California State University San Marcos. The title of the course was “Writing Memoir”. We enrolled in it and that professor turned on the proverbial light bulb. Here was just what I had been leaning toward all along. I learned that memoir is much more than just a factual reporting of events that took place in one’s life. It is the product of processing the facts, ruminating on them, and coming up with concepts of cause and effect, or growth, or progress toward changed behavior. It involves analysis rather than just recording.

Maureen Murdock in her book, “The Unreliable Truth” states,

“The memoirist…both recounts an event and muses on it. “What meaning, what value do I attach to how my life has unfolded? How did this happen? How did that happen?” Finding out the truth of what happened could certainly challenge one’s sense of self.”(P.12)

“A memoir is a slice of life about which a writer muses, struggling to achieve some understanding of a particular life experience. A successful memoir demonstrates a writer’s slow coming in awareness, some reckoning with herself over time, some understanding of how her unconscious is at work. Because of this reckoning, the writing of memoir is not without pain. A memoir that successfully taps the reservoir of universal human feeling resonates strongly with its readers.” (P.24)

“Each memoirist has a different purpose in undertaking the writing of memoir, but each attempts the risky task of excavating specific events in order to understand the truth of her life.”(p.54)

“Lauren Slater challenges the reader to examine the nature of truth as she constructs her memory in her book, “Lying”. She asks the reader to confront the veracity of the masks we each wear, the stories we tell about ourselves, our families, our lovers, what we do for attention, affection, and acceptance: and how we make our way in the world.” (P.55)

Because of what I learned in that class I became able to answer the question, “What are you writing?” with “I’m writing memoir. It means that I have to try to be absolutely honest in telling a part of my life story. It contains social commentaries and spiritual insights that come to me as I remember and write about it. It‘s kinda like saying, ‘and the moral to the story is…”

If more explanation seems necessary I say, “Memoir is different from autobiography and journaling. It’s a very personal slice of life, not one’s whole life. I want to share with my reader some commentary and insight. In my case I hope to show changes in my character, both good and bad, as related to my position before God. It was not always constant and it wavered dramatically according to my obedience or defiance of God’s will, His Word the Bible, and His commandments. I hope my writing will explain how I became the person I really am today”.


These events in my life are absolutely true, to the best of my recollection. However, to engage and hold the reader’s attention, some of the material is presented as stories rather than as exposition or narration. This necessitates the construction of conversations from long ago, that cannot possibly be quotations. The dialogue is designed only as a vehicle to illustrate relationships and situations between actual characters in my past.

With this as an introduction, I humbly offer my readers the following memoir entitled “Impaled…………”



1 comment:

  1. This is a great way to start. I enjoyed the insights into the craft of memoir whether set in the "The Family Restaurant"—I think I know the place—or in your interior monologue. I learned something I'll apply to my first YA attempt (based loosely on yours truly).