Writing the Literary Memoir

For a couple of years, Luisa attended summer writing workshops at Cannon Beach, Oregon. One of the workshop presenters was poet and author, Judith Barrington. The first book of Judith’s that I read was Lifesaving: A Memoir. This powerful story of a young woman coming to terms with the accidental death of her parents was published in 2000.

memoir writing tipsWhen, several years later, I was ready to write my own memoir with a focus on how my daughter’s life and early death affected me and my family, I returned to Barrington. I reread Lifesaving and also read her wonderful volume: Writing The Memoir: From Truth to Art, which highlights the memoir writing process. This is an essential volume for anyone serious about becoming a memoirist. The chapter titles give you an idea of what’s inside:

  • Getting started
  • Finding form
  • Telling the truth
  • Using fictional techniques
  • Expanding your language skills
  • Developing sensory detail
  • Writing about living people
  • Placing your story in a larger context
  • Getting feedback on your work
  • Steering clear of common pitfalls
  • Legal issues pertaining to memoir
  • Guidelines for critique in writers’ groups

I returned many times to both volumes during the four years it took to write my memoir.

Thank you, Judith!

Are you thinking of writing a memoir? Have you read Judith Barrington?

Non-Fiction Memoir Book Reading and Radio Distraction

Maybe I put radio on too high a pedestal.

These days, I listen a lot to National Public Radio and Pacifica.  Both of these networks feature shows that interview writers and I’m always impressed with how sophisticated and confident these folks sound.  Later this month, I’ll kick off a series of public readings from my new non-fiction memoir, Sometimes I See You.  Of course I’m proud to have the opportunity to share my work, but at the same time I worry.  I worry that nobody will show up. I worry that if people do show up they won’t like what I’ve chosen to read or that I won’t be able to answer their questions.  I compare myself with the writers I hear on the radio and come up short.

It’s neurotic, but it nags at me.

Non-Fiction Memoir AuthorAs a kid, I couldn’t get enough radio.  There were all the cowboy, detective and science fiction shows like Suspense, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, Have Gun Will Travel, The Shadow, Bulldog Drummond, and Boston Blackie.  Most of these were on evenings or weekends.  When I’d stay home sick from school and was tired of reading, I’d listen to the day-time soap operas such as Just Plane Bill; Ma Perkins; One Man’s Family; Our Gal Sunday; or The Romance of Helen Trent.  Then there were comedies:  Jack Benny; Red Skelton; You Bet Your Life with Grouch Marx; Fred Allen; George Burns and Gracie Allen; and Archie.  And, there were kids’ shows (Let’s Pretend, Buster Brown, the Sunday Comics) and the quiz shows and . . . it goes on and on.

In my teens, radio was all about music.  KFWB, Los Angeles . . . Channel 98! was my station as I carried my new transistor radio around West LA or lay with it on the beach at Santa Monica.

Radio still has power over me.  Shows like This American Life; Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me; Fresh Air; and Snap Judgment are favorites.

Now that I’ve taken my mind off the first reading of my new memoir, I wonder what’s on?

Is radio an important part of your life?  Do you have fond memories of radio shows from your childhood?

Why Writers Don’t Write (Part 2)

Of course I can’t blame Comcast that I find it a challenge to buckle down and write. If it wasn’t Comcast, it would be the leak under my kitchen sink, or the incessant barking of my dogs, or any number of things that rudely insert themselves into my life and shatter what begins as a smooth, unbroken sheet of time into a myriad of shards, never to be reassembled.

When I was 21, my Dad’s brother’s wife, my aunt, hired me to paint her kitchen.
Aunt C. was an established, visual artist. Her media were oil and printmaking. She and my uncle were the most unconventional people I knew. They lived close to the beach in LA and their home was overgrown with semi-tropical plants. They listened to jazz and their furniture was handmade in Mexico. They had one child, a daughter, M, three-years my senior. I liked hanging out with M. She recommended books I almost always enjoyed and she offered previews of my future; first in high school, then in college.

Dad and L and C had been housemates during their student years at UC Berkeley. C wasn’t Jewish; in fact her father wrote and published Christian Bible stories. She also refused to wear brassieres or girdles. Mother felt responsible to occasionally remind me of Aunt C’s peculiar religious and wardrobe choices; neither of which held much significance for me but undoubtedly contributed to the smog-like atmospherics when our families got together.

I was happy when Aunt C asked me to paint her kitchen. I liked her and needed the money. I’d just finished my junior year at Berkeley and, partly due to C’s influence, had changed my major from psychology to anthropology; one of the several academic fields in which C had considerable knowledge. The colors she chose for her kitchen were straight from the villages of central Mexico! Clear, strong, and vibrant. I’d never imagined colors like this inside a house. My family’s domestic palate consisted of “off-white” and “sunshine yellow.”
Aunt C. wrote the names of the colors I was to use on the walls and cabinets. Given the number of colors, we estimated that it would take me about a week to complete the project. She would be in her studio (behind the house) and if I had questions or needed anything I should, and this is the point, wait until she came out for lunch. We would have 30 minutes before she returned to her studio. When I was ready to leave for the day, I should. Leave! No “goodbyes.” Just leave. If I came early enough to catch her at breakfast, fine. Otherwise, I was to be about my work without disturbing her. No questions. No phone calls. No visitors.

At our lunches, we talked about my studies. My latest girlfriend. My family. When I finished the job, she told me she was happy with the work I’d done. I was, too. Amazed, in fact, when I saw how it all came to life. On that last day, I did a few touch-ups, we ate lunch, she paid me and I left.

Mom told me she thought Aunt C was selfish to lock herself away and forbid interruptions. Even my cousin, M, had to wait until C came out before she could announce that she was home from school. I suppose Aunt C was selfish. But she’d learned that the only way she could be a productive artist was to guard her time. Treasure it.

Fifty years later, I’m still struggling with what Aunt C taught me; still seeking the balance between my need for solitude and my need for connection and engagement.
When I get it sorted out, I’ll let you know!