Blithely ignoring rules

Rules are made to be broken, I’ve read. So why bother with rules at all? Within minutes of my last very personal post, I read that blogs shouldn’t be personal. What? Two of the first blogs I started following were entirely based on personal experience. The response to my personal blog appeared to be the most I’ve had in my short blogging life.

I’m not assuming that my personal experience or opinion is anything special, but if it’s an experience shared by others or a thought-provoking or reassuring opinion, why not post it?

Another long-established rule I consciously ignore is to write every day. I heard that admonition from so many sources for so many years that I unthinkingly passed it on to my students. The only way one improves, I said, whether playing the violin or playing tennis or painting watercolors, or writing, is to practice. If you can’t think of anything to write, write “I can’t thinking of anything to write,” over and over.

Can you imagine anything more demoralizing, more an admission of failure, than writing the same inane thing over and over? So I soon amended my instruction to start, “Yesterday I . . .” and write in detail as vividly as possible your humorous or humiliating or boring yesterday. I also provided long lists of prompts because I asked for five journal entries per week from my writing students in addition to required essays.

Now I see writing as extending far beyond forcing words onto paper or screen. I jot ideas virtually or figuratively and rummage around mentally, falling asleep and waking up composing and revising so when I sit down to write there’s plenty to work with. That’s when writing is joyful.



Memoir writing: six suggestions

  1. Keep a diary or journal. If you already write regularly, good for you. If not, start now and catch up as you can. I keep track of important events in a small notebook divided into months. There I note births, deaths, trips, visitors, when we got pets, etc. No details, just the basics. Travel journals note details of trips, and other notebooks contain notes for the memories which are written primarily on the computer. Part of a notebook could be dedicated to ideas for stories, essays, chapters, articles, or whatever you choose to call your divisions.
  2. Find your optimal writing situation, but beware. I’ve heard of writers who must use a particular pen or pencil, type of paper, place and time, and are unable to write when those requirements can’t be met. More than one writer has constructed the “perfect” writing place, custom built with new furniture, windows placed just so, art work carefully chosen, only to find that he/she couldn’t write a word there and retreated to the kitchen table or laptop in the Lazy Boy. Ideally, away from your optimal writing situation you can jot notes while waiting in the doctor’s office or airport, type on a laptop on the plane or in a motel room or on a picnic table. The impetus of the story should become more important than the where or how.
  3. Start with the easiest parts. That might be the story told over and over around the family table, the most vivid memory, the time you were happiest, the saddest, or the most traumatic experience of your life. I recently read a book saying to start with your first memory and work your way on decade by decade. I say NO! Even if you are writing an autobiography rather than a memoir, start with the most memorable events. My dear father started his life story over and over, trying to get the beginning just right. As a result, we have a record of less than the first quarter of his long eventful life. Also, he was using a word processor he didn’t understand and kept losing his work. Don’t make that mistake. As stated before, use the method most comfortable for you. Someone can transcribe it from tape recording or handwritten later.
  4. Write daily. Some experts stipulate a minimum, like ten minutes, and if you don’t know what to write, scribble something like “I don’t know what to write.” until the time is up. Baloney! Look at your notes about possible stories and choose one to start jotting memories: most embarrassing moment, funniest moment, etc. Freewrite without regard to spelling, punctuation, sentence structure or anything that might hinder getting words on the paper or screen. You can decide later what is worth revising. Of course “write daily” is an aspiration, not always realistic. But you may find that involved in a WIP,  your mind is often preoccupied with the story. I’m willing to include that process in “write daily” because I’ve found that all that remembering and mental organizing makes the physical process of words written much faster. Another caveat: only thinking about writing does not result in a manuscript!
  5. As you complete your stories, start considering focus and organization. The classic advice is to start with the different: the day of the horrific diagnosis, the lover leaving, the death, the birth of the child who is different. You can then write flashbacks to fill in details. Lacking an outstanding event, you might choose a story that illustrates your theme. A memoir is not an autobiography, birth, year by year to present (or death, if writing for another), but a period of time or related events. Some writers have recorded more than one memoir. A famous contemporary autobiographical writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, still a young man, has written an astonishing six hefty volumes so far.
  6.  Consider what your “theme”  is. It may be simply to preserve memories for family and friends. You might choose, as my parents did, to include some genealogical information before relating their own stories. Memoirs may be focused on conquering illness or substance dependence or forgiving abusive relationships. They may be primarily focused on revenge, like Mommy Dearest or see how great I am, like The Art of the Deal, or poor me, like Wild. Or, more likely, a collection of memories, good and bad, a summary of your life or that of a loved one you’re writing for. Related to theme will be your eventual title especially if you’re writing to attract an audience beyond friends and family. Otherwise, Memories of ____may suffice.


Organizing old files recently, I came across this fragment, written long ago in the form of a poem, with many cross outs and corrections.


Fifteen years ago I saw him

El Viejo, in a plaza in Guanajuato

bent like wheat broken by strong wind

glazed eyes to the ground

attending each dragging step forward

around the Jardin and around

again past my bench, left arm

clenching a large wooden box

pressing frail hips to the right.

I must go

but still I stay to watch

the parchment hands

the face like a dirt gully

after a hard rain

skin clinging to bone

ribs caved into organs.

Why is he shuffling still and

what does he carry and

what is he thinking and

what does he see?

If I were an artist I would paint him

If I were a photographer I would take a photo

But I have only words and I write him

in my notebook to carry home.

Long after the notebook is lost he stays.

I build him a cabin in green foothills

give him a lonely boy to befriend

who finds him dead one winter day and

learned from that a lesson

this selfish boy who played

with Christmas toys when he could

have visited El Viejo.

You only used me the old man nagged.

No wonder it didn’t sell.

You never knew me.

I didn’t care. I’d wasted

enough time on him.

I worked on commercial things but

he kept butting in until

I put him back in the cabin

and visited often

There it ends, as though there might be more pages. The truth is that El Viejo haunted me until years later, just recently, I published Amigos: A Novella on Amazon Kindle.


Why write a memoir?

The first reason that comes to my mind is to preserve memories. For years we three children along with friends and other relatives urged my parents to preserve their memories. “Tape record your stories,” we urged. “Write them down,” we said.

One year a cousin, Gerry Parker, set up a tape recorder to preserve my dad reminiscing and reciting some of the long looong poems he knew. But in the end we had precious little of his amazing life from a spinal injury when he was a kid to missing his last year of high school to take his widowed mother’s cattle north from the worst of the dust bowl to better pastures. We know little of how he achieved his dream to become a minister lacking the requisite education, or how he managed to buy the mountain ranch of his dreams. Only he fully knew the details and now they are lost.

Only you know the details of the important events of your life from your point of view (and how often another’s point of view is wrong!)  I believe most private memoirs are primarily to let future generations know you and how the world was in your lifetime.

Another reason is to be an example, to teach a lesson. I just read a memoir with a primary message of “See how successful I was and you can be too.” I’m definitely guilty of that message too blatantly in some of my essays.

Very popular in recent years are conquering illness or substance abuse or abusive relationships stories. They are popular because they offer advice, empathy, and possibly hope to others in similar situations.

A fourth reason to write a memoir is to proclaim to the world what a wonderful person you are. I’ve read memoirs where that was the major theme, and again I plead guilty in a few places in my memoir.

Other memoirs seem to be primarily for revenge, to expose those who have wronged you, eg. Mommy Dearest and others of that ilk. Again I plead guilty: I wrote one chapter called “Terrible Awful Horrible No-good Bosses.” Those incidents were long ago and far away. But I refrained from writing about a very recent hurtful incident of blatant selfishness and rudeness of close relatives.

I’ve presented five reasons to write a memoir here. Can you add others?







Why “Writing Life?”

I’ve read (and repeated to students) that there are three classes of writers: Those who want to be A Writer, those who want to write, and those who write. The first category dream of author’s tours with TV interviews, fame, and lots of money. Those who want to write have a story they feel compelled to tell. The last category simply can’t help but write.

As with most truisms, this isn’t entirely true, but I fall mostly into the latter group. I still have a “poem” written when I was about eight and diaries or journals kept off and on through the years. In the eighth grade my essay won an honorable mention in a county-wide contest. During boring college classes I wrote (very bad) short stories, to all appearances taking extensive notes.I later took writing classes, but I seldom submitted anything for publication because I lacked the drive to be A Writer.

My work for many years mostly satisfied any creative writing itch because I graded thousands of college compositions, wrote thousands of dull words of curriculum, policies, self-studies for accreditation, strategic plans, etc. However, during summers and a period of several years when I wasn’t working full-time, I wrote four novels, a novella, and co-wrote a murder mystery. Mostly what I submitted for publication were stories for the local newspaper or poems.

Only recently have I decided to do something with those files of manuscripts and obsolete Apple floppy disks. Either I die leaving my daughters to burn those moldering piles or I work to get them out into the world for better or for worse.

Home Again

After eight days of camping, the cleanup takes days! Will we do it again? Of course! It was great to visit with seldom-seen relatives – 32 of them the evening we (with daughter Janelle) cooked dinner for the group. I took copies of my novella, Amigos, and gave a copy to my sister-in-law Diane, who drew three illustrations after reading it probably 35 years ago and also gave copies to other interested folks. Per request I read a piece from Amigos around the campfire one night and a poem, “Brother” from my memoir another night.

A hint for your memoir writing or just for reference: I keep a little notebook divided into months with those little post-it strips and record whenever we take a trip like this one, have guests from out-of the area, etc.