The class will run for six weeks, April 23 to June 4, from 5-7 p.m. By the end of the six-week class, you can expect to have five short pieces ready to develop, one of which has been revised based on class critique. Each assignment will be crafted for this specific class. All members of the class will be expected to write for each class (up to 3 typewritten pages, double spaced) and to participate in the critiques. All assignments will be handed out the first day, so missing one class won’t put people off-track.
I recently started reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. Change the names, and it could be my memoir!
Yep. Roots in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. An old home place—where my paternal grandparents lived—in the holler at the head of Old House Creek. Granny Butcher, Granny’s mother, lived there, too. Here’s a picture taken in the yard there when I was a baby, me in Granny Butcher’s lap, with Dad and Granny standing.
To make Vance’s memoir my own would require a lot of tweaks. For example, it was my parents who didn’t finish high school. We both graduated from state universities in Ohio, but he went on to become a lawyer while I got a Ph.D. in psychology. Still, the broad picture is the same: unbreakable family ties, work-related migration from Kentucky to Ohio, and the emotional upheaval of upward mobility.
Which brings me to the point: good memoir evokes a strong emotional response in the reader. The basis of my response to Hillbilly Elegy is obvious, but there must be more to it than personal relevance. It didn’t become a bestseller on the basis of me alone! I was strongly affected by West With The Night (Beryl Markham) and Glass Castle (Jeanette Wall) without nearly so much shared history.
When you sit down to write memoir, start by asking yourself, “Why would anyone else care?” What is the emotional chord I am trying to strike? Horror or humor? Nostalgia or dysfunction?
And then, get some guidance. Writing good memoir draws on many of the same skills required for writing good fiction. But there are some issues and concerns unique to telling one’s life story. There are tons of good books out there. Here are a few samples.
Memoir is the fastest growing genre among writers today. But if writing it isn’t for you, at least read some. And ask yourself, “Why do I care?”
Some books seem to get better every day—or at least year by year. I find that many books I first read for entertainment have grown over time—or maybe I have! Into this category I put anything by Jane Austen.
Her observations of human behaviors, foibles, and motivations are timeless. And I smile at the humor, even when re-reading.
Then there are Mary Renault’s books. She brings history to life and dealt with delicate issues of sexuality long before most mainstream authors.
I first approached Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glassas children’s books. Indeed, my elementary-school granddaughter read them recently. But reading them with an adult eye and understanding, I find the plot line and magical realism rich and the writing superb.
Waverley Root & Richard de Rochemont
I’ve had Eating in America: A History by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont on my shelf of unread books for years. But recently, The Food of Italy by Waverley Root turned up on a list of recommended reads for people planning a trip to Italy, and having started that book, I turned to Eating in America. It starts with seafarers and Native Americans and continues through refrigeration and the modern American sweet tooth. Why did I let it languish so long?
And that segues into cookbooks. Of all my book loves, cookbook loves are the most fickle. I’ve had my low-calorie, low-fat, low-glycemic-index, low-carb, pressure-cooking, microwaving, slow-cooking, blending, cooking-for-one-or-two infatuations. But two cookbooks have held steady in my heart: The Doubleday Cookbook—the best encyclopedic cookbook out there—and Culinary Classics and Improvisations—the best leftovers cookbook in the world!
Memoir & biography
As a category, I’m coming to a greater appreciation of memoir and biography. For example, The Glass Castleby Jannette Walls, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, and at the recent Gaithersburg Book Festival, I bought “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” by Annette Gordon Reed and Peter S. Onuf, a recent and atypical biography of Thomas Jefferson—which is still untested but very promising.
When it comes to books about which my feelings have undergone a sea-change, the Bible is in a category by itself. Once upon a time, I believed it was literally the word of God. Now I don’t. Enough said.
As I’ve become a writer, my interest in the mystery genre has waned. I lost interest in Patricia Cornwell early on because her protagonist, Kate Scarpetta, didn’t grow or develop. But former favorites from Sue Grafton to Rex Stout just don’t grab me anymore.
And last but not least, I’m no longer in love with the six volumes of The Dictionary of American Regional English. I really regret it. But being able to look up a word and find out where it’s used isn’t nearly as useful as it would be if I could look up a region and get typical word usage!
What books are waxing, waning, or shifting ground in you heart?
As you probably know by now, I collect books the way a magnet collects iron filings. Whatever you want to do with your writing life—or with your life in general—there’s a book for that! And probably a class as well. Do an online search for writing classes in your area and see what comes up! Some have a modest fee—or an immodest one! Check local libraries and retirement communities, which in the Richmond area often offer such instruction free.
Every writer’s heard the advice, “Write what you know.” And what do you know better than your own life, right? But memoir is supposed to be as thorough, true, and factual as the writer can make it. So memoir isn’t for everyone. And so far at least, it’s not for me. Of the dozens of short stories I’ve had published, none is memoir.
On the other hand, most of them are memoir-based fiction. Such fiction still tells a true story, but is based only partly on “what really happened.” There are fewer helpful books in this area—on my shelves, at least—but two recent favorites are by Meg Files and Robin Hemley.
I’m working on a collection now titled Almost Family. As you might gather from that title, I include other people’s lives in my writing, too. One of my earliest publications was “The Pig Sticker.” The factual part of that story is my father and uncle butchering hogs. The true but fictional parts are everything else. In actuality, I was the toddler throwing my rag doll into the horse watering trough. In story as written, I was older, helping my mother and aunt with butchering-day chores and overhearing conversation that never happened. You can read that story here on my website. In Different Drummer, several of the stories are memoir-based, including “After The Fair,” which draws on three different women’s lives for the factual parts.
Takeaway for writers
It’s perfectly legitimate to use bits of your real life or the lives of those you know in your writing. This is true whether you are writing memoir, essay, fiction, or poetry. As Susann Cokal told the audience at a past JRWC, “People will always look for you in your writing. If you write a mad, passionate sex scene that takes place on top of a desk, people visiting your office or study will look askance at your desk—and may even ask whether that’s the one.” To spare me—and my family—I like being able to say, “But it’s fiction!”
Who but Nimrod Writer Women would be passing around a paper mâché wedding cake at breakfast? A few years back, NPR put out a call for short stories about the wedding cake in the middle of the road (or something close to that). But story possibilities are endless!
I’m not sure what the central decoration is supposed to represent, but think about it. Imagine the symbolism! I’m just saying…
Here’s one thing at Nimrod that’s even less needed than fake wedding cake. No writer is ever disturbed between breakfast and lunch–and seldom otherwise.
Speaking of meals–as I sort of was–the food is great, especially the salads. Tomatoes grown here. Crisp sweet peppers. Corn cut off the cob. Black beans. Green beans. Asparagus. Shredded kale. Quinoa. And I, for one, had never considered thinly sliced raw Brussels sprouts!
Frances and I walked near the old boys camp mess hall. Even in their heyday, I’m sure the food was nothing to write home about!
Frances Webb Burch and I walked past the old mess hall after lunch today. She is my most frequent walking partner. She writes wickedly funny essays about sex and aging, touching memoirs about coming of age in the 50s, gritty stories about mothers and daughters–and sometimes dips into magical realism. She is one of the Founding Mothers of the Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Programs, first visual arts and then writing.
Frances was “on” today, as was I. And as Monday is my preference, I was a happy camper. I workshopped 15 pages of a new novel. Tonight I read a short story in progress. And now I must stop this, for Cathy Hankla, writer in residence, assigned me to read “Brokeback Mountain” and consider point of view, distance, and narrator as I revise 3-5 pp of my new novel!
En route from Hot Springs to Nimrod, I paused at Warm Springs. What were once known as the Warm Springs Baths are now called the Jefferson Pools because Thomas Jefferson so often took the waters here. This is the men’s bathing house, built in 1761.
In 1836, a separate Ladies Pool House was opened, fed by a separate spring. The roof of the octagonal Ladies Pool House is open to the sky. The water is always 98 degrees. Bathing suits are optional. I love it! BothNETTIE’S BOOKS and “War and Murder at Nimrod Hall” have scenes set at the Jefferson Pools.
I was back at Nimrod before the Week 2 writers arrived.
I reset my workspace and polished my memoir a bit. But I also had time for the sort of nature Nimrod is known for.
Week 2 is a more intimate group, 7 total. I had the foresight to ask permission to talk about them on-line, and so will be introducing you to individuals this week.
This week, everyone knows each other to some degree, so we skipped introductions and went directly to “brag time” talk about the year’s accomplishments. Since last Nimrod, I’ve had 5 short stories published, plus the DIFFERENT DRUMMER collection–very gratifying!
We talked about goals for the week. Cathy Hankla (this week’s writer-in-residence) read from her forthcoming book. Charlotte Morgan (who administers the writing workshops ms is writer-in-residence for Week 3) read from the novel she is writing. More about both of them later, but you might want to check them out online.
Returning to Square House under the Nimrod moon, I smiled. The words “incest” and “orgasm” have already been uttered. The topics of “gender-fluid” identity and hashtags have been broached, along with art in place and environmental conservation. It’s going to be that kind of week! 😊
Once upon a time, and for a long time, there was a boys’ camp here. I think that ended somewhere around 1950. This morning’s walk took me by the remains.
Earlier, I posted a picture of folks waiting for the breakfast bell. FYI, all meals are served family style. And, by the way, said food is great. Here’s a picture of this week’s writers at lunch.
Today was yin/yang, emotionally–a wonderful experience coming to an end. Dr. Seuss, in his personal persona, said something like, “Do not weep that it is done, smile that it happened.” Seems right.
So, last day of focused writing. I’ve nearly finished polishing a short memoir piece AND I have half a dozen wacky ideas for short fiction. All very gratifying.
After dinner tonight, we had our last hoorah: ten of us read for five minutes each. I read the first 2.5 pages of “War and Murder at Nimrod Hall”–to be published in February of 2016 in the sequel to Virginia Is For Mysteries–and I didn’t take pictures! Opportunity lost.
Yesterday was a tough writing day. I couldn’t control the movements of my cursor–no creating, editing, or even printing documents. At a writing workshop! I tried everything I or others could think of. By late afternoon I was ready to pull my flat hair out by the roots. But as I was starting to unplug the @!*#¥ thing, I noticed how hot it was. Could it possibly be suffering heat stroke? What you see below is The Fix: four travel-size bars of soap elevating my laptop and allowing air flow.
BTW, this big wooden table isn’t the one I brought from home. Between last year and this, “my” room in Square House was gifted with this table and an arm chair. Whoopee!
Rain this morning prevented my before-breakfast walk, so no scenic views along Nimrod Lane or the Cowpasture River–but there’s still time!
Anyway, great writing today. Yesterday’s workshop feedback inspired me to create a more powerful ending for my memoir. I think it will be ready to send out soon!