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Memoir writing in the mountains requires tissues and time

July 27, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

Everyone has a story to tell, whether they know it or not. What may seem mundane to you could well be fascinating to the person who reads what you write. We are all unique and have different takes on ordinary life events and different takes, too, on historic events. OK, I sense that I’m preaching to the choir, so let’s move on.

I recently lead a class on memoir writing here in Allenspark, Colo. The class was held at our beautiful new but very rustic community center, The Old Gallery (you can look it up on-line). The class was free and open to all; it ran on five consecutive Thursday mornings in June.

To inspire the class, I included a list of autobiographies that I found fascinating: “Writing About Your Life” by William Zinsser, “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt, “The Road from Coorain” by Jill Ker Conway, and “Growing Up” by Russell Baker.

I also included “Speak, Memory” by Vladimir Nabokov – I didn’t find it that interesting – but I was very glad I special-ordered a copy from the Estes Valley Library because there in the introduction I found a local reference. Nabokov thanked The New Yorker magazine editor, Harold Ross, for buying a story, which enabled Nabokov and his family to come to Estes Park in the 1950s and it was in EP that he wrote a chapter of his memoir (sadly not an interesting chapter but, oh well).

I also reluctantly included “The Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr on the list, not because it isn’t a great read – it is – but because I still after many years have a bad feeling about the author. She and I were scheduled to do a phone interview when she was on a book tour in San Francisco and she stood me up. Sounds like a petty thing but it meant that I wasted my time waiting for her and then I had to scurry around and prepare something else for that week’s column – grrr. Anyway, I digress.

I wanted to talk about the difference between a memoir and an autobiography – essentially, the memoir is shorter and more focused. This gives the writer much more freedom to pick, choose and frame memories.

So, at my first class there were three or four students. That number grew to a high of eight before the weekly classes ended. We had a variety of ages from a 10-year-old to an 80-plus-year old. The youngster wrote about tripping, falling and skinning her elbow. The senior wrote about growing up in the 1930s when the Dust Bowl drought was driving friends and neighbors away from previously fertile farmland. Her family stayed on the farm and survived without suffering too badly.

“We were never hungry,” she said.

Another woman wrote about coming of age in the ‘60s when suburban integration – blacks moving into white neighborhoods (this was in the Chicago area) created huge social upheavals. Looking back, it turned out to be a non-issue for many people who survived and thrived in mixed communities.

I discovered several logistical mistakes after I put the class together. First of all, I didn’t allow enough time. One hour is not enough when everyone has written something and wants to read out loud. So we extended the class to an hour and a half and then to an hour and 45 minutes. Also, I forgot to have tissues on the table. People don’t tend to write about happy occurrences, which can be fleeting and ephemeral, but we always remember the tragedies and dramas. (See my memory of Mary Karr.) So the Kleenex box was put within easy reach of all readers.

The good news is: We’re going to do it again! A second memoir writing class will be held at The Old Gallery in September 2016. Stay tuned.

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