A story hydrant? Of course you never heard of that. I just made it up. I’ve learned to put a title on posts before I begin writing because e-mail alerts go out instantly when I click “Publish” and a couple of times lately I’ve forgotten the title.

Over the weekend I spent lots of hours clicking away as story flowed forth. My manuscript grew from 11,000 words to 21,000 words — nearly double in size. (I’ve written way more than that since I began this project, but much of it was warm-up that may or may not be used later. I refer here to my current working draft.) So, as I thought of a way to describe this torrent of words that were ready to be written, I thought of the fire hose analogy. It is an apt one, but rather clichéd, and it would take lots more space: A fire hose of words … something like that. As I pondered the matter, Sarabelle whispered in my ear: “Word hydrant . . .  NO! STORY HYDRANT!”

For those who have not met Sarabelle, and that’s likely to be most of you, she is my muse. You can meet her on my Heart and Craft of Life Writing blog. I tell about the day she introduced herself to me here. Other posts featuring her are here. She has been conspicuously absent on this project, so I’m delighted she finally put in an appearance.

The only way I can explain this gush of story is that I’ve been feeling my way along with this place-based structure, and spending gobs of time looking up resource material. Also, writing about the town center seemed a bit daunting. And, I’ve been super busy with other things. On Friday evening as I sat with my laptop, I realized that I saw light at the other end of the tunnel. I could now envision the rest of that chapter. The story hydrant began to gush, so for the rest of the weekend, I set aside all optional activities and wrote. I’m a firm believer in catching story while it’s gushing.

When I got to the high school (new chapter), I’d intended to explore that memory lode, and work my way back through schools. The junior high is quite near the high school, and my grade school is between junior high and our houses. But just as I wrote some dialogue with my husband about stopping to look at the high school, Sarabelle blurted out a direct order: “Save this stop for later. Go home first. Go back to the beginning now. You’ve put that off long enough. Catch schools on the way back out.” I swear I saw sprinkles of little star thingies as she said that. I certainly felt sparks of inspiration. That’s how the story hydrant worked. Suddenly lots of things just fell into place.

Please don’t think I was churning out finished draft. Far from it. Even now I realize that I left out lots of description. For example, I mention my parents and sister a lot, but have never formally introduced or described them. I am working in lots of dialogue — more than I ever expected be able to use. But there are still quite a few places where I stuck with narrative to get the basic story down, saving dialogue for the revision stage. If the dialogue doesn’t come naturally, I’m skipping it for now.

Anyway, I’m stoked. I once again believe I can get this project polished off by the end of the year, as I intended on New Years.


After a brief detour in real time here to paint a room and catch up on some local chores, I’ve moved past my old church and memories of Junior Rifle Club and we’re heading into the center of town. But first we make a lap around a couple of blocks to find the apartment where we began married life, living below one of my high school teachers who, nearly twenty years older than I, was also a newly wed — for the first time.

Thank goodness for Google Maps that make it so easy to check the route we took and get street names right. Somewhere I have a map from the 1950s that shows the town as it was back then, before any of the private housing was built. That will be a nice illustration to include. Sooner or later I’ll check with the Los Alamos Historical Society about the possibility of obtaining a few old pictures of places like the Community Center that would enhance the book. I have no idea what they might charge for a project like this.

I’ll need to go back later and insert a little more car conversation with my spouse as we’re driving around to add a bit more reflection. But I’m going to leave that as an additional layer for later. I don’t feel ready to tackle it yet. We did talk about things at the time, and whatever I come up with is going to be very close to the dialogue we had at the time.

Last time I actually wrote anything on my manuscript, I began describing the church building we were driving past and listing memories. I only got a few sentences into that section. It was late when I got to that point and I feel into a state of brain freeze. I’ve been back a couple of times and felt overwhelmed by the idea of resuming where I quit writing. Aside from anything else, I was sure I’d written about this before and didn’t want to spend another half hour restating what I’d already done, but I could not find that file. This hump loomed large.

While looking for something else a couple of days ago, I came across the file I needed. This morning I’d planned to do a simple cut-and- paste, then edit the result. But as I poured a cup of coffee, the root of the problem jumped out at me. This was boring. Big time boring. Even to me. How can I fix that? I  wondered.

I immediately knew the answer. Scene. I needed to write it as scene, with some dialogue and action. How many times have I shared my trepidation about writing my cerebral life as scene? In spite of this angst, I felt my energy level rise at the idea, so I set my mug down, pulled my ‘laptop onto my lapdesk and began tapping away. It flowed more smoothly than I expected. I got the whole scene drafted, and moved on through Junior Rifle Club, the next site along the drive.

How convenient that my life back then was so containerized with little overlap  among my various activities, clearing the way for isolated sight-specific memory.

The new material will need a lot of editing before it’s ready to share, to add more tension among other things, but at least it’s on the page now. On the page. I like that phrase. That page can be either digital or paper, and it’s “written down” in either form.

While writing about Rifle Club, I wondered how long the shooting range was. I tried standing at various distances from a wall, looking at an imagined image the size of a target and estimating from that. Fortunately I was able to find a description of the requirements for an official NRA shooting range. It was not the 30-40 feet I guesstimated — it was the full fifty feet I originally assumed. Perhaps nobody would notice if I’d gotten it wrong, but it isn’t that hard to dig around and get it right. I appreciate accuracy in the details, whether I’m reading or writing.

My other big challenge of the day was wording around the temptation to use distancing phrases like “I remember…” A quiet voice urged me to “Take responsibility for your story. Just say it, plainly and simply. Don’t try to hide.” Direct statement worked.

Yesterday I met with a couple of writing friends and took along the first four pages of this current draft. They’ve read  drafts of pieces I wrote earlier, but this was new material. I was heartened by their responses.

“This sounds lots more like you. The other pieces sounded more formal and contrived. Your personality is coming through in this.”

What sweeter words could anyone hope to hear?

These gals and I have been meeting for seven or eight years — I’d have to look at my timeline to be sure. However long it’s been, we’ve been through a lot together, on the page and off, and have coaxed, witnessed and cheered as we each continue to develop our writing skills. A victory by one is a victory by all, and we are able to be, well, not brutally honest, because we are always kind and loving. But we hold each other to high standards, and if something seems awkward, we work through it together.We have diverse styles and hear things differently, which makes the group input especially valuable.

Meanwhile, I continue to write. It’s so much easier now, with an organizing structure firmly in mind. Using the drive-through structure has a couple of additional advantages I hadn’t thought of until I began writing. I was nervous about the fact that the story would be obese with narration if I stuck to the viewpoint of me as a young girl. Incorporating that material as flashback insets allows me to interact in the narrative present (I concocted that term on the fly) to counterbalance the sparsity of remembered dialogue.

Even so, I do have some in the flashbacks. I have us “up the hill” now, entering town. The first memory trigger after the front gate is the Christian Church I used to attend. The paint was hardly dry in that new building when I moved away, but it triggers a hologram of church memories. When all is said and done, that may be significant timing.

At this point, the writing process, the organizing and developing and weaving together, is far more intriguing than the memories. On their own, they are beginning to feel a bit stale. If I weren’t writing, I would have put them back in their box long ago.

Moving ahead with the idea of using my last visit to Los Alamos as the organizing principle, I laid out a map of the drive to and through town, noting memory clusters related to each place. I can do this. It will work. It’s even authentic, because at least fragments of these memories, emotions and sensory experiences did flood back at that time in much the way I’ll describe. I even have an idea for a catchy entry point into the story.

I don’t recall exactly where I came upon this idea, but I believe Linda Joy Myers mentions it in her new book, The Power of Memoir. It’s sort of a variation on the timeline theme.

My next challenge will be to set up chapters for each location and make a more detailed list of “story beads” for that particular string. Up to this point, much of what I’ve been writing is more narrative than scene. Having this structure will provide organizing context and make it easier to write scene. It will also make it easier to work with composite memories.

As I think of scene, I’m realizing that most of the memoirs I’ve been reading lately (new, commercially published ones) have been mostly rumination type narrative verging on essay with very little dialogue. Description is gorgeous, but in general dialogue is limited to single sentences from other people most of the time, with only a line or two per page at most. These books have also lacked a strong story line. I’m struggling to make sense of this observation compared to all the challenge of creating a “Hero’s Journey” type of account.

Perhaps the bottom line is one of my mantras: “Your story is as personal and unique as your fingerprint.” Also, “To thine own story be true.”

My story is emerging.

I’ve been writing about third grade. Many things changed that year. The classroom was larger, lots of new faces, we began having “special” classes like music, art, gym, library and shop (yes, Los Alamos elementary schools had wood shops in each building), girls evolved into cliques, boys discovered teasing girls, we experienced our first political campaign, complete with chant-downs (“I like Ike!” … “Stevenson! Stevenson” … “I like Ike!”), and my mother was hired to be the school secretary. Memories gush forth.

This year set the tone for the next three years, so it’s rich in content. My huge challenge will be turning more of this raw, introspective content into compelling scenes. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I spent much of my time enjoying my own company as I grew up, so dialogue opportunities are sparse.

Another challenge is piecing in simple explanations of things like ditto and mimeograph machines. People over forty grew up loving ditto fumes, but this technology is now practically fossilized. It was especially important to me, in light of the hundreds of hours I spent in the school office with my mom. Ah, these details provide great scene potential! Show, don’t tell… .

On another note, I finished reading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen. Superb book! Then I read William Zinsser’s latest memoir, Writing Places. He tells of his experiences in each phase of his amazing career as a writer, and the various offices he used along the way. I had not realized that he was probably the first person in the United States, maybe even the world, to teach memoir writing. As early as the mid-seventies he had realized its power to heal and transform and he began including tips on memoir writing in the second or third edition of his classic On Writing Well. Every writer needs to read this book. I will soon reread his book Writing About Your Life. It is a “must read” for those who aspire to write memoir.

Lured by all the buzz, I just finished reading Dani Shapiro’s latest memoir, Devotion. As usual, I was reading on two or three levels. First comes the story. For the most part our stories are entirely different, and I was fascinated by this inside glimpse inside the secret life of a blond Jew raised Orthodox, nearly a generation younger than I.

Beneath the surface, perhaps they aren’t so different. I relate to her sense of not quite fitting in anywhere. I relate to her patchwork, grab a little here, add a pinch of that spirituality and constant search for answers. I won’t tell whether she shared her answers or not — I don’t want to give away her plot.

Perhaps I should say, what little plot there is. That takes me to the next level of reading, exploring her structure. The 243-page book is divided into 102 chapters, some as short as half a page. Many are fully developed scenes, replete with dialogue, description and tension, more are not. Reading it is much like a conversation with a friend — it jumps across time and topics like a grasshopper. Perhaps  the structure can be seen as a metaphor for the recurring Monkey Mind phenomenon that constantly asserts itself during her yoga and meditation practice. A few times it seemed as if she should have mentioned things much earlier. For example, she tells of events occurring near the time her son was preparing for his bar mitzvah and a couple of chapters later she writes of something else that occurred when Jacob was three.

Conversation is like that, full of “Have I ever told you about the time …?” topic changes. The difference here is that we can’t ask her questions to ease the transitions.

I love that the book is warmly and intimately written without a trace of arrogance. I love its ring of Truth. In spite of the jumping around, it does fit together like a finely crafted puzzle. I like the simplicity of giving each vignette, no matter how tiny, its own chapter rather than trying to clump them together. I like that she didn’t limit herself to a formal story flow. And I admire that within this seeming chaos, a certain story thread does emerge. Recurring themes do become apparent and develop. I have a hunch that it may be even more challenging to weave together this casual sense of organized chaos than to use a narrative approach.

There is no way to use her book as a template, but I am encouraged and motivated by her unstructured structure.

I’m back to writing fee-standing stories again.