Since I must now use this account to post comments on some WordPress blogs, lots of people are visiting what appears to be a dead blog. It’s dormant, but not dead. Please visit my active blog, “The Heart and Craft of Life Writing“.

That said, another year has flown by. I have not abandoned this project, nor have I quit writing toward its conclusion. I just quit blogging about it. Fragments are flying around, looking for their proper place. Perspective is deepening, Structure options remain open. Meanwhile a return to Los Alamos to visit with classmates at a Major Reunion will soon take place, and while I’d intended to have this volume finished before then, it will benefit from the refreshed contact and site visit.

Another factor has come into play. A couple of Facebook groups have formed for those of us who grew up “on the hill.” Hundreds of memory snippets are posted there, and the result is the compilation of a sort of meta memory, larger than any individual could possibly hold. I’ve learned that I did indeed grow up under a rock, largely unaware of much of what was happening. There is no way I can speak for my generation, so I can only speak for myself. That’s good to be reminded of.

The bonus for realizing this is that realizing I grew up under a rock, I also realized that I sort of knew that, and although I thought I wished to be more included with “those kids,” I was quite happy with life as I experienced it, and pretty much did what I liked to do, most of the time. That is a cool and affirming realization.

Viva memoir, and viva the meta connections being enabled by web apps like Facebook, blogs, and more.


Sometimes turning my attention to other things is just what the doctor ordered, and that’s just what I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Putting the polish on my Writing for the Health of It class has consumed my attention and time. But as often happens, turning my attention elsewhere sparked new insight for this project.

In this case, two key discoveries, perhaps key tools, have come from delving back into Christina Baldwin’s book Storycatcher, a book I’d nibbled on previously. Baldwin’s book is rich and multi-layered, and somewhat like a huge pot of soup. Soup is formless and filling. rich with a blend of ingredients. You can’t “get your hands around it” or isolate ingredients, but the blend nourishes you and satisfies your hunger. Even so, on this reading, two concepts popped out  that unlocked new direction.

One is the importance of Story as a meta-concept similar to Truth. It took me a long time to grasp the concept of Story as an organizing principle, the lens for viewing experience and making sense of it. Story in this sense isn’t about single events, it’s my sense of self, of who I am. “Big S” Story is composed of individual experiences that may be recounted as “little s” vignette stories. Truly, I’d never thought of Story this way. A new vista has opened. Thank you Christina. This concept is even more important for my class than this project, but it will give new depth and direction to my memoir.

The second concept is that of Family Myths. These are the stories that we tell ourselves about what makes our family special and different. What binds us together (or pushes us apart). I’ve thought of personally defining characteristics, but not collective ones. Another big Aha.

I’m not ready to get back to my narrative just yet. I have another week of intense preparation for the class, and then we’ll devote a bit of time to reveling in fall color. But even if I’m not drafting my narrative, I will be spending some good journal time exploring My Story and our Family Myths. That’s sure to fertilize the narrative and perhaps I’ll even finally “catch my story.”

The grandchildren have come and gone. At the risk of seeming to brag, I’ve got to say, they are ideal grandchildren. As teenagers, they are respectful, helpful, considerate, well-behaved, resourceful, full of insightful ideas and great conversationalists. And so, so full of energy. The constant rush to cram a lifetime of visits into a week took its toll on this grandmother. I’m exhausted.

But I’m also refreshed and feeling  a bit of new perspective nibbling at the back of my heel. Isn’t that an interesting place to experience inspiration — in the Achilles area? Now what could that mean? Obviously something about vulnerability . . . or maybe moving too slowly in the fast lane?  Is something “nipping at my heel”?

Another source of inspiration is coming from Dominique Browning’s book Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas & Found Happiness, the memoir I’m chilling out with while waiting for a resurgence of energy so I can finish plans for my Writing for the Health of It class that begins a week from today. I’ll review the book when I’m finished, but two things stand out right now. First, she uses dialogue as a very occasional accent, like a splash of lemon-yellow against an olive background.

The other is one line that stands out like that splash of lemon-yellow: “What I have found, in these hours of sleeplessness, is something I may have encountered as a teenager, and then lost in the frantic skim through adulthood — the desire to nourish my soul.”

The “frantic skim” through adulthood . . . is it time to slow down? To “take the repeats” as she began doing and nourish my soul? Could be. What does that mean? For life in general and for my writing? These are juicy journal prompts, for sure!

New, or possibly revised, concepts are bubbling away in the dark. It may be a few more weeks before they begin to take form on the page, but the yeast is lively.

Writing about my love of sewing and remembering how I used to spend time at my sewing machine the way I now spend it at my writing machine has reignited a craving for the feel of fabric between my fingers, slicing, stitching and shaping it into something beautiful, wearable, or useful. I’d forgotten how sewing typically sets off a flood of creative juices, washing away mental log jams and rearranging debris into stunning new configurations. Earlier this morning I began writing about a trip we took two years ago to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. I was remembering the time we spent in at El Mirador, a hotel hanging over the edge of the canyon near Divisdero. The sound of drumming reverberated around the canyon. Our guide explained that this only occurs the week before Easter in preparation for the huge fiesta held by the Tarahumara Indians.

The morning after we arrived, I headed out on a point, alone with my camera, just before sunrise. I found a spot on a spacious rock right on the edge of the cliff and sat to watch the sun turn the mist of dawn to pure gold and wake the colors of far canyon walls with a good  morning kiss.  The combination of wide open spaces, flaming glory, mystical drumming, and fragrance of the forest invoked a state of pure bliss.

Later, as I worked on a sewing project, I was reminded of a similar feeling while attending Girl Scout Day Camp in Los Alamos Canyon. On a much smaller scale, we were on the edge of a cliff, half way down into a canyon. Our troop site was situated on a ledge against a sheer cliff face above. We arrived in the early morning and were surrounded by old growth ponderosa pine. I never heard Indian drums up on the Hill, but San Ildefonso Pueblo was only 15 miles away, and Indian influence was strong in the area.

These two dots connect with my general love of the Southwest and its native culture, inherent simplicity, exposure and vast scale. It speaks to some profound Truth deep within my soul. I feel that something, but I can’t yet name it. This experience of writing about it is allowing me to name it and more strongly claim it, giving it more power in my life. This is the magic of memoir and has become my primary purpose in writing.

I uploaded a collection of pictures from our whole trip onto the Flickr website. The slide show starts here. If you want to specifically see pictures of that mystical morning, that set of eight begins here.

Yesterday, though she had no idea this was happening, best-selling fiction author Tawni O’Dell affirmed my resolution to “write it my way.” She insisted more than once that you cannot learn to write a novel in a classroom. “There is no process! I don’t have a process, so I can’t tell you what to do.”

I knew that. I make the point in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing that we each have a unique writing style, and that we must find our way, work with it, and not let anyone intimidate us into believing otherwise. Nobody was telling me how to organize my material. Nobody was even suggesting. But I have been in danger of drifting into a formula approach, of writing what I think readers want rather than what feels right to me, and Tawni’s words seemed confirmation of my inner sense of things.

She explained also that she can’t write on a schedule, or “every day for four hours.” Her style is more along the lines of writing feverishly without stopping until her fingers are bloody stumps. At some point her characters go silent. She has to take a break and do other things, like walk, clean house, go on a reading binge. Her characters tell her when it’s time to get back to the keyboard. She cannot/will not even try to produce a novel a year. Her agent, editor and publisher know that is not her rhythm, and don’t push her. “Your work is worth waiting for. Do it your way.”

In memoir we don’t have characters quite the way fiction writers do. We have memories. Sometimes the memories grab me by the throat and drag me to my chair. Other times they tell me to go out and make more.

As she was delivering that message about the futility of classes for learning to write a novel (and by extension any larger project), she did say that classes are worth taking because you never know where you’ll find inspiration and it’s good to hang out with other writers. Writing is a lonely pursuit. I think she also said you can refine your wordcraft skills, like description, etc. Phew! That was welcome news since I teach stuff like that!

The best class, she claims, is the one you teach yourself, by reading voraciously with attention to structure and craft. It sinks in, almost by osmosis, and makes you a better writer.

Thank you Tawni!

Just what did I really want? This is the sort of question guaranteed to drive a memoirist to distraction, but until you can answer it, you’re unlikely to have a compelling story. For weeks I’ve been picking at the lock guarding the answer to this question. I’ve filled countless journal pages and thought about it incessantly. I tried free writing. I tried everything besides sitting quietly and waiting for an answer.

Tonight I finally resorted to that last step. I sat back in my recliner in a dark room, turned off the sound of my thoughts, and focused in on metaphorical images of a couple of memories. I used a sort of split screen, comparing possibilities, and changed conditions in the active screen, comparing to the base image. Finally a scene clicked. I knew I’d finally hit the paydirt of fundamental Truth.

This Truth is not something I’ll disclose directly, because I was not aware of this truth as anything but the vaguest dissatisfaction back then. but it will provide form and shape for lots of scenes. It will serve as a sort of hidden skeleton. It will be a major source of tension in the story, helping to move it forward.

My discovery came with a huge bonus. Now that my desire is clear, now that I see that image, I can clearly see how it has manifested in my life. I can watch the dream unfold, beginning a little over thirty years ago, gradually unfurling. That’s the magic of memoir —it can solve some of the basic mysteries of life, our own and perhaps others too. Not only can it heal broken hearts, enable  forgiveness, and bestow inner peace, but it can disclose unexpected joys and blessings, and few things are as satisfying.

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.