The family paper trail

Earlier this week, a student in my writing workshop read a wonderful essay about working as a newspaper carrier when he was a boy. It brought back a memory of a column I wrote for The Daily Tribune when my son was in high school. I promised I’d post this after our class discussion on nostalgia pieces. Here you go, Jim …

Newspaper careers seem to run in families. My great-great grandfather was a foreign correspondent based in Washington D.C., and while my work isn’t nearly as glamorous, I must have inherited his passion for newsprint. And I shouldn’t have been surprised this year when my son Nate decided to run for the editorship of his high school newspaper – and won.

DSCN6643I’ve always been careful not to push Nate in the direction of my own journalism career, but I discovered early on that printer’s ink runs in his blood, too. As soon as he turned twelve, the kid begged for his own paper route. His dad and I were ambivalent at first — and secretly relieved to learn that no routes for the local daily were available. But following a major blizzard that winter, Nate got a call with the good news: A route had opened up in our neighborhood. He couldn’t wait to get started.

“I hope you know what you’re getting into,” another parent warned me. “Not only are you writing for the paper, Cindy, but you’ll be delivering it, too.”

Soon after, mile-high stacks of freshly printed newspapers and ad supplements arrived daily on our porch. Rubber bands, plastic bags, and other delivery doodads littered every surface in the house.

In retrospect, I think it was worth the hassle. The smart-alecky seventh-grader got a sharp taste of the business world. He learned that customers expected his product on time, regardless of whether he was late from school or had “tons of math homework.” He discovered that readers were paying for the convenience of home delivery, not for papers tossed in puddles on the sidewalk. He learned the diplomacy required of every bill collector, as well as how to balance accounts when money was due. This was real-life math.

He also found that the biggest challenge for any newspaper carrier is crawling out of bed before sunrise on Sunday mornings – hours before the local pastors have opened their Bibles. Though Nate covered his own route on weekdays, his dad and I helped deliver the bulkier Sunday papers at dawn. Other parents told us we were spoiling the kid by chauffeuring him block to block when we could have been sleeping in, but I never saw it that way.

There was magic in those Sunday mornings. Since I’ve never been an early riser, it was a rare gift to watch the sun rise. In the summer, especially, the color show was spectacular – neon streaks of lavender, orange, and gold flashing above scarlet treetops on the suburban skyline. As each bundled newspaper hit its targeted porch, it also struck me that my relationship with this gangly boy had morphed overnight into a tug-of-war between my moody middle age and his stubborn adolescence. His boyhood was ending too quickly.  

“Please… slow… down!” I’d holler as he frantically scaled porch steps, two by two, trying to finish the route before 9:00 a.m.

The cheerful camaraderie we’d shared in the early grade-school years had recently given way to recurring battles over household messes and Internet use, but during the time we worked the neighborhood route we were back on common ground. If only for an hour or so a week, we were a team again.

To everyone’s surprise, Nate kept that job for nearly two years, quitting it only because homework and high school commitments had to take priority. It was a learning experience for the whole family. We never rushed home after the last paper was delivered, but made a special ritual of stopping for hot chocolate and hash browns. The rest of the day, and its deadlines, could wait. — Cindy La Ferle, June 21, 2003

A slightly different version of this column was first published in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak) on June 21, 2003, and later reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home.

How to write a memoir

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”  ~From “The Wonder Years” 

DSCN4451Several years ago, I decided to write a St. Patrick’s Day column about my mother’s beloved Grandpa Finney, the son of an Irish immigrant.* I knew he was a moderately successful watercolor artist — and one of the most eccentric characters perched on our family tree — but I needed more material for my piece.

Turning to Mom for help, I asked her to jot down a few memories of her grandfather. Thrilled by the invitation, she gathered a handful of vintage family photographs and got to work. Her four-page letter recounted poignant stories of how Grandpa Finney struggled to make a living as a commercial illustrator during the Depression, working such long hours that he’d often fall asleep at his drafting table.

I only wish I had asked my mother to do this more often. In recent years, vascular dementia has robbed or altered most of her memories, and she has no living relatives to share any family anecdotes left untold.

Since then, I’ve come to believe that our life stories are the most valuable legacies we can leave our loved ones — and that it’s never too early to start writing them down.

Once you commit to the project, you’ll want to create a “memoir file” in your computer. Inspiration is unpredictable, so make a habit of keeping your favorite pen and a notebook handy, too. But before you begin, it’s important to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.

“Memoir isn’t the summary of a life, it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in its composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).

In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with your earliest memories and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, such as the summer your uncle taught you how to operate his tractor before you were old enough to drive, or the year you were diagnosed with breast cancer.

I encourage students in my writing workshops to choose memoir over autobiography. It’s much easier to write about one key experience at a time, whether your goal is a book-length memoir or a series of short personal essays.

Here are a few tips to help you mine some memorable treasure:

  1. Make a list of life-changing events, large and small. Put a check by the ones you’ll want to write about first.
  2. Hush your inner critic and give yourself permission to write freely. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after you’ve written a first draft.
  3. Explore your stash of souvenirs and heirlooms. Choose one, then write an essay about how you acquired it and what it means to you. (If you plan to pass the item along to a loved one, include a copy of your piece.)
  4. Use a family recipe as a prompt and delve into the memories it stirs. Your Italian grandmother’s spicy eggplant Parmesan, for instance, is redolent of old-country stories and celebrations.
  5. Grab a box of colored pencils and draw a map of your childhood bedroom. Write about your favorite toys and the pals who visited.
  6. Interview the elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a love song to a war story. Record the interview.
  7. Be a master of detail. Use proper names and employ all of your senses when you write. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
  8. Avoid aimless rambling; make a point and arrive at a conclusion. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts your wisdom, advice or a life lesson.

As Saul Bellow once wrote, “Memories keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” When we commit our stories to the page, we’re often surprised to discover that our “ordinary” lives are richer than we’d realized. We renew our appreciation for everything we’ve inherited, earned, or lost along the way – including our eccentric relatives. — Cindy La Ferle

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— This column was originally published in Prime magazine (formerly Michigan Senior Living) last year. My column appears bimonthly in the magazine. Watch for the next issue in the April 7 edition of the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. —

*The St. Patrick’s Day column, titled “My Wild Irish Relative,” is included in my essay collection, Writing HomePhoto shown above: A watercolor painting by Russell P. Finney, given to my parents on their wedding day.

 

The family columnist

We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”  ~Stacia Tauscher

Relying on our kids to provide column fodder is hardly new. Today there are countless “mommy blogs” and family sites online. But it was fun to reminisce about my own column-writing days in a new Home Forum essay for The Christian Science Monitor. I approached the piece with a light hand — but some heavier issues lurk between the lines. How much ink is appropriate to give our kids? How do we know if we’ve overstepped our boundaries or violated their privacy? Please click here to read the new essay. –CL

Crafting a mystery

Making your unknown known is the important thing.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

Who was she? I have no idea. But I was inexplicably drawn to her photograph (at left) in an album that once belonged to my mom’s stepmother, affectionately known as Granny Bee.

When Granny Bee died, my mother inherited this magnificent album of sepia-toned photographs — some dating back to the Civil War. Many are marked with the names of photography studios in Chicago or Aurora, Illinois; others are from studios in New Hampshire. Sadly, the folks in the photographs are not identified. Not a single name, event, or date is penciled anywhere.

Bee had no children of her own. I was her only step grandchild — by marriage — so the fate of this antique album now rests in my hands.

As it happens, I often use vintage photographs in my mixed-media artwork. (I make high-quality copies and preserve the originals.) In particular, the dour-looking mystery woman in Bee’s album is a perennial favorite. Her deadpan expression is so priceless that she’s played a starring role in countless craft projects, from greeting cards to note pads. She’s worn a red poinsettia on her head for Christmas cards, for instance, and a witch hat on Halloween party invitations.

This week I finished a more lasting tribute to her: a mixed-media “reliquary” of found objects. (Please click the image at the far left for a larger view.) The word remember is incorporated throughout the piece, along with scraps from an old hymnal, sewing notions, vintage fabrics, feathers and twigs. The door to the piece opens to reveal a small collection of old bottles filled with found objects.

“I like photographs that leave something to the imagination.” — Fay Godwin

I’ve even tried to give my mystery woman a proper name. “Isabel” or “Esmeralda” both seem to suit her — yet somehow I sense I’m on the wrong track. Early on, I tried to investigate. But even before her memory was fogged by dementia, my mother couldn’t recall the name of the relative in the photo — nor could she determine her kinship to our beloved Granny Bee. So I’ll have to settle for the stories conjured by my own imagination.

All said and done, crafting something with my hands sets my mind whirling in a thousand different directions. Making art is another way of telling stories. And I love how the process has created my special relationship with the incomparable “Isabel Esmeralda” — a relationship that reaches across time and never stops delighting me.

If she were alive today, would the Victorian mystery woman be honored — or appalled — at being the center of attention in my art pieces? I wonder if I could make her smile. — Cindy La Ferle

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“Remember” was chosen for the 2012 All-Media exhibit at the Ann Arbor Art Center, opening September 7, 2012. To view more photos of the piece on Facebook, click here.

Memoir under attack

“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” — Saul Bellow

Is it time to stop the flow of memoirs? On Sunday, in “The Problem with Memoirs,” New York Times reviewer Neil Genzlinger made what he called “a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre.”

Then he went on to review four new memoirs to illustrate his points. Genzlinger was pretty brutal. Three of the four memoirs, he said, didn’t need to be written.

Not only did I cringe for the three authors under attack; I took some of what he said personally. For starters, I’ve no doubt that Genzlinger would by bored to tears by my own book — a collection of personal essays celebrating ordinary family moments. And I suspect he’d advise me to discourage the students in my memoir classes to stop seeking publication.

Admittedly, some of Genzlinger’s observations are fair. Bookstore tables and shelves are stacked and stuffed with countless memoirs written by authors who’ve survived cancer, endured domestic violence, raised autistic children, lost spouses or pets, built their own houses, or moved to the country to “simplify” their long-suffering suburban lives. Genzlinger doubts that there’s anything new to add to the genre of personal experience.

If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already in it. Imitation runs rampant in memoir land.” – Neil Genzlinger

Does this really mean that the rest of us leading ordinary lives have no right to write and share our stories?

“If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead, hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life,” Genzlinger advised.

This flies in the face of nearly everything I’ve told my students — and it certainly doesn’t do much to dignify blogging, a favorite second cousin of memoir writing.

In my classes, the majority of new students worry about appearing arrogant when they start writing in the first person. More often than not, my biggest challenge is to assure them that we’ve all learned a thing or two from our experiences; that our stories are worth recording and sharing. So, maybe none of us will make the best-seller list. But I believe we deserve — at the very least — permission to share our history and life lessons with loved ones, if not a wider readership. What do you think? –CL

— “Writer” collage by Cindy La Ferle —