A cookbook memoir

Sometimes I suggest family recipes as points of entry for writing a memoir. Does your Italian grandmother’s pasta sauce stir up memories of holiday gatherings? Do you recall your kid brother’s grin every time you bake the oatmeal cookies he loved? Using this approach, some writers end up compiling cookbooks laced with treasured family stories and traditions.

IMG_1219Anyone can turn a memoir into a work of art by combining keepsakes and recipes. For inspiration on how to start this type of project (shown at left), you might want to visit my new art blog. Please click here to learn more.

Speaking of memoirs, I’ll be teaching an evening class on memoir writing at the Royal Oak Public Library on March 24, and participating as a panelist in a discussion on blogging on March 31. Complete details on the ROPL’s Spring Writing Series (including how to register for the classes) are included in this feature on Royal Oak Patch.

Photo: “House Wife” (an altered book) by Cindy La Ferle

 

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.

 

Make room for writing

If you really want to write, you will do it anywhere: under trees, on the bus, in the bathroom, or in a booth at a noisy cafe.”

First published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf is often reduced to a catchphrase for writers and architects who haven’t even read the book. Originally penned as two lectures, Woolf’s landmark essay asserts that every woman writer should have a substantial income and a room of her own if she is to produce literature worthy of publication and readership.

Furthermore, Woolf said, women who want to write ought to be given the freedom to travel — and they must have plenty of idle time for daydreaming and creating. That was very progressive talk for the 1920s.

And while it isn’t exactly earth shattering today, A Room of One’s Own is still considered a major milestone for women writers. Whenever I’m asked to name 10 books that changed my life, this one never fails to top the list.

Excuses, excuses!

Not surprisingly, the subject of finding or creating “the perfect writing space” always comes up in the writing workshops I teach. Sadly, not having a room of one’s own is the most popular excuse for not writing anything. I’ve met a few self-described procrastinators who have an extra guest room, for instance, but insist they can’t work there because it’s poorly lit, uninspiring, too small, too cluttered, too close to the neighbor’s window, or cursed with bad feng shui.

But sooner or later, every serious writer arrives at this truth: If you really want to write, you will do it anywhere: under trees, on the bus, in the bathroom, or in a booth at a noisy cafe. Serious writers need only a pen and a notebook to get started. And nothing — not even a bad view or ugly curtains — will stop us.

That said, I believe Virginia Woolf made an excellent point about the need for peace and privacy, and she didn’t even have kids to distract her.

Setting boundaries, closing doors

Working with little ones underfoot is another challenge entirely. When my own son was a toddler, I began freelancing in the damp basement of our 1920′s home. If you’re a younger parent who’s eager to combine writing with motherhood and homemaking, setting up shop at a kid’s craft table next to the laundry room might sound convenient.

But I quickly discovered this was not what Virginia had in mind.

Working in a murky basement became a metaphor for the way I undervalued my career at the time. Aside from the fact that the ambiance was vaguely reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s boiler room, my desk was typically littered with construction paper or my preschooler’s science experiments. Settling in to write, I’d find blue finger paint or Play-Doh oozing from my paper-clip container. My scissors and rolls of tape mysteriously disappeared.

Meanwhile, the clothes dryer kept buzzing, which didn’t exactly impress editors when I phoned to pitch stories.

A year later, I moved my office upstairs to a sunroom with windows overlooking the yard. Not so coincidentally, I started taking my work seriously then. My writing became both a career and a vocation. I established a tighter writing schedule and contributed regularly to several local newspapers and national magazines.

Two years ago, my husband generously agreed to renovate my office-sunroom, adding shelves and counter-top space for books, a printer, and office supplies. Most important of all, my home office has a glass door to help establish my boundaries.

Clearing your own space

Every writer is different, so you’ll have to experiment until you find what works for you.

Not long ago, I met a parenting columnist who’s also the brave mother of four little boys. She rented cheap office space just ten minutes from her house, which seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. But after three months of commuting back and forth to work and trying to coordinate an awkward breast-feeding schedule, the columnist admitted her new office wasn’t so ideal. The clamor of family life is what kept her energized and motivated.

If you don’t have the luxury of a spare bedroom or an attic with a desk, claim a corner of the house where you can focus on your work. Use the area just for writing (or your other creative projects) and keep supplies within easy reach. Put up a folding screen for privacy while you work; or use it to conceal your works-in-progress. Creating an official space for your creative life will dignify your goals and intentions. You’ll find it easier to follow a routine — and harder to keep making excuses.

If you don’t already have a room of your own, can you describe your ideal space — right down to the supplies you’d need? What would you have to do to make it a reality?  – Cindy La Ferle

Note: Part of this essay is excerpted from a previously published essay “Home Sweet Office” — which appears in full in my book, Writing Home.

Top photo: a glimpse of my recently remodeled home office in Royal Oak.

Doing something

One is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something.” — Henry David Thoreau

It’s that time of year. Everyone is gearing up to run marathons and raise funds for a favorite cause or organization, whether it’s breast cancer or juvenile diabetes or the local Boys & Girls Club. I used to feel guilty for not joining Detroit’s annual Race for the Cure, but my bionic hip replacements weren’t designed to meet the long-distance challenge.

Several years ago I came up with another way to honor my paternal grandmother, Ruby Gullion, who had breast cancer. At least once a year, I volunteer to lead writing workshops for William Beaumont Hospital’s Sharing & Caring, an educational support group for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their families. My workshops always focus on the healing aspects of writing and sharing our stories. Since many of the women who attend are new to journal-keeping and personal writing, my job is to talk up the benefits and give them the tools to begin.

For starters, I ask the participants to list a few of the lessons they’ve learned from breast cancer. Or to write about the strengths they didn’t know they had until they were diagnosed and treated.

Giving them 20 minutes of free-writing time, I tell them not to worry about editing their work or even completing the exercise. The goal is to get pens moving and thoughts flowing. Those who are comfortable reading aloud are invited to share what they’ve written with the group. Invariably, every lesson, every story shared, touches another woman in the group who needed to hear it.  Most of the women are amazed at what they’ve put into words — and the evenings typically end with tears and hugs and promises to keep on writing.

As many teachers will tell you, I always end up learning more from my “students” than they learn from me. Sharing their struggles, fears, triumphs, and courage, the breast cancer patients and survivors I meet at Beaumont always remind me to treasure every single moment I’m given in this life.

I may have donated my time, but I walk away richer for the experience.

I share this information for two reasons. First, I want to underscore the therapeutic, connective powers of writing — and to remind everyone that “getting published” isn’t necessarily the goal of a writing practice. Secondly, you don’t have to run a marathon or walk miles to support a cause or organization you believe in. You have gifts and talents that you can volunteer to share with others who need your expertise. So get out there and do something. — Cindy La Ferle

“The Journey”

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of developing a “voice.” Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s truly essential to us.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

THE JOURNEY
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo “Journey” by Cindy La Ferle —