Fly your own bird

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde

DSCN0126One of my favorite episodes on the hilarious Portlandia series is the one that popularized the phrase: “Put a bird on it.” Now listed in urban dictionaries, the expression refers to any creative trend that’s become so common that it’s a cliche. If you haven’t seen the episode, think of the times you’ve visited a boutique or gallery and noticed how many items are embellished with a bird. You get the idea.

On the topic of originality, freelance writer Pam Houghton recently posted several excellent tips on building a satisfying career. For me, the tip that resonated most was the one emphasizing the importance of listening to your own voice — instead of following trends.

“Some people make success look easy,” Pam wrote. “The times I tried to imitate them never worked even after repeated attempts….I had no choice then but to step back and ask, what is it that I do well?”

Pam’s post got me thinking about my early years as a journalist in the 1980s. I was a huge fan of New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, whose “Life in the Thirties” pieces were so fresh that I wished I’d written them. I wanted to draw “aha!” moments from my readers, like Quindlen did every week. I wanted to be a family columnist, but how could I hold a candle to Anna Quindlen?

Then there was Anne Lamott, who wrote the exquisite memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, and lots of juicy essays for Salon. Add to the fact that I also admired essayist Annie Dillard, and you’ll get why I considered adopting my middle name, Anne, as a pen name. The Annes and Annas were rocking the writing world.

On one hand, I learned something about my own taste — and writing goals — when I examined the nuts and bolts of their work. Quindlen spun the personal into the political; Dillard brought both depth and poetry to her nonfiction; Lamott broke rules and made me laugh out loud.

Luckily, I stopped short of stealing their pet adjectives or mimicking their styles. But it took a while to feel confident in my own voice.

It’s tempting to reach for something quick and easy — a bird? someone else’s idea? — when we’re timid or lazy. (As a mixed-media artist, I’ve been guilty of pasting too many birds on my collages.) Of course, it’s natural to follow trends when we’re starting out, whether we’re designing furniture or writing poetry. And while it’s true that we learn by observation, the trick is to avoid getting stuck in copycat mode. (Plagiarism is illegal, period.)

Being an original is twice as hard in the digital age. Everyone is chirping for attention, building a platform, following trends. The biggest challenge is to keep stretching your wingspan, then landing on something that’s truly your own.

— Artwork by Cindy La Ferle; copyright 2012 —  

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. Patricks Day column about my mothers 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 hed 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, Ive come to believe that our life stories are the most valuable legacies we can leave our loved ones — and that its never too early to start writing them down.

Once you commit to the project, youll 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, its important to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.

“Memoir isnt the summary of a life, its 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. Its 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 youll 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 youve 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 grandmothers 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, were often surprised to discover that our “ordinary” lives are richer than wed realized. We renew our appreciation for everything weve 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.

 

Wild words

What more could I do with wild words?” — Mary Oliver

I’m a cat lover and a morning person, so Mary Oliver‘s “Morning” spoke to me the first time I read it. And each time I revisit the poem, something else strikes me.

Last week, for instance, a student in one of my workshops told me that list-making helps her get started when she’s trying to write a piece. Note how the first few lines of Oliver’s poem, below, work as a list of her morning observations. And note how the cat becomes a metaphor for “wild words,” and how, once again, the most ordinary experiences are sheer poetry. — CL

Morning
By Mary Oliver

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

–Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver; Beacon Press; Boston; 2005.

–Top Photo: Our wonderful cat, Jack, was a “wild thing” from the local animal shelter. —