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Envisioning: What pops into your mind?

We’ve explored the motivations and basic extent of memoir writing in general; now we should get specific. Lyn Jones has advised would-be memoir writers to involve emotional content in creating scenes, and to achieve that, to focus on specific scenes from the past and describe each one fully.  How can we determine which scenes of our lives hold emotional content that we can recapture for readers?

Here’s a simple exercise.  Sit yourself down in a comfortable place, a chair with a piece of paper and pen or pencil handy. Relax, perhaps close your eyes. Let the words “I REMEMBER” enter your consciousness. What is the first thing from your past that comes to mind? Not the very first memory that you recall, two-years-old or so, but  a moment that rings always at the back of your mind, unsummoned until now. Is it a scene at your grade school? Boys gathered around bullying and teasing? Embarrassment when a piece of clothing was commented on by others or ripped or fell down? Something good—a birthday party with a grandparents unexpected visit from far away? I hope it’s something more exciting and emotionally interesting than the examples I’ve just given.

What pops into your mind absolutely first when you say the words to yourself “I remember. . “

There it is—the memory. Now start writing it down, in the present tense as if you are standing in the middle of it. Set the scene. What time of year, interior or exterior, weather, scenery. But more importantly, emotional context. Can you feel the heat in the room or beach setting, the expressions on the faces of people around you, your own reactions, pain, exultation, joy, sadness?

Here’s mine. Pops first and of course once that happens you can’t change it. It’s the default for life, darn it. I’m five years old and standing in our family home in Indianapolis. My parents have gone for a walk down the street and my sister must be in bed for a nap; she isn’t in the memory. I’m standing in front of one of those old-fashioned radiators that gave hot water heat to homes in the 1930s. That radiator is pretty hot but not enough to burn my hands. On the radiator is a pot I have gotten out of the cabinet along with a box of cocoa and a quart of milk. Some sugar is in a five pound bag nearby leaking  out from where I took a spoon and added sugar to the pot with the milk and cocoa.

I am going to make hot cocoa for my family, little housekeeper that I am, and I am proudly stirring the concoction, sticking my finger in it occasionally to taste it, and wondering why, since I have it on this hot radiator to cook, it isn’t getting much warmer. What’s the matter? I want it ready when they come in from the walk. They will be so proud of me.

But what’s this, they are here? I can hear the door closing; Mama and Daddy are beginning to take off their winter coats and hats and are checking me out. I start to say “I’m making cocoa”—but what is it—Mama is coming over here.

“What a mess. Look at this sugar? What are you doing, you’re going to spill that all over your Sunday School dress!”

I start to cry, to sob. They look at each other. “She was making cocoa for us,” They say. That’s the end of the memory.

Yes, I can feel the pain, and yes, as I have looked back when that memory pops up I can see in my little self crying away there over the radiator the me now who likes to please people. But in real life I have learned, I hope, not to expect a reaction that will please back. Do it because it’s good to do and gives you satisfaction.

Anyway, this exercise will be good for any would-be author of a memoir. Write it out, experience again in detail! Just don’t take your trips into the past too seriously! And remember, judge their importance to your full memoir ultimately not in terms of how the memory makes YOU feel, how much purging or cheering it gives you, but how it capsulizes your experience in life at that moment. It should throw light on the times you were experiencing, give insights into the background of your neighborhood or decade, let us live it and make us “be there,” through the evocation of the five senses you give us.

That’s part of a memoir that will live.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing

Posted in Writing Memoirs |

Writing your memoir? What should it be, for best results?

In the previous blog, we invited you to ask two questions if you were considering writing a memoir: “Why are you writing your memoir? And “Who will read this?” If you have answered that question for yourself, now you can ask what the general direction should be. And no one has better defined that for us than Dr. Darolyn “Lyn” Jones, Education Outreach Director at the Indiana Writers Center and Assistant Teaching Professor, Ball State University Department of English. Lyn has helped would-be memoir writers for many years put their memories and “takes” on life happily on paper. For us at the Hawthorne blog, Lyn has written this:

A memoir is…

  • The extraordinary story of an ordinary person.
  • The extraordinary story of a specific time, place, or event in that ordinary person’s experience. Remember: The ordinary might be the extraordinary; it’s all in how the story is told.
  • Particular and well-chosen anecdotes above others. Skip parts of your life to maintain focus on the extraordinary event, place, or time. Get us to the scene, to the memory that you can’t stop thinking about. A memoir is NOT an autobiography, nor does it proceed evenly in an “I was born” until “the present” format.
  • What the ordinary writer believes is important in her/his life. There should and MUST be an emotional quality to the memoir. Make the ordinary, extraordinary with sensory details. Compose your story so the reader can see, hear, smell, feel, taste, and touch each scene. Lou Gutkind in Keeping it Real, says “A good memoirist makes connections. A good memoirist primary goals is to show us something true about ourselves, about what it means to be human” (p. 116).
  • Your story. Your truth. Hold to that and tell it like you remember it and how you know it to be true.

Dr. Darolyn “Lyn” Jones

Next step: envisioning

Posted in Writing Memoirs |

Writing your memoir? How to do that!

 

History can only be written by those in the present utilizing the recorded records of those in the past. For thousands of years, from Herodotus in Greek times on, interested writers found records from the past, visited sites, domestic and foreign that might have historical interest, and wrote about them. They might or might not have valued exact accuracy.

Some of these records were individuals recording their own lives and observations, or taking down these memories for another. That’s a memoir, and these accounts have become the basis of a good deal of our history in times beyond the writer’s view. Journals or diaries have played a role in recording personal or state or business histories, but a memoir can add perspective, a window on the times as an individual perceived that particular time.

The scope can be one memorable time or event or a whole life. I think of Pliny the Younger’s view of his own experiencing of the last days of Pompeii. On the larger scale are Ulysses S. Grant’s remarkable memoirs of the Civil War and his own presidency, an invaluable source of history for future generations. Any “new book” library shelf will have the memoirs of celebrity politicians, photographers, statesmen, movie stars.

But most of us will who have an urge to tell our own stories have much humbler goals. And if we are considering sitting down at computer or writing the memories out in the old style on a tablet of lined paper, we need to be encouraged that two important goals will happen: (a)  we will feel satisfaction in recording meaningful episodes from our own past to put our lives into perspective and (b) someone will want to read our recorded memories.

 

Clarification of our goals in any writing project is the important first step. Here’s what you should ask yourself:

  • Why am I doing this? How will I receive satisfaction? What information beyond my own immediate experience is available to enrich the narrative?
  • Who will read this? Family? Friends? My own home town or area or interest group? A larger audience? (You will need to have some substantial happenings in your life which are set on a slightly larger stage if that is to happen.)
  • How will I organize my time and project and put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard)
  • How can I write it so the readers can be caught up in my story and I can be satisfied that I’ve written the story well and in good form?
  • Do I wish it published and in what form?
  • How far am I willing to go to get this memoir around?

For this first piece in a memoir blog series, let’s focus briefly on Why am I doing this?

Usual reasons are: (a) to preserve family history before I depart for heritage purposes (b) to share a rich childhood or life in a certain area with others who care, now that times have changed a lot (c) to focus on a certain cultural pattern or local set of living customs that have important ramifications for larger history, for instance, if you grew up on a Native American reservation where a casino was being built, how did that change your culture and life for you? How might your experience affect thinking on Native American entrepreneurship in general?

We’ll further explore these considerations in a series of blogs and apply them to specific memoirs we’ve produced or been associated with at Hawthorne Publishing in our 30 years of existence in Indiana.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing

Posted in Writing Memoirs |

DOGS, DOGS, DOGS….

Doris’ Day’s secretary from the 70’s, Mary Anne Barothy, tells a story of the star and her dogs

It is well known Doris Day has been a lifelong animal lover and advocate.  While recovering from her train/auto accident at age 15 in 1937 in Cincinnati, her dreams of becoming a professional dancer were crushed. She recalls her small dog Tiny helped her through that difficult time in her life.  “He never left my side, understood my moods, and gave me the kind of companionship that only a dog can bestow… It was during this time that I began a lifelong love affair with dogs, a sentiment known only to dog lovers—and cat lovers, too. Their affection and caring is a relief from tensions and anxiety” she remarked.

In 1971, Doris co-founded Actors and Others for Animals along with Richard and Diana Basehart, Lucie Arnaz, Angie Dickinson and others. Doris’s own home became a place of refuge for many stray, abandoned pets. It was not unusual for people to drop dogs and cats over her property gate. Doris never turned any of them away. She made sure they got the veterinary care they needed and she found loving homes for them.  Her limit for her own home was eleven and they were all well cared for.

I was serving as her secretary during the time when Doris was featured in her own TV shows. When her first TV special THE DORIS MARY ANNE KAPPLEHOFF SPECIAL  aired in 1971 on CBS, she had several of her four legged co-stars, along with Perry Como and Rock Hudson. Daisy June, a collie mix, was highlighted on the show, and Doris later remarked to me that Daisy sure got a lot of fan mail after that TV special aired.  She also said she received letters from a lady in southern Florida who ran a shelter. The lady told her after her TV special aired, people came in droves and adopted every dog and cat in the facility within a couple of days. Needless to say, Doris was thrilled with that news.

The DORIS DAY SHOW finished filming in December 1972.  I had planned to fly home to Indianapolis to spend the Christmas holiday with my mother. I would be excused from my secretarial duties for Doris during that time, and I hadn’t often been away.  Doris’s Mom, Alma, was planning to fly to Texas to be with family for Christmas.  Doris was fine with Alma and me being away because she had a lovely, young live-in housekeeper, Nada, who would be with her.

To the surprise and shock of all, Nada,  who had been with Doris for the past 4 months, got word her mother in Yugoslavia was ill. She needed to fly home to be with her.  Needless to say, Doris did not wish to be alone with all the dogs and their responsibilities for an extended time.  I sensed her agitation.  I called my mother to explain the situation and Mom was fine with my staying with Doris and then coming home after a couple weeks when things were ‘”back to normal.”

I moved into Doris’s home, and she gave me the front bedroom for my two-week stay until her mom and Nada returned.  My bedroom was just across from her large master bedroom which overlooked the pool and back yard.  She loaned me four of her “kids” for the night —Bobo & Charlie, two black poodles, along with Rudy and Schatzie, two dachshunds. They all got along and slept between my bed and the other twin bed.  Doris had the other seven kids in her boudoir.  It was all very cozy and we had fun.  My two-week stay at her home turned into almost a two-year stay. Needless to say, I learned a LOT about dogs from Doris.

I must say we were very lucky that the eleven dogs got along as well as they did.  They lived in the house and would occasionally run outdoors and wander around her spacious back yard.  The only time we had to really be on guard was when Biggest, the newest member of the family, would sometimes try to pick a fight with Rudy, an elderly dachshund. Doris’s mother would always say about this dog, “Rudy’s so old he voted for Lincoln.”

Doris would always help feed the dogs. We had a section of her kitchen which was considered the dogs’side. We would get all the bowls out and start preparing each bowl with some canned food, along with cottage cheese and some grated carrots and maybe some cut-up meat. It was a canine cuisine corner and we both made sure the kids ate well. These canine critters had it made!  Doris would do anything for her babies.

Doris’s passion for animal welfare grew and  became a lifelong and dedicated pursuit for her.  She really began to devote her life to animal welfare. She has had a voice for the small critters and people have listened.

Click back to the website and purchase Mary Anne’s unique history of her life as Doris Day’s secretary Day at a Time: An Indiana Girl’s Sentimental Journey to Doris Day’s Hollywood and Beyond.

Posted in Doris Day |