|Marine Jeff Smith|
|Congratulating Jedwin on his book.|
Yellow — the carefree, fleeting times of youth, health, learning and enjoying simple things. An unburdened time of discovery, growth and anticipation of “what’s next” shared like co-conspirators. It is a happy color associated with my sister because of the joy she brought to my life.
And then there is Green — calming, life giving and one of mama’s favorite colors. The color of money that held less value to Cindy than time on earth with the one she loved.
White — the color of angels with gold dust on their wings. Cindy, my angel, forever watching over me. She still hovers over me while sleeping, running and my daily attempt to get it right.
Purple — vibrant, strong, a stand out in any crowd as Cindy was. She didn’t demand respect but received it because of how she lived her life and the friend that she chose to be.
Orange — somehow an unnoticed contributor to a group, unsung but ever present; wow, that was my sister. She brightened up a group just by being there, didn’t expect to be noticed but was.
Silver — as in there is a silver lining. I have come to believe that in my sister’s death that there is a silver lining.
“Each of us has the potential to construct a better life by uncovering and reflecting on our inner experience,” writes Judy, who spent more than 25 years teaching speech-language pathology and counseling at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Here is her post — enjoy!
Shopping brings up a lot for me. I have a long history of shopping failure, or perhaps I should saying fashion failure. Style maven I am not. To go shopping is to evoke a whole library of memories—of shopping and clothes, of appearance and acceptability—memories colored by dread, body despair, low expectations, and complete lack of instinct about what might look good.
The clothing stories of my past—suddenly they are bombarding me: the date I went on wearing a house robe because I couldn’t figure out what to wear, the events I went to in drab work clothes because I couldn’t imagine myself in any other kind of outfit, the endless cycle of hesitant purchases followed by reluctant returns.
No wonder the shopping expedition is so fraught, so laden, with each small hope hounded by fear. I am never really shopping for my life today. I am shopping for the stories of the past, telling these stories in one version or another, deepening their mythology with each repetition.
But if I wrote the script I can rewrite it, and that is what I must do with these stories. I must write them, retell them, give them life on the page instead of life in real life. Writing gives me a space after memory but before reenactment. Writing is my opportunity to rewrite a bit of history so that what was past becomes part of a new future.
I emerge from the mall triumphant, the white pants in hand. I am balanced, not frazzled; self-accepting, not critical. This is one story I don’t have to escape, and one pair of pants I don’t want to return. I even have time to pick up that bone clutch I forgot I needed.
Questions for Reflection: How does this blog take you back into memory? What stories do you find yourself retelling and reliving? What stories from your life would you like to rewrite?
Writing Prompts: “When I read this post, I began remembering ______” (then keep writing); “One story I relive often is ______” (then keep writing); “When I write about a recurring event, I find ______” (then keep writing); “I would like to rewrite my story of ______” (then keep writing).
You only have to peek at bookstore displays of new titles to see how much memoir writing has grown in popularity in recent years. The desire to honor and chronicle one’s family legacy and create a “living history” is compelling and drives many to the craft of memoir — and certainly was a factor in my own family memoir, A Breath Away: Daughters Remember Mothers Lost to Smoking, which I wrote a year after losing my mother and aunt to lung cancer.
“Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life and of the family you were born into,” writes author William Zinsser in his post, “How to Write a Memoir.” In May, HarperCollins released the 30th-anniversary edition of Zinsser’s bestseller, On Writing Well, including a new chapter on memoir.
He says a memoir can take many forms — from a formal memoir to an informal family history or even an oral history that you extract by tape recorder from an ailing parent or grandparent.
Narrow Your Topic
Zinsser says it’s important that you make a series of “reducing decisions.” “For example, one big decision would be to write about only one branch of the family. Families are complex organisms, especially if you trace them back several generations. Decide to write about your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side, but not both.”
New York-based professional writer Brian McDonald advises that memoir writers first master the art of listening. McDonald wrote My Father’s Gun, his 1999 family memoir chronicling three generations of Irish-American New York City Police Department officers. The book, which came out two years before 9/11, was later made into a two-hour documentary on the History Channel.
“I was lucky I had a family of storytellers – police officers and bartenders and such are natural storytellers. I was always a great listener. Those anecdotes I heard from when I was first a child stayed with me, and later on when I decided to do a book about my family, they came to life. Then I went about reporting them, finding out where family lore stopped and where fact began.”
Flesh out the Details
The details in your memoir are critical, advises Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, a certified geneologist and memoir writing instructor for WritingOnlineWorkshops.com, in her Writer’s Digest post, “Write a Memoir to Remember!”
“While writing your memoir, probe as deeply as you can to fill out a scene or an event. Use photographs, letters, diaries, interviews or background research to explain, reflect and fill out your narrative. In the details, you will begin to make sense of your life experiences,” Carmack states. “Some budding memoirists rush through a scene without stopping to smell the rain on the pavement. Granted, you don’t want to overwhelm your readers with details; you have to keep the story moving along. If the scene or event is crucial, slow down and describe it so that the reader can experience it with you.”
In McDonald’s case, he got his “hands dirty” – going to halls of record and pulling research off of shelves. “Because my family were police officers, there was a lot of history of the police department – old records and first-person narratives that I pulled out,” he recalls.
In the end, he was able to tell not only the stories of the men in his family, but also the behind-the-scenes stories of his family’s women, who he considers “the real heroes” of the book because of the emotional toll they carried raising children while their husbands went about very dangerous work. His brother Frankie Jr. served in the Bronx during the 70s — a period noted for the high murder rate, racial tensions and cop assassinations by members of the Black Liberation Army, McDonald recalls.
“My sister-in-law used to say every time the 11 o’clock news would come on, she’d stay up and the lead story would be a cop shot or a shootout in the Bronx, and she’d have that same feeling in her stomach — that same dread that it was her husband. That way is a very hard way to live your life.”
McDonald considers the best part of the book project was the end result — a family record that can be shared with future generations. “Grandchildren and great grandchildren down the road are going to be able to pick this book off the shelf and say, ‘That was my great grandfather.’ ‘That was my uncle.’ ‘That was my cousin,'” he says.
Links to Read More
If you want to read more about writing memoirs, check out this Squidoo post, “The Best Books for Writing a Memoir,” which recommends works such as Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art and Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman.
Mother’s Day for me is always bittersweet – it’s a time to enjoy my kids (and be pampered a little). It’s a time to reconnect with other moms and let them know that they’re appreciated. And it’s a time to thank my own mom for all she’s done — as a parent, confidante and trusted guide. This is my sixth Mother’s Day without her.
A true coal miner’s daughter, Billie Jo Siler was born on Sept. 17, 1939, in Pruden — once a tiny coal mining town straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was the youngest of seven children (six girls, one boy), and as was common during those days, began smoking when she was only 16. A tomboy and a hard worker, she joined the Air Force out of high school. She had a natural writing aptitude and was assigned to work on the base newspaper at Lackland AFB in Texas. She met my father after returning to civilian life. They married and eventually had four children. A devoted wife and mother, Mom made the holidays special and never knew a stranger. She also was my best friend. She passed away on Aug. 3, 2004, at age 64, when my son — her first grandchild — was only three weeks old.
When not thought out – such as a carelessly worded e-mail, words can annoy, hurt or wound the spirit. When they are spoken or written with the full feeling of our hearts, they can heal and even transform. That was what I’ll remember most from attending the third annual Wellness & Writing Connections Conference on Oct. 23 at Georgia Tech.
The conference’s keynote speaker was someone who touched me with her sincerity — a “sister in spirit” — author, journalist and 33-year writing professor Julie Davey. A two-time cancer survivor, Julie gives back by teaching cancer patients how to use writing to heal at the City of Hope Medical Center in Los Angeles.
To our group of 100 writers, she shared the stories of some of her students to demonstrate the power of directed writing (as opposed to journal writing) for people needing to face their sadness, fear, frustration, pain.
She told the story of Linda Bergman, a famous Hollywood producer with 26 films to her credit, who got cancer on her 50th birthday as she was filming “Michael Landon: The Father I Knew.” Julie recalled how Linda was about to give up with the chemo treatments that weren’t making her better. She was ready to check out of the hospital and go home to die. Her family and oncologist at the City of Hope convinced her to try one final trial. Four months later she was cured. Linda donates one day a week at the City of Hope, serving as an anonymous greeter to arrivals at the cancer center. Linda wrote about her victory and how much she loves serving others facing cancer in “Free at Last:”
I have reached my goal – I am no longer the victim.
I am assisting those who have come behind me.
I see it on the patient’s faces when I get the opportunity to say, ‘Oh you have leukemia. I had that, too.’
I see the light in their eyes as they search mine for answers.
No, we don’t always have the same disease, but they know I speak their language.
They know I can be trusted.
They know I have faced the demons and lived to tell about it.
They know I am disease-free and standing in the midst of the storm, shining a light to them.
They know I love them because I am them.
Julie also spoke about her favorite student of all time – Violet Wightman, who began taking her writing classes at Fullerton College at age 91. Violet’s ice-breaker introduction was that she was a friend to both Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and the famous aviator Amelia Earhart – statements that she later proved were true. Violet was a former concert pianist who raised her four children alone after her husband, a Hollywood dentist, died tragically in a car accident in Europe. Always outspoken and colorful in class, Violet had aspirations to write her life story. Upon learning she had terminal cancer, this desire became urgent. Julie and others at the college helped Violet pull together her writing collection, Sitting on a Cloud, before her death.
Each of us attending Julie’s talk got to experience directed writing. We were given an envelope with the message, “Please wait to open.” When it was time to open my envelope, it read: “The day I would like to relive (or live over) would be the day….”
I didn’t have to think for long. I wrote, “The day my terminally ill mother asked if I could spend the day with her because it was a good day (she was feeling okay), and I didn’t because of work deadlines. I thought there would be more days but they became fewer in number as her condition deteriorated. I would love to have that day back, because she’s gone and the work wasn’t important.”