What a Memoir Writer Can Learn From a Novel

Today’s memoir review focuses on a novel. Huh? I’ll explain.

I’ve been wanting to read a novel by WordPress blogger Anneli Purchase for some time now, and the other day I had a long car trip so I settled into my seat with a copy of Orion’s Gift, Anneli’s 2012 novel.

Before I knew it we had arrived at our destination, and I didn’t want to put the book down. The story is part romance and part adventure, and I became caught up in the budding love story, as well as the dangerous escapades.

In the midst of all that, my memoir-writing brain started clicking away when I read what Anneli does with setting. I realized that I could learn from her about writing setting in memoir.

The story takes place, for the most part, in Baja California. Anneli has traveled and camped that area herself, and her own experiences inform the book with multi-dimensional descriptions of the area. Sometimes the reader is plunged into the natural beauty. Other times, the setting reflects the interior landscape of the characters. Kevin, one of the lovers who is beset with worries, sees the landscape this way:

Rocks, sand, cholla, ocotillo, and cardón cacti, and palo verde trees. Beautiful, yet unending and without distinguishing landmarks, and no ocean in sight. I didn’t like it. Oh, it was scenic enough, but heading out into the unknown, so late in the day, putting all my trust in people I had just met–it didn’t sit right with me.

In addition to using setting as an exterior marker for what is going on with her characters’ thoughts and emotions, Anneli uses setting as a way for her characters to interact.  Kevin has helped Sylvia in several ways, including escaping from a bandido and getting her damaged van back on the road again, but Sylvia can teach him a few things, too. When they enter the water, she advises him what to do if he runs into a stingray. Kevin says he will fight back if he has to, but then he realizes that he never fought back in his marriage that just ended–he had let his wife walk all over him.

The setting is integrated as part of the story; it’s not a bonus or addition, but an essential part of what occurs in the book. It has an effect on the plot and on the actions of the characters. The campgrounds and wilderness areas provide a backdrop for the dangers of Mexico, but the towns bring the couple in closer touch with their dangerous pasts. When Sylvia has to learn how to dress properly for the town, there is more at stake than just fitting in.

Orion’s Gift was a relaxing and engaging break from reading memoirs. I’ve already loaned it to my daughter to read.

It’s a perfect addition to your summer reading list.

Anneli writes two WordPress blogs. You can find her at Anneli’s Place and at wordfromanneli.

To find out more about Anneli and her books, click on the links below:


Links for Orion’s Gift:

Amazon.com http://amzn.to/TSNU8v

Amazon.co.uk http://amzn.to/13bba5z

Amazon.ca http://amzn.to/Zr8K3U

Smashwords.com http://bit.ly/VsEj7S



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir writing theory, Research and prep for writing, WordPress, Writing

Who Came Calling?

I’m not writing an autobiography or my “life story,” but the memoir story I am telling about our family does criss-cross my entire life.

It’s a different mindset to write about more recent times than it is to write about my childhood. For childhood scenes it helps to get myself back in that time by looking at artifacts from the period.

Occasionally, I brainstorm about objects and odd unimportant memories just for this purpose.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the men and women who came to our houses with the purpose of delivering or selling.

When I was in junior high my grandmother was still getting deliveries from Lockshore Dairy. The milk man would drive up very early in the morning and put the milk and cottage cheese and butter in a silver box on Grandma’s porch. Eventually, the company stopped making deliveries as home delivery and home sales were beginning to become old-fashioned.

In the way that sometimes old becomes new again, when my kids were little and we were living in California, I was able to order dairy delivery from Alta Dena!

When I was younger than nine, we were visited regularly by the Fuller Brush Man. If you click on the photo, you will find an article that describes how the company, after being in business for over 100 years, went Chapter 11 last summer. We bought cleaning supplies, as well as brushes from him. He didn’t look handsome and spiffy like the man in the poster; he was more sad and harried looking. Maybe if he had been younger he would have been more eager, but I can’t say he didn’t try to be enthusiastic about the products in the gigantic suitcase he hauled around with him.

Fuller Brush Man

Our Rexair vacuum was purchased from a man who came selling them. He spread his products out in our small living room and showed my mother how to vacuum up dirt without a bag in the vacuum. The dirt went into a pot of water at the base of the vacuum. Although we barely had any furniture and we didn’t have wall-to-wall carpet, she bought it! 

The Avon Lady still visited when I was in high school, but soon after that, Avon began to be sold through other methods than door to door sales.

There were various other people who came to the door, such as men offering to sharpen our knives and scissors.

Now when somebody rings my doorbell unannounced, I try to peek and see who it is or I just ignore them. What if they are coming to tell me my house is on fire? Or that there has been a disaster and we must evacuate? It might be nice to be able to open the door to a stranger and invite him in so I can look at his wares. Or am I just being nostalgic?


On another note, I’ve written before about the angst I have over reading my poetry aloud. A new issue of TAB: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics is out. You can read my poem “Vagrant.” Or listen to me read it ;).  Click the link if you’re willing.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing

Dead People and Mysteries

I just finished reading Monica Holloway’s first memoir, Driving with Dead Peopleand I’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to write about the book without including any spoilers.

Not an easy task with this book since the last chapters hit me hard.

Near the end of the book, I wondered how I missed it all. On reflection, I guess it’s because the book is that well-written.

You’re going to love this one as the narrator’s voice is engaging, but if you don’t like to read dark memoirs, then it might take a frightening turn for you. If you venture on, you find that your journey has value, and that Holloway is courageous.

Holloway tells the story of her childhood, growing up in the midwest. Her father is cruel, and at first her mother seems as much a victim as the four children. Then Holloway’s mother goes to college and gets the courage to leave her husband. Emotionally, she turns her back on her children as surely as if she had completely abandoned them.

Her obsession with death and dead people keeps Holloway going throughout these years. Her best friend’s father owns a funeral parlor, and she gets a job driving dead bodies for him. She haunts the graveyard.

Additionally, the passion (different from obsession) that gets Holloway through it all is her love of and talent for acting. She eventually earns an MFA in theatre from the University of California, San Diego. She builds a life far from her Ohio roots.

But the path is not without great difficulty. The family has been destroyed by the behavior of the parents. Her closest sibling, the oldest sister, has been particularly damaged. But so has Holloway herself, and it’s only at the very end of the book that she discovers just how much.

From this memoir I learned that writing a memoir can be like writing a mystery. In this type of memoir, the writer can’t give away all the critical information up front as the story needs to develop in its own time. But clues need to be embedded throughout the narrative so that when all is revealed, even if the reader is shocked, she will see how inevitable the events were. She won’t feel that the writer was playing games, withholding just for the sake of sensation. Holloway creates a suspenseful, seamless story using this technique.

Holloway has published a second memoir, about the relationship between her son, who is autistic, and a dog.  Here is a book trailer for this book:

Cowboy and Wills looks charming, and I am putting on my to-be-read list.

If you want to find out more about Holloway or about the third memoir she is currently writing, check out her website.

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

Writing Sometimes Means Getting Up Off the Chair

Spring in Arizona is glorious. We never did have winter this year, but I can tell it’s spring because there is a nest of baby quail behind the house. All but two of them hatched yesterday. A large and messy nest weighs down a flimsy Palo Verde branch overhanging the wash. I watched the bird fly back and forth to the nest, but the bird was so small and my vision so limited that I couldn’t make out the type of bird.

We also have lots of blossoming shrubs and trees and vines. Bougainvilleas are one of the more distinctive blossoms.

Living in the southwestern United States, I expect to see Bougainvilleas as backdrop to certain settings, especially around the walls of Spanish and Italian style stucco houses.

Bougainvilleas are apparently native to South America, but they have made their way to Arizona and California–and to the Philippines and southern European countries.

They are well-known for their distinctive reddish (but not red) color. The shade differs a bit, according to the sunlight and the soil. They come in both vine and bush varieties.

My husband and I decided we wanted to buy a few new bougainvillea vines, and the company delivered them to us. The place we wanted to put them is not only across the driveway from our other bougainvilleas, but on the same wall as our neighbor’s plants.

So it was important to match the color. Not a problem, I figured. To my knowledge, all Bougainvillea plants were the same color. (I always envision how gorgeous they are against white stucco near the beach in San Diego).

The plants that were dropped off at my house, though, were an orangey shade. They completely clashed.

The company exchanged them. For a hot pink color. I couldn’t figure out how it could be so hard to select the right color when all the Bougainvillea between the Pacific Ocean and New Mexico were the same color.

I checked the internet. Apparently there are over 80 different Bougainvillea plants

So I got off my writer roots (that’s the body part you use to plant yourself on the chair at the computer) and hauled myself to the nursery–armed with a twig from ours, a twig from my neighbor’s, and a twig from the hot pink so-not-right plants.

The man who helped me at first showed me to a section of Bougainvillea. I matched my “swatches” the best I could, but nothing seemed quite right. I said, “I want the color of San Diego Bougainvillea.” He just gaped at me.

I felt as if I were in that scene from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream HouseI was Myrna Loy describing paint color to her gape-mouthed painters:

I want it to be a soft green, not as blue-green as a robin’s egg, but not as yellow-green as daffodil buds. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow, but don’t let whoever does it go to the other extreme and get it too blue. It should just be a sort of grayish-yellow-green. Now, the dining room. I’d like yellow. Not just yellow; a very gay yellow. Something bright and sunshine-y. I tell you, Mr. PeDelford, if you’ll send one of your men to the grocer for a pound of their best butter, and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong!

When Myrna Loy is done with the full description, the painters say:

Mr. PeDelford: You got that, Charlie?

Charlie: Red, green, blue, yellow, white.

Mr. PeDelford: Check.

That was how much my flower man cared about the color I needed. I hemmed and hawed and sent him on another errand.

In a few minutes, Ryan (an everyday hero) stopped by to help me. He brought me to another section of the nursery. All the Bougainvillea, vines and bushes, were the right color. And they were 1/3 the price of the other colors. Go figure.

What I learned is that when you want the correct San Diego color Bougainvillea you want to buy “Barbara Karst Bougainvillea.” That’s all you need to know. Those will be the perfect ones.

My new vine matches my neighbor's boughs.

My new vine matches my neighbor’s boughs.

Now I want to know how one goes about getting one’s name on such a well-known flower. And who is/was Barbara Karst?

Do you have a gardening tip to share?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing

Reading Politics in Literature

I actually took notes when I read Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book contains so much information and so many thought-provoking quotes, I had to make it easy for me to find them later on. For what, I had no idea. but it seemed important. In reading this book, I felt as though I had entered a world foreign to me, but met a character in the form of the narrator who is someone familiar–a voracious reader and a teacher.

Nafisi’s memoir takes place when she, an Iranian moves back to Iran from the United States, where she attends grad school . She decides to go home at what turns out to be a time of change and danger–during the Revolution.

What starts out as a hopeful movement, becomes an authoritarian anti-Western repressive government. Nafisi witnesses the controls tightening as the abuse of power becomes more chaotic. She writes of men and women being tortured and killed, of women sexually abused and raped and blamed. The powerless are doomed.

Although she starts out teaching in the university, soon Nafisi is expelled for refusing to wear a veil. She comes back for a time, but ultimately, she resigns and takes her teaching underground. She teaches literature in her living room to female students. It’s very hush-hush as they are all in danger if discovered.

What did I learn from this book?

  1. The structure of Nafisi’s memoir is very unique. Because the book is about teaching literature, she gives the book shape by forming sections around the books they read:  “Lolita”; “Gatsby”; “James”; and “Austen.” She makes connections between the literature studied during the section and what is happening to the characters in the book and to Iran. Her clever structure is a good example of  a memoir structured thematically.
  2. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how little I knew about Iranian culture and about the Revolution. I’d seen Ayatollah Khomeini on TV often in the early 80s, and it was if a dark spirit entered the room each time he filled the screen. But this made me turn from Iran and not seek to learn more.
  3. Most importantly, Nafisi shows how naive and idealistic she and her fellow Iranian students were when the Shah was in power. They believed that revolution was necessary and would help Iran and its people. But their dream turned into a nightmare. The book shows how we have to be careful what we wish for. A promising course might not lead to freedom and happiness, but to a dangerous theocracy.

Although I ended up with  5 typed pages of valuable notes from this book, I remember one passage by rote. In the Gatsby section, a character says:

[The Great Gatsby] is an amazing book . . . . It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. “

I’ve taken on this quote as a personal mantra.


I’m looking forward to reading Nafisi’s recent book Things I’ve Been Silent About. She lives and teaches in the United States, and this book sounds like a memoir about her childhood, growing up with parents who told her romantic stories.  This is her website.


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

Everyday [Super] Hero

If I make a promise and decide not to keep it (even if I think it’s a for a good reason), I feel icky. So I feel icky this morning because I promised you two memoir reviews this week, and you’re only going to get one–on Thursday.

But I do have a good reason (you knew that was coming!), and that is because I hit you with two really negative posts last week, and I hate ending the story that way.

What I like to remember is that after negative events start to commandeer my life, all it takes is one good person to turn it around. An everyday hero.

After my negative experiences in the last part of 3rd grade, with the teacher bully and the bus bullies, I was matriculated into Mr. Polonowski’s 4th grade classroom.

He was Miss Slack’s opposite. A phenomenal teacher.

Mr. P, as we called him, was a tall lanky young man with a brush cut (crew cut) haircut and glasses. Before 4th grade, I didn’t realize teachers could be men.

Mr. P’s classroom was ruled by respect, meaning he respected us. So we, of course, respected him.

It was my best year of school . . . ever.

Here are some of the many high points of Mr. P’s class:

  • He set up a long table in the front of the fully windowed wall with Michigan’s natural and cultural treasures: fossils, Petoskey stones, arrow heads, copper, and rock salt. Unlike show and tell, the goodies stayed up for a long time and we were free to handle and examine when our assignment was done. I particularly enjoyed sampling the rock salt ;).
  • We used SRA* reading materials, so I was allowed to read as much and as fast as I wanted, plowing through all the beautiful colors and then back up through them again.
  • Mr. P didn’t require boxes around answers during arithmetic. He never put a kid on the spot. He helped us learn division, to feel pride, and not to dislike math.
  • Mr. P read to us every day. He read from The Oregon Trail and Pippi Longstocking. The way he read them with his deep expressive voice, they were two of the most exciting books I’d ever “read.”
  • We watched science documentaries and got very engaged in our discussions afterward. I still remember those films and how relaxed our classroom felt–how free we were to explore new ideas and information.
  • During lunch, we were allowed to rehearse plays. A friend and I wrote the plays, usually based on fairy tales, and we coerced a few classmates into performing them. I’d started directing plays when I lived in my old neighborhood and still loved it. I think Mr. P also knew that I was a little hyperactive and needed an extra activity.

Sometimes I wonder if Mr. P, everyday hero, stayed in teaching or ended up leaving for business or law or another career. For the sake of the children, I hope he stuck with it.

Mr P


* SRA reading lab was a supply of color-coded reading material. We were assigned a level to begin at and we would read articles and respond to questions within that color level. When we mastered it, we would move up to the next color. When we reached the highest level, we could start back at the bottom of the box and keep reading. It functioned a bit like the Montessori method in that an entire class could be at all different reading levels–nobody would be dragged ahead until she mastered her level and nobody would be held back when she could move forward. Although eventually the color and design were changed, when we used SRA, there were many colors so it was a system that was both tangible and aesthetically pleasing.

Did you have an everyday hero when you were a child?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

Pick Pick Pick

This post picks up (pun accepted) where the last one–”Incorrect. Wrong. You Don’t Fit Here.”–left off. It’s still the first day of Miss Slack’s 3rd grade class.

Daddy had told me to take the bus home, and as class let out that afternoon, I asked Miss Slack which bus. She marched down to the principal’s office, dragging me behind. After finding out which bus I should get on, she shooed me down the hall, toward a backlit glass door, which looked like I would be walking into the light at the end of my life.

I sat on a seat mid-way down the aisle. The bus driver cranked the lever, and the door swung shut, but just as we were leaving, two girls ran up and banged on the door. The driver let them in and they quickly walked down the aisle. The brunette girl must have been a sixth grader as she was tall with an adult figure. The other girl was small, maybe my size but skinnier, with the skin of an albino and hair the color of a young pumpkin. They looked like misfits. I was eager to make friends with them.

When they got near my seat, the bigger girl noticed me and stopped. She turned to the other girl and said, “Get in there.”

The redhead moved into my seat, and I scooted over, but she didn’t sit down on the outside. She climbed over me, stepping on both my feet in the process, and squished down between me and the interior wall of the bus so that I had to move over a bit. The big girl then sat down on my other side and pushed heavily against me so that I was pressed between both of them.

I looked from one to the other, wondering what in the world was going on. “Uh, hi,” I ventured.

They ignored me, but nodded at each other. That’s when they each took an arm. The afternoon had gotten warm, and I had taken my jacket off at the bus stop. I had a thin long-sleeved blouse on, but that didn’t deter these girls. They each started pinching an arm in earnest.  “Ow!” I repeated ow over and over, looking around at the other kids for help or at least moral support, but everyone ignored us. It was as if we had moved into an alternate universe, and although I could see and hear the others, these two girls had whisked me away to a place where we had become invisible to the others. A dangerous place where I was totally on my own.

Scene of the crime

Scene of the crime

It seemed as if the four mile drive took an hour. Unfortunately, the girls got off at my bus stop. I had to follow the big girl off, while the redhead followed me, kicking at the back of my knees along the aisle. The minute my feet touched ground, I took off running, while I heard them laughing behind me.  I ran all the way down the street with tears rivering down my cheeks. At home, I ran to my bedroom and slammed my door shut. I ripped off my blouse and saw that the skin on my arms was shredded with their pinches. Wiping my face with my blouse, I threw it on the floor, and then flung myself onto my bed where my tears turned into sobbing.

By then I was crying at missing my friends Vivian and Michelle, as well as Miss Dixon. I was crying for my old neighborhood and my sandbox that I hadn’t played in for two years. I was crying because I hated Miss Slack and her horrible class of mean kids. And I was crying for myself, lost in a world which had suddenly become dominated by an intolerable bus ride to and from a place which had no room for me.

How did I go from being on top of the world to being one of the downtrodden? How did it happen that two different incidents of bullying—1) by the teacher, and 2) by the girls on the bus who were not in my classroom—occurred at the same time?

So I don’t leave you hanging, Miss Slack continued to ask the class to show displeasure at my inability to remember to box my answers, and I became well acquainted with the health room from all my trips to get out of class. Those girls on the bus continued to pinch me for about six weeks. I finally told my mother and showed her my arms. The girls stopped, and soon it was as if it had never happened.

Well, except that now I knew what it felt like to be bullied, an experience that left me more empathetic to others, but also insecure and less confident.

I don’t know if my mother did something to get the girls to stop or if the cessation of bullying was a coincidence. If I ask my mother today, she wouldn’t remember. She never remembers events of the past, choosing to focus on the day-to-day.

Did you ever bully another child?


I’m sorry if you were looking for a memoir review today. Next week I’ll do two reviews to make up for posting a two-part story this week!
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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing