Memoir Writing Lesson #1: Check

Looking for a way to get back into writing, I picked up (again) my copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, a memoir writing text. The beauty of this book is that it doesn’t lecture about craft; rather, each tiny chapter gives at least one short writing assignment and a fascinating exploration/explanation of what the assignment will do for your writing.

To keep myself on point, I plan to publish some of the unrevised results of my “assignments.” The idea is to respond to the prompt and go for ten minutes. Write crap if that is what comes out. But write for the full 10. Write “What am I looking at?” whenever you need a jumpstart.

What am I looking at?

A light filters down from above through wood-framed glass shelves. The top shelf is so well lit that I can read the labels on the corks making up the hand-crafted pumpkin: Glass Mountain, Torre Fosca, Murphy Good. The plump green insides of the tea cozy. A white porcelain teapot with a faint green Japanese scene. The funky mauve print teapot. And another tea cozy–burgundy–hidden in the corner, but the light seeks it out. On the middle shelf, on the top of the white teapot, the knob of the gold-leaf lid gleams, a reminder that this elegant pot came free by mistake from the company. It throws the rest of the shelf into shadow–teapot, books I’m using in a small stack, a bobblehead Puss in Boots that reminds me of Macavity who died over a year ago. Hard to believe that the movie makers had never met Mac and his larger-than-life personality. The bottom shelf’s contents are dark against dark; I can only make out their shapes–no colors–, the dancing light on the rhinestones of the business card display, the white greeting card from a friend. Tucked against the wall are smaller dark shapes, but I know them by the feel in my hand. Plastic mice laser pointers for the cats. If I hold one and push the button, its red light attracts a cat who tenses. Her eyes follow the red. Another cat tenses.

Underline the last sentence: Another cat tenses.

After finishing my assignment I wondered about the word funky. It has so many meanings, including something icky. But I mean it more in the sense of fun and quirky, a bit hip, but a bit of a “miss.”

Then I was instructed to go for another ten minutes on “I’m thinking of.” Follow the same instructions for the above assignment.

Goldberg says to go back to these assignments over and over, like a dancer or athlete practicing and putting your muscles through the same paces.


Do you want to try it? Go ahead: What am I looking at?  Then: What am I thinking of?




Filed under #AmWriting, Cats and Other Animals, Creative Nonfiction, Flash Nonfiction, Inspiration, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing prompt

40 responses to “Memoir Writing Lesson #1: Check

  1. Thanks for the reference–it’s on my Wish List.

  2. I am writing memoir for the National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo. Have you heard of it?

    • Yes, I have. That sounds like a fabulous idea, Wenona. That will take a lot of effort to write memoir instead of fiction on that strenuous schedule. I have a draft of my memoir completed (needs lots of work yet), so I am thinking of how to revise.

      • I just bought the book on memior by Natalie Goldberg. How do you plan to write memoir? Do you map out chapters? I am using October to plan my memoir writing in November. How did you write your memoir draft?

        • I learned by trial and error–mainly lots of error haha. But because you have to work with your story sometimes to find the true arc of your story, it can be useful to write scenes that are important to the main theme of your book. My own story is not very circumscribed, so it’s hard to shape it. But if you can already see the arc of your story, you could start writing in chapters. I wrote well over 300,000 words, but the draft I ended up with is around 70,000. So much stuff that wasn’t necessary or wasn’t well written, etc. As I said, lots of error.

          • I was thinking of breaking my story down into 20 chapters which is a random number I picked. I bought a memior book by Natalie Goldberg. In it she recommends getting friends. I would really like it if you were my memoir friend. Also in the same book it recommends reading 10 memoirs. I was looking online and there are quite a few memoir titles I am interested in especially on Native American women. So like I said before I would really like to be your memoir friend.

            • You could try for 20 chapters to start with, but I wouldn’t get too tied to the idea until you see what you have. Do you have the main heart/point of your story clearly in your head? I have read quite a few memoirs, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t read any/many Native American memoirs. I need to put The Woman Who Watches Over the World on my to read list. Let me know after you read them what must reads you find! The fact that I can’t name a list of memoirs by NA writers might be good news for you in writing your own, though, because it might fill a real need! Thank you re the memoir friend sentiment; that’s so sweet! I’m happy to be a memoir friend, although I’m not looking to be a beta reader per se as I can’t keep up with what I need to do as it is. But friends, yes!!!

  3. Cool assignment! I like the idea of limbering up and performing strength exercises prior to writing something more important. I wish I had time to do this each day. Your skills of observation are phenomenal, and I admire the way you made memory, emotion, and motion connections to a static scene.

    • It’s true that we need to keep our muscles in shape for everything–and I think that thinking of writing in this way is very useful. After writing that assignment, IF I HAD HAD TIME AND MY BACK WASN’T OUT, I could have probably written something better than if I hadn’t written that first. It’s kind of like when students write papers, a lot of times that first paragraph needs to go haha.

  4. Marvelous post, Luanne! I liked reading Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away and her exercises. I’ve found Morning Pages (Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way) most helpful for “limbering up,” and now am freewrite pages to gear up for NaNoWriMo. (Need to quit spending SO MUCH TIME promoting the walking guide and get back to writing). Meant to comment on your last post, so here it is – My parents gave me drama lessons which resulted in my minoring in speech and drama in college and now being a reader (for the children’s program “Green Knees” – online- KSFR 101.1 f.m.). I’ll be on this coming Sat., 7 a.m. It won’t be much reading but will focus mainly on SANTA FE ON FOOT’s launch this coming Sunday at our local Collected Works Bookstore/Santa Fe. Also, sending healing thoughts for back health! May you get better every day 🙂

    • Elaine, you have been accomplishing so much! I have Artist’s Way and still have not used it! Well, I am always one to unfocus myself, but I won’t this time. I will stick to Goldberg’s book for now, while keeping in mind your suggestion! How wonderful what the drama lessons did for you, Elaine! I think that is a subject that should be taught regularly in schools.
      Thank you re my back. I did get some Flexiril, and that helps a little, but I am chomping at the bit to get more done!!! Best of luck with NaNoWriMo!

  5. Good one, Luanne…I hope your back problems are better today…I like the idea of what are we looking at…I have a treasure trove of memories in my office on Canterbury Road. I still miss Worsham Street…

    • Start writing about the items in that treasure trove?! It might go somewhere! Thank you re the back. Ugh. At least I have my drugs now.

      • You know you are a go-getter, Luanne. I wish I’d had this idea several weeks ago. I’ve been unable to step away from the political nightmare so that might have helped.
        I’m storing the idea, though. I think it’s fantastic. Loved yours.
        Thank goodness for your drugs…feel better.

  6. I want to echo Carole’s sentiments and thank you as well from bringing this book to our attention. I like the idea of an open-ended and short writing prompt, open-ended to allow for creativity and short (10 minutes) to allow us to squeeze in our writing … The hardest part is often just getting started.

    • Enrique, you’re welcome! Yes, these writing exercises are perfect. And because this first one is focused on the practice and development of writing “muscles,” if you don’t like an assignment further on, it would be easy to replicate lesson #1!

  7. Thanks so much for the introduction, Luanne. Sounds like a great book.

  8. Maybe I’ll pick up that book. I haven’t done any serious writing in ages — since we got our dog Duncan 2+ years ago. He’s rather a demanding guy!

    Love the teapots!

    • Dog raising is a noble pursuit! But these prompts could stimulate you into getting back to it!
      Thanks re the teapots. I love them. No desire to expand my collection, but I like them right here in the kitchen above the computer :).

  9. I have Writing Down the Bones but had not heard of this other book by Goldberg. Time to go to the bookstore – again!

  10. What a great exercise, Luanne. I’m going to try this later today. I hope your back is feeling better xxx

  11. It’s useful to go back to writing lessons and prompts sometimes – I love what you did with this one, the descriptions of what you were looking at were very vivid and obviously sparked memories – we used to have one of those laser pointers for our cats!

    • My cats don’t seem to like the laser pointers as much now that they are older. They seem to like real toys better. Maybe it’s their eyesight!

  12. I love that you are sharing ways to navigate the process. Using prompts and writing for 10 minutes is a manageable way to conquer longer projects. Looking forward to more of these posts, Luanne.

  13. Love that photo of Felix! I’m ever so slowly catching up with your posts 😉 Since you’re on a roll, I’ll probably refrain from commenting. I’ll mention here that this is a wonderful idea, using Goldberg’s exercises to spark your writing. Sounds like it would be good for writing fiction as well as memoir (and, in my case, it would hard to tell the difference between the two anyway … 😉 ).

    • Hahaha, I doubt you are the only fiction writer with that little secret ;). These exercises would be just as useful for fiction–absolutely. Felix says thank you ;). He was upset today as he does not like vacuum cleaners . . . .

      • My cats don’t like vacuum cleaners, either. But, they do LOVE Hot Pursuit. I’ve been meaning to tell you. Junior tends to sit on it when he wants us to turn it on. I bought a 2nd one but haven’t opened it. So far, the kids are actually taking turns playing with it!

        • I thought they might! Mine go nuts. Today I tried a new toy I thought they would like. It’s a little furry mouse that squeaks and the eyes turn into red lights. But they don’t know what to do with it and might be a little teeny bit scared. But Hot Pursuit? Oh man, when I turn it on someone always lays on top it, trying to stop it spinning ;).

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