Memoir Writing Lesson #2: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Write for 10 minutes on this topic that “hits smack-dab into the heart of memoir.” Don’t sit there and wonder what to write about. Just write what you remember: a list of memories, a sustained memory, something in between, WRITE.


I remember . . .

those summer suppers. My mother, often brittle or rigid–afraid?–loosened up in the moist heat of Michigan summers and served those marvelous easy-going summer suppers. Bisquick strawberry shortbread for main course–one summer on the picnic table out back and one summer in the dank basement during a tornado warning. Huge zucchinis from ripping brown bags brought by family and neighbors were sliced, then dipped in beaten egg and flour and fried individually in my mother’s trusty electric frying pan. She carried that pan with her from our house in town to our lake cottage where we lived for three months every summer. The pan’s striped black cord snakelike between outlet and the pan heated right on our table, but the breaded slices were forked and eaten almost the moment she slipped her spatula under them and placed them on the paper-toweled plate. Large red tomatoes, also sliced, dripped seedy juice over the plate and then down our chins. Peapods, just hours off their stems from a farmer’s roadside stand, we ate with the zucchini and tomatoes. Boiled new potatoes. When I bit into one, its flesh so creamy and smooth, I barely recognized it as related to the aging Russets we ate in winter. I remember that in the winter, my mother built our meals around fried chicken, fried “hamburgs,” calves liver (‘n onions), pot roast, chicken (n’ dumplings), ground beef spaghetti, pork tenderloin, and the like. But in the summer, the only meats I remember were from my father’s grill–chicken breasts and hamburgers–and hot dogs for the fire pit Dad had built on the sand in front of the cottage. Summer foods were Michigan cherries, the raspberries my father grew because I loved them, strawberries, and peaches. They were the vegetables from my grandfather’s garden, from our neighbors’ gardens, from the farmstands. And I remember the ice cream that we swirled with Hershey’s syrup. The cherry and orange popsicles, the creamsicles and pushups. The fudgesicles.  Next morning we had blueberries or strawberries with our cereal. When I make fried squash today I can have as much as I want–I don’t have to share with my parents, my brother, the ubiquitous guests at our table. I can have as many popsicles as I like. There is nobody to say, “One is enough.”


I went over the 10 minutes a bit as I didn’t feel I had finished what I wanted to say.

When you have a lot of memories it is sometimes hard to grab just one and write. I could have listed memories, but instead I took the very first memory that showed up right before my eyes and went with it for the assignment. When I look back at it, I see something interesting about memory and memories. I created a bit of a palimpsest.  From Merriam-Webster:


noun pa·limp·sest \ˈpa-ləm(p)-ˌsest, pə-ˈlim(p)-\
Popularity: Top 40% of words

Simple Definition of palimpsest

  • : a very old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced with new writing

  • : something that has changed over time and shows evidence of that change

The palimpsest in this assignment can be found in the layering of the ages I was for these memories and the layering of the houses we lived in. For the strawberry shortcake memories in the basement and at the picnic table, we lived in the first house I remember. We lived there until I was past 8 1/2; that house had a bomb shelter in the basement. But we didn’t have the lake cottage until I turned 12. And, at the time we lived at the lake, we didn’t even live during the winter in the house we moved to after the bomb shelter house. We had already moved on to a third house! But you can’t see evidence of this in the assignment unless you have more information. This is one thing that makes memoir writing so difficult. Our memories form this palimpsest, where we are the documents upon which “original writing” memories have been erased and replaced with new memories. But the original memories are never completely erased. We retain them in bits and pieces and they meld with the new memories. This creates these complex human brains of ours, but it makes memoir writing super difficult.


Go ahead and try it. Start here: I remember . . .


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

25 responses to “Memoir Writing Lesson #2: Check

  1. Thank you, perfect food, Mom, summer, Dad, Sharing, no limits, Mom! Outstanding, pure. etc. My addition: An old German dish passed down for generations, settlers traveling in covered wagons, kids helping. Lovely- one childhood friend on facebook remembered her Grandmother made that.

    • Thanks so much. Oh, I love the idea of the settlers and the kids helping. So beautiful. I wonder what the German dish was!

      • I’m not sure how to spell it, try this- Reibel or Reible (not positive it’s German) This is how I like it, with several added flavors. The kids help is to find a few sprigs of Sage walking early morning by the covered wagon. Use what is available – say eggs, buttermilk, cornmeal, flour, salt, half and half, bacon, apples, bourbon. Mix eggs with cornmeal add about equal flour. Bacon grease in the skillet, heat medium, chop up cornmeal mixture to small bite size to pea size, add buttermilk to taste, keep turning, add half and half, salt, turn, simmer with lid on, more half and half, brown simmer again, maybe again – couple teaspoons bourbon, turn brown simmer add diced apple – turn simmer lid on , sage sprig on top — simmer. It should still be yellow with light brown spots when done. (some people don’t like sage, some do, their choice) Soo, butter, maple syrup, it’s breakfast and will stick with you till 2pm. Cheers, the bourbon alcohol dissipates like vanilla does.

  2. love your memories; love Natalie

  3. Beautiful memories and a real motivator for writing some of our own!

  4. I think I missed part 1, so I will have to go back. 🙂
    I could taste those summer fruits and vegetables, Luanne!
    It’s interesting how you describe the palimpest–although readers wouldn’t necessarily know it, that you are going through time and sort of building layers of memories on top of one another. It made me think of pentimento (and the Lillian Hellman story).

  5. Oh, yummy, yummy. I loved all that. Your family was not Puritan — such pleasures in food! Our family had some of those same Michigan summer meals, though not quite so lavish and exciting! Re: “palimpest,” I have trouble with that when writing about the house I grew up in. It was remodeled and redecorated multiple times, so it seemed like different houses over the years. Which memories attach to which version of the house? One piece I wrote had to do with the bedrooms and how they each was redecorated. But then they were all redecorated again years later. I don’t know if my bedroom writings are so much “memoir” as “memory.” But I liked the idea of resurrecting, on the page, images and feelings attached to the older versions of the rooms.

  6. Delicious Luanne! I loved the way the food is described so that I can taste it and the way that links with the memories – that first one of your mother loosening up in the moist heat is so vivid that it sets the scene for the whole piece.

  7. I’m only now reading this second lesson, saving the remaining ones for the days ahead. I like the way that deeper, more emotional things are here as undercurrents as you describe your mom, the food, and the places. I think that is what makes this intriguing, the sense that there are stories underneath the memories. Good job, Luanne. What a great enterprise!

    • Excellent perception Carlamcgill. Every subtle writing skill slips by “some” , and that is unfortunate. One great example is a past “Scientific American” issue magazine . Yes, it is somewhat boastfull “170 years of Scientific American” but without ever printing these words– it’s on most pages (quietly, science works, is testable, can be adjusted when more information is available) I absolutely loved the Amish article and the Amish community made a positive effort to include science to help reduce a genetic mutation effect on their children.

      • That sounds like a fascinating article.

        • Oh, please look into it. Everything in the Universe is Science. Regrets, I’m not the perfect Scientist, and some cautious about looking for the reason our scientists are not noticing or looking for, “why” our view of the cosmos appears to be distorted. Scientific American has nearly always been on top of the newest discoveries and corrected information – that’s good!

    • Carla, thank you so much for noticing that! That is what intrigues me, too! It’s like finding the air bubbles that rise to the surface ;).

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