Memoir Writing Lesson #9: Check

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

Tell me about a time you washed the dishes. 10 minutes, go:

Until I read Thich Nhat Hanh, the only big events that involved washing dishes were the holiday dinners where the kids wash the dishes for me. I put the good china and silver away, after they scrub and dry them. But when I discovered The Miracle of Mindfulness I saw the daily routine of dishwashing as something more than one more chore to check off my daily list. He teaches that when I wash the dishes, I need to wash them in order to wash them. Period. I need to be in the present and feel the soapy water on my skin, the temperature of that water, and the adhering crumbs of food under my fingertips. I need to experience the slippery surface of the plate when it comes clean and watch the clear water rinsing off the dirty, seeing it come down in little rivulets. In short, I need to become “one” with the experience.  When I wash the dishes this way, I am part of the little sink area, the double stainless basins, the graceful chrome faucet, Planet detergent, foaming handsoap, and the big window–unblocked by curtains or shades–that opens out on the green of our trees, the oleanders and bougainvillea, the flagstone walkway, and the little brown fountain. In the morning, the big gecko performs his pushups and suns himself directly in front. In the summer, hummingbirds fly up to greet me.  In the evening, I can better focus on the washing itself without being distracted by the “moment” of the gecko, the hummingbird, or the buds and seedpods hanging from branches.


What a difficult one. You know how when you park your car in the same lot you park all the time you can’t find it because you can’t remember where it is? That’s because all those times have blended together–and it’s hard to isolate that one time today you parked it. Same thing with washing dishes. I wash them almost every day!

But I’ve written about dishwashing twice before, both related to the concept of mindfulness. The first post was on January 19, 2013, and the second was almost exactly two years later, on the anniversary of my mother-in-law’s birth, January 29, 2015–right when my father was so sick and we didn’t yet realize he was dying. So while I didn’t focus on one time I washed the dishes (oh, there was that time I cut myself in the water and turned it red), at least I wrote about dishwashing.

So was what I did good for memoir? The general rule is to write the specific event. The one time something happened. If it happened a zillion times, choose one time and write it that way and have it represent all the times it happened. I didn’t do this here. The assignment I give myself is to go back and re-write the above into a single occurrence.

Is there a place for this overlay of experiences in memoir?

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Write about a time you washed the dishes.

My dear Kana


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

18 responses to “Memoir Writing Lesson #9: Check

  1. I read that book, and ever since, I do the same thing! It’s a time to count blessings and then, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, I can have my tea! Heh.
    I wrote about this before, too. I hope you don’t mind me sharing the link.

  2. Are you sure that photo isn’t my Eddie? So gorgeous! Oh Luanne, I have been away for so long, and I see I’ve been missing a great series on memoir writing…I will be back to read all! Interestingly, (and you’ll be pleased to know I’m back to my revisions), I just wrote a scene where I wasn’t washing dishes but peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink, with the tap running… hugs xoxo

    • Ah, Sherri, how are you doing after the loss of your dad? I am so happy to hear that you’re back writing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And potato peeling is another thing like dishwashing, isn’t it? Be in the moment! Kana is such a treasure, as I’m sure Eddie is!!! xo

      • Ahh…thanks Luanne, you’re a sweetie. I’m okay-ish…you know how it is <3 I need to write…just gotta get this memoir finished! A lot can happen in those moments can't it? And yes, Eddie is my darling cuddle-boy…he and Kana make a perfect pair! <3 xoxox

  3. I think I missed a few memoir posts. I will have to go back and check.
    I can’t think of anything to add to the dishwashing, but I can comment how cute Kana is. 🙂

  4. So true Luanne, it’s hard to separate out instances of something so ‘ordinary’, still you made more of this than I imagine I would have 🙂

  5. It’s fall and I find I actually do not have time to write. Wah!! But I’m storing up all your nuggets of information and writing tasks for winter. Washing dishes reminds me of a way I could be helpful at a social events while also avoiding the crush of people.

    • I hope you have some real writing time this winter. I hate to think of you not writing.
      Re the dishwashing, I think that is an excellent idea and am going to remind myself of that when I need that kind of advice ;)!

  6. I have been drawn to all of the mindfulness literature, and it is so helpful for reorienting one’s thoughts and feelings to the moment! Also, I think what you have written in this one is an excellent study of the blending of fact and fiction. Yes, you did wash dishes, and yet perhaps a paragraph contains a multi-layered set of dish washing moments. I am forever interested in this intersection of memory and event, fact and fiction. It may be what drew me to writing in the first place. Nice one, Luanne!

    • Carla, when you read a memoir do you expect each experience to be specific or do you “allow” for some experiences to be “this is what usually happened” or “this is what happened over and over again”?

      • I think I suppose that each event described is a real event, but I leave a lot of room that the memories are enhanced, edited, and subjective. The writer’s ability to guide a reader through the moments would be key, I imagine. I am constantly fascinated with such things: our subjectivity, our memories, our feelings, and the way we describe our histories.

  7. Sometimes I think I write too many details on my posts, in my daily comments on my blog and on other’s, too. I think coming home or to the library, either way I am “by myself.” So, I tend to write a conversation or monologue!

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