Category Archives: Memoir writing theory

When Did You First Feel Different? Multiple Answer Version

Was it when you ate dinner at a friend’s house and saw their family structure and customs were completely different from your own? Was it when you noticed that all the other kids in your kindergarten class were drawing pictures with light hands and you looked down at your own dark ones? Was it when you realized that was lust you felt for another kid of your own gender? Maybe it was when you realized you couldn’t squeeze into your older sister’s jeans.

I have a theory that a lot of children and teens feel “different” from other kids. I am not talking about something that makes them different—just that they feel different.

I’d already started notes for this blog post when I read a poem called “My Barbie Dated George Harrison” in Karen Paul Holmes’ new collection No Such Thing as Distance. In the poem, the speaker’s Barbie (and it quickly becomes clear that Barbie is really the speaker hiding behind her doll to mask her emotions) has a crush on George of the Beatles, instead of Paul as the other girls do.

I kid you not, but the first note on my list was “George not Paul.” You see, that’s how I first felt different. All, and I mean ALL, my friends loved Paul with his big doe eyes and his cute young-looking face. He wrote love songs. Of course he did!

But I preferred George. Did I have a picture-kissing crush on him? No, but I knew I would prefer his company and that there was more to him than met the eye. And that meant something to me, even at age 12. When the Beatles hung with the Maharishi, I knew George took it seriously. I doubted that the others did.

Just for the record, I never contemplated the truth that if I had really been different I would have selected John or Ringo as my Beatle. But no girl in her right mind would choose one of them.

George was the alternative Beatle. He had a handsome face, but not too handsome. Not a movie star face. He seemed gentle and deep.

Hahaha.

If I had been more perceptive, I might have come to this feeling earlier. For instance, my epiphany could have arrived when I was the only girl who couldn’t do cartwheels, either because I had no upper body muscles or because I was too terrified. But I never had that feeling of “knowing” until everyone turned to stare at me when George flew out of my mouth.

But this train of thought led me to seeing that I remember in strands, like add-a-pearl necklaces where first one memory is added to strand A and then one is added to strand C and another onto A and so forth.These strands accumulate simultaneously.

When a memory comes to mind now, and it is at the beginning of a strand I think, “Oh, this is the first time this happened. There George is at the beginning of this strand so knowing I liked the ‘other Beatle’ was the first time I felt different.”

I have to remember that there are other strands. I found one of them in my memoir draft. Have you ever heard of the old movie The Boy with Green Hair? One day the boy dries off after a bath and discovers that his hair has turned green. In those days, long before the brilliant hair dyes of today, green hair was apt to set someone apart from everyone else.

I wrote in my draft that at age 11 I felt like the boy with green hair because of my father’s strict rules and loud yelling. The kids in my neighborhood would comment to me that they could hear his yelling down the street and sometimes, on summer evenings, even in their own homes.

So where is the truth in all this? When did I first feel different? Was it when George, rather than Paul, called to me? Was it when I learned to be angry and embarrassed about my father’s actions? And when would that have been? When I was three? Six? Nine? Eleven?

Sometimes someone will ask me something, and the answer I give makes sense at the time. For my favorite food I might say pumpkin pie. Later, I might think that it’s not really pumpkin pie. It’s fried squash. Or baklava. I wonder if these foods are part of different strands of memory. Maybe the fried squash goes with my teen summer days living at our lake cottage, and baklava goes with my first experience at the Omar Khayyam restaurant in Pittsburgh that I loved so much that my father drove us all back to Pittsburgh from Kalamazoo so I could eat there a second time. So you see my father wasn’t all yelling and rules, but goodness too, and he hides in various pearls on the strands of my memory.

What about you? Do you remember in strands? Do you remember when you first felt different?

NATIONAL POETRY MONTH AND #NAPOWRIMO UPDATE: So far so good!

Pauline‘s prism rainbow with plant shadow

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Memoir Mumblings

There’s a great cartoon by Dan Piraro (Bizarro.com) out that I have decided it’s safer not to have on this post for possible copyright reasons. A woman writer is signing books at a book store. The name of her book is called My Miserable Life. haha, an obvious memoir. Her parents are apologizing to her, saying that if they had known that she was going to be a writer they would have been better parents. Too bad she wasn’t born with a warning for her parents.

Beware: a writer is born. Treat her well!

I find it funny because anybody writing a memoir that involves their childhood is likely to find flaws in their upbringing. Heck, most of us do anyway.

My memoir manuscript (such as it is) is out with beta readers right now. Nervous? Me? Hah, yup!

On the subject of memoir, I just finished Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas, a pseudonym. I gave it a 2 out of 5. I’m a generous rater. If you have read it, what did you think? I felt I was being played. Not totally sure in what way. The obvious goal was to persuade readers that sociopaths are special and are a boon to society. Apparently she is real, an ex-law professor named Jamie Rebecca Lund. Apparently the book (and its creepy admissions) caused her to lose a great gig as a law professor at BYU.

But the creepiness of story and author are not why I gave the book a 2. It’s repetitive and quite dry for very long passages. Copy editing was well done though!

Finally, a memoir needs to have a very trustworthy narrator, and that is where this book could never have worked. By the writer’s admission, sociopaths lie and manipulate. So how could I trust her?

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Poetry Book Reviews: Goodwin and Swartwout

I’ve been doing some more reading again lately. Here are two poetry books that I swooned over.

In Caroline Goodwin’s new poetry collection, the elegiac The Paper Tree, language seeks to locate and identify. This is where and what, the poems seem to say. The mood can be mournful, commemorative, meditative.

Images from nature are seeds blown into the wind by the poet in an act of claiming. The urgent need of the poems, intense as it is, ebbs for a moment when hope soars for “a new kingdom . . . where the need to name the shape / does not even exist.” For now, the kingdom itself does not exist, but the glimpse of it has been noted.

Ultimately, the outward gestures of naming and sowing images lead to a necessary inwardness: “hold out your hands / open your heart / here’s where the world slides in.” The Paper Tree will present you the world if you open yourself to its wonders.

 

Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit, Susan Swartwout’s latest poetry collection, finds the beauty and pathos in the oddities of life. Family history, carnival performance, time spent in Honduras—the subjects are varied, which further emphasizes that our lens can be adjusted to spot the strange and wonderful—or the pitiful—anywhere we look. The language is gutsy, the images sometimes grotesque and sometimes mystical. I found this collection impossible to put down, and poems like “Five Deceits of the Hand” where “we” are betrayed into aging and death thrilled me with jealousy.

Friends vanish like misplaced directions

into skies you used to claim. Age begins

sucking your bones until you lean shriveled

into the mouth of harvest.

In case you’re worried that the book ends on a dark or depressing note, the last word is salvation. I guess you’ll have to read the book to see if that means things work out ok or not.

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Maybe I finished my diamond poem (the one I mentioned in Typical Tuesday). Letting it rest right now.

I used #amwriting as a tag this week because I started looking through my memoir manuscript with an idea to restructuring it AGAIN. This is so insane. But look at it this way, what happens over many decades has to be structured in a way that is easy for the reader to follow and stay engaged. Most memoirs take place over a much briefer period of time (is briefer a word?), but the story I want to tell begins at least when I was 11, but truly long before I was born, and doesn’t end until this past decade. PULLING MY HAIR OUT.

Which reminds me that I wanted to share that Perry is in absolute love with his hairbrush. Yup. He hugs it.

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A Morally Ambiguous (Feline) Character

When Harold Hill sang his way into River City, Iowa, in the musical The Music Man he showed himself to be a con man. He believed he was a liar, and he tried to keep that information from the townspeople. Now, as it turns out (spoiler alert!), Harold was a liar and a con man, but he also was a dreamer and a believer, but he couldn’t really admit it to himself. It’s so easy to ignore the way Harold has manipulated people when we see him get trapped by love and notice that other people’s lives have been enhanced by their belief in Harold’s dreams.

This complicated personality makes for what is known in the lit biz as a morally ambiguous character. What is odd in this case is that morally ambiguous characters typically make good tragedies, not musical comedies. But Meredith Wilson, the writer and composer of the musical, knew what he was doing. He knew we (audience members and humans) could relate to someone who was bad but also good. We’re all a mix of good and bad, after all, although we like to think we lean way more to the good than to the bad.

The most famous morally ambiguous character is probably a creation of Shakespeare: Hamlet. Do you have a favorite morally ambiguous character from book or movie?

Have you had people like this in your own life? People who bring you joy, at least occasionally, but also bring you a lot of grief by their actions or inactions? Or someone who does something bad, like commit a crime, but in general is big-hearted?

If this person is a coworker or casual friend, it is one thing. But if he/she/they is a family member, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. How much “bad” can we overlook in order not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”? If you deal with an addict, for example, you might be used to feeling conflicted about your loved one.

If you’re a writer, how do you create one of these complicated beings? How do you show terrible behavior and yet create an appealing character?

This is a subject that touches me personally for the memoir I’ve been working on for a looooong time, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.

Lemme know what you think about this subject, pretty please!

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Perry update: gosh, he’s cute. Have I said that before? He’s been out for a few hours at a time each day now. He gets along fine with the other cats because he is so good-natured, although obnoxious. He just wants to play with them, and although they absolutely do not want to play (although Kana might want to and hasn’t admitted it yet) with him, they realize he has good intentions.

Sloopy Anne update: First let me say that Tiger doesn’t get along with Sloopy Anne unless they are in the kitchen. Tiger has slept with the gardener and me for years, with the door closed so nobody bothers her/us. Sloopy Anne can’t stand the bedroom door shut at night and will wait in there hiding hours ahead of time so she doesn’t get shut out. Lately, Sloopy Anne has been in the bedroom, under the bed or on the floor, each night . She then advanced to jumping on the bed while we’re asleep. Tiger retreats to the top of my head and Sloopy Anne at the foot of the bed. If it stayed like that I would be fine with it, but why did I think she had a Machiavellian plan to take over the bed and kick Tiger out of it for good? Well, night before last I woke up at 6AM to a cat fight. Sloopy Anne was angry and attacking Tiger! It was some kind of argument over the litter box, but Sloopy Anne was definitely on the attack. A morally ambiguous cat?! Now I have to get that door shut while she’s eating dinner to keep Sloopy Anne out at night!

My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the hurricane(S). And those we lost 16 years ago today on 911.

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Memoir Writing Lesson #12: Check

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

Write about something you have found ugly. 10 minutes.

The other day, I saw a woman for the first time. My first impression of her face caused me to physically recoil for a second. I’d never seen a face like hers before–not in person or through the media or even in antique photographs–and it startled me because it didn’t fit the fairly liberal parameters I must have in my mind regarding human faces. Scientists or pseudo-scientists have done studies on what makes people think a particular human face is attractive, but I have never read or even seen a headline about a study on what makes us think someone is ugly. My guess is that we have a range in mind and someone has to fit inside of that range or we think they are ugly. Her face had a shape I’d never seen before–more width at the bottom than at the top, combined with a peculiar flatness that also angled outward at the bottom–angled, not sloped. Her eyes were overly large, as if the skin had been unnaturally pulled away from the socket area, and the cheeks below were not only without any definition, but were part of a large droop of skin on each side of her face. She was probably elderly, if I believed the wrinkles, but her straight and fine reddish hair looked young, almost juvenile.  What happened, though, the longer I looked at her–and I was just an observer, so I wasn’t interacting with her personality–was that I grew more and more fascinated with her looks. Soon I didn’t think she was ugly at all. Instead, I thought her looks were charming and held a strange, unique beauty.

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And that, my friends, is pretty much what happens to me with anything I first think is ugly. That’s why I am fascinated with scrap art and photos of old structures rotting into the group, gritty city scenes and reading about what people found in the garbage.  It’s all so fascinating. Don’t get me wrong; I love beauty, maybe a little too much. But so much is beautiful. And when you get right down to it, not much is ugly if ugly means something that will permanently make me cringe.
(Except for vile human behavior toward animals or other humans. THAT is ugly).

Go ahead and try it. What have you found ugly?

Not ugly at all is Jackie O! Such a sweet girl, she’s been at the shelter way too long. Maybe it’s her tipped ear? That is supposed to indicate an altered feral cat. Jackie O is the furthest thing from a feral cat. Very friendly and loving, in fact. She can be found at Home Fur Good in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Memoir Writing Lesson #11: Check

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

“Tell me about a breakfast you were once privileged to have.”

I wish I had a story about sharing my tiny breakfast with someone in need or a morning when I had not been able to eat after days of illness and the first bite into dry toast sent me into paroxysms (always wanted to use that word) of delight. Alas, I can’t think of anything in that vein. All I’ve got is that one event of pure and utter gluttony.

The gardener and I were young, not married that long, and were friends with another couple with ties to Chicago. They were a fun couple, and both Michelle and I were thin and fit and vain.

After two nights and a day going to museums, restaurants, and clubs, we went to a Jewish deli for Sunday brunch. Chicago friends had told us this place had the best brunch in town. Being from Michigan, we had no idea what awaited us. Michelle and I both wore culottes in the cream-colored wrinkly Indian cotton that was so in style.

When we got into the crowded restaurant, I noticed that one large room was ringed in a U-shape of very long banquet tables literally groaning from the weight of the dishes. More than one type of lox, pickled fish, smoked fish, several flavors of cream cheese, big stainless containers overflowing with real New York style bagels. All the fixings: tomatoes, onions, capers, and more than I could even “process.” There must have been a dozen salads: tuna, whitefish, pasta, cucumber and salads I’d never heard of before. Hot containers held tomato sauce-smothered stuffed cabbage and sweet ‘n sour stuffed peppers. I’d never seen so many latkes (potato pancakes) in my life. Since they are one of my favorite foods (with sour cream, not apple sauce), I seriously considered moving to Chicago, somewhere near the restaurant. They had sliced deli meats (including a pastrami they could barely keep stocked it was so melt-in-your-mouth), cheeses, and hot meats as well. One long table held every flavor of rugelach, cake, coffee cake, kugel, and cookie you could ever imagine encountering in your entire life.

At this point I should probably mention that we had “put away” a lot of alcohol that weekend. Michelle and I were more hungover than the guys–probably because we weren’t used to drinking as much as our husbands although we were all just out of college. So, speaking for myself, I was hungry. Very hungry. I filled up a plate and gulped it all down. So did Michelle. Then I filled another and ate it. So did Michelle. At that point, I realized we were in a competition to see who could eat the most. And we both continued to eat and eat and eat and eat. We unbuttoned and partially unzipped our culottes. But we kept eating. Finally, the guys got worried that we wouldn’t stop eating and tried to pressure us into leaving. By the time the brunch was over and dishes were cleared away, we both lay partially prone as we couldn’t sit upright. My stomach bulged, and my pants were completely unzipped at that point.  Michelle and I waddled out to the car and tried to slide in the backseat in a reclining position.  I began to hate my culottes just from looking at the strain on the fabric from my huge body. The two hour ride back home Michelle and I lay there groaning from the pain of all that food in our stomachs and from the laughter caused by all the jokes we were making at our own expense. I sure didn’t feel thin any more.  Or fit. I felt as if I had a different body just from one meal. To me, Michelle still looked as thin as ever, but I looked like a snake that had swallowed a cow.

Our pants looked like the blue ones in the pattern above, except for the color and the fabric type. That wrinkly cotton was soft and had more give to it than denim.

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Go ahead and try it. Tell me about a breakfast . . . .

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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.

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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

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Memoir Writing Lesson #8: Check

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

Write for 10 minutes about Jell-O. Go.

In my mother’s grocery cart I was used to seeing a few boxes of Jell-O, along with Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and Chef Boyardee ravioli, which my mother pronounced raviolah and the neighbors called raviolee. For years I didn’t question why Jell-O was one of the main food groups. Meat, potatoes, vegetable from a freezer box, store bought dinner roll, and of course, Jell-O. That’s what we ate too often for my taste. Jell-O was a suitable dish for church potlucks. And when it came time to bring dishes to Grandma’s for holidays, Mom or one of my aunts had to bring the Jell-O: two-sided, one cherry and one orange; mint-green made with the lime-flavored mix and cream cheese; or a plain color with mandarin orange segments or canned fruit cocktail floating like thumbs and pinkie toes in formaldehyde. Jell-O was tolerable when other parts of the meal weren’t: lima beans, beets, and brussel sprouts. Then Anique moved in across the street. She wasn’t part of the family. They had six kids, all under the age of ten, and I babysat for those kids. When Anique arrived as an exchange student from France (although she was German with a German last name—the W like a V), I no longer had to babysit, but walked across the street to see her anyway. On the day we met, I asked her what surprises she had found so far in America. She didn’t even have to think about her reply. “Jell-O!” She shuddered when she said it. I asked her if they had Jell-O in France. She laughed and told me that French people would never eat anything so disgusting. Although I didn’t really change my opinion of Jell-O—I’d never respected it or even loved it, but it was tolerable on its own (i.e. no floating garbage)—I could see it from her perspective. I no longer took it for granted that Jell-O was a major food group.

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 I realized after I wrote this that the memory of Anique’s words was so vivid to me because it was a defining moment: I no longer had to see the world through the eyes of my family.

Go ahead and try it. Write about Jell-O for 10!

We always have black kittens and cats available at the shelter–except around Halloween when they are not up for adoption.

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Memoir Writing Lesson #7: Check

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

Write about coffee.

Ten minutes on coffee? Goldberg figures everybody drinks it, or if they don’t, they stopped for some reason. But I have never had a cup of coffee. I don’t know why. When I was a kid my mother’s two younger siblings, my aunt and my uncle, didn’t drink coffee either. All three of us liked ice cream, and we all preferred it with baby spoons so we could stir it up with Hershey’s chocolate and then mince our way through it with those tiny spoonheads. But coffee? No. My dad was a big coffee drinker. He never drank water, but drank coffee instead. His blood must have been part coffee. My mother also drank coffee, but a human quantity (unlike Dad). Whenever Dad wanted to rest from his relentless expression of hyperactivity, he’d hold out an empty coffee cup and ask my mother to pour him some coffee. I never liked the smell of coffee, a smell I associated with an odor of garbage, something that is over and done with, discarded. Like cigarette butts. Empty cups and overflowing ashtrays. On road trips with my parents, we had to stop for “a cup of coffee.” It was never for a Coke or a burger or a snack. But a cup of coffee. And my father took that quite literally, ordering himself coffee. When I was young, it was coffee with cream. When I got a little older, he drank it black. Until the year he died, my father drank coffee at 11PM every night, just before bed. By the time mom climbed into bed after him he would be asleep. That last cup never kept him awake. Maybe my father’s relationship with coffee had something to do with his undiagnosed (except by me and, later, my father himself) ADHD.

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Go ahead and try it. Start here: Write about coffee.

Simon who lived at the shelter and just went to his own home!

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Memoir Writing Lesson #6: Check

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

“Name three times when it came to you clearly that you wanted to write a memoir. Go. Ten minutes.”

Just after we moved to Phoenix, the gardener handed me a piece of junk mail and asked if I wanted it. The brochure from Gotham Writers Workshop offered online courses. Since I work at home (now that I’m retired from teaching) for our business, an online course appealed to me because I could fit it in “whenever.” When I looked at the genres, I suddenly knew I wanted to study memoir writing. I had an unfinished story that I’d inherited, so to speak, and I wanted to be able to share it. Maybe I wanted to be able to monkey around with it, try to figure things out. Maybe I wanted to solve the mystery and air the secrets. If only I knew them. I’d already studied poetry and fiction years ago when I got my MFA. Creative nonfiction barely existed in those days–and our program didn’t offer them. I wasn’t smart enough to think about memoir as a vehicle for my story in those days, although I tried over and over with poetry. Most of those attempts fell flat. So I signed up for my first memoir course.

Another time I knew I wanted to write a memoir was when my father did something that upset me very very much. I was middle-aged and he was treating me as if I was a kid. And as if I was wrong. When he was irrational and vindictive. Rather than talking to me, he mailed me a letter. When I got it, I was so upset I picked up the phone. Luckily (not) for my mother, she answered it and got my wrath dumped on her. After a conversation where she tried to defend my father as I accused, I finally had enough and said, “This is why I’m writing a book!” While my comment was as vindictive as my father so often was, I don’t think my intent was: I needed a place to vent and sort out the insanity of what I’d been put through for so many years.

The third time I clearly realized how it important it was that I write and finish my memoir was when my father died. While he was dying, we talked every single day. It wasn’t all small talk. My father was compelled to talk to me about the past and our relationship. He apologized. He explained. He told me things I didn’t know–about himself and about me. I finally had the ending for my story, and I also had the reason others would want to read it because it became a story of forgiveness as much as a story of survival.

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I find some of the structure of Goldberg’s sections amusing. After naming this exercise, she goes off on a tangent of how important it is to find writing friends (thank you thank you for my writer friends–I love you!) and going to readings (and similar writing or writer-based activities).  I’m not sure how that subject connects with the prompt, but I think the prompt is important because knowing what made you want to write a memoir helps you to find your (true) story.

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Name three times . . . .

Moe is one of two long-haired feral brothers living in the roaming room at Home Fur Good in Phoenix. They are doing well at getting socialized. Moe’s brother Maverick is perhaps more social than Moe. His fur is darker in tone, and he is a bit bigger than Moe. But Moe is the one who wanted to pose for my iPhone. Gorgeous boys, they need to be adopted together.

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