Category Archives: Memoir writing theory

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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Memoir Writing Lessons #4 and 5: Check

Yesterday’s memoir writing lesson (#4) from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away couldn’t be posted. The prompt is to write “I don’t remember,” and the idea is to dredge up the dark stuff. Her point seems to be (and I have to guess because she doesn’t draw it all out for the reader) that a memoir about only good things happening (what she calls protection) wouldn’t be a memoir/book/story/have-enough-conflict. A story, as you know, has to have conflict–that is what creates the story. Otherwise it is merely a description.

She gives permission to destroy what you write from this exercise–so that it doesn’t get into the wrong hands–at least until you’re ready.

Today’s lesson (#5) is:

Tell me what you will miss when you die.

When I die, I will miss the missing. The longing for something that is just out of reach or long past. When I am dead, this life will be completed, a finished product. It can be altered only by perspectives, as different people revise their thoughts of me through time. But my life will be boxed up and sealed with packing tape. Somebody will write with a fat black marker on the side of the box: Luanne 1 of 1. There will be no more dreams and goals, no more maybes. None of that glorious unexplored space that makes up all that world that is not the self. When I die, I will miss my family. They won’t be my family any more because they will move on and change and become different without me within the family as a living presence. So I will miss them in a physical sense, but also miss them as they are now. I will miss my cats. Since I will no longer be able to worry about them, I will worry about them now and make arrangements for their care when I do die. If the gardener and I die together, the cats will be divided among our two children (they want to take them). 5 + 1 + 2 = 8 cats. They will each have 4 cats, although my son might be in a better spot to handle 5 and daughter 3. I will miss helping them negotiate who takes which cats. When I saw this assignment I thought I would list all my favorites: pumpkin pie with whipped cream, fried zucchini (you knew that was coming), chardonnay, sake, Mountain Dew, trees and lakes, peonies and hummingbirds, cats and elephants and bears, the colors coral, ivory, and black, but when my fingers hit the keys I knew it would be the missing that I would most miss.

 

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These are getting harder!

 

Go ahead and try it. Tell me what you will miss when you die.

young Siren is available at Home Fur Good in Phoenix

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Memoir Writing Lesson #3: Check

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

In this exercise, Goldberg asks us to respond to several prompts. They are derived from the “I remember” prompt, but are more specific.  I will choose a couple to publish here.

Give me a memory of the color red. Don’t use the word “red” at all.

In high school I had a pair of floral hot pants that were designed with an overall-style bib front and straps that crossed in the back. The yellow daisies bloomed against a background the shade of a chili pepper.  I’d bought them while shopping with my best friend who went to the high school across town. My high school was far more preppy than hers, so when I walked through the halls in fake patent leather knee-high lace-up boots, a yellow T-shirt, and those shorts, my face and throat flamed with a rosy-hued rash. It didn’t matter that my outfit was the height of fashion on TV–it didn’t fit at my school. I felt as if everyone was looking at me and when I would look at individuals who quickly looked away, I realized I was not being paranoid. I wished I were that little birthday girl in her chiffon dress–the one with the pink top and a skirt decorated with twin-stemmed cherries. In the shorts I felt like a girl with that well-known letter on her chest.

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Tell me about a time you remember rain. Rain does not have to be the main focus.

While walking in the rain, I tend to look down at my feet. As a kid, the sidewalks on my street were uneven and sometimes damaged, so water would puddle easily both on and off the sidewalk. The brown water seeped over my Buster Browns and onto my socks when I made a misstep. Even worse were the worms and nightcrawlers that had come out of their undergrown homes to find death on the sidewalk. I remember walking home from Mrs. Blair’s house (my next door neighbor babysitter), and the time it took to walk down her driveway, up the sidewalk, and up my driveway in the rain amidst the dying worms (that smelled . . . wormy) seemed interminable. In some tiny part of my brain I am always walking that worm gauntlet between babysitter and home.

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Why didn’t I just run from her front door, across our lawns, to my front door? Was I wearing my school shoes and worried that the rain-soaked lawn would be like quicksand? Had I been taught to use the sidewalk?
The red prompt wasn’t nearly as easy as lessons #1 and #2. But the rain one was even harder for me. I couldn’t even remember any events that had happened to me during the rain, other than this memory loop of walking between the two houses. Having my memories narrowed down like this is more difficult than just writing from whatever comes to mind.

 

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Give me a memory of the color red.

Lily Lane (my grandcat and smartest cat in the world)

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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.”

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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:

palimpsest

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 . . .

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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?

 

Felix

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Another Glass of Chardonnay (or Sake)

Somehow I got conned tricked into an online wine club (by accident). I discovered they were putting $40 every billing cycle on my credit card. I like wine, but I sure can’t use $40 a month! So I placed an order for the wine I had coming to me and quickly cancelled the subscription.

One of the wines I ordered was Rumpus, both because it was advertised as a popular chardonnay and because the name reminded me of “Let the wild rumpus start!” from Where the Wild Things Are.

When I first opened the bottle, I liked that the wine had no bite, no aftertaste, and was very smooth and good tasting. But the next time the wine (from the previously opened bottle) was sharp to my tongue and a bit abrasive–like a typical cheap chardonnay. The third time I drank from the bottle, the sharpness had calmed down, but it tasted like a very average chardonnay.

Notice on the back the talk of “Angel funding.” That was my $40 per month. I’m an Angel, but when I cancelled I had to turn in my wings and halo. Now I’m just a wine parasite.

A long time ago, I promised you more chardonnay reviews.  The problem is that if I don’t take good notes and if that one glass turns into 1.5 or even 2, I forget all my very important observations.

Here are some wines I’ve tried since that review last December.

Qu is another wine club offering. It was adequate. Actually adequate is not bad because that means that it is a lot better than most house chardonnays in most restaurants, right?

Cloud Break is such a pretty name for a wine. Gosh, where are my notes? That means I have to buy it all over again some day, just to see what I thought.

To my knowledge, the vineyards for this Jerome wine aren’t anywhere near Jerome, Arizona. I heard on TV the other day that there are over 30 wineries in Arizona now, but I kind of turned up my nose. I didn’t care for this Arizona wine. In fact, I thought it was pretty icky and suspect most of them are like this. (I apologize to my dear friend I gave a bottle of Arizona wine to yikes). Any Arizona wineries out there want to prove differently, email me for my shipping address. I accept free wine for review.

If I drink more than a glass or two of chardonnay a week, my stomach gets free-ranging acid. So I had to find a remedy. Most people would switch to red wine. Or vodka. Or stay away from alcohol (and chocolate).

My remedy was to switch to sake. It doesn’t seem to bother my stomach, and it’s never disappointing. I buy or order junmai sake because junmai means distilled alcohol has not been added. That assures that the wine is most likely gluten-free (the celiac has had good luck with junmais).

Fun sakes are Mura Mura: I’ve enjoyed four of its locations: river, canyon, mountain, and meadow. They are all quite different, but delicious. The most unusual is mountain: sweet, , full, rich,  and milky white. It fills the tongue beautifully.  Mountain is perfect for drinking by itself (without food). River feels and looks thinner, has a milder taste, and is pale yellow. Canyon and meadow are closer to river than they are to mountain.

Now Mura Mura makes a pear orchard sake, but I have yet to taste that delicacy.

Here are some other good tasting junmai sakes that are varying prices. Momo Kawa is intense and a bit dry. It’s very good, but not a favorite of mine. I suspect I like the sweeter sakes best. Ozeki is good, sweet, and I might add that it tastes slightly metallic–but even by putting that into words is exaggerating the characteristic.

The differences between junmai sakes are not that different from each other, according to my uneducated palate. I drink these sakes at room temperature or cold from the refrigerator. If you want warm sake, order the crap like Gekkeikan that you see in every supermarket.

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On another note, I finished the little free library memoir Monkey Mind and highly recommend it for anyone suffering from anxiety (unless you’re a kid and then it’s not appropriate!). The style is not chronological narrative as I am trying for my memoir (yes, I decided to put it–mostly–in order), but rather more thematically arranged and with a journalistic twist to it (research).

Kana’s selfie shows the best anxiety remedy: cat cuddling!

 

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Setting Memoir Parameters

Tiger sleeps in a cat cave on the couch

Now that I have your attention with that cutie-face, I want to pick your brain.

I’ve got a problem I haven’t yet figured out. What keeps me from finishing my memoir is that the arc of my story takes place over too long a period of time. It’s about my relationship with my father, and that is a lifetime relationship, of course, because it continues even after his death a year and a half ago. But even if I put a cap on it with his death, it still covers a lot of ground.

The other day I read Sherrey Meyer’s post Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have and realized that I should write a post about my problem–just in case anybody has any advice. So advise away.

I know that there is great benefit in finding a defining year or particular experience because the more discrete the chunk of real life a memoir needs to cover the easier it is to write. Excusez-moi if this sounds insulting to writers with a project that fits that description, but those are the stories that perhaps beg to be written. My story doesn’t beg; it mocks me.

But how to find a discrete story where the protagonist takes decades to learn something? Or some things?

My son used to have a picture book called Leo the Late Bloomer, and although my son was meant to relate to it, in truth I related to it. I’m a late bloomer in a lot of ways.

In the case of my memoir story, an additional reason it took me so long was that there was certain key information that I didn’t learn until 2008. More new information continued to come to me through 2015.

Checking out my half shelf of writing technique books, I soon discovered that most of the books don’t deal with this problem. But then I noticed a book I have mostly ignored (because I didn’t read it for class): Writing & Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer. (Who wouldn’t like that bit about “& Selling” added to the title?!)  A chapter called “Setting Your Parameters” caught my eye. Yes, that is exactly what I need to do. Figure out HOW to set my parameters.

Balzer argues that the place to begin the memoir is at the moment of discovery. I like the way my book opens with an incident that sets up the initial mystery in my life. It’s a somewhat shocking event, at least to the mind of an 11-year-old. And it created the mindset by which I lived in ignorance for many many years. Is it a moment of discovery? For me, it felt that way. It was the discovery that a big secret existed in my family–and that the secret carried great emotional power for my father.

My full first draft has now been read by four people. Three of them were a group package, so to speak, so I lump them together because they could have influenced each other. I will call them group B. The other reader was my Stanford mentor/tutor. I will call her group A. Both groups are memoir “experts” who teach and write memoir. The advice of group A and group B completely contradicted each other. I mean completely. They want me to revise the book in opposite directions.  Actually, I did revise to somewhat follow the advice of Group A before sending the manuscript to Group B. And everything I did for Group A, Group B didn’t like. They argued for the way I had originally been planning my story before I even started the program at Stanford.

Neither group addressed the problem with the big humongous fruit tree of life I’ve had to pick from for the book.

So I’m reeling from the contradictory advice, but that is all just spinning on the surface because the underlying problem is how to handle the parameter setting.

Or is it? I’m getting confused. Maybe I’m imagining the parameter setting as a problem since neither group even mentioned the problem. Maybe the real problem is one I can’t identify–a problem that caused two completely different readings. Maybe my tale just sucks.

The way I ended up shaping the story (taking into account a lot of advice haha) to send to Group B was to feature that moment of discovery scene as a prologue and then jump forward 40 years and begin the story itself in present day, using a back and forth movement between present and past by chunks of chapters (a few chapters in present, a few in past, like that). Maybe I should start with that moment of discovery and proceed in chronological order and tell the story in a more classic storytelling structure.

Whatcha think, peeps? More whine wine?

 

Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) to my Jewish readers! A good week to everyone.

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You Wanted to Hear What That Flash Nonfiction Course Was Like?

Marie from 1WriteWay and I completed our Flash Essay on the Edge course. It was offered by Apiary Lit, which offers editorial services, as well as courses they call workshops.

The course instructor was talented writer and teacher Chelsea Biondolillo. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Passages North, Rappahannock Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Shenandoah, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming and is a 2014-15 O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University. You can check out Chelsea here or do a search for her pieces in online magazines. Her knowledge of the genre and generosity to share that knowledge with her students was outstanding.

I took the course because I hadn’t written for months, mainly because of my father’s illness and death. Knowing the way I operate, I figured that a course would force me to focus and get a little writing done.

As planned, Marie and I evaluated the course when we were finished. We are both posting a list of the pros and cons of the course, as we saw it. At the end of the list, I’ll give you my additional impressions. Check out Marie’s post because she will give her own impressions.

Course Textbook

PROs

  • The teacher prep was outstanding. She provided a wealth of readings, which were useful in showing me what flash nonfiction can look and sound like.
  • The course was only four weeks, so I found that to be very manageable. If it had been longer, I would have been too stressed during the summer and at this time in my life.
  • The instructor generally gave useful feedback, seemed qualified in the subject, and was very nice. She seemed to love her subject.
  • The instructor was accessible, responding within the same day if there was a question or concern.
  • Other than a problem I will list under CONs, the website was pretty easy to negotiate.
  • The online classroom had various forums that enabled you to share your work with the other students and have discussions.
  • The writing prompts were generally interesting, but I didn’t feel tied to them, which was good.
  • The course was not graded.  I could focus on what I wanted to turn in, not what I thought I had to turn in in order to get an A.
  • The course got me writing without adding stress to my life.
  • I got more writing done in this past month than I would have otherwise.
  • I feel that I know where to go with flash nonfiction now. It would be ideal to get more feedback down the road on attempts at Flash Nonfiction, but at least I feel much more comfortable with the genre from taking this course.
  • Above all, I had fun with the readings and the writing.

CONS

  • Although there were forums available, we had no real discussion of any of the readings. We were not strongly encouraged to interact with each other. We had maybe one discussion prompt during the whole course.
  • The readings and essay examples were available through either some kind of Adobe program that took a bit of time to figure out, or through hyperlinks that weren’t always easy to download.
  • We posted our written assignments privately to the instructor so I had no way of learning from what others had turned in or from reading instructor comments on the work of others. I didn’t care for this method as it diminished what I could learn from the course by a hefty percentage. I suppose this is the difference between the workshop method and a traditional style class.
  • We felt isolated in this class and had little interaction with anyone but each other and the instructor.  In the discussion forum, one other student interacted with us, and another made a couple of independent comments.  Other than that, it was a strangely quiet class.
  • Two platforms were used for the course:  an online classroom and a blog, so sometimes I had a little trouble negotiating the course. Sometimes I had to login in two places. This inconvenience turned out to be less of a problem than I first anticipated, but it could be streamlined.  The blog material could have been included on the classroom platform.
  • Since I don’t know how many people were in the course, I don’t know the instructor’s workload. My belief is that in a course that is short in length, the instructor should return assignments in short order. The lag time between turning in an assignment/beginning reading for a new lesson and getting the instructor’s feedback on my previous assignment was a little too long for my comfort.
  • The price at $199 was a little steep for four weeks and no discussion/no workshopping.

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 I want to make clear that I am really glad I took the course. Apiary hired a qualified instructor and offered a solid, contemporary course. There was so much that was right about the course. But I think it needs a little tinkering to make it better in terms of both learning environment and the economy of the course.

The above list really hits the main points of what I liked and didn’t care for about the course. The oddest thing for me was working in such an isolated environment. I’ve been in many workshops, and this isn’t a workshop. In workshops, your work is presented to the teacher and classmates. Typically, you receive feedback from both the instructor and at least a fair number of peers. I learn this way from what several people have to say about a piece. And I learn a lot from reading the work of others and seeing what all, especially the instructor, have to say about a variety of writing.

That said, there are people who hate workshops, generally because they have had a bad experience with one. I also find it fun to diss them sometimes. But, overall, they are an effective way to improve one’s writing.

The class seemed eerily quiet, perhaps because it wasn’t a workshop. But if we had had discussions about our readings, that would have provided some connection between students.

One other student (besides Marie and me) did participate in the class as much as possible. The course had a feature that she and I both used. It was called the Work-Sharing Blog. We were allowed to post anything we wanted to and see if anybody would give us feedback. It was not encouraged by the instructor or the course setup, but this other student and I both took advantage of it. I was thrilled to get feedback from her and from Marie on a piece I’ve struggled with.

I’ve taken online writing courses from a variety of schools/companies. They all have their pros and cons. For what I wanted this summer, Apiary’s course satisfied me fairly well.

If you are looking for an online writing course, my suggestion would be to decide how you want to learn and then ask questions. If you want a workshop, ask if all students will be sharing their work with the class and if the class will be providing peer feedback. Will there be guidelines for providing that feedback? The guidelines protect the writer from snarky or downright mean classmates. If you don’t want a workshop, ask those questions, too. Be aware that the majority of online writing courses are workshop-based.

Have fun! It’s so rewarding to get motivation, specialized readings, and writing feedback all in one place.

Once I get my thoughts together on the subject, I’ll post something about the genre of flash nonfiction, to give you an idea of what we were working on.

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Cat Heroes

Two weeks ago, I finished reading two memoirs about cats: Homer’s Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper, and A Street Cat Named Bob, by James Bowen (and Garry Jenkins). They are similar to a book I read a few years ago, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron (and Bret Witter).

All three books feature special pet cats (that happen to be male) and were written by the pet owners. Two of the books were either ghost written or written along with the cat owner. Only Gwen Cooper is a writer, and her book shows it as it’s the most well written of the three.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the reader meets Homer, a tiny blind kitten when Cooper first took him home. I think Homer’s narrative is perhaps innately the “weakest” for memoir structure, based as it is only on Homer’s disability and his life with Cooper, but Cooper’s beautiful writing shapes a well-crafted story that begins when Cooper herself was young and underemployed. Later, when Homer and his two sister cats were home alone during the 911 tower attack and Cooper couldn’t get home to them for days, my heart was thudding for the poor cats because I’d fallen in love with Homer, as well as Scarlett and Vashti, thanks to Cooper’s writing.

In A Street Cat Named Bob, Bob is a street cat who lives with a street musician in London and becomes famous online for sitting very calmly while Bowen plays his guitar or, later, sells magazines. Bowen was a recovering drug addict who was able to pull his life together when he began to focus on making a better life for Bob. Although Bowen claims not to follow a 12 step program, it’s clear that Bob becomes Bowen’s “higher power.” The story is engaging because Bob is such a larger than life figure as seen through Bowen’s eyes. Although the book was written with a professional writer, the book is the least well written of the three and needs editing. I even found at least one run-together sentence. The story didn’t move quickly enough in a few places, but I enjoyed it and would love to meet Bob and James. Most important, it’s rewarding to see a man turn his life around because of his love for an animal.

Dewey is a library cat who saves the town library. In Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Vicki the librarian meets Dewey when she finds the kitten who had been thrown into a frozen book chute overnight. Because the book begins with the tiny kitten saved from a horrific fate, I am immediately drawn in and engaged with the story. This is also true of Homer whose original owners wanted to euthanize him because he was blind. Bowen met Bob when Bob was already an adult cat, out on the street, so he’s never an adorable kitten in the story. But Bowen’s growing attachment to Bob is what hooks the reader.

Are these books about cats or about humans? Are they memoirs of the humans or biographies of the cats?

All three books have been successful.

Nevertheless, a few of the reviews on Goodreads didn’t like the feel good nature of the books–i.e., that a stray becomes an important part of keeping the library alive in small town America. I say those reviewers have hard hearts.

Some reviewers criticize these books for being memoirs about the writers’ lives.  Ahem. All three books are memoirs about the pet owners, although the focus is on the cat and the owner’s relationship with the cat. Well, a memoir by its definition is written by a human being about an aspect or time period of his or her life. When we write about someone else’s life and not our own, it’s a biography.

Why are these books not just biographies of cats? Why are they also memoirs by and about the humans? I feel that this is the way these books work best and someone who wants a pure story of an  animal should go read Bambi, which is an amazing orphan tale about a wild animal who doesn’t live with a human (although the original and non-Disney version does show what happens when one deer is taken in by humans).

Adult animal lovers enjoy memoirs such as the three I read because of the relationship between the animal and the human. It’s the human (sometimes humans) who grows and learns during the course of each story. The cats are amazing catalysts (sorry for the pun), muses, inspirations, and higher powers. But their ability to inspire the reader is innate to the animals. The story has to come from what the human learns from the cat. This is what makes a memoir like these more than merely a children’s story about a child thinly disguised as an animal, such as the Olivia (the pig) books. More than a biography of an animal, such as Smokey the Bear.

Or am I wrong? Is there a successful adult story about a real life animal where the plot is completely focused on the animal and not a human? I don’t mean a political satire like Animal Farm. 

The success of these books stems, in part, from the marriage of memoirs and feel-good animal stories.

One last thought about the reviews of these books. The reviewers who criticize these books for being about the lives of the pet owners tend to be very judgmental about the writers. They find them to be whiny or self-absorbed or boring–or a combination. I suspect that these complaints are because they don’t want the human intruding on the story of the animal or because they only see the story through their own narrow, darkly filtered lenses (their own self-image and their own lives). These reviews are more revealing of the reviewers than of the books or the writers, to my way of thinking. They also don’t understand that the books are structured this way because that is the way you tell a story and sell a book. There has to be conflict and resolution. There has to be suspense and pacing. I found myself getting angry at these reviewers.

What does that reveal about me ;)?

***

On a completely unrelated note, I am bummed about Doll God sales, but for a weird reason. The number of people who have told me that they have bought it (including multiple quantities) is in no way reflected by the actual total the publisher tells me that have been sold. Maybe half? So are half the people who have said they bought it not telling the truth? Is Amazon not sending correct reports to the publisher? The publisher provided me with a royalty update, so the problem isn’t with her. Any thoughts?

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Assigning Stars to Books I’ve Read

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, AMERICAN READERS!!!

After I started transferring my memoir reviews over to Goodreads, I had to go through another critiquing process: assigning the number of stars to each book. What goes into that analysis is different from writing a review. A review focuses on all the ways the reader (the reviewer) reacts to and interacts with a book. I can love the experience of reading a book without thinking that overall the book deserves the highest score possible, 5 stars.

Also, there are books I want to give a 4.5, but I don’t know how to do that. Do you have to assign a 4 or a 5? No halves?

And what does a 5 mean? Does it always mean that I think the book is the most engaging story? Not necessarily because some books aren’t about the narrative. Does it mean that the book has the most literate, well-crafted sentences? Often times it does mean that. But not always. I am using 5 stars to mean a book that I can see myself reading again, should the occasion arise. And a book I can advise others to read, without qualification.

It kind of astonishes me how stingy some people are when they assign stars to books on Goodreads. I suspect those people have never written anything themselves ;).

Here are some unexpected stars in nature:

And here:

Speaking of book reviews, I plan on writing one for Julia Scheeres’ memoir Jesus Land in the near future.

This winter I will complete my tutorial in the Stanford program. In the tutorial I will be working with an instructor who will read my whole book draft (the memoir) and give me feedback for revision. Researching the Stanford instructors I realized that I so wanted to work with Julia Scheeres, especially after I read her Jesus Land.  Oh, what a book! Imagine my excitement when I got the email saying that my request had been approved and that I get to work with Ms. Scheeres this winter!

But I have to go work on my draft which needs another year’s worth of work before it’s ready. And I only have until the end of December. Good thing we’re not having our Thanksgiving dinner today. Pumpkin pie Saturday!

 

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