Jun 292011

Recently I gave a talk at Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation in Colma, California. Like many of the cemeteries south of San Francisco, Cyprus Lawn offers events and the lectures to the community.

About 14 people had come to listen to me talk about how to write one’s life story. Just one enthusiastic group and they seemed quite motivated to continue their manuscripts on their own.

But I became conscious of a gap in my instruction that I intend to amend from now on.  Frequently I have given my workshop participants the instruction to write in class a scene from their lives. But as it happened Sunday, I instead drew from participants a compressed review of their life stories, a kind of telescoped summary.

So I’m taking this opportunity to describe what a scene is and should consist of in a manuscript .

Just as in a movie or in the theater, a scene in a manuscript is a narrative of a specific time and place with specific people interacting and exchanging dialogue.

People who write their memoirs without writing experience or consultation tend to want to write a summary of their life experience, avoiding whether consciously or not any dramatic interludes they may have experienced.

For instance: instead of telling me, the reader, that your parents were strict disciplinarians, describe to me the conversation you had with them about your dating behavior. Answering questions such as: Where did it take place? How old were you? What were you each doing at that time? Were you eating dinner or washing the car? Describe the surroundings and the weather if that’s pertinent.

What was your parent’s tone? How did you feel and express yourself to your mother or father? What limits did they insist you adhere to? How did you react? How did the activity that you were engaged in change because of the tone and content of your interactions? Did you throw the sponge down and walk away? Did you slam the door?  Did one of you give the other an ultimatum? How did the interaction end?

The permutations are infinite, limited by only your personal and particular life experience in this situation.

The people who read your memoir want more than a synopsis of your life. They want the drama of your life. They want the emotional life you and those around you experienced. And the best way to do this is by being really specific about key interactions and events in your life. Don’t forget the feelings!

If you want more experience, practice or instruction writing scenes of your life, come to my workshop starting July 9 running for six Saturdays. Every class is two hours long and you get one hour of private consultation with me.

 Posted by at 1:40 pm
Jun 092011

People sometimes look at me quizzically when I say that they need to do research before they can start their autobiography. Do I mean they must consult the Library of Congress? Or that they must engage in an archaeological dig?

In fact each of us has mountains of material in our homes and offices that will offer up plentiful reminiscences and memorabilia:

  • birth, death and marriage documents
  • photographs
  • childhood art or schoolwork
  • correspondence — not only the letters you’ve received from people but also those your correspondents have received from you
  • articles you have clipped — the time cousin Leo was incarcerated for larceny showed up in the local paper
  • albums — that invitation to a cocktail party you went to 20 years ago will spark memories for you to use in your life story

If you’re researching your ancestors’ history, then yes, you may need to go to other sources: www.ancestry.com, www.familyhistory.com, and all the  many websites that offer similar services. You may also consult the archives of the Mormon church in Salt Lake, or those of the California Genealogical Society in Oakland. The website of Ellis Island is another treasure.

But for those of us who are not concerned with genealogy, we are interested in our stories. We are trying to re-create our own individual pasts and recall events that were pivotal to our lives. But at this point many of us are stumped. Understandably, we probably have not kept all the correspondence we received from other people.

(Why would a letter from somebody else help us remember our life story? Because their letters will have communicated events that you shared or knew of at the same time.)

But we have friends and relatives who may be willing to share correspondence from us they may have kept. Not to mention their photographs and albums which may illuminate that past history we are trying to re-create.

The very act of asking a friend or family member to share their memorabilia with you will  make you more dear to each other. Very soon you will start reminiscing with each other:

“Remember when we went to the Russian River when we were in high school and you lost your bra in the water?”

Or: “What was the name of uncle Gustavo’s wife? Where did he live after she died?”

Your own friends and relatives will remind you of so much and you will help them as well recollect their own youths.

So this is research. It is not only doable, it is inspiring.

 Posted by at 1:45 pm
Jun 092011

June 7, 2011

I have a service dog who is the love of my life, Lola. I adopted her when she was already getting on in years; it’s been 5 1/2 years now so she’s pretty darn old. She’s becoming less predictable and sometimes nasty as time goes on. So you may say we have a lot in common. But usually she’s sweet and affectionate.

Yesterday I took her to my doctor’s appointment, the  same medic who had written a letter to San Francisco Animal Care and Control attesting that I needed her as a service animal.

She used to go everywhere with me but lately I have become more circumspect about her company on my errands and appointments. Still I adore her and she is insufferably cute.

So when I sat down in the doctor’s office with Lola. I started out by saying, “Thank you for my dog.” The doc smiled and was appreciative. I launched into my discussion and all of a sudden he looked at Lola in horror.

My precious friend had assumed the position on the doctor’s wall-to-wall carpeting. I gasped shrieked and fumbled for a doggie bag. Too late.

Not only was the dog pile unquestionably there, it was goopy and slimy as well.

No need to imagine my humiliation. As I tried to make the hideous thing vanish, I kept mumbling, “But she’s already had 2 BMs today!” as if that would make it all better.

Doctor was horrified. We rushed around looking for paper towels and cleansers. I have to say in my defense I was better at finding such materials in his own office than he was. He commented on my superior expertise in cleaning up dog messes, a facility I had never sought, I had to admit.

He asked me if I could come back another time. “Of course, of course,” I stammered.

In fact the odor was overwhelming and the windows were sealed. “I won’t be able to have any other patients here today,” he wailed.

“This is the second most embarrassing moment of my life,” I whimpered. Still his compassion was not forthcoming.

He wanted to rush out to Walgreen’s to get air freshener. He asked me to call back when I got home. We left.

A block away Lola and I were on the street looking for a taxi and I hear a whistle behind me. I ignore it. I’m beyond the age to expect such adulation. Again the whistle. I looked back and it’s my doctor, heading into the wind, following me with documents he wants me to read.

He hands them to me and says, “I don’t usually whistle at my patients,” his own embarrassment now is showing.

Whistles at me? Whistles at me, I’m thinking. He couldn’t remember my name!?

That thought whirled around in my head on my way home often enough to mitigate my mortification.

All the while, Lola was looking at us with with a quizzical happy face. “What’s the fuss?” she seemed to be asking. Now I know where the term came from: a shit-eating grin.

 Posted by at 1:01 pm
Jun 012011

Imagine you are deep into reconstructing your life or even the life of a parent for an eventual book or album.

Several issues can stop you and make you feel stuck.

  • When writing your memoir you have an idea of the audience you want to address. Maybe it’s just your family or a community you belong to. However you may wish to publish for the  mass-market.

In any case you can expect that anybody reading your document or book who already knows you will be looking for themselves in your narrative. “What did she say about me? Or what did she write about my father?” are typical thoughts you can expect.

One of my workshop students working on a portrait of her mother who is still alive asked me how to handle a frank depiction of her parent without insulting her.

I advised her to omit any language or incidents that may offend her mom. After all, what’s more important than your relationships with your living loved ones?

After the relative dies, the writer will feel freer including sensitive  material.

  • .Getting the facts. A memoirist is really a historian even if it’s your own life story. I write people’s biographies for them. Many times I have had clients who couldn’t remember the date or place of the critical events in their lives.

For instance one client who was deployed in World War II, admittedly 60 years ago, could not remember the exact ports where his vessel disembarked. This was a critical detail to his tale. I had to hit the history books and start a search.

These are common occurrences and can be handled. If you are writing your memoir, don’t let these issues stop you. Dig deeper.

 Posted by at 4:23 pm