I’m reading memoirs this holiday. Starting with one by my father.
I read it years ago, but it means so much more as I age. As I prepare for my “Writing your Story” class in January at Sausalito Books by the Bay, I’m also gobbling up memoirs by famous authors. And, to my surprise, I have several friends who have written compelling memoirs…I’m honored that they let me read them.
When I enthuse about my upcoming class, people ask me to share the top tips I’d give memoir writers. I usually offer some tried and true techniques that I’ve learned from these authors: Natalie Goldberg, Anne LaMott, Mary Karr, and Vivian Gornick. And I share what I’ve learned from writing my own book, “Road to Fulfillment.”
Here are some suggestions:
- Write about what gives you a sense of wonder or about what you dread: it’s more interesting. This could be hiking (e.g., Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”), spiritual fulfillment (Anne LaMott’s books), making peace with your body (Demi Moore’s “Inside Out”), facing cancer (Natalie Golderg’s “Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home”), overcoming the tyranny of family (Tara Westover’s “Educated”), or the joy of family (Michele Obama’s “Becoming”).
- Revise/Revise/Revise – but do this after you get your first thoughts on paper, not while you’re writing your first draft
- Turn your past into an experience for the reader. Bring it to life with sensual details – smell, taste, touch, vision and sound.
- Don’t label people. Show what happened. What was said? How was it said?
- Start with anecdotes. They lead to the big story.
- You can start at the end, to show what’s at stake.
- Ask: What would I write if I wasn’t afraid. Then write it.
- If possible, show your manuscript to people you’re writing about. Your memory is subjective. Include what others have to say about the past. Tell the reader where your memory is fuzzy or where others see it differently.
- Be brutally honest if you want the reader to resonate with your story. Remember, bad things happen to good people, or there’s no story. Show the good and the difficult stuff.
- Have a movement toward wisdom. This is a key ingredient of all successful memoirs.
I hope you’ll join me January 28 for Writing your Story: A Memoir Class. To enroll, call: 415-887-9967 or stop by 100 Bay Street, Sausalito, CA.
Wishing you and yours a joyful holiday and a happy, healthy New Year.
After returning a week ago from the visiting the visual splendor of Japan in the Fall, I’m now immersing myself in autobiographies and books about memoir in preparation for presenting a new class called Write your Story: A Memoir Class.
Thinking about memory while sharing stories with long-time friends over the Thanksgiving holiday, I remembered Mary Karr’s observation in her book “The Art of Memory”:
Many a loved one has engaged in hyperbole or stretched the bounds of evidence or dug in her heels to prove a point that’s wrong.
Memory is Highly Subjective
It’s interesting that siblings and friends have such different memories of long-ago events. I often think my sister and I grew up in different families with very different parents. It makes me realize how subjective we are when thinking about the past. In my sister’s memory, our parents were very sweet and well meaning, but they unfairly gave a lot to me (the sister) and my brother and so little to her. In my world, our parents were preoccupied with their work and overly generous to my brother and less so to the daughters.
My sister and I each have our stories to tell. Her tale is of being “left out” by my parents, which made her feel needy and underappreciated, while my tale is of being “left out” by my siblings, which made me highly independent. If fully expanded, both stories could be compelling reading since I have no doubt that others would see themselves in our memoirs.
A Good Memoir
Speaking of independence, I just finished Demi Moore’s book, “Inside Out: A Memoir.” Here she is one of the top-earning actresses of our time, but her story had me in tears. Her themes are about becoming independent to escape her reckless alcoholic mother; how her self-reliance impacted her marriages: and what it took to overcome eating and other addictions to finally make peace with her body. She speaks with brutal honesty that connects her to the reader. Instead of feeling like a voyeur into her star-studded lush life, I felt I could identify with her. That’s a good memoir.
A New Memoir Class
Finally, I invite you and your friends to my memoir class at Sausalito Books by the Bay. We’ll meet on Tuesdays from 9 – 10:30 beginning January 28. To register call (415) 887-9967 or sign up at https://www.sausalitobooksbythebay.com/2020-events The cost is $180. You can give this class as a gift to a friend or loved one.
Here in Marin County I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of the changing foliage and waterways. But, it’s also a confusing time. Suddenly there’s so much to do – Fleet Week, the Symphony, bonfires at the beach, classes to teach – and, yet, as the days grow colder and shorter, I want to quietly hibernate and create something new.
Time to Reflect and Read
This feels like a perfect season to reflect on the past months and the past years. I’ve been inspired by some of the fabulous memoirs of recent months. “Educated” by Tara Westover is a must read, even if you feel she’s exaggerated aspects of her life. Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” is also uplifting and insightful. If you like audio books, I recommend Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime: Stories form a South African.” You’ll love hearing him speak African languages and dialects. This is the story of his journey from apartheid South Africa to hosting “The Daily Show.” For a fun read, don’t miss “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” by Balli Kaur Jaswal.
So, what’s next? I plan to teach a memoir class at a local bookstore. It’s called, “Writing your Story.” I know everyone has a story to tell, and I can’t wait to hear the stories. In the class, we’ll discuss our favorite memoirs and apply the authors’ best practices to our own writing. Writing our stories will help us understand ourselves better and, hopefully, enlighten others.
If you live in California, I recommend reading The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California by Mark Arax.
But be ready to be disheartened as we are reminded that many people still think like the Gold Rush miners. Their focus was on profit, with no regard for the future, especially when it came to equitably managing the limited resource of water.
The Gold Rush
In Gold Rush times, the successful miners relied on industrial-scale hydraulics to tear away mountainsides; the result was some precious metal, along with vast destruction of downstream farms.
The Central Valley
Today, with uncertain rainfall, the farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley drill deeper and deeper for water resulting in subsidence that constitutes “the most dramatic alteration of the earth’s surface in human history,” according to Arax. The ground is sinking dramatically. Farmers in the Central Valley who lack the resources to compete for the underground water are living in “a dust bowl” where crops won’t grow; their homes are full of dust.
Obi Kaufmann has an Answer
With this in mind, I went to hear Obi Kaufmann, the author of the new book The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource.
I was ready to be depressed. Instead Obi Kaufman provided some next steps, including ways to change our thinking. He said that as we prepare for a post-carbon economy, we need to be grounded and connected. He told us, “Go outside. Take off your shoes. Feel the grass in your toes. Drink water. Breathe deep. Eat well. Do this every day.” He wants us to end our “existential alienation from nature.”
This was music to my ears. My passions are hiking and painting outside. I like taking children on nature walks arranged by Wildcare. I also teach children about gardening and natural habitats in programs developed by the Marin Master Gardeners. And I love to tell others about programs and resources that protect our environment.
All is Not Lost
I hope Obi Kaufmann https://coyoteandthunder.com/ is right – that getting grounded and connected will help us all. I know it will make me feel better. When I feel better, I do see that all is not lost.
A few weeks ago, I woke up with a sharp pain down my right leg. The pain, which disappeared in a few days, was sciatica. My girlfriend, who has also suffered from sciatica, has been traveling a lot lately. She’s concerned that she’ll have more aches and pains as she ages, and that it could limit her ability to do the hiking and biking activities she now enjoys on her trips.
I took my friend’s thoughts to heart and decided that now is the time to travel to some of the remaining countries on my bucket list. I’ve already seen quite a bit of Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Mexico. I’ve visited China, Indonesia, Turkey, Botswana, Zambia, Ecuador and Peru. The two big adventures still on my list are Japan and Argentina. So, now I need to make plans to visit these countries.
I bought the Lonely Planet travel books for Japan and Argentina. My experience is that once I buy a travel book, the dream starts to take shape and eventually manifests as a trip. My second step is to talk to friends and friends of friends about their experiences in the country I plan to visit. Then I begin a Google search to get ideas about tours and pricing.
Some trips require a tour guide. That was true for my travels in Turkey, China and the Galapagos Islands. For some trips it’s helpful to have a local travel agency make hotel and transportation arrangements. For other trips, I find I can make my own arrangements online and with the help of Air BnB.
I love the flexibility and sense of adventure that comes from traveling solo (I find that when traveling on my own I tend to meet more locals). But solo travel can get lonely, and there’s so much to learn from others. Fortunately, in my hiking club there are plenty of travel-lovers. One of my hiking buddies agreed that it would be great to travel to Japan together.
Traveling to Japan
After talking to friends about their experiences and looking at confusing Tokyo subway maps, I was open to getting help from a travel agency. Due to my Google research I had a realistic daily budget and a list of must-see sights. The travel agent will make the travel arrangements, including our city orientation in Tokyo with a local expert. Phew! I’m so glad to have all that handled, even if it costs a bit more.
Now comes the fun. I’ll read all that I can about the cities I’m visiting and Japanese history and culture. I’ll try to learn some basic Japanese phrases with the help of my iPhone and DVDs. I’ll continue to talk to friends about their experiences. In a matter of weeks, I’ll be on my way. My dream will become a reality. Then I can begin new research on Argentina.
I surprised myself today by submitting an application to a local art show for closet artists. Since leaving my corporate job in 2014, I’ve had time to take watercolor classes and a pastel class. It’s so much fun!
Then, my girlfriend invited me to do paint pouring (also called fluid art) on her deck. The finished painting kind of looks like images from a 1960’s light show. You don’t know what to expect as the paint flows onto the canvas. You do have control over the colors and some control over how the paint flows as you tip the canvas at various angles while trying to get the canvas fully covered with paint.
I love experimenting. I’m learning tricks that I can apply in a different media. Best of all, at this stage in my life, I don’t have any judgment about how it comes out. If I like the result, I can put it on my refrigerator; if not, it goes in a pile in the garage.
Benefits of Art
Meanwhile, the benefits are tremendous. Here are some listed at the Creatubbles.com site - https://stateoftheart.creatubbles.com/2017/02/08/10-important-skills-learn-art-education/
I want to add stress-reduction to this list. When I’m focused on my art, all my cares disappear. Try it. Get started by taking a class. Let me know how your art is coming along. I hope you enjoy some of my art work on this site.
I've been selected for the art show starting in mid-September through October 2019 at the Tiburon, CA town hall. If you're in the neighborhood, come take a look.
Years ago, I wrote a book called, Road to Fulfillment, about men and women who made meaningful mid-life changes. After the age of 50 they fulfilled their dreams.
I was reminded of the book when I read a June 9, 2019 article in The Washington Post called, “Changing Channels: Millions of women wait years to fulfill their dreams – or to figure out what their dreams are.”
It’s Your Time
The article states that after 50, many women do what they once considered selfish – they achieve ambitions that make them feel productive and satisfied, professional milestones that are difficult to pursue while taking care of a family and paying their bills. Please note that I believe many men feel the same about this time of life. In fact, both men and women ask me to help them answer the questions: “What’s next? What has meaning now?
This makes sense. After 50 we take stock of our lives and want to make the most of the remaining years. After 50 we know our strengths and want to use them in a way that makes a significant difference.
In the article, Patricia Forehand, a retired educator turned comedian says, “After I retired, I took the teacher mask off and really cut loose…. I feel like I can be myself again.”
It Takes Time to become Good
The singer Bettye LaVette, hit it big after the age of 60. She says, “It’s much better to find success later in life. It takes a very long time to become good. Iris Gomez, a lawyer turned novelist agrees. “My work has gotten richer as I’ve matured.” She adds, “People say you can have it all as a woman, just not at the same time. There’s truth to that.” Another woman, Suzanne Wilson, became a doctor 25 years after being accepted to medical school. And she believes that her experiences raising a family will make her a better doctor than she would have been earlier.
Life’s Travails Make Us Better
In my book, Road to Fulfillment, a male writer turned therapist, describes the pain and suffering he needed to endure in order to become the wise therapist he is today. A realtor turned minister feels the same.
Others in the book describe how their values changed over time. I often hear people over 50 say that now that their children are grown, fulfillment comes from living simply and making social contributions through work with non-profits and volunteering. Others said you shouldn’t wait until the time when you have enough money. Start where you are today. Begin to live your dream now. Reading their stories in Road to Fulfillment will inspire you.
What’s next for you?
Did you see the Brené Brown #BrenéBrown “Call to Courage” video on Netflix? It’s about vulnerability, courage, and risk taking. When’s the last time you took a risk? How did it turn out?
I taught a workshop this week on learning from failure or failing forward. We talked about difficult situations that had unexpected benefits. I had plenty of examples. I thought getting divorced would be catastrophic, but I’m so much happier now. I’ve lost many jobs, but almost always landed in better ones. I’ve led projects that failed, but I learned lessons about leadership and how my attitude impacted the outcomes.
Now that I’m older, I can see that some of “my mistakes” came from passive-aggressive behavior when I was unhappy with someone or the organization. Too bad that I lacked the maturity to see what I was doing at the time.
Mistakes cause us to reflect. They give us feedback about our lives. We learn and grow…and become more mature. I hate to think where I would be now if I hadn’t taken some risks and made lots of mistakes.
My girlfriend just called to tell me that she’s worried because her daughter is moving to Los Angeles on her own; she’s leaving the college town she’s lived in since college graduation. L.A. is the perfect place for the young woman to pursue her career, but it also takes courage to leave friends and family behind. Her family may feel she’s making a mistake, but this is how she’ll grow and mature.
My girlfriend’s boyfriend plans to remodel is bathroom, but he’s afraid he’ll use the wrong tiles or paint color so he’s procrastinating. We all do this to some degree. We wait and wait for inspiration or certainty. I’m learning that if I make a mistake, I can usually fix it. It might take time and money, but it’s better than taking no action.
Where have you been procrastinating? Now is the time to move forward. If you need support, let me know.
Take a chance. I want to hear how it goes.
I struggle with when and how to speak up, especially when it comes to politics. I have a friend who practically rants about our national political situation. I agree with much of what he says, but I can only take his anger in small doses.
On my recent trip to New Zealand, many locals wanted to discuss and understand what’s going on in America. I found their interest and curiosity to be refreshing. On the other hand, my travel companions shied away from those conversations and quickly changed the subject. Are they tired of these discussions or just uncomfortable?
Good Role Models
Recently I saw a good show called “The Great American Sh*t Show: New Monologues in the Age of Trump.” Brian Copeland and Charlie Varon, who are known for their one-man shows at The Marsh theatre in San Francisco, demonstrated how to speak thoughtfully about their political beliefs. Copeland shared a story about how he needed to continue loving someone he knew well in his youth who now flabbergasts him when she shares her current beliefs.
While door-to-door campaigning before the mid-term Congressional elections, Varon searched for common ground with swing voters. In his mind, he was seething at the stupidity of people who couldn’t make a decision or take action in what he considers to be times of madness. But what he did instead was to ask others questions about why they hesitated and then patiently addressed their reasons for hesitating.
During difficult times, it feels wrong to keep quiet and do nothing. On the other hand, people I like and respect, will tune me out when I talk about current events – and this includes people who agree with me. So, I’ve toned down what I say and how often I say it. What I can do is stay informed, talk to people who like to talk about current events, and join phone banks at election time.
Some Questions for You
What do you think? Do you speak up? How?
Don’t go so far that what you remember about your hike is how ridiculously hard it was.
Matthew Vandzura, Grand Canyon National Park Chief Ranger
Time Magazine, March 18, 2019
Photo of the Franz Josef Glacier by Lynn Ryder
I read this quote the week I returned from nearly three weeks of hiking on the South Island of New Zealand. It was the most difficult terrain I’ve encountered, including the scree we hiked up when climbing volcanoes in Ecuador in 2014. New Zealand has very steep rocks and roots covered with moss, making them unusually slippery. In the past, my hiking group would hike 2.5 miles per hour; on these South Island hikes we could barely complete one mile in an hour. When it rained on our way down the Roberts Point Overlook trail, below the Franz Josef Glacier, I was scared I would break my neck or some other part of my body. Which brings me to the question: When is it time to stop? What are my limits?
On the Overlook hike, I slipped on slick rock early on, so I knew I was pushing my limits. Two of my friends turned back, and I could easily have joined them. On the other hand, I felt intertwined with my group of 22 experienced hikers. There was some peer pressure and the thrill of doing something harder than I’d done before. I was focused on my goal; I wanted to see the glacier from the overlook….and it was something to see. But I can’t help thinking that if I had been smart, I would have listened to my body. I would have realized that my legs were tired, and I was relying a great deal on using my hiking poles and my hands to scramble up Robert’s Mountain. Plus, I am no spring chicken.
The Goal or the Journey
This reminds me of the dilemma of process versus outcomes. My friends who turned back, told me what a lovely time they had listening to bird songs, taking photos, and examining the ferns, moss and berries. While I was huffing and puffing, they enjoyed taking in the sights, sounds and smells of this unique area. I’m reminded that often I’m so focused on my goals and outcomes, that I miss the special qualities of the journey.
There’s More Living to Do
I haven’t decided if I was right or wrong to endure some scrapes and some fright to get to the gorgeous glacier overlook. I know I learned many lessons from pushing myself that day. In the future, I will take time to pause, tune out what others are saying and check in with my body to determine if it’s time to turn around. In the past, I wanted to prove how strong and capable I was, so I refused to be the person who wouldn’t complete a hike. Now it’s time to look rationally at what makes sense at this time in my life, knowing that any injuries won’t heal as quickly as when I was young. There’s still an enormous amount I can accomplish. I want to remain healthy and strong enough to keep hiking and seeing the many great sights I haven’t seen yet.
Find your next step at the next Reinvent Yourself after Fifty class on May 4 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA. Visit the workshops page on this website at: