I made a commitment to do a workshop, but I needed some help to make it work. It also forced me to come to grips with my newly desired writing genre: memoir.
A few weeks ago, I became a convert to writing memoirs, about my life, and got involved in teaching a class on memoirs. It’s one part of a five-part series of workshops for Beginning Memoir Writers, for women, hosted by the Italian American Heritage Foundation, (IAHF). Other writers are slated to fill out the remaining workshops on aspects of shaping story, incorporating language phrases, editing, adding sparkle, and publishing their anthology. It’s a lot to accomplish in a short period.
Please understand that I’m not new to writing. At the Willow Glen community center I facilitated the basics of writing, editing, and publishing for a Wednesday afternoon creative writing class. I published three anthologies for this group of writers, and in between books, facilitated the class. But teaching is different from doing. When I facilitated, we often talked about short stories, had writing challenges, held critique sessions, had an occasional class about publishing, or invited a guest speaker. That was then. Now I have to face the reality of imparting what I know about writing the personal and intimate details of life, and this workshop is one month away.
My most formal writing class was Journalism 101 at CSU Hayward. Other people here at South Bay Writers have experienced my writing skills for more than a year. They recommend me. I can do no less than honor what they believe I can do. I trust them. I am excited and I am nervous, and this golden opportunity to learn more while I teach others is something I cannot pass up.
I haven’t been afraid of sharing stories about my life, because I feel that life is an open book, but I had never desired to write about my life. Now, I want to. My attitude change came recently, nearly twenty years after my journalism class that was the key to moving me on to the next step. I guess life had to happen first.
“They” say that teaching others what you’ve learned is the best way to further your own education. It crystallizes what you’ve discovered and it helps to develop wisdom.
In journalism, as a reporter, you write about who, what, where, when, and why. You tell the facts and lead to a conclusion as you wrap up the story. It’s important not to include your opinion, or bias, while telling the facts. Holding the reader’s interest with descriptive, true details is the key to journalistic writing. You must know the heart of your story to hook and hold the imagination of your reader. The same is true when writing novels.
When I was approached to do the Italian Women’s memoir workshop, I had just expanded a micro story that I had once included in a bio. It was about my young life riding from Texas to California with my mom driving. When I finished rewriting this eleven sentence story into eight pages, I saw that I had written like a reporter, telling my story in a journalistic style. I had written a news story. I knew it needed more, a rewrite, to tell of my life as if it had just happened to my eight-year-old self, with my adult self as the narrator.
That’s when Betty Auchard’s beginning memoir group came to the rescue.
Betty and I had previously met about six years ago at the Wednesday writing class in Willow Glen, when she was our special guest speaker. She was promoting her second memoir, The Home for the Friendless: Finding hope, love, and family. When we met again today, she’d just released a third memoir, Living with Twelve Men: a mother in training, with a total of eighteen years of writing memoirs behind her. A few of her neighbors were interested in writing their family stories and had asked her how to get started. She volunteered to meet with them in her home for the next four Mondays from 10am to 12 noon. Coincidentally, the night before her first meeting with the neighbors, we (SBW TalkBooks) had interviewed Betty about her first book of memoirs, Dancing in my Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood, at the monthly Q and A session that I hosted.
Setting up her interview gave me the opportunity to get re-acquainted with Betty. That’s when I discovered her neighborhood memoir group for new writers would soon meet. This was perfect timing. If I could sit with her group, I could learn what was important to impart to my new writers about writing memoirs. I first learned that it’s important to identify what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and how you know that you’ve done it. And that’s what she did with the neighborhood group. I liked taking part with these women, but I needed more, in a hand-held way, to help me teach the new memoir writers at the Heritage Foundation facility. I didn’t know it yet, but help was again on its way.
At Betty’s second meeting, she displayed and loaned out a variety of books on writing memoirs. I found a jewel in Lisa Dale Norton’s Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir. It’s right up there with Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
Lisa’s book is definitely for beginning memoir writers. This hundred-plus page guide shows the steps to accessing your memories so you can bring them to life. The “shimmering images” are comparable to those Kodak moments you hold in your head of every unforgettable experience that shapes your life. The author demonstrates how to pick which story to write and how to cull more memories to provide enough material for a well-rounded story. Remarkably, she explains that novel writers use the same tools as memoir writers, but in a different way. I’m halfway through reading and already know that Lisa Dale Norton’s book is for every new memoir writer.
I still have a few weeks left before knuckling down to teaching my first class on memoirs, which I now realize can be a series of short stories. What gave me the help I needed for this endeavor and the hope that keeps me going came from two women: Betty Auchard and Lisa Dale Norton. Now, I’m ready to give this a shot. Wish me luck.