Editing an Arctic Memoir

You know how attics can contain hidden treasure? When Marnie Hare Bickle moved into her new house north of Port Hope, Ontario, she rummaged around in the attic and found a cardboard box filled with papers. Heart racing with excitement, she discovered rough copies of memoirs written by the former owner, David Ford. Actually, there were several versions of them, and a box of all his letters from WW ll. She sorted and read all the letters first, then plunged with pleasure into the mystery of the memoirs.

David Ford was born in 1910 in the East Arctic to a family of several generations of Hudson Bay Company traders and managers. His father was highly respected and spoke the language of the Eskimos (Inuit) and Indians (Innu) he served. David grew up with the native children where they lived, hunted seal and caribou with them, learned the ways of wolves and polar bears and travelled by dog sled and kayak.
At 13, his parents sent him to Newfoundland for high school. When WW 11 broke out, Ford enlisted. Through a war program, he became pen pals with Ruth Hawkins and after the war he travelled to Port Hope to meet and marry her.

He never forgot the Inuit people of his youth. He may have written his memoirs to keep them close to him, and dispel homesickness. He may have written them to preserve on paper a way of life now gone, so that others would know the beauty and hardships of it.

Marnie edited the multiple versions of the story into one cohesive whole over the course of four years of monthly writers meetings. Every few pages took hours of editing. Every month I would listen to more of her story, which was his story, and be caught up in the drama of the lives of the Arctic’s first peoples. She would hear another chapter of my book, which was about writing memoir. We sipped lemon ginger tea, and inched forward into our literary endeavours. Four amazing years slid by. My book, The Gift of Memoir, was published. Marnie’s is about to be.

The following excerpt takes place when David has finished high school, and has returned to his father’s latest post at Southampton Island. (Marnie and I had a long discussion about how to translate Wakadlanga.)

I was the first white man they had ever seen. The small girl asked (in Eskimo), “Are you a white man?”
I answered, “Yes, but a poor one. I was born and raised in your native land but I wish to be an Inuk man while I am your guest.”
Smiling, she came up to me like a queen and put her plump little hand in mine and said, “There you are.” I shook her hand vigorously and asked her who she was.
“I am Caribou Hair,” she answered in a clear friendly voice. Turning to the rest of her companions she said, “Those you see here are my friends, Inuit.”
There was that word, Inuit. The People. The best name in the world. I knew I was home.
She reached out her short arm and pulled a small fellow from the crowd and said, “This one is called Little Worm.”
Wakadlanga! No kidding!” I exclaimed, delighting in speaking this magic Eskimo word used so much in this part of the Arctic.
“Pleased to meet you, Little Worm,” I said in English.
That was too funny, and they giggled and squirmed and said, “Oh, he speaks English, too!”
Little Caribou (who was eight, I would find out later) continued talking to me. “Little Worm is my future husband.”
“That is when he grows up to be a Big Worm,” I said.
I had not heard so much children’s laughter in a long time.
Caribou Hair protested. “I do not wish to marry Little Worm. I want to marry a man who can carry a boat from one place to another on a dog sled.”
I turned to Little Worm. “Are you going to have a boat when you grow up?”
“Oh yes. I am going to own several boats that will only be used on the water,” intimating that this business of having to haul a boat overland was plain stupidity. I wondered to myself if he might be right.

Marnie, thank you for taking me time travelling to the Aboriginal Arctic! And thank you for the self portrait below of David Ford. For those who would like to read more authentic stories of the East Arctic, read Kenojuak by Jean Blodgett, published by Penumbra Press. Some of the same people appear in both Kenojuak and David Ford’s stories.

David Ford

David Ford

If any of you have rough copies of old letters or memoirs to sort through and edit, I’d love to hear about them.

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Let me turn you on to AWAD. That’s short for A.Word.A.Day, put out by Anu Garg. If you are a writer, or a reader, or a person planning to write or read, this daily delving is for you. And it’s free. http://wordsmith.org

Today’s word was expectorate. Ten people from around the world responded. Many times, the word of the day brings nothing to mind and so I don’t write in with what I think is a brilliant response. But today’s word slid me back to my childhood. Not a word commonly used, you would have to admit.

I wanted to give my association with the word, which was one of history, one of memory. I wrote:

“This word reminds me of my father, from whom I inherited my love of words. Why use a simple one-syllable word (spit) when a four-syllable one could roll off the tongue? As a kid with a phlegmy cough, I would be expected to “expectorate” to get stuff out of the bronchial tubes. The word was used with a certain glee, lending grace and dignity to an otherwise plain old bad cold.”

Two others liked what I wrote, one of them an art therapist from Tel Aviv. Yes, I’ve shared my father, my witty words, and my memory of childhood ailments with a perfect stranger from Israel. It’s strange how strangers, half a world away, can suddenly become part of your expanded family.

Each week, A.Word.A.Day has a theme. A few months back, the theme was bringing back insults, with the corroborating idea of putting away guns. Pull out some fearsome vocabulary instead of a gun. This would reduce violence and increase your facility with language. As Anu Garg said, “I dream of a world where people would carry a dictionary—you never know when you might need it—to find the choice word, just the right word, for someone who has offended you. The bigger, the saltier, the better.”


He gave us these five, one a day, over the course of the week: ultracrepidarian, mythomane, libertine, homunculus and vacuous. Each was defined, with etymology and pronunciation. An ultracrepidarian is a person who gives opinions beyond his/her area of expertise. I thought the best insult to hurl at someone who offended me, or pulled a gun on me would be: “Why you vacuous little ultracrepidarian!” But who? Who? And would he/she immediately drop the gun? Or, pull out a bigger dictionary? The possible scenarios are staggering to contemplate.

In a more serious vein, there is a little problem with this delightful line of thinking. Words can actually damage, wound, cut, crush, even destroy. The right word can caress, cure, even conquer. No wonder  writers are fond of saying “the pen is mightier than the sword.” But is it? Why are some books banned? More on that in another post.

Mr. Garg, you can dream. It’s a good dream, and I’m glad to have been a part of it. For those who fanaticize about words, check out A.Word.A.Day at http://wordsmith.org  Oh yes! Words can fill up your senses like a bowl full of blossoms.





Wild: A Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

I was pleased and honoured when I heard that my local Hospice group, where I am a volunteer, included my book review of Wild, from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  in the course they give to new volunteers.

I haven’t yet read a memoir where love and loss are not crucial to the story. There are many kinds of love. Love of freedom (read: Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre), love for a gorilla (read: Virunga by Farley Mowat, love for one’s fellow man (read: I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish), love for a daughter (read: Blue Nights by Joan Didion). The list is long. We all seek love! Is hate the opposite of love? Or, is it loss? Often, it is fear.

Reading a memoir enables us to understand that there are many varied and valid reactions to a universal event. We become more empathetic, tolerant, wise. I became well acquainted with sadness and rupture when my mother died. Tears poured for a month. Then, she seemed more distant – perhaps off on an astral mission. The tears stopped, and I realized I was at peace. Reading Cheryl Strayed’s exquisite story of losing her mother opened my eyes and heart to another’s loss of another mother. So very different. Yet, we’d both lost the same mother figure, same first role model, the woman who had wombed us, shed her blood for us.


The memoir Wild, from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an account of 22-year-old Cheryl Strayed losing her 49-year-old mother to cancer. Shattered and enraged, she cannot imagine living without her mother. She sinks into a four-year wilderness of wanting her mother back, of terrifying dreams and heroin, of leaving the husband she loved.

Then, the still-overpowering sadness propels her to leave her home in Minnesota where her mother was buried. She sits by the grave and tells her mother that she had put her somewhere else—within her. And with that, she takes off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in California and Oregon, over a thousand miles of it, northward to the Canadian border, alone. She’d never hiked before.

This story is not for the faint-hearted. It’s raw and explosive with brutal—and sweet—encounters with bears, snakes, occasional other hikers and the reality of the terrain itself. Lost and terrified more than once, the experience parallels Strayed’s loss and terror over losing her mother.

Before she starts the PCT, tears are her almost constant companion. After a few weeks on the trail, she notes that she’d not shed a single tear and reflects that she is simply too exhausted and in too much physical pain to have room left over for tears. There is the pain from boots that didn’t fit (she would lose 6 toenails) and pain from the monster backpack that rubbed her flesh raw in several places.

Her mother was the backdrop to everything. Towards the end of the trail, she squatted down by the Sandy River and splashed water on her face. Of that moment, she lets us see this introspection:

“Where was my mother? I wondered. I’d carried her so long, staggering beneath her weight. On the other side of the river, I let myself think. And something inside of me released.
Normal as life on the trail came to be, and unbelievably over, “there was no way to go back, to make it stay.” She reached the Columbia River in a state of pure joy, “as if a newborn baby had just slipped finally into my palms after a long labour.”



This memoir could be a comfort and a guide to anyone who has lost, or who may soon lose, a love. If you are writing about love, loss and fear in your memoir, Strayed’s account may open doors of possibility for you.

Wild has many insights into a young woman’s long labour through grief into new life on the other side. It offers a resolution to grief that is not often sought or thought of: a tough physical challenge in the natural world. While hiking, Strayed’s two pains—the emotional pain of losing her mother, and the physical pain of the challenges of the trail—were intermingled. Working through the physical helped her work through the emotional. Indeed, it would not be too far a stretch to say that she had to come close to death herself to transcend her mother’s death.

Your own memoir will, no doubt,  have valuable insights into the turmoil of loss. The world needs to hear them. I need to hear them. From the stony patient path of grief, beauty will one day arise.


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Does Your Name Tell a Story?

I suspect that many people reading these words are toying with the idea of writing a memoir. When it comes to putting it all together, where do you start?

If there is something intriguing about your name, that could be a good opening. Names can have much history, even tragedy. Names can lie, hide the truth, hide history, honour the past, give shelter, give hope. A birth name, as you will see,  can represent freedom – freedom from oppression, freedom of speech.

Olga Szaranski recorded her story with me a few years ago, and published several copies of it for her family. Eighty-six at the time, she addressed her story to her children and grandchildren, telling them this about her name:

Some of the flavour and temperament of your ancestors shows up in the name my parents gave me at birth. My full and formal name is Wolja Grigorovna Trofimova. Wolja (pronounced Vola) means Freedom in Ukrainian. This was not a name that anyone gave their children, so it is an indication of the free-spirited thinking and fun-loving tendencies in my parents’ personalities. Because it was so different, I always had to spell it, and people often didn’t understand it. Then at 18 when I told the German Nazi official my name, she thought I said Ola, which is short for Olga. That was how I became an Olga. But people who know me from the old days still call me Wolja. A number of people at the time, my parents among them, were glad the Russian aristocracy was gone and some, like my father, were Ukrainian patriots. As my son Alek, who has a quick sense of humour, said one day, “Your parents were hippies!”

Olga is now 90, and her only sister (no brothers) still lives in Ukraine. Yulia is bedridden now, completely paralyzed, and she no longer reads. Olga’s story however, is also her story, her history, and she has a copy of it. It is a great comfort to her when her husband reads it to her, translating it into Ukrainian as he goes. It brings back her early days, her youth. The old Ukrainian folk songs her grandfather used to sing, the school house that was heated with straw, making their own flour, the Saturday night baths when bucket after bucket of water was carried up from the well and heated then poured into the big tub—kids first, Mom and Dad last. Then the banning of the Ukrainian language, then famine, then the arrival of the Nazis, then the train ride to work camps in Germany. Parts of the story are hard. But much better that those parts be acknowledged in print than forgotten. That’s one of the functions of freedom of speech.


Then there’s Malala. Her name is now synonymous with speaking out for women’s rights. Her name is so crucial to her sense of self that her book I Am Malala opens with three pages of what her name means. When she was born female, people sympathized with her mother, and no one congratulated her father. Pashtun female babies in Afghanistan are not entered in the family tree, only male babies, but when an uncle arrived with the tree, her father broke with tradition. He drew a line from his name to a circle and in the circle he wrote “Malala”. Her father had already fallen in love with her, and knew she was different.

Named after the Pashtun version of the French Joan of Arc, Malalai was the greatest heroine of Afghanistan. In 1880, the young and soon-to-be-married Malalai saw the men were losing the fight against the British. When the flag bearer fell, she marched onto the battlefield holding her white veil up high in front of the troops, shouting to them in the name of love to be strong, to be ready to die for their land. She was killed under fire, but her words turned the battle around. Shot by her enemy, like today’s Malala was shot by her enemy (the Taliban) for standing up for education for girls. But, “our” Malala survived.


When she was a baby, Malala’s father used to sing her a song written by a famous Pashtun poet. The last verse ends like this:

       O Malalai of Maiwand,
       Rise once more to make Pashtuns understand the song of honour,
       Your poetic words turn worlds around,
       I beg you rise again.

Rise again! Is it any wonder Malala became who she did? Or, was she sent by the gods?


My parents named me after a song called Diane that they both liked. Nope, no revolutionary theme here. Although, from all accounts, I did revolutionize their lives.

Do you have a story to tell about your name? I’d love to hear it.



Ten Reasons for Writing Memoir

In my book, The Gift of Memoir,  the twenty reasons I give for writing memoir are culled from the forty-two I offer in my course. The more reasons there are, the more apt you are to finish your story. Not that all forty-two, or twenty, will be valid for everyone. Are there three or four that seem more relevant to you than the others? Those are the ones that will propel you forward into your story and keep you adding to it.

Here, in this post, I have harvested ten of the best from the list of twenty. I thought I had collected all possible reasons for writing memoir, but recently someone suggested another, and I will start with that one. It is an especially poignant and relevant one in our times because so many people are living alone—especially older people.

1. To dispel loneliness. When you write your stories, usually you have someone in mind to whom you are speaking. You have an audience who will one day receive and read your words. This is communication beyond your own mind with whomever may be there.

2. To counteract dying with the permanence of written words that will live on. “Fundamentally,” said Mordecai Richler, “all writing is about the same thing: it’s about dying.”

3. To pass on your wisdom and insights by leaving visible tracks behind you. This is a form of mentoring.

4. To give yourself and your descendants a history. This is why Philip Marchand wrote Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America.

5. To heal. “Without memory there is no healing,” said Bishop Tutu.

6. To be sheltered by what is real and true for you. To create a shelter for your spirit, a “parka for your soul,” as Alice Walker calls it in a poem.

7. To play your role in social justice. For example, if you suffered from abuse as a child, break the silence and bring about change. This was the purpose of the over one hundred published slave narratives.

8. It’s not the money, says Thomas King of Canada’s First Nations, who wrote The Truth About Stories. “Maybe it’s a desire to recreate the world.”

9. To increase empathy in the world. Reading a memoir is to walk a mile in another’s shoes, and this fells the barriers between people. Understanding another, who may be quite different from ourselves, decreases stereotyping, which decreases racism, xenophobia and all the other phobias. This in turn reduces violence.

10. To immerse yourself in love. Love for life, love even for the losses, love for language, and love for the literary form that makes sense of it all.

Do someone a favour. Write your story! Leave a bouquet of your thoughts.



Time Was Soft There, a memoir by Jeremy Mercer

A good memoir is a good mentor when you read as a writer. Time Was Soft There is a romp through literary escapades in one the world’s most famous bookstores, Shakespeare & Co., situated on Paris’s Left Bank. Canadian reporter Jeremy Mercer stumbled in one day, bought a book, and wound up living on the second floor of the store for eight months. Populated with people who live on the edge and on dreams, the store was rife with dirt, thievery, hunger, love affairs and the enormous good will of owner, George Whitman, eighty-six at the time.


I met George when he was just eighty-two. I’d walked into the store on the advice of a friend. Used books were piled ceiling high everywhere. I spotted whom I assumed to be the owner because he looked aged and worn and I’d heard he had started this store half a century ago. He was sitting deathly still on a stool, his thin body tilted stiffly at an angle of about 15 degrees. His eyes were almost closed; his hoary hair was cobweb gray. He looked as if he was ready to breathe his last. I was afraid that if I spoke too quickly or too loudly that the force of my breath would blow him over. In slow speech, that would not offend nor harm the near dead, I began to ask him about a book I was looking for.

“Do … you … have … a … book … ”
The body sprang upright, eyes flew open, words flew out. “Yes, madame, I have half a million books.”
Startled by this unexpectedly quick response from the near dead, I forgot which book it was I’d been asking about.
“Oh! Do you have a book about love?” I don’t know where this came from.
“Madame, all these books are about love. That’s why writers write.”
My heart paused; suddenly, I was wide awake.

A few years later, one of my book-lover friends told me she’d read a memoir about Shakespeare & Co. for her book club. You can understand why I raced to my local bookstore and bought a copy.

Time Was Soft There is an engaging memoir, filled with possibility. I couldn’t put it down. I like to ask myself what it is that makes for good writing so that I might incorporate some of those same techniques in my own writing. These are a few of Mercer’s www.jeremymercer.net literary skills I noticed in this book.

1. Continual mention of food—especially French food, cheeses, restaurants, and the cooking in the bookstore itself.
2. Much use of the five senses —doors banging open, cursing the cold.
3. Vivid quick descriptions of the many characters.
4. Simple dialogue moves the story along, and reveals more about the speaker.
5. Mercer lays bare his own emotions to us—a sweaty terror, an ego bruising.
6. Some history that gives the perspective of centuries. E.g., the bookstore is on a street that has been in continuous use since the year 400.
7. Details of Whitman’s dreams, his daughter from whom he was estranged, his desire to give a job, a bed and a refuge to homeless writers. Indeed, a sign over a basin of coins read “Take what you need, give what you can.”

Have I piqued your curiosity? If you read Time Was Soft There, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

For more information on Mercer, see: www.jeremymercer.net  Many thanks to Jeremy for sending me the above photo of himself and George Whitman in front of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. In his note to me, he said that he believes more than ever in the “power of personal stories”.


Crowd Funding My Book

I, who am a nitwit when it comes to computerese (computer-ease), decided to crowd fund the publishing costs of my recent book, The Gift of Memoir. My only other book came out in the last century. That was before we knew that the future would run wild with connections zooming across oceans and galaxies.

Was there a fear factor in venturing into the unknown? Indeed there was. However, I didn’t want to be left behind by technology. And, I knew I would be grateful for any financial assistance with the costs. What I didn’t know was what a huge emotional and psychological support the contributions would be.

I had a role model. Dr. Melissa West www.melissawest.com has an online yoga business, and as part of that she offers a free class. That class has a worldwide audience with thousands of followers. What she needed was a more suitable microphone, one that would tuck into the waist band of her yoga pants. It would leave her hands free. It would cost $1000, money she didn’t have.

Melissa wrote a story to accompany her online campaign. Following Indiegogo instructions, her husband shot a one-minute video of Melissa talking her audience through yoga poses that showed what a difference the new microphone would make. We hear her voice, watch her movements, and see that she is a real person with a real need. She urged her followers to give just $2 each. He pressed a button, and the campaign went live. A few weeks later, she had more than enough money for the new microphone.

This is a heart-warming story on several fronts. The people taking the online class got better instruction. Those same people felt good because they were helping Melissa do her job better. And Melissa www.melissawest.com benefitted from being freer to demonstrate and explain poses without having to worry about holding the microphone. Everyone benefitted. Win. Win. Win. !cid_ii_14c06675bf8a29dd Crowd funding is about so much more than the money. It’s about expanding ourselves beyond the boundaries of our bodies and becoming part of something larger, part of a community. It’s a way for us to promote an idea that will benefit others. The word community come from the Latin communitas. This word has two parts, com,“with” or “together” and munus, “gift”. Gift! We have gifts to offer one another. Most of us yearn to be part of such a community where we can give. Giving, nurturing, is a primal urge.

With Melissa’s experience as a beacon, I set up my campaign. Would anyone respond? They did. I can tell you that with every contribution, I felt joy and amazement. NOT so much for the money, which would enable my book to be delivered into the world, but because my request had been heard and acknowledged, and people believed either in the book or in me. The emotional support was phenomenal. Never before had I felt so supported by a crowd, by a community, by magic.

And so, am I glad I leapt into the unknown? You bet. Crowd funding is a kind of modern barn raising. What a thrill to see timbers hoisted into position and watch the creation come into being. Thank you, Melissa. Your “Namaste Yoga TV” offers health, healing and guidance in a great many ways. And thank you to the many others  who helped give my book wings.


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