I Remember

Memory is the theme of Human Chain, a collection of poetry published by one of the world’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, in 2011. “What is the relationship between writing poetry and memory?” he was asked by a Toronto Star reporter.

“Memory has always been fundamental for me,” Heaney replied. “Remembering what I had forgotten is the way most of the poems get started. At the best times, something wakens, there’s an almost physical quickening. There’s no knowing where a remembered image will take you” (italics mine).

I have developed a memory-retrieval strategy for my writing classes that has had some astounding results. Most recently, when a man read the 200 words that he had written in response to the cue “I remember…” you could tell that he was amazed to have retrieved this memory from his childhood. When I asked him how long it had been since he had thought of that event, he opened his arms wide and said. “Sixty years! I have no idea where that came from!” It was a warm memory about his mother and her concern over his proper use of English when he was a boy.

It’s not the first time this “wakening” has happened when I have given the “I remember” suggestion. The memories are there. They just need to be called into consciousness.

Try beginning your daily writing hour with I remember. Or write it three or four times until an image comes to mind. I remember, I remember, I remember… the day Mom peeled an orange at the kitchen table after lunch, the sudden scent that announced the treat, and how she passed moist section by moist section from her fingers to ours, to each of us until it was gone, the tart taste filling our senses, and how one orange in this way was enough for all three of us – Mom and her two kids over sixty years ago.

Orange in sections

Orange in sections


My friends, the above is extracted from The Gift of Memoir, from a chapter called Four Strategies to Retrieve Memories. I will return to my series on Ways to Begin a Memoir with my next post, which includes an interview with Judy Fong Bates, author of The Year of Finding Memory (Random House, 2010).


How’s the Weather?


How’s the weather? That’s what we ask. Like, how’s Mom, or how’s the baby. The weather is like a close relative, something or someone we care about. Indeed, sometimes we feel embraced by this ‘relative’. Love affairs happen in sun, rain, hail, the hush of no wind, the roar of a tornado, heat waves, cold snaps, fog, smog, flood, drought, ice storms, dust storms, solar storms. The weather can prevent us from eating, working, sleeping—and suddenly that relative friend becomes a foe of sorts. Every one of Earth’s seven billion people was born on a day when the weather was busy doing something.

That’s why we relate immediately to a story that begins with what the weather is doing. Weather conditions are a universal part of the human condition.

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje


I love the opening half page of Michael’s Ondaatje’s memoir (he calls it a portrait) Running in the Family. He has returned to Sri Lanka to make sense of his childhood, after 25 years away.

“Drought since December.

All across the city men roll carts with ice clothed in sawdust.” One night he has a nightmare that thorn trees in the garden send their roots underground towards the house and climb through windows so they can “drink sweat off his body, steal the last of the saliva off his tongue.”

He snaps on the electricity just before daybreak … then it’s dawn and “the delicate light is allowed only a brief moment of the day. In ten minutes the garden will be a blaze of heat, frantic with noise and butterflies.”

Half a page, he comments while writing, and already the morning is ancient.

Feeling the heat?

Simply put, story is a person in a place with a problem. Ondaatje’s details of the drought are the parched place, and they pose a problem for the person telling the story. In Sri Lanka, the two seasons, wet and dry, control human activities, even their dreams. It therefore makes perfect sense to begin the story of his childhood with these inescapable facts.

Some people found Angela’s Ashes depressing, but I’m not one of them. I beg you, please read, or reread, the first two pages. With outstanding choice of words and historical details, Frank McCourt has created a dark beauty that has touches of humour. It’s the gallant determination to reach for humour that raises the misery to elegance. It’s real, it’s wet and he immerses us in all the glorious ugly dampness. Take this one short passage:

“Above all—we were wet. Out in the Atlantic Ocean, great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. … The rain drove us into the church—our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.”

The thing about reading a memoir that opens with rich details of the weather is that we are instantly transported from the coziness of our soft chair to elsewhere. And that’s why we read. As writers, these same details take us viscerally back into our memories so we can recreate them on the page.

How has your life been shaped by the weather?


Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write.


Five Best Openings for a Memoir

In this series for my blog, I focus on five good openings for a memoir: a conflict, a birth, a death, a childhood memory, the weather. First, let’s look at conflict as means to capture the reader’s attention, and find a focus for the story.

Plum Johnson plumjohnson.com begins They Left Us Everything with conflict between her mother’s needs and her own fatigue and frustration from being the primary care giver for her mother for years. Johnson goes back to an earlier time, too, to describe the old clapboard house in Oakville, Ontario she grew up in, but it is the conflict between her and her mother that drives the first several pages.

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

In the first few lines, we hear three recent phone messages from Johnson’s mother. “Damn this machine! Call me!” is the last one.

Johnson then tells us, “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

Her mother has been on oxygen for ten years, trailing miles of tubing around with her, often getting tangled up in the loops, cursing the damn thing. Her mother accuses her daughter of wanting to get her out of the house and into a retirement home, which isn’t true, and leaves Johnson angry and weeping and wondering, “Will I ever get my life back?”

Her mother dies. Johnson moves into the family home to pack things up – it takes over a year. Things shift within her, and now she finds she is looking for proof of her mother’s existence. In the succeeding two hundred pages, she explores her mother’s life and her complicated relationship with her mother … in old letters, photographs, innumerable objects. The 22-room house, she decides, is “womb-like”. Her mother, she sees now, was the house. Johnson feels she has spent these many months in the house giving herself back to her mother. It’s a return to love—a profound love that has resulted from understanding, which in turn comes from the hard work of digging through the past.


The Oakville house where Plum was raised.

I asked Johnson a few questions:

DT: Was opening your memoir with conflict intentional?

PJ: No. I tried beating that old mother-daughter conflict into submission but it wouldn’t be silenced. My own words shocked me.

DT: Did you consider other openings?

PJ: Originally, the manuscript opened with a description of the house, and the structure was chronological. Then I took the pages to my agent who basically shuffled them like a pack of cards, right before my eyes. She wanted flashbacks. We had a debate, but I realized she was right: it made my manuscript more interesting. It also revealed obvious nuggets of conflict. It was like panning for gold.

DT: Do you feel that conflict best conveys those last twenty years?

PJ: Yes, but putting it up front scared me; all my insecurities went up front, too. I decided to go for broke. My original opening sentence was, “I thought my mother would never die.” The acquiring editor (who is much sweeter than I am) decided it was way too harsh and wanted it changed to “I never thought my mother would die.” Which of course means a vastly different thing. So I fretted over the opening page for months.

DT: So many things to consider! Are you satisfied with the structure as it appears now?

PJ: The current version is a compromise. I still worried I’d be vilified for confessing my true feelings, but I needn’t have worried. Turns out, many women feel the same way. And that’s mostly true with memoir—the more personal you are, the more universal it is.

This post is dedicated to all those who care for elderly parents.

Have you had a major conflict in your life that could be an interesting focus of a memoir? I would love to hear.


Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir, a guide for memoir writers.


Close Call on the Pacific Ocean

leflaneur[1]Below is an incident I wrote  in 1972 after a four month sail from San Diego through the Panama Canal and up to Key West, under sail alone—no engine, in a 42′ trimaran, similar to the one shown. We were a crew of four: the captain and his thirteen-year-old son, and my partner and I. This anecdote became part of my first book, a memoir. Says Philip Marchand, “The vital principle of any memoir, the red corpuscle in it’s bloodstream, is the anecdote.”

My watch. No wind. No moon yet. Two hundred miles offshore from Costa Rica. The three others asleep, the sea silent. Warm salty droplets on my bare arms. A freighter appeared on the horizon at 2230 hours. From the lights I could see it was on a collision course with us. No worry, it was eight miles away. Make a log entry. Five minutes later it was considerably closer. The range lights were still in line, and both red and green running lights were visible. Too far away to worry, I decided. I looked at the orange drifter hanging limp on the forestay.

In no time the freighter was closer. Surely their radar has picked us up, I thought, mildly apprehensive. To be on the safe side, I flipped on our running lights, usually left off to save the battery. About a minute later, I could see only their red light, which I decided meant that the freighter had veered off to pass us to port. Or had the green light picked that moment to burn out, or had someone stepped in front of it?

The freighter was still rushing toward us at a ferocious rate. Again, to be on the safe side, I unfastened the xenon flasher from its place on the life ring and held it high. The brilliant strobe burst its staccato message into the night, lighting up our whole ship every other second, but I knew it would do us good only if someone were looking. We had read that some freighters are too short-staffed to carry full-time watches. We’d heard about disastrous collisions at sea due to cavalier regard for the night watch.

It was really close now. I looked up at the empty heavens and prayed for a sudden squall that would send some power into the useless sail. Although I was reasonably sure it was giving us right of way, I called Captain Don out of a deep sleep.

Then I heard the engines. The ship was upon us. I braced myself, hand tight on the tiller. If Don was perturbed by the sight and sound of this freighter bearing down on us, he hid it well. He took the flasher from me and stood on the cabin top to give it as much height as possible. The engines screamed, the bow wave frothed white.

Small freighter and bow wave

Small freighter and bow wave

A few seconds later the freighter passed us fifteen metres off the stern. The crew shone a spotlight on us, we heard them laugh, and they roared off into the blackness. I pushed my heart back down my throat and told Don to go back to sleep, thank you very much.


Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir, which offers guidelines for memoir writers.


Truth Plus Memoir Equals Revolution

When you write a memoir, you share your truths, good and bad, with those whose eyes follow your words. It’s mind to mind. It’s enlightenment, and quite possibly medicine.

Franz Kafka famously said, “A book should be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Such a book is The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir published earlier this year by the University of Regina Press.

A memoir that is a sentinel to truth

A memoir that is a sentinel to truth

Just seventy-three pages, this book represents one Cree man’s experience with abuses he endured as a child at the St. Therese Residential School in Saskatchewan, from 1935 to 1944. It’s an era that has been invisible to most of us, due mostly to a conspiracy of silence. His book is visible, real, a testament here to stay. Joseph Auguste Merasty, like the taxi driver, woodsman and warrior he was, persisted with his memoir for several years. He had his reasons:

  1. In correspondence with his editor David Carpenter, he wrote that he’d heard that one way of achieving immortality was writing a book. Leaving something behind after you ‘kick the bucket’ so you will be remembered. In this regard, he agreed with many memoirists, including Mordecai Richler who said, “Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing: it’s about dying.”

  2.  In the conclusion of his book, he writes that he hopes what he has related has some impact, so that the abuse and terror that Indian children were subjected to, in his school and other schools in Canada, never happens again. He has a desire to recreate a better world by bearing witness, by breaking the silence. Another way of saying this is that it’s about healing individuals and a society. As Bishop Tutu said, “Without memory, there is no healing.” Merasty has made his memories visible in this small volume. Memories that are brutal and bitter, friendly and charitable.

Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come out with 94 recommendations to bring about justice, which is aimed at healing the injustices, is a new chapter in the magic that is Canada possible? We have poured billions into preserving the French language and culture, so now would be the time to make a similar gesture to the people who were on this land before French or English. Now would be the time to open a federal inquiry into what is at the root of “missing and murdered aboriginal women”. Now would be the time to ensure more post-secondary education for people on reserves. As John Ralston Saul asked in today’s Globe and Mail, is this our last chance to get it right?

Joseph Auguste Merasty gave his memories of the St. Therese Residential School to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then to the rest of us in his book.

Please read The Education of Augie Merasty. Connect with his mind and medicine. Join the revolution around you. If you read the book, I hope you cherish it and the man as much as I do.

And oh yes, write your own memoir to join the other revolution—that of memoir writing. Often a third or more of the non-fiction books in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail are memoirs. What memories and medicine do you have to offer your family and/or the world?

Do someone a favour. Leave seeds of truth behind you. Seeds that become bearers of beauty … like these lupin sentinels in my yard.

Lupin in my yard.

Lupin in my yard.


From Love Letters to Memoir

I stood by my table of books at Chapters in Peterborough earlier this month for a book signing, just inside the front door. Several people stopped by the table to talk about memoirs.

Suddenly a familiar face with a dazzling smile appeared. Joanne Culley www.joanneculley.com who took my course on memoir writing four years ago, had also just published her book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. We had talked about trading books via email, but I didn’t know whether or not she would be able to get free that afternoon.


Joanne Culley and her new book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters

Lo and behold, there she was! I could hardly wait to have a quick look to see how she had made a story of the over 600 letters her parents wrote during the Second World War. Letters she had talked about during the course.

I spent the weekend reading her book. It’s a love story, a history lesson, and a daughter’s tribute to the parents who raised her. The book is strong, and you realize while reading it the enormous amount of historical research Joanne did. It’s a story well worth reading.

One thing I really love about this memoir is that each chapter begins with a few lines of a song that was popular during the war. For example, chapter eleven begins with lines from But Not for Me by Ira and George Gershwin.

I knew it had taken two years to complete. When I asked her what kept her motivated to keep going, she said, “the continuing support of her Group of Sevenish writing friends.” Seven of the people who took my memoir course that spring kept meeting … twice a month! For four years! And are still going. She added, “We really keep after each other, get on anyone’s case who comes with nothing written.”

Love in the Air: Second World War Letters is available in hardcover, soft cover and e-book formats from friesenpress.com and online book stores. It was released on May 8, the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day). The book includes letter excerpts, historical background, dramatized scenes, and photos.

Thank you, Joanne, for abbreviating the book’s introduction for this blog post:

This year two significant milestones from the Second World War are being celebrated – the 70th anniversaries of Victory in Europe Day on May 8 and Victory in Japan Day on August 15. These are no longer just remote war anniversaries for me, but now have more personal significance since the death of my father. While clearing out the family’s house, I came upon a box of neatly stacked bundles of airmail letters, and a note saying, “Letters written from 1943 to 1946 between Harry and Helen.”

Harry & Helen, 1943 cropped1

Harry Culley and Helen Reeder, 1943

Inside were 600 letters from each to the other while my father was serving overseas as a musician in the Royal Canadian Air Force Band. During the war, my mother, Helen Reeder, worked in the Department of Munitions and Supply in Ottawa, and later at the Toronto Transportation Commission, as it was then known. As I read through the letters, I discovered not just declarations of love, but also detailed descriptions of what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

Harry Culley endured bombings in London, the overall scarcity of food, and the exhaustion of travelling by trains, buses and army trucks with irregular schedules to perform in concerts, parades and dances. But he and the other band members knew that their music was keeping up the morale of soldiers and civilians alike.

He wrote to her about accompanying the famed Irving Berlin during his cabaret at the Pavilion in Bournemouth and playing for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the Beaver Club in London. He tried to explain to her what a buzz bomb sounds like: “Just imagine the biggest truck you’ve ever seen going up a street like Winnett [where Helen lived in Toronto].There’d be quite a vibration in the houses.”

On VE Day, Harry wrote, “This is the day we’ve all been waiting for. It’s pretty hard to realize now that the war is over . . . we went down to the beach [at Bournemouth] where there was a huge bonfire going on the sand with hundreds of people around it singing old songs.”

Of their letters, Helen wrote, “We’ll bind them up and read them over about twenty years from now.” I don’t think they ever did sit down together to re-read those letters – they were too busy living the lives they had dreamed about all those years before.

Image34Harry & Helen wedding

Helen and Harry Culley on their wedding day, 1946

I asked Joanne how she felt about the letters now, having initially felt they might be private. “I’m glad I read the letters,” she said. “They have given me insight into their lives as young people in love, amidst global turmoil.”

Are there any letters or other artifacts from your family that you can use as a starting point to write your story of the past?


Tales from the Pond

(Marie Prins has written a nature memoir. The land lives, breathes and procreates alongside her. The following is an excerpt from “Manifestations from the Pond”, which appears in Hill Spirits ll, An anthology by writers of Northumberland County. I’m honoured to reprint it here. Marie is a member of Spirit of the Hills Writers.)


Our pond is small, compared to those on nearby country properties, maybe fifty feet in diameter. Basically it’s a frog pond only five feet deep in the middle, a third of its depth the primordial muck that incubates dragonfly nymphs and mosquito larvae. Twenty years ago, a back-hoe pulled down a slimy cement pool that filled this corner of our acre lot. Gravelly dirt was dumped in the hole to make a ball field for our children; but spring water and cattails reclaimed this hollow as a mating pool for toads and frogs. So, five years later, another back-hoe dug a new pond and my husband, Ed, spent the rest of the summer shaping its edges and bordering a small grassy ledge with rocks for our chairs and umbrella.

At first, we envisioned deep water with sunfish and perch swimming the bottom and a profusion of ferns and water plants ringing the shoreline. When we planted marsh marigolds, blue flag, and an elder bush in choice spots, native jewelweed, boneset, and Joe Pye weed picked their own places in the boggy parts. When we lodged white and pink water lilies in the middle of the pond, pickerelweed and arrowhead surrounded them and stood erect like commas on opposite shores. Then cattails repossessed the outlets, and uninvited grasses and goldenrod crowded out the turtlehead and cardinal flower. Tough roots of yellow irises, once thought beautiful, grabbed a toehold on as much shoreline as possible, and proliferated into an invincible foe.

Gradually, our vision of an artistic landscape of ferns and wetland wildflowers was replaced by a grudging appreciation of both the alien and native plants thriving in the clay soil around our pond. For amid unruly weeds, we glimpsed tiny blue spots of water forget-me-nots and white sprinklings of bedstraw. Next to the rocks we identified bristly nut grass and pink, trailing smartweed, all modest flora offering unique shapes and colour if we but noticed their unobtrusive presence. After a few years, we conceded that the natural world had its own agenda best left to observe rather than manipulate. When we paid attention, small manifestations revealed themselves, some humorous, some profound, most ephemeral, but all unexpected revelations to be marveled at from the confines of our Algonquin chairs under a green umbrella.

Manifestations from a Pond

Manifestations from a Pond

Every mid-April along the margins of the pond, the invisible peeper frogs herald the opening act of the Nocturnal Mating and Territorial Squabbling Season. Soon the elongated trills of the toads, like fingernails on a comb, join this amphibious musical. As the weather warms, the high-pitched tremolo of elusive tree frogs moves from wood to water. Finally in early June, when the shrill calls of the peepers fade away, green frogs add their rubber-band twang to the choir. Occasionally, the rapid, hollow notes of a solitary leopard frog resonate as he seeks a mate in waters that are as busy as a Roman bath in the dark. Come mornings, all is quiet. But along the shore lie jelly masses of frogspawn and, twined around the lily pads, strings of toad eggs whose black dots evolve, if not eaten by predators, into hundreds of tadpoles wriggling in the warm water of the edges. A month later on the day of metamorphosis the border grass vibrates when innumerable brown toads, smaller than pennies, hop towards the grape arbour and out into the wide world of the yard.

During this coupling tumult, spontaneous Frog Wars erupt as green frogs vie for footage along the shoreline. One low croak begins the challenge. A dozen twangs of varying pitches echo around the pond. Like sumo wrestlers, frogs grab opponents and tumble in the shallows. Moments later, losers concede defeat and retreat to prior-claimed territory. Then another couple takes the stage and repeats this performance to the delight of its human audience. These acts of macho-mating recur well into June, when the weary actors disperse to drier parts of the garden and fatten up for winter’s long sleep.

With summer’s approach, the air above the pond’s surface pulsates with the darting zigzags of dragonflies and damselflies. Two-Spot, Nine-Spot, Common Whitetail Red-veined Darter, and Green Darner. After spending most of their lives underwater as ghostly nymphs, they stealthily crawl up spiky reeds, breathe the night air, and shed their larval skins which stick to plant stems like transparent clothes on a line. These ancient insects patrol the pond and devour mosquitoes, midges, flies, always attacking their prey from below. On sunny days, the air close to the pond’s edge dances with the unabashed coupling of Blue Ringtails riding tandem. Over and over, these slender acrobats form circles and hearts before the female deftly deposits her eggs on reeds below the water’s surface. In late summer, as the air cools, Rubyspots rest on rocks, chairs, arms, anyplace warm, and then resume their last minute pairing before an autumn frost ends their brief lives.

These breeding rituals fascinate us. One day, we watched the non-stop labour of a Green Darner gliding from stem to stem, never resting in her rhythmic exertion to reproduce another generation before the sun sank behind the cedars. Suddenly, from under a lily pad, a green frog leapt up and swallowed her in one gulp. Only our stunned silence witnessed her transformation from sustainer to sustenance in this peculiar dance of death and rebirth. One moment a dragonfly laying eggs, the next moment nutrients being rearranged into amphibious cells…premonitions of our own dust to dust mortality.

In my dictionary, the verb “observe” means to watch carefully, to witness, to watch without taking part. Silently, from the confines of my chair, I behold the nuanced life of the obscure—tadpoles, minnows, damsel flies—all creatures indistinguishable from another, all alive for one long moment of a season, seemingly to flicker in their beauty and then to feed the turtles, birds, frogs, toads – creatures of a higher order that emerge on logs, branches, and margins of the pond, all alive in their splendor for a few more seasons. To my ear “observe” sounds much like “absorb” which is to soak up or incorporate something into a larger entity in a way that loses much of its own identity.

Marie #2

My time by the pond is spent observing life and being absorbed by it. Moved by the saga of the Green Darner, I reflect on becoming part of a larger whole, part of a universe replicated in the life of this country pond. At times, my monkey mind quiets, the past and future meld into present. My being hovers briefly over water, pulsating gently, like the rhythmic undulation of a damsel fly levitating near the rushes. The mysterious, relentless passage of time ceases for an instant and I relax into divine tranquility, sensing dimly how my cells will one day be absorbed into a greater whole, and with relief, all will be well with my soul


 A memoir breathes as if alive when it includes the living land. What part of the land or sea where you live would you include in a memoir?


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