Love Is All There Is


Amaryllis in the dead of winter.

Amaryllis in  winter.

A few weeks ago, I gave a workshop on memoir writing in Lindsay, Ontario. I ended the workshop with this quote from a poem by Emily Dickinson to sum up the state of mind to aim for when selecting words to tell the stories of a lifetime

                              That love is all there is

                                 Is all we know of love.

look-insideBut what is love? We went around the table, and everyone said one word to express what love meant to them. Safety, said the man writing about his hobo years. Compassion said another. Then others: caring, listening, forgiveness, oneness, unconditional.

Just yesterday I found some notes I made on a medical memoir I read a few years back. Jill Bolte Taylor drjilltaylor.com   wrote My Stroke of Insight eight years after she had a massive stroke at the age of 37 in the left hemisphere of her brain.

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Save the Seas and Write a Memoir

Ocean Country

Ocean Country

        Ocean Country is a memoir about belonging, longing, and awakening. It’s one woman’s journey from loving the beauty of the ocean and all its life forms to realizing that all the oceans are diseased, abused and in peril – unless we commit to doing something about it. Liz Cunningham http://lizcunningham.net/ocean_country_the_book/ takes us through her own grief at the imminent loss of this beauty, and the research she explores in an effort to save not only the beauty, but also the ocean’s role as a crucial life-support system.

In her research, she discovers that 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the photosynthesis (conversion of sunlight into chlorophyll, which is green) of marine plants and algae. She makes this more personal by rewording it: every other breath we take depends on the health of these plants and algae. How much of Earth is water? 70%. How much of Earth’s water is salty ocean? 97%.

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Ten Ideas to Enhance Your Desire to Write

You have a story to tell. You are the only one who can write your story. Taking one or several steps in the writerly direction may offer you the necessary incentive to put your plan into effect. All the steps below are rich ingredients for a compost pile. With the right combination, the pile heats up and there’s nothing stopping you from growing gorgeous sentences that reach for the sun.

  1. Join or start a writer’s group.
  2. Keep a daily journal for three months. Take a break, then go for another three months. Etc.
  3. Join or start a book club.
  4. Read a book a week. Make notes on what you liked, and which authors to read more of.
  5. Read the book section of a newspaper: the weekend Globe and Mail, the Star, or the New  York Times.
  6. Sign up on line for The Writer’s Almanac. It’s free, and brings wild ideas to your mind.
  7. Listen to people talking – at home, on the bus, at the gym. Record conversations. Listening  (and remembering) is a lost art.
  8. Listen to a radio broadcast about books. For example, The Next Chapter on CBC with Shelagh Rogers. The immense variety of fiction and nonfiction spark the imagination.
  9. Interview your mother or father about their early years. Ask about feelings, sounds, smells, and the music they loved. Write up.
  10. Be generous. With yourself, with others, and with flowers.

    2013-09-19 03.49.03

    Flowers for you.



The Sixth Sense


When I talk about the six senses in memoir writing, occasionally someone asks me, don’t you mean five? The Famous Five they mean are sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. A writer makes a story come alive when generous use of the Famous Five is splashed fragrantly onto an otherwise sense-less page. The reader is then transported to another world as warm arms of words reach out to embrace. The reader surrenders to literary rapture.

Human Energy

Human Energy

The sixth sense is just as important. Including experiences for which there is no rational explanation honours the inexplicable, the invisible, the spiritual. A woman in one of my classes told us about two men she was dating when she was young and couldn’t decide which one to marry. One day, she was walking beside one of them and when she went to hold his hand, an electric shock passed from his hand to hers and travelled the length of her whole arm. Sparks! She decided then and there he was the one. One of my friends had a mother who astral travelled, and communicated when ‘dead’. In the middle of the night, my mother-in-law—who was alone because her husband was on a painting trip up north—heard her husband calling “help”. She got up, drove the four hours north and found him on the floor unconscious.

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Fifteen Great Memoirs to Read


View of Earth during a moon walk

View of Earth during a moon walk

Empathy relies on a willingness to step into the shoes of another person and leave our own world behind. We do this when we read memoir. When we understand what moves another, we are taking a giant step towards felling barricades. Barricades of racism, poverty, mental illness, zenophobia and all the other phobias. Indeed, what a ‘giant step for mankind’, as Neil Armstrong said when he walked the moon, if we could all do this.

Read, read, read! If you want to write well, reading a lot is more important than writing a lot. In the bibliography of my book The Gift of Memoir I list sixty memoirs that I refer to in examples throughout the book. Most of these fifteen titles come from there, although a few I have read more recently, or decades ago. It was excruciating to select only fifteen.

Dare to be a moon walker! Read memoir, and enjoy the new view.

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Death as a Doorway into Memoir

For Judy Fong Bates, the death of her father by his own hands when she was twenty-two, is a painful shame that hangs over the days of her adult life. The prologue of A Year of Finding Memory opens with this startling, but somehow serene, statement.

“Not long after my father hanged himself in the summer of 1972, I found a small cardboard box far beneath his bed.”

There is a once-upon-a-time tone to these words, as if Bates is floating in a fantasy far away. Indeed, much of her childhood is filled with stories her parents told her about the many relatives and hardships of war that happened in faraway China. She is six when her mother brings her to small town Acton, Ontario where her father, already sixty-four, ekes out a living of drudgery washing other people’s dirty clothes by hand, a business her educated mother hates. Constant bitter arguments ensue, against the back drop of racism, isolation, humiliation, hopelessness and homesickness. A worthless dog life, her father complains endlessly. Any extra pennies are sent back to relatives.

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Operation Turtle Migration


Newly hatched turtles

(The environment is a necessary part of any memoir. It is the setting where the narrators story unfolds. Indeed, its existence is why the human species survives at all. Here, activist and naturalist Joan Norris relates how hundreds of doomed turtle eggs and hatchlings were given a chance to survive with strategic intervention.)

Have you ever heard of turtle nests migrating? Is that even possible? Well, it turns out turtle nests can indeed move from one place to another. They just need a little help from their friends.

Turtles ready to dig their nests look for a sunny embankment where the eggs can be incubated by the warm substrate. The Close Point Causeway on the south shore of Rice Lake, Ontario has this and it has a marsh on one side to serve as a nursery for the wee hatchlings. So, scores of  snapping and map turtles travel here each spring to dig their nests. For about ten years now I have been protecting these nests. With help from friends, our success rate has grown each year so that last year almost 2,000 baby turtles hatched out.

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The Memoir Revolution

In case anyone is still in doubt about whether or not we are in the midst of a memoir revolution, fully half the ten titles on this year’s National Book Awards (American) longlist for nonfiction are memoirs. But within that flexible category is immense variety:

  1. Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s open letter to his son about how to “live free in this black body”.

  2. Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs is Sally Mann’s account of her family and artistic life in the American South, enriched with many historical photos.

  3. If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran is Carla Power’s story of friendship with Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi and their combined efforts at studying the Koran.

  4. Ordinary Light: A Memoir is Tracy K. Smith’s record of growing up in a bookish family surrounded by animals, the dawning of her creative life, and the search for love.

  5. Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir is Michael White’s tale of travelling through Europe and the US to see the Vermeer paintings – while going through a painful divorce.

Just reading the titles is enough to give you ideas for a direction your own story could take. A letter. Freedom. Photos. Friendship. Creativity. Love. Travel. Divorce. Or any combination thereof. Universal themes, but with your own story woven onto the loom of such archetypes, we are invited onto the pages of your twenty-first century truths.

Do the world a favour. Add your voice to the revolution.

A Bouquet of Storied

A Bouquet of Stories


A Fine Farley Moment

Farley Mowat, fellow rejectee

Farley Mowat, fellow rejectee

On July 22 of 1985, my journal has this remark: “Letter from Farley Mowat!” He was responding to one of mine, which I had felt compelled to write because I had recently been turned back at the US border at Pearson International. I’d said goodbye to everyone, had plans in Miami … it was a devastating and humiliating experience. I knew he, too, had been turned back on his way to do a book tour in the States, and thought he might like to know of another instance of such rude (or so it seemed to me) treatment. I’m not sure why I knew he’d be interested in my plight, but trusted the good faith of a Canadian whose books I’d been reading for years. He wrote:

“Your case of refusal at the US border is certainly not unique. I now have heard from at least two hundred people who have all had something similar happen to them. I am drawing a lot of this together in a book called My Discovery of America, which will be published in October in Toronto.”

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