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Book Burning

When I heard, I was shocked. Ninety-year-old Sarah called to tell me one of her daughters had rounded up all fifty copies of her book, a memoir, from friends and relatives and burned them. She didn’t know why, and it was too painful to probe.

CRF9WH Books burning in fire

CRF9WH Books burning in fire

Sarah (not her real name) and I had worked on her story for three months. We laughed, shed tears, and slowly sculpted a monument to her life. It shone with light and grace and humour and forgiveness and grief and glory. We were both so pleased with the legacy she was leaving for those she loved. As she said to me one day,

“What good are our life experiences if we do not share them?”

It’s been years since Sarah and I met at her house to do what she knew was sacred work. The soul work of telling her story. Today she came to my mind. I thought of how the act of silencing her was similar to how the Catholic church silenced stories of abuse – perhaps because I’d recently seen the documentary movie Spotlight.

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Refuge in Prison is a Book Club

The title caught my attention on a shelf in the Port Hope library. The Prison Book Club. A neighbor and I started a book club here in town over ten years ago, and I know how much it means to all of us. I had to find out how a book club worked in a prison.

There were two prisons with new book clubs, both in Ontario: Collins Bay and Beaver Creek. I was familiar with Collins Bay, at least as an outsider. When I lived in Kingston in the sixties, I could sometimes hear the umpire in the prison yard calling out on a Sunday afternoon, “Steven Truscott up to bat!”

Collins Bay Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario

Collins Bay Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario

Ann Walmsley wrote this memoir about the eighteen months she spent co-facilitating book clubs in both these institutions. Her partner was Carol Finlay, who has since set up 22 book clubs inside 15 penitentiaries in 7 provinces, and has begun coaching volunteers in New York and California.

Reading good books, fiction or non-fiction like memoirs, is about seeing things through another person’s eyes. So, while increasing empathy, such books also increase literacy and communication skills. The members of the book clubs discuss characters and themes (such as loneliness, forgiveness, home). They listen to all opinions with respect. The men take turns leading the discussion on a particular book, making sure that everyone gets a chance to express an opinion.

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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.

 

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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. 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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