Friday, August 27, 2010

Make Writing a Habit: Memoirs

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Many years ago, I took part in an official State Writing Project much like the Bay Area Writing Project begun in 1974 at the University of California at Berkeley. These State projects were and are opportunities for teachers to learn more about the skill, art and craft of writing by writing and sharing.

My own Writing Project year was 1979, but the lessons learned during several weeks that summer transformed my teaching over the next 30 years. I grew as a writer and became more adept at teaching writing. I attribute much of that growth to a book by Ken Macrorie: Telling Writing, Revised 2nd edition (Hayden 1976).

In that text for college students and writers of all ages, Macrorie used the term “fabulous reality” to describe what we can uncover and discover by expecting the unexpected. As Macrorie put it: “Most of us go through each day looking for what we saw yesterday and we find it, to our half-realized disappointment. But the man who daily expects to encounter fabulous realities runs smack into them again and again. He keeps his mind open for his eyes.”

What Macrorie has in mind, I think, are incongruities, the clamor and dissonant clash of two things side by side. For example, once upon a time “jumbo shrimp” caught the attention of one who kept his mind open for his eyes to see fresh what the rest of us accepted as advertising for oversized shrimp. That oxymoron and others like it inspired witty observers like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin to laugh at our language, especially those seven dirty words. Carlin also noted a few oddities about language, reporting that he prefers to be “in” a plane rather than “on” it.

Macrorie invites writers to record fabulous realities—as you have no doubt done while creating a journal of gratitude, journeys, parenting, or memories. Then Macrorie directs writers to transform those fabulous realities into “case histories” (his word for a memoir or biographical sketch) with the characteristics listed below.

1. a particular setting
2. details
3. action (and events follow logically from one to another)
4. word economy (the result of ruthless editing)
5. an implied truth (avoid announcing what the point is; let readers infer), held until the end

The poetry of William Wordsworth overflows with fabulous realities. “The Solitary Reaper” is a case history created when Wordsworth opened his mind to see a Scottish lass harvesting grain while singing a beautiful song. The setting (1) is, of course, a field of grain in a valley. The details (2) include the fact that the reaper is a “solitary Highland Lass” who sings a “melancholy” tune as she works, its melody resonating in the passerby because it touches upon “Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain, / That has been, and may be again.” The listener pauses, ponders, and passes on up the hillside (3), observing that the music touches his heart long after he can no longer hear it (5). With that observation, Wordsworth suggests that music and Nature collaborate to speak a universal language that transforms those of us who open ourselves to hear and see. In a mere 32 lines—182 words—Wordsworth tells a beautiful story that unfolds to reveal a complex truth (4).

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

When quoting from Wordsworth’s poem, lines 23 and 24, I inserted a forward slash between line 23 and 24. This is required to show the reader when the poetic line “breaks” or ends. From the example above, you will observe that the last word of line 23 is “pain,” and the first word of line 24 is “That.” You will also note that punctuation and capitalization are exactly as they appear in the original—a comma at the end of line 23 and a capital “T” for the word “that.” So when quoting three or two lines of poetry, be sure to use the forward slash and transfer punctuation, spelling, word order, and capitalization into your copy.

If, on the other hand, you must use more than three lines, you should indent the lines of poetry two tabs from the left margin and copy the poem into your essay exactly as it appears in the original. For example:

BEHOLD her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass! (1-4)

Note that quotation marks do not wrap around the four lines from Wordsworth’s poem. Indenting a quotation replaces the need for quotation marks.

Reading Challenge:

Some delightful reflective personal narratives that you will enjoy are:

1. Anthony Bourdain’s Blog, Notes from the Road, “Laos: Mount Phupadeng, Near the Plain of Jars” (or other places visited by Anthony Bourdain)
2. David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, a collection of funny and poignant essays
3. Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, a tribute to his wife, five years after her death
4. Sarah Vowell’s Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, a series of funny observations about growing up, being in the band, Frank Sinatra, and more

Writing Challenge:

Transform one of your own “fabulous realities” into a “case history.” You are not required to be poetic as you do.

Begin with “once,” as in “once upon a time” and persevere until you have drawn a truth from the moment. Your truth may not be that “good guys finish first to live happily ever after,” but the truth is essential. It is the point of the tale, the insight gleaned from the human experience. Be sure to evaluate your case history for the five characteristics Macrorie recommends.

Amazon links include Trillin, Vowell, Wordsworth, and Macrorie, Sedaris

Telling Writing, Revised Second Edition