Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Your Lucky Break

Monday, June 25th, 2012

I read Anna Quindlen’s lovely memoir, Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake and paused at her question, “Do all of us, by the time we’re grown-ups, have something that was our signal lucky break?”

Thinking back, I can construct a time-line of lucky breaks, but I don’t really believe in luck.  I believe everything happens for a reason, both “lucky” and “unlucky.”  If it’s not something we desire, perhaps we learn more from those stages in our lives?

But no matter what my philosophy is, there are moments for everyone that there is a click . . . everything comes together perfectly.  Whether it is in a career, level of creativity, knowledge, or a special relationship that changes a life forever, it is a break. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Answer Anna Quindlen’s question through a personal narrative, poem, song or another work of art. 

2.  Create a time-line of creative learning experiences you’ve had in your life.  Choose one to express with an essay.

3.   What about the characters in your most recent project?  What have been their lucky breaks?  Create scenes about theirs.  What about their unlucky ones?  How have they dealt with these?  Favorably?  Unfavorably?  Show their character’s growth or weaknesses through these scenes.

Jonathan Franzen – Writing Fiction and Memoir

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, Freedom, two other novels, a work of nonfiction and two collections of essays, gave a talk the other night and I was a fortunate attendee.

He spoke with thoughtfulness and richness.  When the audience asked questions, Franzen didn’t merely pop off answers from the top of his head, but gave them much consideration; the answers were from deep reflections, much like his writing. 

“Reading and writing fiction is an act of social engagement.”

“A character dies on the page if you can’t hear his or her voice.”

“A novel is a personal struggle.  What is fiction after all if not purposeful dreaming?”

“If fiction is easy to write it’s not any good.” 

(He mentioned he wasn’t talking about fun, light reading.)

“Take autobiographical risks.  Trust people you know to love the whole you.  All writers have to be loyal to themselves.”  His brother was similar to the character, Gary, in The Corrections, in that he was also working on a family album.  But Franzen learned not to be concerned because he knew his brother had his own life.  After his brother read the book he called him.  “John?” he said.  “This is your brother.  (Pause.) Gary!” 

“Tone, language, character – – – even a great TV show like Breaking Bad can’t do moral subtly. I’m trying to defeat other media.” 

“A writer wants to be alone in a room.  He’s easily ashamed and is an exhibitionist.”

“I’ve grown a thick skin.  I’ve learned not to Google myself.” 

“I never thought I’d do nonfiction.  I thought it was a betrayal of the novel.” 

Favorite bird at the moment?  The California Towhee.  Why?  Subtle.  Charismatic.  Not shy. 

Just like Jonathan Franzen. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Franzen gave a plug for Memoir Journal, a nonprofit that is a literary magazine and also holds writing workshops.  Check this publication out a    

They are open to submissions for memoir pieces, with $500 and publication as their top prizes.  Write a memoir following their submission policy.   

2.  Choose one small autobiographical detail and combine it with a fictional character in your story.  Make sure it enhances and adds depth to your character and story.   

3.  Create a character with one or all of these descriptions:  subtle, charismatic, not shy.

Family Stories Inspire Creativity

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Cousin Mary stands with me along with Marion and Ann who are seated.

Visiting relatives for me has always meant listening to family stories.  “What was it like when you were growing up?” I’d ask my aunts and uncles, longing for their descriptions of what life was all about during the roaring twenties, the depression and the war years.

During my recent trip back to my native state of Wisconsin, we cousins reminisced and pieced together our family tree without those aunts and uncles, as they’ve crossed over into another world where we can’t ask them questions any longer.   

One afternoon my cousin, Mary and I gathered with our dads’ cousins, Ann and Marion, both in their 90s, the last of their generation.  Photo albums were spread around us.

“Tell them about the fire,” said Marion to her older sister. 

 “It happened when I was a little girl,” said Ann.  “Mother had wash hanging in the kitchen near the stove.  I was with the baby in the kitchen and Mother went out for a few minutes to help Dad.” 

“How did the fire start?” I asked.

“One of the children put the clothes on the stove,” said Ann.

 “One of the children!” exclaimed Marion.

“Who?” I asked.

 “Well, it certainly wasn’t the baby,” said Ann. 

We all laughed as we realized she had done it. 

Although the house was destroyed, young Ann grabbed the baby and got out safely. 

That day, we bonded over family narratives. 

What tales do you have to tell?

Writing Prompts: 

  1. Create a timeline of emotional events for yourself.  They don’t have to be life-threatening or tragic.  It could be the day in third grade you discovered your gift of making people laugh. Or the time you hit a home run for your baseball team. 
  2. Flesh out these memories with details and recreate them as personal stories.
  3. Interview family members for their memories.  A good book to help you is Legacy:  A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence.
  4. Invent a memory timeline for your protagonist.  Flesh out a few of them creating back story for your character.
  5. Use a family story to inspire a poem, song, or other piece of art work. 

Short Fiction/Memoir Contest

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

WRITER ADVICE – 7th Annual Flash Prose Contest.  Short Fiction/Memoir, 750 words max. First Prize: $200, Deadline: April 18.  Guidelines:  Questions:  [email protected]

Writing About Your Life . . . Will it Harm Others?

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Are you interested in writing episodes of your life?  Working on a memoir?  Personal narratives? 

You must be willing to be honest.  What do you owe the other people in your life who will make appearances in your scenes? 

At the moment, I’m writing about how my life intersects with others.  As I read my aunt’s diary for research, one line changes everything. 

Do I include this in my story?  If I do, it alters perceptions. 

I pause.  It is true the people in my narrative have passed on.  But I do not want to cause hurt to anyone on this side or the other.

Yes, it is important to the storyline. 


We must choose our words carefully in our daily life and in our writing. 

Crash!  A dove has just flown into my office window.   The universe has sent me a message. 

Writing prompt:

Choose a moment from your life that has emotional meaning for you.  It can be funny or sad, small or large.  Write the scene using sensory description, dialogue, setting and your feelings.  Set it aside for a few days and then come back to it.  Can you recall any other details you may have left out that are important to the story?  Do you have a journal  you can check which may refresh your memory?  Anyone that was there who might provide insights to the moment in time?

So You Want To Write a Book

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

So You Want to Write a Book

Four local authors discuss their writing journeys and offer tips for aspiring writers

 Please join us at the Moraga Library as we present a panel of block-buster local authors who will discuss their writing. A Q&A session follows as time permits.  Joining us will be:

 Barbara Bentley (A Dance with the Devil: A True Story of Marriage to a Psychopath).  When life threw her an unexpected curve, Barbara took the experience and turned it into a book to help others understand the crazymaking world of the psychopath.  Her story has been featured on Dateline NBC.

 Jon Cory (A Plague of Scoundrels). Retirement enabled Jon to return to creative writing after a career in business. His debut novel received the 2009 Independent Publishers’ Silver Medal award for popular fiction. 

 Alfred J. Garrotto (The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story)   A native of Santa Monica, CA, Al now lives in Contra Costa County. In addition to his writing career, he serves as a lay minister specializing in adult faith formation in a local Roman Catholic parish.

 Judith Marshall (Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever). The novel won the Jack London Prize awarded by the California Writers Club and has been optioned for the big screen

 If you have any interest in writing and being published this is a “must-attend” event. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012  2:00pm 

Moraga Library 1500 St. Mary’s Road, Moraga, CA 94556  (925) 376-6852

Funny but true: Wedding Snafu

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Yesterday, my husband drove us in the car to complete errands, windows cracked open a few inches to allow the cool breeze inside. My right hand rested outside on the window frame. As the car picked up speed, it got a bit breezy for Bob, so he hit the power button window on his door. Only he hit the other button. It closed my window.

Zzzzt. The sound made me react immediately. I pulled in my hand so fast Bob whipped his eyes from the road.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“You pushed the wrong one. My hand was out there!”

“Oh, sorry,” he said, searching for the right switch.

Memories flooded back to our wedding day. My Uncle Arnold had painted a JUST MARRIED sign which we placed in the back window of our car. After the church service, on the way to the reception, a friend pulled up next to us at a stop light.

Mike had noticed our fallen sign. He opened the passenger door of our two-seater car, shoved my seat forward, forcing me nearly into the dashboard. I gripped the door frame for balance. Mike straightened the sign as the light turned green. He threw my seat back, and slammed the door. Mike jumped back into his own car. 

My husband was about to take off when he saw my face.

“Uh, bluh, glug . . .” sounds emitted from my mouth. They were sort of a sob/scream/gurgle. For once, pain made me speechless.

“What’s the matter?” my new husband asked. “

Uh, bluh, glug . . .” I clearly articulated.

Fortunately, our friends in Mike’s car saw my protruding fingers; Mike leaped out of the car to save them.

After I refused to go to the hospital, we raced to the reception hall where one of my bridesmaids, a nurse, assured me my hand was just badly bruised and nothing was broken. I kept an ice bag on my swollen hand for the rest of the day.

That wasn’t the only mishap of our wedding day, June 20, 1981 in Fresno, CA. It was 110 degrees, and I remember wondering if everyone in church could actually see the beads of sweat rolling down my back.

Before the church service, when my friend Carol, the pianist, asked me what time she should start playing the entrance music, I knew the answer. Being from a prompt Midwestern family, when something starts at ten a.m., it STARTS AT TEN A.M.

Carol played our cue at ten o’clock sharp. We made our way down the aisle.

We waited.

And waited.

The minutes ticked by.

Bob and I exchanged nervous glances. Where was the priest? Did he get an urgent call from nature? A rich, talkative parishioner stop by with an offer for a donation? Did the priest get cold feet?

Finally, after what seemed like an hour but was probably ten minutes, Father appeared, upset we started without him.

Obviously, he wasn’t from the Midwest.

Writing Prompts:

1. When has a sound motivated an action? By you? By a character?

2. Write a scene where a sound plays an important role in saving someone from emotional or physical pain.

3. Familiar scenes can trigger memories from long ago. Write a scene for a character which triggers a memory that is important to your character.

4. Write an important scene in your character’s life and have things go wrong. How does your character handle it? Throw obstacles in his/her way. First make the scene painful. Next, make it funny!


California Writer Club Young Writers Contest – Check your newspaper THIS WEEK for the photo and article about the Young Writers Contest Banquet.  Jacquie Oliverius writes YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD and it’s in her column TODAY in the Pleasant Hill/Martinez Record.   Thank you Jacquie for letting me know!

Hot Button Memories

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

While choosing fresh vegetables at a farmer’s market, I wandered upon an unusual jewelry display.  A woman had fashioned bracelets and rings out of old buttons that acted as a door to decades in the past. 

“Wow!  I can see this on a 1940s coat,” I said, examining a large green button. 

The woman at the booth pointed to a pink button on a bracelet that jangled at her wrist.  “I remember the exact housedress my mother wore,” she said. 

Just the other day when I rummaged around in my closet I came upon a box of buttons my mother had given us. When my son was little he loved playing with those buttons.  Now it was my turn to treasure them.  “If I gave you some buttons will you make me. . .”

“Sure!  People do it all the time,” she answered. 

I couldn’t wait to get home.  Digging out the button box, I felt like a kid, spreading the buttons on the table, sorting them into colors.  Sadly, I didn’t have any concrete memories of the outfits they had been attached to.

Until one flipped over.  There!  Black and white material, still on the button!   An image of my mother wearing the white and black dress she had made, her trim figure standing with her enviable posture next to me in church, with a little black veil on her head.  Or if we had forgotten our veils, we’d attach a piece of Kleenex with a bobby pin.

Of course, that day at the farmers market I walked out of there with a $15 bracelet, and a longing to come back with my very own buttons. 

Writing prompts:

  1. Find an object of your past that brings a flash of an old memory for you.  Write about that memory.  Can you recreate a scene? 
  2. Choose a button or a piece of clothing.  Let it take you back to a memory.  Write about it as if it were today.  Then change it slightly and make it fiction.  What could have happened?  You can star in this yourself, or create a completely new character. 
  3. Interview a member of your family about a special piece of clothing.  What was their favorite thing they EVER wore?  Why?
  4. Write about your favorite piece of clothing.  What makes it special?  Using details, describe what it looks like and how it makes you feel when you wear it.

Writing From Your Own Life

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

You may not realize it, but as you live your daily life, you are creating memories, details and history that is invaluable for you, for other writers, researchers and historians.

I wish I had kept a diary as a teenager.  Not one where I wrote every thing I did every day, but one where I jotted down important feelings that moved me.  What did someone say that hurt my feelings?  What did someone do that made me feel great?  What were the details about school that I loved?  What were the ones that made my stomach turn?

My father and his brothers and sisters kept journals.  They are tiny little books with itty-bitty lines.  For instance, during one of the most horrifying times of their lives, when their brother Leo became ill with what they later learned was an infected appendix, words in the diary reflect this:

“Leo sick.”

“Leo worse.”

“Doctor called.”

“Leo’s operation. ”

“Leo died.”

No thoughts, or feelings of sadness or grief, or shock.   Since there were no antibiotics in 1925, after Leo’s surgery on the kitchen table in their farm house, Leo lingered a few days and then passed away at home.   His body was in a casket in the parlour, as was customary at that time, where a rosary was said before the funeral service in the nearby Catholic church. 

But none of this was in any of the Koehler’s diaries.  Just the facts.  Midwestern Catholic German farmers were stoic; they shed tears but they moved on.    My aunt told me she remembered her mother placing her head on the kitchen table and silently crying.  Then she wiped her eyes and finished her farm chores. 

I asked dad as a youngster, was he ever afraid of the dead bodies which were in their living rooms?  He shook his head no.  Death was so much a part of life.

Or perhaps he was afraid but just no longer remembered those feelings of so long ago?

Over the years, life has changed.  Feelings and thoughts are expressed more freely.   Reading about a character’s thoughts and feelings help the reader identify with the character. 

So take a moment in your busy life and express your feelings now and then on paper.  It may help you in your own writing.

Writing Conference Quotes

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

I attended a writing conference this past weekend.  Here are some quotes, tips and techniques I feel anyone any age may appreciate:

Caldecott winner author-illustrator David Wiesner:  

 (quoting someone’s name I didn’t get – – sorry!)

“Inspiration is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up and get to work . . . All of the best ideas come out of the process.  Something will occur to you, and then another thing will occur to you . . .”    

Agent Josh Adams made some distinctions between award winners and bestsellers.  (Some of them fall into the same categories.)

 Award Winning Books:  beautifully crafted, indelible voice, lingers in your memory, creates emotional connections, are life-changing 

The White Darkness, Bad News for Outlaws, and Rules are some titles that fit in this category.

 Best Selling Books:  high concept, thought-provoking, page-turning, suspenseful, a fun read         

Charlie Bone and the Red Knight, Sabotaged, and Kiss are high concept sellers.

 Author Alexandria LaFaye 

 If you have a better access to your subconscious, you are a better writer. 

(See!  Me here.  What do I keep telling you about dreams and using the moments as you wake from sleep?)

Triple D:  Every time you use a detail it needs to develop setting, character and plot.  

Center ourselves in the world our characters inhabit.  Our characters should have a distinctive world view.  It should sound if they are describing their world.   Not us describing it.  Figure out how to explain things from the view of the main character.  The character talks about it in relationship to what else is going on in his life. 

Characters can only draw figurative language from their own personal experience.

 How can you write more metaphors and figurative language in your writing?  Read poetry.  Good poets she suggested were Nancy Willard, Cynthia Rylant, Gary Soto, Pat Mora, Janet Wong.  Poets who write adult poetry:  Gary Snyder, Louise Glook, Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath. 

 Poetry is about what’s not on the page. 

 Cynthia Lord

 Newbery Honor Winner Cynthia Lord’s words were so powerful the audience gave her a standing ovation and many of us had tears in her eyes when she talked about the story behind the story of Rules.

 What happens when you write a book based on your life? 

What should you write about?

Write a book on challenging personal experiences.   She said that every message in the book, Rules,  is a message for her. 

What to consider as you write your book:

  1. What do I owe the other people whose lives are also tied up in this moment?  (Minimize the impact on their lives.)
  2. Am I willing to “go there” on schedule?  And for years?
  3. Am I ready to be honest? 
  4. Any important moment will have a contrasting emotion in it.
  5. Write what you know.  
  6. If you don’t know, ask yourself, when have I ever felt the same way as that character?
  7. Details don’t have to match, just the feelings.   To help herself remember, she surrounded herself with objects from that town and she saw her handwriting from that time.

Description:   Write what you know through settings and objects using your senses.  Set places where you can visit.  Go and see real things.  What does the air feel like? 

***What surprises you?  This question is gold in the description.

 She acted out a scene in rules where the main character pushes a boy in a wheelchair in a parking lot.  She pushed her suitcase in a parking lot.!   Lord realized there’d be pinecones, holes, cracks, etc and this made her write with more depth.

Find the one feeling of the story and everything revolves around this feeling.