Early Memories

A writer in one of my memoir classes a couple of years ago posed an interesting writing prompt from her  training as a psychologist: “Recover three of your earliest memories with a feeling attached—then ask your immediate family to do the same.” Well, we won’t be trying that last part.

But here are two I came up with–

1. The light

I am maybe 3 or 4 years old. Every night I am tucked in my narrow bed in my little bedroom at 107 Audubon Drive, in Carmel. The head of my bed is against the wall opposite the window that faces the street. There is a streetlight outside.

There are curtains covering my window. When they were hung, someone missed the first hook at the center on one side, so they do not meet perfectly. Therefore, a beam of light from that streetlight enters my room and strafes across my pillow every night. Every night I fight it, turning my head left or right, scrunching to one or the other side of my little bed, to escape the relentless knife-blade of artificial light.

One day—in a fit of spring cleaning, probably—my mother takes down the curtains, washes them, and re-hangs them. This time, they meet properly. The beam of light no longer enters my room. I can finally sleep.

I feel surprise and wonder. Who knew that things in this world were mutable?

2. The Kitselman Party

I wake from sleep to find myself surrounded by fur. Lush fur above me, below me, silky fur to my left and right, plush feathery fur between my fingers still balled from sleep, a universe consisting entirely of delightful fur.

In the distance I hear adult conversation, the giggle of ice cubes, music from the record player. In this moment I am absolutely perfectly content and happy. I am so young I don’t even know how to get down from here and go find the people if I wanted to.

Here’s what I didn’t know at that moment: that my family arrived at this party with me asleep in someone’s arms; that someone laid me still sleeping among the fur coats piled on the pool table. I wouldn’t even remember this moment if a story hadn’t been told over and over again, about how my older brother Andy, himself no more than 4 or 5, spilled the crème de menthe on the carpet at the party at the Kitselman mansion. In that retelling I remembered but did not speak of my own memory of that night, of the loveliness of waking among the furs, secure and unbothered.

I have often wondered, as an adult, if that moment gave rise to my obsessive love of my stuffed animals. And if that moment gave birth to a certain (entirely unjustified) internal security that I will always have what I need in life; that I do not need to worry inordinately about tomorrow.


These are good gifts from early memory: surprise and wonder, security and optimism.

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Who doesn’t love a good reading list?

Submissions to “True Stories Well Told” have slowed recently (hint, hint) so perhaps its time for some inspiration. Who doesn’t love a good reading list?  Here’s my suggested reading for memoirists.


diversity-education-book-treeGood books on writing memoirs:

  • Your Life As Story: Writing the New Autobiography, Tristine Rainer, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997
  • Breathe Life Into Your Life Story, Dawn and Morris Thurston, Signature Books, 2007
  • The Memoir Project: A Throughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, Marion Roach Smith, Hatchette, 2011
  • You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Lee Gutkind, Lifelong Books, 2012
  • Braving the Fire, A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, Jessica Handler, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

 Good memoirs to enjoy and study:

  • How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran (funny feminist rant)
  • Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, Novella Carpenter
  • Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton, Random House, 2011

Each of these is worth study because they don’t simply walk through life from childhood forward, but rather, follow themes within a life, demonstrating how memoir can differ from autobiography.

Terrible Childhood tales well told:

  • Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, Touchstone Books, 1996
  • Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, Simon and Schuster, 2012 
  • Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood, Kate Simon, Penguin,199
  • Glass Castle: A Memoir, Jeannette Walls, Scribners, 2006
  • The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway, Borzoi Books, 1989

I’ve always been a fan of the Terrible Childhood memoir. Come to find out, my childhood wasn’t that bad.

Great Books to read in pairs:

Rick Bragg:

  • All Over but the Shoutin’, Vintage, 1998,
    Ava’s Man, Vintage, 2002,

The first is a tribute to Bragg’s long-suffering mother, and life in the south in the latter half of the 20th century; the second is the story of Bragg’s maternal grandmother.

Haven Kimmel:

  • A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, Broadway, 2002
  • She Got Up Off the Couch and Other Heroic Acts from Mooresville, Indiana, (Free Press, 2007)

The first demonstrates you CAN make a boring small town childhood funny and interesting, while the second reveals the awful stuff she didn’t go into in the first book, proving you don’t HAVE to tell all, but people often love it when you do.

Alexandra Fuller:

  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Random House, 2003
  • Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Penguin Books, 2012

Fuller’s two books bear a certain resemblance to Haven Kimmel’s two books in that both pairs start with a book written from a child’s point of view followed by a book that covers the same events and people but with an adult’s insights.

Michael Perry:

  • Population: 485, HarperCollins, 2003.
  • Visiting Tom, HarperCollins, 2013,

How to keep writing after you’ve used up all your material. Perry’s first success came with Population: 485’s exploration of sense of place and the age-0ld question of “can you go home again,” further explored in his subsequent books Truck and Coop. With Visiting Tom, Perry recognizes that he’s mined all he can from his own material, and moves on to the neighbors.

This list evolves over time and welcomes suggestions. What are YOU reading?

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Creative Nonfiction contest: Weather!

A while back I used to camp. A lot. And it rained. A lot. Finally that experience is worth something: I can enter Creative Nonfiction’s writing contest on the topic of Weather!

Firefly Lake, Wisconsin, May 2000

Firefly Lake, Wisconsin, May 2000

Fifteen rainy outings in a row–that’s three years’  worth–then I quit counting. The most memorable of all those damp camps, which gave me a vocabulary of weather conditions as subtle as an Eskimo’s 1000 words for snow, was the time 100-mile straight-line winds rocked my night. Yes, I heard the train. And wrote about it. Not well enough to share–yet–but I just received motivation to polish up that story and make it a True Story Well Told (which, by the way, is a good working definition of Creative Nonfiction.) I just learned about this Weather essay contest.

Quoting from the website Creative Nonfiction:

For an upcoming issue, Creative Nonfiction is seeking new essays about THE WEATHER. We’re not just making idle chit-chat; the weather affects us all, and talking about the weather is a fundamental human experience. Now, as we confront our changing climate, talking about the weather may be more important than ever.

Send us your true stories—personal, historical, reported—about fog, drought, flooding, tornado-chasing, blizzards, hurricanes, hail the size of golfballs, or whatever’s happening where you are. We’re looking for well-crafted essays that will change the way we see the world around us.

Find complete contest entry info here.

The deadline is May 11. I’m polishing my camping weather story. What about you? Got a good weather story to share?

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Reminiscence declared obsolete!

Dateline Madison, Wisconsin: The genre of reminiscence is obsolete, announced an administrator from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Continuing Studies, who declined to be identified because she had not been authorized to speak to the press.

“We have enough stories of attending one room schools now,” the unnamed official said. “Rural electrification, too. Nostalgia is over. There’s no more need for it.”

image from surroundedbyreality.com

image from surroundedbyreality.com

April Fool.

Time is a moving vehicle and we’ll never stop wanting the bittersweet experience of looking in the rear-view mirror that gave nostalgia its name. (From Greek algos “pain, grief, distress” + nostos “homecoming.”) It’s just that what’s reflected there moves on, too.

Someone actually did say those words to me–reminiscence is over, the stories are collected. I had called inquiring about the fate of the writing contests once offered by the Wisconsin Rural Writers Association, (now the Wisconsin Writers Association) administered by the aforementioned office of the university. These had been a big deal, with hundreds of entries, significant cash prizes for winners, and annual anthologies published that did, indeed, include many stories of one room schools and rural electrification.

I was rendered breathless, absolutely gobsmacked, that an apparently fully-functional decently-educated adult could say those words. Could she not see, as I did, that exciting new stories were being written about the past that replaced that rural idyll?

I’ll never forget the moment one of my writing students read an essay in class that described smoking marijuana for the first time. “All right!” I thought. “Things are about to get interesting!” And they did–later she read about an acid trip. That’s my past, and as compelling to me as my parents’ generation’s stories of simpler times.

As for the writing contests sponsored by WRWA/WWA? Under reconstruction at this time. The old is making way for the new. Again.

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Madison Area Memoirists: Anybody up for “writing attack” on Mad Rollin’ Dolls?

Roller skates were a really big part of my childhood. At the rink, on the sidewalks, all around the town, skates were how I rolled.

One reverberation of that roller rumble and I’m back there again. A while back I got invited to go see a Mad Rollin Dolls bout and I was really captivated. If I could afford some emergency room visits I’d be strapping on my skates and pads and joining in for flat track roller derby done ironically but oh so competitively by some mighty brave women. These gals won’t let roller skating be consigned to childhood memories. If I can’t roll, at least I can write about it.

Mad Rollin' Dolls wrap up season four and focus on future of derby in Madison - photo from Isthmus

Mad Rollin’ Dolls wrap up season four and focus on future of derby in Madison – photo from Isthmus

And now 4 free tickets have fallen into my lap! So here’s the challenge, Madison-area memoirists: who wants to join me as “writers-in-residence” at a Mad Rollin’ Dolls bout this spring? I’m looking for 3 people interested in attending on either April 4, April 25, or May 9. We’ll meet beforehand for some fun writing warm-ups while the squads warm their quads, then head to the Alliant Energy Center for total freakin’ immersion.

Your ticket is free, the only catch–I hope you’ll write about it for True Stories Well Told. Check out  madrollindolls.com and then email me at sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com to say “I’m in!”  and which dates work for you.

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The Underpants

ourBy Katie Ravich 

I wrote this piece during a writing workshop given by Lynda Barry. The first step was to write about a memorable object. This appears in the third paragraph of this piece. The memorable object was a pair of old underpants. We then wrote paragraphs in a random order about setting, conflict etc. and read the pieces in the random order we produced the paragraphs. I shifted the paragraphs around just a little to make the piece a little more accessible to a new audience.

I am in seventh grade in middle school. I live in a far flung condo development on expansive grounds with no other child neighbors. I take the bus home from middle school which is a trial. An older boy named Jason started a game where he gets the whole bus to say “Hi Kate” though he knows I go by Katie and I hate to be called Kate. I am divided about this whole game since it gets me attention and it isn’t awful like some of the other teasing that goes on on the bus. I don’t have many friends and my best friend is more of what is now called a “frenemy.” Diamond Middle School is extremely ordinary. The worst part of the day is after lunch “recess.” We are too old to “play” so we just wander around the flag pole yard hurting each other in various ways.


I walked into the lunch room with bare legs and short skirt. I saw my usual table of “not quites” and was going to sit there but then I saw Kerry T. sitting with Jillian at another table. Could I just sit there with them? I mean I had an excuse. I could thank them for their discrete advice and help in the hallway. I decided to do it. I sat down and expected a reaction but Kerry merely said “Hi Katie what happened?” Dare I explain that I was wearing granny pants to hold my panty hose up and well etc? Would they think I was gross and weird? So I just did it. I explained the whole thing and Jillian and Kerry just laughed but not at me. Jillian said, “Katie you are original!”

Where did these underpants come from? Why did they linger in the drawer? They were two sizes too big. They were once white but now gray with sprung elastic. They have little pink rose sprigs but those have faded to almost nothing. They are unapologetic briefs, unabashed granny pants. I could have thrown them away lots of times. They even moved from one state to another with me. I kept thinking maybe they would come in handy at some point.

I get to the bathroom and go in a stall. Yes! The diapery underwear has been hanging below my skirt. I guess all day. I rip them off and start to crumple them into a ball. Will they fit in the little trash receptacle meant for used pads and tampons? But wait. I don’t have an extra pair of underwear. How will my panty hose stay up? I look at the granny pants considering what to do. I rip off the panty hose, leaving bare legs in a short skirt. I crumple the granny pants and the hose in a ball and stuff them into the little trash receptacle. Then I reconsider. What if someone sees them in there?

Jillian approaches me in the hallway and whispers “Katie, there is something wrong with your skirt.” I don’t know Jillian well and immediately suspect of treachery. What do you mean I ask in a scared voice but Jillian has moved on. I try to keep moving with dignity down the hall but consider ducking into the bathroom. Kerry T. approaches too. Kerry is suspect too because she is so cute and petite and does gymnastics at a competitive level. Why would she be nice? Kerry whispers the same thing as Jillian. She is very discrete and kind. I am feeling panicky. Are these girls picking on me? They have never noticed me before except when forced to by a group project. Then big, clomping Joanne comes up and shouts “Katie, why are you wearing diapers?”

Something is going to change. I try to make good decisions about my clothes but still I can’t go the full distance to getting noticed except unintentionally. My mom shared this tip about panty hose: if you put another pair of underwear on over your pantyhose they won’t fall down. My underwear drawer is a mess. Ancient things are in there. I pick a short skirt to wear with pantyhose and ballet flats. As per mom’s advice I put on a grey, stretched out pair of underpants on to hold up the pantyhose. I look good and leggy I think in the skirt with a matching Esprit top. I don’t see the gray, diapery underwear peeking out from under my skirt.

 Katie Middle School

Lexington Mass, Ruby Middle School. Lexington is a very academic town where intelligence and achievement are valued though there is another part of Lexington where the plumbers and contractors live. Everyone has money but some people’s fathers are professors at Harvard or MIT and some people’s fathers are plumbers. Ruby Middle School feeds from the more working class neighborhoods. I never fit in. I moved to Lexington right before the sixth grade. I have all the middle school problems except no one even notices me. I hate to go unnoticed but I am not willing or able to do what it takes to get noticed. I could try to distinguish myself academically but I am not cut out for the fierce competition.

*   *   *

Also by Katie Ravich: Surviving the Kalahari, Raising Sonia, Spirit of the CimarronFudge Girl

© 2015 Katie Ravich 

Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

I Am Curious…. Orange

The Irish celebrate their St. Patrick today, and everyone who likes anything about Ireland will raise a glass of green beer, sing along to a lilting ditty or two, and romance the history of the oppressed. As a descendant of a Belfast Scotsman, I always find this day a little more complicated. You see… I’m Orange.

My friend Jane  asked me recently, “When you went to Scotland, didn’t you feel a sensation that you belonged there?” She’s reconnected with her Cornish heritage. She’s made trips to visit the village her great-grandfather came from, walked the hills that would have been hers had he not emigrated to southwestern Wisconsin. Reflecting, she told me, “Looking at that landscape, I felt at home. More than I feel at home here. I felt deeply that I belonged there.” She wants the same for me.

The problem is, I don’t have an immigration backstory. My DNA has been mixing on American soil since the American Revolution. My mothers’ people were Irish who came to Appalachia in the 1700s. My father’s people were Scots who came to New Jersey when we were still a British colony. Loyalists,they moved to New Brunswick, Canada, when the American Revolution began. Since then, the two lines have been merrily mixing with the neighbors until I am a mulligatawny of British and northern European genes. There will never be for me the research to discover distant cousins still on the old home soil, the trip back, the reunions and day trips and imaginings about a parallel universe in which I live there a life of deep connection.

Or will there? My father (for whom the truth never got in the way of a good story) would always trot out his heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. He’d tell me the story of his ancestor who moved from lowland Scotland to Belfast in the Irish Plantation and from there to New Jersey. (Or maybe not. Charles White wasn’t big on details.) Nor was he particularly fond of his family. But one day a year, he’d speak of the Ulster Orangemen, and try to get me to wear orange to school on the day all the other children wore green.

Now Jane’s question has me thinking. I did go to the British Isles when I was 22, spending a month with a friend cycling a circle from Belfast to Kirkcudbrightshire in lowland Scotland and back through bits of England, the Isle of Man, and Ireland. As I’ve pondered Jane’s question, “When you went to Scotland, didn’t you feel you belonged there?” I’ve begun to believe that yes–Scotland did feel like “home,” and Ireland and its people felt somehow…. wrong.

There could be so many explanations for this… trip fatigue, economic disparity, prejudice. But for now I’m going to claim the right to pretend it’s true–that among all my mongrel DNA there is a strand that claims lowland Scotland as my birthright, orange my Irish history, and being on the wrong side of freedom struggles for centuries my unfortunate heritage.

I only ask one favor of Ireland–forgive me my centuries-old burden of Orange, and send that leprechaun around with his pot of gold so I can go look up the Whites of Scotland.


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