Go small…

In a writing workshop at Pinney Library this summer, we spent one evening talking about “going small.” I set my writers an in-class challenge: seven minutes to write about something, starting with an object as the focal point. “Give us the object, then the setting it is in, and then the action around it,” I asked.

Starting with an image gets us away from the memoir-writers’ bane–too much “I” in the story. We need to be an “eye” more than an “I” if we want our readers to enjoy their time with us.

While they wrote, while I kept one eye on the sweeping minute hand of my watch, counting off the seven, I too wrote. And here’s what came…

The object: My brass bowl. It is a Tibetan meditation bowl, a gong, and it is supposed to sing, but I don’t know how to make it do that. I just knock the side with its wooden mallet and get a nice “school bell” sound.

I chose it with care for my writing workshops, because I’d seen a master facilitator use one. The situation was New Orleans, seven months after Hurricane Katrina, and his job was to convene the citizens of the ruined Gentilly and Ponchartrain Park neighborhoods, known as Pontilly, to plan for their future. We met in a Greek Orthodox church, barely far  enough along in its flood restoration to host us.

We–his entourage–were an unlikely fit for the job. We were white. We were from Wisconsin. We had homes and clothes and friend and family that had not been washed away.

But he was an inspired facilitator, son of an evangelical preacher, and he had a knack for this. He knew he needed to begin  by recognizing the past before attempting to lead toward the future. He wanted to do a “mads, sads, glads” exercise where he would invite individuals to the microphone to share their emotions about their losses, and he knew he needed a timer. He didn’t want a buzzer or a beeper, one more irritation to so many who had been so disrupted already. He chose instead a Tibetan bell with a beautiful, deep voice.

He gave it to the eldest “church lady” who had offered to help. He asked her to ring that room to order, and then with her help, conducted an orchestra of grief. “I’m glad my friends are alright.” Gong. “I’m  mad that I can’t get answers.” Gong. “I’m sad that I lost my beautiful clothes. I came into this world naked. I’m naked again.” Gong… Gong… Gone.

The ritual worked; the healing in that room as we bore witness to each others’ mads, sads, and glads was palpable. I watched, and learned.

When I took on facilitating, I got a meditation bowl like his. A holy bell. Because bearing witness to each others’ experience is holy work.

Sarah and her Tibetan bowl at Westside Senior Center memoir writing workshop.

Me and my Tibetan bowl at Westside Senior Center memoir writing workshop.



Posted in Sarah's memoir, Writing prompt | 3 Comments

Madison-area memoir writers: Join a workshop at Sequoya Library?

A few seats are available in “Start Writing Your Memoir” starting  September 29 at the Sequoya Branch Library, 4340 Tokay Blvd, in Madison. We’ll meet Mondays 11 am – 1 pm for 8 weeks, finishing on November 17. The workshop is free, but advance registration is required!  To register, call the library at 266-6385 or visit the library’s events page.

We’ll spend our sessions discussing different aspects of writing about our lives, and sharing what we’ve written. In this “one room school,” we all learn from each other, as beginning and continuing students meet together.

There’s no experience quite like a small writing group, sharing “true stories well told” with each other. Join us!



Posted in writing workshop | Leave a comment

“Inspiring!” Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams

In early September I had the pleasure of welcoming a book I midwifed into the world. This is one of the great moments in the life of a personal historian. How often do any of us get to see the tangible result of months of labor meet the people it was intended for?

On September 6 I attended the annual Farm Party of the Adams-Jelle family and friends, which this year included celebration of a freshly-published book of letters written of Pat Adams, carefully assembled and edited by Pat’s oldest daughter Cate Adams and close friend Carole Milks Turner. I published Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams through my company, First Person Productions, helping Carole and Cate with each decision and technical step from manuscript to launch. We’re now working on marketing, because we feel this book will find its place in the larger world.

Cate Adams thanks family and friends for their support.

Cate Adams thanks family and friends for their support.

A prolific correspondent and true Aquarian-age woman, Pat Adams lived the last 15 years of her life with cancer, capturing her courage and vivacity in her remarkable letters, emails, and journal entries written from her farm in Southern Wisconsin and her cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Relatives and friends as far away as Florida and California saved her correspondence over the years, savoring her wry humor and insights about everyday life, her love for her family and friends, and her appreciation of the natural world. As death approached, an immediacy and determination entered her emails and letters. Reading Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams is a way to draw life lessons from a wise woman and enjoy again the simple things that matter: nature, life’s passages, and of course, the lost art of letter writing.

“This book is amazingly warming,” wrote the first reviewer on Amazon.com (and a stranger to the Adams clan). “Reading someone else’s thoughts and feelings, from the little things most don’t take time to enjoy, to the huge things like dealing with cancer. Absolutely a great, inspiring read! Highly recommended!” (Carla Grant, September 12, 2014).

After Pat’s death, Cate and Carole chose to compile a selection of her correspondence for family, friends, and others who seek inspiration for living life to its fullest. “Reading through Pat’s letters, we howled with laughter and were twisted by grief, sometimes simultaneously. Fueled by our roller-coaster emotions, we kept going,” wrote the editors in their Acknowledgments.

Fireflies at Twilight, back cover   Fireflies at Twilight: front cover

Pat Adams died on March 14, 2011. Fireflies at Twilight: Letters from Pat Adams was published August 15, 2014. The book is available on Amazon.com.

The Farm Party featured readings from the book by a few of Pat’s close friends and relatives–until tears and laughter took over, and we all went back to the business of living.

I’m deeply grateful to earn my living as a personal historian. One of the rewards is definitely this–enjoying food, drink, and family with my clients at the successful completion of their projects.

Posted in Book review, Sarah's memoir | Leave a comment

Old Letters Become Time Machine to the Past (On the APH blog)

Last Saturday I attended a family launch party for a book of letters that I just published for a client. Seeing a book (or any form of personal history you’ve helped produce) welcomed by its intended audience is one of the truly great moments in the life of a personal historian. Next week I’ll blog about the letters, their author, and the book the family produced.

In the meantime, I invite you to read this post on the Association of Personal Historians blog: “Old Letters Become Time Machine to the Past.” Enjoy!

-Sarah White

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

Upcoming events, Madison & Mineral Point

There’s a lot writers of “true stories well told” can learn from the techniques of fiction. Want to try your hand at it? Sign up now for…

Fiction Writing Workshop: A six week series with Gregg Williard
Goodman South Madison Library

Get your creative juices flowing in this six-session series with writer and artist, Gregg Williard (aka Fiction Jones on WORT Radio). Participants will read their work aloud to build incredible sentences! Bring paper and pen or pencil.

Thursdays  9/18, 10/2, 10/9, 10/16, 10/30, 11/6
6:30 – : 7:30 PM

Space is limited so register now! Call 266-6395 to register.


Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival on September 13
Mineral Point, Wisconsin

Fourteen literary workshops and evening speaker Michael Perry will be part
of the fourth annual Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival on September 13, 2014, in Mineral Point,  Wisconsin.

The 2014 event begins with fourteen workshops held at the Mineral Point Public Library and Mineral Point Opera House. Pre-registration is encouraged, register online at www.swwibookfestival.com or call 608.987.3370 to save your seat. The cost per workshop is $20. I’ll be presenting “Start Writing Your Memoir” at 1:30pm.

For other upcoming events from Sarah White (me), see my upcoming events page on my website, here!

Posted in Call for action, writing workshop | Leave a comment

Spruce Island Camp

By Sarah White


The question is, did Harv marry the job or the woman?

I can believe a certain kind of man would compromise on his choice of mate, to spend half the year on a Canadian island, 40 miles by water from the nearest road.

Whether a man could love Jana enough to leave the world behind, to spend half the year without a neighborhood bar where he can bend an elbow and complain about the wife, I don’t know. I didn’t get to know her.


Harv and Jana run Spruce Island Camp, a rustic resort on six acres of island at the geographic center of the Lake of the Woods. Spaced along a curved shore are pine-log cabins, erased from sight of each other by an unstoppable tangle of underbrush. At the center sits the lodge, Harv and Jana’s base. Behind it is their house and its outbuildings, the oversized doghouse where the foster children live, the laundry shed, the garbage dump.

And that’s all. That’s their entire world from May through October. Every other island in sight is wild, just rocks thrusting up from lake, pines thrusting up from rock, and blueberries and brambles and moss and ferns hanging onto the soil that survives. Moose, bear, lynx and beaver are the only guests for miles.

This is the job Harv married: the most remote and rustic version of the hospitality trade imaginable.


Harv is responsible for the Outdoors. It’s a handyman’s dream: a dozen or so boats to keep in repair, a half dozen cabins to paint and improve in a cycle that must never end. He fights the battle with the help of Jeff, the college kid. The men take turns with the errand runs, collecting guests at the boat landing, retrieving supplies from the lumber yard and grocery store. For company Harv and Jeff have the fishing parties for whom they play Northwoods Guides, catching muskie, walleye, bass. They will prepare these over a campfire for guests willing to pay for “shore lunches.”

Jeff is carved from Norwegian stock. His big block of a head sits resolutely on a tall fair-skinned body. I caught a glimpse of him in late afternoon sun, jumping from boat to pier, shirtless, his faded blue jeans tucked into black rubber wellingtons. He had the beauty of a young animal.

Harv may have had the same appeal at 19; today he is just a good-looking outdoor guy. His beard and well-trimmed hair are smooth and brown as a muskrat’s fur. He wears a uniform of plaid flannel. He keeps his beer gut in check with hard work.

There is more variety in the way women are built than men. Some are pear shaped, some top heavy, some like tree trunks, no curves at all. Jana is a solid stump of a woman, an implacable strength implied by that big torso. She doesn’t say much, but something about her communicates instantly: she is in charge of this kingdom. You’ve got to wonder how that sits with Harv.

Jana’s responsibility is the Indoors. She minds the books, handles the reservations, figures the bills. She is restaurant manager as well as hotelier, cooking and managing the house staff, her collection of foster kids. Jana takes in children who do chores, wait table in the lodge, and change sheets in the cabins. Some are Asian and some Anglo, all about ten or eleven years old. Mostly they lounge in a pack watching videotapes in the lodge and fighting over magazines left by the guests. They seem blasé about the outdoors; I wonder how they feel about their isolated summers.

Jana grew up here, probably doing the same chores. Spruce Island Camp belonged to her parents. George and Florence Mead retired only a few years ago and traces of them linger; forty years can’t be erased in two or three. Harv lives in their shadow and continues what they started.

By the door in the lodge is a framed bit of embroidery commemorating George’s skill as guide and host. Books of Florence’s poetry, published by “The Lake of the Woods Writer’s Group,” are for sale in the lodge store. The poems praise the woods in snow, so Florence and George must have wintered over, but Harv and Jana don’t. They have another life in Long Prairie, Minnesota, where he picks up jobs as a mechanic while she works for an accountant. They leave their cabins standing open in winter, a kind of wilderness welcome that might save a life someday.


We visited the camp at the end of the summer season, but the fall hunters were expected soon. Life at Spruce Island didn’t begin when we arrived and wasn’t going to stop when we boated back out.

I thought I came as a blank slate, ready for any experience that offered. I did what seemed the things to do; ate and drank and swam off the pier, explored by canoe and boot the island terrain. I crouched on rocky slopes listening for animals; I watched for birds, hunted blueberry patches, and soon fund the unlimited availability of so limited a range of activities stifling. I grew grateful to Canadian Public Radio for news of a world outside.

Lost in the forest, I missed the trees.

I overlooked the bustle of activity all around me. I never saw the lives we were passing through, barely met the cast of characters, each with work to do and a place they came from and a story of how they got here and prospects for the future. Jana and Harv and Jeff. Our fellow guests Milo and Gloria, water-skiing for the videocam. Adolescents Juniper and Melissa, who’ll be your waitresses tonight.


Shyness overtakes me at the wrong times….childhood imprint of my embarrassing father, always striking up conversations with strangers.

And so I have too few clues to go on as I try to decide: did Harv marry the job or the woman?

1993 © Sarah White

Posted in Sarah's memoir | 2 Comments

An Elegantly Simple Act

By Doug Elwell

This is a work of creative non-fiction. Some names, characters, places, dialog or descriptions have been changed or added. In those cases, any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Fred wanted to give him something of himself but he wasn’t sure what. The boy was his grandson after all and Fred didn’t see him often enough to be much of a grandfather. He thought about that and what there might be that he could give the boy to fix his place in the lad’s mind. He was getting on in years and wasn’t sure he’d have a place in the boy’s memory and that was what he wanted before it was too late—to not be forgotten by the boy. The boy knew the old man as Pop and Pop had sent him a photograph as a souvenir in September after the boy returned home from his vacation. In it Pop had his arm draped over the boy’s shoulder and had him pulled in close—the way a grandfather should. The younger man on the far right in the photo was the boy’s father and the three of them had just shot a long rapid in the river when the photo was taken by a passerby who was sitting on a rock with his dog. He was nine when the picture in front of the canoe was taken those years ago.

Pop was deep in thought as he sat in his wicker chair on the porch and watched the boy dig potatoes for his grandmother in the garden in front of the cottage—deep in thought. His daughter, the boy’s mother, sat nearby on the swing with her mother who the boy called Nana. The boy’s mother and Nana held hands because they didn’t see each other often and they had been close when the daughter was young and she nestled in the luxury of being a young girl again in that short time that summer. And she breathed in every moment of it—moments scented with the crisp pine air of the Maine woods she had known and loved as a girl. Soon she and the boy and the boy’s father would be back in Illinois and their visit to the cottage on the bank of the Penobscot in the pine woods of Maine would be but a memory. After the boy came in with the potatoes for Nana, Pop got up and drove the boy and his father down the lane to the river in his old sedan.

They loaded the canoe onto the roof of the car. A neighbor met them there and drove them north on a road that followed the river upstream. The boy watched the heavy pine forest that lined the road scroll by. They drove for a long time along the river until the neighbor pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. The canoe was lifted off the car and set at the riverbank. Pop stood—looked up the river then down. He scanned the far bank—nodded—said, “Ah-yuh.” He took his hearing aid ear piece out of his ear and the battery pack from his shirt pocket and put them into the glove box of the car. The man drove off leaving them there at a place on the river where it gurgled around the ashy branches of a fallen pine tree.

“I’ll take the front.” Pop looked at the boy, “You sit in the middle and your dad will sit in the back. Okay?”

“Yessir.” The boy felt a little funny around the old man he called Pop because he didn’t know him well. He was supposed to like him but he was so old and he wondered what there was about him that he could like. It was as if he was another species—ancient like a dinosaur or a rock or something like that. There were spots on the backs of his hands and he could almost see through the old man’s skin and he didn’t think he could hear anymore either. But the boy did as he was told and squatted into the middle of the canoe.

Pop looked at the younger man, “When we get there keep paddling as hard as you can. I’ll do the rest.”

The younger man, the boy’s father, nodded.

Pop climbed into the canoe, pushed it away from the bank and they drifted slowly downstream. The water was smooth. It was quiet there in the emerald water that was clear green from the weeds the boy could see on the bottom of the river. He looked up when they passed a black sow bear and two cubs on a sand bar. She glanced as they floated by then went on about her business. Pop said she was probably looking for clams. The boy leaned and looked again into the clear green water—watched the weeds and stones on the bottom of the river creep silently by beneath the canoe. They drifted like that for a long time and the river turned left then right a couple times. Around one bend the boy saw an abandoned sawmill on the west bank and a long chute that Pop said once was used to pull logs out of the river into the mill. Another sand bar this time without bears. Pop said over his shoulder, “We’ll be there in a few minutes.” Then to the boy, “You sit still. Don’t move when we get to the rapids.” To the boy’s father, “Remember—keep paddling hard as you can.” The man nodded.

The boy didn’t know what to expect of a rapids. He didn’t know of any on the Embarrass River back home in Illinois. It was a slow brown river that snaked across the prairie under the cover of thick old trees that weren’t pine and didn’t smell.

Picture courtesy of Northeast Whitewater, http://www.northeastwhitewater.com/.

Picture courtesy of Northeast Whitewater, http://www.northeastwhitewater.com/.

From far ahead the boy heard a faint roar that sounded like a train crossing a trestle like the one west of his town. And as the canoe drifted slowly through the calm water the roar grew louder. The river turned to the right and the boy thought the roar was about to swallow them up. It frightened him and he held tight to the sides of the canoe. Then the river turned sharp left. The roar filled his ears and Pop in front rose up onto his knees and put his paddle in the bottom of the canoe behind him. He pulled out a long pole and the boy didn’t hear any of that—the roar of the river. He felt it in his chest as the canoe shot toward the rapid as if in a race with the speeding current. He looked past Pop at huge boulders that rose up six and seven even eight feet high strewn pell-mell in the river. Smaller ones scattered about. Water splashed over and around—threw white sprays in all directions and the boy couldn’t see a way through them. They looked like a wall and he was scared and he held tight—held tight—to the sides of the canoe expecting to be slammed against the rocks.

Pop used the pole to push the canoe off the boulders as the current catapulted them on with the speed and fury of a runaway train. He pushed the nose of the thing to the left then right then left again threading the canoe through the maze of boulders that thwacked its sides—threatening to dash it to pieces with each turn. The boy didn’t see it coming when the bottom fell out of the front of the canoe as it dipped into a slide of foamy white exploding water. All he could see was a wall of water rising then the nose of the canoe crashed into it then shot upward and icy cold spray gushed over Pop and him as the canoe rose to meet the next slide—and the next—and the next—and the next. Each time more icy cold water cascaded into the canoe. The boy shook his head to clear his eyes and Pop was still there poling left and right threading the canoe through the rapids. Spray from all sides slammed into them but Pop was still there and the canoe caromed drunkenly down and down and down the steep rapids. The boy gripped the sides of the canoe—hands drained of blood—feeling.

When the boy thought it would never end—that they would go on forever, the boulders got smaller and the torrents of water that plashed over and into the canoe began to ebb as if they were tired and the boy heard the roar of the river falling away. Pop poled to the right into a channel between the smaller boulders—threaded his way through them as if he were weaving a tapestry. Then they were back into the calm of the river as quickly as they left it ages ago. He sat back on the seat and put the pole into the canoe—turned to the boy—smiled, “Hand me the paddle son.” The boy handed the paddle to him. “Now take that coffee can on the end of that cord and start bailing water.” While he did that the current slowed as they drifted on downstream. The boy looked at Pop’s broad back and strong arms as he paddled the canoe slow and steady now. He didn’t see the spots on the backs of Pop’s hands either. He was bigger than he was at the beginning of the rapids and the boy didn’t know how he could have grown so big in such a short time. They steered to the bank of the river. When the front of it slid into the sand, they got out to pull the canoe out onto the sandy bank. Pop and the boy’s dad turned the canoe over to drain the remainder of the water then carried it a few feet above the bank.

“How about that son?”

“Can we do it again Pop?”

He smiled, “That’s enough for today.” He looked at the boy’s dad—smiled, “—water level’s perfect.”

A neighbor of Pop’s sat at the roadside on a flat boulder with his dog, “Shoot the rapids Fred?”

Pop nodded, “Ah-yuh.” He took a camera off the front seat of the car and asked the man to take their picture with the canoe and river in the background.

They climbed into the old sedan left there by the man who drove them up the river. Pop reached into the glove box and pulled out his hearing aid, put the ear piece in his ear and threaded the wire to the battery pack in his shirt pocket and turned it on. They drove the quarter mile up to the cottage. When he stopped the car Pop switched off his hearing aid.

Nana and the boy’s mother were sitting on the porch when they drove into the yard. The boy wriggled out of the car—ran to the porch—soaked—eyes wide—blurted out the details of their shooting the rapids adventure. Nana slapped her crossword puzzle onto the table, stomped across the porch to meet Pop at the steps. “What’s the big idea taking this child down those rapids? You could’ve killed him—and you and Bob. What if you had a heart attack or something? What if you got thrown out of the canoe? You aren’t a goddamned boy scout any more you know Fred. For chrissakes you’re seventy two years old. Sometimes I wonder about your judgment. You’re getting crazier by the day—can’t let you out of my sight for a minute—old fool.” Droplets of spittle sprayed in all directions.

Nana on the porch steps chewing on Pop. She pulled the boy to her, “You okay child?”

“It wasn’t like that Nana.” The boy squirmed away—ran to his mother—stretched his arms wide, “—the rocks—a hundred times bigger than this—and Pop, he—.”

Mother smiled wide—pulled the boy to her—held him close—nestled her head against his, “I know son.”

Pop looked past Nana at his daughter and grandson—nodded, “Ah-yuh.”


The man looked at the old photo. In it the boy stands between Pop and his dad on the bank of the Penobscot. A beached canoe rests behind them. Pop and the boy are smiling. The boy’s dad is wearing a baseball cap and his features are in shadow.

It was an elegantly simple act.

© Doug Elwell, 1999-2014

A recovering educator, Doug Elwell spends most days writing, reading about writing and thinking about writing. His work occasionally appears on True Stories Well Told. Doug can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment