Story Harvest time–submit your true stories, well told!

October 7 will bring the sixth anniversary of First Monday, First Person, my monthly local salon for people who write in the first person. Growing up in the midwest, I’m steeped in the traditions of fall harvests, from the local festivals to the seasonal foods on the table. (Bring on the pumpkin pie!)

This blog serves as a virtual salon for memoir writers. Now is the season of story harvest–send me your true stories, well told!

Here are the guidelines. Send your stories to sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

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Shaving My Legs

By Sarah White

The following is a Flash memoir I wrote guided by the prompt, “What is your earliest memory of your longest love partner? ” I intended to create an example of object writing.

 

Jimmy thumbed loose the little knurled knob at the end of the handle, then fitted a fresh double-sided blade into the business end of his father’s razor. Through my hot tears I watched this action, so domestic but so unfamiliar. I had only ever shaved my legs with plastic disposable razors, and for years, not even that. But his hands were so practiced as he prepared the razor, then swirled his badger-tail brush around the cake of soft soap in his little wooden dish, that I began to believe I would survive.

I don’t quite remember what behooved me to choose to remove my luxuriant curly golden leg hair—probably something to do with dressing for a job. I changed jobs frequently in the early 1980s, when I was in my mid 20s (when this story takes place).

Jimmy and Sarah on a bike ride with our Brearly House roommates circa 1981

I lived with seven roommates and their various lovers in a three-story housing co-op on Brearly Street. One of the lovers was Dorcas, a charismatic Southern woman who expressed her sense of style with vintage dresses and hand-sewn “glad rags.” When I announced one evening that I planned to shave my legs, she leaped in like the fashion-savvy gal pal she was. “Oh honey, don’t do that! It comes back as stubble so fast. You should wax your legs!” I’d never heard of leg waxing, but she described it as a method that would give me silky-smooth legs that rarely required intervention.

I went to the drug store, bought the waxing kit, and read the directions. That evening I boiled a pan of water, melted the wax squares in it, and carried my pan of soft wax to the bathroom on the second floor, the one with the bathtub so long we always bathed in pairs. There I spread the warm goo on my skin with an over-sized popsicle stick. So far, so good. Then came the next step—press a fabric strip into the warm wax, and with a motion like removing a Band-Aid, separate a swath of hair from the leg.

Oh my lord! Searing pain! “Dorcas!” I cried out. “This isn’t working!” But Dorcas wasn’t around. But Jimmy was, my roommate who I was casually sleeping with while sorting out whether he’d be a better boyfriend than Ken.

Jimmy came to see what I was screaming about, took in the mess adhered to my legs and the tears falling from my clenched face, and called Dorcas. She explained that she’d never tried waxing legs that were “au naturél”—she only used it to maintain a surface already nearly hairless.

I was out of my mind with terror at the realization that I now had wax embedded in my leg fur from thigh to ankle. The only way out was through, but I didn’t have the fortitude to take another stab at brutally ripping the hair from my leg. I was literally an animal caught by the leg in a trap.

And then Jimmy brought out his razor and shaving soap, and set about rescuing me. Inch by inch, sitting together in that seven-foot bathtub, he gently shaved first one of my legs, then the other. His hands were warm and gentle. His manner was just as soft. Like a veterinarian quieting a frightened animal, he brought me to stillness, then pleasure even, as he soaped and softened and stroked and scraped the mess from my skin. I felt completely safe in his care.

He didn’t know it that evening and neither did I, but that was the moment Jimmy pulled ahead of Ken in the race for my affection. Decades later, when I look at my grouch on the couch and wonder at his unwillingness to suffer fools, I think back to that moment when he rescued me from my foolishness.

– Sarah White

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Check out Brevity (the magazine and blog) for Flash Nonfiction

For several years now, I’ve been intrigued with Flash Nonfiction, specifically the subgenre of Flash Memoir. What’s that? By my definition, tightly-focused, scene-based, observant, true stories from life. That’s mostly what I publish here on True Stories Well Told, just because of the short form required of a blog. And it’s what I like to write, for a break from 100,000-world long-form creative nonfiction.

Speaking of which, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks deeply immersed in completing my book project started on the Big MFA Adventure, and–IT’S DONE! First draft, needing many more passes through the sander, but it’s done. What a great feeling to write a final sentence, type a period, push back from the keyboard. I stumbled blinking into the light of a Labor Day afternoon, my labor done.

I want to relax, yet keep writing. I’m in the mood to do some Flash Nonfiction. Want to join me?

If you feel like writing for publication, try the Brevity magazine or blog. Guidelines here.

Want some insight into what they’re looking for? Read this essay by Brevity Editor and celebrated Creative Nonfiction guru Dinty Moore: Focusing on Flash Nonfiction: An Interview with Dinty Moore – River Teeth Journal

And if you’d like a quick course in Flash Memoir right here, right now, check out this four-part post series right here on True Stories Well Told.

  • Sarah White
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Circe

By Suzy Beal

This is the 13th episode of a travel memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.

She was to become our home, sleek and fast.

“I’ve got it, I’ve got the perfect name for our boat,” Dad announced one afternoon. “Circe” he said. We looked at each other in question. Who or what was a Circe? Dad explained he’d just learned from the guys at the local café, Circe was a siren from the Homer’s “Odyssey.” She sang to the sailors passing her island and enchanted them to come closer and closer until they went aground on the rocks. Folks in Mallorca believed that Mallorca was her island. Dad and Mom knew this was the perfect name for our boat. We’d been trying for weeks to find a name. Everyone had offered up suggestions, but none stuck. “Circe” did.

Dad had purchased the plans for our boat before leaving the States. Frances L. Herrshoff designed our 58-foot ketch with center board instead of a deep keel. With the center board we could sail into shallow waters if we wanted to or we could raise the center board if we found ourselves in trouble in shoal waters.

Dad commanded the respect of the maestros at the boat yard by his knowledge of boat building and willingness to commit folly with his pidgin Spanish.

Señor Bernardo managed the boat yard, the workers, and the work flow as they were working on our boat and another at the same time. Señor Pepe was the master craftsman who over saw the quality of the work and supervised the actual building. Dad worked directly with him.

Señor Pepe, master boatbuilder, with Dad

Dad ordered the metal parts such as screws, nails, and fittings from England. Once he told the maestro, “We need 5,000 putas” instead of puntas. He’d ordered 5,000 prostitutes! The hysterical laughter from the men in the shop told Dad he’d blundered. Two and one-half years later when they launched Circe, the maestros were still teasing Dad about it.

Work on Circe moved forward, with Dad and the boys going daily to the shop. Hank at the age of fifteen and sixteen took on the job of all the wire rigging, which meant he cut and spliced it to the correct lengths. Carl at age thirteen did odd jobs around the shop including scraping glue, a job he hated. He worked with Dad making the fiberglass tanks to hold water and gasoline. Brother Tom spent time at the shop, but his interests were elsewhere. He started an English book exchange with the English-speaking community in Puerto.

Mom, Jan, and I didn’t go to the boat yard often, because we were busy at home knitting sweaters for the men, teaching Conrad and Frank, and planning the linens we would need on the boat.

I didn’t have the same experience of our boat as my brothers who worked on Circe. They started to talk about her as if she was a person. They developed a love for the boat that I didn’t. At sixteen, my life was elsewhere.

Built mostly by hand, Circe had 40,000 man-hours (hours not using machines) in her by the time she launched. The woodwork was elegant, with over twenty kinds of wood used. Hand carvings on each of the bunks stood watch over us as we slept. The craftsman also carved a figurehead for the bow. She was the siren, “Circe.”

Our boat would sleep nine of us with Carl in the engine room, Mom and Dad in the salon, Conrad and Frank in bunks on one side, Jan and I in bunks on the other side, and Tom and Hank in the fo’c’s’le.

From Mom’s letter to her sister.

Our boat is coming along quite nicely now but will not really be ready to go before about the first of May, so we will probably be here till the first of June. Wish I could get the beautiful carpentry work in a house that is being done on the boat. The fellow who is doing the finishing work inside is a furniture maker, and the work is really exquisite. Everyone who sees the boat tells me how lucky we are, but stupid me—all I can think of is nine of us living in an area somewhere around 36 feet long and about 6 to 8 feet wide. The boat is 58 feet long overall, but engine room, etc, make up the difference. Well, we shall see. Won’t be too bad during the summer when we’re on the move all the time, then when winter comes, we can always find a house if it gets too bad. At this point we are planning to be up on the south coast of France next winter so that the children can learn French and go to school there… you better plan to make us a visit.

 

Three photos of the Circe under construction at MYABCA….

Dad, Mom, Hank, Tom, Carl, Suzy, Jan with Anitra, Conrad with Rusty, and Frank

© 2019 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

 

 

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4 Ways to Develop Better Writing Habits in 2019

By Desiree Villena

To quote a line from Charles Duhigg’s famous book, The Power of Habit:“There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

Human beings are creatures of habit — what we do every day sets the direction of our lives. But here’s the thing: not all of our habits are good. And if the goal is to become an accomplished writer, it’s important to distinguish which habits are helping us move closer to our goals and which ones are keeping us from achieving them.

In this post, I’m sharing four actions that have helped me build stronger writing habits in 2019. If you dedicated yourself to writing a memoir this year, but have found yourself struggling for motivation, I hope that these tips help.

1. Commit to writing every day.

If you’ve read your share of articles by now about developing writing habits, then you’re probably sick of this advice. But there’s a reason that it exists — even if every fiber of your body tells you that writing everyday isn’t worth it.

To wit, it’s just like exercise. There’s no way for you to get fit if you don’t move your body. And if you don’t write, you don’t build up your writing muscles: both the ones in your fingers and the ones in your brain. If you need a goal at the end of the tunnel to keep you focused, consider submitting your experimental pieces to writing contests! Quite a few are geared specifically towards creative nonfiction.

Get in what you can. If you have plenty of free time, aim to write at least 1000 words a day. Otherwise, I’ve found that a smaller and more attainable number like 300 is more realistic.

2. Discover what approach works best for you.

There are two popular disciplines when choosing topics to write about: tackle the challenging stuff, or write about what comes naturally to you.

Both can do wonders to improve your writing. You can schedule days where you write about your passions, and on other days you can tackle topics that are outside of your comfort zone.

Personally, I think it’s best to do both instead of sticking to one. Writing about what you know builds confidence in writing, while the second approach improves both your research and writing skills.

3. Find a good writing group.

Writing groups aren’t just great for getting feedback. Through them, you can find conferences, join writing discussions, and give advice to other memoirists who are struggling to refine their craft just like you.

It’s also a terrific place to find experienced writers who can critique your work, so that you know what to improve — whether that’s an inconsistent point of viewor shallow character development. You shouldn’t be afraid of critics (although a lot of writers naturally are). As painful as it can be to have your work mercilessly picked apart by the professionals, it helps you build humility and character, and you’ll need plenty of that, especiallywhen you need to deal with editors.

It’s not hard to find one, either. For instance, Sarah leads great “Remember to Write” workshops here. If you don’t happen to be nearby one of them, you can search by interest on www.meetup.comto find a local writing group. Online, Facebook or a friendly writer’s forum are popular places to go hunting for future writing buddies. All of this to say: they’re everywhere if you look, so give them a try if you’re having a hard time finishing your work. A good writing group will hold you accountable — and, more importantly, give you motivation to keep writing.

4. Don’t stop reading.

You won’t know what quality writing looks like if you don’t read. For this reason, I can’t stress enough the importance of reading different kinds of material for the niche in which you’re writing (or would like to write for).

Study the works of the masters and find out what they’re doing differently that sets them apart. If you’re not well-read, it’s going to be transparent in your every sentence and you risk not being understood by readers the way you want your work to be understood.

Writing is a personal experience, especially for memoirists. I’d never say what works for one writer is going to work for you. But the great thing about life is that you have plenty of time to find out what special mix of practices will reap the most results.

Have the courage to try different approaches, including ones not mentioned here. Stick to that routine, and before you know it, you’ll have a published memoir on your hands. And I’m looking forward to seeing it on the bookshelves!

© 2019 Desiree Villena

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading fiction and writing short stories, and is always looking for ways to improve her craft.

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Halifax Redux

By Sarah White

I’m taking a four-part self-guided workshop with Creative Nonfiction this month, titled “Playing with Patterns: Crafting the Braided & Collage Essays.” The intent is to draw us into examining the creative potential of juxtaposing themes through collage and braided techniques. I’ve never experimented with anything like that. I’m having fun with it.

An exercise in Week #2 was, “Write a short collage piece that uses sensory image to draw us into either (1) a seed of life narrative about three different places you have been connected to; OR (2) three seeds of narrative about one place you’ve been connected to. (By “seed of narrative” instructor Sharia Yates mean a hint of a story, or a window into a story using a few suggestive images or one scene.)

I chose #2, and chose to use my past two years’ Big MFA Adventure as the subject of my creative experiments in this short course. Here goes.

Halifax, MFA residency #1, August 2017.

Starting at the base of Maslow’s Pyramid, my first graduate school residency in Halifax was bedeviled by uncertainty. The need for physiological safety and security was uppermost. I’d arrived from Wisconsin at 4 a.m. due to a flight delay. Where was my dorm room? Waking from a quick sleep, where to find food? Every sense was unsettled by neediness. Through the two-week residency I was always half-hungry, unsatisfied by the food I did find—stupid baby carrots, flavorless goat cheese, packaged crackers. I soon tired of to-go carton meals, developing a deep aversion to the bendy tines of plastic forks, the futility of plastic knives.

I walked around the campus feeling unsafe around all the construction barrels, tangling with the safety-orange webbed fencing strung across crumbling sidewalks. I learned to find my way like a spelunker, turn by hazardous turn, to the pub in the basement of the Dalhousie administration building, only to find it beer-smelling and humid, its foods the grubbiest of pub grub.

The days were hot for Canada, but comfortable enough for this Midwesterner. I laughed at the sandwich board outside the convenience store that said “24 C – air conditioned! Come in for respite!” (That’s 78 degrees Fahrenheit.)

 

Halifax MFA residency #2, August 2018

The return to Halifax placed me higher on Maslow’s pyramid. By this time I carried a nifty little plastic case containing a real metal fork, knife, and spoon. I’d learned to Google “groceries near me.” I’d thought all year about what to buy, to make my dorm picnics more palatable.

Belonging and esteem were now my needs. I greeted returning classmates, renewing friendships with my Canadian fellow students, but sensed I stood a little outside their circle. I was one of only two Americans in the program, and not the charismatic one.

But I remembered how I enjoyed the attention of the upper-classmates who befriended me the previous year, and I took some under-classmates under my wing, especially the dramatic J, who was having trouble fitting the experience of residency to what she had imagined since acceptance. I invited her to visit Africville with me, purposely filling the weekend between classes for both of us, which I remembered as particularly lonely my first year. I was the only second-year on a dorm floor with seven first-years, and I became their mama and coach.

Together we survived a year of record heat and humidity—85 degrees Fahrenheit at midnight in my room, no fans to be had. I’d wake to swab my naked self with a wet washcloth I kept in the fridge at the foot of my bed, thinking of the irony—this dorm wing was named “North Pole.”

 

Halifax #3: Graduation, May 2019

Attending graduation wasn’t strictly necessary and wasn’t in the budget, given what I’d already spent attaining my MFA-Creative Nonfiction from University of King’s College-Halifax, but I wanted to roll that phrase on my tongue a little longer, extend this exquisite stimulation for one more run at Maslow’s pyramid. Here was my chance to see the view from the pinnacle, self-actualization.

I cooked up a scheme to cover my costs by running a writing retreat at a Nova Scotia farmhouse in the days before graduation. I was able to recruit some of my writing students from Madison.

I didn’t anticipate how grateful I’d be for my entourage when we rolled in from the countryside on graduation day. Everyone, including the other American, had a posse of family. I would have had no one—my family vaguely supported my whim of enrolling in an MFA but not enough to hie them hither to Halifax.

Perfect weather rewarded us for our two years of study, a day of sun and breezy cool piercing a month of rain. My regalia marked me as one of the celebrated, even if my too-large tasseled cap made my face strangely chipmunk-like in the photos.

Graduates processed behind a bagpiper, my class falling so far behind I couldn’t hear him, out of solidarity with our classmate E, whose disability made walking slow. After the ceremony, my writing retreatants gave me a dozen yellow roses, which made me secretly peeved at the waste until googling told me I could bring them home on the plane.

I cut down a plastic water bottle for a vase, wrapped a washcloth around it for stability, and placed it on the sink-counter in our shared bathroom—we had taken over the same floor in the North Pole—where it doubled to two dozen in the mirror. For the flight home, I swaddled the stems in stolen washcloth, thinking of my midnight swabbings the previous August.

Will I see Halifax again? Having finished my climb up Maslow’s pyramid, would it only disappoint? The only way to know is to go.

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Cry Me A River

By Melodee Leven Currier

After having writers’ block for several months, while driving to an appointment I asked my angels to give me a sign about what I should write for my next article.  

My thoughts quickly darted to one of my pet peeves – the crazy number of people on television who cry about seemingly nothing.  By the time I arrived at my appointment, Roy Orbison’s “Crying” was playing on my car radio and I instantly knew that was the sign I was waiting for.  

It seems you can’t turn on the television any more without seeing someone cry.  I always wonder – why in the world are they crying??  Usually it’s something that wouldn’t make me cry. And often they aren’t even crying at all — wiping “dry” eyes, pretending they’re crying, trying to elicit sympathy. Three reality shows that seem to encourage pretend crying are Dr. Phil, Paternity Court and The Bachelor.  

According to the NY Post, the average woman will cry six times a month, twice as much as men.  The last time I remember crying was four years ago when I heard that Dr. Wayne Dyer died.  He had been my guru since the mid-70’s when I started reading his books.  I even met him twice — once he sat next to me in church.  When I told him he was my guru, he replied, “No, you’re your own guru.”  

The hardest I ever cried (Oprah’s “ugly cry”) was thirteen years ago when our 18 year old cat, Shibui, died.  And the most I ever cried was in high school during my first serious relationship.  I’m sure I cried a lot more than six times a month then, more like six times a day.  

People cry because of sadness, grief, frustration, nervousness and joy – even hormones play a part.  And some payoffs for criers are that people might feel sorry for them and they may get their support or sympathy, it can soothe and relieve stress, it aids sleep and you can feel better afterward.  When I’ve cried, it is usually without warning because of grief or frustration.  

Your unique perception of a situation will determine if you cry.  For example, often people cry at the thought of losing their job, but I see it as a new beginning, often as a blessing and an opportunity for a new adventure.   Finding another job can be a stepping stone to more money, meeting new people and learning something new.  

Hundreds of songs have been written about crying and I have even been known to cry, or be on the verge of tears, while listening to some of them – Tears in Heaven, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Cry Me A River, Crying in the Rain, Lonely Teardrops, Tears On My Pillow and Don’t Cry Outloud are just a few.  If we listen to Dr. Seuss who said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” the crying average per month would drop considerably.  

As for me, chances are I’m not going to cry as long as no one I know dies.  I guess I need to listen to Dr. Seuss and not cry because they died, but smile because I knew them.

© 2019 Melodee Currier

Melodee Currier left corporate America in 2008 where she was an intellectual
property paralegal.  Since then she has devoted her time to writing and has
had three eBooks (www.amazon.com/author/melodeecurrier) and numerous articles published on a wide variety of topics.   Her articles can be read on her website www.melodeecurrier.com.  Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.

 

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