Hello from Halifax, Classroom Edition

“We’ve got your book” the brochure for the U-King’s MFA program promises, and they mean that literally. Everyone studying here is writing one, everyone teaching here has written one (or more), and all we talk about from morning coffee to evening drinks in the Ward Room is books–your book, my book, this book, that book. Upshot: 3 visits to the U-Kings bookstore and counting.

All but the bottom two were written by U-Kings graduates. The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children is an oral history/personal history. The Fruitful City is about urban gleaners who ask the question: Can neglected city-grown fruit address hunger, waste, and food illiteracy? Eating Dirt takes us on the forest road with the tree-planting tribe of Canada’s west coast, while No Place to Go shows us how far we have to go to achieve potty parity–the author’s phrase–for all.

Catfish Dreams I was reading as I came here-it’s a story similar to the one I’m working on (about soul food entrepreneurship) and published by the press that would be my “reach school” if this were college, not publishing I’m trying to get into.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks went on my must-read list after mentor Harry Thurston mentioned it in a workshop. Why? “A privileged white woman writes about an African American working-class woman,” Harry said. I’m trying to achieve a similar cross-cultural acceptance by my subjects, for my book.

What are some takeaways from Week 1 in the classroom?

  • With your narrator, you’re building a persona. How is he/she coming across?
  • Your book proposal is a living document, like your CV/resume. You’ll be pulling from & adapting your master version the rest of your writing life.
  • Vocabulary! Semantics vs. prosody–the meaning of what you say vs. the way you say it, the rhythm and sound of your words. Wait til I work those into a sentence–I’ll sound like a real grad student!!
  • Go where the events you’re writing about happened. There is no substitute, even if the events happened 400 years ago. Place speaks.
  • Ask: How will your reader be changed by this?

Random, but thought-provoking.

Two and a half more days of this, and so to home, to start on MFA Year 2. And reading that stack of books.

The author, looking into her brilliant future.

 

 

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Hello from Halifax

“True Stories Well Told” is taking a micro-break while I pursue my Big MFA Adventure at University of King’s College, on the Dalhousie Campus in Halifax, NS, CA.

The relationship between the two institutions has been described as “uneasy siblings” and “it’s complicated.

Dalhousie is celebrating its Bicentennial, while U-King’s is even older–est. 1789, to be exact. It’s marvelous to feel affiliated with such a proud educational heritage.

Here are a few scenes from around campus… Enjoy!

The U-King’s main building, my dorm wing in the left wing, just visible at the center of the picture, 2nd floor.

The Dalhousie main building. The “Dal” campus wraps around the U-King’s quadrangle.

This little alley leads to the classroom building where we meet, center rear. Dorms to either side–that’s “Radical Bay” to the left, and “The North Pole” to the right, where I live. The names are ironic–“Radical” because that’s where the seminary students lived, “North Pole” because it was closest to the boiler room.

View from the library’s plaza toward Alexandra Hall, where I stayed last year. Voted one of Canada’s 10 most beautiful dorms, don’t be fooled by appearances.

And a classroom scene. We’ve moved from the usual theater-style lecture hall to the cafeteria to catch some air conditioning.

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A Pause for Ice Cream –or- “Midwestern Nice”

By Sarah White

I’m preparing to teach “Flash Memoir” in a few weeks. As a result, memories in short flashes have been coming to me recently. Here’s one.

Madison, Wisconsin, summer, 1980 or 1981.

A storefront scoop shop opened on Williamson Street just a few blocks from where my boyfriend and I lived in a coop house with our roommates. (In a few years he would become my husband.)

One night after dinner, we walked down to have a cone. We entered and paused, studying the menu of flavors. Before the bells hanging from the doorknob quit jingling, a woman came in with four or five young children around her. Something about her purposeful movement said “east coast”–or maybe just “harried mom.”

She walked up to the counter and began polling her children about their ice cream choices. Just as she was about to place their order, she noticed us standing to one side.

“Oh, were you in line first?” she said. “Here children, move aside—“

“Don’t worry about it,” Jim replied. “We were letting you go ahead. Seems like you’re in a hurry, and we’re not.”

“You need to learn to be more assertive!” she said, waving her children back.

A brief round of “Midwestern Nice” broke out in which we beckoned each other toward the waiting scoop clerk. The woman went ahead and ordered for her gaggle. Once everyone had been served, they left.

But they stayed with us ever since, a private joke and a punch line.

© 2018 Sarah White

I mean it, enough about me! It’s time to send me your Guest Writers’ posts! Check out the guidelines.

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My Magic Credit Card

By Sarah White

I’m teaching “Write Your Way to a Better Relationship with Money” for personal historians right now, an online workshop I developed using the Guided Autobiography method developed by Dr. James Birren. We uncover old bad stories we’ve told ourselves and replace them with stories that guide us to earn, spend, and save comfortably and in alignment with our values. 

 

It was about 1972 when I got my first real summer job, working at the Can-Do kiosk at the Glendale Mall. There was a lot I liked about the job, from engraving endearments on mugs (I always loved anything to do with words and type) to baking off rubber stamps in the little toaster oven. But sometimes trade was slow, and I had nothing to do but gaze out at the sale racks in the teen fashion shop across from my kiosk.

My friends were starting to use the money from their summer jobs to purchase clothes, often using layaway and making payments until they could take a garment home. The teen shop offered credit cards. I applied for one. I made my first purchase—a gauzy hippie top, turquoise blue with orange embroidery like a dashiki. I bought another similar top, in cream, that hung in handkerchief-points. A month came and went—no bill arrived in the mail!

I kept shopping. This was the season of the Great Hot Dog Diet, and I was dropping weight with every passing week. Shopping for clothes had never been this fun. I loved the smart knit dress I bought, to celebrate losing the twentieth pound. It had a fitted burgundy bodice and calico-print sleeves and skirt. Two months–still no bill arrived from the teen shop’s credit card.

Could it be true? Had processing my credit card application somehow fallen into a parallel universe, and my card was magically free from payment? I kept shopping.

Three months. The statement arrived. Three hundred dollars! How could that be! And how long would it take me to pay that off!

It’s true what they say—there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And there is certainly no such thing as a magic credit card for a teen girl to use for overpriced, cheaply-made clothes.

I stayed in the Can Do kiosk after that, and asked for more hours. When trade was slow, I faced the shoe store across the mall, not the teen shop so nearby.

© 2018 Sarah White

Now, enough about me! It’s time to see some Guest Writers’ posts here! Check out the guidelines.

 

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Spelunking

By Sarah White

The plight of the Thai soccer club trapped in a cave got me thinking about a memory from 1972 or ’73, when I was very nearly trapped in a cave under similar conditions.  I have only limited recall of what actually happened, so I wrote what I remembered and shared it with the friends who were also present. The following is a group reminiscence that explores the unreliability of narrators as much as it does the events of one summer evening.

That spring of 1972 we begin to call ourselves “the family.” In the nucleus were Marty, Donna, Colette, Victor, his brother Ric, and me. Around the edges floated some boys and girls. Don was one of the more regular floaters. His thing was outdoor adventures. He was the one who started us on spelunking.

Don had the gear—helmets with carbide headlamps, ropes, maps, some knowledge of technique, although caving doesn’t really take any technique. It’s just hiking in the dark on irregular surfaces.

You go caving in Indiana in the dead of summer and the dead of winter, because it’s always 50-some degrees in a cave. It’s a great place to escape from unbearable weather. We’d often head south from Indianapolis in mid-afternoon for the hills around Bloomington, where there were many caves in the limestone karst bedrock. We’d eat a picnic supper before climbing in, or pack it with us. When we’d stop to rest, the boys would turn off their headlights and we girls would squeal. There would be giggling and sometimes smooching in the dark. We’d climb back out in the wee hours of the morning, clean up in the bathroom at the Waffle House and refuel, then head back to Indianapolis in time to go to work or school. We were in our late teens. We were invincible superheroes.

We did just this, one summer afternoon in 1973. The family set out from Indianapolis—were we in Marty’s van or  Don’s? No matter—and arrived at a cave around suppertime. A barn stood near the entrance, and a box with a sign-in book.

When we arrived, a group of Eagle Scouts were cooking their dinner and settling in to camp overnight. We nodded coolly at them—we freaks didn’t associate with organization men like them—signed in and proceeded to the cave entrance.

When you enter a cave, you go through a change in relationship to your body, and this is what I loved about spelunking. At first you’re still a biped, adjusting to being a sightless one, the bright beam of the carbide headlamp extinguishing all peripheral vision. But then, kinesthesia takes over. You become aware of every part of your body. You know exactly where the back of your head is. You crawl on all fours as easily as walking. It’s a dance with the infinitely changing surfaces around you. Your hearing adjusts to the silence that blooms into a chorus of echoes and dripping water. It is magical.

That summer evening, unbeknownst to us down in the bowels of Monroe County, a summer thunderstorm passed through. Torrents of rain funneled in the same cave opening through which we had army-crawled down a narrow passage of some 600 feet. Someone noticed a change in the sound—the drip became a purr, then a burble.

“We’d better head back,” Don said. “That’s rising water.” He led us back the way we came. (I never paid any attention to direction underground, trusting my tribe. Don had a technique of turning around to memorize the reverse view, each time we transitioned from a narrow space to a chamber.) We made it back to a wide ledge near the cave’s opening. Between us and the mouth, a little underground creek flowed through the narrow entry passage. It had been a mere trickle when we crawled in. It was now a few inches deep and flowing fast.

“The rum!” Marty exclaimed. “I left the canteen back where we stopped to eat!” The boys looked at each other with concern. We girls looked at the boys. “I’ll go back for it,” Victor said, always the gentleman. “I’ll go with you,” Marty said.

This is the point at which my memory diverges from those of my friends. Marty tells me we were planning to sleep in the cave that night, and we had left more than rum—our sleeping bags and other gear were back in one of the chambers.

Victor and Marty crawled back into the dark behind us. The rest of us waited on the ledge. The little creek rose. And rose. It came close to the ledge on which we perched. The headspace above it, the air we would breathe as we crawled through the narrow passage, diminished. Where were those boys? We waited… and watched that headspace narrow. At first, Don and Ric tried to tease us with scary stories. Then they stopped. We hallooed the boys—no answer. We waited… and contemplated going forward without them. No. Yes? No. Had something happened to delay Marty and Vic’s return? What to do?

Here’s where my memory goes dark. I recreate the following: At the last minute, they reappeared. We crawled through water with our noses up against the rocky roof. We climbed out into the humid summer night, feeling electricity in the air. A major summer storm had clearly unleashed its fury above that cave.

Victor tells me that when he and Marty reached the chamber where our half of the party had been waiting, “Some kind of atmospheric inversion caused smoke to funnel into the cave. It was like Armageddon trying to get out of there.” Donna says “I wasn’t there.” That leaves me to infer that it was Colette, Don, Ric, and me who left our friends behind in the cave—I’d like to think it was because we realized we could be more useful in calling for help if we weren’t also trapped—and somehow managed to light a little fire. But Marty says, “Victor and I left when the creek started rising and swamped the fire,” so maybe we lit the fire inside the mouth of the cave? Or it was the Scouts’ fire, quenched by the downpour, that sent that smoke down the hole? Darkness shrouds the details.

Here our unreliable memories converge again. We all walked up to the barn where the Eagle Scouts had taken shelter. Feeling like Odysseus returning to Penelope, we burst in, expecting—what? That they had noticed we might be in peril?

One of the Scouts was in the middle of telling a long, circuitous, and very lewd joke. Gripped as they were by the storyteller, no one noticed us. We settled in and waited for the story to end, passing our canteen and quieting our shaken nerves. The guffaw at the story’s end was a lightning flash—horribly savage, brutally male. While I’d felt relatively safe all the time in the cave, now I felt bodily danger.

Luckily, Marty remembers the joke. Here it is, the shaggy dog shaved bare: “The god Thor was having sex with some women that lasted throughout the night. In the morning he stood against the rising sun, raised his hammer, and proclaimed, “I am Thor!” One of the women, still lying on the bed, replied, “You think you’re thor, I’m tho thor I can hardly pee.”

We backed out of the barn, stripped off our muddy coveralls, climbed back into the van, and headed toward Indianapolis. We pretended we were fine. We weren’t fine. We had entered that cave young gods. Now we knew we were mortal.

© 2018 Sarah White

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Join me for “Flash Memoir” 4-part online workshop, offered by Story Circle Network

Memories are frequently more like snapshots than movies. Most of my memories that feel story-rich are just flashes (Remember flashbulbs? That burst of light, that popping sound, the super-dark that instantly returned?) “Flash Memoir”–an approach that borrows techniques from the genre of flash fiction–is an excellent way to hone your ability to pay close attention, to write tight and make every word work its hardest, while exploring those “flashbulb” moments in your past.

In August, I return to teaching online workshops for Story Circle Network after taking a hiatus while I taught my online courses through the Association of Personal Historians’ education program. The first workshop I’m offering is “Flash Memoir” in a four-part version. The class has been popular here in Madison and I’m excited to bring it to an online audience.

What IS “Flash Memoir,” you ask? I’ll answer with a free preview from the first week’s lesson.

Flash Memoir essays are….

  • Free of preambles. They start at the flashpoint–the moment when conflict ignites motion that drives the story forward.
  • Scene-based—they frequently take place in one run of time, without jumping around.
  • Observant—they tend to feature not the “I” but the “eye.”
  • Insightful—Like a flashlight illuminating a dark corner, they explore something that provoked an insight.
  • Specific—they stick with concrete, observable events and actions rather than abstract concepts.
  • True—as a subgenre of creative nonfiction, Flash Memoir must uphold the nonfiction contract that what is reported actually happened.

Since 1997,  Story Circle Network, a non-profit exclusively for women writers, has provided learning/writing opportunities in memoir, reminiscence, journaling, fiction, poetry, family stories, and more. I’ve known several of their teachers and am honored to be among the faculty.

You’ll find more information about the workshop here on SCN’s website and a registration form here.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to what I consider an excellent example of Flash Memoir right here on True Stories Well Told.

Balloons Are for Kids” by Kay Frazier

I hope you’re intrigued enough to join me in the workshop!

– Sarah White

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Day and Night on the Promenade

By Julie Rosenzweig

It’s the summer of 1995. I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago, from the gritty Negev town where I had spent my first two years in Israel. I’m still walking around with a mindless grin on my face. What, real people can live here?

Yes,it turns out that even on an Israeli librarian’s salary, it can be done. If, as an unmarried thirty-year-old, you’re willing to live with multiple flatmates and rickety furniture in the pre-gentrified Katamonimneighborhood – it can be done.

Reveling in my privilege, I decide one Shabbat afternoon to walk up to the Tayelet – a popular south Jerusalem promenade that overlooks the Old City. I will enjoy the Tayelet’sbreathtaking view– one of the perks of living in this expensive, difficult, but inspiring city.

The Tayeletis plenty crowded on this lovely summer Shabbat. Lots of families picnicking. Clusters of religious singles singing zemirot together– Shabbat mealtime songs. The singles are pouring their hearts and souls into it, sending their solitary longings heavenward in chorus. A religious single myself, I could easily have been in one of those clusters, but for some reason decided to come to the Tayelettoday with only a book for companionship.

Yet before I’ve made it very far along the Tayelet, I find I have another, uninvited, companion. A man is following me. Wherever I stop, he stops. Even when I sit down on the grass a short distance away from a picnicking family or a group of singles, he sits down next to me, telling me all the thing she’d like to do to me.

I could approach one of the picnicking families or choral clusters for help. But while I’m frightened and disgusted, I also feel a kind of clinical curiosity. How long can a skuzzball harass a woman in a crowded public place before being scared off?

Quite a long time, it turns out.

At some point, I sit down on a bench. He sits down beside me. If his oratory was impressive before, it’s really something now that he’s in physical repose. He’s really pouring his heart and soul into it. As for me, I’m speechless.

His eloquence goes on and on. I stare straight ahead of me, jaws working. A frisbee lands near my foot, is retrieved by a smiling teenager. A father grabs a straying toddler by the back strap of his overall. Pasta salads are passed around in Tupperware containers.

Just when it seems that my companion has outdone himself, having issued his most evocative verbalization yet, I turn to him and spray his face with the mouthful of saliva I’ve been collecting.

He scurries off to the public restroom, turning repeatedly to shake his fists and hurl invective at me. The surprise shower hasn’t rendered him any less articulate.

Once he’s inside the men’s room, I hot-tail it out of there. They say you shouldn’t run on Shabbat, but this is pikuach nefesh– a matter of life and death that overrides regular Shabbat observances.I run all the way home, back to my walk-upon the very edge of the Katamonim, where there’s just enough funk to make my life interesting, but not too much.

Where I feel safe at any hour of the day.

I pant my story to my flatmates. Was “You go girl!” part of the lexicon back then? If not, then they would have said the mid-’90s equivalent.

It amazes me that something like this could have occurred in broad daylight. What would happen to a woman who dared to walk the Tayeletat night? Oh, but she wouldn’t.

* * *

It’s now spring,1998. I’m still single, still living with multiple flatmates in the same Katamonim walkup. Yet a lot has happened in the past few years. A prime minister has been assassinated. Buses have been bombed. There have been elections. On a personal level, I’ve “done” the bitza– the Jerusalem singles’swamp– and am about ready to leave. A brief but memorable engagement to a Russian musician down south has made me homesick for the Negev, and I’m thinking of moving back there– single or no.

In the meantime, I have a second date with an American guy that a co-worker set me up with. There he is, one arm outstretched, hand on the doorframe, a pose that conveys restrained energy without detracting from an overall air of politeness. He’s wearing a plaid shirt looks like it made it not only across the ocean, but across several decades and fashion cycles.

“Where to?” he asks.

“The Tayelet,” I find myself saying. I’ve avoided the Armon HaNetziv Promenade since my little Shabbat contretemps a few years back. Why now? Why him?

He escorts me to his car. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been inside a private vehicle in the nearly six years I’ve been in Israel. Used to lurching along the circuitous routes in which the local bus company specializes, I’m amazed at how quickly we reach the Tayelet.

We get out of the car, walk up to the low wall, lean over it. It is warm for March. It’s dark and the place is nearly deserted. We have the lights of the city below us, and the stars up above, for companions.

We chat and take in the view. I tell my date about the spitting incident, which cracks him up.

Eventually, we fall into a comfortable silence. As I gaze at the stars, I’m reminded suddenly of my former flame, the Russian musician, who was into astrology. He’d found proof of our compatibility in our birthdates – well, so much for that. I’m also reminded of a silly employee-bonding event to which I and my co-workers had been dragged a few weeks earlier– breakfast at a hotel, followed by a lecture on astrology.

I start telling my date about the lecture. He wordlessly communicates his opinion of astrology– an opinion I share– but listens attentively nonetheless.

Among other things, the lecturer had offered an analysis of the Israeli political scene. Why hadn’t Peres worked out? Why did Bibi seem to manage against all odds? Apparently, it was all in the stars.

My date is unimpressed. “Yeah, Bibi’s hanging on because of his zodiac sign,” he chuckles.

Suddenly, I need to know. But I can’t ask.

I turn toward him. “The lecturer said air signs have a better chance of making it as prime minister,” I breathlessly intone, watching his face.

“What’s an air sign?”

Aquarius, Gemini and Libra,” I answer, grinning mindlessly. I know what’s coming.

“Well, glad to hear I could be Prime Minister,” he says.

We make our way back to the car. He opens the door for me. Before I get in I thank him for bringing me to the Tayelet.

“I don’t even come here during the day, let alone at night. It’s nice to have protection.”

He glances at me, then looks away.

“Maybe I’m the one who needs protection. Or at least, a handkerchief.”

(Reader, I married him.)

© 2018 Julie Rosenzweig

Julie Rosenzweig is a Jerusalem-based translator, librarian, and mom. Her work has recently appeared in Literary Mama, Eunioa Review, the antiBODY poetry anthology, and the Times of Israel, among others.

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