A writing prompt from “Your Life as Story” by Tristine Rainer

My Amazon order history tells me I bought Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature by Tristine Rainer in 2004. That makes it about the oldest book in my “write your memoir” library, and I’d say it’s the most well-thumbed, sticky-noted, annotated book in that library as well. It is one of the most complete sourcebooks for writing about a life–in a way that meets the standards of literature–that I have come across.

I remember how daunted I felt when I first read it–an experience akin to being a first grader in a one-room school, listening in on the sixth-graders’ lessons. More than half went over my head, but the less-than-half that stuck was helpful. I just kept working with an exercise or two from Rainer’s pages, then reading the book again, then working with another exercise or two, until I began to feel I understood what she was getting at and could not only apply it in my own writing, but teach it to others.

A highly useful element of Rainer’s approach is her “Nine Essential Elements of Story Structure,” which align with the narrative arc described by Jack Hart in Storycraft and the story structure recommended by Jon Franklin in Writing for Story. The nine elements will probably be familiar to anyone who has studied writing fiction. They are:

  • BEGINNING: Initiating incident, problem, desire line;
  • MIDDLE: Struggle with adversary, Interim pivotal events, precipitating event;
  • CONCLUSION:  Crisis, climax, realization.

Rainer is also excellent on portraying yourself and others. If it’s your story, you’re the protagonist, its hero no matter how flawed. The supporting characters around you fall into roles as allies, antagonists, villains. I think it was Rainer who gave a name to those complicated relationships we have with people who love us, but want for us something different than we want for ourselves: “beloved adversaries.”

I am particularly fond of Rainer’s insistence on “the telling detail,” the use of observations about an individual’s gestures and behaviors as opposed to adjectives that (whether intentionally or not) pass judgment.  “If you call a guy pretentious and uptight, it’s an open and shut case, but if you give details about him… a reader can come to that conclusion,” she writes. To identify specific gestures and behaviors to work into your writing, she offers an exercise she calls How to be… — “Make a list of gestures and indicative behaviors as if you were writing a how-to guide for the impersonation of the character you wish to describe.”

I like to combine this with the brainstorming technique of clustering (some call it mindmapping) to first get some ideas on the page, then turn them into Rainer’s “stage directions” for portraying that character. Here is an example, describing an entertaining restaurant owner I met in Vernazza, Italy.

Pick a character who will appear in your memoir and have a go at this technique–I think you’ll find it challenging but fun.

If you want to deepen your skill as a writer of memoir, autobiography, biography, creative nonfiction–even fiction!–get yourself a copy of Your Life as Story and get started on what I think you’ll find a satisfying long term relationship with Tristine Rainer’s writing advice.

 

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Do You Want to Dance?

Thank you, Deb, for responding to my plea to “Throw me somethin’, Mister,” with a true New Orleans tale!

By Deb Wilbrink

Joanne and I arrived at Bourbon Street. We were teens come to the Big Easy on false pretenses of scouting Tulane University, but actually there to experience Mardi Gras.

Deb Wilbrink in high school–a year of transformation

Chaos was Queen of the Quarter. People ebbed and flowed in the blockaded streets like a river, in costume, en flagrante, and in their cups. We stopped in front of a stage erected in an intersection, where a glamorous burlesque dance competition was in progress. I had never heard of drag queens, but I was seeing and meeting my first ones tonight! Joanne and I ogled as the dancers elicited screams of delight from those all around us.

A couple of guys in cowboy hats invited Joanne and me into a bar for a drink. Would my fake ID pass? I was fifteen, Joanne was fourteen, and our student IDs stated eighteen, the legal drinking age in 1971. The darling bouncer waved us in with a smile; I was in a bar for the first time. Over a beer, I learned that “my” cowboy, redheaded, long-haired and bearded Calvin, was a student at the University of Arkansas. He was flirting with the waitress. When I excused myself to the restroom, I discovered what was under the drag array of one of the customers. Returning to my seat, I watched Calvin continue to flirt. When the waitress receded, I asked him with concern, “Don’t you know that’s a man?” Now, probably Calvin did know, but he expressed great surprise.

“Let’s get some food,” he suggested. He led us into an alley, up two flights of tight winding stairs, and into a small room where supper was being passed around: free soup and sandwiches. The soup was thin but hot, and I was hungry. A preacher walked to a small stage and offered thanks for the food. He went on serving more of the Gospel. Calvin jumped up, cursed, threw his sandwich and fled toward the door. What in the hell? I wanted that sandwich! But we got up and followed him. “You can’t bribe me to listen to that crap,” said Calvin, as the four us plunged down the stairwell and erupted into the night.

A sign across the alley and a shill cried “Seven beers for a dollar!” This time the stairs to heaven went down. Seven 8-oz. beers came on a tray and we happily bottomed up more than a few trays of them. The juke box prompted Cal and me to promenade around the floor; it was my first two-step. As we paused for another round, a hump-backed dwarf wandered over. “Do you want to dance?” he asked me. I could not refuse.

There was a reason for dancing. Music greatly moved me! Yet, I was a nerdy bookworm without any chance of being asked to dance. Suffering not only as a wallflower, but as a feminist who risked asking boys to dance—and inevitably was always turned down—had inspired a promise. I had vowed to ALWAYS ACCEPT any invitation to dance. To my own and others’ amazement, now I was dancing with a man half my size, and he would join our group of revelers for the rest of the night.

I would have another dance, this time at a true dance hall on New Orleans’ West Bank. Women in hairdos stacked like beehives—or hanging like the aftermath of tornados—clung to men in boots as they gracefully twirled to the sounds of country and Cajun and zydeco music.

Suddenly, a man appeared at my side. “Do you want to dance?” He was not my type: too old, hair slicked back, a drooping black mustache, encased in a vest and pants made for romancing. “Yes,” I said. “I don’t know how to dance,” he confessed as he pulled me onto the floor. Surely he was being politely humble. We reached the center of the floor and stopped. “So, where are you from?” he asked, clutching my hands. It dawned on me that we were not going to dance. He continued to make small talk in the center of the dance floor. I suffered though this “dance” with what must have been a foolhardy man. In Louisiana, I came to know, dance meant something in and of itself. Unlike back home, it was not a means to meet or even to touch a girl. It was an art form. If you had not had the grace to learn the steps before you said “Yes”, well then, the Louisiana men would swiftly set you down again against the wall.

Adventures and their revelations came fast and thick that evening. But as the dawn approached, our gang drove to a nearby bayou. We stumbled over the downed trees and through the brush to swim naked as the sun rose. I felt baptized. It was a beginning. How many firsts were mine at that Mardi Gras? First skinny-dip, first homosexuals, first bar, first parade, first serenade, first charity food, first two-step, and more. The Big Easy also showed me for the first time a society of tolerance and acceptance. It took some lies to get there. But for the first time, I freely explored the infinite paths of what it means to be human, what it means to be me. The Dance was just starting.

© 2018 Deborah Wilbrink

Deborah Wilbrink is a ghostwriter and owner of Perfect Memoirs. She is also writing her memoir: Coming of Age in the Sexual Revolution. She is also the author of Time to Tell Your Personal & Family History, which I reviewed on this blog in 2016.

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It’s time to “Throw me somethin’, Mister!”

Mardi Gras is less than a month away, and the Carnival marching season begins even sooner. It’s time to “Throw me somethin’, Mister,” in the parlance of this amazing part of US culture. That traditional call from the crowds to the krewes is going out from True Stories Well Told this morning, and it’s not “throws” I seek, not gaudy plastic jewelry or toys, but your stories, true and well told.

That’s a writing technique called “borrowed interest” and I’m not ashamed to stoop to it to fill the digital pages of this blog. I publish writing prompts, book reviews, and stories from my own life, but my favorite content is YOUR stories.

Here are the guidelines. Now throw me somethin’, Mr.,  Ms., whoever you are! Send your stories to sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

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Writing Challenge: Hippocampus Magazine contest, theme: “Keepsakes”

I’m committing to a personal challenge this season related to Semester 2 in the MFA-Creative Nonfiction program I’m pursuing: get some pieces published! It’s time to build what they call my author’s platform.

Troll pony from England, 1967

Hippocampus Magazine has a contest on the theme “Keepsakes”, deadline March 15, 2018. Now that’s right up my alley, as a memoir writer who has recently been most drawn to what’s called “object writing”–essays built around concrete images. (Here’s a post I wrote about this a few years back.) Keepsakes are just the sort of tangible objects that give rise to compelling true stories. Here’s one of mine.

Here’s the contest call:

Hippocampus Magazine is looking for submissions of up to 4,000 words for its annual theme issue; this year, it’s Keepsakes.

In a day where we look at photos online, scan in concert or play “tickets” at the door, send texts to thank someone, post happy birthday wishes to Facebook, and other intangible memories or shows of affection and appreciation, we’re starting to mourn personal keepsakes and mementos.

Share your piece of creative nonfiction (up to 4,000 words) about an item that means something to you. Maybe it lives in your attic, a shoebox, or a storage locker. Or maybe it’s displayed on a shelf or around your neck…. Maybe you no longer have it, and long to have it back. Whatever it is, wherever it is, we want to know about it, the story behind it, the meaning it brings.

Or maybe the idea of “keepsakes” has another interpretation for you – and we’d like to see those stories too, as long as the connection to the theme is clear.

We invite you to send your best creative nonfiction piece – and your best interpretation of the theme—to us for consideration for our July 2018 issue.

Please see full guidelines at our website before submitting.

Deadline: March 15, 2018.

Hippocampus Magazine is an online publication with a mission to entertain, educate and engage writers and readers of creative nonfiction (that’s us, True Stories Well Told writers!).

So let’s start writing our “Keepsakes” stories. I want to hear yours!

  • Sarah White
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Identity

By Ruchi Kahan

Ruchi entering the orphanage, and today

In the hardest time of my life, when I almost died, my spirituality saved me.

I lived on the streets of New Delhi, India, trying to survive alone starting when I was only four years old. I remember seeing a lot of other people who were homeless, adults shouting at their kids, and huge stacked-up piles of garbage. The cows were also in the garbage looking for food. I was looking for survival. It was an instinct, the only way I could continue.

I remember that everything tasted rotten. Food lost its deliciousness. It was like after someone ate something delicious, they threw away the corpse of their food to wither away. That’s what I was eating.

A lot of people that I saw worshiped the ground they stood on. They took the sand from their homes when they left and put it on their foreheads. I tried to learn from them. I put the sand I found on the streets on my forehead.

When I was six I got captured by the police and sent to an orphanage, the Welfare Home for Children.

I was first taken to the basement. There was a lady down there who made a report about me. The basement was really dark except for the light of her room, and that was really dim. After that, a woman came to get me, who ended up being always with me. She was part of a group of women who took care of us. We called them our Aunties.

 

During that time I became someone who didn’t see hope or light in my life anymore. My spirit was always strong though, and nothing could extinguish it. I would hear the auntie/caretaker tell tales about gods and goddesses in Hinduism. She regaled us with stories about how God Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe, created the other two worlds as represented by Shiva the destroyer, and Brahma the creator of the universe.

Brahma was the god with three heads who sat on a lotus. Shiva had a snake around his neck and would stay on the snowy mountains with his goddess, Parvati, and his son, Ganesha.

The best-known tale the auntie would tell came from the Ramayan, “Vishnu had taken an incarnation as Lord Ram. Laxmi had taken on an incarnation as Sita, Ram’s wife. Lord Ram came to free the Earth from the power of the demons.”

I was so in love with all the tales that were told of Hinduism. We were taught to believe in reincarnation, which means when we die we would be reborn on this earth as someone new, forgetting our old selves. But a glimpse of our old selves will show in our new selves.

When I heard those tales and felt so proud of my culture, my spirit blazed bigger and farther inside me. A glimmer of hope came back.

 

There would be special holidays to worship the gods and goddess such as Holi, the festival of colors, and Diwali, the festival of lights. Diwali is still my favorite holiday because the houses and streets would be would be lit like a Christmas tree. There would also be presents and fireworks!

Even though I lived in an orphanage some of us were chosen to participate in the festivities. They would pick names randomly out of a box. But first, they took out the names of the kids who were doing badly at the orphanage, either doing bad things or not doing well in school. If you did bad, you could not be chosen to leave and celebrate the holiday.

I got chosen once and I loved it. A lot of kids kept telling me the trip was an opportunity to run away and leave the orphanage. But I didn’t try because I had a hard life on the streets and I could have easily gotten an illness on the street. At least here I had a shelter, a place to live for the time being, a place where I was cared for so I could carry on. I was choosing between horrible and the brink of horrible.

 

Time after time I would get recurring visions of gods and goddesses inspiring me to be a good person and put everything into whatever I’ve committed to. God Vishnu also gives me the knowledge to see gods or goddesses in every person. Hinduism has a special greeting called “namaste,” which means “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” All the holidays for the gods and goddesses make me proud and devoted to my culture and religion.

One lesson I learned from Hinduism is this: When anyone you love dies and you pray to your gods to not let them leave this world, don’t blame them if your loved ones go away. Just remember, even though they left their bodies, their spirits will always be lingering around you. They will watch over you from wherever they are. They will be born again to meet up with you in their next life, for you will never be separated from them.

After two years I was taken from the orphanage to a new home in America. I am now becoming someone who believes in the very essence of life. Because of this experience, I became devoted to my culture and life.

© 2018 Ruchi Kahan

Ruchi is a student in the Washington, DC, area. This essay began as a class assignment on Identity. Ruchi wants to become a veterinarian. She loves all kinds of animals, especially horses, wolves, cats, and dogs. This year she plans to visit India with her American family.

 

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Watching Mildred

By Suzy Beal

“Give it back to me! I won’t burn myself, I know how to do it.”

“Mildred, let me do this for you.

“No, give it to me, NOW”

Her gnarled fingers are gripping the curling iron so tightly I can’t get back control of it, short of prying off her fingers.

“OK, I will give it back to you so you can do the front, but you must let me to the back.” We reach a compromise, but she refuses to give it back to me even though she is finished curling her front bangs and sides. Her jaw is set, her eyes challenging me. I see in them the new bride in 1942 standing on the docks in New York City waving good-bye to her husband as he goes off to war in Europe.

The phone rings and I pick it up. “Mildred, your son is on the phone.” She has to let go of the curling iron if she wants to take the phone. Indecision races across her face – she will lose control of one more thing if she gives up the curling iron, but she wants to hear her son’s voice. Her eyes tighten and she squints at me and I see the young pregnant mother leaving with three small children her family and friends to cross the country by train to join her husband as they begin a new life together on the Oregon coast. She chooses the phone. I unplug the curling iron and put it out of sight. I feel like a traitor.

At seventy-one, am I watching my future unfolding? Mildred is a friend I have been visiting every week for two years at her assisted-care facility.   This past week she was moved from her assisted-living home to a transitional care facility because she appears to have lost the use of her left leg. Since I’m not family, I’ve not been given the details of her diagnosis. However, I can tell she is unhappy to be here and she is taking out her anger on me today. Only two weeks ago we were stringing beads and making necklaces in her “home.” Now she has lost so much, she is struggling.

Our battle is over for now, but I feel as though there is so much more at stake here. I can see her standing on the bluff over- looking the Pacific Ocean for the first time, terrified of it and the sound it makes. At ninety-seven she can curl her own hair, after all she raised five children helping each one reach a successful and meaningful life. Each day she loses something important to her. She has a smile, when she uses it, that melts the heart, but if she feels that she is being crossed or talked down to, the smile disappears and she clinches her teeth tightly together and just like her gnarled fingers holding onto the curling iron, there is no opening her up, unless I hand her a chocolate.

She is so much more than this old lady tied to her wheelchair. She has the right to be angry, unhappy and sad that her current situation prohibits her from any choices. Her choices have been taken away along with her freedom, but most days she has a smile for me when I show up and when she clutches my hand I know that that strength comes from her heart.

© Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal has been writing her life story and personal essays for years, but in 2016 started studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  “She has given me the courage to begin to submit pieces for publication,” says Suzy. I’m 72 years old and live in Bend, Oregon.  I was born on the Oregon Coast in Newport.  In 1961 when I was a teenager my parents took all seven of us siblings to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca.  There my dad and brothers built a sailing boat onto which we moved and sailed the Mediterranean.  We later moved to the Caribbean and lived and sailed from St. Croix.”

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Got “snapshot” memories? Try writing Flash Memoir.

Memories are frequently more like snapshots than movies. So why not apply the techniques of flash fiction to our own life stories? “Going small” allows us to focus on the moments in which life is truly lived, absorbing lessons that would be hard to find in a larger narrative sweep. 

In flash memoir–stories under 1000 or even under 500 words–we challenge ourselves to develop a story concisely, concretely, with crisp precision. Accepting the challenge of creative nonfiction, we work within the boundaries of emotional and factual truth. Short, sharp, and true–No other rules apply.

I mention this because I have a “write-in” workshop on Flash Memoir coming up in Madison. In my “write-ins,” unlike my other workshops, we dedicate part of our in-class time to writing, and place fewer expectations on ourselves to write between class sessions. This feels like an ideal approach for working on short “Flash Memoir” pieces. I can’t say for sure–this is the first time I’ve tried it.

Want to be part of the experience? Check it out, if you’re in Madison.

  • When: Thursdays, four sessions, Feb 15 through March 8, 4-5:30 pm
  • Where: Pinney Library, 204 Cottage Grove Rd., Madison
  • Fee: Free.
  • To register: follow this link or call 224-7100.

And if you’re not in Madison? I’ve offered this class online before, and I could again. Let me know if you’d be interested in an online “write-in” experience.

What does this image have to do with “Flash Memoir”? This brevity-focused genre lends itself to object writing–the technique of focusing an essay on a concrete object. (What’s a concrete object? “Something you can drop on your foot,” it was explained to me.) If you want your reader to hold in mind the same image, idea, or emotion that you are having, don’t send abstract words to do the job. Send a specific, memorable, visualize-able object. Then tell a story about it.

The artifacts we gathered through life make great prompts for object writing. This is a box of crayons I have owned since I was 7 years old. I had a dream last night about rediscovering a trove of art supplies and a free day to play with them. This is what I imagine retirement might be like–rediscovering our own treasures and talents from before “the cult of adulthood” intervened, and finally having time to pick up creative ventures again.

When “Flash Memoir” starts at the Pinney Library on February 15, I think I’ll go looking for memories related to these crayons.

As we say goodbye to 2017, I suggest you explore Flash Memoir in 2018! Let’s see your stories here on True Stories Well Told. Submissions welcome–see guidelines here.

  • Sarah White
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