The “Always” vs. the “Once”

I just wrapped up another workshop on “Start Writing Your Family History”. In the course of teaching it, I found myself burrowing for memories of the oldest ancestor I hold in living memory, my stern-but-fun Hoosier grandfather, known as Pop. Attempting to put some of those memories in writing brought up the problem of the “always” versus the “once”–the difference between memories that just set a stage, and those that contain action.

In my workshops I often use an in-class exercise I call “Fact, Memory, Meaning” in which I offer a prompt, then challenge you to write facts (1 minute), memories (3 minutes), and meaning (1 minute) about that prompt.

Here’s what I wrote about Pop that falls into the “always” category, the reminiscence that sets the stage but fails to really put a story in motion:

Pop’s Candy Drawer

[fact] It was built to be a breadbox drawer. It had a metal mouse proof lining and a hinged lid. In it, Pop kept chocolate covered raisins and malted milk balls, in bulk.

[memory] Frankly, I thought those candies were for the birds. I was more of a Hershey bar, Reese’s cup, Butterfingers kind of girl. But I was a candy addict, so I would go to the drawer when we visited and eat its barely-chocolate contents.

Pop was a retired schoolteacher, tall and thin, a stick figure in old black wool suits that flapped around him. He had raised three daughters, and had an instinct for how to be my friend. The toys he had for me were the best, so I forgave him the inferior candy.

[meaning] Love shines through in what we do for each other.

Now, I’m not real impressed with that story. Nothing happened in it. It’s an “always” story–he always kept candy, I always ate it, even though I didn’t like it. We could go into the psychology behind that (and my lifetime of weight struggles) but that’s a tangent.

  So the next week, I tried again.

Pop’s Skates

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[fact] Pop’s ice skates were like you never saw before. They were metal blades that clipped onto his shoes. They were like those old roller skates that had a key allowing you to adjust the length.

[memory] We ordinarily only visited Grandma and Pop during the summer, so I didn’t even know Pop could ice skate.

He was a tall, gaunt man, and rather awkward in his movements. He seemed like the Scare Crow from the Wizard of Oz, and I wondered if he might break like a bundle of sticks if he fell over.

One time [see? there’s the once!] we visited in winter. The canal was frozen. Pop took us down to skate and–to my amazement–he produced this old-fashioned pair of metal blades, strapped them on, and glided away across the ice with his long black coat flapping behind him. His long limbs were graceful and his strokes steady and sure. As he skated away that day, I saw a Pop decades younger than I had ever known.

[meaning] Old people can surprise you. Never assume what they might or might not be able to do based solely on what you’ve seen.

Stories are better when you can set the scene with the “always” but set events in motion with the “once.”  Here are a couple of earlier blog posts that explore this idea, and this writing exercise.

Finding “The Once”–advice from Alan Gelb, author of Having the Last Say

Invasion as writing prompt…

(c) 2016 Sarah White

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to The “Always” vs. the “Once”

  1. ozzietales says:

    Thanks Sarah – I found this very helpful. I immediately found myself searching my memory for that one (short) story that could symbolize my life’s journey.

  2. marjorie561 says:

    Excellent story structure, Sarah–thank you!

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