My Last Car

Dorothy Ross, whose writing has appeared on True Stories Well Told before, sent me this story to accompany her recent essay, “My First Car.”

In 1987 my husband found a new-used Mercedes diesel station wagon for sale and convinced me that it would be a good car for me to drive on the California freeways—safe and solid. I had buyer’s remorse almost immediately. I didn’t like searching for stations that sold diesel—they were mostly truck stops—and I hated pumping that smelly, oily fuel. And then there was the noisy chug-chug of the diesel engine that made me feel like I was driving a truck.

I just didn’t see myself as a Mercedes type of driver. Too showy and too foreign. In the lace curtain Irish neighborhood in the Bronx where I grew up, folks drove Detroit cars like Ford and Chevy, not high-end German autobahn vehicles. If I showed up behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz, they’d laugh me off the block.

But the wagon was bought and paid for so I drove it—for more than thirty years and over 300,000 miles. Because we’ve lived in the same town all those years, I’ve come to be associated with my car. When my friends see the old burgundy Benz in the parking lot at the library, they know they’ll find me in the stacks.

I can’t say when I learned to love my unique and reliable wagon, but I did. And it turned out Bill was right. When I drove around Northern California in my red wagon, I felt like I was riding in a tank—safe and secure. I drove it up to Seattle to visit a friend, and down to Tucson to see my cousin. Somewhere along the way I started calling my car Betsy. Bill and I often return to the car and find notes on the windshield from people offering to buy the classic wagon.

When our granddaughter turned sixteen, we gave her the Benz because we wanted her to drive an armored car on the highways with the big trucks and SUVs whizzing by. Elly thanked us without any real enthusiasm. She hated the bulbous wagon as much as I had when it was new to me. And I wasn’t too happy with the fancy car we bought to replace it. So her parents let her choose her own car, and I got Betsy back in my garage.

We still own the car, and though I no longer drive due to health concerns, I’ve been having a hard time parting with the old girl. But guess what? Elly has had a change of heart regarding the red wagon. Ten years after turning it down as a teenager, she and her husband would like to have the Mercedes for running around town and taking their dog to the beach. I’m happy to report that we’ll be keeping Betsy in the family.

© 2017 Dorothy Ross

Dorothy is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving west in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California she served as an editor and program director. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, she often writes about the challenges of living with that condition.

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

Ariel Levy: “The Rules Do Not Apply”

Once in a blue moon the stars align to allow me to read a book practically uninterrupted from first page to last. Usually it requires a long airplane flight to grant me that bubble of space/time I can disappear into, like (I Dream of) Jeannie into her bottle, and nestle there with nothing but a book.

For some reason last weekend was a quiet one. I spent it with Ariel Levy, coming along on her quest to “have it all” in her 2017 memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, starting Saturday evening after picking it up at the library and ending Monday morning over coffee in bed.

Ariel Levy’s memoir centers on the struggle between her career and personal ambitions that culminated in giving premature birth in a Mongolian hotel room at Thanksgiving, 2012. The baby lived only a few hours.  In the aftermath of that tragedy, Ariel saw the rest of her life come apart like fragments of that Jeannie’s bottle, shattered.

One paragraph sums up the clockwork that puts this tragedy in motion:

I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.

Levy’s memoir of a white, privileged, feminist 30-something woman’s experience follows normal desires through the looking glass into gay and trans relationships where normalcy is, perhaps, even more sweet, and into professional newsrooms where, for an ambitious young woman, recognition and advancement is also addictively sweet.

Levy is a journalist and her writing has both the strengths and weaknesses of that trade-turned-profession. She writes with clarity and confidence, and turns an unsparing eye on herself as well as others. She does what I’ve always hated about journalism since my days in J101 at Indiana University: sticks the microphone in the tragic victim’s face and asks “how does it feel?” Even when that face is hers.

And yet. In spite of herself, Levy comes across as an unreliable narrator, whose life choices made me squirm, even as she castigated herself for those choices. The unsparing eye can distort even as it regards. The last time I felt this combination of “squick” and “must keep reading” was when I read Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia.

Back to Ariel Levy: Two quotes sum up the push and pull of this sad, true, story. She closes her preface with this reflection: “People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.” Much later, she interviews Maureen Dowd, who tells her, “Not everybody gets everything.”

Levy’s use of language is wonderful, as one might expect of a writer for the New Yorker. Better yet, she found a good structure for this book, and a delightful (IMHO, not everyone on GoodReads agrees) way to end it–not easy for a mid-life memoir. When young (ish) people write memoirs, necessarily, the book ends before the life chronicled winds down. She gives her story three endings, in which she fantasizes about what happens next, leaving you to choose and hope too.

I’ll close with this quote from “Esil” on GoodReads: “I’m not sure I would recommend this so much because of the story Levy has to tell, but more because of how she tells her story.”

Have you read The Rules Do Not Apply? What did you think?

  • Sarah White



Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

My First Car

Dorothy Ross, whose writing has appeared on True Stories Well Told before, sent me this story after reading about my first car, The Pinto.

By Dorothy Ross

When I was a teenager, I didn’t need a car. I rode buses to school and to my Saturday job at Woolworth’s. I could count on the boys to arrange transportation for dates. I was twenty-two years old when I bought my first car, a used convertible.

My turquoise and vanilla Plymouth stood at the curb for weeks. Before I could use it, I had to get a driver’s license. I signed up for lessons and spent Saturday mornings driving cautiously around Yonkers in the care of an instructor. It was reassuring that he had a second set of controls, so he could stop the car if I goofed. This was in the days of short, tight skirts. The man couldn’t hide his amusement at my tendency to drive with my knees pressed together while tugging my hemline down around my thighs. “Good thing you don’t have to shift gears,” he laughed. “I guess that’s why all you modest girls drive automatics.”

The inspector at the Motor Vehicle office was an older man who never cracked a smile. He made me so nervous during the road test that I made stupid mistakes. He marked me down for relying on my mirrors instead of craning my neck to check my blind spot, and he complained a couple of times that I wasn’t leaving enough space between my car and the vehicle ahead of me. I bumped over the curb when I attempted a three-point turn, and then stopped more than two feet from the sidewalk when he told me to park parallel. I thought I’d failed, but that soft-hearted sourpuss passed me—just barely.

Cruising around the North Bronx and Westchester County on weekends, with the top down and my hair blowing in the wind, I felt like a movie star— a regular Marilyn Monroe. I named my sweet car Daisy, after the girl in The Great Gatsby.

Most of my Daisy days were pure fun, driving out to Jones Beach or exploring shopping malls with my friends. I did have one scary incident, though.

I was invited to a party on Manhattan’s upper East Side on a warm summer evening. Around midnight, before beginning the drive to my parents’ house, I foolishly put the top down. I was enjoying the balmy night until I realized that I wasn’t on the East Side Drive any more. I was lost.

The only people on the city streets at that time of night were small groups of loud and scruffy-looking young men. Having recently seen West Side Story on Broadway, I decided the guys on the street corners were gang members. I didn’t know what to do, which way to turn. I was scared.

Stopped at a red light, I glanced down the cross street and spied the two green lanterns that hung outside of all New York City police stations. Confident that New York’s Finest would help me find my way, I turned left and pulled up in front of the precinct house where several of the “boys in blue” lingered on the front steps smoking cigarettes.

They looked at me—and they all started laughing. I could tell I was the butt of the joke, but I had no idea what was so funny. Then one of them pointed up at a street sign— ONE WAY— it read, with an arrow pointing east. My car was headed west. I had been driving the wrong way on a one-way street. And that’s not all. I was parked in front of a police station—in a NO PARKING zone.

One of the cops sauntered over and leaned on my car door. “Are you lost, little girl?” he asked, like he was talking to a four-year-old. His buddies egged him on with whistles and cat-calls. I had brothers who teased me like that. I knew they were just kidding.

When they stopped chuckling, and convinced themselves I was sober enough to drive, a couple of the young patrolmen secured my car’s rag top and made sure I had plenty of gas. They told me to roll up the windows, lock the doors and follow their squad car. I stayed close behind those flashing lights until we came to an entrance to the East Side Drive. Then the patrol car pulled over and stopped, and the guys waved me by.

* * *


The watchmen who patrolled New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the 17th century, carried lanterns at night with green glass sides in them as a means of identification. When the men returned to the watch house, they hung the lanterns by the entrances as a symbol that the “watch” was still present and ever vigilant. That tradition continues to this day, mostly on police station houses in the northeastern states.

© 2017 Dorothy Ross

Dorothy is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving west in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California she served as an editor and program director. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, she often writes about the challenges of living with that condition.

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Book Review: “Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life”

Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May, is a collection of fourteen essays by people who dance in the no-man’s-land between History and Memoir. The fictional character Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” and this collection is like that. Some are going to be truffleicious and some are going to turn out to be that weird fake cherry cordial flavor.

Contributors include Andre Aciman, Matt Becker, June Cross, Carlos Eire, Helen Epstein, Samuel G Freedman, Patricia Hampl, Fenton Johnson, Alice Kaplan, Annette Kobak, Michael MacDonald, Elaine Tyler May, Cheri Register, and D. J. Waldie. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the author’s memoir, followed by an essay musing on some aspect of writing creative nonfiction. This makes Tell Me True a useful sampler to guide your memoir reading list: if you like the flavor of the excerpt, make a mental note to get the book.

The book came about as a result of a 2007 University of Minnesota conference called ‘Who’s Got the Story–Memoir as History/History as Memoir.’ As a collection, it is necessarily uneven–just as somewhere there’s somebody who goes through the Whitman’s box hoping to find the cherry cordial, somebody is going to love essays in Tell Me True that left me cold. I found myself most drawn to the chapters by the editors of the book, memoirist Patricia Hampl and American Studies professor Elaine Tyler May, and chapters by Cheri Register and Helen Epstein.

Here are some nuggets (or nougats, to flog my metaphor):

Helen Epstein, “Coming to Memoir as a Journalist,” with an excerpt from Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History:

“We journalists did not traffic in useless, self-indulgent fantasy. We did research, made acute observations, investigated records, asked probing questions, got the facts. After this proactive work, in the writing itself, we were to erase all trace of ourselves… But I couldn’t remain impervious to the counterculture and new political movements of the 1960s….I realized that the objective journalism I had so idealistically and naively embraced was in fact riddled with prejudice about what was fit to print…. I was becoming aware that we all perceive events–public and private–through the double prism of our culture and personal experiences, and it resonates in multiple echo chambers of memory. Unlike journalism, which demands that reporters ignore or subsume that subjective reality, memoir encourages writers to plumb it.”

Patricia Hampl: “You’re History,” with an excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter:

“I finally understood my job as the classically writerly one–to be an observer–not only of what I saw, but of what I was thinking….”

“You write the books that won’t go away until they’re written.”

Elaine Tyler May, a historian by training, mines court records and other public documents to find mini-memoirs which she compiles into social histories. Her feminist perspective informs  “Confessions of a Memoir  Thief,” paired with an excerpt from Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. 

“History and memory are both interpretive arts. Both genres use carefully selected fragments of the past–memories, documents, events–to tell a story. … Both [historians and memoirists] write creative nonfiction… but the two genres diverge around viewpoint. Memoir is expressed in the first person, showing a particular life in a particular context. History is told in the third person, generalizing from many particular stories in an attempt to crate a larger narrative about change over time.”

“I have built my career on the memoirs of others.”

Cheri Register: “Memoir Matters,” with an excerpt from Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir:

“Without deliberate attention to context, memoir can indeed fail to convey much meaning. What would Angela’s Ashes be without the crowded lanes of Limerick, or The Liar’s Club without the Texas Gulf Coast oil rigs? … the surest way for memoirists to win readers’ interest and empathy is to locate their personal stories in a public space.”

If these essays/authors have anything in common, it is a theme of American individualism versus our longing for connection–a sense that when we share our individual stories in the genre of memoir, we generate feelings of connection across vast differences in time, geography, and life experience. Indeed, the rising interest in memoir occurred more or less in sync with the decline of social connection (see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone etc.)

At the end of the day, Tell Me True falls short of delivering an experience like I imagine attending the original U. of Minnesota conference was. I so badly wanted to raise my hand, chime in, or at least hear Q&A between the audience and the panelists.

Reading one essay after the other was too much like eating a whole box of chocolates. Tell Me True would work splendidly as a text for a memoir writers’ discussion group. Each bon bon was tasty; each left me eager for more, but hungrier still for connection with other memoir writers with whom to discuss it.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

The Pinto

In this season of giving thanks, I offer this short essay I wrote nearly a decade ago about a gift that kept on giving. I often use this as a teaching story in my workshops, asking “with whom do you sympathize? From whose point of view do you see this story?”

The Pinto

In 1978 I graduated from college. As a reward, my parents offered to help me buy a car. In fact, they had a suitable car already picked out for me—a Ford Pinto station wagon with low miles, waiting at a dealership north of Indianapolis. They would pay the down payment and I would handle the monthly payments of $90 until the car was paid off—a matter of some two years, to cover its $2400 purchase price plus interest.

We went to look at it—and I recoiled in horror. Low-slung and ovoid, it looked like a Bic lighter on wheels. From the moment I first saw it, I had visions of myself trying to maneuver bags of groceries and a toddler into and out of its cramped back seat. Becoming a suburban mom with toddlers and groceries was not in my plan. Rather, I intended to move to Madison, Wisconsin, a destination I had picked for its reputation as a hip college town. That car and I were pulling in two different directions. The price was right and I accepted it, but I never learned to like it even a little bit. Approaching it in a parking lot, I would see that spirit of a suburban mom, hear the ghost-whine of her toddler, feel her spectral exasperation with that vile car.

After a short time in Madison, I realized I would need more training to compete for the jobs I wanted. I enrolled in a local technical school’s commercial art program and took a part time job. I told my parents I intended to sell the Pinto—I couldn’t afford the payments while in school. They encouraged me to return the car to them rather than sell. They offered me $600 for it, and I agreed. I drove it back to Indianapolis and returned to Madison on the Greyhound bus.

Two years later I finished my commercial art course, got a job I loved at the Isthmus newspaper, and met the man for me. We announced our plans to marry.

“That’s wonderful,” my mother exclaimed. “For your present, we’ll give you either a wedding, or a car. Which would you like?”

“A car!” I replied. I had no interest in a fancy wedding, and I had just spent two years riding the bus.

In June of 1983 Jim and I were married by a Justice of the Peace, and celebrated with a reception in Orton Park. My parents arrived from Indianapolis in two cars—one driving their blue Chevy and the other my new car—that damn Pinto wagon!

I would never have agreed to the “wedding car” if I had known that was their plan. But what could I say? “Thank you” would have to do.

© 2017 Sarah White

As I mentioned at the beginning, I ask, “with whom do you sympathize? From whose point of view do you see this story?” Some people see me as a most ungrateful girl. Others say my parents just didn’t “get” me. It’s a reminder that however you see your story, others–including those in it–will see it through the lens of their own values and life experience.

This story comes to mind because my mother is planning to move to a senior community in Madison soon. She says, “I’ll buy you a new car.” (She doesn’t find my Jetta comfortable or easy to get in and out of.) “That way I can make you take me places.” ) I wonder what new parental car story I will be gifted with….

Posted in Sarah's memoir, writing workshop | 1 Comment

Halifax: From Belonging to Self-Actualization

continued from Climbing Maslow’s Pyramid in Halifax

With my dorm room and food supplies secured, I could begin to seek fulfillment of my higher needs: belonging, esteem, even self-actualization.


I learned about the University of King’s College masters’ program in Creative Nonfiction at a conference in Oxford, England, in July 2016. Now, just over a year later, I was enrolled in the MFA program and about to meet my fellow students.

I came down from my dorm room to the lobby seating area of Alexandra Hall a little early for the welcome barbecue hosted by the U-Kings president because I figured my fellow students might do so as well. I hoped I would recognize a few friendly faces from the meet-and-greet I attended in Toronto last November.

I had crammed for this moment by poring over the biographical sketches we were required to submit earlier this summer—a paragraph about ourselves, a paragraph about our book projects. (Each MFA student develops a book idea over the course of the 2-year program.) I had created a scatterplot chart as I studied the 28 students. Being nearly face-blind, I hoped this crutch would help me coordinate the rush of first impressions about to wash over me. I studied it again before coming downstairs. And sure enough, they were there. I began introducing myself, using the shorthand I had devised—“Hi, I’m Sarah, writing on collard greens. And you?” “I’m Rose, Herman Hesse.” “I’m Gwen. Murderers.” She rolled those Rs with a satisfyingly Scottish burr.

Alexandra Hall, University of King’s College campus

“Writers should wear bells around their necks, as lepers once did, to warn people of their presence,” wrote novelist Nicolas Freeleng. These students didn’t ask to be in my memoir, and faculty advised us to respect the confidentiality of the school program, so that’s as far as I will go as I exploit these characters for my own purposes. From here on, I’ll generalize.

We were like the travelers in the Canterbury Tales—a random mix on pilgrimage to our Halifax shrine of knowledge, telling our tales to each other in a contest to win approval and some day, a book contract. The Canterbury Tales characters are said to be a satire of the three estates of church, nobility, and peasantry. For us, those three estates could be the young, the mid-career, and the retiree. Picture us if you will:

  • Young students fresh from or a few years out of school, eager to memorialize a coming of age experience or the vanishing culture of their childhood;
  • Working professionals yearning to launch a switch or upgrade to their careers through writing a book;
  • Retirees attacking the bucket list goal of becoming a writer, chasing to ground a pet topic, reminiscing about a life experience, or finally turning that youthful masters’ thesis into the book they’d always intended.

More than two out of three intended to write some form of memoir or autobiography.

Class of 2019, Sarah in orange top, front right

About a third of our class time in the first week was devoted to hearing each other’s book pitches. This was a strategy both to acquaint us with each other and also to give us practice at articulating our book ideas. The packed auditorium-style classroom grew warm, and the pitch period came in the afternoon, as our collective energy was drooping. I could tell when my fellow students lost their ability to focus by the way they started commenting on the content of the story presented, rather than the quality of the pitch. It’s like when I say I’m interested in life stories and people start telling me a story from their life, rather than asking about life story work. We’re humans—we always go to the story. I gave my pitch in the middle of the middle day of the sessions.

I started with my book’s hook, then described my audience, my qualifications, my intention to co-author the book to develop my ghostwriting skills. I am the first person in the four years this program has existed to come with the intent of writing someone else’s book. From the applause I felt I’d knocked the pitch out of the park. But by the end of the last day of pitching, I felt a thin crack of isolation begin to creep across the surface of my social interactions. I was one of only two people writing a business book, and the only one whose “I” was not actually him- or herself but another protagonist. I became a bit less intriguing to my fellow students.


I had one more opportunity to capture the group’s attention. Two evenings in the second week were dedicated to micro-readings by students in the university pub. I signed up for a reading slot on the first night, choosing a piece from my blog titled “Getting My Mantra” because it described a college experience, and it conveyed a moral lesson about not cheating.

I practiced assiduously for days, repeatedly recording myself reading it aloud on my phone, then walking around campus listening, critiquing and tweaking my performance. That night my reading brought a huge round of applause and a corresponding rush of endorphins. I stayed on drinking beer with my fellow students and faculty until the last pitcher was drained. I couldn’t sleep for hours, so buzzed was I on the approval of my tribe.

And that was the end of that. With each passing day, the memoirists became more narcissistic, stuffed like foie gras geese on advice and encouragement about their projects. The momentary adulation of my “Mantra” performance disappeared without a ripple into our collectively accumulating self-importance.

The program ended with a marvelously Harry Potter-like ceremony called Matriculation. We wore academic robes to shake hands with the deans of the school and have our names inscribed in a 270-year-old book.

Sarah “matriculates” into the U-Kings 2019 student cohort.

I was riding pretty high on Maslow’s pyramid at this point. Inhabiting a little campus with 50 or more people who care as much as I do about storytelling is indeed an experience of love and belonging. With the right cues, repeating Latin incantations with academics in funny robes and hats can feel a lot like self-actualization.

I checked out of my dorm room that weekend, scribbling a list of what I’ll bring next time, starting with emergency rations and a camp cook set. Climbing Maslow’s pyramid was done for the year: now I had to start writing my book.

© 2017 Sarah White

Posted in Sarah's memoir | Leave a comment

Brief but Wonderful

In a time-starved world, it feels wonderful when we have the opportunity to really slow down and delve into something, whether it’s spending an afternoon reading for pleasure, or wandering the halls of an art museum, or lingering over a lunch that turns into cocktails with a friend. Oh dream on, when was the last time I did any of those things? Since starting grad school, “brief but wonderful” has become more important to me than ever!

I’m becoming an even bigger fan of flash memoir–that wonderful distillation of memories into their essence of emotional and factual truth–and more in love with the red pen of ruthless editing, as ably demonstrated in a blog post on Brevity.

Regarding flash memoir: I have a class starting in Madison next week through Wheelhouse. Two sessions, Tuesday November 14 and 21, 7-9pm at Union South. Description and registration link  on the Wheelhouse website, here. There’s parking under the building, so for a couple of cold winter evenings, it’s a good choice!

Regarding Brevity: I have recently discovered this flash-memoir online publication curated by the great Dinty W. Moore of Creative Nonfiction  (I’m referring to the magazine and writing center at University of Pittsburgh by that name). For a look at the editing process check out this recent guest post on “Attaining Brevity” by Allison K. Williams. She recommends an old-school process of printing out your draft and scissoring it up, then retyping, that reminds me of how my journalist parents taught me to write papers in high school. It worked then, and it still works.

So–if your world is as time-starved as mine,”go small” with me by taking a few minutes to read Allison’s post or a few evenings to work on writing flash memoir.

Sarah White

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