Storyboard Collaborative and the Oxford Expedition

Today’s “true story, well told” is a post I wrote for the Association of Personal Historians’ blog. Read about how I came to be headed to Oxford with several other personal historians,on a mission to raise awareness of the importance of saving and sharing our life stories–and just as important, to stretch and grow, to raise my head up from my little corner of the world and look around at what’s going on in other corners.

Read more here–Storyboard Collaborative and the Oxford Expedition.

Main buiding, Mansfield College, Oxford

Photo by Fran Morley

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Sarah Goes to Oxford for “Global Reflections on Narrative” Conference

Next week I leave for a week in England–first visiting Bicester, home of the Association of Personal Historians’ U.K. Regional Coordinator Mike Oke, where we will have an informal gathering and share a meal. Then it’s on to Mansfield College, Oxford, for “Global Reflections on Narrative“, where I and three of my APH colleagues will present a symposium titled “Sharing, Saving, and Studying Life Stories: An American Perspective.” I end with a couple of “mystery days” (nothing scheduled yet) before it’s back to Heathrow and home.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that travel–and writing memoir about past travels–is one of my deepest passions. So you’d better believe I’m thinking about how to capture this trip for later rumination and writing. And yet, the days–and evenings too–will be packed with workshops, group meals, and “inter-disciplinary cross-pollination.”

How do you capture your memories and still have time to enjoy your trip? Follow the advice of Dave Fox, humorist and author of Globejotting: How to Write Extraordinary Travel Journals.

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In a nutshell, I will try to:

  • Speed journal: Write quickly, without judging the quality.
  • Cover the highlights: pick out three or four bits of each day instead of recording a step-by-step account of each day.
  • Write on themes, not activities: pick one topic from the day’s experiences that stands out, then compare and contrast.
  • Play with words: observe, then explore metaphors and similes for what I see, hear, sense.
  • Talk to people: Start conversations. Then observe more than what is said.

That’s just some of the advice I noted as worth keeping in Dave’s sunny little book. You can learn more about Dave–a traveler, tour guide, funny guy–here.

I am looking forward to my first cup of proper British tea since 1983 (the Great Colette and Sarah Bicycle Adventure) and plenty of Brexit brouhaha. Don’t forget to write about YOUR summer vacation!

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The Ballet Class


By Kelly Sauvage Angel

Approaching the doors to the studio, I hesitate for a brief moment, tightening the hood of my down coat against my neck, before entering and making my way up the stairs. It’s my first ballet class in, literally, decades.

As I unzip and hang my outerwear, remove my shoes and don my pink leather ballet slippers, which bear not a scuff, I recognize the instructor from her website and notice, beyond her, a montage of ballet, lyrical and modern dancers grand jetéing their way across the floor.

“Don’t be intimidated,” she offers after introducing herself as Heidi. “This is the company class.”

Ballet Slippers

Indeed, I am able to identify several of the dancers from Juxtaposed, a performance I attended a few weeks prior, before I had grown attached to the notion of reclaiming my long-lost ballerinahood.

Once the lean and supple bodies clear out, a few minutes past the hour, we adult beginners take our places at the barre.

“Any questions from last week?” Heidi waits as attire is adjusted and loosening ponytails are secured. “Okay, then. Watch first. Demi-plié, demi-plié, grand plié and then cambré forward, hinging from the hips and rising with a flat back.” She outlines the progression with minimal prelude. “First, second and fifth. Relevé, turn, then the other side.”

She tends to the music, and I steal a look over my left shoulder and into the mirror. With my faux-hawk and nose ring, I resemble an aging riot grrrl far more than a silken lily.

Yet, before I’m completely lost in reverie, Heidi pads to the center of the room. “And… arms.”

First and second position prove effortless, and fifth seems fine, too, once I adjust the placement of my hips in order to compensate for my 16 millimeter leg-length discrepancy. As the joint knocks into place, I am reminded that I’m not exactly the quintessential physical specimen, given the cadaver tendon holding my knee in place, a relatively recent labral tear, two bulging discs in my cervical spine (in addition to the three herniated in my lumbar region) and a rather impressive bunion.

There’s tremendous freedom in there being little left to lose.

Having worked through the gamut of rond de jambes, developpés and grand battements, we are instructed to choose the appropriate barre height for our stretches. I select the mid-height barre along the windows, facing State Street.

I bring my left arm overhead and lean toward my right leg, placed precariously atop the wooden rod. As I rise, my eyes meet those of a young man shivering in his peacoat at the bus stop, who looks up with interest into the second floor studio windows, lit against the darkness of the mid-winter’s evening. Mind you, back in the day, I was incredibly flexible, I silently inform him. And, don’t you worry, I’ll get there again.

Old Lady Dancing

He lowers his gaze as we move to the center of the room.

Heidi directs her focus upward, toward the ceiling, seeking inspiration. She then moves her feet, trying out patterns. She points, pliés, then lengthens in a relevé passé.

“Okay, point with the right foot, a slight bend in the left knee, up to passé.”

The music begins.

Positioning myself as instructed, I lift onto my right toes and bring my left foot to my right knee. Passé! I teeter, then land with a thunk.

“Other side.”

I set myself up brilliantly. This time, my right knee is bent and my left foot points. Up to passé!

Thunk, thunk.

After several repetitions, Heidi adds a piqué turn. “Passé, piqué, passé, piqué… across the floor. And, ready…”

Ms. Francis, back at Forest Hills Dance Academy in 1978, now likely long dead, would surely have snapped her fingers. I could hear it, still.

By the time I reach the far wall, I acknowledge to myself that a couple glasses of pinot noir could easily have elicited the same dizzying effect without my ever having left the apartment; but, I realize, I’m having way too much fun.

Back and forth we go across the room, each time a bit more polished than the last, until I find myself completing most of the turns with control and some degree of grace.

At the end of the last pass, we all stand with our hands upon our hips, looking through one another, cross-eyed, into the middle-distance, waiting for the room to slow its spinning.

“Okay, back to center.” Heidi leads us through the steps of an elaborate and undeservedly affirming stage bow before rising and, yes, clapping.

“Good job, guys. Nice work.”

I gather my water bottle and hoodie from the window sill and wait a beat in hopes of thanking the instructor.

Then, she approaches me.

“Your barre work is beautiful, Kalyanii. You have a strong pointe.”

“Thank you,” I respond, flattered. “Please, do feel free to offer corrections. I’d like to reclaim whatever semblance of potential I have left.” Always and forever, aspiring to be the teacher’s pet.

“I will. The first day, I aim to get you through the routines without any man-handling. See you next week?”

“Absolutely.”

My smile lingers as I change into my street shoes, slip on my coat and bound down the stairs, into the night.

As I cross State Street and then Gorham, against the light, I do a few calculations. By the age of 92, I’ll have accumulated 50 years of ballet training, not counting my dalliances with dance as a girl.

Thank goodness, I think, I’m starting so young.

A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in literature, Kelly Sauvage Angel is the author of Om Namah… (published under Kalyanii), a collection of poetry, two stage plays, dozens of short stories and hundreds of articles. After surrendering to the healing touch of her massage therapist and downing a couple anti-inflammatories, she most enjoys wiling away her free time manifesting her culinary inspirations and reveling amid the magnificence of nature. Her debut post-adolescent dance performance can be witnessed at this year’s Atwoodfest in Madison, wisconsin.

 

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Book review: “Shimmering Images” by Lisa Dale Norton

In my recent “Flash Memoir” online workshop I was describing the micro-memories at the core of that short-form writing technique. A participant said, “Oh, that sounds like the ‘shimmering images’ Lisa Dale Norton’s book is about.” I liked the sound of that phrase and I purchased the book, hoping it would be revealing about the phenomenon that fuels Flash Memoir–the inexplicable flashes that stick in memory, that momentarily make what’s in the dark visible. (Remember flashbulbs? That burst of light, that popping sound, the super-dark that instantly returned?)

Like flash photography, memories fix people and things in a certain relationship in the frame, preserving that moment for further contemplation. Add to that the “in a flash” speed of reading–or writing–these short pieces, and you have this thing I call Flash Memoir.

That’s what I wanted this book to be about. But it isn’t, not totally.

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This is just another little book with the same advice you’ll find in all the “how to write your memoir” genre that has sprung up. Norton is commendably concise in delivering that advice. That’s what I thought…until page 27, when I encountered chapter 7, “Shimmering Images.” Then I got the gift Norton has for us.

“A shimmering image is one of those memory pictures you’ve had for years….the source of your most potent stories. That’s why I say they shimmer. They have energy….these images flitting into consciousness are stories waiting to happen.”

In about 1000 words she gives us the key to her kingdom, her methodology for unlocking the heart of a story and telling it well. The rest of the book goes back to roughly the same advice you’ll find in any memoir manual… how to start, how to keep going, some craft stuff to make what you produce better.

The middle part of this 112-page book is the meat in a sandwich served with fairly bland bread on either side. Oh, Norton’s good at the colorful metaphor that makes what she’s saying more concrete. Finding your branching points is “going to the mountaintop, looking down on the river.” Structure is a “castle”.  I bet Norton is a really good teacher. I’d like to attend one of her workshops.

Bottom line: If you don’t have more than an inch of “how to write memoir” books on your shelf, by all means go buy this one. I’d put it right up there with Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project for useful advice from a personable teacher.

But don’t let reading how-to books keep you from letting your mind flip through those half-remembered snapshots in memory and see what develops.

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A Childhood Moment

By Rose Osborne

Rose produced this essay in my recent workshop on Flash Memoir for the Association of Personal Historians.

The sky was so vast and blue in my hometown of Parkes, Australia. Mum was very strict when I was a young child of around five years, and on sunny days would usher my younger brother and me outside so our young spirits could soak up the natural environment and soothing air.

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I didn’t mind as the sweet clean country air sent a sense of freedom and exhilaration deep into my soul, a sensation that has stayed with me all my days and becomes activated whenever I visit the country.

My mother cooked three hot meals each day for her growing family in those days. The kitchen produced such a complexity of smells from the casseroles, roasts, cakes and scones that at times, to my child-self, I could not distinguish one smell from the other and the intense moist cooking heat just drowned all my senses.

Apart from being a confusion of odours, Mum’s kitchen was hot, humid and noisy. The noise from the Sunbeam Mixmaster droned out the screeches of the old washing machine thrashing our clothes into a submission of cleanliness and the radio blasted Mum’s favourite songs into her personal hemisphere. Mum would sing along in her sweet but very high pitched singing voice as if this was the hook that ensured she stayed securely perched in her imagined reality.

One day things were a little more chaotic than usual. My brother was obsessed with American cowboy and Indian stories from our newly acquired television. He raced around the house like he was riding a wild Australian brumby stallion over rugged bush terrain, conquering its strength and agility with his own imagination and shooting everything in sight with his toy gun. This day he leaned towards the baby in the high chair as if he was delivering one final fatal shot and the baby screamed one of those high-pitched piercing sounds that only babies can make.

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A tightness rose in my chest that extended itself deep into my very being. I held my ears as if I could physically stop the battleground noises from entering my head. The room spun frantically in unison with the quivering decibels of sound around me but never touched my pounding heart and moist prickly skin. The sensation of feeling like a statue inside a tornado stripped and disempowered me. I felt helpless and alone.

Mum’s self-control broke. With one frantic emotion-charged action, she thrust her trusted worn friend, Mr. Broom, behind my brother’s and my small bottom and physically swept us out the door into the backyard as if we were dust on the shiny linoleum.

I raced for the swing Dad had built me. The swing was mine and mine alone – Dad said. The two upright poles of the swing were tall and straight and reached into the blue expansive sky like they were capable of carrying anyone anywhere. The strong and thick ropes held the little seat that would hold my small frame and I clung to their strength, their furry feel making me feel secure and strong.

The higher the swing reached, the louder I would sing, ‘Que says sera, sera, whatever will be, will be’. My young voice carried into the heavens and captured the essence of tranquillity and my world became soft and peaceful, the air sweet and mesmerising. I looked up into the cloudless sky and thought ‘how beautiful are you, how safe and gentle’.

I pulled myself back and forth until the swing reached even greater heights, my legs stretched forward and backward under me and I was in complete unison with the universe and its symphony orchestra of serenity and calm.

(c) 2016 Rose Osborne.

Rose lives in the beautiful Sutherland Shire of Sydney, NSW, Australia. She runs a medical and health content writing service and a life history writing service, Write My Journey.

 

 

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A Language Problem

By Dorothy Ross

In 1961, many young people were clamoring to join President Kennedy’s newly established Peace Corps. Not I. I took a job as an intern at a stock brokerage on Montgomery Street in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. Like most trainees, I started in the research department.

West Coast financial firms opened early in the morning to be ready when the bell sounded on the New York Stock Exchange. The first hour of the day found everyone in the office nursing steaming coffee mugs while reading the Wall Street Journal.

Dorothy Ross in San Francisco, 1961

Dorothy Ross in San Francisco, 1961

I was expected to memorize the stock ticker symbols of all the Blue Chips on the Dow, beginning with ATT. And I had to get used to hearing stock prices quoted in eighths. Did you know that one-eighth of a dollar is twelve-and-a-half cents? Quick now, how much is seven-eighths? It isn’t easy, is it? The Dow switched to the decimal system around the year two thousand. Stocks had traded in multiples of eight for more than two centuries. The research librarian told me the units were based on the silver “pieces of eight” of Spanish colonial times. Interesting, but it didn’t help me to remember eighty-seven-and-a-half.

The research department had no desktop computers, of course. The data on profit and loss, price-earnings ratios, dividends and yields, was all listed in big Standard and Poor’s directories–endless columns of numbers in fine print. I had always loved research, but not that kind of research.

And then there was the language problem. I had worked hard to eliminate my Bronx accent, replacing it with a manner of speaking that sounded vaguely British. Some people in California had trouble understanding me. And, I struggled to decipher their West Coast vowels.

I said app-ricot — they said ape-ricot

I said Nevahda — they said Nevaadda.

Even my name was a problem. I was used to hearing Darathy — they called me Doorthy.

I was living the old Gershwin tune. I wasn’t ready to call the whole thing off, but I did have some comical encounters before I came to terms with the regional differences.

A customer called the office requesting information on “Organ Power.” At least that’s what I thought he said. I assumed they were Wurlitzer competitors, manufacturers of electric organs, but I couldn’t find anything under that name. I went back to the phone and told the gentleman there was no such company listed on the exchange.

“Young lady,” he said, “I’ve held their stock for many years. Look again.” “Can you spell it for me?” I asked.

Very slowly and distinctly, like a cheerleader with a megaphone, he spelled out, “O-r-e-g-o-n.”

“Oh,” I said. “You mean Ar-a-gone.” I pronounced that state’s name in three distinct syllables.

The man laughed and said. “You must be new here, Doorthy.”

(c) 2016 Dorothy Ross

Dorothy Ross 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 now volunteers with her local PD community, organizing events and writing about the challenges of living with that condition. 

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A shout-out to “Creative Nonfiction” for “Picturing the Personal Essay”

Creative Nonfiction is the clubhouse where the cool kids hang out–a virtual place for people like us, who value true stories well told.

They “pursue educational and publishing initiatives in the genre of literary nonfiction,” to quote their About page, via a magazine, publishing imprint, annual conference, writing contests, and more. I subscribe to their magazine, and every issue is a treasure…a beautiful, tactile, ink-on-paper, reminder that writing well is a goal worth working hard for.

Trolling their archives recently I came across “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide” by Tim Bascom, which originally appeared in  Issue #49, Summer 2013.

If your writing is feeling a little like this–

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And you’d like to learn how to give it more of a feeling of structure, like this…

stairs

or,

whorlsor, maybe loops

then here you go. Read Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide. Comment here. Let’s discuss.

 

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