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Twenty years ago this Friday, I went out for a meal to celebrate my birthday with my family. My eighteen year old had graduated from high school that spring and was looking forward to starting college. My two other children had just started their new school year in 4th and 7th Grade.
We enjoyed a light-hearted and happy evening together.
The next morning the phone rang early. My default was oh no. A thud of dread. When you live in California and your relatives are in England, that ring at that hour will do that.
It was my mother-in-law calling from Los Angeles, panic high her voice.
‘Have you heard the news?’
‘Put CNN on, a plane’s crashed into the World Trade Centre.’
A what? Where? I’m not a morning person. Her words jumbled around my foggy brain.
It was a school morning, but with time to spare before rousing the children. I padded over to the living room, clicked the remote and turned on the TV.
Breaking news from New York flashed across the screen. A reporter was interviewing a firefighter, smoke and flames billowing in the distance. A plane had crashed into the North Tower. I barely had time to register this unimaginable disaster as what sounded like another plane in the background, the engine hum growing louder. It sounded low, too low. Something about it…something ominous. There, in full view on the screen, flying towards the South Tower.
My God, it’s going in…
One might be an accident. But two? Two is an attack.
My hands flew to my mouth. My audible gasp brought my children running. Their world, our world, forever changed. I sunk into the sofa, overcome by what next. And with wide-eyed horror we watched the unthinkable when one tower, then the other, collapsed.
The phone rang again. This time it was my mother calling to wish me a belated happy birthday, as arranged. It was afternoon in the UK, she had been out with a friend and hadn’t heard the news. I broke it to her.
Then I remembered; my brother worked for Virgin Airlines and was piloting a Boeing 747 from Gatwick in London to Orlando, Florida that day. Families with children heading excitedly to Disneyworld.
We figured he was probably half way there by then. Concern for his whereabouts and safety dominated our conversation.
We had no contact after that phone call for three days. Our phone lines and internet went down, I was cut off from them all. All I could do was hope and pray that my brother, his crew, and passengers were all safe.
When communication was restored, he called me and relayed his story.
He got the call from air traffic control not to enter US airspace under any circumstances. He was not told why, only that he should divert to Canada. He gleaned from London what had happened, and factoring in the amount of fuel they had left, made the immediate decision to turn the plane around and fly back to Gatwick.
Nobody knew what other attacks might be forthcoming. His primary concern was to get everyone safely back home. And that’s exactly what he did.
Turn off satellite communications on board and keep everyone calm, he instructed the crew. If passengers got wind of what was going on in New York, they might panic. Children cried and parents demanded an explanation, but a riot was averted,
Once back on British soil, he gave an announcement to his passengers. Relief and gratitude swept over them. Their holidays at Disneyworld would have to wait. It wasn’t important right now.
But that day took its toll on my brother. I saw a change in him, after 9/11.
I emigrated from the UK to the US in 1986. For many years, handwritten letters were my main form of communication with my family. There were no international calling plans, the internet, emails and face-time. Twenty years since 9/11 and my experience is meagre in comparison to the incalculable carnage and tragedy suffered by too many. Yet, those three days cut off from my family not having any news of my brother is something I’ll never forget.
It is always the not knowing that is the worst, I find.
The two decades I lived in California seem fleeting now. That birthday dinner was long ago, yet my children remember it clearly because of the day after. We all live in the UK now.
To say I am grateful spending my upcoming birthday with them is an understatement.
Sherri’s non-fiction, flash fiction and poetry are published in magazines, anthologies and online at her blog. As a young mum of three, she emigrated from the UK to California and stayed for twenty years. Today she lives in England’s West Country with her family and two beautiful black kitties. Her 2021 entry to Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize was shortlisted and also received a special mention at Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. She is working hard to bring her debut memoir to publication.
By Irene Waters
She Did It was the prompt for the memoir ride in the Rodeo.
The four judges were given a judging sheet: was it a complete story, grammar, and spelling, structure, use of language, adherence to memoir rules (not accusing, showing the bad- not telling, reflection and was it believable) and then a subjective score worth 35% of the marks.
I couldn’t have asked for better judges with Helen, Angie, Gil and myself all being diligent in reading and evaluating the pieces.
Reading memoir is quite different from reading fiction. As a reader of memoir, you have a pact with the writer that you will believe the facts being told and this, makes the focus of your reading change. You read to gain understanding, to see how someone has coped and how it has changed their life. Memoir also touches our emotions and shows us ways of dealing with our own condition. It may give the inarticulate a way of both expressing how they feel whilst showing them that they are not alone. One memoir will affect multiple readers differently and the same reader differently at different points in their lives.
All the entries were of a good standard. Only one was disqualified as it went under the word limit of 99 words. A number of entries did not give their work a title, or they called it the prompt “she did it.” A tip for future competition entries – give your work a title. It isn’t counted in the word count, and it is a chance to impart some additional information to your reader and makes it easier for the judges when collating the results.
We were impressed by entries that put you in the scene with wonderful description such as Rebecca Cunningham’s: “Twenty-nine anemic Earl Grey tea bags sat dried to the top lip of the sink” – I have lived in that place. Sherri Matthew’s: “For weeks I searched for him in the crowd until one Sunday, I found him.” What woman doesn’t relate to this? Nez Hewitt’s anxiety of returning home from vacation fearful that her dog would no longer love her. Again, I relate – I too have had those worries. There were humorous entries, emotive entries, topical entries and all had great merit. One, however, stood out and takes the first place prize.
Because That’s How Things Were Done Back Then.
Because boys can’t help it? Because she let him? Because of Babycham? I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know what ‘it’ is.
Because “You made your bed, now lie in it!” Because the neighbours. Because abortion’s a sin. My friends think the wedding’s at eleven but it’s really half past three.
Because my mother’s smile is wooden. Because I hate hairspray. Because my auntie caught me faking bellyache, I shuffle behind my sister to the altar steps.
Because I’m not allowed to question. Because weddings need bridesmaids. Because hypocrisy’s the shotgun that slays my parents’ shame.
This entry was my first choice, equal first for another judge, third for another and rated well with the other. Angie Oakley wrote, “A great deal covered, powerful use of repetition, no wastage, and much said about culture, and the way lives were ruined.”
Gil Hinsby said, “I really like this one and the structure and style of writing made it interesting but needed second reading. It probably would have been a better flow without the line My friends think the wedding……….marked it down for that and still got top three.”
I particularly like the reflection of why things were done in a past time. There was no condemnation – it was just the way it was. The repetition of ‘because’ was powerful and the imagery evoked of the child who didn’t want to be bridesmaid was vivid.
Congratulations Anne Goodwin. $25 is coming your way.
In second place was
His angry words still rang in her ears as she climbed the unfamiliar staircase:
“Come one step closer and I’ll punch you in the face.”
She had heard these words before but had always swept them and the apologies and promises under one of the many rugs in their beautiful home.
This time, however, they had drilled a deep hole into her heart and the last dribbles of love she felt for him were seeping onto the bare floorboards of this tiny apartment.
“When can I move in?” she stammered softly.
“Whenever you like, madam.”
“Now. Right now, please.”
Helen said, “This was an emotive piece. I felt for the abused and it evoked admiration for the actions she took. Felt her desperation through the use of expressive language.” I loved the sentence starting “this time….”
Angie said, “Strong ideas, economically expressed.”
Congratulations Juliet Nubel who wins the e-book of The Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1.
In third place was
Red Sky at Morning
She stood by last night’s bonfire. Flames leapt high, our drunken faces and dancing limbs in hideous relief, like Dante’s inferno on the shore of this northern bay.
Driftwood burns to cool embers. We flee to our tents to couple, or sleep it off.
Night shifts, heavy indigo to thin green, cool breeze shredding night to red dawn.
She slips off her shoes, shucks off sweatshirt and jeans, no zip cracks the morning silence. Wasted thin by her disease, she steps into the water to die on her own terms. She did that.
That part I want to remember.
Angie said, “A great deal said in few words, and some beautiful language choices. “Night shifts…red dawn. Consistent and powerful voice. Well structured.”
I loved the language choices and the high definition scene that was painted. I was unprepared for the sadness at the end which made it all the more poignant.
Congratulations Liz Husebye Hartmann who wins the e-book of The Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1.
I would love to mention every single piece and hope you will read them at Rodeo #2: Memoir. I will, however, end with each judge’s own personal favourite.
Helen had two that she rated highly – Changing worlds by Saifun Hassam for the wonderful last line that packed a punch and Tasters Choice by Jules Paige for its poetic qualities.
Angie Announcing the Marriage by Geoff Le Pard because “Lots of ground covered economically. Showing, not telling yet making a deeper connection with the way women’s choices were limited by the culture and the circumstances. Original.”
For Gil My Aunt Remembered by Nancy Brady, Showtime by Kerry E.B. Black and Because (our first place recipient) were the ones Gil chose because “What these have in common was they all felt real, emotional and complete. They really told a whole story in so few words, resonated with me, the characters came to life, the stories showed emotion and had some lovely lines.” As for me, I found something to commend in each and every entry.
Congratulations to all entrants. It was an honour and a pleasure to read all your entries. Thank you to my committed judges. It was a pleasure working with you and finally a big thank you to Charli for hosting the rodeo for the second year. We look forward to next year’s event.
By Irene Waters, Rodeo Leader
Memoir is a passion, so I’m thrilled to once again host the memoir section of the Carrot Ranch Rodeo Contest. Hoping you’ll tighten your saddles and put on your spurs and join in. [READ MORE…]
Last year we had Scars – this year?
“She Did It.”
Three little words can hold so much meaning and have so many stories that come to mind. For the memoir prompt “She Did It” write a true story or a BOTS (based on a true story) keeping in mind the tips on writing memoir.
- Every entry must be 99 words, no more, no less. You can have a title outside that limit. Check your word count using the net as this will be the one I use to check the entries. Entries that aren’t 99 words will be disqualified.
- The genre is memoir although BOTS (based on a true story) will be accepted.
- English grammar and spelling (American, English or Australian) are expected, but as long as the judges can understand the language, it is the story that matters most.
- And it must be a story — that is it must be complete by itself not a part of a larger narrative. Give it a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- The prompt is a prompt, and the three words don’t have to be used in your 99 words unless you want to.
- You must enter your name and email with your entry using the provided form below. If you do not receive an acknowledgment by email, contact us at email@example.com.
- Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST on October 17, 2018. Entries are judged blind, and winners announced November 16, 2018, at Carrot Ranch. Please do not compromise the blind judging by posting your entry before the winners are announced.
- You may post a “challenge” if you don’t want to enter the contest, but don’t use the form to enter the contest. Only contest entries will be published.
Above all have fun.
JUDGES (read full bios at SPONSORS)
THANK YOU FOR YOUR ENTRIES! CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED!
This past year, Irene Waters has led us in thoughtful discussions of what memoir is as a genre. You can search her essays at Carrot Ranch under “Times Past.” Irene is one of several talented memoirists who also write flash fiction, and has published an essay in The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1 about writing across both genres.
With the Rodeo coming up in October, it’s a good time to mention what we consider “flash fiction” at Carrot Ranch. Weekly, we write 99 words, no more, no less. TUFF includes the ability to free-write, master the constraints of 99-words, 59-words, and 9-words, and to revise those constrained pieces into a polished story less than 1,000 words. Therefore, “flash” represents a shortened word count.
“Fiction” stands broadly for any kind of creative writing. Flash fiction can be any genre intended for any audience. It can be based on a true story (BOTS), an observation, a memory, an experience. Fiction is a general term that covers a variety of techniques, including dialogue, exaggeration, story-telling structures. While fiction covers imaginary people or events, writers are welcome to base their stories on true events, too from history to memoir. What matters is the art a writer creates with words.
To further discuss differences between genres is for another post. Suffice to say that Irene Waters often leads us in those discussions. And she’s going to lead us once again in a flash memoir contest for the 2018 Flash Fiction Rodeo. I’ll turn it over to her to give you all some tips and a what to expect from her and her judges.
RODEO #2: MEMOIR
Contest runs October 10-17
By Irene Waters, Rodeo Leader
Memoir is a passion, so I’m thrilled to once again host the memoir section of the Carrot Ranch Rodeo Contest. Hoping you’ll tighten your saddles and put on your spurs and join in. Last year we had Scars – this year? –make sure that you check in at the Ranch on October 10th when the topic will be revealed. I’m looking forward to reading your 99-word entries that tell a full story on the prompt topic. This can be a happy memory, a sad memory or a wherever the prompt takes your memory. It should be a true story given that this is a memoir contest.
Tips for the contest can be found in the memoir articles I have been writing for Charli over the last few months. Particularly pay attention to “dealing with others,” and consider using dialogue and high definition description.
I will be joined by fellow judges Angie Oakley who returns to again take the reigns and Helen Stromquist.
Angie Oakley. Originally from London, Angie moved around a great deal and worked as an English teacher in schools as far apart as Nassau in the Bahamas and Daylesford in country Victoria. She now lives in Noosa, which she finds a lovely place in which to do the things she loves: writing, reading, thinking, talking, and walking and skyping her far-flung family. She’s written a couple of novels, lots of articles and is always interested in the work of other writers. As well she has been known to offer her thoughts in a blog at http://spryandretiring.wordpress.com
Helen Stromquist. After finishing her nursing training in Brisbane, Helen worked in London where she met her husband which saw her living in Sweden for many years before eventually returning to Australia. Helen loves the arts and although she does not write herself, often finds herself editing articles for her family – one writer and one artist. She is an avid reader and is the convenor of a book group in Mosman, Sydney.
For those that do not know me – I’m Irene Waters, a memoirist whose first memoir Nightmare in Paradise is soon to be published. In the long road to publishing, I completed a MA, researching the sequel memoir. Until recently, when a creative hiatus hit, I have been a regular at Carrot Ranch since its inception and found writing flash a good way of honing writing skills. I enjoyed trying my hand at fiction and learning the creative writing skills that are part of that. I am also a keen amateur photographer and this along with my writing can be found at my website Reflections and Nightmares.
So saddle up October 10th will soon be here with the deadline for entries October 17th. The winner (and second and third place) will be announced November 16th.
Rules and prompt revealed October 10, 2018, at 12:00 a.m. (EST). Set your watches to New York City. You will have until October 17, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. (EST) to complete the Memoir contest. Irene, Angie, and Helen will announce the prize winner plus second and third place on November 16. Carrot Ranch will post a collection of qualifying entries.
Rodeo 1: Dialogue led by Geoff Le Pard and judges Chelsea Owens and Esther Chilton/Newton
Rodeo 3: Travel with a Twist led by Sherri Matthews and judges Mike Matthews and Hugh Roberts
Rodeo 4: Fractured Fairy Tales led by Norah Colvin and judges Robbie Cheadle and Anne Goodwin
Rodeo 5: The Sound and the Fury led by D. Avery and her judge Bonnie Sheila.
The Tuffest ride starting September will see 5 writers qualify to compete in October and is led by Charli Mills. For Info
Truth is considered fundamental in writing memoir. The work of Smith and Watson show that memory is not an exact memory of the past event but the past combined with the present, differences in history and ideologies of the time so rather than memory being existential it is a construct and will vary at different times and places. Recent innovations in brain imaging have shown that autobiographical memory shares the same part of the brain as visual activity. It is possible that this explains why, when you visualise a scene vividly, even if it is not true, that this false memory will be added to autobiographical memory. As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?
For me, this is the most interesting part of memoir for I believe that memoir gives us our identity. Memoir, when used as a book genre, refers to a part of a life story that is well told truthfully from memory using techniques commonly used in fiction. I would argue, however, that we are all storytellers of our life story only most people don’t write them down. Instead, we tell anecdotes (a truthful story about a real incident or person). These, to my mind, are the equivalent of a memoir in aural form. They are stories, usually well told from memory about a portion of our life. These, I believe, give us our identity.
There are two facets to identity. There is our identity that can be researched by anybody. Our birthdate, our parents’ names and occupations, later our own occupations, marriages, divorces and even addresses can often be found if one has the desire to dig deeply enough. But does that give you your identity? For the authorities maybe but not for those that come in contact with us. It gives the what of your identity. The second facet is not researchable but rather it is our personality and character and these are found through our actions but predominantly through the stories we tell of ourselves and these give us the who of our identity.
Our parents give us our first pieces of identity. They give us not only our name but our first simple stories. “My daddy is a minister.” That little story had me labelled a goody two shoes, someone to be mindful of language around and friendships slow to make. My Dad also told funny stories which I know I would have repeated as in those very young days, I had no stories of my own to tell, and I most likely wanted to be like my daddy who I adored. I didn’t tell my mother’s stories as I wanted to be more like my father than my mother. I don’t know what the first story I told about myself was but if I assumed it was one I still tell — about being quarantined from school and filling in the time playing the leper from the bible, jumping out on unsuspecting passerbys and telling them they were going to catch the dreadful disease my mother had because I was a leper, I’m sure that for some my identity would have taken on one of a non-caring individual for some I regaled it to and for others I would have been labelled creative.
We are selective as to what stories we tell and those we keep close to our chest. Some we know that if we were to tell we would be seen in a bad light, and the who we are of our identity would take a battering. This part of our identity changes over time. As in reading a memoir the author’s journey is followed until it reaches a point where it is irrevocably changed because of something that happens. It is, as Charli discussed in her prompt preamble, the hero’s journey only we are the hero of the story, our own story. If our identity weren’t to change as a result of life events I think it would be a poor, shallow life we’ve led when we can’t learn and grow and change.
Do you still tell the same stories now that you told when you were 15? I know I have a period in my life that will forever be closed to public scrutiny. It was at the time and it is now. I didn’t tell it then and I don’t visit it now. We edit what we tell but even so the stories we do tell reek of our essence.
When writing memoir this can create a huge problem for the author when writing a second memoir. The readership of the first memoir may simply not like the identity which the author has become in the second book and a totally different market may be needed.
If you are not convinced that your stories gives you your identity that is fine. Consider however those people who have lost their stories. Those with brain injuries and those suffering dementia. Those without their stories become empty shells. They retain their name, their race and nationality but their identity fades until they are no longer the person that we once knew. When they no longer have their stories they no longer a made up person – a fictional self.
I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on memoir and identity and hoping you will join in Times Past where this month we are looking at bicycles.
I write memoir – my memories of particular times or events in my life. In this process, through no fault of their own other than being part of my life I write another person’s narrative.
Who are the other people in our story – firstly there is the “I,” and then because we don’t live our lives in isolation, there are those people whose lives intertwine. It is impossible to leave out these other people when we recount our memoirs, but we must remember that they are having their story written as unwitting real-life characters and as such are due a good deal of respect. So how do we deal with these people?
Ideally, we tell them that we are writing a memoir in which they feature. Don’t show them what you have written until the book has had close to its final edit. Where possible stay with them whilst they read the portion in which they feature. Don’t give it to them to take away. Get their opinion at the time they read it. This is the ideal way because if they take it away they may give it to others to read and the feedback you get may not be their own. If they object to anything you have written, then you must consider the costs to you of leaving it in the memoir. Is this a person you care about and you don’t want to lose their friendship? Is the passage they have objected to necessary to the event? Can it be reworded without losing the truth? Are you prepared to accept that you might lose a friendship? Letting them read is the ideal situation but is not always possible. Strangely, for those people who have done this the majority report that the person will usually find something they are not too happy about but it is rarely the item that the author has been worrying over.
I have not given my memoir to anybody to read who I featured in it. To do so poses some problems as we are geographically removed in some instances, I have no idea where some of the people are, and one doesn’t want to read it. I have given it to a lawyer to check that I have written nothing by which I could be taken to court and sued. I have also changed some names. I have been dead against doing this but suddenly I came to a decision that for minor characters, who could be hurt by what I have written and I have no desire to hurt them, it is easier to change their names. In the author note, however, I will make it quite clear that I have changed some names. I have also changed a name to make it easier for the reader to know who the character is in the scene. On Tanna, there were some people named Chief Tom. Some names can’t be changed, such as my husband’s. He will be my husband no matter what I call him and thereby readily identifiable. I asked him if he would like to read the manuscript, but he refused. The reason he gave was that if he read it, he knew that he would be saying “you should say it this way” and be trying to get me to alter it to fit his voice. As far as what I have written about him he trusts that he already knows my thoughts. He will probably read it after it is published, but it is possible that he doesn’t want to revisit this period of our lives.
If you do or don’t give it to the character to look at, avoid at all costs, labelling them in the narrative. For example, don’t say that Rebecca was an alcoholic – show what she does and allow the reader to determine what she is. If Gary is a paedophile in your opinion, again don’t label but show. Labelling tends to reflect poorly on the author, and it will be more than the character that will dislike you – your reader will likely form a bad opinion of you. Last month I suggested that we need to let time elapse so that the high emotion we feel close to the event can dissolve to allow us to write from a non-judgemental point of view. This is crucial.
A chap called Paul John Eakin suggests that we are taught by our parents at an early age the rules relating to the telling of life narratives. These rules are, to tell the truth, to respect the privacy of others and to be aware of the normative model of personhood. The first two are self-explanatory. The last refers to who you are writing about and your responsibility to them based on their level of normalcy. For example, if you are writing about your partner, you can be much freer with what you write because the partner can respond with his or her own memoir. This is not the case with those suffering dementia, brain injuries and children. Thus the level of respect shown to any vulnerable person must be immense.
The other person that you must show consideration to is yourself. The person you are narrating is not the present day you, but he or she is capable of creating a crisis of emotion in the present day you. Just the other day I was searching for something and thought it might be in the court documents. I sat down and read the entire file which consisted of letters and court records. I thought I had dealt with our time in Vanuatu and was surprised at the level of anger and hurt reading these documents brought out in me. If you are at risk make sure you have a support system in place that you can call on if necessary – that may be a friend or professional help. I vented on Roger.
This month’s Times Past looks at a facet of life that can only exist if there are other people in the memory – family conversation – where did it happen? This also draws on your memory of place. Often by dragging back visions of particular rooms or places little stories and details will come unbidden. I hope you’ll join in, giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in is at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments here, in my comments section or by creating your own post and linking. I’m looking forward to your memories.
I sit and listen to news of blisteringly cold gales, snow falls, and marvel at photos of these dumps of snow on Facebook and Instagram. We are still in summer here with no evidence of autumn being around the corner and no doubt those in the northern hemisphere will be wondering if they will ever come in from the cold.
This puts me in mind of memoir as a genre. Will it ever come in from the cold and be given the value it deserves. Despite Frank McCourt and Mary Karr who are credited with being the first to move memoir up a notch in people’s estimation, memoir is still talked of in hushed tones. Writer’s of memoir often seem a little embarrassed that this is the genre they write. Other writers might quickly say, “I don’t write memoir.” What is the problem with owning our own story? Is it a lesser story because it happened to us? Does it say something about us because we want to tell it? No story has to be told and if yours is one that you don’t wish to share there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We do share our stories though. Every anecdote we relate is a small memoir told in an oral tradition. I researched memoir for my masters and discovered that memoir as a genre is new to scholarly examination. I also discovered that not many realise that memoir is captured in the genre creative nonfiction.
What is creative nonfiction? Lee Gutkind, the father of creative nonfiction, describes it as a “true story well told.”
The best creative nonfiction in Gutkinds opinion is where the public (books such as True Blood, The life of Henrietta Lacks) moves closer to the private end by giving some personal detail and the private end (which includes memoir and personal essays) includes some public information.
If we are looking at ‘true stories well told’ where does the creative come in? It does not mean making the story up. Once you do this, you have moved from nonfiction to fiction. The creative has been found to cause some confusion, and other names (narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction) are often interchanged in the hope of giving a little more clarity. The creative is referring to using storytelling techniques from fiction to tell the true story. There are three major elements used: 1) dialogue; 2) high definition descriptions of scenes and 3) manipulation of time. It was these features that McCourt and Karr used skilfully creating a true story that people wanted to read.
In memoir writing, it is now widely accepted that all these elements are acceptable despite being made up elements. Dialogue serves the same purpose in memoir as it does in fiction. It develops or reveals the people who are in narrative, moves the plot forward and gives immediacy to the moment being described. From the readers perspective, it puts them in the scene. For memoir, it is accepted that the dialogue used will be of a style an in a manner of what would have been said. The essence of the dialogue must be true to memory even though the words are not remembered. At the time I was examining dialogue for my thesis I was reading many purists and questioned if dialogue was used, did it change the genre from memoir to BOTS. Painstakingly I counted how much dialogue was in a large number of memoirs – Frank McCourt used the most with one book 22.64 percent and another a whopping 47.74 percent. Most used less than 10 percent in a first memoir and less than 20 percent in a subsequent tome.
A similar finding is possible for high definition description of scenes. Mary Karr was a master at these descriptions such as her description of the doctor: “He wore a yellow golf shirt unbuttoned so that sprouts of hair showed in a V shape on his chest. I had never seen him in anything but a white starched shirt and a gray tie. The change unnerved me.” Despite these types of vivid description Karr could not remember everything and had huge gaps in her memory:
“Because it took so long for me to paste together what happened, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while. It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here. I don’t mean to be coy. When the truth would be unbearable, the mind often blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like a smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.”
The two different memories don’t gel, and yet we accept the doctor scene as true. It gives us an entry into how Karr felt as a child. Again, these high definition scenes are now accepted as belonging in a work of memoir.
Next month I will look at time. I’d be interested to hear what you think about the inclusion of dialogue and high definition scenes in memoir. Do you think that the inclusion of these elements make the writing come alive? Do you feel you get to know the author better through dialogue? Do you think there is a point where there is too much dialogue? I look forward to hearing what you think.
Please join Irene Waters at her blog Reflections and Nightmares with a monthly memoir writing prompt that gives us social insights between generations and geographical locations. Along with your response, give your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in can be seen at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments (here or at the current Times Past Monthly Prompt) or by creating your own post and linking to Trees: Times Past.
Irene Waters is a writer from Queensland, Australia, whose pastimes include dancing, reading, and playing with her dogs. Her main writing focus is memoir. Her writing has appeared in Text Journal and Idiom23 magazine. She is the author of two memoirs, Nightmare in Paradise, and its sequel After the Nightmare which she wrote as part of her thesis. Her Masters is a research degree, examining sequel memoir from Central Queensland University. Irene is a Rough Writer and contributor to The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1, including an essay on memoir.
By Irene Waters
As you read this I will be sitting on the high seas, nearing the equator, out of range of the internet so I will start by apologising for what will seem my tardy response to any comments. Don’t worry I will get there and look forward to coming back to a conversation in full swing.
Initially, I was planning for this post to discuss what memoir is but decided that I have already written a post on the difference between memoir and fiction so instead I will direct you to that and write instead on the work of Memoir.
Have you ever thought about why you read memoir? Have you ever noticed that you read memoir differently to the way you read fiction? I know I do. I am supercritical with memoir if I find what is written to be unbelievable. If I discover after I have read a memoir that it is not true – I feel angry, duped, used. I never feel that way about reading a fictional work. We feel this way because we read believing the story to be true.
For the reader, a memoir can be a guide through the human experience. It may be an experience that the reader themselves is undergoing and they are looking for an insight into another person’s experience on which they can draw strength for what they are undergoing or give us an understanding of a different kind of life. We can learn from another’s true life experience as we know these real-life characters lived, and we can get guidelines from them as to how we can live our own lives. For the inarticulate, a memoir may offer expression of what they are feeling but which they find impossible to express. It lets the reader know they are not alone with what they are experiencing. Predominantly in reading memoir, we are looking for how the narrated “I” deals with situations to become the “I” of now. We are looking at identity creation. We are honing in on the reflection of memoir.
This brings us to what I find fascinating with memoir – all those different “I” characters. Have you ever thought about how the author – the narrating “I” is telling his/her story and yet is a different person to the person they are narrating – the “I” then or narrated “I” who is a constructed “I”. There is also a past or historical “I” who is the person who can be verified as having lived but this “I” cannot be reproduced exactly as they were in the past. Finally, there is an ideological “I” who knows the cultural rules of the time. Identity is embodied in all these “I”s that we meet with memoir. P. Eakin said: “We learn as children what it means to say ‘I’ in the culture we inhabit, and this training proves to be crucial to the success of our lives as adults, for our recognition by others as normal individuals depends on our ability to perform the work of self-narration.”
If you are writing memoir are you aware of your “I” characters? I believe this is why people read memoir and why memoir is written. It is the biggest difference between fiction and memoir – the narrating ‘I’ as the present day person who does the remembering and offers reflections and interpretations of the past events allows us to see how the author’s “I” character has changed. If the memoir is a ‘coming of age’ story we will read how one ‘I’ changes to another. In a conversion narrative the ‘I’s will be separated by a chasm. It is not unusual for there to be circumstances where the “I”s don’t like each other or understand each other. This is one circumstance where third person can be used in the writing of a memoir (past tense first person is normal) as it shows the disconnect between the ‘I”s.
The modern way of writing memoir using fictional techniques I believe (and remember this is my opinion) detracts from the reason people read memoir. If you use all show, not tell you are allowing the reader to construct their own thoughts on how you got there, how your identity changed and they lose that important part of memoir – the reflection by the narrating ‘I’. This loss leads to the loss to the reader of the author’s gaining of self- awareness and the impact this has on their identity creation. This is one of the fictional techniques that I am loathe to encourage to the exclusion of telling. Would love to hear your thoughts.
Next month I will look at dialogue in memoir.
Please feel free to join in Times Past. This month thanks to a suggestion from Charli, we are going to stay at school and examine learning to write. Write a post of your own and link up to my Times Past Page, leave a comment in my comment section or in the comment section when Charli posts her memories of learning to write. Don’t forget to put where you lived at the time of the memoir, your generation and whether it was a rural or city area. Look forward to reading them on my return.
Essay by Irene Waters, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.
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This writing is raw. Most of my writing that you may have seen to date is raw. By that I mean it is uncooked, the first draft without changes and alterations. The grammar may be imperfect, it may have spelling mistakes, it may be lacking in description and there may be the odd inconsistency. It is done quickly, allowing creativity to flow unimpeded. Blogging raw I find helpful in the creative process. I don’t spend a lot of time on the posts but it kickstarts the flow of ideas, allowing work that I plan on editing and re-editing – cooking it and processing it – to be written to the page.
For a memoir writer there are a couple of other types of raw writing. The first is a type I rarely do and for some, including one of my thesis examiners, my writing is not raw enough. Some think that memoir should be an open cut, exposing bleeding wounds and laying open the scars for all to pick at. Certainly some types of memoir call for this. The misery memoir is a good example. A few memoirs in this group are Mary Karr’s and Frank McCourt’s three books. Although I am now tackling a memoir that will have this type of raw writing, my previous two memoirs have been written purely for the story where true life adventures are related.
In memoir there should also be a distinction between what is private and what is public knowledge. Whilst maintaining honesty the memoir writer should sift through the raw material and decide what belongs purely in a diary and what can be shared with the world. Elizabeth Gilbert said of her memoir Eat Pray Love that it was so finely tuned (no longer raw) that the reader doesn’t get a sense of her. She is unrecognisable. She said that if you wanted to know her, read her fiction work as there, believing that she was anonymous, she did not censor her writing and to her surprise found that more of her showed through in it than in her memoir.
Another type of raw that the memoir writer needs to be aware of and avoid is writing when the emotions are still raw. The passage of time is essential to enable the episode to be viewed dispassionately. The others in the memoir must be treated ethically – for when you write a memoir you also write someone else’s biography. If you write with raw emotion (useful as a therapeutic tool but not for publication) the purpose for writing is often slanted, and may be judgemental, a desire to hurt someone, to pay them back and this may not reflect well on the writer. Rather than sit in judgement, time allows the memoirist to write in a sensitive manner that will show the reader, through the actions of the characters, what manner of person they are.
For me, memoir is the making of identity. Without memoir, such as when a person is suffering from dementia, the person’s identity fades with the worsening of the condition and eventually is lost to them and kept alive only by others who can tell their stories. Depending on what you tell will depend on the identity you give yourself. But I digress from raw literature.
To conclude I will give an example of raw literature from the first draft of my manuscript Nightmare in Paradise.
My fear as to what I might find on arrival at the volcano overrode the abject terror I normally experienced every time I travelled the road over the mountain to the other side. It is also the only time I had been over that stretch of road at speeds far exceeding that which would guarantee a safe arrival at the other end. My head was spinning. Had I brought sufficient equipment with me to deal with anything I might find? What might I find? It just couldn’t be true.
After editing this passage is no longer raw although I feel as though it has more rawness. It gives, I hope, the reader an idea of what travelling to the volcano was like the night one of our tourists, along with a local guide, was killed by a lump of lava from the volcano.
The troop carrier sliced through the dark heat of the night as it sped, at speeds none would attempt in daylight, towards the volcano. I knew I was with other people but apart from Jim, the owner of Tanna Beach Resort I had no idea who was riding in the back with me. No-one spoke, everybody lost in their own thoughts. Mine were a nightmare. A nightmare that allowed the terror I normally felt when negotiating the sharp hairpin bends over the steep mountainside to remain hidden. The visions in my mind were vivid, in full red colour, whilst the reality of where I sat was grey, as though a mist had descended obscuring the others who sat with me.
Irene Waters blogs at Reflections and Nightmares where she focuses on photography and writing challenges. She has written a memoir Nightmare in Paradise which she hopes to publish in 2017. As a memoirist she found that there was little scholarly scrutiny on the sequel memoir. She carried out research on this subject gaining her Master of Arts in 2017. This also saw the completion of her second manuscript. She is now working on a novel way of writing raw memoir.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gen X, rural California, USA
Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).
“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.
Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.
Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.
Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.
Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.
I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.
Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:
We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.
At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.
4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.
And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.
Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.