Mary Lynn Archibald is a freelance copywriter, editor and author of two memoirs: Briarhopper, (a woman’s odyssey from Kentucky’s coal country to California in1945 at the end of World War II); and Accidental Cowgirl: Six Cows, No Horse and No Clue, a cautionary tale about the rigors of country living and cattle ranching. “With one stroke of the pen, we became the proud owners of six cows, two cats and a flock of wild turkeys.”
How to Hone in on Memory When Writing Memoir
—by Lila Quintero Weaver
Photo by Ezra Comeau Jeffrey on Uunsplash.com
Note: This artice is about memory and memory retrieval in writing memoir. I hope you find it useful
“Memory is the thing with feathers”—Quintero Weaver
Quintero Weaver begins with a takeoff on one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul,” etc., and then expands on that metaphor beautifully, changing one word of the first line in order to give us a wonderful take on her method of memory retrieval.
Here are a few pertinent excerpts from what Weaver wrote on the subject, broken down into bite-size pieces:
Memory and Memory Retrieval in Writing Memoir
- “Retrieving memories is akin to feeding wild birds. I stumbled on this association while working on my memoir.
- “The problem with reconstructing the past is memory’s ephemeral nature, and the material for Darkroom (her memoir about being a Latina in Alabama) had lain dormant for fifty years…
Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash.com
Methods for Memory Retrieval
- “I began writing those memories within my grasp, no matter how spare and murky, all the while enhancing them through research. As a result of sustained attention, deeply buried memories started to resurface, often when my mind was on other things.
- “I learned to keep a notepad handy. Once the phenomenon of retrieved memories kicked in, a metaphor helped me accelerate the process: bird-feeding.
“The birdfeeder my husband built in our home basement will never make it to the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. It’s a 7-foot steel-rod post topped with a rectangular platform. There’s no roof. A wire-mesh inset keeps the birdseed from getting soggy.
“For two weeks after he installed it, the feeder was a lonely sight. But then birds started coming, and I spent enchanted hours watching from my dining-room window, careful not to spook them by standing too close…Why had I never seen them? The more I trained my eyes on the birdfeeder, the more astonished I was by the variety of species that passed through our backyard or even called it home. The feeder had lured them out of their hiding places.
A Unique Approach to Memory Retrieval
- “Associating memory retrieval with the feeding of wild birds helped me adopt a patient, soft-focus approach, as if taking care not to spook memories darting nearby…
- As I continued writing, long-forgotten episodes drifted in with little additional effort on my part. Before I knew it, I’d recovered smaller, but powerful stories.”
I loved this metaphor because it so purely captures the way in which I wrote my latest memoir, Sir, I’m Not That Kind of Girl.
As most of you know, when I wrote Accidental Cowgirl, I had years of journals to reread so that I could remember the most exciting and interesting things that happened during my twelve years as a cowgirl.
However, in writing Sir! (as it has come to be known), I had no such crutch. Because of my age (80 in October) and the condition of my hands, I haven’t been able to keep a regular journal, and gripping a pen for longer than it takes to write a check is out of the question.
Besides that, rather than talking about the somewhat recent past as I did in Cowgirl, I was now writing about my childhood and my life as a young adult. And my memory about my coming-of-age was spotty, at best. So I started writing whatever memories I still had in my grasp, “no matter how spare and murky,” as Weaver did, and went on from there, researching where I needed to about times and places that were no longer clear to me, trying “not to spook them by standing too close” as it were, and I was rewarded with a flood of theretofore unremembered scenes and happenings.
Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash.com
The Persistence of Memory
How to use memory and memory retrieval methods in writing your own memoirs
- Once you are “in flow,” more and more memories flood in, especially when you’re relaxed and thinking about other things. It works for me. It can work for you. Sidle up to those birds (your memories) and don’t scare them away.
- Keep that notepad handy, and feed those flighty birds!
Most of all, remember this quote by Marion Roach Smith”Learning to write begins with reading.” This is true whether you are writing memoir or anything else.
Here’s an article I wrote on LinkedIn that you might have missed. It is one way to write a memoir, especially if your memory is as sketchy as mine. I hope it helps you in writing your own memoir:
“I think it was the crush of time that made me want to write. My mother was getting older, and though I’d heard her stories over and over for so many years, I suddenly realized when she was in her 80s that she wouldn’t always be around to tell them, And even though I’d heard them so many times, there were details I knew I would forget, And some of the stories really needed to be told.
As it turned out, it was not only members of my own family who were interested in what life was like for a young girl in Kentucky in the early years of the 20th Century. I even sold a few.
After reviewing 12 years of keeping journals about an unusual period of my own life, I realized there had to be a story there, too. Accidental Cowgirl: Six Cows, No Horse and No Clue was born from that experience, and I haven’t stopped writing since. And I sold a lot. That didn’t hurt either. I even have fans!
But enough about me. I encourage everyone to write about an era that is fast fading. Your children will love you for it.”
Writing your own memoir may take more than a few attempts, but don’t give up. It took me seven years to finish my last one, Sir, I’m Not That Kind of Girl. Life kept getting in the way.
“How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish?
If writing a book is a lifetime goal, then spending some money to make the book the best it can be is important to make that experience complete.
If writing is a hobby, then consider how much money people spend on hobbies in general. Any hobby has some expenses associated with it.
If you are considering writing as a career, then the costs associated with quality publishing are an investment in creating an intellectual property asset that can put money in your pocket for the rest of your life and 70 years after you die according to copyright law. That is truly exciting, and I go into more detail in my book, How to Make a Living with Your Writing.” https://www.thecreativepenn.com/cost-to-self-publish/
In this post, Joanna has much more on the subject of self-publishing and defining your audience, which you should do sooner rather than later. It’s great reading, and she also covers costs. Remember, a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. Hiring one is a necessity if you’re serious about producing a quality book. even though I’m an editor myself, I always hire someone else to edit my books. More on this step later. Never skip this step in writing your memoir, if you intend to publish it. Hiring an editior is the difference between a serious writer and an amateur, and will save you money and embarrassment in the long run.
Joanna Penn has many great books on writing and self-publishing. Check out her website: https://www.thecreativepenn.com
First of All…
People are always asking me about my writing process.
Do I write every day? (I don’t). What does a typical day look like for me? (You don’t want to know). Getting down to it can be difficult, but ideally, I can be disciplined when I really need to make something happen.
I write business promotions, copy for anyone who needs it, but especially, copy in the fields of art, memoir, writing, self-publishing, and health, to name a few subjects I know well.
If you’re new to this blog, you know I am also the author of three memoirs. The first was an “as told to” book that was dictated to me. The second is about twelve years trying to raise cattle in the wilds of Trinity County, CA, with no prior experience. The third is a brand new personal memoir of my early life as a young girl to my clueless entry into local (San Francisco) show business, modeling and a few less glamorous professions, such as sales clerk and switchboard operator.
I met quite a few strange and interesting people in the process.
It made for some interesting encounters. But I digress. Let me talk about my writing process, such as it is.
Consistency in Writing
I’ll admit it. I am an inconsistent writer. Oh, don’t get me wrong; when I have an assignment, I’m never late with a deadline, but when the deadline is mine (that is, one that I impose on myself), I know it can be moved, and even doing laundry can look a lot more exciting than working on my book. So many things can easily catch my attention. Life intervenes.
Ideally, I go into my office and face the computer around ten in the morning, after a brisk, 20-minute workout with Miranda Esmonde-White on public television. http://www.classicalstretch.com/(She’s a former ballerina, too, so I can relate to her combo of stretching and strengthening exercises because although she mixes ballet with Pilates, yoga and tai chi, she looks graceful whatever she is doing, and that’s an inspiration).
Writing this book was done in stages, but it is by no means chronological, sometimes veering back and forth in time depending on the memories that bubbled to the surface. If that technique gives you whiplash, perhaps this book is not for you.
As I near the age of 80 later this year, much of the past is dim. That’s why I wrote this memoir: to illuminate the dim passages in my mind and to hope to capture a few of the more memorable and sometimes funny periods of my life.
I remained an innocent throughout most of my young life, and occasionally paid the price, but, hey, I made it through World War II’s disruptions and a few skirmishes in San Francisco much later, relatively intact, and still smiling.
I hope you enjoy this peek into the past. If so, please let me know, at winecountrywriter.com, or via an Amazon review.
So that’s my process. Each writer’s process is unique. I like the words of Richard Ford:
- “Beware of writers who tell you how hard they work. (Beware of anybody who tries to tell you that.) Writing is indeed often dark and lonely, but no one really has to do it.”
But the best advice, I think, comes from William Saroyan:
- “How do you write? You write, man, you write, that’s how, and you do it the way the old English walnut tree puts forth leaf and fruit every year by the thousands. … If you practice an art faithfully, it will make you wise, and most writers can use a little wising up.”
Wise words. Find more of them here: https://www.thoughtco.com/writers-on-writing-1692856
Until next time.
Shameless Plagiarism Department:
Before I open the floor for questions, I have something to share with you: I found this great quote by John Green, a best-selling Young Adult novelist and video blogger, in an article by Emily Harstone titled, 3 Ways To Promote Yourself As A Writer(Even When You Don’t Want To). She describes herself as “an introvert, a writer, and a very reluctant self-promoter”), and it speaks to a deep-seated fear in all of us strange swamp creatures who call ourselves writers, so I thought I’d share it here:
“Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” ― John Green
You can read Emily’s complete article at Authors Publish http://www.authorspublish.com/3-ways-promote-yourself-as-a-writer-even-when-you-dont-want-to/
So yes, I know that fear, uncertainty, and introversion are major writing blocks, especially when you are writing about yourself. (I once had a strange woman come up to me, brandishing my book, at a public meeting of the American Business Women’s Association and say, “I know more about you than you know about me!”). It does give one pause.
Now I know that everyone who writes is not an introvert, but I suspect the good ones are (after all, you can’t find time to write while you’re attending all those parties and get-togethers). Still, there are enough of us writers out there who fall into the swamp creature category to make this article relevant, so get back to your hidey-hole and start writing!
Where are you in your struggles with memoir? I’d like to know. Maybe I can help. Send me a question and I’ll try to answer it for you. What’s bugging you about your writing? Is it just too hard to get started? I’ve been there. Let’s share our agonies. You don’t have to do this alone.
If you want to score your very own Free e-book copy of Sir, I’m Not That Kind of Girl: Goody Two-Shoes Goes to Town (and you know you do—who wouldn’t?), there isn’t much time left, so hustle on over to Amazon and enter my name (Mary Lynn Archibald, in case you’ve forgotten) in the search box. Then click on the title, then click the box on the right-hand side, titled “Read for Free.” (That’s if you want to know more about me than I know about you!) After reading the book, you should definitely have some questions for me!
This ebook will only be available free until May 15th, so GET ON IT!
…and if you’re really my friend, please leave me an Amazon review. I’ll be eternally grateful. PROMISE.
More on Staying Healthy When You Type
Repetitive stress injury (or RSI) is way more easy to prevent than to cure. So what do you do to prevent it? Here’s a list:
- Sit up straight with both feet flat on the floor.
- Give yourself a break. If your hands start tingling or go numb, STOP! Go get a glass of water, walk around the block (or at least go outside) for fifteen minutes.
- Do a few hand exercises. You can find them online, or tune in to Miranda Esmonde-White’s Classical Stretch program on television, or better yet, check out the DVD offerings she has available on her website: http://www.classicalstretch.com/
- Apply ice to your hands for ten or so minutes at a time, and then go back to your typing with renewed vigor. It works.
- Repeat as necessary so as not to ruin your hands for life. You’ll need them!
Now That You’re Healthy, Join a Club!
I’ve been a member of the Redwood Writers’ Club for nearly twenty years, and that is where I found my critique group. If you can find a good bunch of people who are willing to give you honest opinions on what works and what doesn’t in your writing, it’s a lot more valuable than the opinion of, say, your spouse or significant other, or perhaps, your mother. Theirs might not be the most unbiased of statements.
My club has volunteers whose primary task is to match a writer with a few like-minded others in the group, and watch them steam ahead with confidence born of interactions with contemporaries they admire. It’s inspiring, and even if the first group is not a great fit, the volunteer can find another that is more compatible. It’s great to have a place to share your work.
Below is one of many collections our club has published over the last few years. Applicants for inclusion in our (now yearly) anthology are selected in a blind judging by professional, published authors, so it is a privilege to be included. (See them here, under “BOOKS,” or on Amazon.)
Favorite Books Department
Just finished reading Wally Lamb’s latest: I’ll Take You There. He is one of my favorite authors, ever since I read his book, She’s Come Undone, several years ago.
He handles family relationships and problems with such tact and compassion that his characters are very real to me.
The other reason I enjoyed reading that particular book was that he used so many slang words from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that it really took me back. I only wish I’d remembered more of them for my own latest book!
Right now we’re in the Southern California desert, enjoying another lovely, sunny day, so I must get back to it!
One Can Always Hope!
Well, it’s been a while. Gotta shift gears a little. A new book and a bit of an injury kept me from my blog duties.Perhaps this will explain:
2017: Where Did It Go?
The year just past was a blur. I do remember I that I now have in hand a new book (see next paragraph).I used to try to keep a journal to help me remember the years, but it seems I spent too many years throwing pots on a potter’s wheel and writing by hand, that my best option now is to use my voice to write, or not to write at all (not really an option for me).
I spent much of the year finishing my latest memoir, about my early years (BC: Before Carl). The title: Sir, I’m Not That Kind of Girl! Or Goody Two-Shoes Goes to Town. Copies will be available from me by advance order, and you may pay through PayPal. I’ll let you know as soon as I’m all set up. (The first ten people who write a review of the book will get a free ebook copy of Accidental Cowgirl: Six Cows, No Horse and No Clue, a hilarious account of the twelve years Carl and I spent trying to raise cattle in remote Trinity County.
My new book is a romp through my Ozzie and Harriet childhood and adolescence, culminating in the glamour years before my first marriage, when I had the opportunity to hold a number of diverse jobs in San Francisco, such as switchboard operator for Greyhound Bus Lines, fashion model, sales clerk at Gump’s in and also Capwell’s department store (now gone) and dancer in a San Francisco-based chorus line.
Funny, how as you get older, you remember the distant past better than the more recent one. Except for dramatic recent ones: My most recent dramatic memory is of falling onto the dining room floor and breaking my hip on the day before Thanksgiving. (I have osteoporosis, so it’s not hard to do. I’m considering designing a bubble wrap pantsuit for myself).
Anyway, thank God Carl’s daughter Amyre was here from Yucaipa. She made Thanksgiving dinner, and I managed to spend the next seven days gimping around until I reached the point where I couldn’t move (thought if anything was broken I’d know—turns out I was wrong), and I got a nice ambulance ride to the emergency room, and partial hip replacement surgery that night—the 30th.
By the end of December, I was still recuperating, and my son Miles flew down from Portland and helped Carl nurse me (and my daughter, Jamie, who had foot surgery on November 21st). Miles’ wife, Holly, drove down with their new, large Doberman puppy, arriving on December 23rd, just in time to cook Christmas dinner. (It was nice not to have to cook either Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but I don’t recommend my method of achieving that.)
My new book has kept me busy, supervising cover and interior design and printing. BookBaby was very patient with my pickiness (is there such a word?) Let me know what you think of the cover:
I’ve graduated to a walker, then a cane, and now I’m on my own, and I’m back to daily exercises again, after a three-month recovery and one month of sheer sloth. Still, we’re all glad to be here, and we still have our sweet doggie, Fizzbo, though she is looking a little long in the tooth, as are we all.
Hope all is well with you and yours. Back to memoir-writing advice next week. Promise!
Happy New Year! 2018 has gotta be better, right?
Praise and Reviews
“Rarely do I find a book so enjoyable that I savor it in small nibbles, like fine chocolate. Accidental Cowgirl is such a book.”
Alice Berger-Berger’s Book Reviews
“Mary Lynn Archibald has written a wonderfully whimsical story that will make you laugh. What a great little gem of a book.”
…“I think you will enjoy visiting Twin Creeks Ranch and getting to know the people, cows, cats, dogs, wild turkeys, deer, coyotes, bluebirds, and snakes that call the place home.”Gil Mansergh, Film Critic, Book Doctor, Author