Barry Dempster Raises Questions

About 10 days ago I attended a workshop with Barry Dempster who is Writer-in-Residence at the Richmond Hill Library. At the end of a rich session on Telling the Truth, he gave us an assignment which I’ve been grappling with. Here it is:

Write a piece of memoir, prose or poetry, using all of the following pieces of detail:

1. A lover you had but didn’t marry

2. A moment when something happened but you didn’t get to experience it to the extent you wished you had

3. Something you’re afraid of, in retrospect. Did I really do that?

4. One thing that you’ve lost that you never got over

5. Your favourite movie of all time

6. Your favourite smell

7. The first time…..

At first I just brainstormed about each of the points, and then I began to see how the points connected for some of the people I’d identified in #1. Then I began to write about one person.

As I wrote, I realized I was writing about an unidentified Turning Point in my life and about someone who had left a significant imprint. I’d never forgotten this person, but until I began to write, I had not recognized their impact on my development.

The challenge of fitting all 7 points into one story was not easy but somehow they came together as I wrote. I’m not sure where this story will fit into my memoir but I can see that these 7 details were not selected randomly by this master of words and detail. Thank you, Barry!

Turning Point vs Story

Last week I participated in a NAMW teleseminar with Linda Joy Myers on Mining Your Memories. Her use of new terms and a unique slant on things left me thinking differently about my memoir. She asked us to think of 10 ‘turning points’ or moments in our lives to form the basic structure of our memoir. Her simple use of the dynamic words, ‘turning point’, instead of ‘story’, suggests movement through the arc of our story. The turning points serve as markers of our progress through events, crises and the climax until we change and the problems are resolved or at least some change is observed.

Using this framework, I mentally reviewed my stories in chapters already written. I considered all the changes that had occurred in my life. I thought about the births of my 3 younger siblings. I thought about special people in my life: roomers who lived with us when I was a child and were like extended family . I thought of the child I was until the age of 9 and how much I changed after we moved to the suburbs. I thought about family secrets revealed when my grandfather died. I thought about the secrets I carried and how that affected me. Now I realize what the theme of my story is and how I need to shorten the time frame and write a tight focused memoir instead of a sprawling life story. The turning points or stories that I choose will be the ones that speak to my theme.

The next step will be to plot my turning points on my time line. Instead of plotting my entire life, I will plot only the first 18 years and see where that takes me.

The Crisis and Other Problems

This week I’ve been bashing on with the first draft of my memoir. Having got unstuck from the transition at the end of the Beginning, I very quickly found myself at the Crisis, the point at which I had no choice about changing my view of myself. The Crisis forced me to leave my carefree childhood behind.

I was jump-started into adulthood, ready or not. I wasn’t ready and resisted by going unconscious – not literally, but in terms of my awareness of what was happening. There was a tiny bud inside me that pushed towards growth and transformation but that shoot was weak at first. Antagonists conspired against its growth. Mostly the antagonists were my ignorance of the facts of life and my resentment towards anyone who tried to help me grow. I always felt they were manipulating me to their own ends. I still resent other people having agendas for me.

Another problem as I was writing: I would keep forgetting what I’d identified, with great difficulty, as my character flaw. I had to keep going back to my notes to remember the most important thread of my story. It still resists being made conscious. If I’m not alert, it quickly slips out of my grasp.

This week the question of the scope of my story recurred. Am I trying to write too much? If the Crisis occurred at age 11 then I need to reach the Climax and Resolution much earlier than I planned. Other people write multiple memoirs. Mary Karr has just published her third and Catherine Gildiner, her second. I keep going back and forth on this point and now I’m back in the camp of shortening the time frame and restricting the story to my childhood. I will keep writing the first draft and see where it takes me.