Many thanks to Jane Kelly Amerson Lopez for the invitation to contribute a few thoughts on memoir-writing to her blog. Kelly and I met for the first time at the annual conference of the Florida Writers Association. It wasn’t long before I realized she has lived a rare and fascinating life, a memoir-worthy life.
I’ve had my share of unusual experiences. As a feature writer, I once sipped champagne with Ralph Lauren in a walled garden at twilight; tottered on a rain-swept rooftop alongside Jimmy Carter; saved Uma Thurman from calamity; royally ticked off Lauren Bacall; and earned words of praise from Gloria Steinem. I have audited the prayer of a Death Row inmate and whispered in the ear of a prince. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in Manhattan to cover New York Fashion Week for Wisconsin’s largest newspaper. At first word of the terrorist attacks, I rushed to Ground Zero and filed award-winning eyewitness reports. A front page of a newspaper containing one of my 9/11 dispatches is among those displayed in Washington D.C.’s Newseum. A personal account of my harrowing experiences that week has been accessioned into the archives of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
But we all have stories to tell: it’s just a matter of finding them, transforming an ordinary life into an interesting read. According to best-selling author Kate Morton: “We are all unique, just never in the ways we imagine.”
But here’s the thing: some of the liveliest passages in my memoirs sprang from commonplace events. In Journey: A Memoir of Love, War and Ever After:
- A chapter about a life-and-death rescue begins with two bored children sitting on a harbor dock. A girl about my age asked if I’d like to take a sail with her on her family’s Sunfish. “Don’t worry, I know how to handle it,” she said. In minutes we were bobbing in the main channel of the chief river of the largest drainage system in North America. We did not bother with life vests.
- A chapter about the passing of a beloved elderly aunt takes an unexpectedly humorous twist. The morning of the funeral dawned clear and crisp, a perfect day for bird hunting. At breakfast, Dad peered over the top of the sports section. “I think we’ll take the Jeep to the service for Lillybelle.” Mom cut him a look. The Jeep was muddy and reeked of pipe smoke, and it resembled a paddy wagon because Dad had installed a metal grate behind the back seat to keep Patsy, his English pointer, at bay during trips to all the places a man with a Jeep takes his dog.
- And this excerpt, about a typical family Thanksgiving dinner that devolves into a fiasco. Dad sawed. He sawed like a musician sawing through the fiendish first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. Goose meat fell away in tattered shards. My grandfather’s face settled into an astringent mask.One by one, we forked bits of roast goose into our mouths, stashed the occasional buckshot pellet between cheek and gum, and extruded it into the folds of our napkins. Inevitably, one of my brothers smirked. Another brother snorted. And then somebody spat a ball of buckshot so energetically that it whizzed across the table and landed with a ping on his sister’s salad fork. The sister, naturally, returned fire. And with that, it was open season.
In my memoirs, I wrote about events particular to my life as well as events many of us experience, or once did. Swiping raspberries from the Vegetable Man’s truck. The schoolyard fallout after a bad haircut. The late spring aroma of a fresh-cut lawn. The clandestine ways six kids devised to avoid eating fried chicken livers. I wrote about building forts down by a creek, popping tar bubbles in a summer street, flipping baseball cards with a friend, my father’s sweet advice on the morning of my wedding.
Commonplace events add color to a memoir because they are part of the universal experience. When we read about a child’s first day at summer camp, a teen-ager’s first kiss, a shopping trip that lands the perfect wedding gown, we remember how it was for us. We relate. This is how stories about seemingly “ordinary lives” become extraordinary memoirs.
So, take a moment and remember your first day of kindergarten, your first prom, first major league baseball game, first train trip. Remember a time you felt real fear, or the time you conquered it. Write about a time when you lost hope, or how you found it again. Dig deep, and call up a time when you failed spectacularly, and then went on to success. Identify a handful of universal experiences that are particular to you, and then write about them. Use all of your senses in the writing — note the sounds, the smells, the tastes or textures of things. Most importantly, include what you thought and felt at the time.
“A human being is a single being,” author Eileen Caddy once wrote, “unique and unrepeatable.”
So, go ahead. Get started on your life story. Nobody has lived it quite like you have, and no one can tell it quite as wonderfully as you. And, if you get to the West Coast this winter, I will be teaching a memoir writing class at the Alliance for the Arts in Ft. Myers.
Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and went on to feature writing positions at daily newspapers in Hannibal, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. In addition to her books, Catherine’s articles, stories, and essays have appeared in newspapers, literary reviews, magazines, and anthologies. Catherine is a member of the Florida Writers Association, the Chicago Writers Association, and TallGrass Writers Guild. She and her husband, Dennis, live in Bonita Springs, FL.