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Writing Memoir – Process

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Today I’m going to write about the process of completing the exercises in Patti Miller’s book, Writing True Stories, and my impressions of the exercises.

During the entire process so far, I’ve been very surprised at the memories that the writing exercises have triggered. These have been memories that I haven’t thought of for years, or even for most of my life. Each time I’ve sat down to begin an exercise, I’ve felt concerned that I would have no memories to call on for the topic.  Without fail, after reading the preceeding material, the memories have come back to me.

I have probably written previously that my life has been an ordinary life, and in the past this has stopped me thinking about writing my memoir. Patti Miller’s book has allowed me to create those ordinary memories into a story.

The process so far, is to record the memories and complete the exercises, without over editing, so as yet,the writing is quite raw. The instructions from the author are just to get the memory recorded, without spending too long on each exercise, and without getting bogged down with detail. The exercises can be expanded on later. The important thing about each exercise is the memory. I’m not sure, whether we will get to expand, edit and improve the stories as part of the exercises in this book, or if that is something that will be done after completing all exercises.

So far, there are three exercises that I’ve struggled with. I’ve put them aside for now and will return to them, when hopefully something comes up that will trigger a memory. The exercises that I’ve put aside for now are:

House Plan:  Draw a floor plan of the house you lived in as a child. Mentally wander through it, going from room to room. Write about what you see or what happened there, or who you bump into. I did do this exercise, but nothing came up for me. However, as I’ve written about it now, something has come to mind, so I will probably return to this exercise very soon.

Newspaper: Search for a newspaper account of a public event you remember from childhood. Compare your memory of the event with the newspaper event. I have really struggled to remember an event that I can search for. This exercise is on hold until I get to talk with Mum. I’m hoping she will be able to trigger a memory for me.

Interview: Interview family members or friends on any topic related to your life. Ask them to talk about a time that you shared or as person you both knew. This exercise is difficult for me, as I don’t have any family members or lifelong friends living close by. This exercise is on hold until I’m able to catch up with family

Patti Miller constantly asks the question: “what is it like to be you in the world ?” I find that to be such an interesting question, and keep it in the background when completing the exercises. I’ve found it a really helpful question to ask and think about. I can see myself asking this question about my ancestors as I write about them in the future.

We have been encouraged in the reading material, to think about the events in our life, which we plan to make the focus of our memoir. When I started  the exercises, I wasn’t sure that they would lead to a memoir, I was merely interested in completing the exercises. But as I’ve worked through them, I’m starting to think that there is a possibility of a memoir. But I’m struggling to come up with a focus to my memoir, though I do have a few vague ideas that haven’t been developed yet and need further thought. At the moment, I’m just trying to accept that as yet I haven’t found that focus, and hope that inspiration will come to me, probably when I least expect it.

So far, I’m not even halfway through the book but feel that I’ve learnt a lot about writing, and that I am starting to develop my own writing style. I’m not even halfway through the exercises yet, so it’s very early days yet.

The exercises up to now, have been quite short and uncomplicated, but flicking ahead to future exercises, I can see that this will change.

I’m really enjoying the process of writing memoir and looking forward to the coming exercises.

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Writing Memoir – Appeal To The Senses

Workshop 3 Page 61 – Appeal to the senses.

Write about a place that has been important to you. You need not have stayed there long, but it must be somewhere that has stayed in your memory. (10 minutes)

I fell in love with Fall’s Creek, in Victoria’s high country, immediately, the first time I went there in the mid 1980s. We had decided to take the kids for a fun weekend of toboganning in the snow. This first weekend led to many, winter weekends at Falls Creek, as they came to love skiing.

I knew immediately, that as much as Falls Creek really appealed to me, I had no love of the snow or skiing. I don’t like the cold, and I have dodgy knees, so was never going to try skiing. At the time, I was an aerobics and gym instructor, so really needed to look after those knees.

As the children raced off excitedly  to the chair lifts, skis over their shoulders, I would settle myself in by the fire and lose myself in a book. I had no desire at all to step outside into the freezing air or the snow. Just getting from the car to the fireside was enough to convince me that the snowfields would never be my playground.

Visiting during the snow season only, for the first few years, I’m really not sure what it was that made me feel that this place would capture my soul, if I was to visit in the summer. I knew that it was becoming a popular place for hikers in the summer, and was keen to return at a much warmer time of the year. I looked forward to seeing those beautiful trees in all their glory, without a thick covering of snow.

For a few years, we would drive up to this gorgeous mountain village after Christmas, and I fell in love with it immediately. I hadn’t discovered hiking at this time, but really enjoyed walking around the village both with the kids and alone.

One year, we decided to spend the Christmas/New Year period there, and headed off after having Christmas lunch with the family. We were the only people staying at our favourite hotel, and when we arrived we were surprised to find it was almost as cold as it was during winter. Before long, we noticed snow flakes on the window. We just couldn’t believe that it would snow in Victoria on Christmas Day. I remember this as a magical few days, as we stayed inside, mostly relaxing, reading and playing board games.

In the following years, as the children grew up and started to do their own thing, we kept returning to Falls Creek. I had fallen in love with hiking, and loved discovering the fabulous walks in the area. I loved heading out onto the walking trails, heading up on the higher trails,  where tall majestic trees lined the peaks.

My favourite hike was to the iconic Craig’s Hut. I hiked there on every visit. Even though Falls Creek was becoming popular for summer visitors, it was still rare to see anyone on the hiking trails, over the Christmas/New Year period which is when we usually went.

Eventually, life got in the way of fun, and we stopped going. I thought constantly of Falls Creek and what I loved about it in summer. Of course, I loved the serenity and quietness. I loved walking in the high country when it felt like I was the only person up there.

In those days, hotels and ski accommodation were closed during the summer months. There were no supermarkets or shopping strips. There was only one general store/post office which opened for just a few hours every day.

To me, the best thing about summer in the high country was the quietness and isolated feeling it generated. It was easy to imagine that I was the only person on the mountain and, after the busy life I was living at the time, I couldn’t get enough of that feeling.

A few years passed by and eventually my marriage broke down. I found myself living in a large city, where I knew nobody and was worrying constantly about what was going to be my future. It wasn’t long before I started meeting people through cycling groups and was starting to feel a bit more settled. However I still worried about what was going to become of me. I seemed to have no direction, and wasn’t sure how that was ever going to change. I couldn’t really see how I could live the rest of my life this way. I was lonely, I missed my family and I was really sad most of the time.

So I made a spontaneous decision to go up to Falls Creek, that place that I loved, which had become quite a spiritual place to me. I had much to think about,  and I was sure that at Falls Creek I would find the answers.

It was January, and I wasn’t working so there was nothing to stop me from heading up the mountain for a few days. I decided to go for a week, and was looking forward to staying at our favourite hotel from previous visits. On arrival, I was told that as in years gone by, I was the only person staying at the hotel. I was given permission to use any part of the hotel that I wished including the pool. All they asked of me was that I put the cover back on the pool when I was finished.

Starting on the first day there, I fell into the routine of getting out of bed early and eating breakfast on the balcony, overlooking the mountains. When I think of Falls Creek, now, it’s that breathtaking view that comes to mind. After breakfast I would go hiking for a few hours, then swim and rest with a book in the afternoon. Bliss!

I immediately noticed that there were more people around than in previous years. Progress had come to the village,  with a new supermarket and a couple of bars. There was even a coffee shop close to my hotel.

The hiking trails were still quiet in the early hours of the morning. I noticed that as I was finishing, other hikers were just getting started. This suited me, as it allowed me to walk in peace and quiet and not be annoyed by people talking on the hiking trails, which is something that I tend to get annoyed about at times.

I’d love to say that I solved my life’s problems while up at Falls Creek. But really, I didn’t give those problems much thought at all. I had the most beautiful, peaceful time alone up there in the mountains. I look back on that week  as one of the best times of my life, even though my life was in turmoil.

After a week of bliss, I returned home, where eventually, life started to fall into place, and I evolved into the person that I am today, which is a different person to who I was when I was married. I am happy, calm and at peace with who I am. Even though there was no magic cure found at Falls Creek, I’m sure that my spiritual connection with the tiny village helped me to find direction in my new life.

  • The writing exercises in this series are from Patti Miller’s book – Writing True Stories, published in 2017, by Allen & Unwin.

Writing Memoir – Uncommon Experience

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Workshop 3 Page 61 – An uncommon experience.

Write about an unusual experience, concentrating on the particular details and the actual event. (15 minutes)

It was an unusually warm day in August when I left the house to collect the children from their primary school, about 2 kilometers from our house.  On the way to the school, two fire trucks passed me, going the opposite way. I thought nothing of as it wasn’t unusual to see them around town, with their sirens blaring and lights flashing.

As I was waiting at school for the children, I was surprised to see one of our employees walking towards the car. He didn’t have children at the school, and I was a bit perplexed as to why he would be there during working hours.

But as it turned out, he was trying to find me, amongst all the mums doing school pickup. From that moment on, the ordinary world of our ordinary family was changed by an extraordinary event.

He had come to give me the news that our house had burned down. How could that be? I had just left? Everything was ok before I walked out the door, only 15 minutes ago. We didn’t live in an old weatherboard house that would burn easy.Our house was a new modern brick veneer house. How could that possibly burn? These were all the questions running through my brain in the confusion of not understanding what had happened.

However, as was the fashion in the 1980s, much of our house was lined with pine boards, so once the fire started, it burnt very quickly, with no chance of putting it out. I found out later that the two fire trucks that had passed me, were going to our house and by the time they arrived, they could do nothing, except stop the fire spreading to the neighbours houses.

We went immediately to my parents house. I was conscious of not panicking and keeping everything as normal as possible for my three children who had lost all of their possessions in the fire. At this stage they didn’t know this and I was aware of how upsetting that news would be to them.

We all went to see the house the next day. I couldn’t believe that all that was standing were the exterior walls. Nothing was saved, but as we scratched through the ashes we found a couple of pieces of my jewellery. That was all.

I didn’t really care about the ‘stuff’ that we had lost. I was so thankful that nobody was home at the time the fire broke out.  Investigators told us that the fire was caused by faulty wiring being done at the time of construction. It started  in a bedroom, and was probably sizzling away quietly for days until that fateful day, when I opened the front door, to leave. That door was opposite the bedroom, and the fire burning slowly inside the walls, had probably reached the stage that it was almost ready to seriously burn, when I opened the front door to leave. The air that came through the open front door caused instantaneous burning almost like an explosion, even though I heard nothing as I left.

We stayed with my parents for a week, before finding temporary accommodation that wasn’t really ideal. The children were quite stressed and upset about losing their things and they showed their stress in different ways. On the day after the fire, I took Craig, who was 11 at the time, to the shop to buy an icecream as a treat, to take his mind off things. All the way there, he talked about which icecream he was going to have. When told they didn’t have that particular icecream he threw the biggest tantrum I’ve ever seen any child of any age throw. It was just the last straw for him.  I was too upset at seeing Craig’s hurt, to explain to the shopkeeper why this child of eleven was throwing a tantrum worthy of a two year old, over an icecream.  This boy was normally a very calm,  and placid child. But I could see that he felt totally out of control of what had happened to him and just lost the plot.

We were very fortunate to not need help from anyone to get back on our feet.We were fully insured and had a successful business that was able to support us and provide us with anything we needed, before the insurance settlement. I do and did realise that things could have been much worse than they were. But I couldn’t help feeling that I had lost control over my normal very controlled life. This was my first feeling of loss of control and it really upset me.

Three months after the fire, we moved into a beautiful house on two acres, that we had purchased just a few kilometres out of town. This house and the area was a fantastic place to bring up our children over the next few years. Because we were so happy there, I really can’t feel sad about the house fire, though it did take me quite a long time to get over the feeling of loss of control over my life.

The things that were lost in the fire that I missed weren’t the expensive furniture or jewellery or the latest fashions hanging in my wardrobe. I felt dreadful that a book that was published in the 1880s, and was give to me by my great grandmother was lost. My grandfather’s watch, that was left to me in his will was gone. It wasn’t an expensive watch, but it was quite old and I felt bad that it had been lost while I was meant to be looking after it, as he obviously expected that I would. I found it very easy to replace most of my clothes, but I really missed the old knock around things, such as trackies and comfy jeans. It just didn’t feel right doing the gardening in new clothes.

  • The writing exercises in this series are from Patti Miller’s book – Writing True Stories, published in 2017, by Allen & Unwin.

Writing Memoir – Ordinary Life

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Workshop 2 Page 60 – Ordinary Life

Write about an ordinary experience, one that many people may also have experienced. Focus on the particular details of what may have happened that day, rather than the event itself.

My ordinary experience was my first day of high school in 1966. During the summer holidays, after grade 6, most of my friends were looking forward to starting high school. I was not. I spent most of the holidays thinking about it and dreading it. I knew I would be out of my comfort zone and wasn’t looking forward to that feeling. There was no such thing as Orientation Day in those days, and until the first day of high school, I had never stepped inside those huge intimidating front gates.

The day arrived, far too quickly, and off I went in my starched summer uniform which I hated. From our first day of primary school, Mum always starched our uniforms to ‘stand alone stiffness’. I could accept that at primary school, but felt silly heading off to high school in a uniform that was so uncomfortable stiff. As well as being very stiff and uncomfortable, my uniform felt much too long for the fashions of 1966, and I felt dorky and awkward before I even arrived.

I was terrified of that first walk through the front gates, when I would be confronted by strangers, and would have no idea where to go.  The only thing I knew about this new unfamiliar school was the huge front gates. I had seen them many times, when out riding my bike with friends. I knew where the front gate was, but where to go first after entering them, was a mystery to me.  I have no memory of that information being given to us. Perhaps it was, but if so, I wasn’t paying attention.

The memory of walking through those gates, where older students were gathered makes me cringe, even today. I will never forget just how awkward and embarrassed I felt. Just ahead was a stairway that looked like it probably went somewhere important, so I decided to take that route. At the top of the stairs was a corridor filled with lockers… and many more students….and noise.  I was quite shy at the time, and wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.

The first class on that first day of high school was science. I have never forgotten that class or the teacher.  It’s not that I came to like science. If anything, science came to be my least favourite subject, as I expected. But that day, in that first science class, I learned something that I have never, ever forgotten in my lifetime.

Our teacher was Mr. Charlesworth. He seemed very pleasant and very casual, compared to our teachers at primary school. The lesson was about the planets and how they were aligned. I had no interest at all in learning about the planets and couldn’t see the point in learning about them. After all, what use would that information about the planets ever have in my daily life?

Very early in the lesson, Mr Charlesworth told us about the rhyme he had made up when he was a student, to make it easier for him to remember the order of the planets from the sun and working outwards.

For some reason that rhyme was chiselled into my brain on that day, and still is..

Rhyme:
Mr. VEM J. SUN & DOG

Mercury – Venus – Earth – Mars – Jupiter – Saturn – Uranus – Neptune and Pluto

Recently I had cause to use it at a Trivia night and everyone was shocked at my knowledge of the planets. On that dreaded first day of high school, there was no way that I could expect any information from that class about the planets, to be of any use to me 50 years later.

I often think that this little rhyme was the only thing I ever learned in Science, as I came to dread  seeing science on the timetable. But learning that small piece of information on a stressful first day of school, from a teacher, who knew how to engage his students, made me at least look forward to coming back the next day.

  • The writing exercises in this series are from Patti Miller’s book – Writing True Stories, published in 2017, by Allen & Unwin.

Writing Memoir – Records

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Workshop 1 Page 46 Records

We are instructed to take a document that exists in our life, such as a birth certificate, marriage certificate or school report etc. Ask what has come about because of this document , before or after it’s existence. Instructions are to write for about 10 minutes, and just to write what comes to mind, without re-writing or editing.

Immediately, my son Craig’s death certificate comes to mind. I’ve written about him many times on this blog, and really don’t mean to go on about the subject, but this record has had more impact on my life than any other.

This exercise is very timely as just a few days ago, on 14 July, it would have been my son’s 41st birthday. I had decided that this year, I would give readers a break from the subject and not blog about Craig. I was feeling stress about the decision as I did want to honour Craig, and his memory, as I would normally do. This exercise about a record, has prompted me to change my decision, so it really did come along at the right time.

In my mind, I just cannot imagine Craig at age 41, as he was only 18 at the time of his death.  To me, Craig will always be a teenager. I look at his older brother, my eldest child, and wonder would they be alike. I suspect not, as they were very different people at the time of Craig’s death, and also when they were small children. They were very different in both looks and personality.

Right from the beginning, I loved being a mother, but especially so as they became teenagers and started to develop into the adults that they would later become.  I was fortunate, as until their late teens, when they started to create their own lives, our children enjoyed spending time with us. I do remember feeling quite smug, that some of my friends’ children did all they could to get out of spending time with their parents. I did feel very fortunate and thankful that my children weren’t like that. However, looking back on those days, my smugness does make me feel a little embarassed.

Craig loved bikes and cycling, as I do, and did back then. We would often ride together  after I’d finished work, and he had finished school. As a teenager, Craig loved kids, and they seemed to be drawn to him. Most weekends and summer evenings would see him setting up jumps on the footpath in front of our house. The local kids would be lining up waiting for their turn to ride their bike over the jumps.  Young children were always knocking at our door, asking if Craig was home.

When, I think of the time after this death certificate came into existence,  the words I first think of are sadness, devastation, loneliness, regret, and anger and frustration. Of course, life as it had been before Craig died, continued, and became almost normal again. But it was never quite as ‘normal’ as it had previously been.

Today, even though I feel very sad when I think of Craig, I am able to think about the joy and happy memories he brought into my life, as a baby, a toddler, a young child and as a teenager. I treasure these precious memories that can never, ever be taken from me.

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Craig was just becoming an adult when he died, so it’s difficult to know what he would have been like as a mature adult. However, I do feel sure that by now, at age 41, Craig would have been a father. I feel very sure of that, and I just know, that like his big brother, he would have been a fantastic Dad. vff

 

 

 

 

 

The writing exercises in this series are from Patti Miller’s book – Writing True Stories, published in 2017, by Allen & Unwin.

Memoir Writing – Take An Object

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Workshop 1 Page 45 – Take an Object

Take an object that comes from the time in your life you want to write about. Looks at it carefully and write about anything that comes to mind about the object, or your life at the time.

I’ve been thinking through this writing exercise for days and struggling to come up with an object that I have in my possession from my childhood. Until today. When making the bed, I moved my chair.  My chair! That’s it!

I have had a small child’s chair since I was very young, probably about three years old. And I still have it, making this little chair about 62 years old. Fortunately, when I left home, as a young adult, my mother kept the chair at her house. She probably thought I wasn’t responsible enough yet, to look after it. But I’m not really sure if that was the reason.

Every time I look at that chair, I am so thankful that it did stay with my parents. In 1988, we had a house fire, where we lost everything. So my chair would no longer exist, if it had been in  my possession.

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The chair came back into my possession, in the 1990s and has sat in my many bedrooms,  ever since. This little chair has been consistently in my life, even when at times, there was very little consistency, so has huge sentimental value to me.

This special chair is a small cane chair, based on the larger chairs that were popular on verandah’s in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember my grandparents had two chairs, almost exactly the same along with a matching couch. I used to love laying on the couch, on a warm day, waiting for the trains that passed right in front of their house. I loved hearing the train’s horn, as it blew at the level crossing, near the house.

I really don’t remember much about my little chair, from my childhood, but I do have memories of sitting in it and listening to the large radio in our lounge room. I also remember being very possessive over this chair. It was my chair, and I wouldn’t tolerate my sisters sitting in it. I’m not sure how I came by the chair, but it was probably a birthday or Christmas present, as there was never any doubt that the chair was mine.

This little chair is in perfect condition. When I look at it now, sitting in the corner of my bedroom, it still looks to be in brand new condition, as it would have been on the day it came to me.

I do often wonder who will end up with this chair when I’m no longer here, and if they will they look after it, as I have. I’m not sure that the next generation will appreciate the history and the importance of this chair and how vital it is to make sure that it is kept safe. I’m sure this is a quandary that many of us have.

Do you have a sentimental item, from your childhood, in your possession? I’d love to hear about it. My policy is to reply to all comments.

The writing exercises in this series are from Patti Miller’s book – Writing True Stories, published in 2017, by Allen & Unwin.

Writing Memoir – Ramble

Part 1 Page 33 Ramble

 A useful exercise if you are unclear about your subject matter. Follow any train of thought that comes to you. Think about the theme you might want for your memoir.

I’m not at all sure of the theme that I want to have for my memoir, but I might want to explore the fact that I never knew my Dad’s family, when I was growing up.

As a small child, I always knew that Dad didn’t have parents, and was an orphan from a young age. That was just a fact that we always knew, that was never questioned or explained. Now that I’m older, it makes me feel very ashamed that as children, we never asked Dad about his parents. There was no sense of secrecy around this at all. It was just something that was never mentioned, Perhaps, because they died more than twenty years before we were born and long before Dad met Mum.

We knew that Dad had 10 brothers and sisters and was the second youngest child in the family. Up until  I was about nine years old, some of his brothers would occasionally visit when they were in town. They lived in Melbourne and would come to Shepparton to visit their sister and Dad. It was because his sister lived in Shepparton, that Dad met Mum.

I’m not sure what happened, or if there was some sort of falling out, but Dad’s brothers and sisters eventually stopped coming. We did see his sister who lived in Shepparton, occasionally.

I’m positive that Dad didn’t have a falling out with his siblings, as in later years he only spoke glowingly of them. When Dad was growing up, he was very close to his family, so if there was any estrangement at all, I’m sure it would have caused him much pain.

Later, when I was in my early forties, I started to research my Dad’s family history. One of the things that amazed me. was to find that I had a large number of first cousins. The numbers grow and grow, when starting to add up the second cousins.

Even today this feels very strange to me. When I was growing up, I only had contact with four cousins.They were the children of Mum’s sister. We eventually lost touch with Dad’s sister in Shepparton, and Mum’s family were the only family I knew as I was growing up.

When I was in primary school, I was always envious of my friends who had many cousins. I can remember thinking how great that would be. These thoughts are so clear in my memory, that they seem to be a theme thoughout my younger years. I was good friends with my cousins that I knew, but always felt that something was missing. Why couldn’t I have many cousins as my friends did? This was a constant thought.

In later years, I have met many of my cousins from Dad’s side, and feel much regret that we didn’t know each other as children.

As instructed, this exercise does feel like a ramble, as I try to get my thoughts together around the topic of my missing family.

  • The writing exercises in this series are from Patti Miller’s book – Writing True Stories, published in 2017, by Allen & Unwin.
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