Thursday, October 13, 2011

Memoir Writing

Other than blithering on about Margaret Atwood, I haven't talked much about the North Words Literary Festival in Muskoka (Sept. 30 - Oct. 2, 2011), but I want to. North Words was one of the most inspiring, most fun, most fabu-lishus celebrations of the written word I have ever been to.

This year I signed up for a full day writer's workshop, the Margaret Atwood speech and an authors' forum but there was more I would have enjoyed, including a live book club, readings, and breakfasts with well known authors. Next year, for sure, I want to buy a weekend pass and go to every darn thing they've got.

When I signed up for the writer's workshop, I was more interested in the morning presentation (how to find a publisher and an agent) than I was for the afternoon (memoir writing). I only signed up for the afternoon session because I already had to book a day off work and, what the hell – lunch was included. And you know me, it's always about the lunch!

As a former newspaper columnist and a blogger, I thought the memoir writing workshop couldn't teach me anything new. I thought it might be leaden lessons for a bunch of old ladies who want to know how to write their boring life stories – boy, was I wrong. I mean, yes, the room was full of old ladies, including myself, as well as young ladies and some men of various ages; and yes, they wanted to learn how to write their life stories – but they were anything BUT boring.

The workshop was led by Cori Howard, an award-winning journalist who has written for some of the top newspapers and magazines in the country. She is the editor of the best-selling anthology Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood. Cori started The Mommoir Project to teach and inspire mothers to find their voices and inspire the confidence necessary to believe the mundane details of their everyday lives matter – and make compelling stories.

She started out by reading a few memoirs to us, including Lit by Mary Karr. The segment she read absolutely stunned me – I need to read the whole book asap. Yes, it was first person. Yes, it was a memoir, but it read like a finely crafted book of fiction, and the prose was undeniable – hard-edged, poetic and magnetic in its appeal.

Cori then talked about finding a moment, or a scene, from our own lives and how to write about our lives from the perspective of that scene. She gave us a half an hour or so to write something and then some of us read our stories out loud.

I was obnoxious – I know, hard to believe. But I was so excited about what I had written down that I started waving my arm in the air when she wanted to know who wanted to read first. Picture Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter and you get the idea. Other people were also excited to share what they had written and everyone was excited to hear what they had read. Laughter rang out through the Huntsville Public Library as funny bits were read. Tears were shed at other parts. By the time the afternoon was done, everyone felt a new closeness as well as a confidence that, hey, we could do this.

Cori's right – everyone does have a story to tell. Many stories, actually. All it takes is a little direction and inspiration to get them on paper.

Because I really am like Horshack, here's what I scribbled down:

It’s a wonder I don’t fantasize about the Maytag repairman. Not someone who goes ga-ga over a man in uniform, perhaps that’s the reason; maybe it’s also because Gordon Jump is the actor who is playing the latest Maytag man in the TV commercials, and I can’t think of Gordon Jump without thinking about the dumbass character he portrayed on WKRP in Cincinnati.

No, it’s not the Maytag man that keeps me coming to the big white boat of an appliance hulking in the back corner of our little log house. It’s the dirty socks and underwear that seemingly breed in the washing machine’s presence. My husband and two sons are veritable factories of filthy laundry.

Diesel oil, road dust and gasoline on Dave’s once-navy-blue work coveralls, the ones with “Angelo” on the embroidered nametag because, when he started working at the Huntsville Chrysler dealership three years ago, the woman who ordered work clothes ordered the wrong name. I don’t know how she mistook Dave for Angelo, but she did, and while she has been promising for three years to get Dave his own name on his own shirts, it hasn’t happened yet.

So I wash Angelo’s coveralls, and hoodies out the yin-yang from Angus and Sam. It’s all they want to wear. Hooded sweatshirts, even in the sultry thick of a mid-summer day. The hoodies belonging to Angus, who is 14, come back to me and the Maytag smelling vaguely of goat. It must be a teenage thing, this heady goaty aroma, a mixture of B.O. and, gawd, I don’t even want to imagine what else. I remember my boyfriends all smelled the same way. When I was 14, I thought it was sexy. Not so much, anymore. Sam, who is still only 11, has hoodies that smell clean, like fresh air, like sunbaked sand.

I inhale this 11-year-old hoodie fragrance, so beautiful it should be bottled, because I know that some day soon, it will change. I am tempted some days not to wash it, to put it away in a bottom drawer, to keep it as a sweet vestige of a time before everything changes, for good, and forever.


  1. What an experience. I love what you wrote, I love how you started it. It's funny, and then at the end I can feel that sad mommy feeling that your little boy will soon smell like goat. Awesome job.

    Say hi to Angelo for me.

  2. Only you can make laundry funny.

  3. It sounds like you got quite a lot out of the Lit Fest and your impromtu ode to laundry is evidence enough that the mundane can be made very entertaining!

  4. Your experience sounds wonderful. I think you have an amazing voice filled with humor. I simply love your writing!

  5. As always Cathy, you slay me. That workshop sounds awesome and I love what you wrote. Are you going to write your memoir now????


  6. I laughed at your description of fourteen year old boy smells. Goat it definitely is. I know, I work in a high school with the emphasis on "high."

  7. Hi Cathy. Did you know you're mentioned on Laura Eno's blog? Thought I'd stop by and say hello. Been quite a while since I've been here.

  8. Hi Cathy. Nice to meet you. I'm over here from Laura's blog via the 'Pay it Forward' blogfest. I look forward to visiting again soon. Laundry, fun? Hmm...

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