Writing about Your Life: Another Way to Skin a Cat

journal keeper

journal keeper (Photo credit: normanack)

In 1972, after our third and last child was born, we moved from a small frame house in Washington, D.C., into a gigantic frame house farther toward the edge of town. It was the house of my dreams, with seven bedrooms… , a cozy kitchen, and a front window that looked out onto a 1950’s-era neighborhood full of big trees and little children sucking popsicles as they whizzed down the street on their bicycles. As I stood in the front hall and mentally plugged in the Christmas tree, I knew I could spend the rest of my life there. What I didn’t know was that “the rest of my life” was about to end.

     When I picked up Phyllis Theroux’s memoir, The Journal Keeper, I was hooked! I wanted to know more about that seven bedroom house of her dreams. I wanted to look out that front window and peer down that tree-lined street and see little kids slurping popsicles while riding their bikes. Although I never enjoyed riding a bicycle, for a moment I sat on the seat and whizzed down the street with the other kids. I was caught up in the moment and wanted more.

      I experienced Phyllis’ desire to stay in that moment forever. And then it happened…The writer threw a curve ball. She wrote one sentence which utterly changed the mood. Something unexpected happened and I wanted to know the details. What could happen in my warm, cozy house? Yes, by this time, her house had become mine. I had to find out what happened to disappoint the writer.  And so I read on, my appetite now awakened.

     Describing a scene which pulls the reader into her story, then shifting the mood through a contrasting statement is one of the magical techniques Phyllis Theroux uses at the beginning of her memoir. I was absolutely hooked and couldn’t wait to follow her journey. And I was not disappointed. Theroux shares her innermost feelings in her memoir, which contains glimpses into her day-to-day life. It is set up like a journal, with events capturing the writer’s attention on a particular day. For those of you who have faithfully kept journal entries over the years and were afraid you didn’t have the skills to transpose them into a long narrative, this memoir serves as an alternative model.

     I’m learning that “there’s more than one way to skin a cat!” Yeah, I know that’s a pretty overworked expression, but in some cases, it’s the best way to describe options. So if you were thinking that writing a book about your life was outside your comfort zone, then stay inside. The fire is lit just for you! The best way to learn a craft, as I mentioned before, is to read what others have written. It’s your time to share what God has done for you! Somebody needs to hear your story.

   

Writing about Your Life: Season Generously!

marimekko マリメッコ ペーパーナプキン

marimekko マリメッコ ペーパーナプキン (Photo credit: rexxgon)

 Imagine what it would be like to live in a world without your five senses. I’m sure you’ve heard of Helen Keller. For those who have not, she was a woman born blind and deaf. Her difficulty communicating led to great frustration for her and her family.  Dinner time was unbearable for all. Helen often threw food at the table. When the family hired a wise tutor, Annie Sullivan, Helen eventually had a major breakthrough. One way to help readers share your experience is by using details relevant to the time period of your memoir.  You want readers to feel as if you’ve invited them to dine at your table. You don’t want to treat them like strangers.

In her memoir, Invisible Sisters, writer Jessica Handler invites the reader into her world through the use of details relevant to her childhood. I’ve listed a few which made me feel as if I was invited into her world:

  •  black-and-white stiff-backed photos
  • a boy with hair the red-gold of tiger lilies
  • sky as blue as morning glories
  • a starburst corsage
  • light-colored hair cut short, like nailbrushes
  • dressed in Marimekko prints or floppy dashikis
  • two dry white Halvah candy bars that tasted to me like chunks of sesame sawdust
  • sunlight and the electric light mixed together, making a yellow glow

How have you set your table? Is it colorful? Does it look tasty? In other words, does the reader feel like a guest of honor? If you’re writing about the past, have you taken time to use specific words that help the reader travel back in time?

While writing your first draft, you may not always use the best word choice. You can always go back later and make revisions. But keep in mind that choosing words carefully will ultimately pay off for you and the reader. There’s nothing worse than a bland, tasteless meal. Check your spice cabinet and season generously!