Friday, January 27, 2012

Tolkien and hair curlers in the Targhee Forest

We made this word cloud featuring words from this post at

Recently we’ve talked about writing memoir by drawing a map, writing a map story and focusing on sensory images. This piece started with a sketchy map of my family’s mountain work camp:

Brenda and I – the camp cooks—dress in swimming suits and follow a stream that cuts through the meadow and spills down a lava rock hillside. 
The waterfall is only big enough for one.
Being older, Brenda goes first.  She washes her hair while I take my turn reading her copy of “The Two Towers.”
The smell of pine hangs in the air, resinous. The click and hum of insects clings to it.  Everything vibrates with this scent and sound, the sun vibrates on the Targhee National Forest where our Dad and brothers are working on this Wednesday afternoon in July.
I never get drowsy reading about Frodo and Sam, but when they are at the mercy of orcs or Shelob, Tolkien turns his back on them to ramble on about Aragorn or Saruman.
“Criminy!  I don’t want to read about this Théoden guy! I’m gonna skip ahead!”
“It’s an epic. Heroes are fighting Sauron all over Middle Earth. You can’t just pick and choose which story is important,” Brenda says as she rolls her dark hair onto plastic rollers without the benefit of a mirror.
“You’re just saying that because you’re in love with Aragorn,” I grumble. “He’s about as interesting as a science book at school.”
I inch into the waterfall one toe at a time, shivering, and when I lift my face into the rushing water, my eyeglasses wash into the stream’s plunge down the mountainside. 
“Arghh! My glasses!”  I grope around the base of the mossy rock where I stand.
Brenda tosses her book down and reaches into the water downstream.  It won’t take long for the swift water to wash the glasses into the wider, murkier waters of East Beaver Creek at the bottom of the hill.
It’s hard to search when I can’t see, when the black of the lava rock blends into the black of the mossy bottom, in water that recently melted from a glacier, when my fingers are frozen and I want to get out and stand in the sun and put my hands in my armpits and warm up, and when the rocks are so slippery that my fingers slip helplessly, or the rocks are so rough that they scrape my skin.
Tears flow into the icy water. New glasses will cost Dad $30 he doesn’t have right now, $30 we need for groceries and gas. Nobody can take me to town to buy them anyway. I’ll be blind as a bat until I get new glasses.
Arms and legs outstretched, Brenda gropes in the stream, looking oddly like a large but somewhat graceful Gollum. Suddenly she jumps in, clothes and all.
Your hair!” I yell.
She dips under like a duck and emerges with my glasses in her fist, water dripping from her curlers.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lye soap and cow pies—the stuff of our best stories!

Memories are not cooperative.  As sure as we pull out a paper or open a document and write, “My Life History” across the top, the mind goes blank.  We wonder, “Where are all the great memories I wanted to share with my children?”
We may toil away, attempting to write chronologically, but the imp of living, breathing memory hides just out of sight.  We may force ourselves to write, but do we really want our grandkids to read pages and pages of stuff such as:  “Mrs. Lane was my fourth grade teacher.  She was very nice.”
So first, draw a map.
In my last column, I suggested that to mine the past for memories, start by drawing a map of a childhood neighborhood, or a diagram of a childhood home.  My good friend, talented artist Patty Bess, told me that her children said, “Great idea!  Peter Pan had a map of Neverland, and “The Lord of the Rings” had a map of Middle Earth.” 
We can’t be in better company than J. M. Barrie and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Best of all—this exercise gets the memories flowing for our own stories.
We all want to “see” our past, but we must smell, touch and hear it as well.
Master storyteller Donald Davis tells people who want to tell stories that memory is sensory.  He describes the smell of his childhood dentist’s office: “like burnt chicken feathers” and the smell of the dentist’s bathroom: “like old fruitcake.” 
“When we listen to a story, we have to mentally see where we are and who is there—and then we can follow the story…. We paint the backdrop… but as the storyteller, I hand you the paint.  If we go to my grandmother’s house in a story, you paint it with memories of your grandmother’s home or a place like it,” he said in a recent radio interview.
And sensory memories are the paint.
So after drawing the map, the next step is to choose a place on your map or house diagram and think about the senses connected to it. 
Here are some ideas: 
How did the canal smell when you floated down it in an inner tube?
That pasture across the road—How did you feel about the cows? Were you frightened by their horns?  Was the ground a carpet of green or field of scrubby, clumps of dirt and bits of chewed-down grass?  What did you call the manure?  (We called it cow pies—horse biscuits were found in the horse pasture!)
The cattail patch (the stage for Patty’s imaginary playtimes)—How did the cattails feel?  What did you do with them?
The smells of Grandma’s kitchen: Bacon on a fall morning, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, a crock of odorous sauerkraut, Numotizine medicine on a plaster for a feverish chest—and the paint smell when Brenda and Caroline painted the walls that apricot color. 
What bathroom soap did she use?  I learned how lye soap smells in one place only—Grandma Rhodie’s bathroom.  James Herriot wrote that for years, he couldn’t use one brand of soap because it evoked memories—his wife had packed it lovingly for him to use during military training.   Another Grandma’s bathroom had sandpaper on the walls and matches in a box—an early form of “Airwick” that could’ve been named “Smoky Sensations.” 
Write these thoughts and sensations down, and don’t follow the essay form you hated in school.   You don’t need an introduction and ending—dive into the middle of your map and your sensory memories and the stories will follow.  If you hate writing, follow Davis’s lead and tell the stories.  Share them with the next generation in a way that makes you comfortable.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Bring history to life with a map to the treasure of your past!

Congratulations!  You’ve survived another year and another holiday season. 
Yellow caution lights are flashing, though: January is dead ahead—a closet of a month stuffed with resolutions, procrastinated projects, dusty good intentions and a Christmas tree and strings of outdoor lights waiting to come down.
The closet door is groaning—it’s moving—it’s blasting open—watch out! 
Yep, January is that vague “someday” that seems so far away when we’re shoving jobs into it.   Then on about January 2, our justifications for not getting things done—the garden needs harvested, the grass must be mowed, the holidays are coming—are gone; the door unlocks, and we’re buried in a landslide of procrastinated work.
No more excuses.  It’s time to “get around to it.” 
Is personal or family history writing one of the brickbats in your January closet? You mighty try the following kick-start project, which could be a fantastic help in getting you rolling—or possibly, a clever dodge to avoid all those other dusty jobs for yet a little longer.
Instead of writing, try drawing.
Draw a map of your childhood neighborhood, or any location that played an important part in your life. You could also plumb the depths of memory to draw the house plans of homes where you lived.
This idea comes from Bill Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.
Roorbach uses this exercise as the first in his memoir writing workshops.  What better way to plunge ourselves into memories than by re-creating the world where we lived?
As with most things, getting started is the hardest part.  Pick art materials you’re comfortable with—in my case, a spiral notebook and a #2 pencil with a good eraser. There may be a few techno-geeks who’d prefer to try this on a computer, and to them I say, “Whatever floats your boat.”  The key is to TRY.
Make a square, label it “our house” and you’ve begun.  Then draw the neighbors’ houses, your schoolhouse, church, and the streets, parks, intersections, waterways and stores that were near your childhood home.
It may help to indicate “N, S, E, W” on the top, bottom and sides of the map.  Or you may choose not to place north at the top—after all, it’s YOUR map.
I drew two maps—the back country “canyon” surrounded by dry farm land where our family lived during the summers, and Teton City, population 289, where we spent winters in order to be close to school. 
I’m no artist, and my squares and squiggles aren’t imaginative or even cartographically correct.  My maps are labeled profusely, because even I may not be able to remember that those uneven triangles represent the Teton Peaks.  But drawing triggered memories and emotions, and prepared me to identify with my past in a whole new way. 
For instance, Teton City is criss-crossed by canals, a fact I never internalized until I had to draw them.  No wonder my mother was terrified that one of her children or grandchildren would drown in a canal.  Not surprisingly, the first story I wrote after drawing the maps was about losing my eyeglasses in a canal.
Amazingly, drawing made me want to write—to explain why “The Grove” was important place.  Deep in its shady depths, an ancient cottonwood spread branches across the ground in a way that formed a cave. Generations of children hid there, I’m sure—but back then, I swore that I discovered it!
Go ahead—make a resolution to finish your history-writing project.  And then, start drawing!