The Year in Memoir

My first year of my graduate program is nearing its end. Next Tuesday I will turn in the last of my assignments and end this year in memoir.

In addition to working this year with the venerable and talented writer Mary Clearman Blew, I’ve had twenty-three other teachers. Mary is my mentor for the first year of my graduate program and next week, on the 22nd, to be precise, my year-long mentorship will come to a conclusion (although she and I will reunite, in the flesh, at residency in August. I’m hoping we’ll sip a bit of whiskey together). Year one will end. Sigh. A year of writing, reading, discussing, musing and pondering about my story, and about how to tell my story. While I’ve been fortunate to communicate with Mary via email and send her my work and receive her wise and insightful feedback on my creative work, I’ve also learned more than I anticipated from twenty-three different teachers, the twenty-three authors of twenty-four books I’ve read since September to now.

The requirements for the Rainier Writing Workshop with Pacific Lutheran University’s first year are eight mailings that include twenty-four readings with critical response papers and eight submissions of creative, original work. Over the weekend, I finished the last book of my selection, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. I am overjoyed that I’ve nearly finished my first year in graduate school, proud of the amount of creative work I’ve generated (although I’m not completely sure about its direction or form, but it’s there, yes, it’s there: over 200 pages) yet a bit awed that the year–the writing and the reading–has gone by so quickly. Yes, residency is nearing and I can’t hardly wait until August to arrive on campus, reconnect with my classmates, attend workshops and classes, and see where year two will take me. But it all happened so quickly.

Luckily, these twenty-three authors will remain with me, their names and stories arranged on my bookshelf, ready and willing to impart their wisdom and awareness into life and writing anytime I crack open the cover and await the lesson. I read all memoirs this year–and I read wide and far. A gamut of writers, subjects and styles–from graphic memoirs to hybrid memoirs to traditional autobiographies. And I admired all of them, and will cherish them. Approaching a text in this manner–examining it as a writer rather than a reader–has broadened my capacities as a writer. Each text has expanded my knowledge of how to write one’s story, how to experiment on the page, how to play and shape language, and how, ultimately, to be true to your own story. What magical, beautiful and powerful lessons.

I’ve long been drawn to books but since September, the books I’ve read for my program have touched me differently. Upon my close examination, they’ve been a marvel, and an entry-point  into the writing world. I see these books differently than if I’d come across them as just an avid reader. They’ve challenged me greatly as a writer; sometimes so much that I couldn’t write a single word because what I’d read was so beautiful and perfect I felt momentarily defeated. Mostly, though, energetically inspired. Doses of courage between sentences. Illuminated and enlightened. And honestly, made to feel a part of the collective, a part of the fabric that is writing, that is story.

Lessons on the page like these:

  • “How far do I have to go before I can say I’ve been there?” The Accidental Explorer by Sherry Simpson.
  • “This good story. This boyish heart-joy. The young man knows that no one will ever write a better story than this one. Because it’s true, and because it is his own.” Works Cited, Brandon Schrand
  • “When you have committed enough words to paper you feel you have a spine stiff enough to stand up in the wind. But when you stop writing you find that’s all you are, a spine, a row of rattling vertebrae, dried out like an old quill pen.”  Giving Up the Ghost,  Hilary Mantel
  • “What I am looking for, at least so I tell myself, is a set of stories to inhabit, all I can know, a place to care about.” Hole in the Sky, William Kittredge
  • “For many years I wandered through the desert in search of a narrative that was not mine. I did not feel I belonged here. I was borrowing a landscape until I found my own. But when I stopped searching and settled into the erosional peace of the redrock desert, I found myself quietly held by an immensity I could not name.” When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams
  • “We tell stories to talk about the trouble in our lives, trouble otherwise so often unspeakable. It is one of our main ways of making our lives sensible. Trying to live without stories can make us crazy. They help us recognize what believe to be most valuable in the world, and help us identify what we hold demonic.
    Hole in the Sky, Kittredge
  • “A pencil can be sharpened repeatedly and then disappear in the process. Like me. In the past, my words have been born out of flames. Today my words emerge from water. A woman’s water breaks, and she goes into labor. Birth is imminent. A writer’s imagination breaks loose and she, too, goes into labor.” When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams

I humbly say thank you to these authors, and their books:

1. The Accidental Explorer, Sherry Simpson

2. Heart Earth, Ivan Doig

3. The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro

4. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and 5.  An American Childhood, Annie Dillard

6. In This Native, Annick Smith

7. The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich

8. Flicka’s Friend, Mary O’Hara

9. In the Wilderness, Kim Barnes

10. Lying, Lauren Slater

11. Wyoming Trucks, True Love and The Weather Channel, Jeffe Kennedy

12. Half in Shade, Judith Kitchen

13. Remembering the Bone House, Nancy Mairs

14. Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel

15. The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr

16. The Days Are Gods, Liz Stephens

17. Works Cited, Brandon Schrand

18. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller

19. Hole in the Sky, William Kittredge

20. Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel

21. The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris

22. The Mountain and The Fathers, Joe Wilkins

23. When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams

24. Wild, Cheryl Strayed


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