On Rocking Horses, Reading About Horses, and Real Horses

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Xmas 56 (cropped)I’ve posted about my first Christmas before. Someone in the family—my father or grandfather—was good enough to take a picture of all the presents I received from Santa Claus before I was awake to see them. (Not that, at eight months, I could have done too much damage to them.)

Many of those first Christmas presents remained in our family a long time. My first doll, mentioned in an earlier post, that my mother kept, and that I found after my parents died. The rug in the shape of a cat that I took to kindergarten.

rocking-horseAnd my first rocking horse.

Actually, I think this was the only rocking horse that I or any of my siblings ever had. I used to love visiting friends who had the big horses on springs that really bounced the rider around like a bucking bronco. But all we had was this sedate little fellow that moved gently back and forth on an arced wooden base when propelled by the rider’s weight.

Like many preteen girls, I went through a stage of fascination with horses when I was about ten. I read Misty of Chincoteague and all the sequels by Marguerite Henry. I read The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and a couple of those sequels. And I read My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara and its two sequels.

But I rarely encountered an actual horse in my life. Only once or twice did we ever vacation in a place where we could take trail rides. My first substantial time spent on horseback was when my husband and I took our kids to a dude ranch in Wyoming in 1990. After a week on horseback, I yearned for the gentle swaying and narrow girth of my toddler-sized rocking horse.

So I was thrilled a few years ago to see the old nag when I visited my youngest brother around Christmas time. Somehow, his family ended up with my little pony. His daughters are too big for it now, but I imagine he still has it. Maybe they even bring it out of storage to put under the Christmas tree.

What old relics from your childhood have you found?

On Heffalumps, Hookers, and Humor

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Here’s a (sort of) Christmas story I’ve never posted before. I wrote it for a writers’ group holiday party a few years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

On Heffalumps, Hookers, and Humor

mMugZTSQ4XYjmDRF06mOI1g PoohThe winter when I was four, I wasn’t supposed to know how to read, but I did. When Mommy read me stories and had to stop in the middle, I read ahead. Sometimes I forgot to turn the page back and lost our place.

One day in December, just before Christmas, I sat on the floor playing by Daddy’s bookcase. Daddy was getting a P-H-D. His books were boring. They had lots of numbers and squiggly lines that weren’t letters, and were called “Metal-lurgy” and “Ther-mo-dy-nam-ics.”

That day I saw a new book on Daddy’s shelf called Winnie the Pooh.

My grandma’s name was “Winnie.” Her real name was “Winifred Hooker,” but everyone —even Daddy—called her “Nanny Winnie.” Except for Mommy—my mommy called Nanny Winnie “Mother.”

Mommy often told her friends she used to be a “Hooker.” The grown-ups always laughed at that, but I didn’t know why. “Hooker” had been Mommy’s name until she married Daddy, so I didn’t see why that name was funny.

Sometimes Nanny Winnie called herself “Mrs. Claus.” She wrote on all her Christmas presents “from Santa and Mrs. Claus.” I could tell it was Nanny’s writing, because it was very messy. That’s how I knew the presents weren’t really from Santa—they were just from Nanny Winnie. (Besides, Santa didn’t wrap his presents.)

Now I’d found a book about “Winnie.” And about “Pooh,” which made me giggle.

I pulled the book off the shelf and opened it. It had pictures. But they weren’t boring pictures like in Daddy’s books. These pictures were of a bear, and a boy, and other animals. This book looked like one of my books.

I took the book to Mommy. “See what Daddy has,” I said. “Is it for me?”

She didn’t want to tell me, but finally she said, “Yes, it’s one of your Christmas presents. Since you found it, you can have it now.” Even though it wasn’t Christmas yet.

Daddy started reading it to me that night. Mommy had read the book when she was little, but Daddy never had.

Winnie the Pooh wasn’t like my Nanny Winnie at all. He was a boy, not a girl. And he was a bear. And he had a friend named Piglet.

And he was dumb. The book even said Pooh was a “bear of little brain.”

In one story, Pooh went round and round a clump of bushes in the snow with Piglet. They were tracking heffalumps. Every time they went around the bushes, more tracks appeared. Daddy laughed so hard he couldn’t read.

Why did Daddy think the story was funny? I didn’t think it was funny—I thought it was stupid. The pictures showed Pooh and Piglet following their own footprints in the snow. There weren’t any heffalumps. Heffalumps was a made-up word.

I decided Winnie the Pooh was a silly book. I couldn’t understand why my very smart Daddy thought it was funny.

It’s taken me sixty years’ experience with some people of little brain to understand why Daddy laughed.

And why Nanny Winnie signed her presents “from Santa and Mrs. Claus.” Because Christmas is a time when everyone is Santa.

This story raises lots of questions: When have you found a present that was hidden? Or when have you played Santa for someone else? And when have you had to deal with people of llittle brain? 

My Parents’ Engagement Party

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My parents were married in June 1955, after about seven years of dating—they’d met as high school freshmen and begun dating when they were sophomores. Their relationship survived the remainder of high school and four years at different colleges. Sixty-two years ago this month, in December 1954, during Christmas break of their senior year of college, they got engaged.

My mother’s parents threw a big engagement party in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where my mother had grown up. The event was significant enough to make the Klamath Falls newspaper, The Herald & News. Among the things I found in cleaning out my parents’ house were newspaper clippings of the event. There were also photographs that had appeared in the paper. I don’t know whether my grandparents had the pictures taken by a photographer they hired (most likely), or if a newspaper photographer took the pictures and later gave my grandparents copies.

Here are my mother and her mother baking Christmas cookies that year. I don’t know if the cookies were for the engagement party or for some other occasion that holiday.

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And here are my mother and father walking up the stairs at their engagement party. I later made doll clothes out of scraps of material left over from my mother’s dress.

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My dad later told me how he’d saved the money to buy my mother’s engagement ring. It was a small diamond set in white gold (my sister has it now, or I’d include a picture of the ring).

After giving my mother her ring at the party in December, my father realized he needed money for a honeymoon. So he went back to work after the holidays during his final semester of college at the  University of Washington to earn the money. He worked for Boeing in Seattle as a night engineer of some sort.

He told me it was a perfect job for a college student. He worked the evening shift from 4:00 until midnight, and he sat in an office doing his homework. Occasionally, someone brought him an engineering problem to solve or a drawing to approve, but for the most part, he was free to concentrate on his classwork.

And he must have earned plenty, because they had a two-week honeymoon in Carmel, California.

What do you know about your parents’ courtship?

Atomic Baby

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I deliberately keep this blog apolitical, and this post is not meant to be political. Yet recent events have made me remember the Cold War era and have made me as uneasy about the possibility of nuclear war as I have been since I was a child.

I was a child of the atomic age. Growing up in Richland, Washington, which had been part of the Manhattan Project during World War II, I was aware of the possibility of nuclear war at a very young age. My father worked at the Hanford Engineering Works, doing research on the impact of plutonium on metals. From the time we returned to Richland when I was in the first grade, I knew Richland would be a target if the Russians ever attacked (at the time, we only worried about the Russians).

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“Take cover” drill in Brooklyn in 1962, photo by Walter Albertin, from Library of Congress 

In the spring of 1963, which I now realize was shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, though I didn’t make the connection as a second grader, we had a drill. We’d done the duck and cover drills in the past, hiding under our desks, as if that would keep us safe from the bomb.

But this drill was different. We had to get from our school to our homes, or some other safe location, within a short period of time. I can’t recall how long we had, but it was no longer than twenty minutes from the time the siren sounded.

I lived three miles from my school. My mother drove me to and from school each day, unless she’d made other arrangements. We could not rely on vehicles for this drill. We had to get to our safe location on our own feet.

My mother made arrangements for me to walk to the home of one of her friends. This family lived not too far from my school. If I walked quickly, I could make it in fifteen or twenty minutes—within whatever the time allotted was.

My mother and I practiced. She walked with me one day from my school to her friend’s house.

On the day of the drill, I couldn’t eat because I was so nervous. I worried whether I could make the walk in time. What if I got lost? What if the friend wasn’t home? What if I misplaced the card the friend had to complete and sign verifying my arrival time? What if war really came and I never saw my parents again?

The siren sounded, startling me, even though I knew it was coming. Together with all my classmates, we scrambled to gather our belongings and head out the door. I recall wide eyes and silence as we did so, though the silence might have been because the nuns demanded it, rather than everyone’s fear of the drill.

I marched down the street as fast as I could, fast enough to get a stitch in my side. That made me slow a bit to catch my breath, but I was on a downhill stretch by then.

I made it on time. As I recall, I had a couple of minutes to spare. And I got to play with the friend’s kids until my mother could pick me up.

Despite the fear, there was some pride in Richland about our connection with atomic bombs. A decade after our drill, I attended Columbia High School in Richland, home of the Richland Bombers. Our mascot was a nuclear bomb. There are those who will tell you the mascot was a bomber plane, but the image in the middle of the high school commons was of a mushroom cloud.

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Richland Bombers logo

By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, the threat of nuclear war seemed more distant than it had when I was smaller. And even later, in the 1980s, nuclear war seemed unlikely.

Now, with more and less stable nations having atomic weapons, with Russia’s recent aggressions in former satellites, with continuing unrest in the Middle East, with Fidel Castro’s death in Cuba, with the President-elect seeming less inclined to support international alliances, I recall the fear I had as a child.

I hope our school children in the next few years don’t find themselves racing down streets to “safe” locations, to places that would be of no use in shielding them from nuclear attack.

What do you remember of the Cold War era?

Why Were the Pioneers’ Wagon Wheels So Large?

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I have researched how and where the emigrants traveled along the Oregon Trail for ten years, and I’m still learning. Recently, I learned from an article in The Wall Street Journal about why the wheel is round. The article contained the sentence:

“The difficulty of moving a wheeled object increases to the point of impossibility when the bumps that a wheel encounters approach one-quarter its diameter.”

That, the author said, is why wheels on Conestoga wagons were so big and those on steam locomotives so small.

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Emigrant wagon exhibit in Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, OR

Now, keep in mind that the travelers to Oregon did not use Conestogas, which were too heavy to pull over mountains (Conestogas were used primarily in the flatter eastern United States and Canada). But the principle applies to the prairie schooners that were used in travel to the West.

Also, the front wheels on covered wagons were often smaller than the rear wheels. I’m not an engineer, but I suppose the front wheels were the limiting factor on how rocky a road the wagon could traverse.

I didn’t know this information as I wrote Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. I wrote about the jostling wagons, but never thought about the physics behind why—other than that the trails were unimproved ruts and bumpy. Now when I write about travel to the West, I’ll think about the necessity of moving large rocks out of the way so the wheels could physically maneuver. (I did have a scene in Lead Me Home about having to cut down trees to get the wagons through the mountains.)

The article made me ponder once again the difficulty faced by the emigrants to Oregon. The more rocks a wagon was likely to encounter, the larger the wheels needed to be. If a wagon wheel had a diameter of four feet, then it conceivably could get over rocks that are one foot in diameter. But I imagine that ride would have been extremely uncomfortable.

Most likely the emigrants would have worked to go around large rocks, or move them, or otherwise avoid the rattling about that the uneven terrain would have caused. The wheels weren’t the only problem with wagon travel. The axles could break and the boards could loosen and crack. The emigrant diaries talk of frequent wagon repairs, often with only rudimentary tools and replacement parts.

Still, finding references like this one to wheel size is one of the things I love about writing historical fiction. I never know what I’ll learn—some of it necessary in the moment, some of it perhaps will be important in the future, and some of it I’ll never use. But I think again about the difficulties our ancestors encountered in their quest for a better life.

What have you read recently that taught you something?

Pixels and PEBKAC

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Me buying a new cell phone

My husband and I recently began having cell phone problems. My phone was almost three years old, and its storage capacity was exhausted. I periodically had to delete apps and empty caches and the like so I could download my email. I couldn’t take more than a few pictures before I needed to offload them to my PC. I had already replaced the battery once, and it seemed to be discharging more quickly.

My husband’s phone was a generation newer than mine. He bought it six months after I got mine, and it had just passed its two-year contract expiration. But his screen randomly flashed and went black. He could get the visuals back, but all signs indicated a developing illness in his phone. Probably fatal.

So I decided it was time to buy new phones. I did some Internet research and identified several acceptable options. Then I read that Verizon (our provider) was offering a BOGO50 sale. My husband wasn’t eager to upgrade, but he knew we had to do something soon. I convinced him to set a shopping date for a recent Friday afternoon.

That Friday I raced home after my lunch appointment to meet him. He wasn’t there. A note on our kitchen table revealed he had a hastily scheduled meeting and might miss our phone excursion.

He showed up about 4:30pm. We decided there was still time to head to the Verizon store, though I warned him it was likely to take until about 6:00 or so to handle all the paperwork and phone setup. Neither of us does well with extended shopping events. I also emphasized that we didn’t have to buy anything that day, if we didn’t like their choices and prices.

When we pulled into the parking lot, I saw a TV camera inside the store. Uh, oh. I was afraid the salespeople would be tied up with publicity and wouldn’t focus on us. But we’d made it this far, so in we went.

A very nice sales clerk talked us through our options and showed us how all their deals could be “stacked” (as she put it) to allow us to get two latest-technology Google Pixel phones—the second for around $200. She said for the same monthly bill we’d been paying, with the same shared data level, we could get two brand new Google Pixel phones with protection plans.

Of the options I had identified, the Google Pixel was the phone I secretly wanted, so I was happy. We proceeded to pick colors, cases, etc., and she transferred all our old data to the phones.

Meanwhile, the TV cameraman asked my husband and me if we would be willing to be interviewed about our phone-buying experience. We didn’t want to be curmudgeons, so we agreed.

And about 6:15pm, interviews recorded, we walked out of the store with a box of chargers and our new Pixels still downloading the apps we’d had on the old phones. We went to out to dinner, ran another errand, and got home just before 8:00pm, phones still downloading apps.

“We’ve used 75% of our monthly data already!” I exclaimed. “And we’re only two days into our billing cycle.”

I immediately logged both phones onto our home wi-fi to stanch the data bleed. Then I texted our kids, proud to report we had brand new Google Pixels. We’re rarely the coolest people in the family, but I thought this might upgrade our status with the next generation.

Our daughter called me back. It took me five swipes to figure out how to answer the phone.

Two days later I was on my way to the airport to retrieve our son. He called me, and I still couldn’t answer my phone. Of course, I was driving so I couldn’t look at the screen for instructions.

And when I later tried to hook up the Pixel to my car via Bluetooth, it didn’t work.

I had to install the fingerprint reader on my Pixel, because pushing the power button every time the phone went into screen saver mode hurt my thumb.

Then I read a November 20 article in The Wall Street Journal on the language of start-ups and found the term PEBCAK—an acronym I’d never heard before. It stands for “Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard” or “Problems Emerge Between Chair and Keyboard.” A variation is PIBCAK (”Problem Is Between Chair and Keyboard”). According to The Wall Street Journal, these phrases are a “programmer term for what happens when users are too dumb to use software correctly.” Though I think it applies to hardware as well.

Count me as a PEBCAK when it comes to cell phones.

I don’t like telephones, and my dislike of faceless oral communication has extended to cell phones. I like smart phones as data devices—for checking email, giving me driving directions, and taking pictures. I like having the safety of a phone for emergency calls.

But I don’t want to be accessible to anyone anywhere anytime the other person wants to contact me. I only want my smart phone for my convenience.

So call me PEBCAK about cell phones. Just don’t call me on the phone.

Still, I’m getting to like the Google Pixel. It’s taken days of playing with screen savers and apps and home screens to get the Pixel to look almost the way I want. I managed to turn on the Safe Mode to avoid data surcharges until I decide whether to buy more data for this month. It took three tries, but I figured out how to connect the phone to my car.

Soon I may be functional with my phone again. As functional as I want to be.

What PEBCAK experiences have you had with technology?

My Earliest Thanksgiving Memories

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I’ve written before (see here and here) about how glad I am that my children spent so much time with their cousins growing up, because I didn’t have that experience as a kid. But I do remember one Thanksgiving my family spent with my cousins. It’s the earliest Thanksgiving I remember—1958, when I was two-and-a-half years old.

My paternal grandparents lived in Seattle at the time, and Daddy, Mommy, my year-old brother, and I went to visit them. We stayed at their house for a few days over the Thanksgiving holiday.

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My younger brother and me, Christmas 1958, just a few weeks after this Thanksgiving story

My father’s sister and her family lived in the Seattle area also. My aunt had three children at the time—two girls who were four and two, and a baby boy who wasn’t even a year old yet. Although my brother had celebrated his first birthday and was walking, I thought he was almost as much a baby as my boy cousin.

I have two vivid memories of that Thanksgiving holiday. Both took place in the bathroom.

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Santa brought me my own ironing board that Christmas

My brother, who had only started walking a couple of months earlier, had burned his hand a week or so before Thanksgiving. While he was toddling around our house, he pulled Mommy’s iron off the ironing board. It hit his palm on the way to the floor. It may have burned him elsewhere, but the hand was his worst injury.

I was with him when it happened. I was petrified when he started screaming. Mommy was not there—she’d gone to answer the telephone, leaving the iron on the board. (Bad Mommy, but these things happen.)

What was I supposed to do? Mommy had told me not to bother her when she was on the phone. But my baby brother was sobbing. I sat there, worrying about whether to go get her. Thankfully, Mommy came running right away, so my dilemma was quickly resolved.

On Thanksgiving, my brother’s hand was still bandaged. He wasn’t supposed to get it wet. He was in the bathtub before the holiday dinner. My two girl cousins and I were all in the bathroom watching. The cousins were asking questions—“Why is his hand all wrapped up?” “Why can’t he get it wet?” “When will it be better?” And on and on.

Mommy patiently answered their questions, and soon his bath was over. We all dressed in our finery for the Thanksgiving dinner. I had a pretty party dress to wear, and everyone said I looked beautiful. They probably told my girl cousins the same thing, but I don’t remember that.

Later in the afternoon, I had to use the potty. I was well along in potty training at two-and-a-half. I knew what to do and when to do it. But I used a potty chair at home. There was a potty chair in the bathroom at my grandparents’ home, but I wanted no part of it that day.

My four-year-old cousin didn’t use a potty chair, and I wasn’t going to either. I wanted to use the real toilet. I wanted to be grown-up like her.

So what if my two-year-old cousin still used the potty chair? She was littler than me. By two whole months. I was certain I could do what the four-year-old did.

So I tried. And promptly fell in. And got my pretty party dress all wet.

All the grown-ups laughed at me. I had to change into another dress, and was humiliated for the rest of the day.

Most of the people present that day have died. The cousins are still around, but I hope they have long forgotten my embarrassment.

Happy Thanksgiving to readers everywhere! Be grateful for family.

Grandpa’s Stories Still Sustain Us

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I’ve spent most of my Thanksgivings since 1979 with my in-laws, and most of those in their home. Occasionally, I prepared the Thanksgiving dinner at our house (typically with my father’s help, when he visited) and my in-laws joined us. But most of the time, we had our holiday meal in Marshall, Missouri.

My mother-in-law set a formal dining table, and we carved the turkey and filled the plates at the table. The meal was lengthy. After we ate our fill, the table was cleared, dessert served (plates filled in the kitchen with pie and whipped cream . . . lots of whipped cream), and coffee offered.

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Thanksgiving 2004, when Grandpa could still carve the turkey

At some point came the stories. Grandpa was the consummate story-teller. He’d led an eventful life, most of it spent in the small town of Marshall where he was born, went to school, and worked for almost all his career.

There was the story about walking along the roof line of a neighbor’s house with his brother and assorted other children, throwing paintings from the attic to the ground.

And the time the boys made root beer and stashed the bottles under the bed—their mother was surprised by the explosions a few weeks later.

His recollections of Jim the Wonder Dog.

And when he and his brother “borrowed” some beer off a truck as they drove behind it down the country road.

War stories from Guam during World War II.

And the time his son (my husband) poked him with a cattle prod—that one made him mad every time he told it. “It hurt!” the story ended.

And on and on the stories flowed. I might not have all the details right, but my point is that these stories were as much a part of Thanksgiving (and other holidays) as the food we ate. The stories fed our hearts and souls while the food fed our bodies.

And the stories sustained us for far longer than the turkey and pumpkin pie.

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Thanksgiving 2008, when Grandpa could no longer carve, but could still enjoy the meal and tell the stories

Grandpa has been gone for over four years now. We still tell stories over holiday meals. We tell his stories, and we tell stories about him. And we tell new stories of happenings since he has left us. Our stories will evolve and change over time, but always they will sustain us.

Which are your favorite family stories? Tell them again. And write them down.

Little Brother as Mother’s Escort

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My husband and I will celebrate our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary soon. We were married just days after my youngest brother turned ten. His role during our wedding was to escort my mother into the church. He wore a tuxedo and looked so cute, as little boys usually do when they wash up, comb their hair, and dress nicely.

Here is one of my favorite pictures from our wedding day, of my mother and my brother walking up the side aisle to their seats. It’s not the best picture of my mother, but I love how solemnly my brother took his responsibility.

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My brother escorting our mother on my wedding day

This ten-year-old grew up to be a pediatrician. Our mother always said that it was because he liked the doctors he went to when he was about this ten-year-old size. They took the time to talk with him and he decided he wanted to be like them.

He’s also a great husband and dad now, and he’s always been a great brother. (And he’s been taller than our mother—and me—since he was about twelve.)

Happy Birthday, little brother!

Writing Memoir: From Zero to Sixty in Half a Day

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Although many posts on this blog are about my life, I don’t aspire to write a memoir. I’m interested in my life, but I don’t know how many other people would be. I might be able to tell amusing anecdotes, but I doubt I’d be able to develop an overall arc to my life—at least not one I’d be willing to write about. As an attorney and a human resources professional, I know a lot of stories I can never tell.

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Woodneath Branch of Mid-Continent Public Library

Nevertheless, I attended a program on writing memoir recently at The Story Center, which is sponsored by the Mid-Continent Public Library in the Kansas City area and operates out of the library’s Woodneath Branch, about a fifteen minute drive from my home. I want to support writing programs in my part of the metropolitan area, and The Story Center is doing an excellent job of providing developmental opportunities for writers.

So off I went to the memoir program, with low expectations of usefulness. Maybe I would learn something about story structure that I could apply to writing novels. Or maybe I’d get some ideas for blog posts.

The first part of the program involved a series of prompts to help the participants think about memoir. The instructor, Matthew Frederick, a writer and literary agent at Fairbank Literary Representation, started us by asking for a title of our memoir. Since I had no intention of writing a memoir, I had no title.

The next prompt was to list a few vignettes from our past. That I could do. Then, after we reflected a bit on the vignettes we had listed, he asked us to articulate “the big reveal” in our project.

By this time, I was into the exercise. I had decided I wanted to write about my relationship with my mother, I had a list of stories about her, and my reveal was “I’m a lot more like my mother than I ever wanted to be . . . and that’s OK with me.”

The session continued, with discussions about who is the protagonist in a memoir (almost always the writer), who are the antagonists (both internal and external—because we are often our own worst enemy, though we may think others are thwarting us), how to place one’s own life in the broader social and historical context, and how to choose a lens through which to tell the story.

That’s a lot to think about in two hours.

After lunch, we returned to discuss story structure as it applies to memoir. I had anticipated getting more out of this part of the day than the writing prompt session, but it turned out that a lot of what Mr. Frederick had to say about structuring a memoir I’d heard before in learning to structure a novel—the three act model, the hero’s journey, etc. Besides, when I’d started the day without even a kernel of an idea, getting to structuring a book seemed a monumental task.

Mr. Frederick’s basic advice was to start with the details, then pull the structure of the story out of the details. Only then will you know which details are relevant. He told us that a memoir has a public story and a private story—why we had thought earlier about placing our lives in a social and historical context. Some memoirs focus on the public story and others on the private story, but both should be included in some fashion. And the climax of a memoir is where the public and private stories come together.

stocksnap_py7ewskyr3I did develop a structure for a book about my changing relationship with my mother over the span of my life. (Though Mr. Frederick said that a memoir should not cover an entire life.) I don’t know whether I will ever write this story. I still don’t aspire to. But I was able to spend the day thinking about my life and my mother. Many of the insights I had might find their way into this blog over time. Therefore, program was worth it. (All The Story Center programs are free, so the cost was a day of my life. We can all use a day now and then to reconsider our lives.)

Have you ever thought about the social and historical context of your own life? What is the public story in which you have participated?