Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Learning From Memoir

Slice of Life Challenge, by the Two Writing Teachers blog:

March 9, 2011

Learning from the past - writing about things from my family's past - teaching memoir to students

The group I'm teaching is studying memoir now & today was the first lesson. I wanted them to take away several things about memoir in this first experience: I will write with them, they already have memories that will stay cemented in their brains for the rest of their life, memories/events are what make us who we are, and it's important to make sense of those events that seem of importance. As Willa Cather believes: "Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen."

It was a good time with the group; they thought, questioned & shared much. It will be interesting to see where their memories lead us. Here is a draft of my memoir:

The small wooden man stood at my grandfather’s right hand while he wrote his business notes each day. I was allowed to pick him up and stare into his face only now and then. My father was killed in World War II, so my mother and I had lived with her parents since I was two. Her parents had become as much parents as she was. Grandfather, whom I called Pop, stood in as my father. Pop was kind, told me stories every night, read to me, took me on nature walks, taught me about stars on summer evenings.

I wanted that little carved man. I coveted him as a young child, and could not understand why, if Pop really loved me, that he wouldn’t give me the carving.

Later, as I grew up, I discovered that the carving was all that was left of my grandfather’s father’s things. I began to understand why he stayed at Pop’s desk. I began to see outside myself to perceive others’ relationships and others’ needs.

It was no longer this me, me, me stuff. I actually saw that Pop really wanted that little man; he perhaps regarded the carving as the talisman of his life.

I remembered that most of Pop’s family belongings had been left behind in Virginia. So little had escaped to be carried to Missouri when the family moved. I appreciated this sad circumstance, but I still wanted that little man. As I grew even older, I became fearful that one of my cousins or my brother would take the carving on a whim when I wasn’t there.

I am embarrassed now when I return to that time in my life. I don’t understand what I thought would happen to me if I acquired the carving, or if I did not.

I have the carving now, and received it on the day my grandfather died. My life did change, but not because of the little man. He sits in a corner of a shelf in my living room; I dust him when I can, and blow a kiss to my grandfather who taught me patience is a virtue, and persistence is rewarded.


  1. You had me at the title of memoir.
    I've been reading and thinking about it alot as we've been discussing it in my Writer's Notebook Class. Good thoughts.

  2. I love memoir. Reflecting and writing about family memories is like having the aHow key to unlock a treasure of understanding. It can become great therapy.

  3. This is truly beautiful. I appreciate your writing. You pulled me in from the start and I had to read it all to see what happened. I'm so glad you had the opportunity to receive the "little man". With 6th graders I call the memoir a personal narrative because I can't quite get them to understand the deeper meaning but I'm sure fifteen year olds do! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I love memoirs. Everyone has a story. It's amazing what we remember from our childhood and how it would be nice to change some things if possible for the better.

  5. Based on Willa Cather's thought, I believe my children have aquired some great basic material! I really enjoyed following the progress of your connection with the little wooden man.

  6. A great piece. It is playing in my mind. I loved the rich texture of this piece of writing. Thanks for sharing


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