Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Preparation for Writing Memoir

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The Slice of Life posts are hosted every Tuesday by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers

When I wrote in December about using the term backstory, I also included some discussion of teaching memoir writing, and said I would share some resources as I moved closer to the group I will be teaching.  Well, the group begins tomorrow, and among all the other reading over break, I’ve been selecting some books to use, including picture books, longer books like Homesick by Jean Fritz, and different poems and scraps of texts I’ve collected. 
Since I have been planning, I have noticed more and more ideas that connect to story, so much that I wonder if I shouldn’t have chosen story as my One Little Word, instead of comfort.  However, isn’t that what stories are, especially memoir, those collections of words that so often give us comfort?  Last week for Poetry Friday, I shared a line from the poem Beach Glass by Sara Holbrook: It takes slow-walking patience to fill a pocket full of untold stories. I hope in this class that I will be able to teach some of this patience to the students.
For my own inspiration and guidance, I have re-read Chapter 12, Memoir: Reading and Writing the Story of Our Lives in Lucy Calkin’s book Living Between The Lines.  Calkins shares words I find helpful as the whys of teaching memoir.  This is taken out of context, yet I believe you will still find it meaningful.  When we hear Updike talking about learning to love the selves we leave behind, when we hear Becker saying that what humans fear is not growing old but growing old without things adding up, we, in our egocentricity, tend to forget that no one is growing old faster than children.  It’s children who know the glee, and the sadness, of finding they can no longer squeeze through the gap in the backyard fence.  And from David Booth: All we can give children is a sense of story, of something caring and committed to carrying them through their lives.

In addition to taking notes of suggestions from Calkin’s chapter, I have noted other sources that also will help me work with this group.  Mary Lee Hahn in her blog A Year of Reading wrote a review of Drawing From Memory by Allen Say and The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China by Ed Young to help with a study of influences in one’s life.  And Alan Wright who writes the blog Living Life Twice discusses how using the influence of other writers and practicing some intriguing parts can help us teach our students.  Alan also writes about helping students explore the small moments in this post.

This earlier post by Stacey at Two Writing Teachers discusses a new discovery to use for a mentor text, Grandma’s Scrapbook written by Josephine Nobisso and illustrated by Maureen Hyde.  When The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant and What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan are also mentioned.

For this group I will be asking each to read one or several memoirs.  Here are some of those titles available in my library:  Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher, Hey World, Here I Am by Jean Little, A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, Boy, Tales of Childhood and Going Solo by Roald Dahl, Knots In My Yoyo by Jerry Spinelli, Childtimes, by Eloise Greenfield and Lessie Jones Little, A Summer Life by Gary Soto, Homesick by Jean Fritz, But I’ll Be Back Again by Cynthia Rylant, My Life In Dog Years, by Gary Paulsen, Growing Up by Russell Baker, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Dear Mem Fox, I Have Read All Your Books Even the Pathetic Ones by Mem Fox, E.B. White, Some Writer! by Beverly Gherman, Kaffir Boy by Mark Methabane, When I Was Your Age, Volume Two: Original Stories About Growing Up, ed. by Amy Erlich and An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.  I hope some will want to search for their own choices, which is fine.  They might read a second book, or choose to read parts of what others have recommended.  This group will meet for about six weeks.  We’ll read, examine, discuss, share, revise and have a final celebration at the end with the rest of their classmates, who are working with two other teachers.
Finally, I spent a bit of time in our school library in the picture book area that is filled with so many books we need more shelves!  And I found a few more to tell you about.  Some you will recognize, but some were new to me, so I hope will be new discoveries to you, too.

What You Know First, by Patricia MacLachlan, engravings by Barry Moser, a spare-of-words book that brings tears each time I read it.  In a young girl’s voice, we find her saying goodbye to her prairie home, describing all the things she will miss.  We don’t know, but wonder if they have lost the farm, and will be traveling on to try to make it somewhere else.   We hear from the girl:  What you know first stays with you, my Papa says.  But just in case I forget, I will take a twig of the cottonwood tree.  And, as the book flap tells of what MacLachlan does herself, the girl also says I will take a little bag of prairie dirt.  I cannot take the sky.

     Love As Strong As Ginger, by Lenore Look with illustrations by Stephen T. Johnson is a longer story told also by a young girl who stays with her grandmother on Saturdays while her parents work.  Based on the author’s own grandmother who is an immigrant from China, the story tells of a day when young Katie accompanies her grandmother to the crab factory where her grandmother cracks crabs all day.  The story shows her grandmother saying:  Maybe if I knew English, she said, I would have become . . . a famous actress! because, she follows with in America, you can become whatever you dream.  The language as well as the story is beautiful.  Katie describes lunch:  At lunchtime, she’d make the best meal, clearing space for me in her tiny kitchen where salted butterfish and flounder hung like laundry above our heads. 

 Show Way, by Jacqueline Woodson with illustrations by Hudson Talbott.  The illustrations in this book take one’s breath away, and fill the pages of what the words don’t tell, like parts of quilts that Woodson’s family made from slave time to today to show the way to live, from slavery to freedom, a way to remember the past and celebrate the future.   It is not a memoir in the classic sense of sticking to one story with a personal meaning, but is so beautifully poetic in words and pictures that I believe it will inspire students to look harder for a special story in their lives.  At night, they cut and sewed.  Strange lines and odd designs.  People said about Soonie, That child could find some beauty in so many things.

The Keeping Quilt, by Patricia Polacco is only about one quilt, made from clothing memories.  The book says: Then from a basket of old clothes she took Uncle Vladimir’s shirt, Aunt Havalah’s nightdress, and an apron of Aunt Natasha’s.  We will make a quilt to help us always remember home, Anna’s mother said. In the family, the quilt is used as a huppah for a wedding, to welcome a new baby, to keep Gramma warm, and as a tablecloth to celebrate an important birthday.

I think I’m ready.  I hope I’m ready.  I know that I’m excited to work with a writing group again, to see what will happen.  Just like when I put words on the page, when I teach to a group it is always a lovely surprise to discover the outcome.  I’ll let you know!

 photo credit: Squire of Cydonia via photopin cc


  1. Good luck with your new writing/teaching project. Patience is a difficult thing to teach, but an important lesson to learn. Sounds like a fun class. :)

  2. Such a rich post, Linda! Every title you listed made me smile with recognition - especially "But I'll Be Back Again" which is really for adults and older students I feel. Your careful, thoughtful preparation will yield a memorable writing experience - I wish I could be a part of it!

  3. Lovely quite from Sea Glass. And nicely applied.

  4. This is an incredible resource for anyone teaching memoir! Thanks for all the titles you've listed and the thinking behind your planning. These students are so lucky to have this experience! Have a great class, I'll be wondering how it's going, so keep us posted.

  5. I am amazed that it feels like you plan the way I do: immersion in resources. Show Way and The Keeping Quilt is my favorite picture book pair of all-time. There is power in the words, in all the stories those books hold. And in their truth. I am so jealous of people who get to work with you! What a resource YOU are!

  6. Now I need to go to the library and check out some of these books!
    Thanks for sharing your resources. I wish you worked across the hall and I could just come to your room.

  7. Good luck with your group -- from the preparations you've shared, they will be off to a GREAT start! They are lucky to have a teacher as dedicated as you to lead them through their learning journey!

  8. Wow. You have put such thought and love into planning this unit. Your students are lucky. Enjoy today. It sounds like it is going to be amazing.

  9. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! It felt like I was reading a page from a professional development book.

  10. Thanks for all of the great resources!

  11. I found your site through the comment challenge. I just wrote on Monday about my "vomit draft" of my memoir. Good luck with your group!

  12. I'd wish you good luck with your group but I have a feeling you won't need luck. You sound prepared for success.


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