The Adult World Arrives: A Writing Prompt

The summer I was seventeen I worked on a Christmas tree farm. It was my job to shape the trees that, come December, would end up in people’s homes. “Just like an upside-down ice cream cone,” my boss told me. I used a machete or hand shears to trim the trees into a proper shape.…

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The Shadows They Leave Behind: Research and Narrative

Some of you may recall that my wife Cathy recently discovered the identity of her biological father. This discovery has sent her in search of information about her ancestors. Yesterday, she learned that a son of her great-great grandfather was Lockwood Lewis, a saxophonist who played with the Dixieland Jug Blowers in the 1920s and…

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Thanksgiving, Old Photos, and Memoir

At the start of this Thanksgiving week, I remember the family dinners of my childhood. As long as she was able, my grandmother Read hosted. She lived in a modest frame house cattycornered from the Berryville Store in southeastern Illinois. At one time, she and my grandfather had managed that general store, but he died…

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Say the Secret Things: Memoir and Power

In October, I taught a two-day workshop at a local public library. Our focus was on writing about moments from our pasts that still haunt us in some way. We wrote about things that hurt us, that shamed us, that left us with guilt and regret. Along the way, we also revisited moments of joy…

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Memoir by Canned Goods

Showboat Pork and Beans, Chef Boyardee Ravioli, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, SpaghettiOs, Dinty Moore Beef Stew. When I was a teenager in the seventies, all I needed was one of these, a can opener, a stove, and I had myself a meal. In those days, my mother worked. She worked in the laundry or on the…

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Memoir and Dramatizing Meaning

We all have moments from our pasts we can never forget. Memoirists tap into those moments when constructing a narrative. Dramatization allows us to find a causal chain that perhaps didn’t exist in real life. When we write memoir, we strive to document, but we also try to give some shape to experience. If we…

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The Small Things Contain the Memoir

Yesterday, I was upstairs in my office when I heard my wife crying. I immediately knew why. Cathy, you see, has begun to put the story of her family onto the page. It’s a complicated story, as some of you know—a story of secrets, a story of a mother and her daughters, a story of…

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A Message Box: Objects and Memoirs

Because my father was a farmer, we barely knew what it was to take a vacation. There were crops to tend and livestock to feed, and God forbid our cattle got out of their pasture, as they sometimes did, and we weren’t there to corral them. All through my childhood, I only remember us going…

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Family Secrets

It’s 1961, and my wife Cathy, nearly four years old at the time, is sitting with her great-aunt Tom on a stone bench alongside a brick building on Fulton Avenue in Evansville, Indiana. They’re sitting in the shade watching a rabbit hop about and nibble at grass blades. Her grandfather and grandmother have told her…

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The Marks We Leave Behind: A Writing Exercise for Memoirists

After my father died, I found the marks he’d left: the wooden handles of tools, scraped and splintered from the pincers of his prosthetic hands—his hooks as he always called them; the clamped edges of pages in his Bible from where he’d held them. I can still recall him sitting at our dining table, working…

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