Memoir Workshop: Tell me Less; Tell Me More

I finished my Great Horned Owl painting today, but I’m not using it in my memoir—over the years I have seen and heard many Great Horned Owls, but I can’t remember any particulars. Better I talk about why I painted this Great Horned Owl.

It’s a matter of focus. I don’t draw well, so I need help, especially when accuracy is a factor. For this owl I used a composite of photos from my own collection, my considerable bird book library and several copyright-free photo websites. Most of the great horned owls I found were either buried in a landscape (too much) or head shots (too little). An owl in flight didn’t fit the vertical format of my owl gallery. Focus can be tricky.

Recently I received work from several of you. Hurrah! I am encouraged that you are writing! Please keep it up. I thought I would check these pieces out for focus. 


I was overwhelmed by the twelve-page single-space accounting of Dr. Andrew Templeman’s lifetime achievements. This paragraph, however, made me want to hear more:

While at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, I directed a program in Remedial Reading Tutorials for about 200 black children from the Francis Cabrini-Green Housing projects just W of the church. The same number of young executive types from the City of Chicago came each week to meet their personally committed tutee and to sit with that child for an hour practicing reading. The tutors ranged from young lawyers to Playboy centerfolds from across the street at the Playboy International Center (the former Palmolive Bldg in Chicago). The school principal Margaret Harrigan told us after a few years of this work that the reading scores of these children had improved dramatically. She even used the word ‘miraculously.’


Reading the nicely written two-page synopsis of Sheila Rieman’s life was like going to somebody else’s family reunion: A great party but what am I doing here? However, I’m really curious about that personal filer. More, please!

It has been said that in this life there are pilers and filers. I am a piler who continues to aspire to be a filer, mostly so I can keep my desk free from the piles of items that need action, filing, or tossing….I am fortunate to have married a filer, a neat one, at that. Sometimes I call him my personal Felix Unger. Johnny and I are opposites in many ways – especially in our political views, but we have managed to live together peacefully for nearly fifty-three years.   


I got a beautiful piece from Fred Yandall. I asked him to write it again from a more personal point of view, a challenging task. However, his focus—waiting in the hospital while his wife was in surgery—was right on: an intense time in an intense place. Critiquing Fred’s piece put me in an editorial spin, so I’m trying this softer “tell me less/tell me more” approach.


I found this piece from Beaver Island writer, editor, artist and long-time friend Cindy Ricksters focus perfect. She had written it in lines, like a poem, but I suggested she use normal paragraphing and we both like it better that way.

Old Tennies

I have a pair of old shoes that – tied together by their old, worn laces – hang from the knob on my studio door. By today’s standards for sneakers, they are pretty simple, and badly worn out besides. When they were new, back in the summer of 1972, they were glorious! White canvas with red and blue vinyl accents, thick white laces, rounded toes.

When plain white tennis shoes were the norm, these seemed very special to me.

I had recently become a mother, which changed my life and altered my perceptions more than anything else, ever! It filled my head with ideas. It spurred me to become the best person I could possibly be. My little family had moved to a cottage on Lake Pleasant. My husband and I had big plans for remodeling and modernizing it, for using it as our home base as we raised our family and traveled the world, one adventure after another. I had taken over a corner of the front porch as an area to make art. I saw myself as a young wife, good mother, creative person, all-good-things-await optimist…with a little hippie, flower-child funkiness thrown in for good measure.

These shoes underlined that image. I wore them with jeans and shorts and sundresses. I wore them as an irreverent touch with dress slacks. I wore them as I walked with my little daughter as she took her first steps…and for many steps afterward. I wore them as I took my first baby-steps into thinking of myself as an artist. I wore them until the rubber soles lost their tread and cracked, until the canvas was in shreds, until my perfect little life with all of its “happy ever after” had proven itself to be an average life, with normal struggles.

I’ve lost or tossed away many of the plans and dreams I had as that young optimist. I never could bring myself to throw away the shoes.

When I began painting years ago, Cindy used to make the most wonderful, helpful suggestions. Amazing, how a small change would make a big difference. You can see Cindy’s shoe drawings on her blog:


Please keep your work coming.  You can ask that I not critique you. I’m fine with that. I’m pretty good, though, and this year, for this project, I’m working for free, at least unless I get overwhelmed. (My usual edit fee is $30/hr.) You don’t even need a coupon! 

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