Memoir Workshop: The End (for now)

MEMOIR WORKSHOP:  Chapter 16, Good To Go, concludes my Pakistan memoir. I may do another memoir about my wild-oats Peace Corps years in Eastern Nigeria, but, first, I have to finish eight or ten mushroom chapters to be added to a new enlarged exciting edition of Great Lakes Nature, recently accepted by Indiana University Press. My 10,000 words and accompanying illustrations are due by Christmas, so this may be goodbye to memoirs until 2018. Thank you all so much for your many kind and interesting responses and memories. I will let you know if this memoir finds a publisher or if, Little Red Hen style, I just publish this memoir myself.

The End is in Sight!

WORKSHOP NOTE:  I am nearing the end of my Pakistan memoir—only a few chapters to go—and I want to ask some of you, especially those who shared my experience or were involved in some way—if you have anything to add. My memories really are quite vague. My brother Dewey has shared some stories from a boy’s perspective which I hope to add. My cousin Jim Boelkins has written of the experience from the Grand Rapids family perspective as they supported us with goods, letters and much more. My sister Julia, five years my junior, doesn’t remember much and seems to enjoy seeing those years through my eyes—she was almost the same age when we left as I was when we arrived. Others of you may have your own stories, questions or corrections—Marty, the next two chapters are about you! When I’m finished I am hoping to add a few photos and submit my story to an agent or publisher. If I don’t succeed in that, I’ll publish it myself, the advantage of which is speed: I can have it out in under six months, whereas a commercial publisher will take two years.

Your thoughts?

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty

MEMOIR WORKSHOP:  My “Better Read Than Real” chapter stirred up a lot of memories! One of my readers, my long-time friend Marylee MacDonald, who offers the most useful writer information blog I’ve ever seen, responded with this wonderful piece from Eudora Welty: Eudora’s writing is so beautiful and impossible to live up to that I almost hesitate to include it, my own efforts paling beside it. But we dance on. If you have joined the dance, or have entertained intentions to, waste not a second (after first reading Eudora) signing up for Marylee’s essential writing blog:

Write Now!

  I’ve been distracting myself with birds and flowers.

In 1975, writing for an Addison-Wesley reading program, I learned to love deadlines. Give me a deadline and a bunch of specs and I will delight you, on time. For many years “good work on time” kept me happily employed writing stories, poems and teacher’s guides for phonetic reading programs. I don’t write on assignment any more and with only myself to please—or not—productivity can be a challenge. So now I manufacture my own deadlines, or make a public commitment, like this one.

Without a deadline, I dawdle in ideas. But try as I might—and I never fail to really, really try—I rarely solve a problem in my head. I can no sooner write without my hands on the keyboard than I can will a spill of beads to sort themselves, or, in my sleep, untangle my lawnmower’s extension cord. Without physical involvement, nothing gets written.

Then there are distractions: recently my birthday, which felt like a big one—three-quarters of a century—was followed by a disturbing national event, followed by worldwide protests, during which my online used book business demanded attention, as did a contract from a publisher for a new edition of……

Excuses, excuses. Let’s get to it! A new memoir piece is in the works.

A NOTE ABOUT WORK YOU’VE SENT ME: Beaver Island word wizard Cindy Ricksters has a fresh addition to her Artifacts to Memories. And while I thank others of you for sharing your past writings, I’m limiting this website to current work: Write now!

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! 

Mother’s Bowl

To view the movie, double-click on the bowl, then click on it again in flickr.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP:  If you are balking at writing, why not describe your object on PhotoBooth (or the Windows equivalent)? I made this little movie five years ago, an early attempt at cataloging valued belongings and my first fling as film director, photographer and star. Recording a video on my MacBook Pro’s PhotoBooth was astonishingly simple: I just sat in front of my computer, adjusted the screen to a flattering angle and hit the record button. I could see exactly what was being filmed as I spoke. Sharing it with you, however, was another matter.

This video idea—an appealing short-cut to a quickie memoir post—landed me in a techno briar patch. I know how to format a photo to upload, download or otherwise export, but a movie? It did not plunk easily in place. Following advice from my son Dylan Kuhn, who has for several weeks been attending to daily emails, I uploaded my video to flickr, an online photo-sharing website. It took a while. I was tempted to just flatten the durn thing to a photo, but, reminding myself that a computer is not a toaster (Thank you, Dylan!), I was patient and now it works. I think. Let me know if it doesn’t.

NOTE: Ruth Blocksma, the unseen star of this video, began writing her memoir—Thirty-three Years & Twenty-one Homes—when she was 92. Using Google docs, we worked on it together for two years and I published 300 copies in April, 2014. We sold out by July. Mother turned 97 last November and lives in Shelburne, Vermont.



Dealing with “cataloging,” objects as subjects & blessed ends

Wow! In one day we have 13 subscribers and one joiner that I know of! And some interesting issues have come up:

First, several of you report that you have already tried to “catalog” your belongings, a task quickly abandoned. I sympathize, having also attempted to describe objects for my heirs—and I also quit. But this memoir year is different: Our things will be subjects, not objects, or perhaps doors to the countless rooms of our palatial pasts.

Second, please! Do not be intimidated by the sheer number of those doors. Nobody knows or cares how many you ignore. God help us and especially our readers if we try to explore them all. I just choose something that sounds like fun, an approach I discovered writing Great Lakes Nature—for a year I took four or five walks a week, each time choosing one thing to write about. In three editions, no one has ever complained that I didn’t include it all!

Finally, defining an end to a project gives me the will to complete it. I’ll do what I can in twelve months and I’m done. Hurrah!

Please note that I have three “categories” for my posts: 1) 2017 Memoir Mary’s, for my personal memoir entries; 2) Readers’ Stories, for YOUR stories that I have chosen to share and for which you have given me permission; and 3) Memoir Workshop, for memoir-writing issues such as the ones discussed in this post.

Keep those questions and ideas coming!