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home : readerswrite : bookshelf May 29, 2016

Writing my memoir
BookShelf: Mary Berg recommends these books by women authors as aids to writing a memoir
I try to keep the images as fresh as the sweet corn newly picked and served on Mom's table.
-- Mary E. Berg

by Mary Berg

My secret desire to be a writer was fed by a journal-writing seminar by Christina Baldwin in the 1970s. In a growing stack of notebooks, I recorded inner-story feelings, thoughts and emotions.

I took a couple of one-day writing classes from Natalie Goldberg and a weekend workshop with Julia Cameron. I wrote. I despaired of writing. An instructor in the Split Rock Arts Program encouraged me to take classes from Mary Carroll Moore. I learned from Moore that in order to write a memoir, a story needs grounding in setting, character, dialogue and details - what is referred to as "outer story." I'd spent so many years attending to and capturing my interior monologue of emotion that learning to write plot and structure took Herculean effort. I had to learn the axiom "show, don't tell."

I sometimes envy Southern writers who seem to easily show the sandy dunes of a South Carolina seashore, the vine-entwined, moss-covered trees and the slow motion of muggy, lazy days upon the water. The long, snow-covered winters of my sparse, northern childhood seem to cool my writing as well as the landscape.

In order to capture stories from the distant past, I need to warm up my stored memories, recall sensations and re-embody them on the page. I've learned to place my character in space and time. I seat her at my parent's oval-shaped walnut table - the one that continuously expanded until it held nine children. If you had stopped by, Mom would have found space and a plate for you at that table, too.


In addition to chronicling childhood spaces, my memoir details marriage to my former husband. He did not really like visiting my parents' simple farmhouse. Accustomed as he was to a home filled with beautiful furnishings, the stark simplicity of our cramped quarters shocked him. Our connections under the covers did not erase the differences of religion, status, geography and political preferences. Our widely disparate backgrounds proved difficult for both of us. A chasm developed between the linen and the silver-lined table in the city and the oilcloth-covered farm table topped with stainless purchased with box tops.

I've learned how to describe the sandy soil of a Holstein dairy farm and to locate the sensation of popping a cream-covered raspberry into my mouth as I laugh at Dad's jokes. I try to keep the images as fresh as the sweet corn newly picked and served on Mom's table. Somehow the churned butter enhanced our imaginations as much as our bread.

I may have learned to write emotional truths by keeping a journal, but it has taken years of further study to seat my characters in a wooden straight-back chair, pull them up to the table and give them something to say.

Mary Berg started writing a memoir five years ago in a class in the Split Rock Arts Program in Cloquet, Minn. The memoir may require another five years before publication, so she continues to study writing at The Loft, at the Madeline Island School of the Arts and by reading books by her favorite teaching artists.

Mary Berg recommends these books by women authors as aids to writing a memoir:
Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft, and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir, or Nonfiction Book by Mary Carroll Moore
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg
Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir by Elizabeth J. Andrew
The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart by Julia Cameron
And the book that started her on her writing quest:
One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing by Christina Baldwin

What's on your bookshelf?
Send us 450 words about your booklife, plus your list of five related books by women authors. editor@womenspress.com

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