Memoir and Memoir Writing

Photo: Carol Sutherland-Brown
By Carol Sutherland-Brown

I am not going inside until I get rid of these chairs! It is the end of May, the day of the annual Great Glebe Garage Sale. There is no way these three chairs are being returned to my freshly purged, cleaned and sorted basement.

Today I am facing the sale alone, but it has not always been so. There were years when Marisa was a young child, when Ian and I sold those sought-after outgrown toys and clothes: a bright green wading pool in the shape of a frog; a Little Tykes play kitchen in shocking pink; little leather children’s shoes Mamín had brought from Spain; the frilly dress, sized for a three-month-old baby, worn once. It has always been a social, stimulating and exhausting day, a carnival atmosphere with family and neighbours congregating, emerging from their houses, blinking hard in the sunshine after a long dark Ottawa winter. It was a chance to catch up on the gossip of the street, make a little money and stock up on new treasures.

But Marisa has grown up and moved away, my parents and Ian are gone. As the neighbourhood has become increasingly gentrified, fewer and fewer neighbours are keen to spend a day flogging their wares for modest returns. The magic is gone.

It is a cool morning and I hug my mug of hot coffee, waiting for the hordes of bargain hunters to descend. I cannot very well stand all day so I sit down on one of the chairs; it is slightly wobbly on my interlock driveway.

Why do I own them, when my tastes have ranged over the years from Asian teak and rosewood to Danish and mid-century modern furniture? These chairs came to me in 2003 when I was busy with my career, travelling and had just met Ted, whose stepson was moving to British Columbia and selling his chairs. Ted thought they would be perfect to match my antique farmhouse kitchen table, a gift from my parents. And I needed to replace the old chairs that had been gnawed by our pet rabbit, Golden. I bought them for $50 each, at a time when antiques were still coveted.

But then came the renovated kitchen with its trendy quartz counter and bar stools, which sent the table and chairs packing to the basement.

There are few passersby at 8 a.m. and limited distractions so, alone, I study these three 19th-century, arrow-back chairs from an Ontario farmhouse. The chairs are not perfectly matched – two are pine and one is oak. They are smooth to the touch, and the oak one has a beautiful knot in the wooden seat. The chairs are narrow and I suppose not too comfortable for some. But sitting on one, I feel a slightly spooky connection with its past. Who were the farmers who rested on it after a hard day of labour? What were the stories of the wife, children, babies born and lost to preventable disease, farm injuries or war? What were their thoughts as they sat on this chair?

But this morning, none of the garage sale seekers are very interested in this history or in my wares. People look, a few ask the price and move on, looking for power tools, flower pots or some very valuable treasure that we Glebe folk have unwittingly and stupidly sent to the curb.

“How much for the chairs?” asks a young woman in polka dots. “$40 each,” I answer, having quickly abandoned the $50 asking price I had set at 8 a.m. Polka Dot Woman replies: “I’ll give you $7 for one of them, oh and they wobble.” I suddenly feel murderous towards this young girl in polka dots and grow very, very protective of my chairs. They really are beautiful; yes, they might be a little rickety, but what history they have! They will not go to such a home, never. Maybe she could just pick up a cheaper plastic chair at Ikea, I glower inwardly.

I wait it out, determined to find the right buyer. At the end of the day, Ted returns and takes pity on me; he offers to buy the chairs for his art studio. My chairs would be sat on by other artists who might appreciate them, and I could visit them from time to time.

But the following year, Ted’s art studio is expropriated to make way for a shiny new condo. Ted offers the chairs to the other artists, but none are interested. Ted sends them with regret to the curb. It takes three days for them to disappear.

Carol Sutherland-Brown lives in the Glebe. She greatly enjoys participating in Anna Rumin’s memoir-writing workshops at the Glebe Community Centre.


Writing memoir – hints on getting started

 By Anna Rumin

We’re all cocooning now so it might be a good time to think about writing a memoir. Perhaps all you need are some ideas on how to get started.

For the past five years, I have been designing and teaching memoir-based writing courses that are offered at the Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group (GNAG) and at Carleton University. Once a week for five weeks, participants arrive with a memoir-based story to share with the group. During the week, they commit to writing for 15 to 20 minutes a day using prompts from the course outline. Writing is a lot like anything else – the more you do it, the stronger and more comfortable you become. In the sixth and final week, participants bring a story of up to 1,000 words that they want to share with family, friends or a publication. It is the one and only class in which I ask them to think about giving and sharing their story as a gift, as a piece of writing that pays tribute to what we don’t want to forget.

For those who are interested in memoir writing but don’t know where to begin, there are many classes out there including mine. In the series of 12 courses that I have designed in the “Writing Stories From Our Lives” series, the common thread is our shared understanding of memoir – it is different from autobiography and biography, which are more linear in form. For example, an autobiography usually starts at a certain date and generally unfolds with a focus on what someone did from beginning to end. At the heart of memoir is a focus on what I know now because of what I did. It can include short stories, vignettes and personal essays. No story is too small when it sheds light on a shared experience, just as no story gets old; your story of looking after a dying parent is unique because it is your story.

These courses include headings like Remembering Through Music, Remembering Through Books, My Life as A Museum and Remembering My Father. They are designed to give the participants enough prompts and writing exercises so they are never without a story to write. And let me assure you, almost every participant who sat around that table had a story that we carried with us long after the class was over.

If you have a quiet place to write, on paper or on a computer, you can begin recording and collecting the stories from your life. There isn’t enough space in this article to address everything you might want to know about memoir, but here are some prompts to get you going: Remember, write with abandon, don’t stop to edit and don’t overthink.

How to Begin

  1. Make a list of the things you have learned to do – tie your shoes, dive, break into a car, drive a standard while smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, milk a cow, ski, bake a cake, play the violin, build an outhouse, ice-fish, make bread or wine or beer, speak a third language, sew, knot pearls, build a staircase, sail, catch a fish or skin one, train a dog, train a toddler, pluck a chicken, get along with an in-law. Now write the story.
  2. How about all the stuff in your house that nobody wants but has a story? Take photos of the teeth marks on the dining room table, the Royal Doulton figurines your mother collected, the paintings your great aunt Margaret gave you, the stamp collection left you by your grandfather, the maroon velvet footstool in the attic, the collection of beer bottles, the old clock. What is the story of that table, who has sat around it and what are its happiest memories? Write the story – and even if nobody wants that old table, tell the story of what you know from having kept it for so long.
  3. How about your clothes and jewellery? Tell us about your scarf collection or why you have so many shoes or why you insist on keeping that damn bathrobe. What are the stories hidden there?
  4. Put a photo of your mother in front of you. Make a list of the things your mother held in her hands – choose one thing each day from the list and write the story. Do the same for your father, for yourself.
  5. What animals have played a role in your life? What do you know from having had a pet that you didn’t know before? What do you know from having watched wild animals? Write about that racoon you found hiding under the kitchen sink, the fox that waited outside your door, the crows that wake you every morning.
  6. Where and from whom did you hide when you were little? When were you most scared? Excited? In love?
  7. What are the books that have played a role in your life?
  8. Make a list of strangers you have encountered. Now write the story.
  9. Look out the window, go down memory lane and write about the first time your heart was broken.
  10. Look out another window, go down memory lane and write about the first time you experienced loss.

The key is to recognize that even the smallest things have big stories – things like the stuffed animal you still have, the letters from your first love and the wooden spoon your grandmother used to stir the applesauce in the years before she forgot what applesauce was.

If you’re cocooning and thinking about writing, just start. Remember to keep everything, honour every single story you write. And remember to pay attention to the stories that you want to give as gifts, gifts created during that time Mother Nature demanded that we all cocoon.

Anna Rumin teaches memoir writing at Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group (GNAG) and Carleton University.

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