Character Development of a Novel’s Hero

By Jerry Waxler

When the protagonist of the novel “Bread Alone” went to work in a bakery, she found her own strength. That’s the central premise of the novel. Through creative striving, through effort and overcoming obstacles, the protagonist grew. In this regard, “Bread Alone” provides an uplifting, even inspiring answer to the question asked by almost every good story, “How did the character grow?” I asked the author Judi Hendricks to tell me more about the importance of the character arc for her and her characters.

Jerry Waxler: Okay. I get that the character Wynter had a different experience in the break up of the marriage than you did in real life, but there is one area of your life that your protagonist seems to accurately reflect. You both went from incomplete people to much more aware and fulfilled people by working in the bakery. As a reader, I love this inner arc, which shows your character’s personal development. This is one of the reasons I read memoirs, to see how people grow, and I’m glad you reflected that part of your life in the novel. I know you’ve said you just follow your characters and your characters tell you what happens, but I wonder if you could say anything specifically about this aspect of story crafting which portrays the growing wisdom of the protagonist as she travels from the beginning of the story to the end.

Judi Hendricks: I should clarify that comment about following my characters to see what happens–I think that applies mainly to specifics of the story, not so much to the character’s arc.  In one class where I workshopped the first few chapters of Bread Alone, one of the other participants said, in essence, “Your main character is a nincompoop.  She’s totally spoiled and clueless and not very likeable.  Why don’t you make her smarter and don’t let her feel so sorry for herself and so entitled?”

My response was, “That’s the whole point of the story.  She has to change and grow or there’s no story.”

I usually have at least a vague idea of how my characters will develop, who they’ll be at the end.  But the things that happen along the way, I discover as I write.

Jerry: Okay, so flash forward. You have written a bunch of novels, and you are actually a writer now. So this whole story would make a great memoir. In the beginning was an unformed young bakery worker who attends a memoir class and realizes she could play with reality. This marks the transition into the next stage in her life. Over the coming years, like Wynter in Bread Alone, the protagonist of this memoir is becoming a deeper person, as she writes novels, and finds her voice, her audience, and her stride as a mature writer.

So if you were to look back and see yourself as the protagonist in this memoir or novel about the birth of a writer, could you offer us a scene, a revelation, a key moment, perhaps at a book signing or the completion of yet another manuscript when you said to yourself something like, “Hey, this is my life. I’m a writer.”

Judi: First of all–what a great idea for a novel!

The realization hit me as I was beginning my second book, Isabel’s Daughter.  I’d gotten a two-book contract from my UK publisher and I had to produce a manuscript in 18 months, whereas I’d had no deadline for Bread Alone and ended up taking four years to write it.  I had only the most nebulous idea for a story and was facing a huge amount of research about New Mexico and art and a bunch of other topics I knew nothing about.  I rented a little house in Santa Fe for a month and my husband and I drove over with all my books and my computer and we had a fun weekend playing tourists, and then Monday morning he got on a plane and went back to L.A. and I freaked out.  I spent most of the day walking around town in a daze, envisioning having to give back my advance.

That night I called my husband, practically in tears and he gave me his best halftime locker room pep talk.  The next morning I sat down at the kitchen table and organized my research materials, outlined a 30-day plan for what I needed to accomplish, read over the story notes I had to date and then I just started to write.  That’s when I knew I was a writer.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Judi: Part three of Bread Alone– Baker’s Apprentice was part 2..

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More of my interview with Judi Hendricks

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

Explore Painful Memories by Writing Fiction

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

By Jerry Waxler

In this part of my interview with novelist Judi Hendricks, I ask her to describe how she walks the line between fact and fiction in her novel “Bread Alone.”

Jerry Waxler: When I read “Bread Alone” I was impressed by how realistic and rich the dialog was. It was just very real. I enjoy dialog that has a rich real flavor, and always wonder how writers do it. How do you bring your dialog to life?

Judi Hendricks: You have no idea how big of a compliment that is. When I first began to write fiction, dialog was the hardest thing for me.  There are so many ways to do it badly, and I did every one of them.  I’ve always been an incorrigible eavesdropper, so at first I tried to write the way people actually talk, which is incredibly boring, full of um and you know and sentence fragments that go nowhere.  I read a lot of novels and books on writing, and I took a lot of classes, and I learned that the biggest problem with my dialog was that it went on far too long.

When you’re writing dialog you have to decide with each conversation between your characters, what exactly is the point of this exchange?  Once you know that, you must ruthlessly cut everything that doesn’t pertain to that point.  And if you don’t know what the point of an exchange is, you have to get rid of the whole conversation, no matter how cool it sounds.  The other thing about dialog is to be constantly aware, and to make the reader aware, that what a character says is not necessarily what she thinks or feels.  Everyone’s got an agenda; every conversation has subtext.  To me, that’s one of the biggest things that brings dialog to life.  This applies to memoir as well as to fiction.

Jerry: I have heard that people often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” I could see how this line of questioning could lead to a tangle if you have to start explaining which parts are true and which are invented. Maybe that’s why many writers try to dodge the question altogether. How does that work for you?

Judi: “Where do you get your ideas?” is the second most frequently asked question, right after “How did you get your agent?” and I’m always tempted to laugh.  It’s almost like there should be a catalog company with a warehouse in Kansas where you can order ideas over the internet.  My best response is that ideas are organic.  Your life is like a big compost pile full of thoughts, dreams, memories, experiences…all of which lie there and rot and become this very fertile substance from which ideas sprout spontaneously.  As for the truth, that’s a more slippery thing.  I don’t believe that a story has to be real to be true.

Jerry: Do you keep a writing notebook to jot down notes you observe or think? Do you insert snips of overheard conversations into your novels?

Judi: I actually have several notebooks.  One by the bed, one in the car, one in my purse.  As I get older and my memory gets worse, I feel like I have to write down the ideas I don’t want to forget.  A few of my best lines are gems I overheard in an elevator or sitting in a café.  Those are like a gift from the writing gods.

Jerry: Many new writers ask, “What if a character sues or hates me for writing the story?” Obviously you side stepped this issue by writing fiction. It’s what the spies call “plausible deniability.” You could say, “Oh, no. It’s fiction. That wasn’t really you.” But this is a complex mental and emotional game. You must juggle parts of reality with parts of imagination. Did it feel strange distorting real events for the purposes of the story?

Judi: It really is a kind of game…a game of “what if,” like my writing about the robbery. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble distorting or changing or embellishing reality.  When I was growing up I got in trouble for it; now I get paid for it.  Sometimes when I try to write nonfiction it’s harder to remember what actually happened than to recall the little nuances and embroideries I concoct around so many events.

Jerry: Interesting. Experts, like Brian Boyd in “The Evolution of Stories” propose that humans began to tell stories as a sort of cognitive playground where they experiment with alternate scenarios. You seem to be the perfect model for that theory. In “Bread Alone” you turned your imagination loose at the boundaries of reality. So on your fifth novel, how has that connection between life and fiction evolved for you over the years?

Judi: Bread Alone was my first novel, and my most personal one, partly because I actually experienced some of the things I wrote about.  But no matter what I’m writing about, it becomes very real to me. Part of writing fiction is digging deeper and deeper, not just into your characters, but into yourself, mining your own emotions and memories.  You discover your character’s emotional reality by drawing upon your own.  For example, in Isabel’s Daughter, my second novel, the protagonist is a woman who was abandoned as a child, grew up in an orphanage and foster homes.  I’ve never been abandoned; my family was excruciatingly normal, so I don’t know anything about that.  But my experience includes that feeling of not being fully engaged in life, of being an outsider–and it was that feeling I had to mine when I wrote this character.

Everything you write is filtered through your experience, your sensibilities.  Even if it’s a totally fictional story with characters that are completely unlike you, it’s still almost impossible to separate the writer from the work.  That’s why it’s so hard not to read criticism of your work as criticism of yourself.

If I only knew what my thought process was as I tried to figure out the story structure…  It’s the same for me now, working on my fifth novel, as it was with Bread Alone.  I just keep writing to discover what happens.  There’s a certain amount of ceding control to the story, which I know sounds very woo-woo, but there you are.

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

by Jerry Waxler

I constantly scan for wisdom that can help me translate my life into story, so I was intrigued recently when  fiction writer Grace Marcus told me about a friend who walked into a memoir class and walked out with an idea for her first novel “Bread Alone.” When author Judi Hendricks agreed to speak to me about her creative process, I prepared by reading the book, about a woman crushed by the betrayal of her husband, went to find herself by baking bread. The novel seemed so rich with the emotional journey of real life, I felt sure that my talk with Judi would be productive. Here is part one of our interview.

Jerry Waxler: So is it true? Did you get the idea from your first novel after attending a memoir class? If so, please share the events and choices that brought you to that conclusion?

Judi Hendricks: I’ve always said my career as a novelist began in a bakery, which seems appropriate, because the longer I practice both writing and baking the more similarities I see between them.  Bread is a process–slow, arduous, messy, unpredictable.  You can say all the same things about a book.  Bread is composed of distinct ingredients, that merge and become dough–a completely different entity which then takes on a life of its own.  A book follows that same process.

In my twenties and thirties, I had so many different jobs.  If there had been such a thing as adult ADD then, I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with it.  I worked as a journalist, then in public relations and advertising.  I worked in public television, then at Delta Airlines, then I had my own travel agency.  I wore suits and carried a briefcase.  I kept thinking everything would be fine if I could just find the right job. When I finally landed at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, I thought I had found my calling.  Which I had–just not in exactly the way I first imagined.

Time and circumstance intervened, and later in a different city I found myself in a creative non-fiction class with an assignment to write an essay about something I loved to do.  I wrote about making bread.  This was almost seven years after my job at the McGraw Street Bakery had ended, and yet all these memories suddenly came flooding back.  The essay became a memoir of my time at the bakery.  I never intended to write anything longer than 30 pages, but something about the piece nagged at me.  I kept rewriting it.  Every time I thought I was finished, it drew me back to the computer.

Jerry: Why did you go to that memoir class? What was your goal?

Judi: Actually my goal was to avoid having to get another job.  I’m not kidding.  I was “between engagements” and I was hoping if I stalled long enough I’d either win the lottery or figure out what I was supposed to be doing.  The only reason I took that particular class was I knew I could write nonfiction because I’d made a living doing it.  I was also sure I couldn’t write fiction because I had a file cabinet full of aborted short stories.

Jerry: What inspired you to flip from nonfiction to fiction?

Judi: It was not a conscious choice.  I remember the exact moment when I crossed the line between memoir and fiction.  I was writing about something that happened at the bakery right after I started working there.  We had a robbery one night, and the police decided that it was an inside job because the cash box was kept in a fairly unusual place, behind the huge tins of baking powder in the store room, and the thief apparently went right to it.

Suspicion immediately fell on our dishwasher–a fifteen-year-old boy–we’ll call him Josh.  His parents had just been through a really nasty divorce, and he was living with his mother, but all he ever talked about was getting enough money together so he could go find his dad in Kansas City.  Coincidentally or not, he disappeared shortly thereafter.  Within a week we had a new dishwasher–a pretty16-year old girl we’ll call Kristi.  This information is totally unrelated to the robbery.  She wasn’t even working there when it happened.
But what if she had been?

Somehow my brain made the leap that it would be more interesting that way.  What if Kristi liked nice clothes and she had an old car that needed repairs and insurance and gas…what if she stole the money and let Josh take the fall?  What if he knew and didn’t tell because he was crazy about her?  Or…what if she took the money for him because she was crazy about him?  Without any conscious decision on my part, I’d just become a fiction writer.  None of this stuff ended up in the book, but it seemed to me that my course was set.

Jerry: Fascinating! You were willing to write about “real life” but with a twist. That’s an interesting intuition. Didn’t it feel strange veering away from reality like this? I’m trying to understand why you wrote fiction instead of just sticking with the facts.

Judi: I never imagined writing about myself anymore than I imagined writing a novel.  Bread and the bakery were just two things I was passionate about.  I think almost everyone has had an experience like that–one of those magical times that exerts an almost gravitational pull on you.  You know there’s a reason for it; you just don’t know what it is.  You keep revisiting it and reliving it in your head until it becomes almost your personal mythology.  For me, the bakery was that experience.

Yes, the thought of writing a novel was daunting.  So for months I didn’t acknowledge that’s what I was doing.  At around 350 pages, it became clear that it had gone beyond a short story, but it was a scary step to admit to myself–much less anyone else–that it might be a book.  That sounded like an engraved invitation to humiliation and failure.  (I do subscribe to that school of thought that says if you don’t admit you’re trying something, then you cannot possibly fail.)

The Scottish astronomer David Brewster said,
“It is a curious circumstance, that when we wish to obtain a sight of very faint star, we can see it most distinctly by looking away from it, and when the eye is turned full upon it, it immediately disappears…”

Focusing on the bakery enabled me to see the story I was trying to tell, framed within the experience of making bread.

This is part one of the interview. In the next part we’ll dig further into the relationship between fact and fiction.

Notes
To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Harry Bernstein’s Second Memoir, Still Writing at 98!

by Jerry Waxler

Harry Bernstein was 93 years-old when he published his first memoir “Invisible Wall” about his childhood in England before the first World War. His nonagenarian achievement changed the landscape for aspiring memoir writers who wonder if they are too old. Bernstein, now 98, is basking in the publication of his second memoir, “The Dream,” about immigrating to the United States.

Amazon Link: The Dream
My essay about The Invisible Wall

There have been lots of immigrant stories, so what makes this one worth reading? For one thing, he’s so old he offers a modern-day tale about Coming of Age during the 1920’s. That’s amazing. There are other twists. Chicago feels different than the more familiar New York setting. And since he grew up in England, his language is less of a barrier than for other immigrants, but at first no one understood his regional British accent.

The story comes alive when Harry describes characteristics of each member of his family. Harry’s own father is the villain, a selfish drunk, a menacing tyrant, cruel to everyone in the family; his brother is a humorless aspiring rabbi; his mother the victim of his vicious father; and his grandfather secretly earns his living as a beggar.

So here’s the tip. When you are afraid people will think your life was just like everyone else’s, focus on unique people and circumstances and find the dramatic tension that turns a “typical” story into a suspenseful, unique one.

I eagerly track the outcomes of his decisions
When they first land in the States, they are dirt poor. That starts to change when Harry lands a job in the U.S. post office. What could be more secure? But he doesn’t take it seriously, intending to go to college in a few months. Then, tension with his father escalates. To extricate his mom from this abusive relationship, he talks her into moving to New York, quitting his job just in time for the Depression, quickly sliding back into poverty. Then Harry meets the love of his life with whom he remains married for 67 years. In hindsight, perhaps it was the right move after all. When viewed through such a wide lens, the daily grind becomes a big story, and as I watch him careening through the events like a blindfolded driver through an obstacle course, I keep turning pages wondering where each situation will lead.

Writing Prompt
The outcome of your choices become part of your connection with readers. Focus on decisions that altered the course of your life. Sometimes the results weren’t what you wanted, leading to regrets and even shame. This is a good opportunity to revisit those regrets. Re-tell the embarrassing experience. Then go back further. What lead up to it? When you reach the fateful decision, stop and look around. What else was going on? What pressures and fears affected the decision? Keep going, past the bad memory and show how you moved and grew through the following years.

Parallel with Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”

Harry Bernstein’s two memoirs resemble Frank McCourt’s, “Angela’s Ashes” and “Tis.” Both authors had drunken, neglectful fathers. Both first volumes tell of hardships in the mother country and both second volumes start with the immigrant experience in America. The similarities didn’t bother Harry Bernstein’s publishers, who apparently figured that if the public liked McCourt’s memoir, they might buy a similar one.

My Essay about Angela’s Ashes

As you plan your own memoir, read lots of published memoirs and consider the similarities between your story and other proven sellers. This is your chance to follow in the footsteps of success, taking advantage of similarities for your marketing material, while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of your own memories.

Reading is a pathway to writing

Harry, desperate for work during the Great Depression, eventually landed a job reading and critiquing stories. This is the second time I’ve read about someone earning a living during the Depression by reading. The first was in Sydney Sheldon’s memoir, “The Other Side of Me.” His experience as a professional script reader put food on the table, and at the same time provided insight into what makes stories work. His modest job provided a stepping stone towards a fabulously successful career as a novelist and screenwriter.

The Other Side of Me, by Sidney Sheldon, Amazon, my essay about The Other Side of Me

Both authors, Sheldon and Bernstein, learned that reading books can help you write them, and that turns out to be a perfect piece of advice for any writer. Read like a writer, picking apart books to see what works and what doesn’t. I am putting this method into practice myself. As I read memoirs and write reviews about them for this blog, I am gaining many of the benefits that these aspiring writers did.

Biggest lesson, how your own creative work can inspire hope

When my mother was in her 80’s she read the memoir, “Color of Water,” by James McBride, a black man with a Jewish mom. To share her thoughts with her peers, and to find out what they thought, she arranged a book review at a meeting room in her apartment building. About 40 people showed up to discuss the book. During that lively gathering something else was going on. They were seeing for themselves that an old lady doesn’t need to slow down. It was amazing to me how much confidence and love Mom’s activity inspired. For years after that event they came up to her in the lobby, asked her what she was reading and told her how much they admired her. She became a local hero.

Harry Bernstein is the oldest guy I know to have published a memoir, and so, in addition to the story he tells within the pages, the publication of the book creates a story about the story, offering a powerful message to hundreds of millions of people. “There’s still time. Start now. It’s never too late. You can do it! And as you create your own story, in addition to documenting your life events, under the surface your effort will offer your readers a larger lesson about inspiration and hope.”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Dani Shapiro’s memoir “Slow Motion” is a study in desire. When she enters Sarah Lawrence, one of the top liberal arts schools in the U.S., she is young, beautiful, and rich. Then, a man 20 years older swoops into her life, picks her up in his limousine and showers her with flowers. At first she is disgusted. Then she gives in, and starts taking more and more of his gifts. The problem is he’s the step-dad of her best friend, he’s married, and he’s a liar. Every time he pulls another creepy stunt, I want to scream, “Run!”

I’ve heard plenty of real-life stories of people’s lives being destroyed by love affairs and addiction. Now this book puts me inside the head of someone choosing a self-destructive track, and I find her desires almost incomprehensible. How can a person want something that is going to hurt them? This book gives me a chance to peer into one such person’s path. If I can understand how desire works for Dani Shapiro, I hope to learn more about desire in other memoirs, and in my own life.

For more insight, I turn to one of the great explainers of human nature, the psychologist Abraham Maslow. In the 1940’s, Maslow wanted to push psychology beyond illness, so he studied highly motivated, challenged, and satisfied people. Based on his research, he developed an explanation known as Maslow’s Hierarchy. This famous model says that people satisfy basic needs first and then move up to more sublime ones. I tried to apply the hierarchy to Dani Shapiro’s memoir.

Dani Shapiro on food and drink.
At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are the biological needs. You would think hunger and thirst would be the first things that a person with money would satisfy. But when you look closer, you see how Dani distorts these needs. She accompanies her lover to the finest restaurants, orders any food she wants, and then either doesn’t eat it, or eats it and goes to the bathroom to throw it up. She is starving.

Similarly Shapiro’s relationship with drink is far more complex than simply satisfying a biological need. In one restaurant, Lenny, her lover, is disappointed that they don’t stock vintage wine from 1959, so he reluctantly settles for 1961. As he raises his glass, he says to Dani, “This wine is older than you are.” He is using drink as a tool of power and sexuality. As she becomes more dependent on alcohol, she drinks to fog her mind. Over and over, her biological needs are distorted by power and self-destruction.

Dani Shapiro on safety.
After the biological needs are met, Maslow says we try to achieve safety. Dani perverts this need, too. Even though she doesn’t see it, the reader can see that she is consciously moving out of safety and into danger.

Dani Shapiro on social needs.
The next rung up the ladder are social needs, such as friendship, intimacy, and family. Dani’s family, many of them highly successful, ought to be a major source of support. Except for the fact that they hate each other so venomously they had no room in their hearts for Dani. When she seeks satisfaction from her lover, he drains her like a vampire, sucking so much of her energy she doesn’t even have friends. What’s a reader to do? I want her to get this guy out of her life. And yet if she removes him, she might fall for another shallow, powerful man. To satisfy me, she must gain a clearer understanding of her own social needs.

During high school, instead of pursuing drama or writing, her extra-curricular activity is cheer leading. During college she models, seeking to be paid for her beauty. Her goal is to maximize the amount of praise and power she can earn from her looks. From this point of view, her affair with Lenny seems ideal. He shower her with wealth, his perfect trophy mistress. Unfortunately, Dani’s approach to social needs keeps her trapped in the bottom three rungs.

Dani Shapiro on esteem and actualization.
According to Maslow, once the basics are taken care of, people look for esteem, from others as well as from themselves. At the pinnacle are expressions of creativity, excellence, service, and sacrifice. I want Dani to reach the top two rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, where life starts getting really interesting. These goals turn out to be Dani Shapiro’s saving grace.

When she first enters Sarah Lawrence as a young woman right out of high school, her path seems assured. Then she drops out, throwing away an opportunity. After much suffering, she stops her downward spiral, by rejecting her parasitic lover and overcoming her substance addictions. Ready to reclaim her life, she makes a call to the dean at Sarah Lawrence. “I want to come back.”

In the end, this desire for creative expression sets her back on track. She finds her strength, enters a community of supportive students and teachers, and moves towards safety, social rewards, and esteem. Her memoir provides a beautiful example that despite the many twists and turns of life the desire to create a story leads towards the triumph of the human spirit.

Writing Prompts:
Look for an experience that will help you understand each of Maslow’s five levels in your life. As you look at these needs in your life, look for anecdotes that will illustrate them:

Did you ever starve, or ever look at food as the enemy?

Did you ever feel undermined by your lack of safety, or so safe you felt compelled to find adventure?

Did you ever feel so lonely you reached out to people you would typically avoid, or so glutted with people you wanted to escape?

List some of the ways you have searched for esteem. Write a paragraph or story about how each one succeeded or failed.

What was the most sublime goal you ever reached for? What is the most sublime goal you are reaching for now?

For further work along these lines, look for the intertwining of desires. For example, Dani wanted love, so she starved herself to look thin. She wanted esteem, so she reached towards a guy who treated her like dirt. A high school grad who wants esteem might sign up for the military, putting himself in harm’s way in order to achieve a higher goal. After college, to “find myself” I pushed away from my family, diminishing my social network.

Notes:
Here’s a Wikipedia article about Maslow’s Hierarchy if you would like to know more.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

Here is a well maintained commercial site which explains Abraham Maslow’s ideas in order to promote management and organizational strategies.
http://www.abraham-maslow.com/m_motivation/Hierarchy_of_Needs.asp

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Your character evolves through time – a memoir prompt

By Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

Look at the sky. Then look again. Nothing changed, and yet everything changed. Ticks of the clock add up and after enough of them, the earth turns again. Day by day, you brush your teeth, wash dishes, watch the news. As the days gather into years, kids grow, you learn skills, achieve goals, and your character evolves. To discover the richness of detail within these moments, look back at the landscape as the years rolled by. To bring the features into focus, ask questions.

For example, I ask myself, “How did creativity enter my life?” On my computer file, I list the decades and then peer into my life journey by answering this question for each decade.

Age: 0-19
I sewed costumes in cub scouts for a dress up performance. Sometimes we dressed up as Indians but this time we were Robin Hood’s Merry Men. I still can sew the saddle stitch.

In junior high, I assembled models of warships. In the fifties, the armaments of World War II were an important part of my fantasy life. I wished I had the knack to paint the trim more realistically, but didn’t feel confident about my color sense. (Ah-ha! An old regret lurking in an innocent childhood activity.)

In high school biology, our teacher showed us how to embed objects in clear, solid acrylic. I ordered the kit and went to work like an aspiring chemist, pouring half the concoction into a mold, and letting it harden. Then I placed a shiny penny on top and poured in the rest of the goo. My bedroom reeked but I didn’t mind. I was creating!

Age: 20-29
In college I loved to dance. I practiced moves in my room in front of the mirror, and then showed them off at parties. It felt like magic. As the music flowed through my body I converted it into motion. I also loved to sit and listen. I felt lifted by The Beatles, Joan Baez, John Coltrane. Classical music sent me to the stars, from Beethoven’s symphonies, to Bach’s choirs. I drank in operas, quartets, and soloists. Many of my friends in college were jazz musicians. I know spectating is different than creating, but my appreciation for other people’s music touches such a deep chord I consider it to be part of my own relationship with creativity.

Age: 30-39
Two decades after I wanted to paint those model battleship, I finally tried my hand at painting, in oils and acrylics on canvas. I had never learned to artistically represent objects, so I stuck with abstractions. My passion was exploring the colors on the palette and on the canvas. That encounter with painting amplified my understanding of color by a hundred fold. I still have the paintings, and I love them.

My computer programming jobs involved graphics and images. I instructed the computer to create and analyze pictures one pixel at a time. I wasn’t an artist, but my work brought me inside the technology of images. And the actual coding was a creative challenge in its own right.

I took singing lessons, first in a little neighborhood music school, and then at my voice teacher’s home. I knew from her compulsive yawning how bored she was with me. She was a frustrated opera singer, and my puny attempts must have seemed so insignificant in comparison. But she gave me enough confidence and skill to join my first choir, where I’ve been singing ever since.

Age: 50 and beyond
Many music teachers thought if you didn’t know a musical instrument by the time you were five years old, it was too late. Fortunately in the 1990’s scientists discovered that neurons can grow at any age. So I started taking piano lessons. Unlike my singing teacher, my piano teacher was interested in my adult learning. I could see in her eyes an admiration for my growing neurons.

I started to write a memoir, a process which is teaching me how writing can organize life. And the best teaching tools I can find are the stories everyone else tells. Using the lessons I learn from all other writers, I create my own story. Culture begets culture. I joined writing classes, and gathered together decades of miscellaneous writing experience into a form that will let me share my life with strangers.

Writing Prompt
On a sheet of paper or computer file list the decades of your life. Then write notes about how creativity entered your life during that period. Brainstorm connections with the arts, crafts, music, hobbies, activities with kids, or the creativity you expressed in your career.

This writing prompt reveals a broad overview. After you’ve gone through the list a few times, you may find entry points into specific scenes. For example, I could write the scene of standing at the piano next to my voice teacher, then another one in my car singing scales along with my audio taped lesson on my way to work. The scenes of creativity could be sprinkled throughout other events in my life to offer readers a connection with my inner world. Just as important as looking back, I see the tenacious place creativity has held in my life and look forward to decades of satisfaction ahead.

Notes
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.