Writing Memoir: You Are in the Room with Me

by Adrian the Elder, Guest Blogger

I love to record everything I see, and the method I chose for most of my life was photography. It never occurred to me then, not even for a moment, to write anything down.

Why bother doing that when all I had to do was take a photo? No fuss, no bother, just instant memory recall and gratification. As a professional photographer, when you make a shot you know immediately whether it worked or not; it’s either good or it failed. There’s no equivalent of a spell-checker to help you out.

There are a few trite but true difficulties that for many years prevented me from even considering or wanting to write. To begin with, I left school when I was seventeen. I knew very early that I could never learn anything in such a structured environment, and without a doubt English was my worst subject. As soon as the teacher started with that “i” before “e” unless it’s followed by a “c” and you’ve just eaten asparagus, or whatever the rule is, I completely lost interest. The fact that the same word could mean different things depending on the way it was spelled (or misspelled) was uproariously funny to me (still is!).

Then there is that sticky word-usage stuff about nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, and prepositions. Not a chance, I don’t have a clue. How about passive sentences, relative clauses or split infinitives? Those synonym and antonym thingies don’t get much more than a chuckle out of me either.

On top of that, all my typing is done one-finger style without my being able to look up from the keyboard for even a moment. I will concede that since starting to write a few years ago I have finally learned to use the middle finger of each hand, so I am very proud of the fact I have increased my typing speed one hundred percent. Though, tiny, finicky details like proper placement of commas are things I am constantly forced to guess at.

So, with that kind of background, what possessed me at almost seventy years of age to try my hand at writing?

I do love to tell stories. I’ve always had the knack (or irritating habit?) of finding humour in almost everything. Give me a bit of time and I will probably get you smiling, or laughing, about the worst thing that ever happened to you. (That can make me a very difficult human to live with, but it seems to work well in writing.) Many stories I tell end with someone in the crowd muttering, “You should write a book about the life you’ve led.” I’ve always thought that comment falls into the “Have a nice day” category, and never paid much attention to it.

A few years ago I went to a series of memoir writing classes that Allyson ran at the Toronto Public Library, because I felt if I did that I could finally tell my friends I had tried it and it definitely wasn’t my kind of thing.** I’ve never been able to learn anything in my life structurally. I absorb everything I can out of any class or book and then, when it’s all finished, I make sense of it on my own. I managed to participate marginally in Allyson’s group sessions but was hardly a star pupil. I remember one day telling her that I had always used a camera to say everything I ever wanted to say and I couldn’t imagine how I could turn the pictures in my mind into words. Allyson was rendered temporarily speechless by my obtuse manner and refusal to do assignments – I think she thought I was being intentionally difficult, and I don’t blame her. But she refused to let me escape with such a flip comment and encouraged me to keep trying. By the end, I still hadn’t done much writing, but the course had sparked something.

[**Note from Editor: Adrian, if I’d known that I’d have given you extra homework.]

A few months later I hesitantly signed up for one of Allyson’s online courses. Early on, a few people started putting stories they had written up on our private class blog for critique, and from what I read I felt I was way out of my depth.

Then, one Friday evening after weeks of insisting I couldn’t do any of the assignments or ever write a story, I started poking away at my keyboard. I stayed up writing until midnight and started back at it early the next morning. I could barely leave my story alone and kept hammering away again all day Sunday.

I eventually emerged from my lair holding the first story I had ever written. My wife Linda describes it as the weekend I became possessed. She read it through and suggested some corrections, which I made after a small period of pouting.

Posting it online for others to see and critique was daunting indeed. Thankfully, my classmates and Allyson started posting glowing praise for the story as well as making kind and gentle suggestions on what might improve it. Well, that was it. I had had a lot of fun and now I was hooked.

Because of the feedback in the online classes I was able to get a much better sense of what other people look for as they read, and how to improve a story. Over time, thanks to Allyson’s guidance and the helpful support of others in my class, what I had assumed was impossible became achievable. I have enjoyed writing ever since. And here I am, unexpectedly posing as a writer in this place (and with my very own blog).

With my photography, I try to give my viewers the sense that they are witnessing the scene or event in front of them and at the same time seeing how I personally saw it. In daily life I am extremely tactile and verbal (portrait photography is the art of verbal massage). So as a writer, too, I want you, the reader, to experience as much as possible what I felt. Hopefully you will know you are included and understand as you read that I am always aware you are in the room with me.

I have always found that the more I reveal about myself to others, the more they will reveal about themselves in a photograph. So, being very open in my writing comes naturally too. (One of the early things I realized, though, was that in writing about me, I was also unintentionally saying an enormous amount about Linda, so I had to get her permission to plough ahead.)

As for letting it all hang out for strangers to read on my blog, having shown my photography in the front window of my studio, I’m used to giving what I’ve created to the world and letting others decide if they think it’s good or bad. I am delighted when I discover someone finds what I wrote interesting or fun. Negative opinions don’t offend me and I offer no apology to those who hate what I write (or for that matter, what I do).

Strangely, I find it difficult to mix photography and writing together. With my photographs, I never felt any explanation or words were necessary. I would never even title a picture. I always left that up to the viewer. And whenever I slip a picture into something I’ve written, rather than feeling I’ve added to it, I feel as if I’ve cheated the reader by not explaining what I wanted to say without giving them that extra push … Maybe I will get over that eventually.

I don’t have any one method or approach to writing a story. Usually I remember something that was said, or a paragraph will pop into my head that I think is clever and that will continually turn over in my brain demanding attention, so to get rid of it I start telling its story. Sometimes after I’ve struggled with it for a few days a totally unrelated story will pop up and just flow out, so I save what I was working on and write the second, easier story.

After I’ve written what I think is a good start—usually four or five paragraphs that I may complete by visiting it over a few days—I ask my bride to read it and let me know if it’s a story I should bother with. I can rely on her sage advice, and she will tell me if I’m going in too many directions (often) or if the storyline works for her. Then I write and rewrite and write some more. I probably read and fool with every story I write a hundred times before I stick it up on the Web, and then I reread it on my blog many more times and fix the things I may have missed. Sometimes months later I revisit the story and find mistakes even after all that.

Some of my stories are hard to form and some inevitably only work well for me, but I still enjoy recovering the remnants of memory of an event and writing about it.

I have heard a lot about finding one’s voice in writing and still don’t understand what that means. The only way I can write my story is by telling you exactly what I saw or thought I saw, and at the same time I always try to let you in on how I felt about it. I write any story (including this one) the same way I would tell it to you if we were together, because as far as I’m concerned, during the time you’re wading through my warbling, we are together.

One of the secrets that unlocked everything for me and drove me to start writing was Allyson telling me that a memoir needn’t be from the distant past. It was okay to write about more recent experiences. I was finally free, because up to that moment memoir writing had been linked in my mind with some old coot sitting on a park bench with his cane and pipe, rattling on about the good old days—and I just wasn’t ready to amble over to the park yet.

Born and raised in Toronto, I left school when I was seventeen and hitch-hiked around North America on an unforgettable three-year nonstop odyssey of exploration and discovery. Except for a five-year stint as a personnel manager with a large camera store chain I’ve worked all my life as a photographer, mostly in my own studio.

Ten years ago, much to my surprise, I met Linda and married for the second time, and a few years after that, closed my studio. I now enjoy life’s unexpected shifts with my retired and also very active wife. I dabble in my basement photography studio and spend a lot of time writing about some of my experiences, which I post on my blog: http://adrian-the-elder.blogspot.com

Comments

  1. Mary says:

    Adrian –
    I was one of your first and most enthusiastic fans (loved your humour in the beer bottle return story). Thank goodness you’ve reconnected and brought us your experiences of the writing process as it applies to we who started late in life.

    Now that I know where to find you, I’ll have a great time reading your posts. Allyson seemed to have been a lightening rod for all of us.

    Mary E. McIntyre
    http://maryemcintyre.wordpress.com

  2. Adrian says:

    Mary –

    Thank you for your reinforcing comments, it’s nice to hear from you.

    When I began writing, apart from Allyson who as a great teacher was constantly supportive and kind in her comments of any of the work I did, you were in fact the very first outsider (if you will forgive the term) who wrote encouraging words about any of the stories I presented to the class.

    I remember calling Linda in to read what you said about my first story as I exclaimed “They actually like it!” Your infectious enthusiasm helped turn me into a blogger.

    Without question, as you so correctly state, Allyson is indeed a lightning rod for us all.

    By the way, I love your blog and do hope you will get the chance to visit mine often.

    Adrian

  3. Cheryl Andrews says:

    Hi Adrian,

    Loved your post! I’m an Allyson Latta fan and alumnus too. Photography has been big in my life since my grandparents gave me a Kodak Brownie when I was 12. As you say so eloquently here, Adrian, there is a huge challenge in putting words and images together. However, there is hope. I was recently pointed in an interesting direction by a pal of mine to Blipfoto, a daily photo journal site out of Scotland. I am getting in lots of practice at putting pictures and words together. You may want to check it out: http://www.blipfoto.com/cheandrews.

    I’ve added your blog to my favourites and look forward to reading more of your stories.

    Cheryl
    http://cherylandrews.wordpress.com

  4. Adrian says:

    Hello Cheryl,

    Thanks for adding your comments on my story. I dropped over to your site and enjoyed looking at the great pictures in your journal. When I have some extra time at the computer I will explore them more fully.

    Nice of you to add me to your favourites and I certainly hope my writing will continue to live up to your expectations.

    Adrian

  5. Bill Elleker says:

    Hi Adrian,

    I just finished reading a few of your other blog stories. I can’t imagine how you did it, but half way through one of them I suddenly realized you even had me laughing about you being attacked by someone with a hammer. What a sense of humour that you could manage to get a laugh out of such a story.

    You certainly seem to have an interesting view of life and all the things around you and it’s great you’re letting your readers in on it.

    I can hardly wait to go back and read some more, keep up the good work.

    Bill

  6. Gail Rudyk says:

    Hi Adrian,
    I’m so pleased that you discovered your amazing talent for writing. You could very well have settled on your laurels with your skillful and beautiful photography but this way you are giving us entertaining stories to read. I’ll visit your blog regularly looking for new stories.

    Writing about squirrels seems so unusual but you know these little critters inside and out. I can tell you have studied them for hours and when you tell about the sounds they make and how saucy they can be, I recognize that in some of our squirrels on Georgian Bay. Maybe they are related.

    Your photos of these little furry wonders are superb!
    My very favourite is the romantic one with the backward kiss. It must have reminded you of pictures you’ve taken in your studio of humans.

    You are such a character and I envy your bride Linda who gets to have coffee with you every morning.

    Gail

  7. Adrian says:

    Well Gail, that’s quite a glowing endorsement… actually you would have had no way of knowing but you have joined Linda and me during our morning coffee. When I was part of Allyson’s course with you a few years ago we would often have great fun as I read parts of your hilarious stories to her during our morning get together.

    The shot of the kissing squirrels was a gift … as I had mentioned in one of my stories, they frequently poked noses and one day a squirrel standing on the porch just grabbed the other as she ran by and pulled her head to his and planted an unmistakable kiss on her mouth. I think the squirrel getting kissed looks almost ecstatic in the way she is leaning back to him.

    It’s good to hear from you and thank you so much for the compliments.

    Adrian

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