Posts Tagged ‘writing tip’

Quotables: Andrea Jarrell on Her Memoir “I’m the One Who Got Away”

I ask what it was like for Jarrell to navigate the history of her parents before she was born — two people of a different generation, younger then than Jarrell and her own husband are now, and whose story Jarrell had to wind her way through before she was able to fully understand her own.

‘This is where starting out as a fiction writer really helped me,’ she says. ‘Because I began by exploring my parents’ story in fiction, I didn’t have to be so precious with them. In my fiction, they weren’t my parents; they were characters in a story. Both of them had told me so much about what they did and how they felt before I was born, so I had the reality but I also wasn’t trying to ‘remember’ what happened. I was allowing these people to exist separately from my experience of them. It was important to me that I wasn’t trying to own their story but to use it as a touch point to inform mine. Their relationship before I was born became a fable to me — a cautionary tale that informed my life and choices.’”


Read the full article HERE. (Miller, E. Ce, “Andrea Jarrell’s ‘I’m The One Who Got Away’ Is A Memoir Every Modern Love Fan Will Want To Read,”, Sept. 5, 2017.)

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Women’s Voices Are Crucial: Thoughts from Plum Johnson, author of the award-winning memoir They Left Us Everything


Plum Johnson with fellow UofT SCS student Jayne Townsend

Plum Johnson with fellow Memories into Story II student Jayne Townsend at a post-course gathering.


In March of this year, Plum Johnson won the coveted RBC Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction for her bestselling memoir, They Left Us Everything.

Plum was a participant in my advanced memoir course Memories into Story II (UofT SCS; online) at the time Penguin Canada published her book in 2014.  Of course her instructor (that’s me) and classmates were extremely proud of her then, and prouder still when she took home the RBC Taylor Prize. It’s been fun to follow her success. Plum quickly gained  popularity as a speaker at literary events and a guest of book clubs across the country (she often visits via Skype).

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Santiago Writers: Fourteen years and three anthologies later, still going strong

In 2010, I was invited to teach memoir writing in residence at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat in Chile — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The two-week retreat was organized by Susan Siddeley, a Canadian writer who had participated in one of my workshop series at North York Central Library. Susan and her husband own a charming vineyard outside Santiago — picture intensive workshops and writing time, but also sunshine, grapes on the vine, desert flowers, cacti, grazing horses, the scent of eucalyptus, mouth-watering meals on the terrace, and afternoon pisco sours by the pool.

During the time I was teaching at Los Parronales and later in the city of Santiago, I got to know a few members of the remarkably dedicated and productive group Santiago Writers (several of whom have written guest posts for this website over the past five years). Recently, I asked Ellen Hawkins and Susan Siddeley to share how the group got its start and what its members have accomplished together.


Anthologies published by Santiago Writers


Guest post by Ellen Hawkins with Susan Siddeley

©2010 Allyson Latta

It was Susan’s idea to start a writing group. I thought she was mad.

It was 2001. Santiago, then a metropolis of five million, was overwhelmingly Spanish speaking. You couldn’t get a cup of coffee without it. You still can’t, at least not in Dunkin’ Donuts — but once we announced that we were forming a group for English writers, others joined us.

Most participants were transient, their length of stay in the country dependent on the price of copper. So by the time we published our first anthology, Friday’s Fare, in 2004, there was only me left. But that publication brought long-term English-speaking residents out of the closet, all eager to write.

Today our membership includes authors from Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Guyana, South Africa, and the United States.

From the beginning, we have held weekly meetings, gathering around a table to write and critique. Our current table, in my home, is oval and welcoming, polished to a high sheen. We begin with a fifteen-minute writing “sprint” in response to a prompt (usually a word), then read aloud what we’ve written. The energy this exercise produces could light up the Milky Way.

Taking turns, and with copies for everyone to mark up, we get down to the hard task of reading and critiquing one another’s work. Our aim is to listen with an open mind and offer honest comment. This is not easy. Over time, though, we’ve learned to trust one another’s judgment. We’re an intergenerational group with distinct views on most topics, which makes for lively discussion.

When we published a second anthology, In Transit, in 2007, each story, essay, or poem needed repeated editing, which forced a further honing of our skills. We were one another’s editors and “judges” in deciding which pieces would be included. The process taught us much about working together, and about the energy and dedication required if we were to take our writing seriously.

Once they were published, selling our books proved an even greater challenge. In the event, we sold 500 copies, as we had with Friday’s Fare. A third anthology, published in 2011, won the (U.K.-based) National Association of Writers’ Groups Anthology Award for 2012.

Pool at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat (@2010 Allyson Latta)

Although Susan had by then moved to Toronto, she still was, and remains, very much a part of our group. Her involvement in local writing groups in Toronto — she started Parliament Street Writers — led to an unexpected opportunity for us when she began organizing two-week residential writers’ retreats at Los Parronales, her home on the outskirts of Santiago.

These were led by well-known writers and editors from Canada, England, and Australia. Allyson Latta was one of them. That we, Santiago Writers, were able to attend many of these was nothing short of fabulous. Until then, our only source of instruction had been from magazines posted from England or books tucked into suitcases from Canada or the United States.

Meanwhile, the world was changing. Thanks to the Internet, Santiago Writers can now connect with English-speaking writers, poets, and teachers anytime, anywhere. We use the Internet constantly for research and for ordering books. We started a blog. Some of our members have published their books online.

And at each stage of our growth, we’ve welcomed newcomers. Each writer adds something special to the mix. At last count, all but three of our eleven members either have published at least one book or have one in the works. At the heart of our efforts, it’s all about the writing.

Titles published by members of Santiago Writers:

Blood Flowers (2010), Mary Judith Ress
Djinxed (2010), Ellen Hawkins                   
Home First (2011), Susan Siddeley
Driftwood Fire, Chile (2012), Taeko Kushiro
Parallel Shores (2012), Tessa Too-kong
Flores de Sangre (2014), Mary Judith Ress
The Winemaker (2013), Second Best (2014), Charmaine Pauls
Marrying Santiago (forthcoming, 2015), Suzanne Adam


Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Will Come the Words: Author Ken McGoogan’s creative spaces in the great wide world

Read the series Introduction.


Ken at Berstane House in Orkney, Scotland. Photo credit: Sheena Fraser McGoogan

Ken McGoogan at Berstane House in Orkney, Scotland.


KEN McGOOGAN lives in The Beaches area of Toronto. He writes there . . . among other places.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

My Secret Life: A Writer Confesses . . . an essay by Lewis DeSoto

"Hide and Seek," Jan Verhas, oil on panel (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“Hide and Seek,” Jan Verhas, oil on panel (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My secret life is not to be confused with a “secret identity.” I won’t be dashing off to a phone booth and emerging in a Superman costume.

I don’t have a secret identity. But I do have a secret life, and it is inextricably tied in with my identity as a writer.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

The appeal of memoirs that lead us “gently, into a different literary country”: guest post by Lynette Benton


Wooded Path, David Spicer, 2009 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wooded Path, David Spicer, 2009 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


When I came across a Twitter exchange between Allyson (@allysonlatta) and M. Summerfield Smith (@MarnieMemoirs) praising the work of Diana Athill, I felt I’d stumbled on kindred spirits who appreciated Athill’s rather old-fashioned approach to memoir writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love—its clever three-part overarching structure that perfectly mirrors the author’s physical journey, the story itself, Gilbert’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of apt similes; and the closing epiphany. Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion, is another of my favorites. In it, Shapiro looks at the various spiritual practices she’s been a part of — from orthodox Judaism to so-called New Age practices — searching for release from her inexplicable fears in order to find the deeper meaning in her life.

These two books — what I’d call quest memoir — surely raised the bar for those of us who write memoir.

But alongside quest memoirs are those that explore, yet seek nothing — neither salvation nor a prize. They simply and movingly examine a segment of a life, encouraging the reader toward insight into her own.

Obsession plays a major role in quest memoirs, but as nonfiction writer and teacher Philip Lopate notes in To Show and To Tell, in nonfiction (including memoirs, of course), we want, “Not obsession but curiosity. . . . Nonfiction as a practice tends towards reason, calm, insight, and order.” Which perfectly describes Athill’s approach.

Current publishing conventions pressure memoirists to grab readers with a knockout image or suspense. Eat, Pray, Love opens with the frank desire for a kiss. Devotion presents a single anxious question: “I was fleeing something — but what?” But most of Athill’s memoirs make me feel quietly invited, rather than yanked, into her story. Yesterday Morning begins:

“‘Oh, my God,’ said my mother. ‘Can I really have a daughter who is seventy?’ and we both burst out laughing.

“She was ninety-two . . . but she still felt like the Kitty Athill she had always been, so it was absurd to have another old woman as a daughter.”

I already knew Athill hails from the English countryside, and I’m always up for a metaphorical jaunt in that pastoral place, so when I picked up this book I felt certain I was about to be led, gently, into a different literary country from my own, through the words of a thoughtful writer, editor, and woman. I liked being eased, rather than propelled, into her reality. I enjoyed ambling along beside a bright and ruminating mind.

Although Athill traveled during her lifetime, most of her books convey no sense of globe-trotting, no sense of her being on the lookout for anything, or trying to achieve, anything Big. No life quest. Written with what I think of as typical British restraint, her memoirs are personal but almost matter-of-fact. (An exception is After a Funeral, which begins, shockingly, with the announcement of a suicide to come.)

I don’t mean this to be a summary of Athill’s memoirs. What I want to say is that for me, memoirs, if well written, don’t have to open with a splash or take me on a fast ride to a big ending.

One of my favorite memoirs is Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick’s book about her life as a native New Yorker who struggles with her mother, with men, and with her writing. Its pages are punctuated by the challenging pulse and personality of that unconquerable metropolis. In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert gets the guy. But Gornick’s memoir ends on an almost audible sigh of resignation, as the narrator and her dissatisfactions — her making do and doing without — settle back in, unabated, unsolved, unresolved. There is no real coming to terms with anything.

Toward the end of Athill’s memoir Instead of a Letter, in opposition to the achievement, energy, and optimism at the end of Eat, Pray, Love, Athill reflects on what she didn’t do, rather than what she accomplished in her life. No doubt because of her advanced years, she’s simply trying to meet and express gracefully the challenges of aging — oh, but what elucidation and comfort she provides along the way.

What memoirs have given you this same quiet but deep satisfaction and insight? Please share a comment below.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like In Need of a Neat Conclusion? also by Lynette Benton.

♦     ♦     ♦

LYNETTE BENTON is a published writer, writing instructor, and editor. She has written two memoirs, both currently in the editing phase. She lives in Boston.








Wordless Wednesday will return next week.

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013