"...everything in life is writable...if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."..... Sylvia Plath

Monday, October 22, 2012

Early excerpts from a new memoir

Roxie Alfred and Me 

Chapter 1 

Author's Notes: I've done my first rewrite of this introductory section. I like the idea of starting right in the middle of the action but, in this case, felt compelled to start out by mentioning how close I was to my grandparents. I think it flows well and doesn't bog down in a lot of backstory. And the third graph leads right into the first scene. (The first 10 c0mments below were written before the rewrite
     I grew up not particularly close to my mother, or my father for that matter. And I never stopped to figure out why.  It was what it was. Besides, my grandmother was more like a mother to me.  Not because she loved me any more, but because there was a rapport, a special bonding between Roxie and me like no other I've ever had.

     Roxie was the rock of the family, the glue that held it together. She was smart, caring, and funny. She was a farmer's daughter who married a farmer's son. Both were capable and hard working. They stayed married for over fifty years, despite some serious ups and downs. I can still hear her calling: "Aaaal - fred" whenever she needed him..

But he wasn't Alfred to me. To me and my sister, he was Papa and we adored him. He could be cantankerous and argumentative, but not to us. To us, he was kind, generous, and funny. He told us stories, sometimes the same ones over and over, but we didn't care.  Bebe and I would go into his smelly little room and jump up on the bed and he would take us away into a land of his imagination. He had been a seaman and a ship's cook at one time, so most of his stories were about the sea.
* * * *
     The strong smell of pipe tobacco swirled around our noses whenever we entered his room. It was very small with a narrow brown metal bed built high off the floor and pushed into one corner. It was covered with a home-made quilt and khaki army blanket. Three pillows were stacked one on top of the other at the head. There was nothing on the small window above the bed except a tan paper shade. Next to the bed, was an old Oak table with spindled legs. The large square table top was littered with everything from fishing tackle to car keys to smelly tobacco.

     We poked our heads in the door.

     "Papa, can we come in?"

     Papa jumped up. His 
brown leather bedroom slippers clicked against the linoleum floor as he shuffled to the door and opened it wide, letting out some of the stuffy pipe tobacco-tinged air.  He stood, all 6 foot 4 of him, in the doorway, his beautiful full head of white hair nearly reaching the door jam.

     "Good afternoon, ladies. Do come in."

     "We came to hear some stories" I said.

     "And to have our backs scratched," my little sister, Bebe, chimed in.

     Papa's  favorite silver lighter glistened in a beam of sunlight which had somehow made it's way into the dark room. An open closet with no door stood across from the foot of the bed. Homemade pale yellow curtains were pushed to one side revealing a scant collection of worn clothing. Next to the closet was a narrow dresser where he kept all his underwear and valuables. There were two shelves tacked up over the dresser housing cardboard boxes filled with letters, cards, and old newspaper articles. A picture of Roxie sat on one side of the dresser.

     "Okay" he said. "But first, let's see what we can find in my magic purse."

     We scrambled up on the high bed, grabbing onto the army blanket and bed posts to steady our climb.

     "What's in it? What's in it?" We both giggled, as papa opened up the silver clasp on the tiny leather change purse.

     "Well, let me see now." He peered slowly into the bottom of the change purse. Bebe and I held out breaths, our eyes wide with excitement.

     I slid as close to papa's side as possible and Bebe jumped up and ran around to his back, grabbing him by the shoulders and peering over one side to get a look into the change purse. She was so excited, she nearly toppled forward over the edge of the bed. But papa caught her just in time.

      "Alfred, there you are." Roxie appeared at the doorway.  She wiped her hands on the front of her faded apron. "I've been calling you. It's dinner time. Come on girls. Your mother will be here soon to pick you up."

     Roxie was tall and still beautiful. Her shiny black hair was evidence of her Cherokee heritage. She and Alfred met in North Carolina where they were born, and married. Both were raised in large God fearing Baptist families, the kind that stuck together no matter what, and were slightly rigid and dogmatic in their thinking. But Roxie was amazingly liberal. She eventually rejected her Baptist upbringing for the Unitarian Church. She had a strong personality, was assertive, and outspoken. She definitely ruled the roost at home. Alfred complained a lot but usually, although grumbling loudly, did everything she asked.

     Roxie pulled on both oven mitts, opened the oven door and lifted out a golden brown  roasted chicken, and baked yams. I leaned over to see what she'd left in the back of the oven. There two pies side by side just waiting for us to finish our meal. I was sure one was apple and the other cherry, both my favorites. 

     Bebe and I washed our hands and sat down  close to papa who was already at the head of the table. Roxie returned to the oven and came back with a steaming bowl of rice and a covered baking dish full of collard greens and salt pork. Bebe and I hated cooked greens, but they were always the first thing papa reached for...............

if you enjoyed this post, feel free to leave a comment


  1. It reads well. I don't know what draft you are on, but I'd keep writing and then come back to it when you feel you have landed on where you feel more connected to the words. I sense that's what you're getting at. Trust your gut. When you feel you have it you'll know. I'm the same way. I am working on a new piece now and have written the beginning over a half dozen times. I know when it's right I can move forward.

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    2. Brenda, You are so right about this: "When you feel you have it you'll know. I know when it's right I can move forward." Maybe I should listen to Stephen King. He won't let anyone see his first draft until he's finished with it. I've only written a few chapters so far. I thought I was on my way, but I got the time line wrong (so important in a memoir) and had to go back and re-structure the chronological order and do some research, which stopped my rhythm and flow. It's hard to do when no one is alive to answer your questions and help you piece it together. I shouldn't say no one. My sister has been trying to help me, but she had a stroke 10 years ago and has trouble remembering.

  2. Brenda, Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. You said it reads well, but does it grab you? It's the first chapter so that's what I'm looking for. This is also a first draft, so I have a ways to go with the crafting, but I just wondered what readers thought, especially about the second part, which feels better to me.

    I'm having a little trouble diving in. And it could be because I'm so busy with my business and can't let go, for fear of loosing my focus on the money making/staying alive thing. Small businesses aren't doing well right now, especially BnBs.

  3. My two cents(therefore purely personal opinion so feel free to ignore). The second and third paragraphs in the opening (the part you don't seem to like) feel a bit 'backstory', in particular I feel you can show us about Roxie in a less rushed manner, maybe her own chapter a little like the grandpa part (the part you state you like).
    The grandpa/Alfred part is great, lots of senses. There is a better feel to it (probably that voice you felt shows better in that part).
    If it were me I'd probably leave the first paragraph in the first section, cut the middle two (though perhaps use the second paragraph in a another part, and expand the Roxie paragraph later), keep the end paragraph and then keep pretty much all of the second part. This way you're jumping quicker into action, senses and dialogue.
    Of course I'm not a writer of memoir or faction, I do genre fiction, so the rules I use may not apply.
    Sorry if this comment was a little long, but since you mentioned 'looking for feedback' I thought I should give an honest response. Let me know if you think I overstepped any boundaries.

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    2. Kirstie, Please don't apologize for the long comment or for your two cents. This is exactly what I hoped would happen if I started posting excerpts and comments about the process I'm going through.

      Your comments are very helpful and I will give them a lot of thought. Crafting takes a long time and I'm not in a hurry. This is sort of an experiment to see what works, and if readers will respond. I've written one complete memoir already with no comments from readers until the whole first draft (21 chapters) was finished. Altogether, after several rewrites and alpha/beta readers, it took a little over two years to complete the book.

      This project feels a lot different and has, right from the beginning.....closer to the bone, so to speak. And I've changed my approach and process somewhat, being much more mindful and analytical of what I'm doing. I'm not writing right straight through to the end without stopping to craft like I did with my first memoir. There's a lot of research required this time and the story is more dependent on a time line than the first one was.

  4. Nancy, yes it did grab me. As yourself - does it have tension, narrative, and dialogue in the right portions on the page (only you can answer that). Is your dialogue natural, is it moving the story forward. Are you touching on the senses - so we the reader feel and see it. It's a clinical approach to the editing, but it helps (me anyway) when I look at my pages with a check list.

    1. Brenda, Thanks again for more helpful comments. I like your ideas and do look at those things, but I think it's a little early for that. I usually do it after I've finished the first draft and am ready for some nitty gritty crafting. I guess what I'm looking for, at this stage, is whether or not the content is interesting to readers. Why would someone want to read about me and my grandparents?

  5. I enjoyed this and, as I always think is the telling point, was curious to read more. I agree that some of the first part feels like backstory, I think I would jump in with your grandfather, drop us in the middle of your story and then explain your way out.

    They both sound like lovely people. I too am working on a memoir, primarily about my grandmother, who was simply everything. It's hard, isn't it, to write about them when they are not here?

    1. Thanks so much for the supportive comments. Glad you wanted to read more.....that's a good sign. I like your suggestion and think that's probably what I'll do. Nice to have a connection with someone writing in the same genre about something similar. I'd love to read some of your excerpts. I'll check your site out when I get a minute. I haven't had time lately to work on this project...so anxious to get back to it.

  6. Hi Nancy, I have read and greatly enjoyed the excerpts which are posted here. I just love your style of writing and storytelling. I personally am the worst writer but am fascinated with the few people that really have that knack. I have a very good friend in San Francisco who I greatly admire who writes very much like you do. Keep up the great work and I look forward to the first memoir when you can get it published. Wouldn't mind paying $25-30 when it's ready - just let me know.

    1. Buddy, I so appreciate your ever supportive comments. They are a real incentive to go on and continue trying to amaze you. 25-30 bucks sounds good, but I'll settle for a beautiful book cover and a page on Amazon, regardless of the price. Thanks so much. You are such a good friend.