Post #10 – Women’s Memoirs, Editors on Editing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
[As you may know, Kendra and I are the Co-Coordinators for Story Circle Network's Editorial Service that gives you easy access to a team of professional editors. These editors have been selected both for their skill level and because they are attuned to the stories women write -- memoirs as well as fiction. Your memoir manuscript is important and deserves respect...the best treatment...and an editor who understands you. That's why SCN Editorial Service exists. When you're ready for an editor, we're ready for you. Not a member of SCN? Don't worry. Contact us anyway and we'll help you locate one of SCN's editors who can help you with your article or manuscript. Think you aren't up to writing your memoir and want someone to interview you for your stories and then write them for you? Again, let us know as we have editors who can work with you in different capacities to ensure that your stories are told.
From time to time, we ask an SCN Editor to provide you an insight based on her experiences both as an editor and as a writer. Today, Roseanne Rini shares some of her experiences as she begins working on her own memoir. This is the continuation of her blog post on Story Circle Network's Telling HerStories blog. Here's the link to that post.
Writing My Memoir: One Vignette at a Time, Part 2 — Finding My Theme
In Part I of this post on memoir writing, I discuss following one’s impulse to write about whatever one remembers without concern for organization. I would like to provide two excerpts from my own writing to show how I am discovering, through this process, a major theme of my memoir.
(For space concerns I’ve included abbreviated pieces.)
Memoir Vignette: Pane (Bread)
In my mother’s day, a woman’s skill in the kitchen gave her power in the family. This was especially true in the Italian American family I grew up in. One story my mother liked to tell was actually about her rivalry with my father’s sister, although she never said that was the point.
In the early years of my parents’ marriage, they lived with my paternal grandfather in a two-story house. My father’s sister lived with her family upstairs while my parents lived downstairs. Italian American women usually made their own bread in those days, and my grandfather was accustomed to the bread his daughter made, probably a sturdy peasant loaf.
However, after my mother came into the household and began baking her bread, my grandfather declared that hers was better. According to my mother, this absolutely infuriated my aunt, who would argue with her father, saying he had always liked her bread. “Yes,” he would grant, “but I think I like Rosie’s better.” When I asked my mother what she had done differently, she said the Sicilian bread had no shortening and tended to be dry. She added butter to hers, making it more tender. From then on, my grandfather would eat only my mother’s bread.
[MEMOIR NOTE: After writing this brief memory, I realized this story is important to me for many reasons. First, it describes the competition between the women in my family (and perhaps many families) for the approval of the men. Second, it shows how cooking was a way for women to gain status and power in the family. And finally, it suggests the significance of bread, what it suggests about culture and class. My mother was Italian American and my father was Sicilian American. Italians, even southern Italians, looked down upon Sicilians. The bread my mother made, with its suggestion of a bit more “refinement” than her sister-in-law’s, may have been, at least in her mind, a subtle indicator of class superiority. For another example of this, consider how Louise DeSalvo describes a similar dynamic between her mother and her grandmother in her memoir, Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family.]
Memoir Vignette: Shirts
As I pressed a shirt for my husband one day, starting first with the collar and the sleeves, then arranging the fabric over the curve of the ironing board in order to get at the shoulder, I remembered the pride my mother always took in her ironing. A pride she passed along to me. She often talked about ironing her brothers’ shirts, one of the many chores assigned her as a young girl growing up in a family of thirteen children. She would spend all day Saturday, laboring over fifteen or twenty shirts, and would beam with accomplishment as she’d hang them, one by one, starched, fresh and without a single crease that did not belong. She became known in the family for her skill at this job, guaranteeing that it, like so many others, would remain hers. Although she and her sisters would refer to their home as “the workhouse,“ she had found a way to make any domestic task serve her own purpose: to demonstrate her talent. It was the same with her cooking and bread-baking, and later with her crocheting.
* * *
These two short pieces, written two years apart, are about the same thing: my mother’s use of her domestic life as an outlet for her creativity. As I have allowed myself to write often on this theme I have realized that my mother’s role as a homemaker was an important part of her artistic identity and of her legacy to me. In this way I have discovered a major theme of my memoir.
Memoir Writing Tips and Prompts
1. If you want to write a memoir, begin anywhere. Begin with what is most on your mind and write freely.
2. Do you recall any often-told family stories that might be important to your memoir? It may be helpful to you to write them down, even if you do not know yet in what ways they may be important.
3. Once you have written a piece, whatever its length, give it a title. The title will help you discover your themes and aid in organization.
4. Group pieces on similar themes, and decide whether you want to combine them in chapters on those themes, in which case you will likely need to do more writing to provide connections, or if you prefer, as Dani Shapiro does in Devotion: A Memoir, to allow them to remain discrete.
5. Can you come to some conclusion, on the basis of the themes you discover, as to your memoir’s pattern or design?
Roseanne Rini’s best advice to writers:
“In my experience, writers tend to stop themselves by being overly concerned about mistakes or what their reader might think about what they’re saying. I always tell people to set those concerns aside and just write what comes to them in the moment. The important thing is to get their thoughts down on paper or on the screen. Then they can go back and cut out what doesn’t belong, correct errors, re-organize, etc. But with a first draft one should allow oneself total freedom.”
To learn more about Roseanne, go to Story Circle Network’s Editorial Service. If you are looking for an editor for your manuscript, be sure to check out Roseanne and the other editors that make up SCN’s Editorial Service.
If you liked this article, you may also want to check out these other articles by Roseanne Rini: