Memoir Writing: Susie Spangler Writes About The Story Season

by Matilda Butler on December 5, 2012

Writing Prompt LogoPost #170 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts and Life Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

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Susan-Spangler-PhotoWOMEN’S MEMOIRS is delighted to have memoir author Susie Spangler back with a thought provoking article about The Story Season.

When you get to the end of Susie’s article, we hope you’ll try the memoir writing prompt. ‘Tis the season, after all.

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The Story Season

By Susan Spangler, author & illustrator of The Year of the Bird: True Stories in Words and Pictures.

Season’s Greetings!

“Which season?” you’re probably not asking.

Well, that’s okay. I’ll answer, anyway. The fifth season. Popularly known as the holiday season. The only season with its own tree, its own soundtrack, its own presents, and its own greeting cards. The only season with its own stories. ‘Tis that season. By which I mean: The Story Season.

There’s the Christmas story, of course. And the Hanukkah story. Very different from each other — a birth and a siege. And yet. Both of them are illuminated by unexpected light — the star of wonder and the lamp that burned for eight nights. And both of them are stories of miracles recorded long ago.

Kwanzaa is rooted in intertwined stories of community, dedication, sharing and struggle. Stories from the recent past. And New Year’s? Have you ever heard any New Year’s stories? Besides the ones about Uncle Herman’s hangovers? Me neither. Yes, there are rituals and resolutions. But when it comes to stories, New Year’s is, by definition, about whatever’s coming next. In other words, it’s a mystery. A story yet to unfold.

But that’s okay.

For now, we have our family stories. The memories we share with each other around the holiday tables. Remember the time the lights went out with a boom, just as we lit the candles? Remember the year we had two feet of snow and John was late because he stopped to help a guy whose car had slid into a ditch? Remember the year we ordered Chinese take-out for Christmas dinner and strung tiny white lights all over the living room and you wore a red hat with felt reindeer antlers all evening long? Remember that year?

Those are some of the best stories. And when we run out of them, there are always the holiday books: “The Night Before Christmas,”  “A Christmas Carol,” “The Grinch.” And the TV specials: “Frosty the Snowman,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And “The Grinch.”

See what I mean? About the Story Season?

But this story’s not over yet.

How could it be? We haven’t mentioned one of the most popular — and most maligned — forms of seasonal stories: The Holiday Letter.

The eight-page, single-spaced manifestos. The vacation-of-the-year travelogues. The annual tabulations of family members’ achievements. The lavishly exclamation-pointed songs of myself!!!! IN ALL CAPS!  

The annual letters that are so consistently silly that I anticipate each year’s edition in the same way you might look forward to an episode of The Simpsons. And also those few that acknowledge life’s challenges and actually include lines like, “we had a hard year.”

I’m not saying that I don’t love the cards that come without letters, the family portraits and photo montages. I do. I love them all. It’s just that there’s nothing like a story. A good story is a gift. And that’s what holiday letters are. One way or another, they’re all good stories.

Sugary, verbose, pretentious, witty, wry and wise, they run the gamut. Just like the writers themselves, who’ve taken the time — and summoned the nerve — to send out this annual slice of their lives. With gratitude to one and all, a round of applause, please, for their efforts!

Sure, it’s easy to belittle the Letter. This one’s smugness, that one’s sameness. But I have to ask: Who else here, besides me, has never written one? And why? Not because I’ve never thought of it. I think of it almost every year. Fleetingly. Before I decide, yet again, not to chance it.

Because it’s hard.

It‘s hard to distill a year’s events into a page or two, or eight. To separate the memorable from the everyday, the interesting from the overshare, the accomplishment from the boast. It’s different from writing something like this, which will be read by people I’ve never met. With a holiday letter, everyone who reads it — knows you. They might even remember what you’ve written. That’s scary. It’s hard to do something scary, right?

Last year, one of our letters came from a married couple who mentioned the fact that they’d separated and then reconciled. At first, I thought, whoa! You’re putting that into your holiday letter? But it made me think. Of course, they wrote about that. It was at the heart of their year, the heart of their story. It was brave of them to tell us about it.

And it inspired me to think about what I might include, if I actually summoned the nerve to write a holiday letter this year. It would be my first one. And it wouldn’t be easy. Because, for me, this has been a really hard year.

Nobody got terribly ill, thank goodness. The house is intact, knock wood. Hurricane Sandy veered to the north, lucky for us. But, emotionally, there’ve been a lot of ups and downs. A lot of downs. Enough to make me give up on the idea of a letter right now.

But.

When I stop to think. There’ve been many moments of light — and patches of joy. Morning sun filtering through the blue vase on our kitchen window sill. The small snores of our little dog, sleeping next to me here on the chair.

Confiding with my daughter over glasses of wine. Sharing supper and conversation with my 90-year-old parents. Toasting our nephew’s engagement. Our four grandchildren. Teaching them, learning from them, reading, traveling, joking, wondering, exploring.

And drawing. And writing. Whenever I can.

It’s a long list, isn’t it? How about that. It might make the beginning of a good holiday letter, after all. But not this year. I’m not ready yet. I already have a card in the works, anyway. Maybe next time around.

For now — here’s to the season! To the cold air, the starry nights, the twinkling lights. To the bakers, the carolers, the wrappers, and the writers. And here’s to all their stories.

Memoir Writing Prompt (Matilda Butler)

So many of us have given up on holiday letters. Back when I did one, I made lists of the most significant events of the year and then wrote little stories about them. One story was called The Great Boar Wars and described how wild boar tore up our lawn and how the brainpower of two Ph.D.s was no match for the cunning of the boars.

Susie’s article reminded me that it is the season to make a list of the year’s happenings — the good (our new book Writing Alchemy was published) and the bad (our daughter-in-law’s 18 year old nephew died two days ago of an unknown infection that took him suddenly and decades before he should have gone).

1. Make a list of 5 great things that happened to you this year. Just as Susie said, even in a difficult or dark year, there are moments of lightness and joy.

2. With the list of 5 great things in front of you, now write a list of 5 bad things that happened.

3. Now with two tidy lists, take one item from each and write for five minutes about it. First write what you say to yourself about it. Then write how you talk about it with others. Are they similar? Are they quite different? Ask yourself “Why?” if they are not the same.

And if you are one of those rare birds who writes a holiday letter, be sure to leave a comment below. We want to congratulate you.

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Be sure to check out Susie Spangler’s memoir.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

sara etgen-baker January 4, 2013 at

Yes, I write a holiday letter; however, each year those letters seem to get shorter. My husband and I discovered a trick to recapturing our year. Throughout 2012, each time we had a memorable moment (good, bad, or indifferent) we wrote it down on a piece of paper with the date and then placed it in an empty jar labeled “2012 Memories.” Then on December 31, we opened the jar and read through all the events we briefly documented. We soon realized that many “bad” events had a flip side that eventually brought us to some positive revelation or insight. Some of the “good” events had a flip side that, on occasion, brought us less than positives down the road. What a way to gain perspective. Of course, this jar is now fodder for my memoir writing for 2013….that I hadn’t anticipated…thought I’d share.

Ronda Armstrong January 4, 2013 at

Susan – thanks for talking about the holiday letter. It is scary and intimidating, yet opportunity for a creative take on the year. I read every one received. Whatever the content they stretch across people, geography, and values and I appreciate the effort to write and send it.
Sara – what a great idea to document memorable moments and to benefit from the perspective gained from the passing of time.
Usually my husband and I include some kind of message or story in our holiday cards. We steer away from listing what we did and tend toward developing the themes and patterns we see in our lives, tying them to stories and tidbits, the kind of material that connects us all, that makes us laugh and moves us to tears, that sends joy straight to our hearts.
Happy New Year to all!

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