Friday, November 5, 2010

Try to Remember

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
~T.S. Eliot

To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.
~Thomas Campbell, Hallowed Ground

A childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction.
~Carol Shields

We've been talking about memoirs this week--now--in case you're inspired, here's an expert in writing them! Judy Alter (a guppy!) has guided dozens of writers into their own pasts...and discovered some fascinating things along the way.

HANK: We think of memoirs as written by people who are, um, old. What do you say to that?

JUDY ALTER: Most of my class members are indeed older and many are writing for their children and grandchildren. One lost her husband when he was in his late fifties—she’s remarried but wants her grandchildren to know their biological grandfather. But in my evening class there is a single woman of 50 (I consider that young these days), and my co-coordinator last session was 40. These women are using memoir as a way to puzzle out their lives. I think, however, the most common is writing for family when you’re older.

HANK: How do you get people started?

JUDY: I often suggest they write their own obituary—I know news people do it all the time. I point out that if my kids had to write my obituary, they’d says, “She was the daughter of Grandmother and Grandfather.” I want them to have the facts of my life before they were part of it, so I keep it on my computer, though of course, I hope they’ll enlarge the “She will be remember for . . . .” part.

HANK: I've always wondered about the key to a revealing memoir--is there a difference between a memoir and just a tell-all?

JUDY: Yes, I think there’s definitely a key. A tell-all sounds salacious to me, but I tell classes that the more honest and open they will be the more the memoir will help them. And some have revealed astonishing early lives—abandonment, strange religious upbringings, unusual family relationships, even one of physical abuse by a boyfriend.

Since I divorced in my early forties and haven’t remarried, I wrote about the men I’ve loved. A longtime friend said, “You have an amazing sex life. This isn’t the Judy Alter I know.” (Its not really as amazing as it sounded to her). But she still greets me with, “Are you behaving,” and then says, “I know better. I’ve read your memoir.” I have also been quite frank about my anxiety disorder. I think getting those things out in the open helps us. Memoir writing is almost—or can be—a form of therapy.

HANK: A good memoir can't be just--and then, and then, and then. How do you avoid that? (yeah, I know. Just don't do that.) But really.

JUDY: I stress that from the start, and of course there are some who come perilously close to doing just that. But most avoid it. I try to encourage a theme for their memoir—I did publish a memoir cookbook (Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books—a recounting of my years as a single parent of four while director of a small academic press and an author writing a lot of books) and I have one class member who is similarly writing a cookbook/memoir. Another last week personified the gift store she has owned and operated for thirty years, saying, “AH (Almost Heaven) can be temperamental, but sometimes she can be a joy. … She’s up for adoption now, and I wonder how I’ll feel when someone takes her.” I love it when people are that creative.

HANK: . Does anyone have enough memories for an interesting memoir?

JUDY: Yes, you’d be surprised at the things in the background and history of people you meet every day and accept as normal just like you. Except none of us is normal. Memoir is the story of how you got to be the person you are today, the factors in your life that shaped you and molded you. Almost everybody has a story to tell, and those that don’t just aren’t honestly examining their lives.

HANK: Are they supposed to be publishable? Does it matter?

JUDY: Granted, not all are publishable—as an acquisitions editor, I suggested to a whole lot of people that their memoir was fascinating and should be preserved for their family. But I published several that moved beyond personal to have a universal application—like a woman who wrote of her life in terms of the houses she’d lived in (This Last House, by Janis Stout) or one minister’s account of his wild and reckless childhood and high school years (I told him I was so glad I wasn’t his mother). Its’ David Murph’s Before Texas Changed: A Fort Worth Boyhood.

Most of the memoirs written in my classes are not designed for publication, nor should they be (I only had one class member who aims for publication and she dropped out this fall, plans to return in the spring).

HANK: So are you teaching memoir-writing right now?

JUDY: Yes, two classes. One for HR at TCU at noon and one in my home in the evening. They are as different as night and day. The HR people get the class free as a service of HR but they are taking a lunch hour out of their workday; some bring sandwiches or soup (I do) and some just bring drinks. But they know they’re in the midst of a workday, have to get back by one or shortly thereafter.

At the evening class, members sign up to take turns bringing wine and snacks (they usually bring bountiful feasts that are way too much). But the combination of end of the day, home environment, and wine works to loosen tongues and encourage congeniality. This group—and the one I taught last summer—have really “bonded” (to use a cliché). Some of the current group are repeaters from summer, and for our last session we have invited the summer people back—several have said they’ll be joining us. So it’s sort of like an alumni group. But the evening group pays me a tuition fee, modest but still. HR pays me for the one in their office.

Also, last summer the group met on my lovely, plant-filled front porch (I might even have a picture) until it got too hot. We tried it this fall, but darkness came too soon and we had to move inside.

HANK: It sounds so inspirational--who inspired you?

JUDY: All of this is inspired by the Story Circle Network and Susan Wittig Albert’s book, Writing from Life. I think Susan belongs to SinC. She’s the one who encouraged me to join. I taught these classes for three semesters in the TCU Extended Ed program, pretty much following Susan’s book rigidly. Now I’m conducting a much more loosely structured course. But Susan’s my inspiration.

SO, you lucky JRW's--Judy will be around today to answer questions and point us in the right memoir direction! Do you read memoirs? Do you think someone would like to read--yours?

Judy Alter's the author of seven published novels for adults—and eight for young adults. She's also written numerous nonfiction books for young adults, one collection of short stories—Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories, and a critical biography of Texas novelist Elmer Kelton.
Her most recent books are Extraordinary Women of Texas and Great Texas Chefs (both TCU Press) and Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books (State House Press).

She's a past president of Western Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the SinC subgroup Guppies, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas State Historical Association.

She's won the Spur Award as Best Western Novel and Best Short Story from Western Writers of America as well as Western Heritage Wrangler Award, National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame; Best Young Adult Novel, Texas Institute of Letters and Extraordinary Women of the American West – Named an Outstanding Social Studies Book for Young Readers by the Children’s Book Council.

But wait, there' s more! She won the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement – Western Writers of America and named One of 100 Women, Living and Dead, Who Have Left Their Mark on Texas – Dallas Morning News, Named Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth in the Arts, 1988, amd named to Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

From 1982 until 2009 she worked at Texas Christian University Press, five years as editor, and the remaining as director. She holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago, an M.Ed. from Truman State University, and a Ph.D. in English with a special interest in the American West from TCU.

She's a regular blogger (
and regular reader of the listservs from the Guppies and Sisters in Crime. She's a lifelong reader of mysteries, and the single mother of four now-grown children and the grandparent of seven.


  1. I'm in a quandary. I'm in the middle (well, okay, the beginning) of writing a fictionalized memoir, but it will involve a lot of stuff my mother denies ever happening. Whenever I try to discuss it with her she says "What's past is past", and refuses to acknowledge any of it. I'd love to twist things around, but it's not holding together well, and I think what I really need to do is make it a memoir, instead.

    Any advice for me, Judy?

  2. Welcome Judy, and what a wonderful interview! I love the idea that the memoir is the story of how you came to be the person you are today. Sounds a little like what we go after in psychotherapy:)

    And I didn't realize how chock full of awards and citations you are! Judy has a great blog that includes plenty of food--I made a blog stop there with an advice column mystery and was very warmly welcomed.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Roberta. Karen, wish I had advice your mother would listen to, but I don't. I think it depends on why you're writing the memoir--if for your own satisfaction, release, etc., than write the truth. If your mom might see it and it could cause a rift, fictionalize it. But she'll probably recognize it. One of my students just last night wrote, "None of us holds the future in our hands, the present sometimes, but we do hold the past. It is the one stabel entity in our life, we can depend on it, good or bad." Hope this helops.

  4. Judy, I echo Roberta's wonderful interview comment.

    This is a timely post for me. I've just returned from a two week family visit. While there, I discovered that many of the stories I grew up hearing as family truths were greatly embellished, and/or greatly whitewashed. I'm still reeling.

    I love memoir, but I think I'd better stick with fiction, since my family memories seem to BE fiction.

  5. Gosh, Ramona. That would be a shock.

    Thanks for the reply, Judy. I think I just need to get it all down, and worry about the consequences later. It's not as if I have a publishing contract or anything, anyway!

  6. What a great interview, Judy. I always have probloems putting anything personal on paper but I did an extensive trip through the Australian Outback last fall and I found that snippets about former Australian experiences kept creeping in. Australia had been the site of nighta and lows in my life--my wedding, my mother's death, my father's death, the loss of a beloved sister in law and this so called travel jourhal opened them all up.
    Now I'm not sure whether to publish it as a travel book or memoir!

  7. Oops. Just noticed an error in my bio. I am a past president of WWA but not of those other groups--just a member. Obviously I've never been preident of SinC.

    Ramona and Rhys, whether or not you publish I'd advise you to get your memories (which is the truth as you see it) down on paper, for your sake if nothing else. I'm a big believer in journaling.

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  9. Rhys, I'd adore to read your memoirs! They'd be fascinating..and I do hope there are photos. Hallie, you too. Maybe we can just hook you both up with Judy here..and write away!

    Judy--what should be on page one? In general? Past or present

  10. Rhys, I had a second thought. I think you should pubish your travel book but incorporate all the emotional ties, negative though most are, to Australia--and I bet you can find some positive ones. Like Hank, I'd love to read it.
    Hank, ah . . . page one. It's as difficult as page one of a novel. Of course it shouldn't be "I was born in . . . ." but it should set the tone for your memoir. Mark Twain supposedly wrote that the difference between autobiography and memoir is the passion, so you have to start with the passion (that's why autobiography is so often dull:-) I started my cookbook/memoir with the lines from Sandburg about Chicago being the hog-butcher of the world because that city was the perfect place for my Anglophile meat-and-potatoes father and that's how I grew up--pot roast (I still don't like it), lamb (I love it) and pork roasts.