Memoir of Transcendence

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Month: February, 2013

Memoir Writing Prompts on the Subject of Transcendence


KATSUSHIKA Hokusai(葛飾北斎 Japanese, 1760-1849 Goldfinch and Cherry Tree 鶯 垂桜 1834

Here a list of writing prompts particularly tailored to this course. Please use any that are useful in your journal explorations. Read them all through at least once:

1) Write about a time you felt completely and utterly happy. Use sensory description–where were you, what did you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste? What did it feel like? Was there a metaphor for this experience? Describe.

2) Write about Light.

3) Write about Time and Timelessness.

4) Write about a time you felt completely creatively inspired and on fire.

5) Write about your relationship with religion. What religion did you grow up with? What did you love or hate about it? Describe some rituals and details.

6) What were your impressions of God, angels, heaven or hell when you were growing up? What are your impressions now?

7) What fills you with devotion? What does this word mean to you? How does it make you feel? What do you really want to surrender to in life, and what is worth something to you, and why? Describe.

8) Describe a moment of oneness in nature–a moment of exaltation. Be very specific in terms of the senses.

9) Concretely describe someone or something beautiful to you, using the senses. Use the “terrific energy of your eyes,” as poet Robert Bly calls it. Really observe. What makes something beautiful in your eyes? Perhaps connect the description to a musing about beauty?

10) Describe a time when a mundane moment felt holy. Be specific.

11) Describe an activity that has a zen quality for you–dishwashing, walking, cleaning, writing, a sport, driving, biking. Any repeated action will do. Describe. See if you can weave this into a piece of writing that reveals something about the importance of being in the moment, or how hard it is to be present with the daily moment? What does this incident or activity mean to you?

12) Describe a moment you felt you had a gift or super power. If you could have a super power, what would it be?

13) Go back in time and describe the first time you remember realizing that life was finite and that some day you would die, or that others you loved would some day die. Describe your rleationship to death. Weave in a concrete story or anecdote.

14) Go back in time and describe the first time you questioned your own identity consciously. Who did you feel you were? What did you feel you were? What was real or not real about it? Describe anything that comes up for you on this topic.

15) What does the word “reality” mean to you now? Describe? Weave in one or two concrete incidents that reveal your thoughts, one very abstract and subtle about an inner experience, and one outward and concrete, about an experience in the world, using the senses.

16) Describe someone who taught you something important that you still remember. It can be a grandparent or parent, a teacher, really anyone. What was the lesson and how did you learn? How did you hear it at the time, and how do you hear it now?


17) Describe an instance of subtle, refined perception. What did you see? Did you talk about it to anyone?

18) Do you believe things you never talk about because other people may think something is wrong with you? Make a list of your secret beliefs.

19) Talk about a time you were giddy and delirious with an ecstatic experience of some kind, whether it was love, dancing, staying out all night with friends, writing, painting, or anything else.

20) Talk about a time when you, your activity, and the product of this activity seemed almost as one–and there was no separation between you and what you were perceiving or creating, nor between you and the process of creation or perception. Describe a time you felt one with the flow of creation and entirely in “the zone.”

21) Write about a time you laughed until you cried. Describe the story in detail.

22) Write about a time you cried without being sad. Describe the story in detail.

23) Write about a time you felt happy without any cause or reason. Describe the story in detail.

24) Write about a time you gave something away that you cared about deeply.

25) Write about a time you received a gift that meant more than you could say.

26) Describe a moment in which you truly loved. What happened?

27) Describe an early memory of being read to. How did you relate to stories when you were young? When you were a child, how did you perceive the relationship between “reality” and “make-believe”?

28) Write a detailed and specific portrait of an older person in your life whom you truly love or loved. Describe what the person wore/wears, how he/she talks, habits, favorite objects and sayings, anecdotes. Be as specific as you can be. Evoke the person through your stories.

29) Write down a secret. Let it come out as rawly as it wants to, without editing. You don’t ever have to look at the page again, you can even burn it if you wish, but allow yourself to write down all of it, also the parts you most want to hide.

30) What kind of person do you want to be in your life? What great things do you want to accomplish? Envision yourself as if you are at the end of your life, describing to someone whom you have been. Imagine freely. Allow yourself to inhabit the person you want to become. You can take on an all-knowing perspective and voice.


William Morris

The soul has been given

its own ears to hear

things mind does not understand



Free Writing and Other Prewriting Techniques


Japanese calligrapher Tsuneko KUMAGAI (1893~1986) at work with her cat.

If you have trouble getting started with your writing or if you can’t seem to get your ideas organized effectively, prewriting techniques will help you. These techniques are practical ways to help you get started and generate material (literally, the exercises you do before you write). Always keep in mind that:

1. Your ideas are valuable and need to be communicated to your reader.

2. You need to find the best way to communicate your ideas to your reader.

These are a few useful prewriting techniques. All prewriting you do in this class is part of your journal work. Keep careful track of it!


Jot down every idea you have about your topic. Free-associate; don’t hold back anything. Try to brainstorm for at least ten minutes, and write everything down in a list form. There are various types of list you can create: lists of topics, main theme ideas, details to include, character study details, setting details, examples, arguments, points of comparison or contrast, reasons, memories, etc. You can use lists effectively when you are first brainstorming for ideas. You can also use them as you are fine-tuning ideas. Read through your lists and outline the ideas you think are most useful–then do freewriting on the topics (list items) you outlined.


Before you find a focus for any of your writing work, it helps to just sit down and write. Take out a blank sheet of paper and begin writing for at least ten to fifteen minutes. Write whatever comes to your mind. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t change, correct, or delete anything. Just keep moving your pen with every new thought that randomly comes into your mind. Freewriting is a tool to allow you to connect to the right side of your brain. That is where the magic happens.


In unfocused freewriting, you just put your pen to the paper and let whatever wants to come out, come out. You don’t censor or edit or direct. You can even write: “I don’t know what to write” or doodle, or you can write about something that happened to you at breakfast that morning, a memory you have, whatever happens to pop into your mind. You trace the meanderings of your mind honestly from thought to thought. That is all you do. If you keep going without stopping your pen, you communicate to your mind that you are ready, you are listening. Your mind will be free to respond and speak to you in return. Doing a brief unfocused freewrite every day is a great way to get creative juices flowing and to clear up any of the debris that might be obstructing your creative channels.


Once you have some idea what you may want to write about, you can do a focused freewrite, where you use a specific prompt. As you write, you welcome all thoughts that happen to come, but when you find that you deviate too far from your original prompt or topic, you gently lead your mind back, just as in meditation you go back to the mantra once you’ve become aware that your mind has been engaged with random thoughts. This technique always yields very direct results. Do a focused freewrite for any creative idea you have relating to a possible portfolio project. Don’t start editing and crafting right away. First do a lot of freewriting so that your mind is limber and free. The best work comes from a deep place where you are truly connected to yourself.


Frida Kahlo’s Diary


Many experienced writers keep journals or diaries to help them organize their thoughts, to keep track of ideas and note down things they see or read or hear or experience. The more you record, the more you observe, so keeping a journal will generally make you more observant and help you generate ideas about which to write.


Place your general subject in a circle in the middle of a blank sheet of paper and begin to draw other lines or circles that shoot out from the original topic. Cluster the ideas that seem to go together for at least ten minutes. This type of prewriting allows you to visually see how ideas can go together under each cluster. It may also help you think of broader angles, of connections you had not thought of before. Clustering invariably helps you make connections that aren’t instantly evident. You can’t know all of the connections between your subject and related ideas unless you spin them out visually on the page. Clustering and mapping helps you outline further ideas for listing or freewriting.

This is what it might look like:




You can brainstorm on your own, but brainstorming is most effective in a group, where you can get the feedback of others. It involves offering ideas freely, without fear of criticism, allowing one idea to suggest another and another. By freely associating ideas, you can come up with new solutions for old problems. The trick of brainstorming is to allow the mind to make connections between ideas, no matter how strange the connections may seem at the time. No idea should be discouraged. Sometimes the strangest hunch can lead to the best work.


If you are more visually oriented, you can also doodle a drawing about your topic, and this might give you clues about what to include in your writing. Graphics can also give a very clear sense of the relationship between the wholeness of an idea and its component parts.


Analyzing your audience is one of the steps in the prewriting process. All writers have to know their audience. Knowing your audience will help you find your appropriate subject matter and also the appropriate form and tone to present your subject matter in. For example, if you are writing about your experience being a child, you can choose to tell your story to children or to adults. This will affect the word choice and sentence structure, the tone and style of your writing. You can choose whether you want a catchy and hip voice that would fit well in a glossy magazine, or whether you prefer a subtly powerful erudition that will appeal to the literary magazine market, or whether you want simple but emotional language that might appeal to readers interested in self-help issues, etc. Your audience determines dozens of details about your writing: vocabulary, sentence structure, formality, psychological appeal, organization and approach. If you are writing about a technical subject to an audience of laypersons, you must use a layperson’s vocabulary. If you are writing about a formal subject to an academic audience, your sentence structure should mirror the formality. If you are expressing an opinion to readers who will likely disagree, you should use different appeals and a different organization than you would with readers who will likely agree. If you want to be published in a literary magazine, you must adopt a more sophisticated language than if you publish in a small-town newspaper. Determining audience is one of the first things a writer does when beginning to write a new piece.


Ⓒ John Thomson, Luna Park, Porte Maillot, Paris, 1910’s, children audience

Memoir Writing Prompts for Your Journal

9667_4803550694078_1103050484_nBoy Viewing Mount Fuji, 1839
Katsushika Hokusai, (Japanese, 1760-1849), Edo period
Ink and color on silk

So far we have done freewrites in class about two topics: An early memory having to do with words and language, and memories of or musings about light.

Here you can find more writing prompts for your journal, which may help you gather ideas for your portfolio (especially for those of you who don’t yet have Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg). Use the freewriting technique of not lifting your pen from the page for best results!

From “The Journal”: Write, Organize, Remember, Find:

Memoir Writing Prompts

Journaling Prompts


Beauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa, Japan

And here some College writing Prompts.

A few more:

Memoir Writing Prompt #1: Write about taking a long bath, a walk, a bike ride, or stroll in the snow, or any other mindless activity where your thoughts could idle. Use as many concrete details as possible (invoking all of the senses) and describe your emotions and/or thoughts during as well as the space you were in (setting).

Memoir Writing Prompt #2: Choose a random picture (from an album, a magazine, the newspaper, online) and write about it. If you have a family photograph, write about it. It would be wonderful to write about old photos of yourself. What do you notice, looking at yourself now? Do you remember how you felt then? What was your world like? How did you experience things?

Memoir Writing Prompt #3: Think of a place you visit everyday (or very often). Describe it in as much detail as possible. What makes this place important? How well do you know this place? What changes or stays the same through the seasons? What objects are there that you care about? Use all of the senses in your description.

Memoir Writing Prompt #4: Of all the possessions you own, choose one you would bequeath to a child or grandchild and write about why. Of all possessions you own, is there one that was bequeathed to you by an ancestor? Write down the story and describe the object. What do you know about this ancestor? Is there anything in their story that relates to yours? Did you ever meet the person? Any stories? Do you remember how the objects was given to you?

Memoir Writing Prompt #5: What is your favorite holiday? Tell a story about it. Describe all of the sensations that you love–the food, scents, tastes, decorations, meanings, events, etc. Are there rituals associated with the holiday? If so, describe in detail. Is there a sadness or special joy (or both) tied in with this holiday? Does it represent important family or personal moments? Tell as much as you can. Tell an anecdote or story.

Memoir Writing Prompt #6: Take an inventory of your purse and/or wallet or one of your pockets. What do the items inside say about you? Do you remember the items in your father or mother’s purse, wallet or pocket? Describe at least one other family member by listing the items in their purse, pocket or wallet in some detail. What is quirky and noticeable about these items? What stood out? What do they reveal about their owners?

Memoir Writing Prompt #7: Write about your family heritage. How does it affect who you are? Name a few of your ancestors by name and describe who they were, what you know of them, what they accomplished, what they created and were good at in their lives. Does their talent have any bearing on you? Did they stop short of accomplishing their dreams? Does that impact you now? Do you remember any sayings, any anecdotes, stories? What did the person look like, move like, dress like, talk like? What did the person teach you or try to teach you?

Memoir Writing Prompt #8: What is one of your quirky habits? Describe it. Why do you do it? Do you have one secret super power? If so, what is it? (It can be anything: the ability to really listen to people, to draw, to appreciate music, to say the right thing in awkward moments, to fly in your dreams, to write beautifully, to appreciate art, to see other people’s sadness so you can bring consolation.)

Memoir Writing Prompt #9: If you had to sum up your life in a list of images and metaphors, what metaphors would you choose, and why? Make that list. Then tell a few of the stories connected to the images and metaphors. Why are these images and metaphors important to you? What happened? What do they say about your soul, your life, your past, your present?

Memoir Writing Prompt #10: In what ways have you deviated from traditions or beliefs you were brought up with? How has this changed your life? What was your family’s religious background? What were you taught about God when you were small? What do you believe now? What do you believe about devotion, ritual, belief itself? What do you consider your spiritual quest? Do you have any unusual experiences you don’t usually talk about with anyone? Write them down honestly. No one else has to see.

We will do daily freewrites in class, which will further spur your ideas for your portfolio.

Tsuchiya Koitsu “Nara Sarusawa Pond”

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems


A bit more about Emily Dickinson’s “Gorgeous Nothings” or envelope poems (scraps), which may inspire you in your own Muse Box collecting (see also next post down about the Muse Box):

“The Gorgeous Nothings” collected by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner: Granary Books



More links on this publication:

Emily Dickinson Museum

New York Public Library


gorgeousnothings.jpeg.inline vertical

From The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems (Granary Books 2012). Emily Dickinson manuscript image A 193/194 courtesy of Amherst College Library Archives & Special Collections and The Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Muse Box Filled with Musings


Erato Muse of Poetry, 1870

Your Muse Box is for collecting scraps, letters, photos, magazine pictures that remind you of things you know, drawings and sketches, objects that remind you of things you want to write about, ideas, lists, mementos, and anything else you can possibly think of that might stir your memory as you begin to think about your portfolio. You can even include letters to your Muse (your very own “genius” as Elizabeth Gilbert calls it), notes to yourself or the universe–truly whatever you want and whatever inspires you, especially random things that don’t fit in the confines of a notebook or journal or items that you haven’t yet sorted for your journal. Collecting scraps for inspiration–either in boxes or books–has been a long-standing literary tradition, especially on this continent. Here the literary examples of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain:

From Christopher Benfey, “Scrapbook Nation”: NYBooks Scrapbook Nation, a blog reflection on Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance

A scrapbook advertisement from The New York Herald, December 11, 1876

Garvey notes that Whitman and Dickinson “were not poets that Civil War scrapbook makers sought with their scissors.” True enough, and yet both poets extended what might be called the scrapbook culture of the nineteenth century in new and surprising aesthetic directions. A newspaperman by trade, Whitman wrote capacious poems that Emerson characterized as a hybrid of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald. Like a reporter assigned to the Metro desk, Whitman proclaimed:

This is the city… and I am one of the citizens;
Whatever interests the rest interests me… politics, churches, newspapers, schools
Benevolent societies, improvements, banks, tariffs, steamships…

Whitman’s Specimen Days, which he described as “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed,” is a moving scrapbook of clippings and jottings from the whole span of his life, including his years as a volunteer nurse in Union hospitals. While conceding that “the real war will never get into the books,” in Specimen Days Whitman tried to get at what he called the “interior history” of the war. Unlike more conventional scrapbookers with their impersonal digests of clippings from the distant battlefront, Whitman (who famously boasted, “I am large. I contain multitudes”) wrote himself into the proceedings. Sitting at the bedside of a young Irish boy, asleep, with a bullet hole through his lung, Whitman wrote that the boy

suddenly, without the least start, awaken’d, open’d his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier—one long, clear, silent look—a slight sigh—then turn’d back and went into his doze again. Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover’d near.


A hyperactive cutter and paster, Emily Dickinson also repurposed scraps and clippings for original creative work, shifting—like Whitman, or perhaps like ambitious Facebook compilers today—from consumer to producer. Late in life, she wrote dazzling fragments of verse and prose on discarded envelopes, chocolate wrappers, and stray bits clipped from magazines and newspapers. These scraps functioned as something more than convenient notepads, encouraging spur-of-the-moment poetic spontaneity and the creative challenge of fitting stray thoughts to odd shapes of paper.

She wrote poems about birds on the twin wings of envelopes and poems about houses across the roof-like flap. (These fascinating creations were recently published in limited-edition facsimile as The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems, with a list price of $3,500.) At times, she seems to be venturing into some new concept of poetry as visual art, as when she enigmatically deploys a serpentine poem about encountering a spider in an outhouse or a prison (“Alone and in a Circumstance / Reluctant to be told / A spider on my reticence / Assiduously crawled”) around a passage clipped from a review of George Sand and a postage stamp with an image of a train.


Photo: Emily Dickinson Collection/Amherst College

(…) Mark Twain was perhaps the king of American scrapbook culture. According to the OED, he was the first writer to use “scrapbook” as a verb, writing in 1881 about the origins of his book A Tramp Abroad, “I scrap-booked these reports during several months.” Prolific in inventing ways to lose money, especially in his attempts to predict how books would be published in the future (not, he found to his chagrin, with type fashioned from clay), Twain successfully marketed his own patented design for a more efficient scrapbook, outfitted with no-muss adhesive pages and an index awaiting entries. Twain’s scrapbook can be seen as the ancestor of the lavish “Keeping Memories Alive” scrapbook industry today, with its glitter and fluff and hobby stores, and, incidentally, its more recent origins in the genealogy-affirmative Mormon community. “For members of the Church,” as a Mormon website puts it, “creating memory books seemed to come naturally.”’


Twain, as befitted his pen name, was ambivalent about scrapbooks. In Huckleberry Finn, he lambasted the necrophilic scrapbook of the amateur poet Emmeline Grangerford, filled with “obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering” along with her own morbid contributions—including, in one of Twain’s most inspired satirical creations, stanzas like this:

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

[In Victorian times, many women especially collected scrapbooks filled with obituaries and other morbid memorabilia.]


Page of Twain’s Scrapbook

And yet, Twain’s loose and baggy non-fiction books Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad were assembled from his own carefully maintained travel scrapbooks, and retain some of the pleasingly serendipitous and fragmented feel of life on the road. “Anyone may compose a scrapbook, and offer it to the public with nothing like Mark Twain’s good-fortune,” as his friend William Dean Howells wryly observed. “Everything seems to depend upon the nature of the scraps, after all.”

Ellen Gruber Harvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance is published by Oxford University Press.

Brief excerpt from the above article on Maude Newton’s blog, click here: Maude Newton Blog Tumblr Emily Dickinson Repurposed Scraps


Hesiod Listening to the Inspiration of the Muse

Snow Day Assignments: Tuesday Feb. 26


Have a peaceful and productive snow day! Your assignments for Tuesday February 26 are:


1) Start Reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

2) Start acquainting yourself with Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser.

3) Begin reading the excerpt from Maharishi at ‘433 by Helena Olson in your Syllabus Reader (Week One). If you have already read this selection from Maharishi at ‘433, there will be one or two copies of the book on hold in the MUM library where you can read at your leisure from the point where you left off previously.

NOTE: Get a good head start on all of your reading! Be sure to secure all of the textbooks. Ask friends in the dining hall, look at Revs and in town, in the libraries, borrow from and/or share with classmates, and/or order from Amazon (used copies under 5$ each). 



1) Start your journal. Write in your journal daily for 30 minutes throughout this class. More prompts to follow in a next posting! So far today we wrote about a) Early memories of language and words; b) Any memories of light (which may also involve shadow).

2) Start a Muse Box of musings, a box in which you keep mementos, photos, objects that conjure memories, notes, reminders, lists of ideas, pictures from magazines that conjure memories, restaurant napkins, movie stubs, fragments of any kind, etc.. You can also include letters to your Muse (or “genius” as Elizabeth Gilbert called it), or whatever else you want–as long as whatever you include inspires you to write and remember!

3) Write one 6 word memoir that you illustrate, or write a number of ones if you don’t want to illustrate. Don’t settle for the first idea that pops into your head! Take your time. What makes a 6 letter memoir effective? Try to make your 6 word memoirs as succinct and interesting as possible. See previous blog post for ideas and examples! I just added more information, also on 6 word fiction and 6 word poetry, plus a contest where you can submit your work.

4) Write your “autobiography of the soul.” Instead of relaying facts of your life, share who you are really. Describe your deepest self/Self as if to a close friend. How do you move through time? How do you perceive the reality and nature of who you are? What are your flavors, characteristics, what are you like? You can write this as poetry, prose, or drama. Freely use symbol and metaphor. Your autobiography of the soul should be minimally 1/2 a page in length (if it is illustrated) and maximally 3. It can be handwritten or typed, as long as it is legible. It can be illustrated or not. Spend some time on this so you really get the right note and feel, capturing your own essence.




6 Word Memoir

Odessa Blackmore

Can you tell the story of your life in six words?

The evocative world of the six-word Memoir: A Q & A with new TED ebook author Larry Smith:

Pause for a moment and imagine the grand, confusing and ultimately exhilarating drama that is the sweep of your life. Think you can summarize it into a half-dozen carefully crafted words? Larry Smith thinks you can, and created the popular ‘Six-Word Memoir‘ project, that challenges contributors to make us pause, reflect and even laugh. He has just published his latest edition as a TED Book, and added a special twist: artwork.

Smith put out the call for students — ranging from grade school to graduate school — to contribute illustrated Six-Word Memoirs. The result is the evocative and often moving Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated: Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs By Students Making Sense of the World. Today, the Washington Post features a slideshow of just a few of the mini-memoirs and images from the book. So below, we asked Larry Smith all about how Six-Word Memoirs came to be.

How did the idea for Six-Word emoirs come about?

There’s a legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I was inspired by that. Others had played with the idea of the six-word story form before, but I and my storytelling community, SMITH Magazine, re-imagined it. So in November 2006, we partnered with a little-known company called Twitter for what was then supposed to be a one-month contest to win an iPod. The idea is as simple as it sounds: tell the story of your life in exactly six words. Those six words can be an attempt to sum up your whole life. Think of it as the title of your autobiography or epitaph on your tombstone. Chef Mario Batali certainly did when he wrote, “Brought it to a boil often.” Others try to capture one aspect of their life such as, “According to Facebook we broke up” or “Mom’s Alzheimer’s: she forgets, I remember.” At its core, Six-Word Memoir projects takes a basic human need—self-expression—and makes it accessible, easy and often quite addictive.

Six Word Memoir 1

From Elizabeth Mappus, a junior at the Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston, S.C. Click the image to see The Washington Post‘s slideshow.

This is the first illustrated memoir you’ve done. Why add the art?

As with most of what happens in a passionate community, I took the lead of the people in it. Soon after the Six-Word Memoir project took off I began hearing from teachers who were adapting Six-Word Memoirs in their classroom, from grade schools in the Bronx to Yale Law School. It was used in English and art classes alike. One grade-school teacher in New Jersey had her students create six-word “memory boxes.” At Parsons School of Design, illustrated Six-Word Memoirs are a regular assignment. Whether a Six-Word Memoir takes the form of just words, or words and images, video, or 3-D collage, the constraint fuels rather than inhibits creativity. So when TED approached me and asked, ‘What’s the Six-Word Memoir book you’re most jazzed to do?,’ it was an easy answer: a book that’s a celebration of the artful works of students and, I hope, an even more effective catalyst for educators everywhere. So we put out a call for submissions.

Six-Word Memoir 2

From Shawn Budlong, a seventh grader at the Thurgood Marshall School in Rockford, Ill. Click the image to see The Washington Post‘s slideshow.

What surprised you about the responses of the students?

I was surprised by the depth of feeling and the angst and the life lessons that they may not have even realized they were sharing. I mean, does the little girl who wrote the memoir that said “Tried surfing on a calm day” even know she’s a Zen master? Now I absolutely expect brilliance and have seen it first hand at school across the country and every day on the site. I was a little surprised by how good some of the artwork was, but I probably shouldn’t have been. And I also didn’t expect to get so many impassioned notes from teachers lobbying for their students’ work to make it into the book.

One theme that came through clearly is about actively taking life into your own hands—memoirs like “This time Cinderella demanded it back” and “Break the rules now and then.” There are unsurprisingly a number of memoirs on technology, but with more of a melancholy vibe than I had expected: “Life is better with headphones on,” “Feeling small in a mechanical world,” and “Honey, your dinner is getting cold,” where you see a teen girl surrounded by gadgets and looking pretty lost. And while many of the memoirists haven’t been on earth too long, they’re wise beyond their years and ready to dole out life lessons. The beautifully illustrated, “There’s no such things as secrets,” is as true as it gets in 2013.

Six Word Memoir 3

From Lydia Bernatovicz, a senior at the Grand Island High School in Buffalo, N.Y. Click the image to see The Washington Post‘s slideshow.

Any favorites or memoirs that have particularly touched you?

The whole Six-Word Memoir project is oddly intense. Think about it: people have decided to share a little piece of themselves with strangers. If they’re lucky they’ll end up in a book so many strangers can peer into their lives. When the submissions are coming from students—most teens or pre-teen—and they’ve worked hard to create an illustration, it’s impossible not to be moved by so much of what comes in. One that really hit me is, “They said to follow my dreams.” In her illustration you see an empty bed and a trail of those six words leading out a window and into the world. It feels like the beginning of a Maurice Sendak story. Another is called, “Going back to the happy days,” and we see a girl playing hopscotch; the author is a junior in high school and already nostalgic for a simpler time. And then there’s kind of a goofy one that just brings a smile to my face every time I look at it. It’s by a fourth grader whose Six-Word Memoir is, “Bears are my number one fear.” Next to a drawing of this scared kid you see a big bear with the words, “Humans are my number fear.” It reminds me that everything is really a matter of perspective.

17 Yoona Chun

How can readers contribute to future Six-Word Memoir projects?

That’s easy. Go to or and share as many Six-Word Memoirs are you like. Some people share just one, others thousands. The Six-Word Memoir project is very much an example of the Network Effect: we get better with each new person who gets the six-word bug.

Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated is part of the TED Books series. It available for the Kindle and through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone. A subscription costs $4.99 a month, and is an all-you-can-read buffet.

Read the whole article here: The Evocative World of the Six Word Memoir

Slideshow Washington Post 6 Word Memoirs


At its core, the Six-Word Memoir offers a simple way for anyone of any age to try to answer the question that defines us all: Who am I? Here’s an excerpt of the book in the Washington Post:

Conversation with Larry Smith, Conversation with Larry Smith

15 Hajra Bawany

More examples: Blog Larry Smith Highlights “Life in Six Words”

“So far, so good. What’s next?” —Alan Russell

“In the womb of Knowledge, Reborn.” — Paul Kirhagis

“Born and dreaming myself awake since.” — Natasha Nikulina

“Head in stars, feet on Earth.” — Lena Gorska

“Don’t panic, persevere and play guitar.” —Aldous Blair

“Creator of images, sees miracles daily.” —Richard Efthim

“Opening windows by slamming the doors.” —Katie Turnbow

“Swimming upstream and leaving a trail.” —Aleksandra Radmanovic

“When she saw me, I existed.”

“Sorry Love, heartbreak is more interesting.”

“Epitaph: Foolish humans, never escaped Earth.” –Vernor Vinge

“All eyes glued to a screen.”



William Faulkner famously said that a novelist is a failed short story writer, and a short story writer is a failed poet. Hemingway, with his creation of the six-word story, combined poetry and drama into a short form that has grown in popularity while remaining difficult to achieve.

Here some by famous authors from the Narrative Magazine website. You can sign up for FREE and subscribe to Narrative Magazine, where you can read a wealth of contemporary literature (poetry, fiction, memoir, personal essay, graphic narrative):

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. —Ernest Hemingway

Longed for him. Got him. Shit. —Margaret Atwood

All those pages in the fire. —Janet Burroway

Narrative Magazine has a contest for 6 word stories:

3Charlotte Berkenbile age 8


Another version of the 6 word memoir or the 6 word fiction is the 6 word poem. The fun of poetry is that you can add line breaks to great effect. Here a few by former MUM student Eric Boyd:

the gods
one more


The end
so long ago.


And a few by Writings for Winter: Writings for Winter Blog

The scars healed over into poems.

His mouth a key, unlocking hers.

She exhaled her darkness like constellations.

Love’s Morse code: Kiss. Touch. Linger.

He read her spine like Braille.

Their bodies were two lonely parentheses.

The jellyfish’s feelings were too transparent.

Earth was sad. Sky held it.



Memoir Project

“Memoir Project” gives tips for telling your story:

Everyone has a story to tell, but writer and memoir writing instructor Marion Roach Smith says making those stories interesting and readable is harder than it looks.

In her memoir writing guide, The Memoir Project, Roach Smith argues that too many aspiring memoirists focus on cramming every memory onto the page, instead of focusing on relating their story to broader themes.

She tells NPR’s Neal Conan that a useful memoir writing exercise is to consider what’s worth including and what’s best left out for the story you’d like to tell. She says that’s what she did when she decided to write about her mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when Roach Smith was 22-years-old. In the resulting memoir, Another Name For Madness, Roach Smith discussed her mother’s alcoholism, but left out the details of her infidelity.

“I had a responsibility to tell a story about Alzheimer’s,” she says. When her mother was diagnosed in the ’80s, Roach Smith says she believed Alzheimer’s was on its way to becoming the greatest health care concern of the 20th and 21st centuries, and she felt adding details about her mother’s infidelity would have taken the story in the wrong direction.

Cover of 'The Memoir Project'
The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text For Writing & Life
By Marion Roach Smith
Paperback, 128 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List Price: $12

Read An Excerpt

“These are the decisions all memoirists have to make,” she says. “What goes in; what stays out.”

She says memoir writing is about territory; about writing what you know. We each have many areas of expertise, but if you want anyone to read your memoir, the key is focusing on one.

Memoirs Vs. Autobiographies

In Roach Smith’s mind, there’s a big difference between an autobiography and a memoir.

“An autobiography is really the story of a whole life,” she says. “A memoir, if you want someone else to be interested, should really be [about] an area of expertise within that life.”

Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story is one of Roach Smith’s favorite memoirs, and Knapp followed that up with a book about her relationship with her dogs. Knapp died in 2002 of lung cancer.

“Had she lived longer, I bet we could’ve gotten seven or eight great memoirs out of Caroline Knapp,” she says.

On the other hand, she says it takes someone like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to write an autobiography.

“[She] can write that whole trajectory of [her] life story because I’m willing to run those bases of [her] life with [her],” Roach Smith says. As for the rest of us, “We will be successful in memoir[s] if we stick to one area of expertise at a time.”

Writing With More Than Memories

And just because you’re an expert on your own story doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any reporting.

“You have to do loads of it,” Roach Smith says, in order to get the story right and put it in context.

For example, Roach Smith recently discovered her house was once a speakeasy. That makes her house — something she’s ostensibly an expert on — really compelling to write about. But she’ll still need to do research on her house and the Prohibition era to get the story straight.

The Memoir Project

Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survives childhood has enough material to write for the rest of her life. She’s right. Writing about yourself and your crazy (or not-so-crazy) family can be the big vein, if you’re ready. But if you’re not, it’s the brick wall. Indeed, the single biggest reason for not being prepared to write what you know is not knowing how to dig among your stuff to get what you need

Here you can read the entire article:

Memoir Project

Definitions of Terms


“Old People Dancing,” Vivinfrance’s blog


MEMOIR vs. AUTOBIOGRAPHY: As a literary genre, a memoir (from the French mémoire from the Latin memoria, meaning ‘memory’ or ‘reminiscence’) forms a subclass of autobiography—although today the terms ‘memoir’ and ‘autobiography’ are almost interchangeable. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist. Memoirs may appear much less structured and less encompassing than formal autobiographical works as they are usually about part of a life rather than the chronological telling of a life from childhood to adulthood/old age. Usually they explore a certain period, certain experience, a certain trip, or a certain theme. A memoir can draw upon many sources: ancestry, family stories, flashes and images, scenes of life experience in narrative form that read almost like fiction, memories of any kind, description of an era or a place, quotations, philosophy, ideas, feelings, symbols and metaphors, fragments of letters and journals, etc. Like most autobiographies, memoirs are generally written from the first person point of view. Gore Vidal, in his own memoir Palimpsest, gave a personal definition: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Memoir is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one’s life than about the outcome of the life as a whole; it explores subjective point of view and experience, not just objective facts. In that, it even comes close to poetry, for it can be very imagistic in nature and have the structure of a mosaic, where little pieces (flashes of story, anecdote, image, information, symbol) together form a larger, more meaningful whole.


TYPES OF MEMOIRS: Traditionally, memoirs dealt with public rather than personal matters and many older memoirs contain little or no information about the writer, being almost entirely concerned with other people. Memoirs were often written by politicians or military leaders as a way to record and publish an account of their public exploits. At other times they were written to record a particular way of life (for example Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, describing life at the Heian court in Japan about 1,000 years ago) or even to communicate gossip. Some types of memoirs were written as notes on a certain subject. This last type of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece and Rome that memoirs were like “memos,” pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing that can be used as a memory aid to create a more finished document later on.


Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

Modern and contemporary memoirs invariably are deeply personal accounts of an author’s life experience. In the ‘80s and ‘90s the genre of the literary memoir rose to acclaim and distinction with writers such as Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club) and Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life). At this same time, there was a veritable tidal wave of personal memoirs written by first generation Americans, who had grown up in foreign cultures and whose writing explored both ancestral roots and/or what it felt like to be an immigrant. Good examples are Jung Chang’s Wild Swans about three generations of Chinese women making sense of the Chinese cultural revolution and coming to America, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which combines factual with fictional material, telling not only the author’s story, but also the (somewhat reconstructed and imagined) story of her family members.


Today, journey memoirs are tremendously in vogue. Journey memoirs describe the experience of traveling and/or living in a foreign country for a certain period of time. Perfect examples are the bestsellers Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert about a year-long personal quest to Italy, India and Indonesia, and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, the documentation of the author’s efforts to build schools for especially girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same forbidding terrain that gave birth to the Taliban.

Mark Twain was an early source of inspiration for the humorous memoir. Contemporary writers like Bill Bryson (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid), David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked) and Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) have specialized in writing amusing essays in the form of memoirs. To some extent this is an extension of the tradition of newspaper columnists’ regular accounts of their lives.


A very important category of memoir is the eyewitness account of history by onlookers to major events or particular eras. Slave narratives (e.g. the memoirs of Frederick Douglass) fall into this category, as do the Holocaust memoirs and journals, such as the diary of Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum’s journals and letters, and the works of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.


Anne Frank, diary page

Graphic memoirs, also called graphic novel or graphic narrative and pioneered in the ‘70s, mix the media of writing with visual arts. Early graphic memoirists were Justin Green (“Binky Brown” stories), the Japanese manga artist Keiji Nakazawa (Ore Wa Mita, or I Saw It about the Hiroshima bombings), and Harvey Pekar (American Splendor).

The last form of memoir that should be mentioned is the private memoir written strictly for recreational, family or therapeutic purposes—as a pas-time or for personal healing, not for publication. The very fact that writing one’s memoir now is such a common occupation says a lot about the popularity of the genre today.


Graphic Memoir: Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

Elizabeth Gilbert: “Nurturing Creativity” talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, on “Nurturing Creativity”:

Elizabeth Gilbert on, “On Genius”


Elizabeth Gilbert’s website: Elizabeth Gilbert Website

More on Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert on Wikipedia


The Poet Ruth Stone, mentioned by Gilbert