Category Archives: Beginnings

The Decisive Moment in a Nutshell

It’s short, it’s sweet, and who can argue with a guru like Seth Godin.  This is what he advised in a recent post on his blog :

You don’t need more time…

you just need to decide.

It’s as easy and as hard as that.  Decisive moments will save us time, there’s no doubt at all about it, it’s getting the practice in that’s important.  How much do you dither during a day?  Do a dither audit and find out.  What’s cooling in the kitchen, lurking in the lounge-room, bloviating in the bedroom, slithering around the study, waiting for you to make a decision?  Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, metaphorical, or thoughtful?

What small thing could you decide to do now so that you can start practising for real?  Maybe you could:

  • Pick up the phone and renew your gym membership, or cancel it. 
  • Go to where your sneakers are cowering, put them on, slip, slop and slap, and get out the door for a walk. 
  • Find a notebook, grab a pen, and start the journal you always said you wanted to keep – write for five minutes, and five minutes only, then stop.  You can decide to do it again tomorrow. 
  • Go to the nearest gadget selling shop, buy a digital camera (they’re very cheap these days), get them to throw in a camera bag and an extra battery, and start your life with photography today. 

Whatever little thing you decide to do, you’ll feel better, I guarantee it.  Eleanor Roosevelt said, You must do the thing you think you cannot do. 

So begin today, grasshoppers, decide to make a decision, and be decisive about it.

Frugal Writing for Life, Love and Everything Besides

NowDSC01428(1)Ancient runic symbol for NOW, created by Lorrie Lawler

Film actor Meryl Streep says, Everything we say signifies, everything counts, that we put out into the world.  It impacts on kids, it impacts on the zeitgeist of the time.

If we try to live our lives in the now, the present moment, which is all we have – the rest is imagination, projection, fantasy, longing – we can be aware of our own zeitgeist.  We can write our own moments purposefully, and with heart and soul together, holding hands.

Where are you right now?  Write a sentence – a frugal one, short and sweet – that tells you how you feel.  Read it aloud.  Does it have rhythm?  Does it make you laugh, cry, sad?  Does it interest you?

What would you like to do with that sentence?  Keep it, erase it, tear it up?  Write another one so it has a friend to call its own?  Try that.  It’s your choice – you have the power to do something, or nothing.

Do the same thing in an hour, the writing thing, that is.  Write another sentence that tells you how you feel.  Try this thoughout the day, one an hour, surreptitiously if necessary (somethimes workplaces can be quite unhelpful where hearts and souls are concerned), and see how things look at the end of the day.

Do you want to keep going?  Good.  You don’t?  Never mind.  In either case, if you’ve come this far, you’ve written a frugal memoir of your feelings for the day.  Those sentences are snapshots of moments in your life that will never come again.  You’ve preserved them.  They aren’t photographs, they’re the purest of all – they’re Graphs – symbols on a line, of you in the moment.

What do you think?  Want to do it again tomorrow?  Maybe?  See you soon.

PS – Don’t forget to carry your notebook and pen(cil) with you as you experiment with the Feelings Frugal Memoir.

Angst for the Memoiries: what exactly is a memoir, anyway?



Life is unpredictable.  Easy to say and write, varyingly difficult to experience for most of us.  But one thing humans possess that enables us to compare our now with our yesterday and the days before, is memory.  We create our lives moment by moment, and at the same time we create our memories for current and future reference. 

Louise Bourgeois, the American sculptor (1911 – ) includes these words in one of her installations: I need my memories.  They are my documents. (Cell 1, 1991, [Mixed Media], Daros Collection, Switzerland). 

Memories as documents.  It’s a handy, tangible way to think of the images and words, the snatches of music and feeling, the dreams and nightmares that we recognise as parts of our memory, our selves.  Documents suggest something solid, something less ephemeral than colliding, electrified synapses and microscopic transmitter substances.  Neuroscientists still have no idea about how thoughts arise, how memories appear, disappear and reappear.  But it’s certain that they exist inside all of us, and we can do whatever we choose with them.

Memoir comes from the French for memory, and is variously defined as a note, a memorandum, a record, now specifically an official one.  A memoir can be a record of events or history from personal knowledge or from special sources of information; an autobiographical or biographical record.  And a memoir can be an essay or dissertation on a learned subject specially studied by the writer.  Thus speaks the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a fantastic memoir of words.

So, a memoir consists of memories of just about anything you care to put your mind to – simple enough.  You already knew that.  I’d like to suggest that memories are more than the past.  Memories are now, just as all of time – past, present, and future – exists now, is with us now.  Time, as we view it, is constructed so we can get to appointments, arrange our lives, know which shifts we’re working, make sure we put Lotto in before the deadline.  Time as only this moment can be a difficult concept to get our heads around – no past, no future, only now

Between the exhortation memento vivere: remember you have to live, and the warning memento mori: remember you have to die, you’ll find the memoir. 

In all of those moments, here is your life.  It’s happening now. 

What kind of memoir are you creating for yourself?  What are you up to at this moment?  Reading this article for one thing, on-screen or on paper – or maybe you’re remembering it.  Are you in your workplace or your playplace, or your womb-on-wheels (the car when all the windows are up, the sound system is on whalesong or Benny Goodman, and you’re getting the best run through the lights)?  Maybe you’re in a visiting space (the library, a shopping centre).  Are you listening to music, or a radio broadcast, watching TV or the net from the corner of your eye (those corners are underrated and very useful when you don’t want to check in but simply check out the situation)?

Whatever it is you’re doing when you’re doing all of that and more, is creating your memoir on the spot.  Here’s a simple equation: Memoir = Life = Now.  What’s your legacy going to be?  You get to choose from all of these moments, these strings of moments that we experience from birth – some people remember foetal moments: a continuous, comforting hot bath to a reassuring backbeat. 

Get hold of a stethoscope sometime and listen in to your inner beat; it sounds like poetry, and on good days, when it does exactly what it’s supposed to, it truly does have rhythm.  That’s your rhythm, my friend, that’s your memoir at the literal heart of the matter, counting the beat.

You need your memories.  They are your documents.  Why not begin a journal today – record 5 things that happened today in your life, or in the life of the world.  Record another 5 tomorrow.  At the end of the week, you’ll have a memoir of 35 moments you would otherwise have lost somewhere in those synaptic gaps, waiting to be be rediscovered. 

As Louise Bourgeois says: Art is the guarantee of sanity, so why not begin to create the art of your memoir, create the art that is your life.

Routine or Gay Abandon – It’s All in the Attitude, Toots.

Some routines are essential and unavoidable

I met a woman who wanted to write a novel. Let’s call her Reba.  Reba said she knew she had a book in her and she’d wanted to write it for quite some time.  She asked me what I thought of the idea.  I said it sounded like a wonderful thing to do – what else would I say since I’d written several novels myself at that time, and had managed to get a couple published?

I asked Reba how much she’d written so far, general notes, background research, character development, plot structure, and so on.  She told me she hadn’t actually started yet.  But did she write something every day?  She said no, she didn’t, she was very busy with everything in her life and she didn’t get time to write every day.  Did she write every other day, or a couple of times a week?  No.  In fact, she didn’t write at all.

I asked the obvious question: how did she think she might write a novel if she wasn’t writing, and had no plans to write anytime soon?  Reba looked puzzled, and didn’t answer for a while.  Then she said she hadn’t thought of it like that.

I decided to accept the notion that I’d been transported to Dali’s surreal world of the Writer Who Doesn’t Write But Expects to Have Written – one day, some day.

Here’s the rub: just because you know your alphabet and it’s easy to buy a computer or pick up a pen and notepad, doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.

People don’t make the same assumption about learning the violin, for example.  They don’t presume that once they’ve bought the instrument, they’ll be able to play like Nigel Kennedy.  They accept that there will be practise and lessons, and more practise and more lessons, and that they’ll learn all the time, and fail all the time, and get better and fall back, and get better again, and reach for bigger challenges, and work still harder.

But only if they actually do it.  And doing it is hard, just as doing anything worthwhile is hard.  Starting is hard, continuing is hard, but there are ways of starting and ways to keep going.

Most of the books I’ve read about writing, for instance, emphasise the importance of routine in achieving your writing goals.  One of the earlier texts, from which so many other contemporary publications have derived their writing models and guidelines, is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

Dorothea published this seminal work in 1934 but it was out of print until 1981 when it was re-published with a foreword by John Gardner.  Gardner nails Brande’s approach when he explains that she addresses the root problems common to all writers of any era, whether experienced or beginners.

These root problems relate to the writer’s personality: the ability to get started (or not), getting started but then getting lost or losing heart; inconsistent writing quality; one-off brilliance unrepeated; excellent work during a creative writing course, for instance, and then nothing.  Gardner calls these issues, these root problems, “problems of confidence, self-respect, freedom.  The writer’s demon is imprisoned by the various ghosts in the unconscious.”

Brande offers various means by which writers can get in touch and deal with the ghosts and “cultivate a writer’s temperament.”  She is particularly strong on developing the routine of writing every day and to that end prescribes two exercises.

The first exercise is designed to get you in touch with your unconscious and develop the flow of writing.  Brande asserts that “the first step towards being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.”  Or in the case of most of us, to our writing digits and our keyboards.

The ideal time to do this, she says, is when the unconscious is “in the ascendant,” that is, when you first wake in the morning.  She suggests getting up half an hour, or an hour earlier than usual each day and devoting that time to writing.  If that seems too hard, and I must admit, I’m not a morning person, try starting with 15 minutes and build up by quarter-hour segments to an hour.

The trick is to begin as soon as you get up and not turn on the radio, or read the paper first.  Do it straight away while you’re fresh to the new day and your conscious state.

What do you write? Anything at all.  Describe your dreams if you remember them, or someone you met yesterday, what you’re planning to do today.  Or write a conversation you’ve heard, or whatever comes into your mind that allows you to fashion coherent sentences.

In this way, Brande explains, you can train yourself to write in the most basic, uncritical way.  Don’t censor yourself, and remember that this is for you alone, no one else will see it.  Do this every morning and don’t re-read the previous day’s work.  Simply write.  And keep this writing, because there will be ideas in it that you will be able to use without a doubt.

Gradually, you’ll write more in the same amount of time, and gradually, the task of writing will become less problematic and more natural.  Once the habit embeds itself, and you reach ‘on impulse’ for your keyboard or notebook when you wake, you’ll be ready for the next exercise.

The second exercise Brande prescribes to help develop the routine of writing, is to schedule writing periods into your day, apart from your morning writing.  A fifteen minute block is all you need at first, but you must decide on a time, 10am, 3pm, 7pm, and stick to it for that day without deviating – unless of course, God arrives to announce the rapture, in which case write about that while you’re waiting in the queue.

The important thing with this exercise is to vary the times at which you write each day, so that eventually you overcome the deep ‘inner resistance’ of the unconscious, which, Brande says, is ‘incorrigbly lazy … and given to finding the easiest way of satisfying itself.’  It prefers not to be bound by the strictures of schedules, so it has to be pulled into line by the conscious application of varying the times at which you write and sticking to them.  Eventually, if you keep it up, you’ll be able to attend to your writing schedule without resistance and your unconscious will be there and ready to lend its support.

Brande cautions that if you can’t keep up these two activities – early morning writing and writing by pre-arrangement, you should give up writing because your resistance is greater than your desire to write fluently at will.

However, I would add a note of consideration to this rather harsh conclusion for those of us who don’t perform well in the a.m.  While it’s an ideal to get up early every morning and write while your unconscious is closest to you, you might find that mornings aren’t for you – they really aren’t for everyone, believe it or not.

I suggest an alternative that may restore the link to the unconscious even if you don’t write in the morning, and that is to develop the habit of meditation.  You can meditate for 10 to 15 minutes by simply sitting quietly somewhere away from the chaos of life.  Choose the same time each day and stick to it just as the early morning writers do.  Have your notebook and pen, or your PC or laptop handy.

As you sit, eyes closed or open, follow your breath, noting each inhalation and exhalation.  Focus your thoughts on the sensation of air moving in and out of your nose.  Or count each breath as you breathe out.  If intrusive thoughts arise, simply let them come and go – watch them pass by, imagine them drifting off, and return to your breathing and/or counting.

After 10 or 15 minutes of meditating, stay in the same place and begin to write Dorothea’s morning writing exercise.  Do this every day and develop two skills for the price of one.

A routine may be hard to develop, but it is very rewarding and your level of satisfaction with your writing will rise exponentially.  Give yourself a gift and give it a go.

Next time with The Memoir Detective:  Angst for the Memories: what exactly do we mean when we say Memoir?

From Lead to Legacy: First Steps

So many beauties, so little space in my pocket.

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Hugh Lunn, an Australian journalist and author, who’d been a war correspondent in Vietnam and, later, a highly successful memoirist with a series of books, including Over the Top with Jim, a very funny account of his childhood and adolescence in Queensland.

What you remember. I only remember two things from that talk, and that’s down to my grey cells, not Hugh’s presentation.  The first was the euphemism ‘collateral damage,’ used by the military at their daily briefings to the press to describe the deaths of civilians in the war zone.  It was, Hugh said, a way of creating distance, through abstract language, from the human carnage that occurs in any armed conflict.  Information like that would leave an impression on anyone.

The Notebook Rule. The other thing I remember from Hugh’s talk was his advice to carry a notebook and pencil (or pen) with you if you want to capture those great ideas and memories that suddenly appear unannounced on your mental radar.  You can be certain, he said, that they’ll disappear by the time you get home and find a piece of paper to write them on, no matter how much think you’ll remember.

He’s right, as anyone who’s ever been caught short with a head full of creative, imaginative, wonderful thoughts, and nowhere to record them, knows.  So I try to follow Hugh’s advice (whenever I’m not in a fugue state).  I slip a notebook into the back pocket of my jeans and hook a pencil (or pen) onto some convenient part of a shirt or jacket before I leave the house.

Rather like – all right, very unlike – a police officer’s official notebook, my notebook contains all sorts of messages to myself about ideas for everything to do with writing.  Consider it an external brain drive – primitive, yes, but exceptionally handy and versatile – in which you, the Memoir Detective, can record your keen observations for later upload to your PC.

Notebooks in Action. If you check out my other web site (glutton for punishment), my blog Veranda Life you’ll see that I’ve begun a project there called 999 Verandakus: A Memoir of Now. I got the idea when I was out on my daily walk.

When I started walking, I was happy to get through the half hour and make it home without cardiac symptoms.  After a few weeks, though, I realised I was enjoying the walking – most unusual for a lifelong avoider of exercise and sweat.  Once the enjoyment, and fitness, developed, I looked forward to going each day and I began to notice my surroundings rather than struggle through them.  In Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes notes: You see but you do not observe.

Most of the time, I realised, I’d been thinking of other things when I walked.  Worrying is a word that comes to mind.  So I actively decided that the walks would be for mindful observation of what was around me, rather than mindlessly working myself into a frenzy over some imaginary worry or other, none of which I could control anyway.  Every day, by the way, I tell myself what Shakespeare told us centuries ago: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Time to think of now on the walk.

Meditation by another name. And once I reconnected myself to the world around me, I remembered that I used to write haiku poetry when I was a teenager, hundreds of years ago (I burned them all, but that’s another story).  So on my everyday walks, I decided that if thoughts came to me about what I was seeing and feeling, I’d guide them into haiku form if I could, and see how it turned out.

As it happens, it’s turning out well so far.  I write two or three Verandakus a day, usually, sometimes more, sometimes fewer, and I post one a day on Veranda Life.  I’ve added photos to each one as well, but they aren’t mandatory – I just enjoy taking shots (more on the wonders and versatility of photos in memoir in future posts).

Extra-Memory Protection (EMP). If you’re a bib and braces personality, you might like to take a recording device with you as well.  Some of us are more articulate with talking than writing when we’re out and away from our usual surroundings and quietness.  I sometimes take my mp3 player, which has a recording function.  Make sure it isn’t full of music and it is full of battery power.  Remember to download your recordings regularly – don’t rely on your recorder to last forever or for it to refrain from corrupting your good work.  (I like to transcribe my recordings so I have a paper document to work with.)

The take home is this: when you take yourself out, not just on walks but everywhere, take your trusty notebook and pen(cil), and don’t be afraid to use them.  Stop and write, sit and write, walk and write (watch your step!).  Your notebook and pen(cil) may be the best investments you’ll ever make in basic resources for your Memoir Detective life, and you’ll help keep a stationer in business (buy recycled if possible).

PS: Don’t use your Detective notebook for anything else:  it’s a dedicated memoir resource, so no grocery lists, or appointment dates, or 101 thing to do with a dead cellphone.  OK?  OK.

Next time at The Memoir Detective: Routine or Gay Abandon – It’s all in the Attitude, Toots.

Prosper with the God Words and Create Your Legacy

Detail from Words (1990) – Fiona Hall (Beaten Aluminium)

 If you practice often enough, any word can be easy to say or write, or otherwise tamper with quite successfully.  It’s ego that gets in the way of us saying ‘sorry,’ for example.

I’ve found it’s the same with a group of words that appear together as synonyms.  These words include ‘start,’ ‘begin,’ ‘go,’ ‘commence’ – you get the picture.  They’re the opposite of inertia, and they’re part of the cure for entropy or chaos.

They’re the words that give procrastinators the willies.  I should know, I’ve been perfecting the Art of the Waitawhile for decades now.  And interestingly, these moving words are all on excellent terms with ego, too, the little devils, but in a good way, a way that will give you confidence if you go with them.

The Gods of Energy.  As Merlin explains in Mary Stewart’s novel, The Crystal Cave, The gods only go with you if you put yourself in their pathWe might usefully regard words like start, go, begin, commence, as small but powerful gods of energy and action, positive affirmations ready to sweep us up with them if we’re willing.

Waitawhile, or Go.  GO.  Most procrastination is based in fear of failure, just as saying sorry leaves us open to rejection and humiliation – failure by other names – though in reality, people generally appreciate apologies for wrongs.  While it can be difficult to do if we feel hard done by ourselves, or if we’re standing on shaky ground, and hesitant, it’s a way of showing that we care.

Similarly, most of us love to hear of new projects begun; we appreciate it when ambitions are given the energy of the starter’s gun, and not left to flounder in indecision and fear.

How much simpler would our lives be if we could just engage with a partial, not even a total, ego-ectomy, and instantly remove fear of failure as a barrier to success?  Then we could truly embrace Samuel Beckett’s perverse riff on beginning and going and commencing and starting: Fail.  Fail again.  Fail better.

Believe it or not, that’s an extremely positive statement; it lines up beautifully with first steps and takes a complementary position beside one of his other famous quotations, one that I have stuck to my PC monitor: I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.  Because we do, don’t we, as long as there’s breath and will (and a very hot cup of tea).

Failure-proofing.  So one way to failure-proof and energise your approach to starting a new project – in this case the memoirs you want to create (and they will be many and varied, as we’ll discover), but it applies universally – is to focus on one task.

Don’t worry about the thousand mile journey, that’s going to take care of itself once you take the first step, so don’t burden that first step, don’t suck away its energy and frighten it legless with thoughts of earthquakes and tsunamis and hundreds of miles of ragged mountain ranges populated by rabid wolverines.  See how exhausting that is?  Stop it, now.

What’s your first step going to be?  Something practical, something reflective, something meditative, something alcoholic?  Just kidding – really.

While you consider it, consider this interesting remark by Rachel Carson: Beginnings are apt to be shadowy.  Maybe your first step will be to come out of the shadows and let the sun shine in: smile at the fact that you have many stories to tell, and you are going to tell them.

You’re going to be your own Memoir Detective.

Detail from Words (1990) Fiona Hall

Coming up next on The Memoir Detective: First Steps: From Lead to Legacy.