Memoir Writing

Somewhere between documentary and created personal myth, today’s memoir is a seductive medium. After all, whom is more interesting to write about than one’s self? Memoir writing is recalling events stored in human memory. It’s currently a popular form for writers of essays and creative non-fiction. Some memoirs even strive to report life rooted in fact.

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Resting at a way-sign, Pyrenees Pilgrimage, September 2001. Old-style ‘selfie’ photo.

I looked up memoir in my Hachette Oxford French dictionary and was surprised to see that the literary context is the third meaning of the word, after a full column of English meanings related to administrative memos, dissertations, legal statements, and computer storage. Why did I look up memoir in a French dictionary? Because those pesky French are dedicated to meticulous language management and the book was easier to lift than Vol. 1 of the Shorter OED.

It turns out that the OED dedicates less space to the word memoir and roughly follows the order of meaning as presented in the French-English dictionary. The OED’s second meaning is “A record of events or history from personal knowledge or from special sources of information; an autobiographical or (occas.) biographical record.”   A record of events or history from personal knowledge.

Nothing about idealized autobiography, my life according to me, or too-vivid recollection laced with exciting falsehoods and recreated dialogue.

I enjoy reading memoirs, or at least I did, until just about everybody breathing decided their life was interesting enough to report. (Or embellish, in the case of some creative non-fiction writers.) Most memoirs I dip into and reject have the depth of a corridor and the nuance of two walls. I’ll call those the memory lane story books.

To write a memoir you have to have a life to write about. A full life, not a single turning point or a shocking event. Too many memoirs trace skeins of recollection that knit a hair shirt of abusive or cruel parents, wallow in voluntary pursuit of sexual, criminal or chemical excess, or turn on happenstance. Are there memoirs-in-the-making that center on “What happened to me on 9-11.”

Let’s look at “this terrible thing happened to me” memoir. Some of the voices telling these escapades are self-involved, linear talk-show chatter glued between covers. Or they preach and warn, as if lives followed predictable routes. Am I cruel to say that these writers don’t seem to have much else to examine or write about arising from their lives except “the big bad thing.”

Then there are the “I survived, so you can too” memoirs that suggest that people’s lives can be compared. They can’t be; we’re all way too different. Two legs, two arms, and two eyes, etc. doesn’t make us similar or the same in terms of experience, psyche, brain or behavioral type.

Perhaps people with only one big life event to discuss shouldn’t attempt memoir. At least not until they’ve lived a life – say, three score or seventy years – and can put the big event in context. To limit their personal horizons to focus on an experiential element that’s still governing their thoughts years ex post facto, signals to me that the authors haven’t thought enough, haven’t placed their experiences in perspective or used the big event to learn something useful to the rest of us. Does publication expiate demons?

The writers who explore their memoirs of personal obsessions and failings also abuse the publishing platform. To me, it is intellectually short sighted to operate under the premise that addictions and low-life explorations are unique.   Just because an author chooses not to write about a sexually defined youth doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. Or two hundred. If an author decides to gloss over the scummy process of drug rehab doesn’t mean it was easy. I’m suggesting a little restraint and living life long enough to have something to say. Do we really need more books about how stupid, dependent, vapid and weak humans can be?

A few gifted writers parse their personal sufferings in a useful way without pandering to the gawkers. Most of us just sound silly babbling in over-exposure; therapy sessions gone public.

The genre I know best is travel memoir. The travel memoirist steers lightly across memory lane, in the context of the journey through a place. The elegance lies in developing and expanding the people encountered and the settings absorbed, rather than simply prattling about the writer’s perspectives on the people or opinion of places seen. Perhaps the travel memoir about place meets a touchstone in the author’s past experience, just for a moment.

The travel memoir edges towards being biography of place.   History, commentary by other visitors, language and cultural change, climate and geography all play in a travel-ish memoir.

I urge focus on the people of a place. Let the locals show and tell their story. The travel memoirist reports their narratives set in the structure of the author’s journey.   If a situation tempts you to follow memory lane and its tangents, go ahead and write, but be prepared to sharpen the de-boning knife and slice off that self-indulgent thigh meat, perhaps to be used elsewhere.

At issue is the reader’s expectation. The reader of a travel memoir wants the story of the trip and will tolerate digressions that illuminate the person doing the trip. But, when the tangent down memory lane engages characters we don’t know and haven’t met in the current narrative, or enters realms of the author’s head, or cites the ‘you had to be there at the time’ excuse, best to cut. In travel memoir, the subject is the place, not you and what it means to you.

Sometimes the universe contrives to teach. In a chapter in my book on walking across France in the Pyrenees, I was discussing meeting a traveler on the footpath. He was headed to Santiago and the spittin’ image of someone I was fond of and traveled with during my twenties, one of those spirited youthful adventures memory laners are fond of writing about. It was fun to write about this tangent to my journey and each time I revised the chapter, that particular segment grew. After all, what is more interesting than our own selves? Soon I was poking around in my own mind more than connecting the reader with the place and action at hand, which in this instance was St. Jean Pied du Port, a gateway city to the Camino.

While I wrote about how amazed I was that some stranger who looked just like Dr. X was proposing we walk a long distance together, just like X and I had talked about during cross country road trips, I easily slid back into the mid 1970’s. I was writing happily in my memory lane.

Meanwhile, waves of sheep were scampering across the farm lane where we were chatting. A storm the night before had watered the pastures, revived the grass. A cheese-making town was just over that ridge and a few miles ahead, the pilgrimage way station of Ostabat.  The reader of a travel memoir about Basque lands probably wants to know about how two shepherds and three dogs control several hundred sheep, wants to taste the local cheese, perhaps read about the medieval traditions of pilgrimage and how the locals greet modern day pilgrims. The reader wants to be in the moment of that travel scene. But I was more interested in exploring my fond memories and the crossed stars of coincidence.

Now, don’t come away with the idea that you leave yourself out of the memoir narrative. Not at all. Proportion is the key. Readers of memoir want to know the narrator and some of the quirky experiences that make the author believable and consistent. They also want context and factual grounding.

Personal experience makes more sense set against a fact based backdrop. Let the reader know what the world at large was doing while you were stuck in rehab or losing wealth as the dot-com you founded foundered. Use your life to make a point, but make sure the lesson is larger than your “oh poor me” feelings.

I’ll finish up in just a sentence or two, but first, I want to tell you how the universe conspired to teach me the difference between memory lane and travel memoir.

The universe arranged that my computer flashed a fatal error message and blasted into the black hole beyond your hard drive, the version of my Basque walk with all the memory lane stuff, which I hadn’t yet saved.

Gone, all my musings about the meaning of meeting the duplicate stranger on the path to Santiago. When I re-read the earlier version that survived the error blackout, I realized that the chapter was better for having lost the paragraphs of infatuation with coincidence and self-indulgent memory lane gazing.

Note: A slightly different version of this essay appeared in Wordhouse, a Baltimore publication for writers.

Posted in Freelance Writing, Memoir, Motivation, Outdoors Life, Pilgrimage, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo

The ground floor of the Koehnen building,  76 Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo suggests 1920s grandeur with a wide staircase leading to law offices back in the day.  The building ocupies the corner of Waianuenue Avenue and Kamehameha Avenue  — powerful names in Hawai’i.  King Kamehameha unified the Hawaiian people and Waianuenue refers to rainbows in falling water.

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Koehnen Building, Hilo waterfront

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Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

The facade is akin to other early 20th c. commercial properties along the waterfront

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Visiting students learn about Pacific marine ecology.

walk. But the Koehnen building has been revamped and repurposed for a global purpose.   The Mokupapapa Center is a marine education center run by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration founded in 1970.

NOAA offers community events and presentations to educate students and visitors about Papahanaumokuakea (Pa-pa-han-au-mo-kua-kea) Marine National Monument in the far western Pacific.  The National Marine Sanctuary contains the remote coral atolls of Hawai’i and is truly one of the last wild places on earth.

The Marine Sanctuary is also one action by President George W. Bush that many people can agree with, though even protected marine areas are still vulnerable to deep sea mining and fossil fuel exploration.  It’s not clear whether those exploration permits include access to the extensive stretch of the Pacific Ocean included in the National Marine Monument.

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Aquarium in the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, Hilo

NOAA Marine Nat Monument Chart

Volunteers may apply to be selected for participation in wildlife census projects on the various remote islands of the Hawaiian archipelago.  Work projects last from several weeks to 6 months.  Participants contribute financial support to partially cover their expenses, approximately $2,000 for travel, tent lodging and food costs for 4 to 6 months for most of the projects.  The volunteer census projects should not be viewed as an exotic low-cost vacation; the work is not easy and conditions are tough. Experience with biological data collection, daily life in extreme conditions plus a buoyant natural camaraderie are required skills.  The application form  weeds out people who are simply collecting awesome experiences or checking notches off a bucket list.

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Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

The Midway Atoll  National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial previously admitted visitors, but that has been suspended.

Mokupapapa Discovery Center, 76 Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo, HI 96720

808.933.8195  email:  nakoa.goo@noaa.gov   Papahanaumokuakea.gov

Open: Tues-Sat 9 am to 4 pm. Closed on federal holidays. Admission free.

Posted in Education, Geography, Hawai'i, History, Nature, Outdoors Life, Travel, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

12 Travel Resources for 2017

1.The Appalachian Trail   – Go the distance or cross a small state for a weekend adventure.

2.Budget Travel in 2017 – Tips from Forbes

3. Camino Santiago de Compostela – Pilgrim trials across Europe

4.Electric Currents Around the World  – Current convertors prevent accidents

5.Embassies in Washington DC  – Visa information for travel outside the USA

6.Learn about travel writing – Check your local library

7.Money Convertor – What is your cash worth?

8.Passport and Visas  – U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs

9.Peace Corps – Great job but low pay.

10.People to People International  – Travel encounters with families and individuals

11.Travel Screening and Security  – Prepare for TSA screening

12.Wilderness Adventures  – Volunteer with U.S. National Forest and Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the US Fish & Wildlife Agency

 

 

 

 

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Honolulu Theater for Youth

After peeking into a wedding ceremony underway at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, my travel pal Marilyn and I wandered around the grounds which are close to the Iolani Palace in Honolulu. Though inaccurate to describe St. Andrew’s grounds as a cathedral close , the Hawaiian-Anglican-Episcopal cathedral certainly pays homage to the mother-country’s ecclesiastical architecture.  Squint away the palm trees and this might be Sussex.

We stopped to chat with drivers of grossly stretched white Jeep limousines.  The drivers killed time with their mobile phones while waiting for one wedding to end and the next to start.  Brides and their attendants posed for photographs against the backdrop of a fountain and foliage. We walked around the bishop’s office,  admired the stained glass windows in a chapel and, turning a corner, noticed a theater marquee.

The Honolulu Theater for Youth staff were rearranging stage elements in a large auditorium. We asked a statuesque young man near the door if we could look around.  Eric West — “Make sure you write ‘West’ because we have several colleagues named Eric, including the Director.” — explained that he handles multiple logistical problems like how to build and install sturdy stage elements and design portable sets for new productions. The troupe is based at St. Andrew’s and performs in schools throughout Hawaii, he explained, so the traveling productions need lightweight sets.

He told us that a previous Dean of the cathedral bequeathed the auditorium now the headquarters for the Honolulu Theater for Youth.  Why don’t more churches loan or convert space to service active educational and cultural projects?

The group  performs on O‘ahu at Tenney Theatre at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu and travels throughout the state to various performance spaces as well as school classrooms.  Creative workshops are also offered.

Productions include educational elements, like local food policy in  Grinds, the Story of Food in Hawai’i.  Grinds is the Aloha Islands word for good food.  The Tiny Tree explores themes of cooperation, helping others and celebrating cultural differences.

Performances cost  $6 per student. Several discount programs are offered for groups, children receiving free and reduced lunches. Teachers and required assistants are admitted at no charge with the group. Those who can pay are encouraged to do so, to help meet production costs.

Posted in Culture, Education, Hawai'i, Student Projects, Theater | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Overbooked :: Effects of Mass Tourism

Overbooked_1Former New York Times and Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Becker spoke  in the Ralph Bunche Library at the U.S. Department of State about her research for Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, published in 2014.  

Here are my thoughts on the presentation:

In 1980 there were 250 million tourists. In 1995, 500 million. By 2012?

Wait for it….

One billion tourists roved the planet in search of someplace different than home.

Then there’s the environmental impact of the mammoth cruise ships, idling buses, trains, planes, ferries or cars they rode in on. Where ever that someplace may be, there’s an impact – sometimes positive, often negative.

Elizabeth Becker discussed the research and analysis behind her new work “Overbooked” The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. Becker pointed out that tourism provides opportunities for advancing public diplomacy and ran us through the efforts of savvy countries like France, Costa Rica, China and others with national marketing programs.

Everybody wants to attract tourists from BRIC countries and from China most of all. France harnessed the economic power of tourism decades ago. The “well-heeled, educated tourists” leave their RMB, Rupees, Reals, and Rubles throughout France, not just Paris. France shaped an integrated win-win marketing strategy that drills down to agricultural networks so provincial inns will have enough succulent organic lamb chops for the menus. Every week, a cultural festival in different regional towns ensures a steady stream of visitors. The tourism ministry even issued a detailed marketing report on how to attract Chinese tourists.

Anyone who’s been out and about during the 21st century knows about the crowds of people in security screening lines, the ragged lines of weary travelers waiting for taxis,  the wait at airport check-in kiosks or counters, and there they are blocking the aircraft aisles while cramming stuffed baggage into overhead bins.  The one billion tourists spend their money.  Too bad they aren’t leaving their moola in the U.S.A.

us tourism industry declineThere’s no national tourism marketing program for the U.S.A.  Alas, the U.S. government abandoned international promotion of U.S. tourism around 1995. Since 2011, tourist traffic to the States has flat-lined, creating what’s called “the lost decade” by travel industry professionals, said Becker. During the same decade, the number of tourists roaming the world nearly doubled.

In 2009, more Chinese people ventured to Paris than anywhere in the entire USA, including Hawai’i, Becker pointed out.   U.S. government efforts to leverage tourism to improve the international image of the U.S. are lightweight or non-existent. Tourism marketing is left to the individual states, Becker pointed out, but most states don’t have the resources to integrate with regional or national travel networks, let alone market themselves to lucrative overseas markets.

Carnival Dream cruise ship.

Carnival Dream cruise ship.

The impact of gigantic cruise ships damages the ocean ecosystem and shore environments. Fragile Venice receives 20 to 24 million tourists a year.

I wonder if there is an internal migration issue as well, as in China, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere. Farm families go to the big cities or regional tourist destinations to work on hotel construction or service jobs. Many rural people can no longer afford to live in their own region because there’s not enough work that pays a living wage.

Angkor Wat took in 800,000 tourists in the first quarter of 2013, yet the province of Siem IMG_6726Reap, in which the vast archeological site and city of temples Angkor Wat lies, is now Cambodia’s poorest area with devastating environmental degradation and declining water resources.

It’s not all bad though – Costa Rica practically invented eco-tourism thirty years ago and maintains highly sustainable programs. African game safari tourism outfitters are key stakeholder in protecting animals and communities, Becker commented.  Alaska is heavily invested in showing Asian tourists the natural treasures of the Arctic.

She mentioned that the U.S. could encourage residents and citizens to learn foreign languages to be better hosts for those potential visitors.  Could the incentive of jobs in the tourism sector motivate students, educators and policy makers to deal with the foreign language learning deficit in the United States?

Posted in Books, Education, Geography, Tourism Business, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview with Zoltán Géher

Special Interview With Zoltán Géher – XpatLoop.com – Specials

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Why Buy Ugly? :: The Aesthetic Cost of U.S. Taxpayer Financed Buildings

Why spend  money acquired from taxpaying U.S. citizens for structures that are ugly and not energy efficient? Why create more eyesore buildings?

People would become more visually oriented and creative if they could see beautiful structures that open their eyes to intense interrelations of beauty and nature.  If systems  thinking was applied to design then there would be more opportunity to cultivate and nurture the seeds of creativity.

Especially when the construction project is a taxpayer-funded project, it should be designed and built to the highest standards of architectural and engineering felicity.  Let federal and state sponsored building be the very best examples of American architecture.

Think of the massive structures that we travel the globe to see — the cathedrals of France, Potala palace in Lhasa, castles on the Rhine, Angkor Wat,  Borobudur,  the Pantheon in Rome, Teotihuacan and countless other ancient cities in Mexico, the temples of Athens, the pyramid tombs of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China.  These were public works projects or symbols of private enterprise in their day.  If visionary builders and paymasters centuries ago hadn’t constructed pleasing and durable buildings, there would be no residual evidence of their creative effort and social systems.

Architecture  — that which remains after the floods, hurricanes, tornados, wars and fire.  It provides specific and concrete evidence of how a society functioned, what it valued, how the humans prospered or failed, what was valuable to them.

 Would you describe any of these taxpayer financed buildings as lasting esthetic monuments to freedom and creative enterprise?

Maybe the ugly building penalty tax has a place in our culture?

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