Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Writing Personal Essays

by Dawn Goldsmith

“We don’t forget, thought Mma Ramotswe. Our heads may be small, but they are as full of memories . . . thousands and thousands of memories, of smells, of places, of little things that happened to us and which come back, unexpectedly, to remind us who we are. And who am I? I am Precious Ramotswe, citizen of Botswana, daughter of Obed Ramotswe who died because he had been a miner and could no longer breathe. His life was unrecorded; who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people?
--pg. 15 “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith.

I, like Mma Ramotswe, am the daughter of a hard working man whose life went unrecorded. Except now, I write my memories that include not only my father, but my mother, brother, relatives, friends, acquaintances and a bygone era of small town life in the 1950s. Two things happen when I write these memories — 1. The people live again and I am surrounded by their words and smiles.

I can feel a touch on my shoulder and a familiar voice from long ago, will say, “Don’t forget dear — tell them about the day Ursula came to your door and little Nick, no more than five years old, mistook her for that movie character, ET. His eyes got so big, but he remembered his manners.”

Or I’ll smell a tonic that transports me to Don’s barber shop on High Street. I remember the farmers who came to his shop directly from the fields. He combed weed seed and leaf hoppers out of their hair before he could start to clip. Then he’d watch as his precise cut was covered by a sweaty, grease-smeared John Deere or DeKalb hat as his customers returned to their work. I remember the barber falling in love again after the death of his wife. Such a tragedy leading to a happy ending. It gives me hope.”

2. My memories lead readers to their own memories and often give them the same gifts that my memories give me. My readers and I garner hope from Don the Barber, we grasp again the fine line between reality and fantasy through Nick’s eyes and we enjoy the reunion that memories bring with lost lives and loved ones.

Never think your memories aren’t important enough to write about. Everything has a story and a string that connects it to the universe. Just think how an anecdote can connect to a theme that others will quickly embrace. For example, when newly married, my husband watched me knitting. Two weeks later, he presented me with a potholder he had knit in free moments at work in a rubber factory. He made it from discarded items, created his own knitting needles out of bolts and turned away requests from his fellow workers, who asked him to make them for their wives.

Lots of universal themes spring from this little story. Recycling discarded items into something useful, even a how-to make knitting needles out of bolts. But the theme that resonated with me was how my football playing, factory working husband taught me about gender roles and when to ignore them. Five hundred words later, several re-writes and tweaking, I sold the essay to Christian Science Monitor. I also sold one-time rights to Chocolate for Woman’s Soul anthology. KnitLit editor, Linda Roghaar, saw my essay at Christian Science Monitor’s website and contacted me. She bought the rights to reprint it in her own anthology “Knit Lit Too.” And I retain the rights to use it in my own anthology or resell it yet again to another market.

One little memory, no research, and I’ve sold it three times. Is it enough money to retire on? No. But personal essays feel like found money to an old newspaper and magazine writer who is accustomed to pulling together topics that require interviews, exact quotes, research and experts as well as photos to create a product.

And, best of all, the memory lives on.