Telling Our Stories

Off to Newnan, Georgia this morning, to work with teachers at The Heritage School. This is my third time working at Heritage, and I love it there. Today is a day for just us. We will work on our own personal narratives... I can't wait. I'm bringing essays with me, and lots of books, lots of pictures, lots of possibilities. I love to watch story come to life as it tiptoes out of someone's mind and heart, asking for expression.

It's a mystery, story. I seem to have spent a lifetime studying it, even before I knew that's what I was doing. I internalized rhythms and words and memorized whole paragraphs of what I admired... "how does she do that?" I asked, over and over... and I studied.

I wrote a "manifesto" when I was 26 years old -- I remember where I was when I wrote it -- sitting on the steps of a townhouse, newly married (for the second time), with two small children who were still sleeping that morning. I sat on the steps with a pen and my notebook, and I wrote, in part:

"The purpose behind my writing is to find my purpose in life. To understand why I am living and where I go from here. To understand the purpose of life itself."

Whoa! Can you say intense? I went on for an entire page, I dated it (January 25, 1979), and I wondered what to do next. I wanted to write, but I did not know what I had to write about. It's the same for all of us when we start out, especially fourth and fifth graders who are required to write personal narratives and who sit in classrooms and say "I have nothing to write about!" It's hard to see ourselves as the authors of our own stories -- hard to see those stories as valuable, meaningful, crucial to our well-being and our ability to understand ourselves and find empathy for one another.

Sometimes we do know how important our stories are, we can't even articulate it but we feel it, and we feel the stories there, on the tips of our fingers or tongues or hearts... but what are they? How do we help them reveal themselves?

It took me years to understand that the world under my nose was the one I knew best and that I did have something to say about it... I studied others who wrote about their worlds. E.B. White remains my hero of the personal essay -- ONE MAN'S MEAT is my favorite compilation and part of my personal canon, as is THE ESSAYS OF E.B. WHITE and even THE LETTERS OF E.B. WHITE. I learned so much about the well-turned sentence from the LETTERS -- not to mention tone and humor and surprise and life on the farm, the writing life, love of family and barn. Voice, voice, voice.

I still read these letters, and my daughter Hannah does, too. Now and then she'll pick up White and say, "I need this today."

I know just what she means.

I found White in the stacks of the Tenley Circle branch of the D.C. public library in 1976. I was very poor, a single parent of two young children, and I wanted so much to be sure I was doing a good job as a parent -- I checked out anything I could find about how to be a better parent, how to cook, how to clean, how to sew, how to -- how to.

And I wanted to write, so I migrated over to the 800s eventually and I found Thurber, Perelman, Goodman, Didion and more. But White was my treasure. I read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on -- and when I could afford it, I began to add those books to my collection. Most of them are used, picked up for a dollar or two at the local used bookstore. I was glad to have them. I've written all over them, have underlined ad nauseum... I went back to school in a classroom of one, and White became my teacher -- THE POINTS OF MY COMPASS, THE SECOND TREE FROM THE CORNER, HERE IS NEW YORK, and more... they occupy a shelf all their own in my studio, like an altar of sorts. Every day I pass by them and pay silent homage.

For years, I waxed enthusiastic about White to anyone who would listen. A friend who went to Maine brought me back pictures of White's farm. Another, years later, brought me photos of White's grave. I knew all about son Joel and the Brooklin Boat Yard, about Roger Angell before he was Roger Angell, about Katherine White's sacrifice in leaving (physically, anyway) the New Yorker in order to move to Maine to be with White, I knew about the death of that pig, about Fred and his arthritis, about Henry Allen's ingenuity, about the coon tree outside the bedroom window, the time the chimney caught fire and the living room filled with White's firefighting friends...

As a writer, I was an essayist first. I soaked up White's life and his writing, and I am still learning so much from him.

So these books are in my canon. I am taking them to Heritage this morning. I will read from them and we'll talk about personal narrative -- essay -- and we'll make lists, in our notebooks, of our own memories, for our own stories. We'll select one thing to write about today, each of us, and we'll spend the day with that memory. Eventually, we'll pay attention to some of those Strunk and White rules, too. Years ago, as I would prepare an essay to go out into the world, I would sit with my Strunk and White and go over every rule and apply it to my essay: had I done these things?

Write with nouns and verbs.
Use the active voice.
Use definite, specific, concrete language.
Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!

I'm still working on it.


  1. I've been looking for White's essay and letter books! I think I'll have to order through a used bookstore online because I've had no luck locally.

    Charlotte's Web was the first novel I ever read; of course it's in my children's lit cannon.

  2. Hi Deborah! When Kerry Madden mentioned your blog on her own blog today, I stopped by to read more-- and then lingered a long while, savoring many delicious pages o' Pomegranate. THANK YOU for your wonderful descriptions of the 60s...I'm writing a memoir that covers roughly the same era, and it's fun to see how your childhood recollections compare/contrast with my own.

  3. Hey, y'all. Danette, you can find all the White you want at at reasonable prices -- I got most of mine at bookstores that sell used books. CHARLOTTE'S WEB isn't in my canon, but I consider it one of the best written novels for children -- I go back to it again and again... it's a good canon choice!

    Melodye, thanks for writing! Good luck with your memoir -- the more stories out there, the better. (And thanks, Kerry, for the shout-out!)


Howdy. Moderating comments to prevent spam. I'm sure you're not that. Thanks for your thoughts! Write on, warrior on. Make art.