As part of my sabbatical project, I took an online Continuing Education course called “Writing Your Life Story” and offered through the ed2go.com online course provider.
It was a six-week course, starting August 20, but I finished early, by the end of this month. I even got a certificate of completion to show the folks at HR for Professional Development credits. 🙂
Anyways — I was required to keep a writing journal, responding to assigned prompts, and encouraged to share them on the class site’s Discussion board. Of course, since I have no qualms about sharing any of my writing, here are the responses that I posted for the past few weeks.
Note: if you’re someone who’s interested in writing your life story someday, these prompts are pretty good to jar one’s memory and get into the habit of writing on a regular basis.
Lesson 1 Assignment – Aug. 20, 2014: Describe a personal object
On the top of the piano in the home office is a framed piece of wildflowers that I smuggled in from Scotland on my honeymoon. It’s actually four separate flowers, the tops looking like wisps of short white hair or long, silky fibers – I wish I knew the name of the flower. The stems are thin and used to be bright green, but they’re black now. They grow wild, along with the heather on the Scottish hillsides, and it was a cold, rainy day, even though it was late May, when I picked them. I wanted a piece of Scotland that wasn’t touristy, that was free from money and constraint. So I picked these wildflowers and hid them in a book, and I smuggled them all the way from Scotland, and they’re here today, in Texas.
I have them, even though my marriage is long gone.
Lesson 2 Assignment – Aug. 22, 2014: Write a piece of dialogue
“Pa, Pa, what’d you get me?” I asked, eyeing the white Navy sea bag on my father’s shoulder.
Pa laughed and started to set down his bag.
“Home first, then gifts,” Mom said. “It’s raining!”
“Listen to your mother,” Pa said, and he hitched up the bag back into his shoulder and followed us to the car.
Pa looked at Mom and declared, “I’ll drive.” Six months on her own, Mom had never been in the passenger seat in the family car all of that time; she warily gave him the car keys.
“It’s 40 here, Ray, it’s 40.”
“Grace, nobody goes 40 here.”
“But nobody does 55, either. Slow down! It’s raining!”
“Grace, I know how to drive. See, I’m slowing down.”
“You’re too close to the other car, Ray. It’s a red light.”
“Ay naku! Will you just let me drive?”
“I see that.”
Pa pulled the car into the car port, parked, turned off the engine, and gave the keys to Mom. “See? Safe and sound.”
“Hmph,” Mom grunted, and she got out of the car.
Shell, still strapped in her car seat next to me, was laughing so hard that she hiccupped.
Lesson 3 Assignment –Aug. 27, 2014: Briefly note that you checked the suggested websites.
Done — thanks for the links!
Lesson 4 Assignment – Aug. 29. 2014: Explain if you have a fear of writing
I don’t have a fear of writing in itself; when I was about eight, I kept a diary, scribbling all the things that happened that day, usually about my friends or school or what my mom did that day to drive me bonkers. I write notes to myself, friends, family, and co-workers. Writing short, casual stuff, like emails or Facebook statuses (to connect with far-flung family and friends) is easy. Even writing essay assignments for school, with their clear-cut “Here’s how to do the assignment” and short deadlines, I find do-able without much anxiety.
I can ramble, probably whole books’ worth of ramble. I’ve always been a chatty person. Free-form stuff (like this assignment and conversations) is easy for me.
However, writing long, structured stuff – stuff that are supposed to become chapters and then become a whole book — makes me stare at a screen far too long, makes me research and take notes far too long, makes me jump up from the chair with the case of the “Gee, I wonder of the grass needs mowing” far too often. Reigning all that into an organized, coherent whole that is also LONG, that will become a BOOK?
I get the heebie-jeebies.
Lesson 5 Assignment – Sept. 3, 2014: Write your own Beloit Mindlist or chronology
I may be one of the younger students in this class (my dad served in Vietnam, and I was a little kid in the 1970s), so this short list reflects that:
Houses always had a color TV
- Moms always had a choice to stay at home or go back to work
- Girls always could wear jeans to school
- Milk always came in cartons and you had to go to a store to get it
- Cars always had seatbelts
- Women always had the same chance as men to become astronauts
- Children’s programming on TV has always existed
- Portable music for personal use has always existed
- Computers have always been common in schools
- There has always been breakfast cereal advertised to children
I tried to follow the format of the Beloit Mindset List, which wasn’t easy. As for going down memory lane, that’s different:
1972 Nixon goes to China — because of that, the base where my dad was stationed in Taiwan shut down when we left in 1976.
1970s culture: while living stateside — lots of disco, lots of Nashville country music, lots of polyester, reel-to-reel tape decks, and groovy parties that my parents hosted; my first kindergarten teacher had a massive Afro
1977: brother born — wears cloth diapers, massive diaper pins, and leaky plastic pants. Baby carseats aren’t required.
1979 saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture on a school field trip when my dad was stationed in Guam; sister born– even more cloth diapers, massive diaper pins, and leaky plastic pants. Strong memories of my sister smelling like pee as a non-potty-trained toddler.
1980: first game console bought — an Atari 2600. Mom loved Frogger.
1981: first space shuttle launched. I drank a lot of Tang to get a space shuttle patch in the mail. I still have that patch, hand-sewn on an acid-washed jean jacket that I’ve had since 1985
1981: MTV starts — watched a lot of music videos over the 1980s
1982: moved to Texas and had frito pie and chicken fried steak for the first time. I had to see my classmates eat in the school cafeteria in order to figure out how to eat those particular dishes
1983: Saw Star Wars: Return of the Jedi three times at the local mall (that mall doesn’t exist anymore)
1984: the first time I followed the presidential election and saw Reagan win
1980s culture: lots of music videos, New Wave and punk music, Michael Jackson and Madonna ruling the airwaves, lots of John Hughes teen movies, “the Brat Pack” in Hollywood, Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV, lots of feathered hair, lots of eye makeup on male musicians, lots of parachute pants; lots of eating microwave pizza and Chef Boyardee while drinking Kool Aid.
1980s culture, continued: fully expected to die in a thermonuclear World War III (recalling childhood “duck and cover” drills)
1982: first microwave oven in my family; Dad got cable for the house, as well as a VHS and Betamax machines (Dad likes tech toys)
1984: Dad buys first computer — an Apple IIe. It was over $2000, had 4K of memory, and no hard drive.
1985: Close friend in eighth grade got pregnant– learned that “abstain-only” talk doesn’t always work; also DARE and “Just Say No” are a joke. I avoided teen pregnancy and drugs due to tough-love parents
1986: saw the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up on live TV in my middle school library — school was dismissed that day
1987: During a revival of the Monkees, saw the Monkees live in Starplex (Dallas TX); opening act was a young Weird Al Yankovic
1989: fall of the Berlin Wall — fall of Communism; typed up my first research paper on an IBM Selectric Typewriter while listening to loud rock music on my Walkman
1990: first word processor (an overglorified electronic typewriter) for college.
1991: first Gulf War — my mom anxious that my dad would be called up from Active Duty Reserve (he didn’t)
1994: Got my first email address (professor required it for the class) and first desktop computer from a pawn shop.
1996: my brother enlists in the Navy
Y2K: everyone expecting that a data catastrophe would happen, but nothing happened except a brand new year
2000: Got my first cell phone, required for a summer outdoor job — it was huge.
9/11/2001: Saw the planes hit and then Twin Towers fall on live daytime TV; classes cancelled
9/12/2001: the beginning of the racial-profiling of anyone looking Middle-Eastern — including my Hindi students in Developmental Writing; the War on Terror Starts
2/1/2003: saw the Space Shuttle Columbia explode on live TV, the debris raining down in central Texas.
2005: Facebook began — I didn’t get sucked into it until 2009, when I started an account in order to see the kid pictures of a family friend.
2006: my brother doesn’t re-enlist, after ten years of service with the Navy, at the behest of his then wife and our mom. The War in Iraq gets really, really bad.
And so on…
Lesson 6 Assignment – Sept 5, 2014: Describe a personal photograph
My parents were shutterbugs when we kids were younger, and they often took pictures of each house that we moved into as a remembrance, so we moved a lot as a Navy family. One of those photos was the living room when we lived in Navy military housing in Guam from 1978-1982.
The living room had these weird Kelly green-lemon yellow-splotchy black plush fabric sofa and matching U-backed chairs that had casters on them so that they were easy to move around. When our parents weren’t around, my younger sister Wendy and I would tip the U-chairs on their backs and see-saw across the living room, but we always remembered to put them back where they belonged. The coffee table in front of the sofa was heavy wood with a marbled green paneled top and a center storage area with little cabinet doors.
Matching the coffee table and the china cabinet was this massive cabinet-wall unit that nearly spanned the entire back living room wall. Designed by my dad (who had post-secondary training in engineering and design but could never find a job in the Philippines doing either) and hand-made in Taiwan, it was the centerpiece of their furniture collection. My mom decorated it with Asian-style vases, jade flowers, Japanese dolls in glass boxes, and reference books that my godfather gifted me on occasion of my baptism when I was a baby. My dad used the wall unit as a music station, placing his massive reel-to-reel and vinyl music collection – lots of disco, lots of Elvis Presley, lots of Filipino serenades for party sing-alongs — in the lower cabinets while placing his reel-reel tape deck, receiver with its many nobs and buttons, and speakers in the central and lower shelving spaces.
Except for the weird sofa, U-back chairs, and long-dead TV, my parents still have everything in that living room today, which has always been a comfort for me.
Lesson 7 Assignment – Sept. 10, 2014: <No assigned work for this lesson.>
Lesson 8 Assignment – Sept. 12, 2014: Explain something that you had to teach yourself to do
Learning How to Skate
Have you taught yourself how to do something? This was the case with me, when I was eight years old and wanted to learn how to roller skate. Back then, roller rinks were as popular as movie theaters. I would see the big kids glide along with dance-like grace and then speed around corners, without so much as a wobble. The problem was that nobody in my family knew how, and my skating friends were lousy teachers. So I had to figure it out myself.
First, my parents got me a pair of roller skates. They looked like clunky, heavy laced boots with four rubber wheels and the little rubber toe-brake on each shoe. Once I got them, I put them on my socked feet while in the house, near the area where I would practice.
The area I was in was carpeted and breakables-free – the main, narrow hallway to the bedrooms. I slowly stood up, hands on the walls. Once I was up, I let go and stood there, getting used to being taller. Then I carefully walked in place. After a few moments, I started walking slowly down the hall, trying not to lose my balance and not grabbing at the walls. A few minutes later, I switched to a short, shuffling motion, keeping my skates in continuous contact with the carpet and gradually increasing my stride. When I felt comfortable, I slowly moved the tip of my skates slightly outward as I shuffled. I did this several times until I got used to the feel of the motion.
Once I got used to skating on the carpet, I moved into the linoleum-floored kitchen. I repeated the same steps as above (grabbing at counter tops whenever I felt like I needed it), but added learning how to stop without grabbing onto something. When I slowed down enough, I slowly tipped one of my skates forward so that the toe brake touched the floor. After a few seconds, I braked to a stop. I practiced doing that until I could do it without feeling that I would fall on my face.
Now it was time to move outside. I repeated the earlier steps that I did on the carpet on grass. Then I skated from the grass onto the sidewalk. I repeated the earlier steps that I did in the kitchen on the sidewalk. After a while, I was used to the sidewalk, and that was when I knew that I knew how to roller skate.
It took me about a week to teach myself how to roller skate. Between asking permission from my mom to skate in the house and trying not to fall whenever my siblings tried to “help,” I’m surprised it didn’t take me longer. However, while it’s been decades since I’ve put on a pair of old-timey roller skates, I know I can still do it. It’s like riding a bike – once you learn how, you know forever.
Lesson 9 Assignment – Sept. 17, 2014: <No assigned work for this lesson.>
Lesson 10 Assignment – Sept. 19, 2014: Describe how you feel when you capture in your journaling the essence of people and places that appear in your writing
How I feel when I capture in my journaling the essence of people and places that appear in my writing – honestly, I try not to think about what I’m feeling as I’m putting words down. Sometimes if I think too much of what I’m feeling, I sabotage the words, so I try not to. I surprise myself at times, looking at the words appearing on the page, and I go “Whoa – where did THAT come from?” That’s a good thing.
If the words that spill out are mostly negative, then I know my emotional me has a negative view towards that person or place, and the analytical part of me then asks, “Why so negative?” Then I write more, trying to answer that question.
The same goes if the words are mostly positive.
If there’s any overarching feeling, I guess it would be fear – fear that I’m not doing justice to the truth of what that person or place is. It’s not a paralyzing fear for me but, I hope, something that keeps me humble and grounded as I put words on the page.
Lesson 11 Assignment – Sept. 24, 2014: Write a letter to the teacher on how you will continue with your life writing project after the class is over
Well, I’ll be writing my life story, and it’ll be a memoir of my childhood as explained by the books I read. I read many, many books between the ages of seven to eighteen, and each one influenced me growing up in different ways as I moved around as a Navy brat. I guess you could say that books were the only friends who didn’t get left behind. As an older single mom (I’m in my forties) to a soon-to-be-seven year old boy who’s a lot like me, I’ll be thinking of him as I write.
The steps I’ll take to get this thing written:
- Have a daily word count goal of 1500 words, M-F. I’ll take leave weekends blank so that if I need to catch up on a word count, I can without feeling like I’m falling behind. I have an overall goal of 40,000 words, for a first draft, so that’s about 5 ½ weeks’ worth of weekdays.
- Outline how many chapters I’ll have and assign what days of the week I’ll be working on those chapters in a calendar.
- Force myself not to revise until I get that first draft done in 5 ½ weeks.
- After that, revise for a second draft.
- After that, get first, second, and so on opinions from folks I respect for their feedback.
- Keep revising until it’s good and ready.
I already have a rough outline of the memoir as working chapter titles, so that sort of explains what I’ll be including in my life story:
Intro: A Memoir – Sort Of
- How a Navy Nomad Learned English
- A Brown Kid on Guam and the Three Investigators on the Prairie
- Movies – the Gateway to Books
- The Accidental Autodidact, or How to Raise a Nerd
- When the Reader Wrote
- Lewis, the Library, and the Dynamic Duo
- Pa’s Books
- Portrait of an Anglophile as a Teenaged Girl
- The How, Not the What, of Assigned Books
- Physicists, Philosophers, and Fools for God
- The Takeaway
Well, Eva, that’s about it. Wish me luck!
Lesson 12 Assignment – Sept. 26, 2014: What are the therapeutic benefits of writing your life story?
The therapeutic benefits of writing my life story (not to be posted in the Discussion Board, per instructor):
- It’s better than talking to myself, having all of these thoughts rattle around this ol’ brain of mine that don’t seem to go anywhere. Making public these thoughts – even if the public audience is just me – can be a relief, to have an outlet for troubling thoughts. It’s like clearing the spiders and cobwebs in the attic, letting the light in and airing out the space.
- I have a concrete record of my memories before those memories start to fade away with time – what are we at the end of the day but what we remember? I have an irrational fear of getting so old that I can’t remember the past, especially past events that were so formative for me. It’s not so much a fear of Alzheimer’s or even dementia but a loss of an early part of my identity, like a statue that’s so worn with time that you can’t see the features that well anymore. I fear that.
- On a similar thread, having something written down is an affirmation of my existence, almost like proof, declaring, “There. I really existed. I lived. I happened.” It makes my life feel more real, that it becomes a testimony for me when I’m gone. Who else is going to speak exactly like me except me? I know that sounds sort of morbid, but I find that comforting. A legacy for my kid, the next generation, and all down the line in the future. It’s both selfish and selfless. Funny, that.