Session One Handout

Video-based training Self Stories writing workshops Video-based training Self Stories writing workshops

Session One: First Person Memoir Assignment

Write at least one page or four paragraphs (no more than five pages) about a significant event in your life. For example, something that happened to you during your school days, a memory from World War Two, or a story about how a loved one touched your life. Your piece should have a beginning, middle and end.

Imagine that you are writing your story for a young student who may not be familiar with the historical events of the time. Be sure to include details that will give your reader a feeling for what life was like during the time that your story takes place. Try to answer questions the reader might have. For example: What was the year? What kind of cars were being driven? What were the prices of everyday items such as milk and gasoline? Other details to include: What do the people in your story look like? What kinds of clothes to they wear? How old are they? Any description you can provide will help the reader to “see” your story.

If you are having trouble getting started, think about how you would tell this story to a friend or family member, and simply write down what you would say. It’s not important to get it perfect the first time. Your goal should be to put your words down on paper. You’ll have plenty of time later to change things around.

Sample of assignment

The Captain’s Lady and the Tiger

by Eleanor Porter

         It is late in World War II. I have graduated from Cornell and gone to Charleston, South Carolina, with my friend Katia, because our Cornell friend, Pat Colbert, lives there with her sister in a small Charleston house on an alley. It is an interesting little city; it seems a possible place to begin independent life. And I have Katia, to take the lead. We live in a tiny exposed-beam loft over a garage. I get a job as a copywriter of ads and of filler, where Pat works, at the radio station. It is not something I want; it is just the next step — to pay one’s way in the world. The quality of the copy seems dreadful to me.

         The station wants a little patter show at the end of the day. An announcer named Allen and I are chosen. I’m a theater person, a talker; it works fairly well, though it must have been dumb. (At night, often, I am at the Footlight Players, in a play or helping at the theater.)

         A destroyer escort comes to town, with a submarine; they, the submarine and its escort, are selling war bonds, assisted by naval personnel. One is named Doc, and he is the captain of the escort — good-looking, a gentleman, what would be called normal. Allen and I do an on-air interview. In due course, Doc invites me to be on the ship for a day when it sails on, down to Savannah. The captain’s lady.

         I spend the day before in anxiety, starting with finding something in the closet to wear. Nothing is remotely right. I go aboard at dawn, and part of me is pleased, another part says, “Oh God, what am I supposed to do? What is expected? This all feels unreal, false, a terrible little one-act play, in which no one knows the lines or is joyful.” I remember sitting in the ward room, the sun blinding on the water outside the portholes, the sense of hypocrisy. “I don’t know this person at all, really.” What’s the price at the end? Sex? I don’t fear attack, nor, as it turns out, the full sharing that I come later to love and understand. I fear the awful maneuvers, the gropings, verbal and physical, to establish what is going to happen next. Behind one door is the lady, peace and the familiar; behind the other, the tiger, the whole spectrum of grown-up behavior.

         There is a party that night in Savannah at the Naval Base. I do party-talk and smile and smile, with a sense of exhaustion, with the same sense of having lost my script that I always had at school dances. We don’t stay together that night. I go back to Charleston. He visits. On the sofa in the little loft, he asks me to marry him. Was I conscious of suburban St. Louis just outside the door, of a husbandly career at Proctor and Gamble, of — nightmare — children, vulnerable bits of being needing constant care, going off to school, searing my conscience, tearing my heart? Making me feel caged, with a good, kind, boring tiger. I say these things only now. I must have simply sensed them then. Besides — how could he have the bad taste to choose me?

         He wept at my refusal. In God’s name, I must be a bad person: I am supposed to do this dance, and presumably I have done it well, and the end is a wound, a tearing, a pain.

         Good Captain, unlikely tiger, I hope you had a happy life. I would like, as a seasoned person — as one who has decided much of life is as absurd as that day was, as much a rehearsal as that day was — to thank you nonetheless for that day. It made me, for all the messy script, proud.

I salute you, who were once the enemy.