Get a Life!

Daniel Safford MemoirGET A LIFE, I

Well. Yes: of course!

But how?

It’s been said that most stories are personal, that writers work their craft as a way to understand the world, and through the crafting of story we come to understand ourselves.

When I was an undergraduate I studied History at Portland State University; Biography as History, taught by Professor Charles Le Guin, was one of my favorite classes. In those seminar hours I learned about the earliest form of life writing, known as hagiography. We learned about the panegyric, and the frequency with which the stars and heavens conspired, along with a checklist of specific physical traits, to signal auspicious births (think Plutarch’s Lives…). Even back in the hoary mists there were trends to writing lives.

The strongest trend of the 20th century employed sparkling bits of Freudianism, and it peaked for so long it appeared permanent. I won’t forget one heated class discussion about if Freud’s influence would, in my meekly delivered words, ‘withstand the test of time.’ For that assertion I received a most withering look (the guy is probably a senator now.); I recall Le Guin chuckled at my nerve. Of course the bloom on that framing device has long lost its luster. And now all that is mostly swamped by a rising tide of popular and literary memoir.


I became familiar with literary memoir during my graduate study. My conclusion? Don’t be persuaded that it’s a snap to write memoir. Why? Because the best memoirs have a focal point. But which one? what about? … Indeed!

I quickly determined I wasn’t ready to do my own memoir. Gulp! Casting about, I sensed my father’s story would be my ride into parsing the family history. Note: This became biography, me undertaking to write his life. Digging at his roots I was grateful to peer into unseen corners. Many of his stories had a good folksy flow, where I took what I knew, connected the dots. But before long, the only way to flesh fragments into narrative- was to embellish. I had to make stuff up. Now what did I have? Was this still my father’s story?

Biography is a narrative of a life fixed by facts. Memoir is a narrative that focuses on a pivotal event to describe or elucidate character. Autobiography is a chronological telling, some as simple as a list of dates, names. So what did I have, this mess of family stories and actual facts from the Kitsap County Historical Society archives? Important details, yes; but as far as my father’s life- and in crafting a readable story-I had a fiction. Oh boy.


Poet Mary Karr has published three memoirs: The Liar’s Club (which helped start the literary memoir tidal wave), Cherry, and Lit, her latest (a compelling story of recovery). I suspect Karr’s being a poet has much to do with this output; her life and her stories are not about a poet’s brevity, but diving in, finding the juicy parts, about word choice. That’s right: Karr knows what to put in, and what to leave out. Yes- you heard right. Memoir: where you choose what to include.

The work of memoir is not for the timid. You find censors and firewalls and gatekeepers everywhere in this practice. Often we have a story to tell but we don’t want to offend the living. Even a casual mention of an intention to write a family history or personal memoir may cause sideways glances. And these non-verbal cues can stop the process dead in its tracks. Honest: there’s nothing like pinning events to a timeline to reveal and blow apart long-held family secrets. But, writing personal stories can be highly therapeutic, and getting the stories on paper often de-sensitizes troublesome memories. And often, through gentle inquiry, healing can occur. Revision and editing play a big role in writing and comprehending a life, long before the final drafts. It’s tough work.

Here’s my view: We all get up, on either the right side or the left, we all have coffee or something in the morning, we all mutter some sort of prayer to the world, and most of us all leave the house sometime during the day. Or we don’t, for another reason. And something happens: You see any life is far from meaningless, and you begin to commit to this process of getting at your words. And when you are ready, you may share your story. You choose that part too.

In January 2010 I held a class in Astoria. To the surprise of us all we found an experience utterly and completely remarkable. In a group of about eight (ages ranging from 35 to 85), in addition to the stories we arrived with, we found we all had stories of Huguenot ancestors, families from Iowa, links to Montana, peculiar incidents with mules, and cherished childhood memories of pastoral settings – for a gathering of unrelated people these shared stories were well outside any law of averages. So: Get a Life

Class Offerings

Artist’s Way
On Tuesday nights, Rebecca Hart is offering an Artist’s Way class from 6:30 to 8:30, to facilitate artists of all stripes to get in touch with their inner art emperor. Using the well-known book by Julia Cameron, Hart will lead you through a series of pledges, exercises and sharing to awaken a stronger connect with your inner creative guru. Hart first trod the path of The Artist’s Way in 1996, and now has filled 40 notebooks; she paints and exhibits locally, and recently completed an MFA in creative writing.

The Slippery Fish that is Memoir
Many of us have a story we want to tell, in fact we often have many stories. Commit to learning the differences between memoir, autobiography, biography, and dragnet fiction. This is primarily a writing class; expect some self-directed reading, and voluntary sharing. A continuation of the class Hart taught winter term 2010, come if you are merely curious, if you have a project in mind, or if you need help putting structure to the stories you’ve been thinking about. This class utilizes frequent in-class cues and prompts- to get at the raw and rough material inside. From 1 – 4 PM, Wednesday. Both classes are held in Astoria, at the Josie Peper Center at the PAC on 16th- with ample access and parking. For more information and to register, go to

For more information email or call 503-739-1108.