Memory Trigger: Watch The Right Movie

Rita's mother was a hidden child during the Holocaust. She never talked about it. Then she fell and broke her heel. She went to Rita's house to recuperate.

To relax in the evenings, Rita and her mother watched movies on Netflix. Seven nights in a row they glommed The Winds of War, a 1983 TV miniseries starring Robert Mitchum, Ali MacGraw, and Jan-Michael Vincent.

Robert Mitchum plays U.S. Navy officer Victor "Pug" Henry, stationed in Europe before World War II officially begins. The script by Herman Wouk (based on his novel) is a period drama full of leisurely conversations and formal cocktail parties, cut in with combat newsreel footage. As the Nazis invade and Europe unravels, communication lines are cut off. Messages don't get through. Family members can't find one another.

All of a sudden, Rita's mother started talking to Rita about all her experiences. She talked and talked and talked.

"She told me everything," Rita said. "It was amazing."

Was it something about The Winds of War?

I don't know. 

The movie brought up a memory for me. In one scene there was a two-second shot of the Barbizon Hotel for Women. I stayed there when I first moved to New York City. I had forgotten. 

So let's say you were born in 1960. You want to remember things from when you were 10 years old (1970). Let's assume you saw the Disney movie The Aristocats (1970) when you were 10. You could rewatch it. If you didn't see that, find something else you saw, heard, or read in 1970 and revisit it.  

The Aristocats

You can watch a movie set in 1970, such as Apollo 13 (1995). 

Apollo 13 Poster

If you're stuck, prime the pump. 

Watch the right movie

What comes up? 

Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

Memoirs About Relationships


What makes a memoir unique?

Not information.

Not personal confession.

Not fibbing.

A memoir about a relationship has to be unique. The reasons are simple and fundamental. Every person is unique. Every relationship between two persons is unique. 

The length of your relationship and the length of your memoir doesn't matter. For example, you could write a two-sentence memoir about a stranger who had an impact on you. "You know, I met someone once who…"

You could write a memoir about an offhand remark you always remembered. A friend of mine in her 20s, backing away from too much freedom in college once said to me something I always remembered: "After awhile when you can do anything you want, you don't want to do anything at all."

Here are some ideas:

  • A Stranger Who Had A Big Impact On Me
  • Someone Who Said Something I've Never Forgotten
  • Someone I Always Envied
  • Someone I Looked Up To
  • Someone I Lost Touch With
  • Someone I Went To School With And What Happened To Him/Her
  • Someone I Never Resolved Things With
  • Someone I Played With When I Was A Kid
  • Someone I Saw Once
  • Someone I Used To Date

StoryCorps celebrates 10 years of success this month. Listen to StoryCorps interviews for inspiration. They are all about relationships. 

The List As Memoir

Santa Claus Writing A List
Martin Cruz Smith wrote in The Wall Street Journal about his five favorite books by Russian humorists (Five Best, November 8, 2013). Mikhail Zoshchenko's Scenes From the Boathouse, he said, "is so funny … finally you start to cry." Toward the end of his life, Zoshchenko summarized his life in this list:

 "Arrested–6 times, sentenced to death–1 time, wounded–3 times, committed suicide–2 times, got beaten up–3 times."

Nora Ephron (1941-2012) summarized her life in a list in "What I Will Miss." First published in I Remember Nothing (2010), "What I Will Miss" is the last item in the fall 2013 The Most of Nora Ephron, a compilation of her masterful work. "What I Will Miss" starts with her kids and ends with pie.

Shameless plug alert: Evan Marshall and I discuss how to use lists in our e-book on using fiction-writing techniques in memoir writing.

Why use lists in memoirs? 

They're easy.

They're fun.

They're familiar.

Funny? Yes, they can be.  

Readers like them.

Writers like them.

Because they are linear, you can save the best for last.

You can save the worst for last.

A list can go from good to better, back to bad, and then to better, like life. 

You can end with irony, or pathos, or rage.

You can put something ridiculous in the middle–Zoshchenko committed suicide two times.

Their linearity can suggest a beginning, a middle, an end. Youth, loss, yearning for redemption, to quote Rohinton Mistry

Lists sum things up.

I was saddened to hear that Martin Cruz Smith has revealed he has Parkinson's. I'm a big Arkady Renko fan. I look forward to reading TatianaThank you, Martin Cruz Smith, for the hours of reading pleasure you've given me, and for everything I've learned about writing from your body of work.


Remembrance On Veterans Day

Poppy Pin

"At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember him."

The poem was read here:

Place: Beth Israel Cemetery, 232 Fuller Street, Everett, Massachusetts
Date: November 6, 2013
Officiant: Rabbi Baruch HaLevi
Ceremony: Funeral of Ronald Marshall, my father-in-law
"That poem is from World War I," I said.
"For The Fallen" by Laurence Binyon is about the soldiers who died in World War I, also known as the Great War (1914-1918). The poem was written in 1914:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them now opens Yizkor prayers of remembrance at the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. It now shows up in Britiain's Remembrance Day (November 11) commemorations. But it was first chosen by parents and wives for the headstones of their soldiers who died in World War I.Flanders Poppies of Remembrance

World War I not only structures funerals, war memoirs, and war memorials, but also provides numerous words and phrases used in everyday English: WWI Vocabulary.

The poppy as a symbol of remembrance is also from World War I.

How did this happen?

To make sense of the Great War, the British turned to British literature, says Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. By the time British troops arrived in France and Belgium, poppies had already accumulated "a ripe traditional symbolism in English writing, where they had been a staple since Chaucer" (page 247). Many carried with them The Oxford Book of Verse.

The British poppy was a meme, an "information-packet with attitude," to use Daniel Dennett's contemporary phrase. The poppy was blood-red, an easy emblem of shed blood, oblivion, sleep, death, forgetfulness, and remembrance. It debuted its new commemorative role in the most popular poem of the Great War, John McRae's "In Flanders Fields" (1915):

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.
YouTube video: In Flanders Field

The British Legion made poppy pins for Remembrance Day after the War. The poppies in McRae's poem are one reason why, says Fussell.

Fussell's takeaway for memoir writers is that one notices and remembers what one has been "coded" to notice and remember–usually by literature or its popular equivalent–to notice and remember. Today's codes include incessant, mass, automated, entertainment, advertisement, publicity, news, etc.

The British took note of the poppy because it was already there in British literature. "It would be a mistake to imagine that the poppies in Great War writings get there just because they are actually there in the French and Belgian fields," Fussell advises (page 247).


The poppy meme went viral. It was already in the British "cultural soup" when the Great War came along. A poet picked up on it, the British Legion felt comfortable with it, the poppy pins appeared on Remembrance Day, memoirists wrote about it in their Great War memoirs, and it eventually became the emblem of the Royal British Legion's Remembrance commemorations. The poppy meme is now a mutant mashup on a T-shirt, "Keep calm and wear a poppy."

Also note: Article about the British poppy wars by Dan Hodges at The Telegraph and amusing video How to Wear Your Poppy.

Flanders Menin Gate Ypres 2009

James Gleick says in The Information (2011) that famous portraits are memes. He tells the following anecdote about the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Information, page 313):

"This may not be what George Washington looked like then," the tour guide was overheard saying about the portrait of George Washington. "But this is what he looks like now."
Flanders field may not have looked like this then, but this is what it looks like now.

Thank you to all the men and women–past, present, and future–for your military service to America.

Happy Veterans Day.

Family of Memoirists

I come from a family of memoirists. My grandmother and great-grandmother wrote memoirs.

Helen Isabell (Gott) Jewett (1897-1988), my grandmother, graduated in 1919 from Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) in Manhattan, Kansas. She wrote a 20-page memoir about growing up on farms in Kansas:

Helen Isabell Gott Graduation Kansas State University 1919

Belle Shoaf (Mock) Gott (1875-1956), Helen's mother, deserves much of the credit for Helen's 1919 college degree. She saw to it that Helen got a college education, as Helen recounts in her memoir:

Mother went to Manhattan to see if I might be admitted to college. The registrar looked over my high school credits. I lacked a credit for physics – luckily I'd had chemistry for one year, and all other requirements and had managed to acquire good grades. The registrar told mother she'd admit me, with the understanding that I make up the physics credit by special arrangement with an instructor in that department. - "Helen Jewett's Autobiography," page 10.

Belle's own memoir is only three pages long:

But she paints such a vivid picture of her parents, I know what my great-great-grandparents felt and sounded like. Belle writes about them:

Both were deeply pious, and both had natural musical ability which was expressed in gospel songs. It was always a joy to hear my father's rich deep voice, or to catch the sound of his whistled tune as he returned from work. I believe it is a happy man who comes home whistling. - "My Folks and I," page 1.

Belle Gott stands in the middle, her arms around two grandchildren, Frances Jewett and Max Gott, on the day they graduated from K-State Manhattan in 1951.

I'll blog more about their memoirs in the future.

1951 KSU Graduation Frances Jewett, Belle Gott & Max Gott

Memoir Format: Quick Capture

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????This July marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. One Memorial Day a few years back, I blogged about Wallace E. Jewett, my first cousin four generations removed, who died at the Battle of Little Round Top (photo above) and is buried at Gettysburg.

Recently, I wrote a memoir about Wallace for our family, with research by my cousin, Clay Feeter of Standup Journal. I used the memoir format I call Quick Capture:

Wallace E. Jewett by Martha Jewett

Quick Capture gets down on paper whatever material is on hand and the material guides the memoir's structure.

My Quick Capture includes:

  • Research provided by Clay Feeter, Civil War and family historian
  • Battle reports from Union officers (from printed volumes about the Battle of Gettysburg available at the public library)
  • The Gettysburg Address
  • Photos of Gettysburg taken by Clay Feeter
  • Photos of Gettysburg from Wikipedia
  • Genealogical information from History and Genealogy of the Jewetts of America
  • Jewett family tree handwritten by my grandmother, Helen Isabell (Gott) Jewett, from family files.

Quick Capture is used when you have to let the material shape the memoir, especially for:

  • memoirs relying on books, letters, historical records, genealogical research, etc.
  • memoirs that are compilations or collections of your research.

Kitchen sink would be another way to put it.  smiley




Writing With Your Clothes On


Aspiring memoirists may say, "I want the courage to be naked to the world."

I think they mean they want to write a memoir with emotional staying power.

That's a lot easier to achieve when you write evergreen memoir topics, such as:

  • people you went to school with and what happened to them
  • an accomplishment you will always be proud of
  • someone you helped
  • what you ate a lot of
  • trouble you and your friends got into when you were kids
  • a stranger who had an impact on you
  • what holidays were like when you were growing up
  • a travel adventure.

Why memoir topics?

  • They are experiences we have all had—so they resonate.
  • Therefore, it's easier for your readers to put themselves in your shoes.
  • Therefore, it's easier for you to hook your readers.
  • Therefore, it's easier to write a memoir with emotional punch.

The structure of the memoir topic gives your audience a way to feel your feelings.

The memoir topics are the clothes.

A memoir where you keep your clothes on is a good idea.

Why don't you try it?


My Viking Mama


My mtDNA says I'm a Viking.

My female line is Haplogroup I, found in Iron-Age Danish graveyards and medieval Viking burial grounds in Denmark and Scandinavia. I blogged about genealogical DNA tests, but never took the plunge until now.

Where do I come from? Who are my people? These are universal, perennial questions for memoir writers. Today, we ask: Where do I come from genetically? Who are my people genetically? We can differentiate male and female lines.

My imagination runs with this.

Through my father, I know a lot about my male line, the Jewetts. The earliest American Jewetts are two Puritain brothers from England, Deacon Maximilian Jewett and Joseph Jewett, whom I'll blog about some other time. I'm grateful for all the information provided by my family, as well as by The Jewett Family of America, History and Genealogy of the Jewetts of America, Civil War historians Vicki ProfittDavid Welch, and Clay Feeter, and many other sources.

Before England, where did Jewetts come from? Normandy, France? Perhaps a village called Jouette, Fresney-le-Puceux? Did Jewetts go to England with the Norman Invasion in 1066? The surname Jewett (various spellings) supposedly starts showing up in England after the Normans took over. (The Normans used last names. The Anglo-Saxons didn't.) Other people hypothesize that the Jewetts were Jutes from Jutland (modern-day Denmark). Jutes conquered and settled eastern areas in England 200 years before the Norman Invasion, and earlier. Did the Vikings call themselves Jutes? (Jewetts?) Did Anglo-Saxons call them that? Did the name stick when surnames became part of the English scene? Who knows?

You know where I'm going with this, don't you?

Were the Jewetts Vikings? If they were, did they know my Viking females? Did they trek together in a Viking pack? Were they part of some sort of deep-ancestor tribe?

I love the image. It makes me want to sit around a campfire and I hate camping.

Still, it's a maybe.

At least I know why I like the Minnesota Vikings.