Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | January 25, 2014

One Vignette at a Time

pen and paper imgPulitzer Prize winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich discourages would-be memoir writers from making grandiose plans about what their books will include.  Really, she discourages any planning at all.  Just write, she urges.  Tell the story that calls to you today.

Many writers offer similar advice to newcomers, whether at workshops or in guidebooks.  Some suggest we try writing early in the morning when our brains are more uncluttered; others encourage us to find a certain spot in the house just for writing.  But nearly every writer will say the key to being a successful writer is to sit the butt down in a chair and crank out the sentences, one at a time.

schmichI’m sure many people think about writing memoirs, of their own lives or of someone in the family, but few of us ever will – and mainly because we are daunted by the seemingly impossible task of fitting an entire life into 300 pages.  Where to begin?  Where to end?  What points or moments or experiences to include?  Will this story be written for the family only, or might it be interesting to a wider audience?  It’s all too overwhelming.  So most of us write nothing.

Mary Schmich, in her Trib. U. talk the other night, provided a wonderful solution for those of us who had come to her session to figure these things out.  What she suggested is the same process she used in culling the list of columns for her most recent collection. (The intriguing title is a statement her mother made late in life.)

IrcboardSchmich suggests we try writing one story a day for 30 days – whatever stories come to us – without giving a thought to structure, theme, or larger picture.  After we’ve accumulated 30 pieces, we should lay them out on the floor and see what’s there.  Only then should we start thinking about threads of meaning or how our book might take shape.  We might also find a spot to pin up photographs, words, or mementos that will help us visualize key people or places we wish to include in our stories.

Being a full-time teacher and mom with little free time, I know I won’t be able to write a story every day for 30 days running.  But I’m sold on her idea of letting go the need to figure things out in advance and just letting myself drift toward the stories that come to me, letting that inner power direct my thoughts and my pen just as I do when I sit down to write a poem.  It may take me a year or two to gather 30 stories about my family, but eventually I can do it.  How much less daunting a task it all seems from this vantage point!

105 oaktonThanks, Mary Schmich, for your insights and nudging.  I’m going to start writing my family’s stories, one sentence and one vignette at a time.  The possibilities are endless if I just let my mind wander back to the 60s and 70s, in that little house on Oakton Road where my sister and I shared a sky-blue room with matching desks and would fall asleep to the beeps of the dialysis machine in the next room….


  1. I will await your stories with great anticipation!

  2. Me too. Even your written plan for preparing to write shows the great talent which you possess.

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