A Glorious Fourth, 1909 Style and a Memoir Tip

Would you pass up an invitation to a lawn soirée on a holiday weekend? This week 107 years ago my grandma, Miss Fanny Martin, then a single woman, received a penny postcard invitation to such a gathering on July 3, 1909.

PostcardBackFourthJulyGrandma

 

Mary Elizabeth Kob writes in neat cursive: “You are heartily invited to attend a Lawn Soirée July 3, 1909 in honor of Jacob S. Kob at his home. Meet 7:30. Refreshments. Respectfully, Mary Elizabeth Kob.” I assume my grandmother attended the party.

PostcardFourthJulyGrandmaFRONT

From my vantage point in the 21st century, it’s hard to piece together the details. Was Mary Elizabeth Jacob’s wife, daughter, or sister? Based on the name alone, it’s hard to tell. Was the occasion a combination birthday and Fourth of July celebration? If so, the emphasis may have been on the national holiday judging from the red, white, and blue postcard colors.

Leo Kob was the only “Kob” name familiar to me when I was growing up in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Leo, whom I heard my parents refer to as “Kobbie,” owned a G. E. Oil and Gas Heating business in Elizabethtown, a family business that boasted the phrase “Since 1904” in a page in my high school yearbook. Maybe Leo bought or inherited the business from his grandfather or father. Was Leo related to Jacob? A search of genealogical records could prove or disprove any relationship.

Yes, excavating one’s family history leads to questions, some without clear answers.

Piecing together fragments of family history requires a measure of conjecture and speculation. Therefore, when one reaches the limits of family history and historical record, what happens next? Memoir writers can use a technique known as “perhapsing,” a tool for supplying detail in a scene when memory is unreliable or when facts are simply missing. According the writer Lisa Knopp, “The word perhaps cues the reader that the information [the writer] is imparting is not factual but speculative.” Because deviating too far from fact could result in fiction, life story writers have a tight rope to balance here. Yet “perhapsing” used sparingly or a well-placed “it might have been” can occasionally provide motivation and action, adding richness and complexity to the narrative.

Knowing about Leo Kob and his family is not critical to my own memoir writing, but writing about the details of my visit to New York City to distribute gospel tracts as a young Mennonite girl is significant, as this excerpt illustrates:

Perhaps my memory has amped up the details, but I can now imagine this frightful creature grabbing me by the shoulder in a death grip as I am spun round and round like a whirling dervish. In my film clip of this horror show there was little I could do to resist the grasp of this drunken prophetess. I felt dizzy and afraid.

 


About this 1909 postcard? When my plain Grandma Longenecker received this post card, she looked like this:

Fancy Victorian Fannie Longenecker before she became Mennonite
Fancy Victorian Fannie Longenecker before she became Mennonite

I found it in a stash of other cards inside the fold-out compartment of Aunt Ruthie’s secretary. What other treasures may be hiding there? I wonder.

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What treasures have you found either by design – or unexpectedly?

As a reader, what do you think of the literary device called “perhapsing”? Have you used it as a writer?

5 Memoir Lessons Learned from a Special Birthday Cake

Earlier in January I baked an apple cake for my husband Cliff’s birthday celebration. All agreed it was scrumptious. However, it was my second attempt at the same recipe for reasons to be divulged in my next blog post. As they say, practice makes perfect! Matilda Butler, who earlier followed a similar plan on her website, would agree.

AppleCakeSuccess

Step 1: Make a plan. Even if you are an accomplished chef or fabulous cook (I’m neither), read the recipe carefully and anticipate how you will proceed. I didn’t have a tube-shaped bundt pan, so even before I began, I had to make a trip to the grocery store for the proper pan.

BundtPan

Memoir Lesson 1 – Don’t fool yourself into imagining writing will be easy. Writing is certainly rewarding, but learning a new skill can be hard. I had done plenty of writing as an academic, but switching to a new genre like memoir required a totally different mindset.

Even if you end up changing your plan, you have something (like starter dough!) to begin with.

 

Step 2: Assemble what you need. Anticipate the ingredients and tools necessary. Pull out the mixer, bowls, wooden spatula, measuring cups and spoons. Take the eggs out of the refrigerator to bring to room temperature if necessary.

Memoir Lesson 2 – A memoir is a slice of your life, not a biography. Ask yourself some serious questions: What part of your life will you depict – your childhood, a traumatic experience, a thrilling adventure like sailing around the world? Can you sketch out this “slice of life” in a series of memorable moments? Scribble random thoughts on colored sticky notes? Draw it as a timeline? Write an outline?

What is your theme? If it’s success after a failed first marriage, that controlling idea will be the filter through which you tell your story. Flashbacks can add dimension to writing, but only if these stories connect to your theme.

 

Step 3: Be aware that you may need to make adjustments. Even though I knew where I was headed before I began (a perfectly baked cake, I hoped!) I had to make a few changes. I ran out of clean measuring cups, so I had to wash one. A phone call interrupted the process, so I had to quickly drizzle some lemon juice onto the apples so they wouldn’t turn brown.

Memoir Lesson 3   I didn’t open up the spice cabinet or pull everything down from my dry ingredients’ shelves and dump them into the batter. I had to be selective. Just so, you can’t tell every story that happened in your life. Stories have to fit your theme.

 

Step 4: Keep at it until it’s done. I was not done with the cake until it had been iced. Preceding this was planning –> mixing –> baking –> cooling –> de-panning–> icing.

 

Memoir Lesson 4   Memoir writing requires a series of steps to name a few: writing multiple drafts, revising, revising (Did I say revising?), writing a book proposal, finding various types of editors and an agent, planning for publication. You can find a more complete list of steps on Laurie Buchanan’s website here. 

 

Step 5: Celebrate! Light the candles and let the birthday boy blow them out. Serve everyone else a slice.

Cliff and birthday cake ablaze with candles
Cliff and birthday cake ablaze with candles

Memoir Lesson 5  Cake bakers hope the eaters will find their slice delicious. What delicious morsels of truth do you want your reader to get out of your book? That’s the memoir’s takeaway. Brooke Warner says it’s “ a gift to the reader, something heartfelt, universal, and true.” Figure out what that something special is in your memoir.


 

As a reader and/or writer, what writing tips would you add to this list?

Any cake-baking advice? Have you ever tried a baking project that turned out to be too elaborate?

 

(Watch next post for full apple cake recipe.) Coming next: Hoorah, My 300th Blog Post with an Oops and an Aah!

Behind the Scenes @ “Plain and Fancy Girl”

Writing a blog post is magical–right? Words appear in the right order and photos sift down from above and settle into a nifty niche between paragraphs. Well, sort of . . . When I created the post Mennonites, Ventrlloquists, and Memoir, 3 things happened in succession:

1. In Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir I read that the author can “ventriloquize” his voice by inventing incidents, characters, and relationships.

2. The word “ventriloquize” sparked an image of Howdy Doody and the forbidden TV show I sneaked off to watch.

EmersonTVHowdyDoody

3. That reminded me of a story about our next door neighbors, the “red-light” Rentzels whom I wrote about 10 years ago.

Writing that post wasn’t fast or easy but it was smooth, not usually the case.

So I invite you to the website of author Kathleen Pooler, who is hosting me today in a blog post which features me “undressing” some of my posts in public. Click here for secrets divulged! (You can leave a comment below or better yet on Kathy’s blog.)