Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes, a classic contemporary memoir.

Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes, a classic contemporary memoir.

Memoir remains one of the most popular and compelling categories of writing today.  Darkness Visible by William Styron, No Name Woman by Maxine Hong Kingston, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff’s, The Liar’s Club by  Mary Karr and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt’s-these are just a few of the many outstanding recent memoirs.

Unlike autobiography, memoir doesn’t have to include every part of one’s life, only the moments that are most significant. A great memoir highlights the key moments in a person’s life, using scene, characterization, dialogue, point of view to bring them to life on the page.

Memoir is especially useful in treating questions of identity, a particularly American dilemma, as this is a country without strong classes and social norms. Identity often has to be negotiated, explored as a mix of ethnic, social, economic, psychological, and other dimensions. The fluid nature of American society leads many writers to pose questions such as, Who am I?  Where do I belong? What does it mean to be American?

One of the crucial tests for a memoir is finding this larger issue. What does this life illustrate? What has  the narrator learned from his or her life? Without a larger point, a personal memoir can easily lapse into boring, repetitive, poor-me stories. Humor is an especially effective antidote to this, showing that a writer has a perspective on his or her life. This sense of perspective helps give the memoir a point, avoiding the trap of what Joyce Carol Oates called “pathograpy”, memoirs that uncover disease, disaster, and sickness and revel in it, without trying to give a sense of how such a condition can be transformed.

For many Americans, discovering their identity comes from travel. Over the years Europe has been one of the most popular destinations in this regard. In Map of Another Town by M.F.K. Fisher, she discovers a sense of herself when enduring trying circumstances while living in Aix en Provence. Fisher went on to become the dean of American food writers and much of what she learned came from her experiences, both good and bad, while living in France. Fisher has to struggle to discover who she is within or outside French society. Struggle is essential to a good memoir. Without it, there’s little suspense and little sympathy generated for the writer.

In writing a memoir, it’s important to focus on key events in your life. Highlight these events. Explore them in rich detail. This will bring readers into your world. As you furnish the sights, sounds, sensations, smells and feelings that you experienced in your life, the reader will identify with you.
The techniques of narrative or creative nonfiction are especially helpful in accomplishing this.

My winter Seattle writing class will address these techniques as well as discuss how use genre to add style and structure to your stories. See the course descriptionfor more: http://thewritersworkshop.net/classes_seattle.htm.

All best,
Nicholas O’Connell
The Writer’s Workshop

Tagged with: , ,

Stag's Leap winemaker Nicki PrussStag’s Leap winemaker Nicki Pruss beside the “Hands of Time” tribute to those who have worked at the winery

It’s harvest in Napa. The smell of fermenting grapes fills the air. Pickers comb the yellowed rows of vines, culling glistening clusters before fall rains or early frost damage them. Wine makers work feverishly to crush the fruit at the apex of its ripeness, insuring a stellar vintage. Fruit flies buzz excitedly, caught up in the frenzy of the crush.

“It feels like we’ve been doing an ultra-marathon,” says Nicki Pruss, the red-cheeked winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of the most famous houses in Napa. “I sometimes don’t know what day of the week it is.”

During the harvest, Pruss serves as chief “grape herder,” coordinating the picking and tasting the fruit before it enters the stainless steel maw of the crushing machine. Amid the noise and haste, she recites her mantra “balance, elegance, restraint” allowing her to decide which juice from the vineyard blocks will go into the winery’s signature blends.

“Each block is like a color on a painter’s palette,” she says. “Each block is a slightly different expression of cabernet. Some have bigger, more structural components. The soils, climate and grapes all make a difference in the blend. We are trying to become in tune with this place.”

Harvest in NapaWarm days and cool nights make for an ideal Napa wine harvest

Stag’s Leap occupies one of the choicest sites in the Napa Valley, an oenophile’s Eden of some 400 wineries located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco. Thirty miles in length, it ranges from five miles wide near the city of Napa to one mile near the town of Calistoga. Internationally known as one of the world’s greatest wine regions, the valley contains the richest concentration of wineries, fine dining and wine touring facilities in North America.

After leading wine tours for The Writer’s Workshop to France and Italy, I wanted to see how North America’s greatest wine region stacks up against the best of the Old World. I’d passed through the valley before, but didn’t have the time to fully explore it till a three-day trip last fall. What is special and unique about the place? Why do so many people fall under its spell? How does it differ from the great wine regions of Europe? These were some of the questions I sought to answer during my visit.

I was here on assignment for Alaska Airlines Magazine to write about Napa as a wine touring destination. In the course of the writing assignment, I interviewed Nicki Pruss of Stag’s Leap, Chris Howell of Cain Five, Antinori’s chief enologist, Renzo Cotarella, and visited with Karen Trippe at the Conn Creek Barrel Blending Experience. The assignment required research and interviewing skills, as well as structuring the story in terms of a quest, some of the techniques I discuss in my writing classes as well as trying to put into words what makes a wine like Stag’s Leap Cask 23 so superlative.  The story will be coming out in the February or March issue. Please let me know what you think!

 

Tagged with: , , ,

Jade-green Diablo Lake

Jade-green Diablo Lake in the foreground with Colonial and Pyramid peaks in the background.

I just returned from teaching my class, The Spirit of Place: Writing about the Outdoors. The writing class took place at the environmental learning center of the North Cascades Institute, located on Diablo Lake, a jade-green jewel right off Highway 20, set amid the summits of Colonial and Pyramid peaks and Sourdough Mountain. It was a glorious time to visit, with warm and sunny weather and views spreading out in all directions.

We made a lot of progress in the three-day writing class, starting with a story idea and finishing with a 1,000 word piece of outdoor writing. The students produced some excellent stories. It didn’t hurt that the first day included a short hike to a waterfall for inspiration and possible material for a story. On the way back, several students spotted a black bear running through the forest, provoking gasps, shrieks and furious writing in notebooks.

The hike provided fodder for some of the stories, with others drawn from previous experiences. Students then completed a draft and revised their leads and nut graphs, a task many of them didn’t believe was possible in so short a time.

Students at Waterfall

Mark Smaalders and other students at the waterfall, gathering material for their stories.

I love teaching writing classes in these circumstances. The surroundings provided lots of inspiration with few distractions (no cell phone reception), allowing students to make a lot of progress. Here’s what some of them had to say about the writing class:

When I read the 3-day outdoor writing class syllabus and saw the goals of writing 150 words on our story the first night, then 1,000 pages by the end of the 2nd day, I was definitely intimidated. What if I have writer’s block? What will I write about? I don’t have a writing background. And here it is the 3rd morning and I have a 1,200 word story! Your structure, examples and calm demeanor have been immensely helpful. I’m grateful and feel invigorated to go write.
Jack McLeod

Nick never overwhelmed me. Goals were challenging, to very attainable. He provided me just the right amount of structure and support that allow me to create a draft that was far more satisfying than my expectations. The feeling of accomplishment at 9:30 on the second day of the writing class, when I completed the first draft of my piece was extraordinary. Nick got me there with a smile.
Rick Severn, Spokane

Sitting in a room of fellow writers, teachers, readers, and nature lovers is always a great regenerator of the spirit. The food was great, beautiful and efficient facility, friendly staff, and the location??? Come see for yourself.
Tom Matlack, Lake Stevens/Granite Falls

Nick gently pushes you to challenge yourself. Just what I needed.
Candice Munson, Bellingham

A skillfully taught writing course in a wonderful setting—with good food
—Margaret Jahn, Bellingham

Nick is a very impressive natural outdoors man and accomplished writer. He also balances the excitement of capturing the outdoor experience with his love of international cuisine, travel and regional historic culture. As a teacher, he was very approachable and able to help me look at the importance of bringing humor and voice to descriptive nonfiction piece of writing. I would recommend this class to anyone who likes the challenge of writing.
Linda, Federal Way School District

Thanks for the tips on non-fiction writing. The hike to find a story was a great idea.
-Tanya, Woodinville

A dynamic group, blissful surroundings and spirited discussions with Nick provided just the impetus necessary to encourage us all to learn and write.
-Alison – West Richland

You’re a Renaissance man, Nick! A lot comes to the table with you besides your excellent teaching skill. Thanks for a well-designed writing program that fit the time allotted and challenged me. Also, thanks for sharing your work with your book, On Sacred Ground in the evening presentation. Sincere thanks!
Siri Bardarson-Whidbey Island

Tagged with: , ,

Punching Down the Cap

Here I am punching down the cap on our bodacious Ciel du Cheval syrah, a monster wine destined for greatness.

Taking a break from writing and teaching, I spent the past fall fermenting our cabernet, merlot and syrah. It’s physical work, but very rewarding, allowing me to get in touch with my inner winemaker. We buy most of our grapes from Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain in Eastern Washington. These are some of the best grapes in the state; two wines rated 100 by Robert Parker came out of the same vineyard. As long as I do my job, the eventual wine will be superb. My winemaking partner Tom Remmers and I share winemaking duties and our crew of Les Copains volunteers does a fantastic job of helping us our with crushing, pressing, fermenting and finally bottling. It provides a good break from more cerebral activities like writing and teaching, and allows me to experience winemaking from the ground up.

Tagged with: , ,

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson with the steep, rocky Grand Reve Vineyard in the background.

The most exciting new vineyard in Washington could easily be mistaken for a rock quarry. Perched on the side of Red Mountain–perhaps the premier site for red wine grapes in the state–Grand Rêve (big dream in French) slants down a steep, rocky, wind-blasted slope, looking more like a rock garden than a vineyard. Littered with shattered volcanic boulders, cactus and tumbleweeds, the vineyard has proven very difficult to establish, but likely will yield some of the some of the richest syrah, mourvedre and Grenache in the state.

Despite the unusual appearance, Grand Rêve resembles the best terroir in the world. It looks like a combination of Chateauneuf du Pape and the northern Rhone, the rocky cobbles of Chateauneuf tilted on their side, recalling the extraordinary vineyards of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, home of Guigal, Chapoutier, some of the biggest names in French wine-making.

Co-owner Ryan Johnson gave me a tour of Grand Rêve in September when I came over to pick up merlot grapes from Ciel du Cheval for our Les Copains Winery. As much as I enjoy writing about travel, food and wine, there’s nothing like participating in the process to bring home the romance and frenetic intensity of the crush. It’s this kind of first-hand research that yields the freshest, most detailed stories, a point I make in my writing classes, and one which came back to me again as we climbed over the basaltic rocks and cobbles of the vineyard.

“It’s hard to farm but very promising,” said Johnson, who is also the vineyard manager of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, one of the premier sites on Red Mountain. He co-owns Grand Rêve with Paul McBride and knows the soils of Red Mountain like few others, having grown grapes there for 10 vintages while also managing Cadence Cara Mia, Galitzine Estate, and DeLille Grand Ciel vineyards, a who’s who of Washington winemaking. He is most excited about his improbable new vineyard.

“We can raise the bar for Red Mountain and Washington State,” he said confidently, citing the unique character of Grand Rêve. The 13-acre vineyard contains 34 parcels, with nine different soil types. Before he started planting, Johnson dug 57 soil pits, trying to figure out exactly what to plant, seeking to match varietals and clones to the individual lots. What he found astonished him: layers of volcanic ash in one parcel, silt over limestone in another, volcanic rocks mixed with silt in yet another—a dizzying variety of terroirs, likely to produce an incredible variety of grapes—if he could only cultivate it.

“It was a lot of work,” said Johnson, of one parcel nick-named El Terror. “The plants were put in with a pick axe and crowbar.”

Walking through the vineyard is more like a rock scramble than a walk, but it’s exactly the kind of ground I visited in May at famed Vieux Telegraphe in Chateauneuf du Pape, where I will return next spring to teach my annual Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class. Such rocky soils yield the tastiest syrah, mourvedre, and Grenache.

Grand Rêve will produce its first fruit next year, with wine to follow shortly, but you can get a hint of what’s in store with the Grand Rêve “Collaboration Series” wines available in limited quantities via mailing list, and through a select number of Puget Sound retailers and restaurants. The Grand Rêve tasting room is located at 12514 130th Lane NE in Kirkland, Washington. (susan@grandrevevintners.com, 425-549-0123).

This collaboration series contains fruit for some of the best sites on Red Mountain, and will whet the appetite for the wild, vertical world of Grand Rêve. Several years ago, Johnson tasted a McCrea Cellars pure Grenache and was blown away by it, inspiring him to make a similar 100-percent varietal from the highest, rockiest parcel on the site.

“It’s a quest,” he admitted as we got back to his pick up. “It’s my Holy Grail.”

The Big Dream is becoming a reality.

Tagged with: , , , ,