Seattle Writing Class Explores Memoir Writing

Seattle Writing Class
MFK Fisher and Seattle Writing Classes.

My winter Seattle Writing Class, Follow the Story, will explore a number of writing genres, including memoir writing. 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? These are some of the topics we’ll discuss in my Seattle Writing Class.

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 Writing Memoirs   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.

For more on memoir and other genres, please consider signing up for my Seattle Writing Class, Follow the Story.

Restaurant exemplifies ideal of Travel Writing Classes

Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes
In my Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes I love to visit restaurants like the Sooke Harbour House, where I had the pleasure of dining with my family.

In my Travel Writing Classes, I love to visit restaurants with a strong sense of place.

Though European restaurants often exhibit this connection with place, North American restaurants are making this a priority, too.

Thus, it was a great pleasure to visit Sooke Harbour House on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It was one of the first restaurants to place a strong emphasis on local foods, a natural outgrowth of its location on a beautiful inlet, with access to abundant local seafood, meats, and an extensive flower and produce garden.

I have been wanting to visit Sooke Harbor for years and finally got the chance this summer with my family. We sat outside in the sunshine at a table overlooking the sea, with the Olympic Mountains in the distance. I ordered the delicious charcuterie plate, which came with a side of wonderful figs and local produce. My children, not easily impressed by fancy food, agreed that the fish, soup and ice cream were some of the best they’d  ever enjoyed. My wife, Lisa, raved about the plum dessert.

Everything was perfectly prepared, with a light touch and the freshest of ingredients. The amiable waiter even made our dog, Stella, feel at home. It was everything I had expected and more. As is the case with the restaurants I visit for the Travel Writing Classes, the place reflects the philosophy and practice of the owners.

The Sooke Harbour House has been owned by Frederique and Sinclair Philip since 1979. Sinclair Philip is the Canadian representative to Slow Food in Italy and some years ago was a Slow Food Vancouver Island Convivium leader. Mr. Philip has a doctorate in political economics from the University of Grenoble in France.

The restaurant reflects this heritage, taking cues from French, Japanese and  Northwest Indian cuisine. If you have a chance to visit, don’t miss it!

Nut Graph and Angle: Keys to Strong Openings


The nut graph is the context paragraph, the place where you orient the reader, making clear the circumstances of the story and what it means. Nut graphs are used with all leads. It’s crucial to include such a paragraph in every story, otherwise the reader can quickly become confused, especially in stories with a scenic opening. Here’s how to write a great nut graph:

  1. Make sure to answer all the questions that haven’t been answered in the lead—Who? What? When Where? Why? How? You can leave the how for the rest of the story but the other questions need to be answered.
  2. Why is the most important question to answer. Don’t neglect it. Make sure that the reader understands why the story is important. Give the reason for its significance. “Sell” the story to the readers. Make a case for why they should read it.


Getting the right angle is the key to writing compelling stories of all kinds. Without a strong angle, your story will ramble along through a jungle of prose without any clear path or direction. Readers confronting such meanderings will lose heart; few will want to hack their way through the luxuriant undergrowth to find the story’s meaning. Make it easy on them. Figure out the angle in advance and make sure your story supports and illustrates it.

  1. Find one aspect of the story to highlight. In a profile choose one aspect of the subject’s personality to bring to the fore. What larger trend does their life illustrate? What is unique and distinctive about him or her? You want the best angle, the most interesting aspect of the life to highlight.
  2. What is the larger point you want to make? This is often related to the angle. What idea should the reader take from the story? What do you want the reader to learn?

These are just two of the topics I’ll address in my fall Seattle writing class, Revising Your Life.

Summary Leads: The Quickest and Easiest Way to Open a Story


These leads allow you to get to the point of your story quickly and easily. The trick is to make them appealing as well. Writers using summary leads often employ wordplay or humor to liven them up.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens

“The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed that “Hell is other people.” And he worked from home. Imagine if he had been one of the millions of us who are forced to navigate the psychic minefields of the modern corporation.”

From a book review in the Wall Street Journal, 4/4/06 by Martin Kihn.

Normally, the milk of human kindness doesn’t leave a sour taste. Unless, that is, you happen to be a Northerner taking too big a gulp of Southern hospitality.

From the Wall Street Journal, 10/29/96, by Eleena De Lisser of which discusses the reception Northerner’s get when moving to the South.

This lead works because it puts a surprising twist on what normally would be a cliché (ie. the milk of human kindness). In this way, it intrigues and appeals to the reader, encouraging the reader to find out just what she means by all this. The second line introduces in summary fashion the subject of the story.

De Lisser then introduces a quote which backs up and further explains the lead:

“It’s the most irritating thing I can think of,” complains Diane Kuhn, an ex-New Yorker now living in Nashville, Tenn., referring to the South’s idea of highway hospitality. “Drivers will let 12 cars” enter their lane, she says. “I say you let one in. Maybe. If you’re in a good mood.”

Then De Lisser moves to the nut graph, which introduces the larger issue:

For the most part, the North these days can’t seem to get enough of the South–its music, its cooking, its John Grisham (of Oxford, Miss.) A lot of Northerners are coming on down.

She then goes on to explain that the Northerners don’t appreciate the social courtesies of Southerners. Such a topic would confound most newspaper journalists, but De Lisser handles it with deftness, humor and aplomb.

I’ll be discussing summary leads and other ways of opening a story in my fall writing class, Revising Your Life.

Phillip Lopate Speaks About First Person Writing

Anyone who has laughed out loud while reading Against Joie de Vivre by Phillip Lopate would have enjoyed his talk on Feb. 27 at the AWP Conference in Seattle. He credited Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground as an important early influence. He says of his writing, “I was not a great thinker but I enjoy contrarianism and have the desire to do some mischief in writing.”Check out his personal essays. They are some of the funniest and most insightful around.