Memoir Writing: Getting Unstuck

It happens to every would-be memoir writer: your words somehow just stop flowing. Or maybe, despite good intentions, they never get started.

So you keep telling your kids you’ll get those family stories on paper. You ogle memoir books in the library and your local history museum. But when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper or computer screen, a dozen urgent tasks popped up to drag you away, every time. Like . . . polishing the top of the fridge.

It’s oh-so-understandable and utterly common! But what do you do about it?! How do you go from “wannabe” memoir writer to “here’s my book”?

Even “bad” times make great memoir fodder!

Let’s start with what not to do:  Don’t kick yourself. Guilt won’t help you get words onto paper.

Here are three tips to try, starting right now, to help get your memoir launched and off to a running start:

(1)  Pull out your calendar.  That’s right — make a date with yourself and pencil “memoir time” in. Pick a day, pick a time, and block out half an hour. Just half an hour is enough to get you off to a rolling start! And here’s the magic kicker: before that first writing session ends, pencil in another date for your very next writing session. Things written down on a calendar tend to “happen,” especially when the commitment isn’t overwhelming (like half an hour). Before you know it, those memoir pages will start to add up!

(2)  Give yourself permission to start in the middle.  Some people had totally fascinating childhoods. But often our memories as a five-year-old aren’t the ones we most want to get down on paper.  Don’t get stuck thinking you have to write about your life chronologically. It’s okay to start with your most interesting stories — the ones you really want to write. You can always go back and fill in the backstory parts later.

Do you have happy memories of someone special?

(3)  Use prompts when you get stuck.  Talking with a friend, relative, or caring acquaintance about your life can often help get memories rolling again. It can also be helpful to hear what someone else wants to learn about. Ask that person to listen and ask you questions. Examples of helpful question “prompts” that can spur your writing on include:

When did you feel most special or proud?

Who was your favorite relative, and what is your happiest memory of them?

What was the first job for which you actually got paid?

What helped you survive the toughest times of your life?

I’d love to hear about your real-life struggles with memoir-writing! Leave me a comment below and I’ll try to include suggestions in future blog posts.

 

 

 

Walt Monroe Exhibit

 

Alpine County artist Walt Monroe was born in the tiny mining town of Monitor in 1881. His artistic talent became evident quite early when he began sketching murals in chalk on the schoolhouse walls at the old Webster School.

Monroe home in Markleeville. Walt was born in Monitor, the first of 8 children, and the family later moved to Markleeville.

At the age of 17, Walt had his first exhibit of wooden carvings. “In Markleeville, Alpine County, California lives a boy by the name of Walter Monroe. He is a genius in his way,” reported the Nevada Appeal in 1898. “There is on exhibition at the Briggs House some very superior hand carvings of horses and dogs done by this young life. His perfect work is done with a jack knife.”

Monroe paintings.

As an adult Walt lived a bit of a nomad’s life, roaming the mountains on foot or astride  his motorcycle, with painting gear tucked in a specially-equipped sidecar.  He traveled and painted from Bishop to Mount Hood, Oregon and as far east as the Great Lakes, sometimes trading his art work for gas or lodging. Perpetually low on funds, his canvas could be a scrap of cardboard, the back of a metal sign, or a wooden box lid.

But Alpine County was always Walt’s home base, and he returned here frequently. His paintings include many scenes of Alpine life including the old homestead at Grover’s Hot Springs and the peaceful vista at Blue Lake. Walt died July 13, 1945 of Hodgkin’s Disease, and is buried at the Merrill Cemetery.

Today, Walt is finally being recognized as the fine artist he was, and his paintings are becoming more and more sought-after by collectors. One of his works was recently discovered in a local antique store and snapped up for just $40 from a seller who didn’t recognize Monroe’s name.

Interest to see Walt’s paintings for yourself? A very special exhibit of Walt Monroe paintings has been assembled by the Alpine County Historical Society, and is on display at the Alpine County Museum through August 31, 2017. Although some works are part of the Historical Society’s permanent collection, other paintings were kindly lent by local owners just for this special event.

For more information, contact the Alpine County Museum at (530) 694-2317.

 

 

Six Tips for Memoir Writers

We all have great stories to tell . . .

We all have wonderful stories to tell! But memoir-writing can open up parts of yourself that you’ve long kept sealed. No wonder it’s so easy to put off!

If you have a memoir inside that’s struggling to get written, here are six tips to help get your life story down on paper:

1.  Start with the easy stuff. What could be easier? Jot down the basics: birth date and birth place; names of parents, grandparents, siblings. You might find stories popping up as you do this — if so, great! Make a list of those stories, and keep writing!

2.  Think happy. Who was your best friend in grade school? What were your favorite foods as a kid, and who prepared them? What music did you love? Happy memories are usually a great way to get words flowing!

3.  Go big-picture.  Step back for a second and think about world events that affected your life. Have you lived through wars, recessions, gas shortages? Did you watch the first man touch the moon, or the Twin Towers fall? What big-picture events happened in your lifetime, and how were you swept up in them?

A book grows by chapters. But you don’t have to write them in order.

4.  Remember decision-points. Everyone reaches a fork in the road at some time in his or her life. What tough decisions did you have to make, and how did you make them? (These stories can be some of the most fascinating parts of a memoir!)

5.  Go ahead, jump around. One of the biggest traps for memoir writers is the (totally understandable) effort to write chronologically. But memory doesn’t work that way. Go ahead, let your imagination jump around! Write whatever memory comes into your head and says “write me.” You can always sort your stories into better order later. That’s what word-processing (or a three-ring binder) is for!

6.  Welcome writers’ block. Yes, I really said that. Writers’ block happens to us all, and it’s one of the biggest gifts in our toolbox. When something is really, truly important but you haven’t quite processed it yet, your subconscious won’t let it out onto paper. Realize when you’ve hit one of those “big ones.” Be gentle, but keep coming back to it. Often if you can figure out exactly what the hang-up is (fear of failure? not knowing how to do something?), that fresh insight alone will re-open the writing door.

Like more helpful tips on writing a memoir? Get the LifeStory Workbook here!

A workbook can help keep you going.

#amwriting

#memoir

Bootleg Liquor

The tax man had a ready pencil.

Back in the 1860s, young Alpine County slapped fees on just about every article and activity. Would-be voters ponied up $2 in poll tax for the privilege of casting their ballot. There was a broker’s license; a license to sell merchandise; a theater license; a peddler’s license; and a license for keeping billiard tables.

On top of it all were hefty property taxes, which were imposed on all sorts of assets. A lawyer’s law library? Taxed. County scrip (that IOU when the County couldn’t pay you in gold)?  Taxed.  Cows, chickens, horses, and wagons all were taxed too. Pretty much anything of value became prey for the tax man’s eager pencil, including — wait for it — dogs.

Saloons did a thriving business.

With the abundance of saloons hard at work fueling early Alpine County miners, liquor licenses became an especially lucrative revenue source for county government. In one quarter of 1867, for example, liquor license revenue was 50% higher than the license fees collected from merchandise sellers.

Distilleries, too, were supposed to pay a county license fee. Not surprisingly, bootleg operations quickly flourished.

In 1869, rumors began to swirl about an underground liquor operation in Fredericksburg. “All search for its whereabouts proved unavailing”  — until a suspicious fire broke out in 1870 in a vacant house owned by Mrs. Woodford. “The whole establishment was thus unearthed, but the guilty parties have not yet been detected by the revenue officers,” the Chronicle chuckled, “and probably never will be.”

Bootleg liquor was a way to make ends meet during Prohibition.

Secret stills reappeared in Alpine County during Prohibition years, artfully concealed in local barns. Once again, Fredericksburg seems to have been a center for this illicit activity.

For local ranchers, bootlegging likely meant economic survival. “Almost every one of these ranchers on Foothill Road had a still in their barn during Prohibition,” recalls one rancher’s grandson. “My grandfather refused to do it, and we’re the only ones that went broke!”

Want to read more tales from early Alpine history? You can order our books, Silver Mountain City: Ghost of the Sierra and Driving Tour of Woodfords, Diamond Valley & Fredericksburg here!

 

What Killed Miami’s First Doctor?

At first he thought it was the ice collars.

When Dr. James Jackson developed breathing trouble in 1923, he didn’t think much about it. He had long been in the practice of wearing an ice collar in the operating room to stay cool in the Miami heat. He brushed his symptoms off as pneumonia.

Dr. James Jackson

Dr. Jackson had been practicing in Miami since 1896, when the fledgling settlement was only a few streets wide. Luckily for Miami, he stayed on — becoming the town’s first physician and jack-of-all medical specialties. He delivered babies; set broken bones; treated ulcers, boils and heart troubles. It was Jackson who ran the “sanitary watch” over Miami in 1899 when the town was quarantined for yellow fever, conducting house-to-house inspections for the disease. He also became the official physician for the luxurious Royal Palm Hotel, treating its guests when needed.

The lavish Royal Palm Hotel, circa 1901.
Hippodrome on right; Halcyon Hotel on the left.

By 1923, Dr. Jackson was still seeing patients at his office on Twelfth Street, although now in the newly-built Hippodrome building. He also was actively engaged in helping plan for a new City Hospital. But Jackson wouldn’t live long enough to see the new facility open.

That winter he began losing weight. A trip to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore diagnosed him with a fungal infection of the lung, and he was treated with intravenous infusions of mercurochrome. This heavy-duty “cure,” Jackson found, left him feeling worse than the disease, and he soon discontinued treatment.

On April 2, 1924, he died at home in Miami. In a gesture of universal mourning, the city’s mayor ordered all Miami businesses closed two days later, so that citizens could attend Dr. Jackson’s funeral. None other than William Jennings Bryan delivered his eulogy.

Less than a week after Jackson died, the city commissioners voted to rename the future hospital the “James M. Jackson Memorial Hospital.” The resolution passed unanimously.

Book from Clairitage Press about Dr. Jackson, Miami’s first physician.

Like to read more about Dr. Jackson and Miami’s early days? Check out the new book about him here!

#Miami

#Florida

#History

#DadeHeritageTrust

 

 

Carson Valley Civil War Vet

Chambers Lane, a rural road at the southern end of Carson Valley, is just a place name these days. But it once was an early Alpine County homestead, owned by Civil War veteran Thomas Armstrong Chambers.

Thomas Chambers

Born in St. Lawrence, New York in 1837, Chambers (like so many young men) became swept up in the turmoil of the Civil War. He joined the 6th New York Heavy Artillery as a private, probably in response to President Lincoln’s urgent call in August, 1862 for “300 more” patriots to help defend the Union. According to a fellow member of that unit, “there were no bounties offered as an inducement to enlist, and it is safe to say that patriotism is the only motive that brought this body together in defense of our country’s cornerstone, the Constitution.”

6th Heavy Artillery camped at Maryland Heights, 1863.

Chambers’ heavy artillery unit was trained to fire large canon, and for much of the war was stationed as a defensive force near Washington D.C. But in the spring of 1864, the group was reorganized as an infantry force assigned to the Army of the Potomac. Thereafter the unit fought in such notable battles as Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, and won military acclaim for their “gallant conduct” at the Battle of Harris Farm in May, 1864. Chambers himself was promoted during the war from private to Second Sergeant.

When the war was over in 1865, Chambers returned home to New York, where he married Margaret Morgan about 1866. They eventually had a total of nine offspring, including a pair of identical twins, Myron and Byron.

The family came west about 1873, settling first in the early mining town of Monitor, where the Chambers children attended school. Chambers worked as a carpenter. In 1892, he homesteaded a 160-acre ranch along the country road that soon took his name, Chambers Lane. A devoted member of the local community, Chambers became one of the founders of the Fredericksburg Cemetery Society, helping the Society to acquire its cemetery land in 1891 from Frederick Bruns and serving as the organization’s first president.

Chambers suffered from “consumption” (tuberculosis) acquired during his military service. “They said you could hear the entire company coughing,” a descendant noted. For this combat-related infirmity, he was granted a Civil War pension of $12 per month in 1882.

Beautiful wrought iron gate and fencing surround the Chambers plot.

When he passed away in 1912, Chambers was buried inside a beautiful wrought iron fence at his family plot in the Fredericksburg Cemetery. His wife, Maggie, was later laid to rest beside him, along with three of their children: Myron, Byron, and Ella.

Thomas and Margaret Chambers are buried here. Someone has thoughtfully marked his grave with a flag for the Fourth of July!
Thomas Chambers’ headstone

Today when you hear the place name “Chambers Lane,” we hope you’ll remember this proud veteran and Alpine County pioneer. And if you happen to visit, his Civil War headstone is the earliest military marker in the Fredericksburg Cemetery.

Like to read more stories about the early settlers who are buried at the Fredericksburg Cemetery? Check out our Walking Tour book here! (it’s the fifth book on that page.)

#CivilWar

#Cemeteries

#AlpineCounty

#Markleeville

 

 

Key in the Tree

You gotta love it when you stumble across a mystery. Especially two mysteries in one day.

Key in the tree.

On a recent drive up Highway 4 we found an old key, firmly embedded in the trunk of a tree. Just a guess, but it’s probably been there at least 50 years — long enough for the tree to almost completely envelop the body of the key. Who could have left it? What did that key once unlock? And why leave it stuck in a tree in the forest?

As luck would have it, another nearby tree trunk also caught our attention. This one bore blaze marks, possibly flagging the original old trail prior to modern Highway 4. What pathfinder left this mark? And how long ago?

Such great mysteries for future explorers to puzzle over!

 

Tree at top of the pass on Hwy 4, about two miles west of Kinney Reservoir.

Markleeville: Ghost in the Admin Building?

There’ve been a few ghostly rumors about the county Administration building in Markleeville. Today’s parking lot once was the site of an old house, built by Alvin Grover around 1899. Even back then Grover’s house wasn’t exactly new; it was constructed from lumber from an old schoolhouse that used to sit in the abandoned mining town of Monitor.

Although Grover’s house is long gone, according to several folks who’ve worked in the new Admin building, something never quite left. Some employees claim a mysterious “cold chill” occasionally swept through their offices. Others say they’ve heard footsteps late in the evening when the building should be empty, or saw doors close all by themselves. Most eyebrow-raising of all:  after one long weekend, workers returned to find the date on the postage machine had somehow managed to reset itself — back to 1929.

If there is a ghost, it apparently resided in the old Grover home long before demolition made way for today’s modern structure in the 1970s. One Markleeville native who remembers visiting the old Grover house as a child recalled seeing the ghostly image of a woman sitting on an upstairs bed, hair tied up in a bun, and wearing an old-fashioned high-collared blouse and long skirt.

Some speculate that the County’s ghostly resident was a lady known as Mary Gray, a diligent public servant for many years. Born in 1874, Mary served as the county’s Clerk/Auditor/Recorder, and owned and lived in the old Grover home in the 1920s. Although she sold the house to another Markleeville family long before it was demolished, it still belonged to Gray in that magical year of 1929.

 

#Markleeville #ghoststory

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Fiddletown Ghost

If this eerie Victorian doesn’t have a ghost, it should. Now tantalizingly rundown, this hauntingly beautiful Gothic Revival home was built in the gold rush town of Fiddletown around 1861.

Gold miner with pick and shovel.

No one seems to know who originally owned the house, but in later years it belonged to miner Isaac Cooper — a man with a Midas touch. Cooper first came to California with other eager gold-seekers in 1849 and, unlike many of his fellow prospectors, actually did quite well. Also unlike his compatriots, Cooper took his profits and ran — right back to Iowa, where he invested in real estate and soon became a Polk County civic leader.

But mining was still in Cooper’s blood. In 1875 he returned to Gold Country and purchased this amazing Victorian home. He also invested money in a mine located just outside of town, which proved to be yet another smart move: this mine reportedly produced a quick $3,000 in the 1890s with just a few days’ work.

Eerily, the glorious old house caught fire in 1975, exactly a century after Cooper purchased it. Although the home was partially destroyed, it has since been rebuilt.

You can find this beautiful and ghostly old home in Fiddletown at the corner of Main Street and American Flat Road, still looking as if it has secrets to tell.

Grapes

Our journey into vineyard-dom began just a week ago. A dozen baby grapevines finally made it out of the greenhouse and into the soil. And boy, were they ready!

Just planted.

So were the bunny rabbits, unfortunately. Most of the lower leaves disappeared that very first night as bunny salad. A quick trip to the hardware store for rabbit fence put an end to the Chez Cottontail Deli. But losing so many tender sprouts was depressing nonetheless.

Tendrils already hanging on.

Fast-forward just one week to more encouraging news: several of the newly-planted twigs have already grown an amazing six inches and managed to wrap their tendrils neatly around the horizontal wire! One week. Go figure!

Pretty soon we’ll have grapes in earnest, as we already do in the mature arbor. Bunnies, eat your heart out.

Mature Himrod vine