River Walk

by Laura Thomas

As spring advances, the temperatures are finally coming up. The snows are melting as the sun warms the earth, and it makes one feel like it’s time to be out of doors and enjoy the day. We decide it’s time to go for a walk to enjoy the sunshine, the fresh smells on the crisp winds that are still present this early in the year. The walk we choose to go on was following the Tobacco River.

As we walk along, the sounds of spring are all around. The birds that have returned are adding their voice of gladness to the day. The river is also talking, now that the grip of ice is gone from it. We move along the trail, looking for a way down to the river banks, “There is one”, says my love. At the bottom of the path we find a small tributary of the river that is off the main waterway and looking closer, we could see the telltale signs of beaver and muskrats.  Suddenly, two Canadian geese fly up in front of us. I think they were as surprised to see us as we were them. “Hey that’s what a camera is for,” my love teases me. “Oh right”, I say as I and try to get a picture only to discover the battery is dead.  We both laugh and I say, “Better bring an extra battery next time”.

We follow this small tributary, and then come out to the main river. “There, look,” my love says and points down the way, “There are the geese we scared, along with some ducks swimming on the river.”  We stand there quietly on the bank, for some time, taking in all the sounds. The river’s flow is faster here and a sound arises as it moves to its destination. The birds chime in, and with the wind moving the trees, it makes for a beautiful melody. The wind also brushes against our cheeks, flushing them pink from its chill as the sun warms our backs. “Oh did you hear that?” says my love as we look at each other.  An owl hoots.  “Yes”, I say excitedly, “There it is again, we must be near its nest”. We start back towards the main trail as the owl hoots several more times. This is a special treat, to hear the owl, on an already wonderful outing.

Look Down the Tobacco River

What Is Autobiographical Fiction?

By Mary Frances Erler

I’ve been on a quest to learn the answer to this question for several years now.  It started with an idea to put down the story of my life so my children could learn about what it was like to grow up in a world before cell phones, computers, or even color television.  To my disappointment, they weren’t interested.  In fact, I began to realize that reality is not as exciting as fiction, at least for the writer.  (Montana Women Writers member Marsha Sultz wrote an interesting blog on this which was posted on this site on December 13, 2021.)

As I read Marsha’s blog, I knew I had come across the same problem.  As a fiction writer, I needed to craft my story in order to build the plot and develop exciting character arcs.  I didn’t want to bore myself, for then I knew I would certainly be boring my readers.

The more I looked into some of my favorite authors’ works, the more I found they had similar outcomes.  For example, Laura Ingalls Wilder in her “Little House” books changed sequences of some of her key life events, left out parts that didn’t meet her goal of depicting the westward expansion of the 19th century in what was then called “The Manifest Destiny” of America.

Another author I rediscovered was Walter Wangerin, Jr., best known for “The Book of the Dun Cow”, an allegorical fantasy.  In many of his books, he also drew on reality, including memories of his childhood. Yet he made sure from the start that his readers knew he had “conflated”(merged and combined) some events and characters, in order to better depict the “deeper truth” the story required.  In other words, he was more concerned with the overriding universal themes of life than with a factual account of events.

A fellow writer, Glenn Schiffman* of Authors of the Flathead, suggested I read a book by Alexander Chee entitled “How to Write Autobiographical Fiction.”  Despite the title, this book is a collection of essays, not a how-to book.  Yet, I did learn more about autobiographical fiction from it.  For one thing, Chee says that he can convey the truth better in fiction than in memoir.  To quote Chee, “The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in real life.”

To summarize, this is what I’ve learned so far:

  1. There is a fine line between memoir and autobiographical fiction, but there IS a line.  Memoir deals with actual events, whereas fiction is not limited in this way.
  2. In a sense, everything an author writes is seen through the lens of his or her personal experiences, so one could say that everything is autobiographical in a sense.  The way one person interprets an event is always filtered through his or her own values.  Objectivity is a hard thing to come by, especially in our modern relativistic world.
  3. Even in memoir, the writer can choose what to include or leave out.
  4. For some, fiction is a better way to communicate “deeper truths”.  In my own experience, there have been scenes I’ve written exactly as they happened, which readers tell me are “unrealistic.”  Thus, I’ve had to fictionalize in order to make something more “true-to-life.”

Writing autobiographical fiction seems to fit me better as a writer.  It permits me to weave the story as I felt and experienced it, which may require introspection and creativity on my part to make it “realistic.”  Sometimes, just recording the fact of what actually happened doesn’t go far enough to communicate the true meaning of a given experience to me.

Next month, I will explore the idea of fictionalized memoir. Another area with a fine line dividing it from other genres.

*One final note, Glenn Schiffman is teaching a class this spring at FVCC: “Writing Autobiographical Fiction” on Wednesdays, 6-8 PM, beginning April 6.  I plan to be there, because I still have more to learn about this genre.

A Bucket of Buttons

By Laura Thomas

Memories are stirred as I gaze at the button collection that was once my grandmother’s. While they are not a valuable treasure anyone else, they are a treasure nonetheless to me. For in my mind’s eye I remember not the joy those buttons brought to me, but also memories of my grandparents and of the land I called home. I grew up in Southern Idaho, a desert country full of sagebrush cactus and farming country. This land was brought to life by the canals that brought water, dug not only by shovel and man but of horse power. These canals were and are the life blood of the area and the people that came as pioneers to this arid land, full of promise and cheap land.

My roots run deep in this country, for my grandparents, both maternal and paternal had come as early settlers, forging a path for others to come, to make Idaho one of the top potato producing regions. My father’s father was instrumental in the construction of the canals, working with his shovel and teams of horses, to make not only farming possible but to support his family as well. By the time I came along, my Father’s parents were retired from the farm and living in town.  However, my Mothers parents were still on the farm. Their farm consisted of ten acers, down from what they had originally bought. Here they not only raised pigs, but bought and sold baby dairy cattle. Grandma also had her menagerie of fowl: chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and her prized peacocks, beautiful birds with all the colors a peacock is known for.

Their house, the original home was comprised of only two bedrooms and one bath, a small kitchen and main room. In later years, my grandparents would add a family room, added as a log cabin to the main house. I remember this room as a gathering place for the family and watching TV, a rare treat. This was a large room with an upstairs room to sleep in. Here we kids slept with the window open, not only bringing in cool air, but also the lonely cries of the coyotes out on the desert. The family room was also where she kept her bucket of buttons, they served a purposes, to be serviceable and for her grandchildren to play with.

We spent a lot of time out at our grandparents’ farm and while all of us kids, seven in total, have different memories, I remember always loving the farm. I got to help feed the baby calves, and taught them to drink from a bucket, their warm, moist but rough tongue on my fingers as they sucked the milk. The rides on the hay wagon as grandpa fed the pigs–and boy were they big pigs, as I recall. Now maybe it was because I was much smaller at the time, but I remember grandpas words, “Don’t get into the pens with the pigs, they are mean!” While I took this as serious, I was allowed to go into the sows pens as they gave birth to their young, with my grandmother as she assisted the sow.I was fascinated by this whole  process, the baby pigs so tiny and pink, especially compared with their mom, and razor sharp teeth as I found out.

 As I gaze at the buttons, I also remember the porch where the runts of the litter were kept and bottle fed till they grew to a size to be back out with the rest. The activities of the family as we came together, for home grown meals and as grandmother canned or made her famous fruit cobbler; and of the general hustle and bustle that a small country kitchen holds as people gather, a family. My grandmother has since passed, yet the memories of my grandparents are alive, for I inherited the bucket of buttons and each time I see them, they take me back to not only my grandparent’s farm, but to my childhood.

The Power of Gifts

by Fran Tabor

We are inundated with occasions to give gifts, from religious holidays to social milestones to be celebrated. It seems we are inundated with excuses to go shopping for things to give; things too soon forgotten. Can gifts make a difference?

Yes, sometimes a gift can change the world.

A popular gift for several centuries has been a diary. Even in today’s electronic age, diaries remain a popular gift.

Diaries figure prominently in movies and are often a source of instant humor when the “bratty younger brother” sneaks forbidden peaks at his older sister’s romantic imaginings. Diaries have given us insights into history not possible through other sources. James Boswell’s Diary of London Life is a famous example.

Nearly a century ago, a diary was given to a very ordinary girl on the verge of womanhood – a girl who wondered if she were pretty enough to be a movie star, who wondered about the people around her, her nascent romantic musings. All this and more she shared with her special friend the diary.

She never lived to womanhood, but her diary became a part of the lives of many millions who took her words into their own journey from childhood to adulthood. The gift her family gave her, the gift of a diary, gave us the gift of understanding.

Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy. A million dead is a statistic.” Anne Frank’s diary turned the statistic of millions murdered into the single death of a very ordinary girl – a girl who could have been anyone’s treasured daughter, sister, neighbor…

Her diary was, is, a gift to the world.

What’s Your Theme for 2022?

By Barbara Schiffman

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote: ”There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

For some of us, 2021 was a year that asked many questions. I hope to get answers to at least some of those questions in 2022.

Actor John Wayne said: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life… It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.” I also believe we learn from our experiences and life lessons, if we’re paying attention.

Writing down my unanswered Questions and last year’s Lessons helps me notice the unifying thread or pattern that’s unfolding through my life. It often lets me determine a THEME for the past year which puts what occurred in a clearer perspective

As we move from 2021 to 2022, I invite you to do this as well. Notice whether your lingering Questions &/or recent Life Lessons reflect a Theme permeating 2021. Write down whatever comes to mind. Consider this the “working title” for the chapter you’ve just written in your personal Book of Life. Know that you can refine this Theme as the pattern of your 2021 experiences becomes even clearer in hindsight.

Since each new year gives us a fresh start and opportunities to do things differently, you can also consider how you want 2022 to feel as it begins and as it unfolds. Write down whatever phrase comes to mind as your “first draft” of 2022’s Theme.

My Year Themes often come from song or book titles. In 2011, my Year Theme was the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations.” It lifted my spirits, so I played it whenever I needed an energy boost or a reminder to stay positive no matter what was happening around me.

Themes can also be a blend of words embodying the feeling, energy, or “flavor” you’d like your year to contain. I prefer to create two or three-word phrases for this, choosing words that start with the same letter or have a similar sound, giving my Theme some rhythm or rhyme and making it easier to remember.

My 2012 Theme was “Delighted and Delicious!” When decisions, actions or opportunities arose for me that year, I’d notice if they made me feel “delighted” or “delicious” or both, and choose to take them — or not — accordingly.

At the beginning of 2013, the song “The Time of My Life” from the movie ‘Dirty Dancing’ suddenly began playing in my mind as I thought about the year ahead of me. I realized that was how I wanted to feel every day — like I’m having the Time of My Life. So it became my Theme Song for that year. I listened to several versions of it on iTunes and downloaded the Broadway show version because I could sing along to it easily. I played it in my car whenever I felt stuck. Just thinking of the song reminded me to notice how I was having the time of my life, and that my life was getting better all the time. (Another Theme Song for that year could also have been “It’s Getting Better All the Time” – thank you, Beatles!)

As I think about 2022, “(I’ll Get By) With a Little Help From My Friends” comes to mind – another Beatles classic. Maybe that can be my Theme for 2022?

Let your “inner muse” guide you to create the right Theme or Theme Song for your 2022. Feel free to share it with me at literasee@gmail.com.


This was adapted from my Kindle Vella “Ready Set Next: Embracing Your Past to Empower Your Future” – you can read the whole Vella at https://www.amazon.com/kindle-vella/story/B09BF1PMWT