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Issue 15-5

Self-Discovery: Memoir-Writing Lessons

I have often found myself commenting, “I don’t understand how people know who they are without being writers.” This is because much of my writing draws on personal experience; I often work out on the page the meaning of what has happened to me, what my relationship with God is becoming and the nature of my personal flaws and strengths. Frequently, more often than not, I discover sudden surprising understandings, personal self-revelations I would not have achieved without this lifetime of writing—some 25 books, countless broadcasts, hundreds of blogs, and for the last 15 years, this Soulish Food e-newsletter.

In the publishing field, this kind of writing is called the personal essay, the memoir genre, or more recently, narrative non-fiction. This genre is much, much more than the celebrity autobiography (often “written with” a professional writer). It is the common, everyday particular experience of ordinary people who discover and communicate extraordinary meaning from the events of their personal lives. In addition, the reader steps through the written pages into a universal understanding: This joy, this sorrow, this terror, this amazing achievement, this sweeping and grand love is also what I have known. I, the reader, am connected with the writer.

Memoir catches a moment and ponders its meaning on the page. It can be a travel journal—as long as it turns reflective, serious or hilarious. Memoir doesn’t attempt to capture the grand sweep of a whole life, though memoirs can be book-length (they can also be a few pages long, article length, or in a personal novella format, i.e., “The Summer I Turned Ten”). All memoirs invite the reader to come alongside the writer.

In brain science, this sudden empathy is called “attunement,” or another term might be “contingent communication.” We cry, identify with, love deeply and respond intensely to someone we have never met, but feel as though we know, really know.

Sarah-Jane Murray, in her TED Talk “Hardwired for Story,” explains how our brains light up with the same emotions as the protagonist; indeed, our responsive neural behavior mirrors the experience being told to us (or that we read). They’re scared, so are we; they’re angry, so are we. They’re victorious, so are we. She also notes that we’re 22 times more likely to remember something when it’s a story.

Briefly, here are some of the books in the memoir format that it has been my joy to discover, to read and to study:

* Saint Augustine’s Confessions * Mary Karr’s The Liars Club * Malcolm X’s The Autobiography * Thomas Merton’s Seven-Storey Mountain * Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes * M.F. Fisher’s The Art of Eating * Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem * Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Teaching a Stone to Talk * Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher * Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat * Peter Matthiesen’s The Snow Leopard * John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

For the last five years, it has been my joy to offer six cycles of teleconference writing classes. These classes meet twice a month and extend over seven months, enough time for me to develop a teaching/coaching methodology for various would-be memoirists with a variety of goals and with a range of writing experience. As usual, often the “coach” receives the most coaching. These friends (and we do become friends despite the fact we come from different geographic areas, have never met except over a teleconference line, and wouldn’t recognize one another on the street) have given to me rare gifts of learning.

These are some of the gifts I’ve received:

• I’ve been pushed to learn much more about the personal essay that goes way beyond what I, as one singular reader, could know in my solo journey. Trying to stay ahead of their learning curve, I’ve read more books on the genre than I knew existed.

• I’ve been able to journey with friends (some old and some new) through wondrous human dilemmas and delights (each incident reduced to 3-5 pages). I’ve laughed, been amazed, wept and caught my breath at the agony and ecstasy of what people endure and overcome and use as healing in the lives of others.

• These people, most of whom I have never met, have put their confidence in me as a guide as they wrestle to understand, to unknot and communicate their own life dilemmas of my attention; this is an honor to me that I try to worthily fulfill.

• Over each seven-month cycle, I experience the extraordinary and rare experience of watching the writing mature in all participants—even in those who do not aspire to publish but want mostly to leave a record of their lives for progeny. After the last teleconference call—we’ve been working together for at least five months—I said to my husband, “Oh, it feels so good. Everyone is progressing. What a joy to hear everyone becoming more confident in their growing writing voice!”

• I have been designing a mature learners’ curriculum, which I plan to offer to the Lifelong Learning Departments in local community colleges.

So here’s the deal: In January I will offer two memoir-writing courses going forward for seven months to this Soulish Food list and to my “friends” of some 5000 folk on my Facebook page.

Opportunity 1: Teleconference Memoir Class
One will be a teleconference course so that people from all over the States can participate. (Heads-up: We had trouble during last year’s cycle plugging Canadians in remote geographic areas into the teleconference system. If you want to join, we’ll do a teleconference test to see if you are in a compatible zone.)

There is room for eight people, time for me to coach two groups—four participants per group, and we will continue through August 2017. I must know your intentions by October 15 (before the holidays). At that time, a payment of $500 for the course must be made or a payment plan defined. To register, email Heather Ann Martinez, If you have further questions, contact me at Somehow, we find compatible meeting times and days after everyone has joined! This class will begin in January 2017.

Opportunity 2: Face-to-Face Memoir-Writing Class (November 2016 – July 2017)
The second class will be face-to-face meetings for those in the West Chicago, IL, area who would like to work on a memoir project they’ve had in mind, either outlined, or for which they’ve written some pieces.

This group will meet twice a month in my home. I will need a written description of your idea, or if you’ve read a memoir by someone who has stimulated your concept. I’d like to have an initial meeting in November, at which time you’ll make a written covenant with me, then convene twice a month starting in February. The fee for this will also be $500, to be paid in October. Register your intentions with Heather Ann Martinez, If you have questions, contact me at

Life being what it is, we will, of course, refund payments if unforeseen contingencies prevent you from participating. Usually, there is a waiting list, and we can advance someone else into the class to take a vacated spot.

The goal of our work together is learning to think on the page. In his book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, memoirist extraordinaire Phillip Lopate explains what he tells his graduate students at Columbia University: “What I mean by thinking on the page is something more quicksilver and spontaneous: to question all that might have been transpiring inside and outside themselves at this time, and to catch the hunches, doubts, and digressive associations that dart through their brain.” He continues, “I want you to figure out something on your own, some question to which you don’t already have the answer when you start. Then you can truly engage the reader in the adventure of following you, as you try to come up with deep unexpected insights, without censoring.”

Karen Mains


Global Bag Project Christmas Donations


Would you (or your family, or your small group) consider making a Christmas gift this year of $100 toward the women in the bag-making cooperative in Nairobi, Kenya, who have been our partners in this micro-enterprise venture? Some 30 gifts of this size will enable us to underwrite the New Year capitalization of the purchasing and sewing cycles so that our friends will have work and we will have stateside products to sell.

Due to the use of volunteer hours, we attempt to return all margins from bag sales to the seamstresses who work to support their families through this bag-making cooperative. The Global Bag Project has its own Kenyan board and directs its own enterprise. Our approach is to support them in their efforts through bag parties, direct sales, the GBP Web sites and an annual fundraising campaign to underwrite capitalization.

Donations to Mainstay Ministries and directed to the Global Bag Project are fully tax-deductible and will be receipted.

If you’d like to arrange a holiday bag-party—a gift-buying two-hour venture with a social enterprise goal—email Heather Ann Martinez at For Chicagoland-area parties, we can arrange for a Global Bag Project “friend” to lead the party, or we can mail out a Party In A Box to those who are at other points in the country.


Did any of you get the word that the ozone hole, discovered in 1974 over the atmospheric layer above Antarctica, is beginning to heal?

The cause of the ozone hole in the gaseous shield that absorbs the bulk of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, and that protects man, woman and child, plants and animals from it, was caused by the accumulation in the upper atmosphere of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals once widely used broadly in everything from underarm deodorant and hairspray to the cooling systems in air conditioners and refrigerators. The upper atmosphere appeared to have a finite capacity for absorbing chlorine atoms.

Despite rigorous resistance from the chemical industry, an international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol mounted a counter-resistance and led to the gradual elimination of ozone-depleting gases. Usually opening every year in August, the hole has been opening later each year, isn’t as deep as it was, and has shrunk by 1.5 million square miles. Some scientists predict it is on pace to be closed completely by mid-century.

Let us cheer about real successes small and large. Let us look into the sky on September nights and clap over the fact that yes indeed, we can be good stewards of our environment. Let us remember that when good people with good intentions band together to do good, good is often accomplished.

Hurrah to the healing ozone hole! Hurrah for the Montreal Protocol! Hurrah!


The Soulish Food e-mails are being posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to register on the Web site to receive the biweekly newsletter. You might want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to

Hungry Souls Contact Information

ADDRESS: 29W377 Hawthorne Lane
West Chicago, IL 60185
PHONE: 630-293-4500

Karen Mains

Karen Mains

In brain science, this sudden empathy is called “attunement,” or another term might be “contingent communication.” We cry, identify with, love deeply and respond intensely to someone we have never met, but feel as though we know, really know.
When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi

One of the most touching memoirs I read this past year was Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. A neurosurgeon who graduated from Stanford University with a MA in English literature and a BA in human biology, went on to earn a MPhil in history and philosophy of science and medicine from the University of Cambridge, then graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine. Kalanithi's book is a memoir of his own death at too young an age, in his early thirties.

When Breath Becomes Air literally takes your breath away. Kalanithi’s lifelong philosophical question was: Given that all organisms die, what makes a virtuous and meaningful life? Kalanithi died in March 2015, and his small book instantly became a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal, writes on the back-cover copy: “Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.”

On my part, a must-read. I too am considering the question of what makes a virtuous and meaningful life.

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