Friday, September 20, 2013

Week 5: Audience & Adult Memoir

Week 5 asks you to think about engaging your audience. As I tried coming up with a sample essay, I imagined different ways of engaging you.

First thought: I would write about sex, drugs, rock and roll. In other words, about high profile, edgy, risky topics. I could dish dirt and have my students saying, "Jeezum, that old guy did this shit???"

But, truth is, I never have done anything very sexy or druggy or roll 'n' rolly.

So, I gave up on s, d, & r 'n' r.

Instead, a lot of my day yesterday was spent writing in my mind big chunks of an adult memoir about how Waterville Maine was when I came there age 17 in the Fall of 1963. Before urban renewal, before the malls, before all the mills closed, before all the people who'd grown up speaking French died, before anyone had ever heard of Vietnam--and just three years after the turnpike had arrived, when Maine was still isolated, an afterthought, a backwater, out of the loop, a punchline.

I'd write about the bars like Onie's and the Bob-In where a 17 year old could drink beer without question. Park's Diner with the marble counters and grill cook Rainey (Rene) who would repeat the order for a hot dog as 'Un chien hot!' Seven stool hamburger joints where customers on the last three stools had to lean forward to avoid bumping the pinball machine taking up most of the floor. The Majestic Lebanese Restaurant presided over by the fearsome Ma Jestic and my girlfriend's famous fight with her over a ten cent check for coffee. The old-fashioned grocery story where clerks waited on customers, the three movie theaters, the ethnic neighborhoods, the slums, the rents, the Two-Penny Bridge with its toll house and live-in toll-taker, the old men with accordion and fiddle and snare drum playing for old French couples in the Exchange Hotel, just down the road from the Silver Dollar where Waterville's imported black guitarist was laying down R & B, just down the road from the Chez Paree where Waterville's imported strippers were doing their thing.

I'd write about the huge elms of Elm City. The Syrian dagwoods and kibbee and Italians and stuffed grape leaves and Sittoo George's pita bread. The trailer truck idling behind the post office--full of pigeon holes and sorting clerks waiting to start their nightly Boston run. The two Catholic Churches side by side, one French, one Irish. The old cars everywhere and not pimped out for some car show, dusty, battered.... The Elmwood Hotel anchoring the upper end of Main St, all wood and wraparound porches, towers, bay windows and wicker rockers.

The shifts changing at Hathaway Shirt, two streams of women moving in opposite directions. The workmen with their lunchpails shuffling over the Two Penny Bridge to Scott Paper in Winslow. The printers at the Waterville Morning Sentinel putting the paper to bed and hitting the bars on Silver St just before last call. The Carpenters' Union Hall, second floor above Waterville Hardware, with its amazing inlaid woodworking, walls, floor, ceiling. The guys who worked all year in machine shops in Connecticut, saving for their two week vacation run to the motorcycle races in Laconia, digging their ancient Harleys out of their dad's barns in Oakland and Unity.

All of this and more flooded my mind, felt so self-indulgent. I liked the topic and I could probably jazz it up so you, the audience, could sift out a little connection with the material, a little interest. But it would be uphill work for you and for me. It's not an obvious topic a reader would fall in love with, and there was no obvious way to style it.

So I decided to go with a piece I thought everyone could relate to some way or another, even if only with dread and loathing. You might not fall in love with it, but you probably could not ignore it either.

The other reason I went with it is because it's an oddball style. I originally wrote it for ENG 162, the week where we did linked vignettes. It does a lot to 'alienate' readers: it offers no background, leaves it to the audience to figure out who these people are and what their relationship is, explains almost nothing, jumps from moment to moment without neat transitions, and ends on a peculiar note....

But sometimes being a bit mysterious, not answering questions, not dotting every i can be effective. Contrast this to 'Blizzard.' There, I held the reader's hand every step of the way. I explained the who, why, where, when, what, and how.

In 'Surgery' I let go of your hand, demand more of you, let you get a bit frustrated, ask irritable questions to yourself--I try holding my audience that way.

Week 5 asks you to think about what you can do in either topic or writing style to engage your audience--not necessarily to please it, to offer it candy, to suck up to it. But to hold onto it and not let go.

I'd bet you find yourself doing less confabulating, reconstructing, guessing, necessary-fictionalizing in week 5, adult memoir, than in week 4, childhood memoir, because the memories are fresher. See if I'm right.


  1. This is going to be tougher for me. Writing about my childhood was easier for me. I am stuck for a topic this week.

  2. Aw, cpl mac, I don't believe a word of this.

  3. I am sorry I thought that it was best to get a start on my entry for the week and that it would not be finalized till I had the opportunity to edit it. I have now done so I do hope it is more of what you were looking for.

  4. Am I caught up, minus this week's assignment?

  5. Whoops... Forgot to post my name

  6. I can't for the life of me think of an idea to write about right now...
    I don't know if I'll have access to a computer tomorrow but I'll try to see if the library's open tomorrow...
    I have writer's block right now for some reason...
    I have been trying to think of a topic all week...
    I'm sorry...

  7. Hey Hana, funny indeed. Best of luck with your childhood adult memoir.