Extract Those Everyday Life Memories of Teenage Years

You’re my knight in shimmering armour. Did you know that?’
‘I think you mean shining.’
‘No shimmering. You shimmer, and you glow.’

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was a movie I often showed senior students back in the day. It is beautifully told and, in my mind remains one of DiCaprio’s finest performances.

A prisoner of his dysfunctional family’s broken dreams in tiny Endora, IA, Gilbert (Depp) serves as breadwinner and caretaker for his mother and siblings following his father’s suicide and his older brother’s defection. Momma (Darlene Cates) is a morbidly obese shut-in who hasn’t left the house in seven years; her children include Arnie (DiCaprio), who’s about to turn 18 despite a host of negative medical forecasts, and terminally embarrassed Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), who is emerging from awkward adolescence.

When he’s not taking care of the difficult but tender Arnie, Gilbert spends his time fixing up the family’s tattered farmhouse, working at a failing mom-and-pop grocery store and hanging with local misfits Bobby (Crispin Glover), an overly ambitious junior undertaker, and Tucker (John C. Reilly), a handyman who hankers after a job at the new burger franchise.

Into this complicated but essentially unchanging social universe steps Becky (Juliette Lewis), a thoughtful young woman who’s been escorting her nomadic grandmother from state to state in a mobile-home caravan. As Becky teaches Gilbert to finally consider his own happiness for a change, she disrupts both his family obligations and his long-running affair with a lonely housewife (Mary Steenburgen).

Gilbert’s life, his future, is thwarted. He was not able to let go until …..

This 1993 classic is available for free online or with SBS in Australia.

Grab your notebook. Make sure you have some wine and nibbles you enjoy. Settle down to really see this movie and make notes about what really is eating Gilbert. Take particular notice of Ellen and Amy and the everyday chores they are engaged in. As memories of your own teenage years rise up don’t let them escape. Make sure to capture these by writing them down. Make lists of random thoughts and memories of lived experiences! Consider the things that have bound you, the things you have not been able to let go of, sibling rivalry and memories of young love.

Gathering Lived Experience Narratives

Len runs a small coffee house and offers a range of eclectic collectables in a historic building in a small Central Victorian town. When I called in for coffee we talked about the writing courses that I offer and he invited me to bring my coffee to the kitchen and observe some ‘performance art’. As he prepared a batch of his very popular scones we chatted and he told me that if I hadn’t seen the work of Agnes Varda then I really needed to check out her award-winning documentaries that focus on the lives of ordinary people.

Personally, I am not particularly interested in the lives of celebrities. Rather I am interested in building a small library that documents the lives of more humble folk, like Len, who lead lives away from the bright lights of flashing cameras.

Sarah Krasnostein is a writer and a legal researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. She clearly thinks similarly. Her book, The Trauma Cleaner documents one woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster. Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. This book is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst, Krasnostein discovered, purely by chance, a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Who will you interview?

Let Your Fingers Do The Talking

Old Grumpy’s fence was right behind the cricket wicket and when the balls flew over the fence he sliced them in half, so the bad deeds gang came up with some inventive revenge tactics.

Originally I applied an exercise that involves tracing around both hands and creating fun characters on each finger tip with young students in the primary schools.

Initially, we read the classic short story, ‘The Bad Deeds Gang’ and extracts from ‘The Body’ by Stephen King. Time permitting we watched the movie, ‘Stand by Me’ which was based on King’s, ‘The Body’.

Inspired, students loved creating opposing gangs, with gang leaders not to be messed with, weaker characters who could be manipulated and so on. They loved developing stories about the characters in each gang, the family dogs who followed them and writing detailed accounts about some of the altercations that took place.

Not to miss out on all the fun I have found that adult participants in a Lived Experience Course enjoy remembering the gangs that existed in their school days. Similarly, they find it cathartic to recall the bullies who led some gangs that existed back in the day and the long term impact that some of the schoolyard relationships had on their lives.

In a recent Writing for Wellness course, this exercise was applied to effectively draw out material that could be included in any Lived Experience Memoir.

After tracing their hands I asked participants to identify, on five fingers of one hand, the people who had a positive impact on their life (living or dead) and then to identify five on the other hand (living or dead) who had created some issues for them.

James explored the famous literary figures who had impacted on his work.

Once you have identified these people you may spend some time interviewing them, writing unsent letters to share with them the influence they had, engage in dialogue (active imagination) with them, create detailed portraits or fit them into a piece about a pivotal time.

Little Red Suitcase of Memories

Having shown the group my little red suitcase, filled with a lot of photos and ephemera that was on my fridge in the house I left two years after my husband’s death, I asked them to bring along a case or a shoebox full of bits and pieces. We will randomly draw something out, spend some time closely examining the photo or item, dig deep into the well of memory and write freely for twenty minutes.

Mirabai Starr and Natalie Goldberg have documented guidelines for this kind of writing.

  • Set a timer and write for twenty minutes without stopping or censoring yourself.
  • Lose control. Allow yourself to be naked! Follow your heart and write without restraint.
  • Be quite specific. Stay as grounded as possible and use expressive language.
  • Don’t think! Thinking is the enemy! Just take off the leash and go for broke.
  • Give little thought to punctuation, spelling, grammar, sentence construction. Liberate yourself from any constraints.
  • Remember that this is not about being published. This is compost! You can write absolute twaddle if you like. There will be more than enough time to edit later.

Autoethography of a Writer

Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.

One way to get into writing about your lived experience is to begin by writing about something as simple as the story of your life as a writer. When you tackle this task write creatively, focusing on as many concrete events as you can. Give your story a beginning, middle and an ending. Make your story interesting rather than telling about it in ‘this happened, then this’ fashion. Make sure to include memories of childhood and adolescent writing experience.

Here are some questions to consider as you begin to work.

Do you remember being taught how to write?
What principles were you taught?
By whom?
Where did you write?
Do you recall any products of your early writing experiences?
What made you like or dislike writing?
When you write now, how do you feel?
What emotions circulate through your body?
Do you feel as if you are a subjectively or emotionally different person when you are writing? Characterize these differences?
Is writing a rational, emotional or spiritual experience for you? Explain or specify.
Do you feel compelled to write or do you avoid writing as much as possible?
Describe the best and worst writing experiences of your life. What made each memorable? How do you write?
Where do you write these days?
Is writing integrated into your daily routines?
Do you write every day or only when you must?
What are your work habits as a writer? How do you get started?
From what sources do you draw inspiration to write?
How many drafts do you typically write?
Do you write with the door open or closed?
In restaurants, bars, or coffee shops?
What is your ideal writing environment?
How do you organize your space for writing?
With whom do you share what you write?
What are your revising or rewriting habits or patterns?
Do you have someone to rely on as an editor, critic or writing buddy?
How do you know when you have finished writing a particular piece?
Do you act “professional” as a writer?
What does “acting professional as a writer” mean to you?
What forms of writing are you engaged in, e.g, poetry, journalism, short stories, memoir? Which do you enjoy most? Why?
What are your hopes and aspirations as a writer?
What are your fears and apprehensions?
What kind of future do you envision as a writer?
What would you like to accomplish?
What will you need to do to achieve this goal?
What obstacles are in the way of your writing?
To what extent do you get distracted by social media, e-mail, text messaging and phone calls?
How can these distractions be overcome?
Do your family members and/or friends understand the importance of writing to you?
Are you able to keep them from disturbing you while you are working?