The Key Elements of Writing a Good Memoir
After having reasonable success with the publication of two dozen books or so since 1967 that include Henry Thoreau and John Muir Among the Native Americans, Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction, and Desert Rims to Mountains High and introductions to numerous university press trade paperback editions like John Muir’s Our National Parks (University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), I decided to write my first (and probably last) memoir of living in Wyoming for twenty-five years entitled “Life Above 7000 Feet in Wyoming: Shifting Tectonic Memory Plates” in 2014.
The memoir reflects my experiences of teaching at the University of Wyoming such classes as “Regional literature of the American West,” “Native American Literature,” and “Creative Writing: Prose.” On numerous occasions I held classes outdoors on the open prairie or in a tipi on the slopes of Casper Mountain to teach such western classics as Black Elk Speaks or The Way to Rainy Mountain.
On one occasion I took my creative writing students up into the Snowy Range west of Laramie where we gathered around the ruins of an old silver mine. My students and I began to compose our short stories about this old mine. We later read aloud our very rough drafts to get feedback. They (and I) submitted our polished stories to regional magazines with some actually getting published.
The memoir naturally includes my family’s experiences of gathering wild choke cherries up Rogers Canyon to make tart choke cherry syrup for pancakes. The memoir also depicts our hiking and climbing experiences in the mountains of Wyoming including Laramie Peak in the Laramie Range and Mount Washburn in Yellowstone. One of our joys was cross-country skiing out on the wind-blown prairies, or up in the forests of Happy Jack east of Laramie.
The Uniqueness Factor
A truly unique experience depicted is that of being with and learning from tribal peoples whether Shoshone, Arapaho, or Lakota. I had to include impressions of my good friend and “Indian uncle” Rupert Weeks, the official tribal story teller who wrote the book Pachee Goyo (1981). Instead of having him or others come down to the university to teach my students, I took my classes up to the reservation to hear stories told on locale or even to be introduced to the sweat lodge up at Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
We listened to the grand son of Chief Sitting Bull, Calvin Jumping Bull, explain the Lakota rite of seeking a vision or “Hamblecha.” One Viet Nam veteran in my class later thanked me for introducing him to Lakota culture because he had great difficulty re-adjusting to mainstream American culture. He eventually returned to Pine Ridge to be trained by Calvin to seek a vision.
The Readership Factor
I wanted my reader to see and even breathe the open air of the rolling prairies laced with the spirituality of the fresh scent of sagebrush used to rub down horses that would participate in Plains Indian ceremonies. I tried to accomplish this mostly with non-fiction prose but also with incorporated short fiction I had written about that Snowy Range silver mine or Yellowstone or the Wind River Indian Reservation or even about a rancher north of Laramie who claimed he had numerous UFO’s hover above him and communicate with him in non-verbal language.
It took me approximately one year of steady writing so many hours a day to write the multi-genre memoir “Life Above 7000 Feet in Wyoming: Shifting Tectonic Memory Plates.” Since I had relative success with previous books I had written, I thought at least one or two publishers might go for the bait. But no, nary a one! In fact one publisher wrote to me that such a book would be of extremely limited interest selling no more than 10 or 20 copies to my relatives and a few former students.
Okay, I guessed this book was pretty bad, but I decided to try Kindle Scout Books at Amazon. While it did not receive a prize, I was encouraged to submit it to Amazon Kindle if I had a book cover designed. I had an artist with Fiverr create a nice cover and transform the text into Kindle format and voila, it became an online book at Amazon Kindle with good reviews (some still forthcoming) in October, 2015. Hopefully a few more relatives and a former student or two might purchase several more copies as time goes by.