Show don’t tell, my writing teachers remind me. While writing, I have to constantly remind myself to talk in pictures. I am tempted to write, “She was so awesome.” As a reader, does that leave you cold? There are just so many awesome people that your image gets muddied and lacks detail. It tells the reader you like this person but they have no idea why –nor do they care. Instead to convey that she is awesome, I could say, ‘she reached down and picked up the hanky the little old lady dropped and then she said, “My pleasure to assist you, Sweet Pea, and planted a soft kiss on her forehead.”’ Now the word awesome is chiseled to mean that she is caring and loving. You get this by the picture painted with the words. Writing practice helps you learn this technique. It doesn’t come naturally. You learn to visualize some scene that illustrates the emotion you want to convey.

When I wrote from memory, like in my memoir from 40 years ago, I had to recreate the scenes in my mind to bring up the feelings from back then and as I did, I started to smell what it smelled like, what the weather was like that day, the colors I saw, and all the senses came alive as I wrote the details.

The mental images start as black outlines and then bright colors that please the senses so I felt like a child coloring with a box of 64 Crayola’s. Then I tried to describe with words, what I saw. It doesn’t particularly matter if the day had sleet coming down at a 45 degree angle because I certainly couldn’t remember that fine of a detail from 1967 but what does matter is that I am conveying the feelings of the scene by using the weather. The major details in memoir have to be true; anything concrete, like where I went, the gist of what was said, the relevant items, and occurrences.

Some people think you need a talent for writing to be able to do it, but I believe writing is a craft that is learned like any other skill. You learn with practice. You might start out confused and have no idea where you are going but the more you write, the more it comes alive and real like a Polaroid image, gradual in it’s clarity. You don’t have to know where you are going or have a plan. All you need to do is write and then you are a writer. You learn how to write by reading. You stumble upon words that click and bring pleasurable sensations that transport you to that place right there in the scene. Then you can make a mental note of how the author did that. Reading something well written inspires you to use the technique. Steve King says you should read everything, even poorly written books. It all inspires, if nothing else, you come away saying, “I could do better than that.” And, you need those little boosts because writing is a vulnerable proposition. How can I be any good? Why would someone want to read my stuff? Just the typical doubts a writer plugs through… or especially, I might have written something good once but I’ll never be able to repeat it. You gotta know that your doubts are fiction and doubts only come true if you buy into them and stop writing. Living with doubt about your skill is part of the seasoning of a writer. All words on the page are new and worthwhile practice. You are creating fresh trails of success with the words you gather on the page.

In Sunlight on My Shadow, I wrote, “Mom’s eyes sparkled with love diamonds when she looked at her children,” which is descriptive and kind of gives you the idea, but then I wrote that at dinner time she cut her T-bone steak and put the tenderloin chunk on my plate. Perhaps this shows selflessness and that she was a true mother in that she would sacrifice for her children and took pleasure in watching us eat and knowing we were getting nourished. She wanted me to eat all my steak. I was skinny like a willow wisp and she worried that I didn’t get enough to eat. So maybe this action of giving me the tenderloin, says all that.

Which reminds me of the stomach aches I had as a child. I would come in from playing and be very thirsty. Mom would pour me a tall glass of milk and I’d gulp it down, cooling the sweat on my face and quenching my thirst. It tasted so good! Commercials on on TV told us we needed to drink three glasses of milk a day to build strong bones. I imagined the milk’s iron oozing into my skeleton with each swallow. Several minutes after my tummy was full, I’d have to lay on the couch with a belly ache. Mom encouraged the milk drinking because she thought if I wasn’t eating much at least I would have strong bones, but the ironic thing is that the drinking of the milk is what killed my appetite. I never thought it didn’t agree with me. I just thought I drank it too fast or it was too cold. Years later as an adult, I found out that I am lactose intolerant. Bloating, gas- I know this will shock my family, and lethargy- having to take naps -were the hallmarks of dairy consumption. So I am adding this little personal revelation so in case someone has a food intolerance, they might take a closer look even if everyone says how good this food is for you. I really do feel great not drinking milk. It’s been 30 years. And my bones? They seem to be supporting this old bag quite nicely.