Lisa Dale NortonLisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction
Back-to-School Stories

By: Lisa Dale Norton

September 1, 2009

"It’s a great time to make a pile of note cards with vivid moments… "

September is that time when we all gear up again. It’s the back-to-school mentality, and we all seem to have it, no matter how long out of the classroom we may be.

As a writer I find this one of the most exciting times of the year. Clients get active again; colleagues return to their offices, and the machine of writing and publishing stories begins to ca-chunk again.

It’s a great time to make a pile of note cards with vivid moments you want to remember and write about. I made a lot of these during the summer, but was easily distracted by sunny warm days, outdoor projects, and family responsibilities.

So, for all of us, here’s what I suggest for our first “back-to-school” assignment: Get a packet of index cards. I prefer the unlined ones—they invite undisciplined thinking. If lines suit you, buy those.

"write on each card one word that holds the essence of a moment from your life "

Now, simply write on each card one word that holds the essence of a moment from your life that you don’t want to slip away. It may be a memory of this past summer—the way your young one waddled out of the surf on her first adventure to the sea—or something that goes back further, tapped loose by the smell of mown grass or the crack of a ball hitting bat filtered through summer leaves—a memory of an impromptu game in the vacant lot, that perfect home run you hit, and the way it made your heart swell.

Make a big pile of those one-word cards, and write the stories over the course of the fall. One word at a time.

Here’s one of mine. The word is “Gutbucket.” Doesn’t mean a thing to you, I’m sure, but for me a whole world rises up in that word as if the moment were happening right now.

You know that feeling?

I was cleaning out the summer cabin, going through things that had piled up over the years. It was really my father’s place, his “Shangri-La,” he called it, an old-fashioned word these days, but give it a Google, and you’ll get the gist.

When my dad died a little over five years ago, we went through things at the cabin, but only in a surface way. I’ve been doing the hard work this summer of looking at each item, evaluating it, making the choice to save or toss.

So what was that pole tucked back in a corner on the screened porch? I pulled it out and lost myself in the kind of agonizing remembrance that can make your throat close up, the sound and visuals whipping into a froth in your mind: I am eight years old in my bedroom above the kitchen, and downstairs one of my parents’ wonderful, noisy, excessive parties is in full swing. Jazz blares from the stereo. Voices roar, and then suddenly, it all goes quiet. I lean out my bedroom window, and there’s my dad down on the patio, arm pulling that pole taunt on the gutbucket, an old washtub turned upside down with a thick wire attached to the center and strung to the top of the pole. The pole fits with a notch over the edge of the tub. It’s a makeshift bass instrument, a poor man’s string bass, and there’s my dad with his head thrown back banging out the rhythm and singing the Blues. Everybody’s gathered around, tipping drinks, laughing.

It is my father in the fullness of his youth, in the heyday of his big dream days. It is my father the way I want to remember him.

"What’s the word you’ll record on your first card…"





What’s the word you’ll record on your first card? What is the story you will write?




Lisa Dale Norton


Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR (St. Martin's Press), is in bookstores now. Lisa is the author of the acclaimed memoir HAWK FLIES ABOVE: JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE SANDHILLS, a work combining memoir and nature writing. She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the process of memoir. She lives in Santa Fe.