Chuck Haga: Memoir writing is a tricky business, but some regional writers have been successful
She screamed to move the pigs, to call the dairy cows for milking. With her arms flapping, she shouted “Hiyah-Height!” to sort beef cattle and get them up a chute and onto a truck for the trip to Omaha’s stockyards.
I knew her as a soft-spoken adult, close to my age, and as a caring and gracious editor of the Star Tribune.
Now I know her as a farm girl from the 1950s.
“We screamed at will when we played and when we worked. … Dad shouted instructions to keep us alive and keep us safe. … And when he was angry with us, with the goons, with another equipment failure, with life in general, his worst epithet was “God bless America!” said in a voice so loud and angry that it made you tremble and hope that his anger was not directed at you.
Few of the students who end up in my UND writing classes come from farms. This is not surprising, given the consolidation of farms and the emptying of much of the rural countryside. But one or two will straighten out when I read a favorite haymaking poem, about two boys lying in a field of timothy and vetch after a hard day, listening to a lonely poor whip wail over the sunset. These off-farm students know the scene, the birdsong, the fragrant air. They will remember when they are 60 or 70 years old.
Memory is a tricky business. You all have the challenges of memory, of course, and the risk of self-indulgence. On this fairly easy day of self-publishing, I started reading a lot of memoirs that, on page 10 or 25, just turned out not to be very interesting.
It helps when you know the writer. I worked for a while with Abe Winter, a sports reporter for the Herald and later a sports editor for the Bismarck Tribune. His “Memoirs of an Unknown Sports Writer (Except North Dakota)” knowledgeably, enthusiastically, about three decades of athletes whose names I recognize.
The man loved his job. In a 60-hour span in 1978, he covered an UND-Minnesota exhibition hockey game in Minot, listened to an UND-NDSU football game on the radio on his way to Eveleth, Minn., For a UND-Gophers rematch, then drove overnight into the Twin Cities to catch the Vikings and Packers. His account includes a mass of names, details and quotes, including the broadcast of the game Vikings.
Marilyn Berg titled her 2016 memoir “Mother Had Moveitis”.
“We lived in 10 different houses in my childhood,” she wrote, in the “Point” neighborhood of East Grand Forks and later in Grand Forks. “Each had something better than the last – like an indoor toilet, an extra bedroom, a better oven.”
Marilyn wrote down the copy she gave me “From my heart”, and there is really heart in the pages of poems, prayers and stories. My favorite, titled “The Ride”, begins:
Drive in the tractor cabin,
What joy and excitement for a child
From a caring farmer;
Strong arms cradling,
Sharing dreams and prayers
For a good harvest.
Another domain brief which is most valuable, I suppose, to family members and good friends came from the late Enoch Thorsgard of Northwood, “Enoch’s Saga: Horsepower to Satellite in a Single Lifetime”. A cattle breeder and self-proclaimed “representative of the most conservative state,” he was one of my favorites when I covered the legislature in the 1970s. Read Enoch’s account of his youth, his parents, his early work and more lessons, and you’ll have a better understanding (if not acceptance) of the conservative spirit of North Dakota.
Another favorite, but not exactly a memoir: “Dark Bread and Dancing: The Diaries of Sue Rawson, 1906-2006”, edited by her daughter, Rosemary Rawson. Sue was born and raised in Pettibone, North Dakota, and throughout her 100 years, she has recorded the thoughts and details of everyday life. “In many ways, Sue’s life is mundane,” says the editor. “In others, it is the story of each woman that has evolved through the astonishing history of the twentieth century.”
I asked a friend Laurie Hertzel, a Star Tribune book editor (and author of her own memoirs), about the difference between memory and autobiography.
“The memoir is made up of impressions, experiences, anecdotes, emotional responses to events, and may not always be factually correct – NOT because the writer made up anything. (or at least they SHOULD NOT) – but because it’s the writer’s memory. Mary McCarthy in her wonderful ‘Memoirs of a Catholic Childhood’ writes down her memories, then at the end of each chapter corrects herself with facts – why things couldn’t have turned out the way she remembers. It really is wonderful.
The same goes for Marilyn Hoegemeyer’s memoirs on slaughtering chickens, churning butter, learning to handle a stick and haymaking.
“The sweet smell of freshly mown hay swirled around you in the breeze, and when the bales were piled up in the hay like pyramids, you could see what you had accomplished.”
Chuck Haga had a long career with the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at [email protected]