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The Best Education for Writing Memoir

Categories: Darrelyn Saloom, Guest Post, Memoir, Memoir Writing & Memoir Examples.


Today’s post is from regular guest and favorite, Darrelyn Saloom. Follow her on Twitter, or read her previous guest posts. Pictured above: Darrelyn’s mother in 1969 as she works her way to owning her own business.

Mama owned an answering service and worked a switchboard under a beehive of red hair that matched her bright lipstick. She had no eyebrows, so she penciled dark, wide arcs over her large, dollar-bill green eyes. She named the switchboard Board One, because it held her most devoted customers—the ones who followed her from another telephone exchange as she finagled her way out of a fiasco and into her own business.

I spent most of my twenties working for my mother. I’d take off now and then for the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Northwest. But after a few months, I’d return to South Louisiana and slap on a headset and plug into one of her ten switchboards. It was the best job I ever had. Not only did I get a paycheck every two weeks, I amassed a PhD’s worth of education in human nature.

Every day I observed Edward Albee-like dramas played out with Cajun and Texan accents. Each switchboard held one-hundred phone lines for big and small oil companies, large trucking conglomerates, and individual hotshot drivers. Some of my favorite characters were a geologist, a veterinarian, and a political lobbyist. But the most entertaining was a married couple similar to George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Armed with a headset and a few patch cords, I was able to connect customers to their callers who held on another line. This was before cell phones, so messages piled up while I beeped clients and waited for them to call in, usually from a pay phone. If clients had numerous calls to return, I’d be asked to stay on the line in order to dial up each person on the message list. This saved coins and time.

I spoiled my customers by staying with them as Mama and other operators picked up my slack while I sat privy to men and women’s private lives. I’m still amazed people would allow me to listen to their most intimate conversations. The person they called did not know I eavesdropped and spoke freely. But my clients knew I was there and trusted me with their wildest shenanigans.

The only time I had to say no to the practice of listening was during checkout time. Every plug on ten switchboards would be crossed and stretched in artful webs. The women beside me had no time to reach over and answer my phone lines while their boards exploded in a frenzy of buzzing and light. Arms flew and mouths yammered for two hours straight as operators noted the whereabouts of service personnel, another eye-opening aspect of the job.

For instance, the couple I alluded to earlier as George and Martha kept me on high alert. George would check in to tell me he’d be at his girlfriend’s apartment as Martha, his wife, would call with her own secret whereabouts. At the end of the evening, those two would collide at their residence rip-roaring drunk. George would phone in to slur that he was home and I could hear Martha spouting obscenities in the background.  

One evening, I realized they’d both checked in to the same hotel with insignificant others. In a panic I told Mama the situation. Without hesitation she sent an operator to drive by the hotel to ensure George and Martha’s rooms stood far apart so the married couple wouldn’t spot one another at an ice machine or stumbling across the parking lot. Fortunately, their rooms rumbled at opposite sides of the Holiday Inn.

That kind of quick thinking made my mother a great operator. I was good but not the best. Like Mama, I learned to recognize voices even in the clearing of a throat. Before callers could finish saying their names, I’d spin a wheel on top of my switchboard and pull out a 3×5-inch notebook to record customers’ itineraries—tiny journals of their lives.

It’s no wonder I’m compelled to write nonfiction, even though I set out to write fiction. Perhaps I’ve just heard too many true stories and observed a cast of characters that entertained me so thoroughly I’ve no need to make up things. For a decade, I jotted down details and worked as a keeper of marvelous secrets and fabulous lies.

It’s been twenty-five years since I plugged into other people’s dramas. Since then I’ve sporadically attended the local university. Mostly I’ve learned the craft of writing by reading and studying on my own. Looking back, I now know that it was my job at Mama’s answering service that provided the best education for writing memoir.

If you’d like to read more essays by writers about day jobs, I highly recommend “Fear,” which originally appeared in The Three Penny Review by Charlie Haas, author of the wonderful and quirky novel, The Enthusiast.

Also, check out Sonny Brewer’s collection of essays by authors such as Howard Bahr, Larry Brown, Rick Bragg, Pat Conroy, Tom Franklin, Connie May Fowler, John Grisham, Tim Gautreaux, Silas House, and many more of my favorite writers titled Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit.

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26 Responses to The Best Education for Writing Memoir

  1. Thanks Karen, Julie, Woody, Ro, Penelope, and Connie. So glad you enjoyed. I hope everyone reads Connie May Fowler’s essay in Day Job called "Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week." It’s worth buying the book for that essay alone. Such a hoot!

  2. I love this piece, Darrelyn! Ditto on all the other comments. And thanks so much for the shout out!

  3. Penelope J. says:

    Darrelyn, Those were the days! The very fact that you could listen in on other people’s intimate conversations, and even, as with George and Martha, intervene to make sure they didn’t catch each other, could never happen today – I don’t think.
    You are so right about writing about true life experiences. Some years ago, I worked doing phone research surveys and had many conversations of a personal nature with people who were willing to share their stories, problems, life stories, etc. with an anonymous caller. One thing I found was a treasure trove of life experiences among the people I spoke to. It was so interesting that I wrote a book, "Don’t Hang Up!" about this work and how it changed my life. It hasn’t yet been published but I have a website and I’m blogging about its message.

  4. Ro Rainwater says:

    LOVE this, D! What a great memoir of your mom, too.

  5. Woody says:

    Great story! Anyone who lived through the oil boom in South louisiana can relate. I believe what you have here is a book yet to be written. Think "Dallas" with a dash of tabasco, a splash of color and quite a bit less class. The money and booze were flowing, and the morals got washed away with them. I imagine there are scores of people down here that are quite sure you are writing about them.

  6. Julie says:

    Absolutely wonderful! And, as always, thank you for sharing your amazing memories and insights into the crafting of said-memories.

  7. Karen Bice says:

    Lovely story! I’m from Texas with a few NOLA roots, and I remember well what it was like working on a switchboard. :)

  8. Thanks for the kind words Jonhannes, D.G. Hudson, and my dear pal Deborah Cutler. I do remember, Debbie, How could I forget? Bayou Shadows.

  9. Deborah cutler says:

    Great piece Darrelynn! I remember those days. I used to come over after work and we would drink white wine and smoke cigarettes. Chris was about 6 yrs old. We used to wear very high heels and very low hip hugging pants. Thanks for all of the wonderful memories. I love you.

  10. D.G. Hudson says:

    I loved reading this. I worked part-time as an operator in my past life,when there were still cord boards (won’t reveal the decade, though). I also had experience working for an answering service while in school in the states. Darrelyn, you did an excellent job of bringing back those memories.

    We don’t always appreciate our mothers until we’re mothers ourselves. Great post.

  11. Jonhannes says:

    I couldn’t agree more. It made me realize that many of my favorite authors are not my favorite (only) because they write well. Living a real life and getting perspective seems a necessary component in writing a masterpiece. I’m looking forward to reading yours!

  12. Thank you, Barbara. Mama is 84 now and lives nearby. She has always been my favorite subject, so I appreciate your encouragement.

    I’d also like to thank Carolyn, Kathryn, Angie, Sally, Jenny, Emma, Erika, Susan, Steven, Marisa, Heidi, Cynthia, and Jane for taking the time to read my piece and leave a comment. I used to resent my mother for not encouraging education, but now I realize she’d been providing one all along.

  13. Riveting, as usual, Darrelyn! I was so fascinated that I actually read it twice. Since you’re already an expert at collaboration, maybe you should write a memoir with your mama, if she’s still around to help you with the recollections. Sending you a big hug from Laos, as I prepare to start working on my own memoir again.

  14. Carolyn Patin says:

    Darrelyn,

    This was an enjoyable read. I always learn something or can relate to something in your stories or both. I never knew what went on behind the scenes at an answering service. It seems it was a great adventure to work there. You gained so much insight amd now you share some of that with us, the reader.

    As always, I look forward to the next story.

  15. This fascinates me! I just love this article.

    Like good work, it’s brought back a memory — I can barely see this woman and an old black phone, with my ear and her ear pressed to the receiver, our faces shouting grins. Party lines – as a little girl, when I’d visit my maw maw she’d sometimes pawn me off on her old neighbor and the neighbor loved to listen in on the party line – and let me listen in with her – I’d get the giggles and that would give us away, soon the other party would be yelling at us to get off the phone. I heard things about husbands and girdles and who knows whatall – wish I had a good memory!

    This would make such a great book – fiction or non, doesn’t matter to me – good reading is good reading – and besides, a good memoir can have its own fiction just as fiction can have its own truths.

    I’d be first in line to buy your book, Ms D!

  16. Angie says:

    Fabulous! I love your style, tone and pacing, among other things. You can write in any genre you choose, for sure.

    Kudos to the smart people who snapped you up for this column.

    PS You were in a thriving social network long before any of our modern adaptations evolved. :) Enjoyed your post so much. Thanks.

  17. Sally G says:

    What a hilarious story!!! There was a lot more going on inside that red beehive than met the eye. In such a short space, you engaged and endeared me to that romantically unscrupulous George and Martha…I would love to have had dinner with them…you turned a simple switchboard into a fantastical playground with your imagery and phrasing. Transforming the mundane to spectacularly funny takes a lot of talent. I agree with the above comments that this should be the first chapter.

  18. Jenny says:

    Darrelyn,

    You certainly have encountered a lengthy list of characters in your day. These characters, combined with your gift of captivating storytelling, equal magic.

    I never thought about this aspect of an operator’s job. No wonder it was your favorite occupation. Wild shenanigans galore.

    I love the picture of your Mama.

    Thanks for the essay suggestions. I always enjoy reading your recommendations.

  19. emma says:

    Darrelyn, you are a master! You leave us on the edge of our seats wanting to hear more! I so enjoyed meeting you and hearing about your interests at the CNF Oxford Conference.

  20. Erika Robuck says:

    What a fascinating post! You have such a great grasp of narrative pacing and detail. I loved learning about switchboard operators.

    You have a give for making story out of real life. You must be a great observer.

    It’s always a pleasure reading your posts.

  21. You’ve got the two "main ingredients" needed to be a successful creative nonfiction writer: an interesting life and good writing skills. It’s possible to be successful with only one of those two ingredients, but it’s a lot harder. When you’ve got both, you’re on your way! I love your attention to detail, and the way you weave SCENES and NARRATIVE together so beautifully in your writing, Darrelyn. As Lee Gutkind always says, "You can’t make this stuff up!"

  22. Hi Darrelyn and Jane!
    I second the "nostalgic and amusing trip" comment by Jane Bretl. This is the stuff from which memoirs are made. It also supports my theory that it’s hard to be a writer fresh out of college or even an MFA. It’s all about experiences.
    Before thirty, I didn’t have that many life experiences to write about, even for adding color to my fiction. Fiction, of course, is different than writing memoirs, in spite of what Cynthia says. Tom Clancy’s quote, which runs in the banner of my website, states: "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." Many times, as a cliche goes, reality is stranger than fiction. However, real stories about real human beings can influence greatly our creative fiction endeavors.
    I really enjoyed this essay. I’m continuously amazed by the wealth and breadth of the written word.
    r/Steve

  23. Marisa Birns says:

    I was riveted by this story, especially – of course – by the George and Martha scenario :)

    I think you’ve made a wonderful choice to write non-fiction. You are so very good at it and I do enjoy reading everything you write.

  24. Heidi says:

    What a fascinating opportunity you had to observe human nature in all its sordid glory. That phrase "checked into the same hotel with their insignificant others" was one of many I enjoyed. This experience is surely fertile ground for your own memoir. It’s a different world, and one I loved reading about. Thanks so much for the post.

  25. Darrelyn, this is one of the most fascinating essays I’ve read. I had no idea how a switchboard worked or that any person would trust a switchboard operator/stranger to that extent. I guess I just assumed that clients would call in periodically for messages. What you’ve written here could so easily be a story or a novel, says the fiction writer : ) I just love the photo of your mother. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Jane Bretl says:

    Darrelyn,
    What a nostalgic and amusing trip back in time. I do hope you write your own memoir someday and fill it with many stories like these. (And lots about your red-headed beehived mama too.) Viewing small moments through the wisdom of your life experiences never fails to inspire!

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