Sympathy Hanky, Oh Darn Hanky, and My New Year's Resolution

New Year's Eve fireworks in Seattle
When I was thirteen years old I attended a New Year’s Eve party at my church. In one of the games each person wrote a resolution on a slip of paper and placed it into a bowl. Everyone drew one, read it aloud, and all tried to guess who wrote it. I wrote, “I want to be a better person.” I was guessed immediately. I didn’t understand it was supposed to be a gag. I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions since. You have my permission to unfurl your Sympathy Hanky.

By my estimate—and I could be wrong, as they say—thousands of special days, weeks and months are observed every year. Some are obscure and some are well-known. Among the best-known in the United States are Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween, and Christmas. These often are marked on calendars.

Among obscure observances are Old Rock Day, National Yo-Yo Day, Presidential Joke Day, and Wear Brown Shoes Day. A longer list of these rarely celebrated occurrences is at Bizarre American Holidays. Be warned, though, it’s unlikely you will be successful in getting off work one of these days. Nor are you likely to find an appropriate greeting card (I authorize you to get out your Oh Darn Hanky), although you could pick up a blank card and write something. Your friends will be impressed that you cared enough.

Below is a list of literary and cultural observances in 2012 of which I am aware. (Winston Churchill would have been delighted had I written, "which I am aware of.") Most are in the U.S. where the word national usually means officially recognized by Congressional resolution, but not always. It’s possible I missed a few; what the heck, I may have missed a bunch. My New Year’s resolution is to write a little about each as it comes up. If you are aware of a well-known national observance along the lines of my list, and in any country, please leave your comments.

January
National Story Telling Week, January 28 – February 4, UK

February
               
Black History Month
Library Lovers' Month

March                   
National Women’s History Month
Greek-American Heritage Month
Irish-American Heritage Month

April
National Library Week, April 8 – 14
National Poetry Writing Month
National Card and Letter Writing Month

May
Asian Pacific-American History Month
Jewish-American Heritage Month

June
National Storytelling Conference, June 28 – July 1

July
None

August
None

September
National Book Festival, September 2
National Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 – October 15
Banned Books Week, September 30 – October 6

October                
Diversity Awareness Month
German-American Heritage Month
National Italian-American Heritage Month
Polish-American Heritage Month
National Book Month
National Storytelling Weekend, October 5 – 7
National Family History Month

November
National American Indian Heritage Month
National Life Writing Month   
National Novel Writing Month
Write Nonfiction in November

December
None


More information 
The Ultimate Literary Calendar 2012
Literature Calendars and Wall Calendars 2012
Calendar Club, United Kingdom
Multicultural Calendars 2012, Canada and United Kingdom 

Leave your comments on the literary and cultural activities will you observe in 2012.

Photo: New Year’s Eve fireworks at the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington by Shannon Kringen

Red Buttons' "Never Got a Dinner" Routine and Things I Did Not Write About This Year

My family circa 1948
A clever piece of writing became a signature routine for comedian Red Buttons (1919-2006)). I don’t know whether he wrote it or it was written for him, but the concept provided him with an unending supply of material.

The routine was a send-up of celebrity roasts, with Buttons having fun over those who “never got a dinner.” Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt in New York City to Jewish immigrants and often singled out Jews and Italians in his routine. Example: “First baseman Joe Torre, too chicken to play catcher, who said, ‘Who wants to be known as Chicken Catcha Torre?’ never got a dinner.”

Writers are always alert for things to write about: A tidbit here, a morsel there, a crumb elsewhere; a situation in our personal or professional lives or something we observe in others. Sometimes we latch onto a specific issue and generalize. Sometimes we take a general issue and make specific points, as Buttons did in his routine.

I’m reluctant to write about myself. Perhaps my German heritage keeps me from sharing too much. Maybe my background as a broadcast news reporter conditioned me to ask rather than tell. Also, I’m basically shy. (Can writers truthfully claim that?) I have not written my memoir or life story even though I work with others to write theirs, including my brother Gene on our family history.

In a minimal effort (let's call it beginning therapy) to overcome my reluctance, I made the following non-exhaustive list of ordinary things in my life I did not write about this year. The items are great memory joggers for fleshed-out episodes in a book of my life story—dinner or no dinner.

Flying, shopping, walking, and mulching

My wife and I flew to California and spent Thanksgiving week with our daughter and her family. Our planes left on time and arrived early each leg of the journey. Our bags were not damaged or sent to India.

Learned from our son-in-law’s sister that she finishes her Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving. All of it. Every year.

Had to give up walking for exercise in my neighborhood because I was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy. My foot doctor prescribed an expensive food supplement not covered by insurance. I’m going to a gym three times a week and working out with cable weights, which doesn’t put pressure on my feet and toes. I don’t expect to become Charles Atlas. Uh-oh, that dates me. Change to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still dated? Okay, let’s go with Phil Heath, Mr. Olympia 2011.

Mulched the leaves in my yard twice this fall; should have mulched a third time.

Sam, civility, e-Book, and mobile phones
Arthritis in our fifteen-year-old cat Sam is getting worse. We started him on a six-session laser therapy.

In the adult Sunday school class I teach we are studying P. M. Forni’s The Civility Solution: What to do When People Are Rude. “Adult” is an apt description, as Forni’s topics include dealing with the “F” word and the middle-finger salute.

My co-author and I hired a vendor to turn our paperback book, Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance, into an e-Book. Online how-to instructions were like Chinese to us. We learned the appearance of a hard-copy book page does not transfer to the same appearance in an e-book.

Called a friend’s mobile phone and he answered in a whisper, “I’m at a funeral. Can I call you back?” Others I called answered in a board meeting and real estate closing. Brings to mind a bunch of issues regarding mobile phone etiquette, including phones ringing during workshop presentations and church services.

A guest minister at our church brought his smart phone to the podium and flipped through it for some of his notes. The phone did not ring during his sermon.

Publicity, fundraising, plumber, and old men
I was elected vice president of the Springfield Writers’ Guild for 2012 and will be in charge of publicity.

My wife and I attended a fundraiser for the Christian County Historical Society. It was a one-man show by Reeds Spring, Missouri actor Will St. Clair portraying Mark Twain. Fantastic!

We called a plumber to snake-out out the drain lines beneath our house. Learned the persons who built our house didn’t secure one of the longer lines with a strap. The plumber fixed it at no extra charge.

Attended eleven monthly breakfasts with old men. That’s what we call it, “breakfast with old men.” A handful of church friends gets together once a month at a restaurant and shoots the breeze. We don’t meet in December.

Webinars, Facebook, and library downloads
Participated in free webinars on my desktop computer. Topics included blogging, memoir writing, marketing, and managing Facebook fan pages. While I picked up tips I can use, I also learned “free” means a sales pitch at the end for products and services of the webinar presenters.

Created a Facebook fan page for my writing business. It’s quite basic and I'm on a long learning curve to jazz it up. Please visit and Like, Write something, and Share on your Facebook page or other media.

Learned to check out books from the library by downloading them to my desktop computer. I don’t own an an electronic reader or smart phone. The books are checked out for seven or fourteen days, after which they are automatically returned to the library by disappearing from my computer. Shades of Merlin the Wizard!

What three or four things in your life did you not write about this year?

Photo: My older brother Jack, my mother Dixie, my father Al, my younger brother Gene, and me. Jack and our parents are deceased.
Not shown: Red Buttons, no relation. Photographer unknown, but probably my grandmother, Ada. 

Missouri Warrior Writers Project, Part 3 of 3: Stepping Stones to Recovery

A U.S. Marine and Iraqi soldiers
Guest article by Deborah Marshall

On our first visit to Jefferson Barracks Veterans Hospital to set up the workshops, Geoff Giglierano and I discussed with staff that each veteran should have a pen or pencil for writing in class and for homework.

“That can’t happen,” said Rita Reichert. “Psychiatric inpatients can’t have any instrument they could use to injure themselves.”

“Do they have access to computers?”

“No, we have one computer and it’s not for patients.”

“What about laptops?”

“That would be okay, but we don’t have any.”

“We’ll provide them,” said Geoff. Missouri Humanities Council gave twelve laptops for use in the workshops and for check-out from Occupational Therapy. As it turned out, we had only two inpatients enrolled in the workshops; the remainder were outpatients.

Getting started
A doctor's permission was required for a veteran to participate in the workshops. This was therapy and a member of the hospital's Occupational Therapy team was always in the classroom. We were dealing with sensitive topics so things could become very emotional.

Approximately six to twelve veterans attended each class. None of our volunteer professional writers was a trained writing therapist, but we knew how to lead discussions and coach writing. Our instructions to attendees often started with free-writing, that is, writing the first thing that came into their minds without editing or censoring themselves.

We directed them through lists of exercises involving their senses, writing about places they would like to visit, and writing letters to their spouses and children on difficult things they couldn’t talk with family about face-to-face. We walked them through creating a plot and a pyramid for creating story. They did beautiful work whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It was tough for the workshop leaders because we shared the veterans’ hurts.

A woman who was raped while on duty in Operation Desert Storm wrote gut-wrenching poetry, “but I get to a point where I can’t reveal any more. I start blocking it because I’m one of two women in a class of men.”

One veteran said that for most of his last month overseas all he could think about was coming home. He dreamed about his family and friends greeting him when he arrived at the St. Louis airport. No one met him. He took a cab home alone. He was among many veterans who come home to an unwelcoming family and facing divorce.

"You saved my life."
After one of my sessions, a forty-year old soldier walked me to the door.

“I have to thank you for what you did for me,” he said.

“That’s what we’re here for,” I replied. “Thank you for your service.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I suffered from flashbacks when I came back. My psychiatrist put me on medication that made me feel pretty crummy. When you suggested that we do journaling, I started journaling every day and after a while told my psychiatrist I was feeling a little better.

“He asked to see my journal so I gave it to him. I spent two-and-a-half hours writing every morning and hadn't read any of it. After reading my journal, the psychiatrist asked how long had I been thinking of killing myself. It was not something we’d been discussing.”

I listened to his story without interrupting. He wanted me to know.

“I told the doctor I didn’t know what he was talking about, that I was not suicidal. For crying out loud, I’ve got seven children and a lot to live for. He showed in my journal where my handwriting had changed dramatically. The tone of writing did a complete reversal.”

He said the doctor concluded he was having blackouts during which all he was writing about was self-loathing and killing himself. The doctor put him on new medication to take care of the blackouts.

“Today I feel great,” he told me. “I’ve been on this new medication for a week and a half and haven’t felt this good since before I was injured. I think you saved my life.”

Stepping stones
The pilot project at Jefferson Barracks ended November 17, 2011. Evaluations with staff and students were positive and encouraged us to look for ways to expand the program. Jefferson Barracks asked us back for next year; the extent of what we will do has yet to be determined. We are researching ways to incorporate visual arts and theater into our current workshop offerings. We have also been contacted by several community and veteran organizations to possibly host workshops in conjunction with their current programs.

We laid the groundwork, now we have to concentrate on adding workshop leaders and establishing the project with its own 501(c)3 status in 2012.

It's been an exciting journey from one little fishing trip to something that changed people's lives.

Deborah Marshall is founder of Missouri Warrior Writers Project, president of the Missouri Writers' Guild, and a former newspaper reporter and editor who writes historical fiction, creative nonfiction, and short stories. Her work has been published in medical journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Photo: A U.S. Marine and Iraqi Army soldiers watch over streets from a rooftop in Karabilah, Iraq. Department of Defense photo by Corporal Neill A. Sevelius, U.S. Marine Corps.


Share your comments of helping veterans write their stories, or tell about a program with which you are familiar. If you are a veteran, have you been in a writing program and what were the results?

Missouri Warrior Writers Project, Part 2 of 3: In Search of Funding

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan
Guest article by 
Deborah Marshall

After seeing the television news interview with U.S. Army Brigadier General Loree K. Sutton, M.D., I went back to Fort Leonard Wood to pursue my idea of writing-therapy for wounded soldiers. Unit Commander Major Mark Wilkinson was supportive, but then back surgery put me out of commission. I was going to have a very long recuperation and traveling was out.

Wearing two hats
I had been elected vice president of Missouri Writers’ Guild for 2010 and was chair of our annual conference for spring 2011. It involved a lot of telephone calls and emails, so I could do many things without leaving my house. I sent an email to the director of the Missouri Arts Council looking for conference funding. The director, Geoff Giglierano, was new to the job and I thought I could make an excellent case for his support. We met in his office.

I told him about the wonderful things we planned for the conference. He asked lots of questions and I was excited he was interested. Finally he said, “It sounds like you’re going to have a really good conference, but quite frankly, even though you’re a really nice person and you have this really great conference planned, your organization is basically no different than any other looking for money.” I was disheartened.

“These are hard times,” he continued, “and I have to be really cautious about how we’re spending our dollars. However, I’d like to know a little more about you so we can have a basis for future conversations. That’s what we’re all about. This is humanities.”

We talked about diversities and voices we never hear from; those segments of society that really go unnoticed for the most part. That led me into my experience with the soldiers at River of Life Farm resort. 

Bingo, whammy, eureka
“I really would like to grow this into a project,” I said, “gathering stories from wounded warriors who have life-altering things going on that nobody knows about. You have to hear it from them. Wouldn’t it be great if we put together an anthology, using resources of Missouri writers to lead workshops with the soldiers?”

Geoff sat straight up in his chair and said, “This is the project I’ve been waiting for. Let me know whatever you need.”  

I didn't know I hit his hot button until he told me he was in New York City when 9/11 occurred: he was curator of the museum adjacent to the fire station that lost so many firemen, and he suffered from PTSD. 

With his assurance behind me, I began researching more earnestly how to go about the project.

I learned that Jefferson Barracks Veterans Administration Hospital in Lemay, Missouri was one of the locations for Operation Homecoming, the National Endowment for the Arts program in which prominent writers interviewed soldiers and produced an anthology. I called the NEA’s office in Washington, D.C. and was told the program was not ongoing. Could I possibly use the program’s formatting to do something similar in Missouri? They said I was welcome to anything they had.

Adapt and improvise
I went through the NEA records and the program was pretty high brow and expensive for what I felt we could do. I wanted something more personal. Fort Leonard Wood laid the groundwork for that; soldiers coming to the Fort’s transition unit are from a ten-state area, which gave me opportunity to focus on any needs special to the Midwest.

Geoff and I visited Jefferson Barracks and met with Occupational Therapist Rita Reichert and Public Affairs Administrator Marcena Guenther. They gave us permission to launch a pilot project of four four-week workshops: four weeks of poetry, four weeks of creative nonfiction, another four weeks of poetry, and another four weeks of creative nonfiction. Each workshop would be ninety minutes and consist of volunteer professional writers instructing groups of six to twelve soldiers in how to write their stories.

We recruited Kelli Allen, a board member of Missouri Writers’ Guild, for the first poetry session. She was managing editor for Natural Bridge, a journal of contemporary literature, and is an internationally known poet. I led the first creative non-fiction workshop. Matthew Freeman was in charge of the second poetry session. He is a poet from St. Louis who declares he is a diagnosed schizophrenic. He was very compassionate with the soldiers and they developed an outstanding rapport. Our final creative non-fiction workshop leader was Anene Tressler-Hauschultz, international book award winner in literary fiction for 2011 and adjunct professor at Webster University. 

Next week, Part 3: Stepping Stones to Recovery

Deborah Marshall is founder of Missouri Warrior Writers Project, president of the Missouri Writers' Guild, and a former newspaper reporter and editor who now writes historical fiction, creative nonfiction, and short stories. Her work has been published in medical journals, magazines, and anthologies.  

Photo: Soldiers cross the Arghandab River in Zabul province, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Specialist Tia P. Sokimson.

Share your comments of helping veterans write their stories, or tell about a program with which you are familiar. If you are a veteran, have you been in a writing program and what were the results?

Missouri Warrior Writers Project, Part 1 of 3: A-fishing We Will Go

Deborah Marshall
Guest article by Deborah Marshall

The summer of 2009 I was working for a national outdoors retailer and went trout fishing on the North Fork of the White River, approximately thirty miles west of West Plains, Missouri. I stayed at the River of Life Farm resort. I learned from owners Myron and Ann McKee their son Jeremy was a wounded soldier and that some soldiers had come to the resort.

As a former newspaper reporter, the wheels started turning in my head. All kinds of wonderful things are available for soldiers when they came back to the states as long as they lived on the East Coast. I was aware of nothing going on in the Midwest.

“I’m willing to open up my place for any wounded warriors at no charge,” Myron said.

First contact
We contacted the Warriors Transition Unit at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, one of approximately three dozen such units throughout the United States. Soldiers who no longer require hospitalization and are not well enough to return to the field or their communities stay in the units for about thirty days. Most have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They don’t have much to do in the units except wait for their next appointments, usually at Veterans Administration medical centers in St. Louis or Columbia.

The Unit Commander at Fort Wood, Major Mark Wilkinson, was enthusiastic about the idea and arranged for a van to take eighteen male and female soldiers to the resort just three weeks after we contacted him. They spent four days river floating, walking hiking trails, and fishing. A colleague and I from my work taught them how to tie flies and fly-fish.

I received permission from Major Wilkinson to interview the soldiers individually. I asked about their experiences, how they were wounded, what happened to them since they returned to the States. Each one I spoke with expressed the same feeling:  “I want to write my story but I don’t have a clue how to do it.”

I know writing can be healing
Researchers have proven that writing can be healing. I know from my own semi-disability—my spine is fused from L2 down—how much healing there is in writing and how it helped me set my head straight about things I was unable to do any more.

Soldiers told me of the stigma they felt with PTSD, that when they go home for short visits people look at them as some sort of freak. Talking with someone who understands or writing about it helps in the recovery process.

When I returned home after the four days, I saw a television news interview with Brigadier General Loree K. Sutton, M.D., the highest ranking psychiatrist in the U.S. Army and director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE). She said due to the high numbers of individuals returning with brain injuries and psychological health diagnoses, it was virtually impossible for the Armed Forces to keep up with the demand on services, “therefore, we call on the communities surrounding veterans to help us find ways to deliver services to them.”

I’m thinking writing therapy. Writers could do that. We are a natural resource because we lead workshops, we’ve been teachers, and many of us are interviewers. I went back to Fort Leonard Wood and visited with Major Wilkinson again.

Next week, Part 2: In search of grant funding.

Deborah Marshall is founder of Missouri Warrior Writers Project. She is president of the Missouri Writers' Guild and a former newspaper reporter and editor who now writes historical fiction, creative nonfiction, and short stories. Her work has been published in medical journals, magazines, and anthologies. 

Photo courtesy Deborah Marshall.

Share your comments of helping veterans write their stories, or tell about a program with which you are familiar. If you are a veteran, have you been in a writing program? If so, what were the results?

Larry McGee: Writing a Memoir is a Special Gift You Can Give Your Family

Larry McGee
Guest article by Larry McGee

I have a close friend who has been struggling with dementia. Not the kind that most of us past 70 experience, but the kind a doctor diagnoses. I hadn’t visited him in some time and decided to spend an afternoon with him.

We go back many years. We were in the same business and often, accompanied by our wives, traveled to national conventions in conjunction with our jobs. We had many stories to relate, and all of them were enjoyable. We shared pictures and memories of more than 30 years. When my wife died unexpectedly, my buddy was at my side and helped me through that difficult time. 

The need to hang on to memories
Now that he needs help, I feel helpless to assist. His dementia has increased to the point that he doesn’t understand that he needs help. I know that he recognizes me, but he can’t speak to me or call me by name. He will shake my hand and occasionally wink at me in a manner that I know he is trying to communicate. The most difficult thing about his illness is that there is no cure.

As I think about my friend, I see the need to hang on to him, if not in person, at least in good memories. His life as we all knew it is gone, and there will be no more fond memories to be made, and he can’t share with us anymore the memories that he holds dear about his life. They are gone, forever locked inside of him. That’s why a person needs to write a memoir. His children will want to know what dad held dear in his life, and they can’t ask him now.

A memory book for my wife
I felt this same need when my wife passed away. She of course had shared with me what events were important to her as we shared 37 years together. So after her death, I wrote for her a memory book complete with pictures and addressed a section to each of our grandchildren. I was sure that without such a memoir, grandma might be forgotten as they grew to adulthood. I don’t know if they occasionally read it today, but I am sure they will when they want to share with someone else who their grandmother was.

I haven’t written my memoir yet, but I intend to. Visiting my dear friend drives home the necessity to complete mine before I, too, find it impossible to do. The memoir doesn’t have to be lengthy and doesn’t have to include tidbits from childhood. It should however, be in your own words so that your loved ones can understand better who you were in real life. Even though we may live with loved ones for years, we seldom share with them our innermost thoughts. Surprisingly, many children have a different understanding of who their parents are than what the parents were hoping to exhibit.

Book, video, or audio
Some people feel incapable of writing a memoir. It doesn’t have to be a book and doesn’t have to be written. In this modern day of communication, the manner in which it is compiled is endless. Video and audio recordings would be even better to leave loved ones. Dictating to someone else to write would be OK, but loved ones want to read or hear a memoir in the first person.

What should I include? My advice is to include what you want your children and grandchildren to remember about you. Who you were growing up and what you became as a result of that upbringing. Share with your loved ones, not only thoughts, but pictures, videos, cards and letters that you accumulated over the years. There is no end to the imagination that you can put into your memoir. Happy creating!

Columnist Larry McGee writes "Fibber's Closet" for the Miami County Republic, Paola, Kansas. This article was first published in the newspaper November 9, 2011. Photo and article reprinted with permission.

Share comments on what you are doing to preserve memories for your children and grandchildren.

Home Grown Books: You Can Start a Holiday Tradition

Left to right: Schyrlet Cameron,
Carolyn Craig, Kathy Brown





Sitting in your favorite chair—comfy, soothing, quiet—reading an engrossing book. Intoxicating aroma of hot coffee from a new mug surrounds your space, coffee brewed with fresh-ground Arabica beans.

Wait a minute. That’s not you? Wossamotta U? (Hats off to Rocky and Bullwinkle.)

It could be you if you ordered your book, mug, and coffee beans from Home Grown Books and KeenBean Coffee Roasters, Mount Vernon, Missouri. Treat yourself or start a holiday gift tradition while giving a boost to self-published authors who live in the Ozarks.

“This is a perfect fit for our authors and just one of the ways we help them promote their self-published books,” says Home Grown Books co-founder Schyrlet (as in Charlotte) Cameron.

In the beginning
Home Grown Books was started by Cameron, her sister Kathy Brown, and Carolyn Craig as a result of their own experiences. The women vacationed together several times and when they returned home told stories of their trips, embellished for more fun. Friends and family encouraged them to write a novel and publish it. The trio went with the popular vampire theme.

“It had to be humorous, not scary like other vampire books,” says Cameron. “The women had to be strong and get the best of the vampires instead of being victims. We figured the big traditional publishing houses wouldn’t be interested, so we self-published.”

They used the pseudonym CC Brown as the author of their paranormal thriller, Dark Side. The book was awarded Best of Show at the 2011 Northern Oklahoma Literary Arts Book Festival and chosen the Number One Summer Read by the Springfield News-Leader in 2011. It is available at Amazon.com  and BarnesandNoble.com. It is also in Barnes & Noble stores in Springfield, St. Louis, Kansas City, Tulsa, and San Antonio. The authors held book signings in each of those cities.

“Too many new authors don’t understand that publishers, agents, distributors, and readers are not going to break down doors to get their books,” says Cameron. Authors also don’t understand how to promote their books. That’s where Home Grown Books comes in using the bookstore-within-a-coffee-shop business model.

Their first two stores
Tracy and Darrell Bradshaw, owners of KeenBean Coffee Roasters, agreed to rent bookshelf space. The Bradshaws are supportive of the arts, showcasing and selling works of local artists and crafters in their sixties-style coffee shop. Carolyn Craig built bookshelves which she and others installed. First on the shelves were Dark Side and books of Betty Craker Henderson who writes novels for young adults.

“The exposure is good for me,” says Henderson. “I get more sales from this method than with book signings.”

It’s a win-win for everyone.

“We really like supporting local authors,” says Tracy Bradshaw. “We get customers and customers get an extra treat.”

Four months after opening and with fifteen authors on board, Home Grown Books expanded to Maggie Mae’s Tea Room in Miller, Missouri. Owner Marsha Hill was already displaying books by several authors and liked the idea of adding shelf space.

“It’s a wonderful way to show appreciation for our local authors,” says Hill.

Today, Home Grown Books has thirty authors and is looking for another location.

How the process works
An author of fiction or nonfiction, whether self-published or traditional, provides five to ten books and pays Home Grown Books ten dollars per month to help cover the shelf rental fees. Reading areas are available in the stores. Visitors find a book they like and pay for it at checkout. Stores record sales and turn over the money monthly to Home Grown Books, which forwards the money to authors. Authors receive 100% of their book’s cover price.

Sales are not guaranteed and not every member sells a book every month. To increase the likelihood of sales, Home Grown Books helps authors find speaking engagements, book signings, newspaper and broadcast interviews, buys newspaper advertising, has an online bookstore, and is developing video trailers for authors.

“At the present time this is a fun volunteer project for us,” says Cameron. “Perhaps down the road we can work out a way for us to make money. For now, we’re happy helping Ozarks authors become successful who otherwise might not receive recognition and payment.”

What’s next? Perhaps a how-to book detailing the Home Grown Books model of book promotion and sales.

In the meantime, visit Home Grown Books and order your fresh-ground Arabica coffee beans, mug, and book and start your tradition for the holidays. Shipped anywhere in the world. You provide the comfortable chair.

View a TV interview about the project and visit the Home Grown Books blog

Schyrlet Cameron has thirty-four years of experience as an elementary and middle school teacher. She has authored or co-authored thirteen teacher resource books. Carolyn Craig has twenty-six years of experience as an elementary and middle school teacher and has co-authored nine teacher resource books. Kathy Brown is a licensed preschool educator, has thirty years of experience in early childhood education, and owns and operates a preschool day care.

Photo courtesy Schyrlet Cameron.

Tell us about your experiences in a promotional group for local authors in your area.

Ira Wagler: Growing Up Amish

Ira Wagler
Book Review: Growing Up Amish
A Memoir by Ira Wagler
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2011
Paperback, 288 pages


No cars. No electricity. No telephones.

Horse-drawn buggies for transportation and to power farming implements.

Long-flowing, home-sewn dresses and head coverings with chin strings for the women and girls. Homemade trousers with no belt loops and no zipper for the men and boys; pants held up by suspenders. Beards but no mustaches for the married men.

And the bishop’s word is law.

This was the Old Order Amish community of Aylmer, Ontario into which Ira Wagler was born in 1961. He was one of eleven children, four of whom—including him—would leave the church. Two brothers and a sister left while the family was in Aylmer. Such leavings were an embarrassment to parents, reflecting on their abilities and methods of raising children. To escape the embarrassment and to keep the family Amish, his parents moved the family to an Amish community in Bloomfield, Iowa.

A note under his pillow
In Growing Up Amish, Wagler writes clearly, simply, and convincingly of the struggles he faced with the rules and restrictions of Amish life. Those who did not question what they were told were called drones. Those with a “speck of spirit” longed for worldly things.

“Think about it. You are in a box—a comfortable box, but a pretty confining one. You wonder what’s outside. You peek out a bit now and then, and peer around. But deep down, you know that if you step outside that box, you are speeding directly down the highway to hell and could arrive at any instant. Boom, just like that.”

He stepped outside the box at age seventeen when he left home, early in the morning before sunrise, leaving a note under his pillow. Young Amish often left like that. He worked farms and construction in Kansas, Montana, Indiana, the Dakotas, Florida, and Ontario; took up smoking cigarettes, hard drinking, and running around with “English” women. He was excommunicated from the Order and later reinstated after confessing his sins—specifically, one at a time—before a board of elders.

“I’d done a lot of bad stuff, possibly even committed the unpardonable sin. Blasphemed the Holy Spirit, that horrendous act about which Amish preachers often thundered at great length and warned against. None had ever, as far as I could remember, defined that unpardonable sin. What it meant to blaspheme the Spirit. But it probably applied to me and the things I’d done. Who could tell?”

Trying to fit in
Wagler returned home and left again numerous times. During one home period he attempted to settle permanently into the Amish life. He and a brother-in-law bought out the farming business of Wagler’s father and he became engaged to a woman he knew for many years. But, with little interest in farming operations and his restless spirit tearing at him, he broke off the engagement and turned over the farm to his partner.

“Behind me lay a long and bitter trail, littered with the remains of so many broken dreams, some of which were my own, but mostly those of others.”

At age twenty-six he left the idealistic and sheltered life of the Amish church for good. He remains a Christian.

“Even though they no longer claim me as one of their own, I deeply respect the people connected to me by blood or background—the Amish. Their culture and their faith. With all their flaws. And all their strengths. They will always be a part of me.”

His heartwarming, bestselling memoir of trying to define himself apart from his upbringing is a rollercoaster of emotions: pure, personal, honest, dark, humorous, picturesque, joyful, sad, frustrating, enlightening, depressing, and courageous.

He has no regrets for the road he chose.

Wagler is an attorney and is general manager of a pole building supply company in Pennsylvania. He blogs at www.irawagler.com. Read an interview with him at www.janetober.com.

Photo by Evonda Braswell.

Your review of a memoir or how-to book could appear here. See Guidelines for Guest Posts and Book Reviews. Submissions selected are subject to editing. 

Introductory Offer: Now is the Time

Yours may be among the many families traditionally planning to gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You look forward to relationships strengthened, memories renewed, new stories told.

This is an excellent time to take the first steps to permanently capture your memories; to start writing your memoir, life story, or family history while loved ones are around to enjoy and share. Unpredictable events arise all too quickly.

Put off no longer. Now is the time.

I’m offering to first-time clients a special package at a reduced price to introduce you to my services. This special offer may be used by you, a family member or other loved one, or a friend you recommend.

Why I'm doing this
So you may: 
  • See the benefits of starting now to write your memoir, life story, or family history.
  •  Have a clearer understanding of my services as a personal historian. 
  •  Recommend me to others. 
  •  Consider continuing with a larger project.

The offer 
  1. Free 30-minute consultation to learn your desires and focus of your story. 
  2. Four recorded interviews up to 45 minutes each. These can be by telephone once a week or several times a week. 
  3. A polished manuscript up to 30 pages double-spaced, emailed to you or sent by postal mail. 
  4. Does not include photos or images, genealogical searches, book formatting, book production, or CD. 
  5. Total fee of $495 plus postage. Family members may wish to participate in the cost. One-third is due when we agree to do your project, one-third upon finishing the interviews, and one-third when you receive your manuscript. 
  6. If you decide to continue with a larger project, all of your fee will be applied to the larger project when started within one year.
  7. Your satisfaction is guaranteed.
Get started now
Send me an email or telephone 417-883-4532 for your free consultation. There is no charge or obligation and I would be happy to respond to your questions. Today would be fine.

No Slings and Arrows for Me: Free Stuff for National Life Writing Month; Plus Info on other Writing Observances, Official and Unofficial

November is National Life Writing Month. It is unofficial in the same way as National Family History Month in October: Congress did not pass a concurrent resolution for the President to sign.

Not to let such minutiae deter their commitments to the genres, the faithful forged ahead with observances. Check with your library, writing group, arts council, or college on what may be going on in your area. If you find nothing, I encourage you to start something.

Among activities for National Life Writing Month is a free memoir-writing tele-conversation November 10 from 6-7 p.m. Central Time, sponsored by the nonprofit National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW). Presenters are Denis Ledoux, Nina Amir, and NAMW founder Linda Joy Myers. Sign up and receive the audio link free for thirty days after the event, then it will be for sale. 
Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux
Founder of National Life Writing Month, workshop presenter, life writing coach, and author of Turning Memories into Memoirs. Through his Soleil Lifestory Network, he trains and certifies professionals who want to start a business teaching memoir writing. His free "Memory List Question Book" is thirty-two pages of questions to help memoir writers focus on key events. In observance of National Life Writing Month, Ledoux offers free tele-classes on memoir writing.
Nina Amir

Nina Amir
Founder of Write Nonfiction in November (WNFIN), also unofficial; writing coach, columnist, author of numerous guidebooks including the forthcoming How to Blog a Book, Write, Publish and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books, April 2012). Join her mailing list and receive a free report, "What's an Author's Platform and How Do I Build One?"

Linda Joy Myers

Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D.
Founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, author of instructional programs on writing memoirs and several books, including The Power of Memoir--How to Write Your Healing Story. Join her mailing list and receive a free report, "Begin Your Memoir Today."




Shakespeare and Hamlet revisited
Not wanting to be pelted with slings and arrows if I left out anything close to the hearts of my readers, here are monthly/weekly observances, official and unofficial, I found related to writing:

January
National Book Month

February
Black History Month
National Storytelling Week, first week of February

March
National Women's History Month (I haven't found a National Men's History Month, but that's another soapbox.)

April
National Card and Letter-Writing Month
National Poetry Writing Month

September
National Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 through October 15

October
National Family History Month

November
National American Indian Heritage Month
National Life Writing Month
National Novel Writing Month
Write Nonfiction in November

Photos courtesy Denis Ledoux, Nina Amir, and Linda Joy Myers.

What other national writing observances are you aware of? What are your plans for National Life Writing Month and Write Nonfiction in November? Let us know your experiences from participating in the November 10 tele-conversation and WNFIN. 

Thanks to William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Jonathan Coe for inspiring me to write the longest post title in the history of my blog.

Yvonne Erwin: Ready, Set, Write

Yvonne Erwin
Guest article by Yvonne Erwin

I'm doing a call-out to all writers; any writer within the sound of my voice as it were, all writers who need to know, who need to believe in their voice, to all writers who need to connect with the soul of writing.

Here is what I want you to do:

Go into your private place, the place where you write. Never mind where; it can be on the couch in front of the TV with a paper tablet and pencil, or on the dining room table with your typewriter. You may not have an actual room complete with a door and computer. Point is, just go. Go to that place.

Sit down, get comfortable. No phones. No TV. Absolutely no Internet. No distractions. Ask your husband/wife to get the kids a snack. Close the door, if you're lucky enough to have a door. Tune-in to yourself. Turn on whatever music you need to begin the process. I've been told that Stephen King writes to hard rock and that music by Mozart stimulates the creative side of the brain. No matter. Turn on whatever brings you inspiration, whatever wakes your writing side. If you prefer silence, fine. Just bring yourself into that place where you can write.

Now, write or type the first thing, the first thought that comes to your mind. Write it down; don't worry about it being physically perfect, just get it out of your brain. Let it go now, let it breath, let it take on a life of its own.

Don't think about it, don't analyze it, simply let the process begin within you. You're giving birth now. Isn't that a gas?

Write another sentence, and another and another. Allow yourself to enter into that place where you begin to flow; let go, let go. It's not scary. You can do it.

For a first time experiment, I'd say give it twenty or so minutes, although I will not tell you to watch the clock. Your internal clock will dictate. However, if you quit sooner, or if you sit all day writing, don't worry about it. See where it goes; just follow along. Don't worry about formatting. Don't worry about anything proper. Simply get those thoughts out of the bucket of your soul, out of your brain and heart, and put them onto the page as words.

Come back and tell me what you wrote and what your experience was.

Freelance writer Yvonne Erwin is vice president of Springfield (Missouri) Writers' Guild. Her nonfiction has been published in Weeping Waters 3rd Edition and fiction in Glimmertrain. She blogs at y-write.blogspot.com.

Photo by Doris Plaster.

I'm looking for guest writers. If you would like to see your article published here, please read Guidelines for Guest Posts and Book Reviews. Submissions selected are subject to editing.

Value Your Life Story

Stylized theater masks 
for comedy and tragedy
“There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” Mark Twain

Each student in my monthly writing classes brings something different while having other things in common. This different-but-same framework creates new dynamics with each class. Students are male and female, younger and older; married and single; experienced writers, new writers, and would-be writers. Often, they come to class with preconceived ideas—obstacles that keep them from starting to write their memoirs, life stories, or family histories. They say things like:

“I don’t know where to begin.”
“I’m not a writer.”
“My family and friends will think I’m conceited.”
“Nobody is interested in what I’ve done.”
“There is too much hurt for me to write.”
“I can’t reveal family secrets.”

Motivation is the key
As we work through techniques to help them overcome these obstacles, I impress upon them the most important aspect of writing their life stories—grasping motivation. I tell them, “When you know why you want to write your story, then you will be able to write your story.

Common motivations include: leaving a family legacy, celebrating charitable or public service, going from rags to riches, witnessing to a life of faith (or struggling to find faith), surviving a loss or lessons learned from a health tragedy, distilling business advice based on experience, healing wounds, sharing stories of romances won and lost or just-for-fun travel experiences.

Budding memoirist Kathleen Pooler says: “My intention in writing my memoir is not to seek revenge or disparage anyone. But in order to bring my story alive, I have to expose my experiences, my vulnerabilities, my feelings, my truth despite the repercussions from others, at least in my first draft. I can change names, identifying features at the end. But I can’t change my own truth.”

Your story belongs to you, not anyone else. You own it. You will remember differently, feel differently, and change differently than those who enter and exit your story. Give yourself permission to write your story your way.

Novelist, nonfiction writer, and College of Charleston professor Bret Lott advises his students to write “from your own chair.” They have deep wells of materials from their own viewpoints and their own experiences and their own stories. And so do you.

Why life stories are valuable
Author and memoir-writing instructor Linda Thomas says life stories are valuable because they:
Are among God’s most powerful and effective tools.
Bridge gaps between past and future generations.
Fortify timid hearts and soften hard hearts.
Help solve problems.
Inspire readers to make sense of their lives and plan for the future.
Guide, persuade, and influence.
Empower.
Inspire prayer.
Bring healing.
Share wisdom, hope, and faith.
Help readers comprehend and remember more readily than do facts, figures, rules, lectures, or sermons.
Help readers make important decisions.
Help readers discover God’s purposes for their lives.
Make a difference.
Can change individuals, families, communities, towns, nations—and even the world!
Can change lives for eternity.

Your life story is valuable. Decide now to put it into writing for your family and friends.

Kathleen Pooler is a retired family nurse practitioner writing a memoir about extraordinary events in her life through her faith in God. She blogs at Memoir Writer’s Journey.  

Linda Thomas worked for Wycliffe Bible Translators for eleven years in South America and Africa.
Her memoir, Grandma's Letters from Africa, is about her first four years in Africa.“Stories are valuable” adapted from her spiritualmemoirs101.com.

Image courtesy www.angelfire.com. Artist unknown. 


What obstacles have you faced in starting to write your memoir, life story, or family history? What specifically have you done to overcome the obstacles?

Boyd Lemon: Challenge and Healing in Writing My Memoir

Boyd Lemon
Guest article by Boyd Lemon

When I decided to publish a memoir about my role in the destruction of my three marriages, Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages, I struggled with the fact that I would be disclosing intimate details about my marriages and the conduct of my ex-wives. Ultimately, after much soul searching, I came to the conclusion I must simply tell the relevant truth as I perceived it. There would be no point in publishing a watered-down version.

My truth
The word “relevant” is important. The memoir is about my role in the failure of the marriages. It would be cruel to disclose facts that were not necessary to the theme of my book, if I disclosed details for the mere sake of embarrassing my ex-wives, to show what bad people they were, or for revenge. But to disclose relevant parts of their conduct in the marriage was necessary to understand my truth. I was very careful not to talk about extraneous conduct of my ex-wives. In the end, the memoir was my memoir, not theirs, so it had to be from my perspective. I recognized that. But I didn’t have to trash them in the process, and I don’t think that I did.

I dug deep to see the issues from my wives' perspective, but in the end, they collaborated with me in destroying the marriages, no doubt about it. So I decided to tell the whole truth, as I saw it.

I tried to be as factually accurate as humanely possible and as memory allows, but I concede I wrote from my perspective and my memory. I did consult with two of my ex-wives, who agreed to talk to me about several specific issues and I mention those in the book. Otherwise, I didn't ask them for their points of view. I didn't intend to write a debate about who was at fault.

My wives
I told each of my wives in advance I was writing the memoir; I didn't want to hide it from them. I got no reaction except from my third wife, who said it made her nervous and she hoped I would decide not to publish it. I decided not to show them any pre-publication drafts because that would have resulted in endless debate about the accuracy and fairness of what I wrote.



After publication, my first wife said the book was well written, that she thoroughly enjoyed it and read it twice. My second wife did not respond to me, but from our adult children I understand she was very upset. I'm sorry about that. My third wife told me she would not read it because it would upset her too much.

Although it seems obvious now, I wasn’t aware when I started writing the memoir what its affect on me would be. As I began trying to see issues from my wives’ perspective, my role in the failure of those marriages became increasingly apparent to me, something I had kept buried. To realize this was emotionally devastating at first. I consulted with a therapist in hopes she could shed some light on my role. She helped me understand the guilt I felt as I unearthed my contributions to issues in the marriages. I was especially guilt ridden about the four children of the marriages. Fortunately (I don’t know how), our children turned out to be productive and reasonably well-adjusted.

My healing
What was surprising to me was that after I finished the book, having understood for the first time a lot about my role in the destruction of these marriages, I felt healed, at peace with myself about my marriages. I hadn’t realized what a burden it was to carry around those unexamined issues and how rewarding it felt to be relieved of that burden. I now realize how important it is after the breakup of a marriage or any committed relationship to examine and understand one’s role in what happened, rather than just burying the issues and “moving on” as I had done.

I also realized that not just thinking about these issues, but writing about them, was a big part of the healing. There is something about expressing these insights in writing that makes them graphic and permanent. So for anyone who likes to write, I especially recommend writing as a means of healing. I would have been thrilled to have written this memoir, even if I hadn’t published it, or even if it hadn’t sold a single copy, simply because of how it healed me.

Boyd Lemon lives in California. He is a member of the California Bar and the Bar of the United States Supreme Court. He may be reached at www.boydlemon-writer.com. His book is available in print and in Kindle and Nook editions.

Photo courtesy Boyd Lemon.

What challenges have you faced writing about painful memories?

October is Family History Month, Unofficially

Meerkats have close-knit families.
October will be observed as Family History Month by many states, libraries, genealogical societies, and other groups.

Each year since 2000, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has introduced a resolution adopted by the Senate declaring October National Family History Month. It is not official, though, unless the President of the United States issues a proclamation, and he can’t issue a proclamation unless the House and Senate pass a concurrent resolution.

While we’re waiting on the House and the President (did you bring your sleeping bag, snacks, and flashlight?) here are some resources you can use now.

National Park Service –
NPS declares “more than 80 million Americans are believed to be actively searching for more information about their ancestors.” The NPS Teaching with Historic Places series offers lesson plans focusing on family heritage, including well-known and lesser-known figures and places in U.S. history. 

Minnkota Genealogical Society, Grand Forks, North DakotaSixteen suggestions including creating a family cookbook, photo album, and family tree.

About.com Ten tips including recording family stories, uncovering your family health history, and crafting a heritage gift. Missouri observes November as Family Health History Month.

Get serious about starting your family tree – Onegreatfamily.com and ancestry.com are among fee-based sites. 1000memories.com is a free site that enables you to bring your albums, scrapbooks, and photo-filled shoe boxes out of the closet and into an online shareable space.

Start a family history blog – Several free blog-hosting services are available. Find out more at familysearch.org

Public libraries – Check with your public, college, or university library for suggestions and materials. Watch a three-minute YouTube video by Mooresville, Indiana Public Library. The Library of Michigan has a day-long Family History Month Workshop October 29 in Lansing.

Regional observances – Your state university, local library, and newspaper are places to search for regional observances. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill series, Documenting the American South, is highlighting “slave narratives that preserve family histories, lineages, and traditions.”

Give family members a blank notebook – Here is a list of fifty-three questions to jog memories.

Ten Steps to Discover Your Roots – Family Tree Magazine has a free webinar you can watch or you can download the presentation as a slide show.

If you would like the President to declare October National Family History Month next year, write to him and to your Representative and Senator. How to write Members of Congress. Contact forms are on their websites, but a handwritten or typed one-page letter is more effective. The President’s address is: The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.

What is going on in your city, county, or state to observe Family History Month? How will you participate?

Photo: Meerkats at the Auckland Zoo, New Zealand by Ashleigh Thompson.

To Tell the Truth

The Plain Truth
This article is a variation of my guest post on Sharon Lippincott’s blog, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing.

A common oath for courtroom witnesses is: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” While witnesses may still raise their right hands, the use of a Bible in taking the oath has mostly gone out of favor in deference to a variety religious beliefs. The word God is deleted for Atheists and Muslims.

Rotary International encourages members to use its Four-Way Test in all personal and business matters: "Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?"

Which brings me to memoirs; to what extent are writers of memoirs required to tell the truth? After all, a memoir is a collection of remembrances, not an exercise in journalism. The best memoirs tell good stories with conflicts, lessons learned, issues resolved or not, and changes that bring growth. Can a memoirist accurately and fairly remember all that stuff, especially the dialogue? And do readers really care?

Liars or good storytellers?
Storytelling has its extremes. Local and regional liars’ clubs encourage the telling of tall tales for fun. Mary Karr, in The Liars' Club: A Memoir, tells of “a terrific family of liars and drunks” with tidbits and chunks of redeeming truths. Some critics claimed to be unable to tell whether, in some cases, Karr was retelling a fabrication or creating one. She made up the name Leechfield, Texas as her hometown, probably to spare the feelings of residents of her real hometown because of the gritty and raw nature of her childhood.

James Frey was embarrassed by national media when the media revealed much of his bestseller, A Million Little Pieces, was made up; Oprah Winfrey publicly rebuked him for lying after she initially praised him.

A lot of movies are declared to be based on true stories. Based on are the operative words; in many cases, if not most, the opening credits should include, “Some of the following is true.”

Does memoir qualify as creative nonfiction, that ambiguous and relatively new term for using fiction writing techniques to tell true stories? Lee Gutkind posits creative nonfiction encourages personal viewpoint and conjecture.

One way to evaluate a memoir
Ben Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo, writing for the Nieman Storyboard project at Harvard University, declared there are no simple answers for the complex questions surrounding truth in memoirs. That said, they tried to take on the problems of memoir inaccuracies by constructing a scoring system, a system they admit is half-facetious and half-serious. They rate inaccuracies according to their negative reflections on people, living or dead; corroboration of facts; questionable dialogue; clich√©s and flat writing; and self-deprecation. A passing score is 65 out of 100. They applied their scoring to nine memoirs from the year 397 CE to 2009 CE. Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast received a 69, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces got 29, and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life got 69. Read the full scoring report and download a printable worksheet to evaluate your memoir. It is a subjective process, since we are all biased about our own work, but it could prove insightful.

The bottom line
What does all this mean for today’s writers of memoirs? If you want to be accepted and respected then you must be as accurate and truthful as possible. What does it mean for today’s readers of memoirs, who are the final judges because they approve or reject memoirs based on what they buy? As Yagoda and DeLorenzo said, “. . . an informed reader has to make the call.”

Photo: First page of The Plain Truth, a 1747 political pamphlet published by Benjamin Franklin. Courtesy www.librarycompany.org.

What challenges have you faced in writing the truth in your memoir, life story, or family history?

Richard and Judy Dockrey Young: Making Your Family Story Worth Telling

Judy and Richard
Guest article by Richard and Judy Dockrey Young

Every family has stories. Family members involved in those stories find them fascinating. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the human race couldn’t care less. To make your family story come alive, focus not so much on family and more on story.

Give your characters multi-dimensions
A story must have characters, the actors in the action of the story. Make your characters interesting by giving them several layers. “My Uncle John...who never left the house without his red suspenders...” Mention veterans’ service, any good works for which the character is remembered, anything unique that adds to the listeners’ understanding of who your characters are. “Your Aunt Dolly, who was the only woman to win the Barker County Fair pie eating contest...” Your listeners (or readers) must care about the characters and about what happens to them. Make them human, not superhuman (unless your Uncle Albert was surnamed Schweitzer) or simple stereotypes. Make them sympathetic, such that we care about them; we feel with them the pain of the problems they face.

A well-told story must have a plot, or storyline, and that almost always involves a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, most anecdotes from families already involve a problem faced by the members since simple daily events like cooking breakfast rarely evince a memory worthy of being preserved in an anecdote. If all you have is an event like how Grandma cooked breakfast, compare it to modern kitchen gadgets...use thought-provoking and memory-evoking words to recreate the event. “She made white sausage gravy so thick the spoon would stand up in the bowl!” Even properly presented, such a non-event might be dull to your listeners and readers.

Go beyond just the facts
The listener (or reader) also needs to know the setting, the ambiance, the milieu of the story. Don’t just list a lot of cold facts (...the northwest corner of Township 9 Range 11 in Bowie County...) Use words that pull up memory pictures like “log cabin, Dust Bowl, North Woods, Arizona desert, brownstone, Victorian home” etc. Use sensory words (taste, smell, touch, sound, sights) and emotional ties (“I loved the way she always put honey into hot tea.”) Include details you remember about the room, the house, the barn, or wherever the story takes place. A long list of facts, with no sensory or emotional ties, is usually boring. Compare “The log cabin was really old.” to “The faint scent of pine lingered, even though the logs of the cabin had been cut fifty years before.”

Once you create characters listeners/readers care about, in a setting they can understand and appreciate, the plot or storyline must flow quickly to keep their attention. Rising action describes how the problem unfolds and worsens. The climax--which is usually not the end of the story, unless it’s some kind of joke story--tells how the problem was solved or the event came to an end. After that, the so-called falling action or d√©noument (French for “untying the knot”) should be very brief. Most inexperienced storytellers talk long after the story has technically ended.

Combine dialogue and traits
Unless your story must be absolutely exact in its details, consider combining two or even several characters into one for simplicity. For example, have the uncle say what he actually said, plus what the neighbor said. The fewer the characters, the tighter the construction of the story.

If it’s a comic story, you might stretch the actual happenings for comic effect, but don’t go overboard. “Uncle Josh got bit three times by that billy goat before he realized it wasn’t...” (he really only got bit once, but if he stuck around to get bit twice more, the effect may be funnier.)

Repeated images can give structure to action and may add humor (“No matter where we moved to, pretty soon there was a pile of useful junk behind the chicken house...”) But, again, don’t go overboard.

One of the best tests of your story (or memoir) is peer review by non-family members.

Best wishes and may all your stories be well-told!

Richard and Judy Dockrey Young of Kimberling City, Missouri are authors of nine books on storytelling. They present workshops and programs for children, libraries, professional storytellers, and nonprofessionals. They may be reached at www.yawp.com/stories/.

Photo: Mark Anderson

What storytelling techniques have you found most useful, or troublesome, in writing your life story?

Dawn and Morris Thurston: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read

Morris and Dawn Thurston
Book Review: Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read
Dawn Thurston and Morris Thurston
Signature Books, 2007
Softcover, 213 pages including index and appendices

This book is in my reading guide at amazon.com.

Husband and wife Dawn and Morris are teachers and writers who took a genealogy course together and were hooked on the stories of their ancestors, not just the names and dates. Dawn is the author of a book about her Scottish grandparents, Remembering William Miller and Bella Bullock Miller. Morris is the author of a book about his great-great-grandfather, Tora Thurston: The History of a Norwegian Pioneer.

Breathe Life into Your Life Story
On their students: “Few begin the writing process knowing which stories they will end up telling, what themes will merge, what form it will take.”

On would-be memoir writers: “Most are everyday people writing about everyday experiences. The problem isn’t the content of their stories; it’s the way they tell them.”

On writing: “It’s obvious to most people that they can’t learn to play the piano or master an athletic skill simply by reading a book about it. The same principle applies to writing. We learn by doing.”

On recalling conversations: “Most memoirs contain conversations [and incidents] the author can’t possibly remember verbatim unless someone recorded them. We understand this, trusting the author has probably done her best to recall the event as honestly as she can.”

The Thurstons address these issues and much more by showing how to use fiction-writing techniques to write a compelling life story, including:
  • Begin with action.
  • Show rather than tell.
  • Focus on key events.
  • Give your characters (that would be your relatives, friends, colleagues) personalities and behaviors.
  • Link your life to historical events.
  • Use conflict and suspense.

Learn by doing
An appendix of learn-by-doing exercises lists thirty-nine specific things to resurrect your memories and construct your stories. Our brains are muddled by many excuses for not starting.

“My life is not worth writing about.”

“I don’t know correct grammar and punctuation.”

“People will think I’m arrogant.”

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes I can’t write about.”

To which the authors say: “Ignore the noise in your head. Trust your heart. Get your feet wet.” If you follow their plan, you will be energized and satisfied, you will develop new insights, you will have pride in your accomplishments, and at times you won’t be able “to get the words onto the page fast enough.”

Writing is a learned skill. It can be a painful struggle. But the Thurstons’ practical recommendations, based on years of teaching and observing, mentoring and coaching, writing and publishing, will not only get you started right with a solid foundation, they will keep you going to finish your life story.

“We have had the satisfaction of seeing many of our students blossom into wonderful writers.”

The book is laid out with plenty of white space so you can follow the text comfortably. To reinforce key points, the lessons are punctuated with quotes from well-known writers including E. L. Doctorow, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Clancy, and Alfred Hitchcock.

Breathe Life into Your Life Story is available online and in bookstores.

If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? How did it help you, or not? Is there another book you recommend? To write a book review or guest article for this blog, see guidelines

Photo courtesy Dawn and Morris Thurston.

Next week: More on storytelling by master storytellers Richard and Judy Dockrey Young.