Cultural and Literary Events for January 2014

Courtesy Society for Storytelling
Food for your body and food for your brain, self-defense, self-help, and self-love are among this month's cultural and literary events. Use them as memory joggers for writing your life story or for having fun in your community. Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area.

Not all cultural and literary events are declared official by government agencies. Some are by passionate nonprofit groups whose members want to have fun with their topics or get the word out about their important work. Listings are for the United States unless noted.

National Storytelling Week
United Kingdom, February 1-8 
Heads-up, as this event is the first week of February.

Be Kind to Food Servers Month
Be On-Purpose Month
Book Blitz Month
Brain Teaser Month International
Celebration of Life Month
Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month International
Clean Up Your Computer Month
Creativity Month International
Get Organized Month
Glaucoma Awareness Month
Mentoring Month   
New Year's Resolution Month for Business International 
Oatmeal Month   
Personal Self-Defense Awareness Month
Poverty in America Awareness Month
Radon Action Month
Rising Star Month International
Self-Help Group Awareness Month
Self-Love Month
Shape Up US Month
Skating Month
Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month
Stalking Awareness Month
Volunteer Blood Donor Month
Wayfinding Month International
Wealth Mentality Month International  

What January event most influences writing your life story? What are you doing in your community to observe a special event?

Some listings courtesy Chase's Calendar of Events.

Cultural and Literary Events for December 2013

December is a great month for fruits and vegetables: Quince and Watermelon Month
(I had to look up quince), Root Vegetables and Exotic Fruits Month (think quince), Tomato and Winter Squash Month.

Vegetables not your thing? Then you may want to celebrate Cooked Grasshoppers Month. Think of the protein. Think of dipping them into chocolate. Think of dark chocolate.

If you're not into food, then you could Write to a Friend or Write a Business Plan.

Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area. Listings are for the United States unless noted.

Not all cultural and literary events are declared official by government agencies. Some are by passionate nonprofit groups whose members want to have fun with their topics or get the word out about their important work.

Art and Architecture Month
Bingo's Birthday Month
Closed Caption TV Month
Colorectal Cancer Education and Awareness Month
Cooked Grasshoppers Month
Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Month
Hi Neighbor Month
Identity Theft Prevention and Awareness Month
International Calendar Awareness Month
Learn A Foreign Language Month
Made In America Month
Merry Merchants Month
Most Fun Month
Operation Santa Paws
Poor Looking Winter Month
Quince and Watermelon Month
Read a new book month
Root Vegetables and Exotic Fruits Month
Safe toy and Gift Month
Sign Up for Summer Camp Month
Stress-Free Family Holiday Month
Spiritual Literacy Month
Take a New Year’s Resolution to Stop Smoking Month
Tie Month
Tomato and Winter Squash Month
Universal Human Rights Month
World Aids Month
Write a Business Plan Month
Write to a Friend Month

What December event most influenced writing your life story? What are you doing in your community to observe a special event? 

List courtesy Holidays for Today, BrownieLocks, and Chase's Calendar of Events.

Photo courtesy Collegiate Pawpage

Trail of Tears Hiker Turns Journal into Memoir

Cherokee Trail of Tears Park
Jackie Warfel in Choctaw dress, and Ron Cooper
Journaling can clarify and organize your thoughts, aid in problem solving, and help reduce stress. By creating a record of your experiences, journaling also can be a springboard to memoir writing, as Ron Cooper can affirm.

In the summer of 2009, he was working in concessions at Olympic National Park, eighty miles northwest of Seattle, and looking for a long-distance trail to hike. Up to then, he had done no more than two-day excursions.

“I wanted to hike a trail that had more meaning for my Native American heritage,” he told me. He is a member of the Comanche Nation.

Why he chose the Trail of Tears
He and his wife Kristal are RVers who travel to seasonal jobs throughout the United States. 

“We researched places I would like to visit before walking a trail. I chose the Trail of Tears because it is a symbolic story that interconnects all Native American tribes. I wanted to understand what really happened on the Trail with the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. The tribes adopted many Anglo-European customs during the colonial period. They lived in log cabins and brick homes, and were plantation owners and business owners. Tragically, our government forcibly moved the tribes to Oklahoma during more than a decade following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.”

The Coopers’ seasonal work took them to Kentucky and then Georgia. They visited numerous Indian museums and sites in Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee. In mid-January 2011, Ron started his hike in Charleston, Tennessee, where the Cherokee agency was at the time of the removal and where General Winfield Scott set up his headquarters for the removal process. Ron chose the Northern Route, one of thirteen removal trails. He estimated it would take him three months to hike the Trail's 835 miles. He carried the usual camping gear: tent, sleeping bag, cooking and eating utensils. If he could not find a suitable camping site, he stayed in the RV driven by Kristal. They kept in touch by cell phones. Maps and a Global Positioning System helped him stay on the Trail, although in some areas the Trail was not marked.

Warm welcomes all along the way
“Without exception, people along the route were wonderful. They waved or honked as they drove by, stopped on the side of the road to ask questions, or invited me for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. A few let me stay in their homes.”  Some walked with him, usually a few miles. A man in Kentucky, though, walked with him the entire ninety-five miles of the Kentucky Trail of Tears. In Missouri, members of the Greene County Historic Sites Board, including Jackie Warfel (in photo) and others, walked with him on portions of the 29.5-mile Trail across the county from northeast to southwest.

In the southwest corner of the county, at the Cherokee Trail of Tears Park in the town of Battlefield, ten days before the end of his journey, he and Kristal received a spiritual blessing from medicine healer Robert Tallbird whose heritage is Cheyenne and Cree. "Ron honored all of our nations with his journey," Robert told me. About a dozen persons participated in the ceremony, including news reporters and photographers. It made no difference whether anyone was Native or non-Native. "We were united as a group, because one guy had decided to walk the Trail of Tears," Ron wrote in his book.

It took him three months and three days to walk the entire Trail, ending in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, capital of the Cherokee Nation. Kristal arranged a reception at the Cherokee Heritage Center.

“She had some of the people I met along the Trail in Arkansas and southwest Missouri. My grandfather and my aunt came from Lawton, Oklahoma. The editor of my tribe’s newspaper came to interview me. I met a descendant of the principal chief of the removal at the time, John Ross. And I met a candidate for chief of the Cherokee Nation who later was elected chief.”

Adventurer becomes author
During Ron's hike, reporters for radio, television, and newspapers in small towns and big cities interviewed him. Kristal kept a scrapbook. Ron kept daily records of his journey in a notebook and a digital voice recorder and turned his journal into a book, It’s My Trail, Too: A Comanche Indian’s Journey on the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The book combines memoir, trail guide, history, and philosophy.

“I feel like I accomplished far more than I expected," he told me. "I learned about the Cherokee and details of the Trail. Even if no one else ever knew I walked, just the fact that I finished it was enough for me. The attention of news media and the physical, mental, and spiritual support of people along the way were all icing on the cake.” 

Tell us about your journaling and plans to turn it into a memoir, or your memoir published from your journal. What did you learn? How did you grow and change?

Photo: Jackie Warfel and Ron Cooper at the annual re-dedication ceremony, Cherokee Trail of Tears Park, Battlefield, Missouri, May 18, 2013. Photo: Wayne E. Groner.

The thirteen routes of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail total 5,045 miles in nine states. The Trail is administered by the National Park Service in partnership with other federal, state, and local agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners. More at

Cultural and Literary Events for November 2013

November is Lifewriting Month.
Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area. Listings are for the United States unless noted.

Not all cultural and literary events are declared official by government agencies. Some appear because passionate groups want to have fun with their topics or get the word out about their important work.   

American Indian Heritage Month 
Movember International (Nope, not a misspelling.)
Lifewriting Month
Peanut Butter Lovers' Month (Better than turkey?)

Other events
Adoption Month
Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month
American Diabetes Month
Aviation History Month
Banana Pudding Lovers Month
Bereaved Siblings Month, International
Diabetes Month
Diabetic Eye Disease Month
Family Caregivers Month
Georgia Pecan Month
Inspirational Role Models Month
Long-Term Care Awareness Month
Lung Cancer Awareness Month
Marrow Awareness Month
Novel Writing Month
PPSI AIDS Awareness Month
Vegan Month

What are you doing in your community to observe a special event this month?

Image courtesy The Memoir Network, the founder of which, Denis Ledoux, is the founder of National Lifewriting Month. 

Some information provided by Chases's Calendar of Events.

A Glimpse of Glory – Is it a Memoir?

“We’re not going to be able to keep this quiet,” co-author Yvonne Erwin quotes Rick East as saying about their work on A Glimpse of Glory: My Journey to Heaven and Back.

Rick is a retired mechanical engineer and design draftsman who says he died and went to heaven. Is his book a memoir? I talked with him and Yvonne.

“It started about two days before Christmas in 2012,” he says. “I was at home and had trouble breathing. My wife took me to a hospital emergency room.”

Mysterious symptoms
Tests revealed no causes for his symptoms and he returned home with an inhaler and antibiotics in the event his symptoms turned out to be pneumonia. It didn’t help and he went back to the emergency room and was admitted for more tests.

“One hundred thirty tests later doctors had no idea what was wrong with me. December 25 I went into respiratory failure. My blood pressure went sky high, then nothing, then sky high and back to nothing again. My wife called our daughter who was trying to celebrate Christmas with her in-laws. ‘I think he is dying. I need your help,’ she told her. By the time she arrived, I was almost gone. My daughter rushed to the desk and demanded an emergency response team. ‘You get them here now or I’m calling them,’ she demanded. The emergency team arrived and attached a ventilator. It was too late. My spirit was in heaven.”

Rick says doctors were able to keep his body alive and thought he had a severe stroke. Doctors did not pronounce him clinically dead, but he knows God took his soul and he was in heaven.

A fantastic yellow light
“The minute I became aware I was not on planet earth, the Holy Spirit told me I was in heaven. I was aware of something different, drastically different. I saw a fantastic beautiful light way off on a flat horizon line. It was predominantly yellow mixed in with pastel colors. The light was more beautiful than anything. I said in my spirit, the city of light. The Holy Spirit corrected me and said, ‘No, that’s the city of New Jerusalem or the city of Heaven and you’re on your way there.'”

At that point, Rick says he became euphoric and thought, “I made it. I’m in heaven. I’m not as bad as I thought I was. I’ve been forgiven.” He says he was filled with joy and peace, had no more pain, no more struggling to breathe, and he had a new body. He tried to assess his situation while drifting toward the city. He had no sense of movement, like riding in a hot air balloon.

“People I told this said I probably was on medications or imagining things. It was real to me. When I came back to earth it was a day-and-a-half later, although I had no sense of time in heaven. The first thing I said to my wife was, ‘Why didn’t you just let me die?’ She was devastated by that idea. Later at home, she looked up in the book of Revelation where it describes the City of the New Jerusalem and it was exactly what I had described it. Then she knew I had a real experience.”

Compelled to write his story
Why does he think he was not allowed to enter the city? “So many people were praying for me and I had to come back to share my story. The Holy Spirit told me I had to write this book and told me the title.” 

After he recovered and went home, he asked church friend and author Nick Weyland to come to his house and talk about writing a book. Nick handed him a newspaper clipping about people who are writing near death stories and books. The clipping was from the newspaper the day before.

“And you’re asking me today to help you write your book. This can’t be a coincidence,” Nick said.

Nick turned him down for two reasons. One, Nick writes fiction. Two, he felt their friendship was too close for Nick to be objective. He gave Rick the name of Yvonne Erwin, president of Springfield (Missouri) Writers’ Guild.

Working together felt right
“I edited about twenty-five or so pages and emailed them to Rick,” Yvonne says. “He said he really liked what I did and suggested I be his co-author. I was reluctant, because it was not my story and I was happy to stay in the background. But he persisted and I finally agreed.”

Yvonne knew Rick was genuine. “You hear these types of accounts a lot and sometimes you think, ‘Oh, yeah right.’ However, there’s no way Rick could be anything but genuine. I felt that’s the kind of person I wanted to work with.”

Rick says his communication with the Holy Spirit is not an audible voice, but knowledge given him. “My story is more than just about my trip to heaven and back. It’s about my whole life experience and my relationship with God and the impact He’s had on my life almost from day one.”

Rick and his wife Faith have two grown children, Tammy and Jason.

Leave your comments on whether you think this kind of story is memoir and why.

A Glimpse of Glory is available from in Kindle, softcover, and hardcover editions.

Cultural and Literary Events for October 2013

Now that traditional vacation time is done, it's back to a full schedule of cultural and literary events for the fall. Seems as though October is the ideal month for such events because there are a lot of them.

Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities
in your area. Listings are for the
United States unless noted. 

Family History Month

National Arts and Humanities Month

National Book Month

Adopt-A-Shelter-Dog Month
American Cheese Month
Animal Safety and Protection Month
Antidepressant Death Awareness Month
Audiology Awareness Month
Bake and Decorate Month
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Bullying Prevention Awareness Month
Car Care Month
Celebrating the Bilingual Child Month
Celiac Disease Awareness Month
Chiropractic Health Month
Church Library Month
Co-op Awareness Month
Crime Prevention Month
Cut Out Dissection Month
Cyber Security Awareness Month
Dental Hygiene Month
Depression Education and Awareness Month
Disability Employment Awareness Month
Diversity Awareness Month
Domestic Violence Awareness Month  
Down Syndrome Awareness Month
Dyslexia Awareness Month
Emotional Intelligence Awareness Month
Field Trip Month
Gain the Inside Advantage Month
Gay and Lesbian History Month
German-American Heritage Month
Global Diversity Awareness Month
Go Hog Wild--Eat Country Ham Month
Health Literacy Month
Home Eye Safety Month
Intergeneration Month
Italian-American Heritage Month
Kitchen and Bath Month
Liver Awareness Month
Long-Term Care Planning Month
Medical Librarians Month
Military Appreciation Month
Menopause Month International
Month of Freethought
Organize Your Medical Information Month
Pastor Appreciation Month
Photographer Appreciation Month
Physical Therapy Month
Polish-American Heritage Month
Popcorn Poppin' Month
Positive Attitude Month
Reading Group Month
Rett Syndrome Awareness Month
Right-Brainers Rule Month
Roller Skating Month
Spina Bifida Awareness Month
Spinach Lovers Month
Squirrel Awareness Month
Stamp Collecting Month
Storytelling Festival
Strategic Planning Month International
Talk about Prescriptions Month
Vegetarian Month
Work and Family Month
Workplace Politics Awareness Month 

Image courtesy National Book Foundation.  

Leave your comments on what is going on in your area this month and how you are celebrating.

Some information provided by Chases's Calendar of Events.

On Writing Beginnings: Sol Stein, Stephen King, Lewis Carroll, and a Bit of James Michener

Must have been a great beginning.
I used names of some of the world's best-known authors for the title of this post to be sure search engines would find it. I also used the words on writing for reasons which will be clear. Bear with me for a few sentences—all right, paragraphs—and I will get to my point. (I wouldn’t try this opening line with a publisher or editor, but it works for this post.) 

Although the authors I fuss about below wrote fiction, the principle of beginnings applies to life-story writing. We can learn from their examples, including hypocrisy. And they are big targets.

A friend loaned me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. He said every writer and wannabe writer should own it. I’m not a fan of King, but his success and reputation tell me he is an excellent writer and thus should be an effective teacher of writing. My jury is out on that until I finish the book.

My friend's recommendation caused me to think of Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, which I heard of but had not read. I know nothing of Stein’s works, so I searched for them on (I know, it's easy.) 

Sol Stein 
An blurb at Stein’s Writing said he was the bestselling author of The Magician. I searched The Magician on and looked inside to the first pages. I was stunned (by the way, that is how King begins his Writing). Stein begins The Magician by going on for three pages describing the weather, geography, culture, and history of the town in which his novel is set. At the bottom of the third page he has dialogue by his main character and we learn about the character; that is where he should have started the book. (James Michener got by with starting Hawaii millions of years ago, as well as lengthy time-starts in his other geographical sagas; but, you and I aren’t Michener.)

In Stein on Writing, the second chapter—yes, second chapter—is titled Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs, in which I suppose he gives advice on how to begin by grabbing the reader’s interest and keeping it. His first chapter, for what it’s worth, is on the job of the writer. Huh? Better if it were the last chapter. What’s up with him? I checked for first pages of several Stein novels. Z-z-z-z-z. Stephen King he is not, nor James Patterson nor Mary Higgins Clark.

A little more and I will get to my point.   

Stephen King 
King’s Writing has three forewords, unusual for the number and unusual he wrote them; a foreword usually is written by someone else, while an introduction usually is written by the author. Each of his forewords has an engaging first line. Following the forewords is a part he calls C.V. in the Kindle edition (not titled in the print edition). C.V. stands for curriculum vitae, a name for academic resumes. He begins his C.V. with, “I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club ... she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.”

After the C.V. comes Chapter 1, which begins: “My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy.”

In truth, then, King has five beginnings, all with first lines enticing readers to come on in, this is going to be fun.

In checking the first pages of a handful of King’s books on, he always begins with something interesting, dramatic, bold, or intriguing that draws the reader in. 

Lewis Carroll 
Near the end of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, White Rabbit prepared to read a convoluted indictment of the Prince of Hearts who was accused of stealing tarts. “But, Majesty,” White Rabbit asked the queen, “Where do I begin?” The queen replied, “Begin at the beginning.” For writers, that means begin with the action, even if you begin in the middle. One piece of advice I heard or read: Begin with the activity that made a difference to your lead character, as that is what drives your story.

I recommend that approach to students in my memoir-writing class and hope I adhere to it in my articles, blog posts, books, and presentations; I try to be more enticing than clever. King and many other successful writers do it in fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. We can learn good memoir-writing techniques from fiction writers (some editors and publishers categorize memoir as fiction); take-aways include engaging start, strong middle, and satisfying end; plot, characterization, scene, voice, and dialogue. 

I invite you to weigh in with your comments. How strongly do you practice beginning your story with the incident that made a difference? Not just the start of your book, but the start of chapters and scenes? Are first sentences and first paragraphs all that important, or am I reaching for straws? I especially would like to know whether you have read King or Stein on writing and your thoughts on their approaches, before I buy their books or even check them out of the library.

I hope my opening paragraph grabbed your attention and caused you to read on. Thanks for staying with me.

For more on beginnings see my review of Barnaby Conrad's Best Beginnings.

What have been your experiences with opening sentences and paragraphs? How do you practice great beginnings in your writing?

Photo courtesy

Cultural and Literary Events for September 2013

Poster designed by Suzy Lee.
Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area. Listings are for the United States unless noted.  

Banned Books Week, September 22-28

Be Kind To Editors and Writers Month

Library Card Sign-Up Month

National Book Festival, September 21-22 

National Hispanic Heritage Month
September 15 - October 15

AKC Responsible Dog Ownership Month
Animal Remembrance Month, International
Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Month
Baby Safety Month
Backpack Safety America Month
Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
Childhood Obesity Awareness Month
College Savings Month
Coupon Month
DNA, Genomics and Stem Cell Education and Awareness Month
Eat Chicken Month
Fall Hat Month
Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month
Happy Cat Month
Head Lice Prevention Month
Honey Month
Hunger Action Month
Mold Awareness Month
Mushroom Month
One-on-One Month
Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
People Skills Month, International
Pleasure Your Mate Month
Preparedness Month
Prostate Cancer Awareness Month
Recovery Month
Rice Month
Sea Cadet Month
Self-Awareness Month, International
September Is Healthy Aging Month
Service Dog Month
Shameless Promotion Month
Skin Care Awareness Month
Sports Eye Safety Month
Strategic Thinking Month
Subliminal Communications Month
Update Your Resume Month
Whole Grains Month
Women's Friendship Month

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Leave your comments on what is going on in your area this month and how you are celebrating. 

Some information provided by Chases's Calendar of Events.

Joe and Helen

Bruce Summers
Guest article by Bruce Summers

Growing up, I lived next to Joe and Helen Sitler. They were an older couple with no children. Joe had no brothers and sisters and was the end of the Sitler line. We loved them. Helen was like a third grandmother to us. Joe was a bit gruff. He would not let us play in his yard, especially when he was mowing; he was afraid the lawn tractor might throw a stone and hit me or one of my three brothers. I shared a bit of Joe’s story in an article I wrote for my middle school magazine. People thought I made it up, notably the parts about what I had learned from Joe.

Later, when Joe was very ill and nearing death, my older brother and I went over and helped Helen move him. He was skin and bones. Helen needed help so she could give him a sponge bath and change his linens. Joe died soon after. This was my first encounter with the death of a friend and a neighbor. Even though he was a bit gruff, he was Helen’s husband and because of this he was a special man. They used to love to go to the city and dance to the music of the big bands when they came to town. He was born in the 19th century and had lived a full life and retired before I knew him. Most important, he captured Helen’s heart and had been a good husband. I miss Joe and treasure my memories of him.

House sitting
Another eight or so years later, after I graduated from college, I had the privilege of house sitting for Helen. This was after she had grown more feeble, hard of hearing, and needed to be in a nursing home. Her hearing aids did not work well and it was hard to talk with her, hard to share with her how important she and Joe had been as our older grandparent-like neighbors, too late to tell her I felt a little bad for stealing some of the grapes each year that Joe grew on his arbor just five feet from the border of our yard. I wished too late that I knew more about Joe and Helen, who had no descendants and no relatives we knew of. They were our neighbors. They were our friends and they shared part of our lives growing up.

As I sat in their living room and slept in one of their bedrooms, cooked my meals, wrote newspaper stories on my typewriter at their dining table, explored the home that was the time capsule they had lived in, I wondered about their lives. I remembered Joe never let Helen turn on the electric lights. They used candles and were very frugal. She canned vegetables and fruits. The jars were in the basement on a built-in shelf made just for that purpose.

Memories in an old chair
I left the house to join the Peace Corps and visited Helen to say goodbye, realizing I would likely never see her again. When she died, I asked my parents to purchase an old high-backed walnut chair from their living room. It was the one I sat in to watch TV or to write letters to my future wife late at night. I wanted to have a piece of their story since, I was never going to have any written history.

I am left with memories of Helen and Joe—my good and my gruff neighbors. Even though they are the last of their line, I have not forgotten them forty years after they died. 

Personal historian Bruce Summers is a social collaboration analyst at the World Bank. He has been a writer, editor, website content manager, public relations lead, chief correspondent, and archivist during thirty years as a nonprofit executive manager. He blogs at 

Photo courtesy Bruce Summers. 

To share your personal story here, visit my guidelines for submission details.

Cultural and Literary Events for August 2013

Lundy Canyon, California

Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area. Listings are for the United States unless noted. 


American Adventures Month was founded by adventurer, writer, and speaker Peter Kulkkula to encourage exploring the Americas.


Founded by adventure-seeker Peter Kulkkula, American Adventures Month celebrates traveling throughout the Americas and truly exploring the land. What a perfect theme for all of you outdoor enthusiasts!  - See more at:
Founded by adventure-seeker Peter Kulkkula, American Adventures Month celebrates traveling throughout the Americas and truly exploring the land. What a perfect theme for all of you outdoor enthusiasts!  - See more at:

Other Events in August

Black Business Month

Children's Eye Health and Safety Month

Children’s Vision and Learning Month

Get Ready for Kindergarten Month

Happiness Happens Month

National Immunization Awareness Month

Neurosurgery Outreach Month

National Spinal Muscular Atrophy Awareness Month

What Will Be Your Legacy Month

Photo courtesy

Leave your comments on what is going on in your area this month and how you are celebrating.

Some information provided by Chases's Calendar of Events.

Barnaby Conrad's Best Beginnings

Book Review
Barnaby Conrad (1922-2013)

101 Best Beginnings Ever Written 

Barnaby Conrad
Quill Driver Books, 2009
Softcover, 182 pages with index

After reading this book, I added it to my suggested reading list for students in my memoir-writing classes. I have long advised students to begin their stories with action or something interesting that entices readers to stay. Paying attention to fiction is a great way to learn to write better nonfiction.

A well-drafted opening is a must
Capturing the reader’s attention straight off is the premise of Conrad’s entertaining and practical book, a premise he defends by showcasing beginnings of selected novels and short stories published during the past 300 years. “A well-drafted opening—maybe just the first sentence—immediately tells the editor that he is dealing with a good writer.” The opening does not have to be shocking, startling or amazing, he says, but it does need to tantalize and intrigue the editor, and thus the buying public, to read further. Conrad cautions, though, a great beginning cannot hide a poorly written story.

The subtitle of his book is A Romp Through Literary Openings for Writers and Readers! Romp: to play or frolic in a lively or boisterous manner. Conrad does, thoroughly enjoying his takes on classic and popular literature from a kaleidoscope of authors including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Anna Quindlen, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. Conrad’s observations are credible, as he was author of more than thirty fiction and nonfiction books, and “chauffeur-secretary-verbal punching bag, and protégé” of Sinclair Lewis, first Nobel Prize winner from the United States. Beginnings is the middle of Conrad’s Best series. The others are 101 Best Scenes Ever Written (2006) and 101 Best Sex Scenes Ever Written (2011).

Some Conrad gems
Although 101 is in the title, Conrad's examples easily are three times that. Some of his insights:
  • “At last we get to a human being. Dare we hope for a story?” On Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.
  • “As most professional writers urge: ‘Forget the adverb; get the right and vigorous verb!’” On F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.
  • “Z-z-z-z.” On Sebastian Faulkes’s Birdsong.
  • “… readers always empathize with victims of perceived injustice.” On Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
  • “John Grisham knows the importance of beginning fast, and he likes to have the reader believe that his fiction actually happened.” On Grisham’s The Appeal.
  • “Stories aren’t written; they’re rewritten!” On Jack London’s "To Build a Fire," first written in 1902 and rewritten in 1908. 
  • “Readers invest emotion in characters in trouble.” On Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
Conrad maintains much classic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would not get the attention of today’s editors and publishers because of stilted language and ho-hum starts. His advice for today’s authors: “Get to something happening! Or about to happen! Start closer to the climax! Conflict! Never use exclamations!!!!!!!! (in your fiction, that is!)”

Chapter topics
At least 101 other list makers would disagree with Conrad’s selections of best beginnings. He speaks to the limits of his choices by declaring them to be basic and by suggesting readers visit a library or bookstore and read first pages of novels to discover their own best beginnings.

Conrad categorizes his list into twelve chapters: Characterization, Setting, Setting—Plus Character, Dialogue, Seemingly Factual, Interrogatory (questions), In Medias Res (Latin for starting a story in midpoint), Generalization, Author to Reader, Action, Epistolary (letters), and Emotion.

In chapter thirteen, Conrad fesses up to the existence of “many wonderful beginnings that seem to thumb their nose at being categorized.” In the last chapter, fourteen, you get your money’s worth alone, with rapid-fire entries of more than 200 well-known beginnings from such enduring authors as Tobias Wolff, Pearl S. Buck, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Willa Cather, Zane Grey, and J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m disappointed Conrad doesn’t comment on works of authors in the last chapter and does not list them in the index.

Author, artist, and bullfighter Barnaby Conrad founded the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 1973 that grew into a renowned annual event, drawing famous authors from around the country. He ran the conference with his wife, Mary, until they sold it in 2004. Text and photo courtesy

What best beginnings kept you glued to stories? What are examples of best beginnings you wrote?

If you read a good book related to lifestory writing, I invite you to submit a review. See submission guidelines.

Reaching: How I Wrote My Memoir

Grace Peterson
Guest article by Grace Peterson

Being an author wasn’t a childhood dream. In school I was a C student and although I liked to write, I was horrible with grammar and spelling, which kept me from aspirations of literary grandeur. I confined my writings to my trusty journal where I never had to worry about the critical red pen.

I began writing my memoir in 2006, six years after leaving Brock, the antagonist in my book. I remember standing in front of the mirror, willing away the fog so I could focus on my past. There was so much unresolved conflict, so much pain. Being fairly proficient with a computer and Microsoft Word, I wrote. It wasn’t a casual decision, it was a mandate. Finally, at the age of forty-five, I convinced myself that someday I was going to be a published author.  

Fortunately, I have a good memory. I wrote everything I could remember about my growing up years, but as I contrasted my factual scenarios with the likes of Jennifer Lauck, Frank McCourt and other astute memoir writers, I knew I had more work to do—creating a sensory scene, dialog, conflict resolution, honing the literary aspect of writing a book. Reading memoirs was my only training until I happened upon Tristine Rainer’s book, Your Life As Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature. Finding it felt providential and I devoured every page. It not only provided the tools I needed, it inspired me, empowered me, excited me.

What I didn't do
I didn’t impose deadlines on myself. I didn’t write from an outline. I didn’t have a writing mentor or group to offer feedback. I didn’t belong to any social media. Other than weekly visits to my therapist and offering tidbits to my husband Steve, I was alone, writing chronologically about my painful past. I reread my journals, pored over old photos. I bought CDs of 1970s music and listened and cried. I purchased maps (before I knew about Google Maps) and reacquainted myself with street names and locations and prided myself on how well I remembered those places.

I finished multiple times. I’d take a few weeks off, then come back, dissatisfied. I knew I needed to narrow it down, make my theme obvious and stick to it. Readers weren’t going to be interested in every detail of my life. Eventually, I trimmed 150,000 words to a more reasonable 78,000.

My lack of Internet prowess worked to my advantage in that it enabled me to write without distraction. On the flip side, I wasn’t aware of helpful websites, memoir how-to books, and blogs such as Your Memories, Your Book.

Rejection to determination
By 2010, I knew my way around the Internet and the procedures for getting published, including the dreaded query letter. I was sure all of New York’s literary giants would fight for the rights to my prose. It didn’t take long for rejection after rejection to not only dampen my spirits, but to piss me off. My anger fueled my determination. I forged ahead with a new strategy: Independent publishers. This meant not only a query letter but a full proposal. More rejections. Finally in mid-2012, I had three publishers interested. I was soaring. I signed with All Things That Matter Press in August and my memoir, Reaching was released on May 13, 2013. My second book, Grace In The Garden will be published in late 2013 by the same publisher.

Working with Deb, editor extraordinaire, has been a wonderful experience. There were two conflicts I needed to resolve, but most of my edits were minor such as word redundancies and overuse of the exclamation point. How did I miss that?

Having the support of my publisher meant the world to me. Validation that my work is worthy of a publisher’s time and money is an incredibly pleasant feeling. This is not to say I’m opposed to self-publishing. Had I not landed a publisher when I did, I would have self-published. 

When I received my book in the mail, my dream became reality. It humbles me how encouraging and supportive people have been. At one time, while ensnared in Brock’s world, I was completely convinced all people were evil. Oh, how wrong I was.

Grace Peterson is published in several anthologies and blogs about the writing craft and recovery topics. She is an avid gardener, tending her modest backyard in western Oregon's mild, garden-friendly climate. Her gardening blog is and her writing blog is

Photo courtesy Grace Peterson.

To share how you wrote your memoir, biography, or helped someone else, or to write a review, visit my guidelines.

Cultural and Literary Events for July 2013

Courtesy U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area. Listings are for the United States unless noted.

Fireworks Safety Months 
(June 1-July 31) Hands and fingers are the body parts most injured by fireworks.


Bereaved Parents Awareness Month, International
Bioterrorism/Disaster Education and Awareness Month
Blondie and Deborah Harry Month, International
Blueberries Month
Cell Phone Courtesy Month
"Doghouse Repairs" Month
Grilling Month
Herbal/Prescription Interaction Awareness Month
Horseradish Month, NatlHot Dog Month
Ice Cream Month
Make a Difference to Children Month
Recreation and Parks Month
Smart Irrigation Month
Women with Alopecia Month, International
Women's Motorcycle Month
Zine Month, International 

Leave your comments on what is going on in your area this month and how you are celebrating.

Some information provided by Chases's Calendar of Events.

Park Central Square, Springfield, Missouri: A Colorful and Distinguished History

Springfield Public Square in 1913
I'm writing a history of Springfield, Missouri's Park Central Square and invite your help. See end of this post for details.

I was impressed to write a history after I attended a luncheon of the Greene County Historical Society and the History Museum on the Square, April 20, 2013. Springfield architect Allen Casey made a slide and video presentation for a bold, multi-year, $12 million renovation of five historic-site buildings on the northeast quadrant of the square into a premiere museum attraction. Plans include interactive exhibits, a theater, sidewalk-level display windows, traveling exhibits, restoration and preservation of historic architectural features, and a shop with gifts and books. It was a plan to make downtown business owners salivate.

The nonprofit museum occupies one of the historic buildings, the former Barth’s Clothing Company, having moved earlier in 2013 from the musty, cramped, and minimally apparent third floor of Historic Springfield City Hall. When it moved, the museum changed its name to the History Museum on the Square. It had been the History Museum of Springfield-Greene County since the Springfield-Greene County American Revolution Bicentennial Committee organized it in 1975.

Making the rounds
To confirm my strong feelings the square deserved a book of its own, I met with John Sellars, museum executive director; Robert Neumann, supervisor of Greene County Archives and Records; and John Rutherford, local history associate of Springfield-Greene County Libraries. I spoke with Daniel Neal, senior planner for the City of Springfield and liaison with the city’s Landmarks Board; Deb Sheals, historic preservation consultant, Columbia, Missouri who nominated most of the buildings on the square to the National Register of Historic Places; and with my Springfield Writers’ Guild colleagues Yvonne Erwin, Marilyn Smith, Candace Simonson, and Niki Bradley. I heard repeatedly that, while many books existed on the history of Springfield and of Greene County, none was exclusive to the square.

The square has a colorful and distinguished history indelibly linked to the expansion of America’s West, Ozarks folklore, and socio-political events that influenced or changed U.S. history, including:
  • City founder John Polk Campbell platted the square and city in 1835, modeled after his hometown, Columbia, Tennessee. Today’s square sits on what was Campbell’s cornfield. 
  • In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Stage Line began twenty-four-day service from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco, with a stop on the square.
  • Union troops under Colonel Franz Sigel marched into the square June 24, 1861. A deranged Confederate sympathizer burned the original 1836 courthouse in the center of the square during a Union raid October 25, 1861.
  • James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok, former Union Army scout and spy, shot to death Dave Tutt on the square July 21, 1865 over a poker debt and Hickok’s watch.
  • An angry mob forcibly took three black men from jail Saturday night before Easter of 1906, hung them from Gottfried Tower on the square, and burned their bodies at the tower’s base. 
  • In 1926, John T. Woodruff led incorporation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association in Springfield that helped bring Route 66 passing through the square on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles.
  • During WWI and WWII, rallies on the square supported our troops.

Send me your memories of the square
The square has been the site of music concerts, classic car displays, art exhibits, farmers’ markets, parades, niche shops, arcades, political speeches, ministries, cookie sales, protests, and more—just about anything of social, cultural, and personal expression. In 2010, the National Register of Historic Places completed listing all but a handful of businesses on the square.

You can help make the history of Park Central Square come alive by sharing your memories of the square to be included in my book. For example, my wife Eryleene had her first date on the square when she was in sixth grade at Pepperdine Elementary School. The boy walked to her house and they took a City Utilities bus to the square for a movie, then had ice cream sundaes at Newberry's.

What do you remember of the square, long ago or recently? Did you work on the square? See a movie at the Fox Theatre? Attend a rally? Become engaged? See an art display or custom car exhibit? Shop at Heer's during your lunch break? Anything you remember doing I would love to know and you could find your name and memory in my book. Send your memories to, or post at Please include your name, current city, and state. By submitting your memories, you give permission for them to be published in my book and to be edited for clarity, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Publication of your memories is not implied or guaranteed.

Thanks a million. I look forward to hearing from you.

Photo courtesy Springfield-Greene County Library.

Writing Programs for Veterans and How to Start One

Courtesy Southeast Missouri State University
I chuckled as Vietnam War veteran Jay Harden read his unpublished essay, “My Burning Boyhood,” about summertime adventures with his cousin Bix in a rural Georgia town.

“I did not know worry, responsibility, or caution. I was both invincible and naïve, and had the scars to prove it. Bix and I had free reign over the town. We took off in the morning, with unlimited enthusiasm but no particular plan, and often did not return until supper, munching sour grass and pecans along the way and occasionally roasting grasshoppers. Why our parents allowed this, I do not know. I suspect they knew it was better to free us than confine us in a sweltering house or an overly familiar, small yard, places where noisy boys required attention. We never asked for permission. And we never begged for forgiveness, either–well, hardly ever. We were doing our natural best, just being boys.”

I was mesmerized as Iraq War veteran Levi Bollinger read with detached calm his poem, "Distant Seitz," a word picture so vivid I felt I was in it.

"Still, we gaze into the ethereal mess,
where unseen mortars sail,
whistle through the steamy
atmosphere, plunge down,
down, into a wild fray of
splayed camo-netting and
sandbag-shelled tents, rip
themselves apart amid
grids of connex boxes,
burst and slash,
shred and mangle.
Soldiers there hunker
in bunkers below,
probably smoking,
probably cursing,
probably wanting
to sleep."

Bollinger teaches high school English and Harden is unemployable from combat-related trauma.They live in Missouri.

Writing by American Warriors
"Distant Seitz" is one of three Bollinger poems in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume I, an anthology of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by veterans and their families. Harden has a poem, photo, and an essay in the anthology and was awarded Best Writing from a Missouri Writer for the essay, "Between Wives." The anthology was published in 2012 by Southeast Missouri State University Press in partnership with the Warriors Arts Alliance of the Missouri Humanities Council. It includes works submitted for the book and entries in a national competition judged by notable authors and poets. Competition is underway for volume two; no entry fee is required and submissions are accepted until July 1, 2013. 

“Our stories are the most important vehicles we have to connect the dots between our pasts, our presents and our futures,” says Deborah Marshall, director of the Alliance. “The understanding we gain of ourselves as we write these stories, and that others gain as they read them, is immeasurable.”

Proud to Be publisher and editor Susan Swartwout says several contributors to volume one have, or are working on, a novel or collection of poems. “I hope someday that the University Press will be able to publish a series of full-length creative-writing books by veterans. Only a small percentage of published writing about the Iraq conflict is creative work.”

Writing Programs for Veterans
This is an incomplete list. For programs in your area check with your local college or university, Veterans Affairs office or facility, library, professional writers’ group, or state humanities council. Share your comments at the end of this post.

How to Start a Veterans Writing Group Includes letters of invitation; meeting agendas; veterans' writings; and techniques for listening, writing, and meditation.

Boston, Massachusetts Area, Northern Essex Community College Open to all veterans, active and inactive. Covers nonfiction, fiction, drama, and poetry. Focus is to write, be heard, and be supported.

Fayetteville, North Carolina, Methodist UniversityMeets monthly. Encourages effective writing and supportive feedback. Members may post their writing on the MU Writing Center website.

Hospitalized Veterans Writing Project, Inc.Publishes Veterans’ Voices magazine three times per year, available by subscription; more than forty writing prizes awarded in each issue. Stories and articles submitted by hospitalized and outpatient veterans served by the Department of Veterans Affairs system. 

Missouri Veterans History Project Volunteers interview and record stories of Missouri veterans. Recordings available to State Historical Society and Library of Congress. Search your state for a similar project. 

New York, Fordham-Westchester University Meets weekly for peer support and feedback on veterans’ writing. Publishes Afterwords anthologies of veterans’ writing.

New York University Meets Saturday afternoons. Offers returning students a year-long workshop fellowship with a generous stipend and half-tuition remission for the year. Fellowship recipients must lead the weekly writing workshop.

Pittsburg, Kansas, Pittsburg State UniversityFor veterans and their families.

Rapid City, South Dakota, Western Dakota Technical Institute Meets the second Saturday of each month. Meetings include guest speakers who tell about their experiences and books.

San Diego CountyProfessional mentors and industry leaders help veterans share, heal, grow, learn, and connect. 

San Diego and Washington, D.C. Seminars and workshops led by working writers who are combat veterans. Publishes the quarterly 0-Dark-Thirty online journal.

Sebastopol, CaliforniaMeets quarterly. Writers may submit their work for publication in Veterans Writers Group Quarterly.

Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Meets monthly to share and comment on members' writing. Bring a notebook and pen or pencil and be prepared to write.

Veterans History Project Authorized by Congress and managed by American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. Stories told through correspondence, personal narratives, and visual materials. Website lists links to many oral history sites. 

Warrior WritersSupports healing and community building in workshops, retreats, trainings, and events throughout the United States using writing, painting, photography, and other media.

Tell about a writing program for veterans in your area or your experience with one.