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I’ve heard Mary Wasmuth’s diary entries and essays in the journaling class I lead at the Weston (Massacusetts) Public Library. They’ve moved me, and made me laugh. And I’m pretty sure they’ve made me smarter.

I’m thrilled that after several years of inviting Mary to contribute to this blog, she has agreed.

Enjoy her guest post! May you be wiser after reading it.
- Lynette

Mary Wasmuth

Mary Wasmuth

I need to start this novel over. Again. No, I mean I want to start over—really. I have a framework now that retains the plot and characters; pulls the story together; and, in a death-defying feat of writerly liposuction, surgically removes great droopy hunks of midsection.

Then why am I spending my time writing this post? Shouldn’t I be starting a new folder, opening a new document, giving it my new title? Why do I sit in front of Call the Midwife—unlikely, I thought, to inspire binge watching—instead of my computer? I’ve seen eight episodes in five days. And why did I choose this moment to reorganize my writing files? Toss out my reams of painful early drafts?

It’s because I’ve started over so many times, so blithely. And, though I really believe (as I keep telling myself), I’ve found an approach that works, my memories of all the other hopeful starts paralyze me. I shouldn’t have gone through those files.

You see, I taught myself to write—with a great deal of expert help and guidance, though perhaps a little late in the game—by writing this novel. I learned and revised, learned and reshaped, learned and rethought and reshaped again. I eliminated narrators (whittling ten down to four) and killed off characters, including my carefully crafted, and re-crafted, second protagonist. I believed I was nearly done.

Thinking to polish things up a little, perhaps add a few final touches, I took the “Setting, Subtext, and Suspense” class in Michelle Hoover’s terrific novel series at Boston’s Grub Street. I rewrote three scenes in the one-day class, and I caught a glimpse of how much richer they could be, how much richer the novel could be. Which gave me the courage to cast a coldly objective eye over my first chapter. I deemed it . . . not good enough. I started to rethink. Again.

Of course, this is how you do it if you want to do it right. I know that. In Do Not Hurry—a blog post I reread whenever I start over, Michelle Hoover makes it clear that writing a novel simply “takes as long as it takes.” No way around it.

This time, at least, I know what to do, and I know why. Rather than the story of a mouthy, defiant girl who starts a punk rock band (called Fatgirlz), the novel will be a fictional history of Fatgirlz, a fictional punk band started by a mouthy, defiant girl. Suddenly, the four narrators make sense. Bands are unstable amalgams of individual musicians; a band story would have to incorporate several personal stories. Why, I could bring back some of my lost narrators!

I pause briefly to squelch this idea.

The new structure will be cleaner. More coherent. Maybe even funnier—because I am going to sneak in one more voice, a music critic. Band histories require critic-penned introductions. The more obscure the group, the more florid and pretentious the preface—and Fatgirlz is very, very obscure.

This could be fun. I really should just make that new folder. Open that new document. Call it Meet the Fatgirlz instead of Tastee Girl. And start over. One last time.

Have you ever decided to rewrite (and rewrite) a piece you’d considered finished? What was your approach? Did you take a break first? Tackle the thing head-on? Or, decide to catch up on all five seasons of Breaking Bad? Perfect your jump shot? Spring clean your apartment? Write a post for Tools and Tactics for Writers?

I hope that's not her novel in that bag.

I hope that’s not Mary’s novel in that bag.

When she’s not avoiding rewriting her novel, Mary Wasmuth works as a librarian and job-search coach. She’s president of the advisory board for Framingham Adult ESL Plus and recording secretary for the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Mary has studied at Grub Street, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and in Lynette Benton’s journaling class.

Follow Mary on Twitter.

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When I give talks on writing life stories, invariably members of the audience say their kids or grandkids are pestering them about their early lives, and they want to let their extended families, friends, and future generations know what made them who they are. Or that they’ve got stories within themselves that are crying to be set free.

But, even if you’re fully ready to start writing stories from your life, the task can seem overwhelming; after all, you’ve been a part of and witnessed countless events and amassed a lot of experience.

So, here are 3 words to help you jumpstart your life story writing project—and your memory:

• Artifacts
• Lists

In this post, we’ll confine ourselves to the first one.

Shimmering Images author Lisa Dale Norton writes that the title of her book refers to memory pictures that we have embedded in our heads (and often in our hearts).

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

I don’t know about you, but I have images that trigger recollections and fragmented reminders of incidents in the past: The look on my father’s face when I was a toddler and screamed when he lifted me onto a bus on our way back from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. (My parents must have made a big deal of the excursion, because even then, I knew that was where we’d been.)

I see myself subsequently on a huge metal table, alone in an empty room with a big, boxy, machine moving above me.

Years later, haunted by that scene, I asked my mother about it. She explained that I was lying beneath X-ray equipment, which revealed that I’d fractured my left collarbone. I can visualize the very day I must have injured it; I’d fallen off the bed while playing with my older sister.

What are your shimmering images? You’re not looking for facts here; you’re searching for impressions connected to your past. Your grandmother at the stove, her presence reassuring and anchoring the entire household. Yourself dancing to forbidden music in a basement rec room after school. The picnic where you met your true love. Driving home after being offered your dream job. Driving home after being fired.

These images can lure you into a meditative state that helps you call up and even relive your personal history. Write them down, along with their associated physical and emotional elements. Was there a transistor radio or boom box playing music (what kind of music?) or broadcasting a baseball game at the picnic? Can you remember your father’s exasperated expression as he made his way down the basement steps, caught you partying with your friends, and reminded you that he’d sent you to the supermarket to pick up lettuce for dinner? Was the sun hot and your car without air conditioning the day you lost your job?

Right now, just rely on your own mind to provoke memories for your stories. Since some of your shimmering images might be caught on photos or videos, in my next life-writing post, I’ll discuss how you can use artifacts to further stimulate your memory.

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If you’ve never visited the web site,, the post below will give you a hint of what you’ve been missing.

As a memoir writing instructor, I make sure I take frequent looks at the latest news and advice from my guest blog post writer, Christine Houser. After reading her tips, I think you’ll find yourself visiting often, too.
- Lynette

Christine Houser, blogger at

Christine Houser, blogger at

I find that breaking most projects down into small, specific pieces makes for greater success, and writing is no exception. To tell your big life story, you have to tell many smaller stories – and going small requires an emphasis on good storytelling.

So what are some good storytelling techniques, you ask? Pick a scene you want to write, and try using these tips:

• Dispense with the preamble and start in the middle of the action to immediately engage your reader. You can imply or briefly describe some context later.
• Keep your storyline small and well contained.
• Use the active voice.
• Don’t name emotions or draw conclusions. Instead, describe them so your reader arrives at the same understanding.
• Ensure that every sentence furthers the story.
• For extra credit, employ a twist to surprise and further engage your reader.

Here are a few great flash-story samples that illustrate these tips:

After you’ve written some short stories or scenes, you can join them with a longer narrative or compile them into a volume. And don’t forget to free-write the first draft of every story – this too is a very important storytelling step.

Christine Houser reads, writes, studies, and teaches flash-length creative nonfiction in Seattle, and blogs at For good story fodder, she travels widely and unabashedly eavesdrops while on the San Juan Island ferries.

Find her on Twitter @flashmemoirs and #lifewriting.

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This website right here made the list, folks. Tools and Tactics for Writers is #71, and it’s in phenomenal company with all the big names in writing web sites.

So, take a look at the posts that can help you in your writing. (You can find them by category in the list on the right.) And, if you’ve been dragging your feet (or your cursor) about subscribing to this blog, I hope you will now, since it’s one of the 100 Best Websites for Writers – 2014!

Thanks to The Write Life for including me. And thank you to all of you who’ve followed this blog, left comments, suggested topics, and supported me throughout. We couldn’t have made the list without you!
I hope you’ll also visit my other web site, The Stylish Ole Woman.

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That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

If you’re thinking of writing about your life, or your family’s life, here’s some information to help you decide which of the possible forms would work best for you.

An autobiography covers your entire life. Tip: Be careful about starting out with your actual birth, unless there was something special about it, like yours being the first recorded birth in such and such a year or town.

You want your autobiography to engage readers, even if they’re family members, so I advise against lists of facts. “I was born on” feels like the beginning of a list of facts.

Try instead to write something about your birth, like “No one knew if my father would be able to get leave from the military in time for my mother’s due date.”

That immediately sets up suspense. We’ll keep reading because we want to know if he did get home in time. Then you can go on with something like: “Military leaves were scarce, since Pearl Harbor had been bombed a short time before and the US was at war.” Now you’ve added context. We’re interested.

A memoir describes a portion of a life, which could be a chronological period, like your teen years, or a subject, like all the houses you’ve lived in. I recently completed a project with a client who wrote about the years she and her husband spent their winters in Florida.

Life Stories
What I call a life story (or story from your life) is an anecdote about something in your life. I like it best when someone delves into a family myth, or discovers a secret. (I’ve never yet taught a class in which a boomer or senior didn’t find out something about their family that had been deliberately suppressed. For more ideas, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.)

My husband's wonderful family helped me find info on my father's family on a recent trip to NC,

My husband’s wonderful family helped me find info on my father’s family on a recent trip to NC

Genealogy and Family History
The definition of genealogy that I like best is: “The study or investigation of ancestry and family histories.”

In addition to, or in place of, developing a family tree that confines itself to births, marriages, and deaths, many people write family history, which takes a broader look at ancestry than a family tree can accommodate.

Some genealogies include family stories and artifacts and documentation such as letters to help build a portrait of a family and its members. A number of sites like Family Search and USGenWebProject offer a rich trove of genealogical search opportunities.

Often a student of mine will realize in his or her mature years that a certain person exercised a strong positive influence on him or her. That acknowledgement inspires the student to write a profile of the parent, teach, mentor, neighbor, or friend, which turns out to be a meaningful tribute to the memory of that significant person. One student wrote so beautiful a tribute to her father that all of us who heard it wished we had known the man.

Going Forward
In my next post, I’ll provide tips for getting started on your personal and family history writing projects. What else would you like to know about writing stories from your own or your family’s life?

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Are you among those who chide themselves for not doing anything about those anecdotes your friends keep telling you that you should write down? Or maybe it’s those personal memories you feel you ought to share with the world? Or, you might feel weighed down by a nagging desire to preserve the history of your family for future generations?

Well, if you keep procrastinating about writing your stories, you’re not alone. When I give talks about life story writing, I usually face a roomful of folks wearing guilty expressions.

I open with a question for those in attendance.

“What are the differences among biography, autobiography, memoir, genealogy, and life stories?” I ask.

Reason #1
The audience looks perplexed; some individuals shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Someone might murmur a tentative response, but actually, no one’s quite sure what the different terms mean.

“It’s easier to write about your life if you know your options,” I tell them.

(Here are some of the different types of life story writing.)

Reason #2
After I explain the differences, the most frequent remark I hear from the audience is: “How can I start getting my story down on paper? I’m not sure I even remember a lot of what I want to write about.”

Reason #3
And invariably, the next remark is a perfectly valid one: “I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of writing all this stuff down.”

Well, in upcoming posts, I’m going to give you some tricks to get you started on that biography, autobiography, memoir, family history, genealogy, short personal tribute, or story from your life. I’ll also tell you about fabulously helpful resources.

I hope you’ll check back so you can get the “I-should-be-writing-this-down” monkey off your back. If any questions have you stumped, just put them in comment below and I’ll be sure to address them. And you might want to subscribe to future posts so you’ll be notified by email when they are published.

In the meantime, take a look at some of my Family History posts.

I'd love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

I’d love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

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Even though he’s a writing student of mine, I can’t take complete credit for Charlie Schwab’s success. When I met him, Charlie was 89 years old, the active and knowledgeable Business Manager of our local Senior Center. Having only recently started writing poetry, he had already given a couple of public readings of his work.

Keeping Account, by Charles R. Schwab

Keeping Account, by Charles R. Schwab

What I can (and do) take credit for is having successfully nagged him to submit his writing for publication and to make his poems available to the public. Now, his work has been published in the Arlington Advocate, the PKA Advocate of Prattsville, N. Y. (“Graying”); WestWard Quarterly Magazine of Hamilton, Ill.(“Tea and Sunbeams” and “Requiem”); and Connotation Press online (“Reflections of a Nonagenerian”).

J.P. Reese of Connotation Press wrote about Charlie’s work “..Insightful, fresh and humorous (in a slightly grim and pragmatic way).”

I wrote the introduction to Charlie’s first collection of poetry, Keeping Account. Now he’s about to publish his second book of poetry, The Act of Free Falling.

Below is what Charlie says about his work. The poem at the end is one of my very favorites.
- Lynette

I find poetry writing rewarding because it enables me to express my thoughts about and reaction to the human/natural world, from news reports to animal behavior and the changing seasons. Many of these ideas are not fully formed unless I write them down.

Secondly, I like working out the rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and word play involved. And, finally, I value the satisfaction I get from working intensely at a craft.

I suppose I’m trying to comment on my life and human life in general, especially daily happenings, from the vantage point of a long and varied life. I would hope that readers of my poems might grasp some of the humor and irony in them.

To others who want to try their hands at writing poetry I’d say, “Find your own interest and style, possibly through joining a poetry or creative writing class. At any rate, sit down and do it.”
- C. Schwab

Keeping Account
by Charles Schwab

In the work I did I kept account
Of balances that fall and mount,
But counting comes in many guises –
Each time I count the number rises.

In Concord they’re counting the butterflies;
How much does it count if a species dies?
We are apt to count sheep if unable to sleep;
The awake shepherd dog knows to count his keep.
Counting on fingers was how we were taught;
Computers are now counted on for the lot.
Astronomers strain to count the stars;
Four-star generals generally count in wars.
The Challenger was poised for a lift-off count down,
As the champion, down for the count, lost a crown.
A bard of love wished to count the ways,
While servicemen’s loved-ones count the days.
Every vote counts, the national pols claim,
But when the vote’s counted, they’re not all the same.

Count your calories and you might live longer;
Counting your blessings may make you stronger.
Long, long ago I stopped counting each year;
Not to have my life count is what I now fear.

See more of Charlie’s poems on his website.

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Adams Free Library

Adams Free Library

Last month I had the honor of participating on a panel at the New England Library Association conference in Portland, Maine. In response to the numerous requests libraries receive from boomers and seniors for memoir writing classes, I’d been invited to talk about my experiences teaching memoir to those populations in libraries and elsewhere.

For that I was happily prepared. But a question posed by the coordinator of my session (Self-Publishing) surprised and stimulated me. She asked:

What can libraries do for writers?

We typically think of libraries as institutions that feed our passions for reading, researching, and learning. The flip side of reading, researching, and learning, however, is writing. Someone writes the books we love. Someone writes the research findings and textbooks we need.

When it comes to creating memoirs and family histories, most individuals have to figure out—without professional guidance—how to tell their stories in writing. Their solitary struggles can delay completion of their work for years; all too often the effort is abandoned altogether.

Some libraries offer free literacy classes. Several in my area, offer journaling, memoir writing, and even writing classes for youngsters.

But could more local libraries become the places where those in our communities go for free writing instruction? In addition to teaching memoir and family history writing classes at the occasional library, I teach talented writers through community education programs, senior centers, and in retirement communities. But I know equally talented writers who cannot afford even the modest cost of those classes.

What Libraries Can Do for Writers
1) Perhaps libraries could avail themselves of grants earmarked for memoir writing classes. It would make sense for libraries, those repositories and consumers of writers’ work, to underwrite writing instruction a couple of times a year.

2) Many libraries host public readings of local writers’ published work. They could also sponsor writing contests and readings of excerpts from works in progress.

3) Libraries could stock the best-written and historically significant memoirs written by residents of the area. My students have written about life in a small Italian village in World War II officially hearing that the war was over when it wasn’t; a dramatic liberation from a German POW camp; life in a 20th century New England orphanage; even a mystery novel loosely based on the author’s experiences.

4) Hosting a series of seminars on self-publishing would be helpful to librarians and writers alike. Some libraries are partnering with Smashwords as a publishing platform. Other companies, such as FastPencil, evidently are getting into the act, as well.

5) Writers who want to self-publish their memoirs and family histories often need computer classes that cover effectively using Google for research; scanning and inserting photos into documents; downloading and saving documents; and formatting their manuscripts for publication.

Writers: Does your library offer memoir or other creative writing classes? Would you take advantage such free classes if your library made them available?

Librarians: I’d be happy to talk with you about short courses for your writer patrons. Please use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch. Thank you.

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She’s moved.

Just like that, she took off.

Please follow her to where her first post is Advice from the Stylish Ole Woman and Her Friends. I’ll meet you there.

To see future Stylish Ole Woman posts, please sign up for the free subscription at the new site. And tell your friends and family about it, please. Thank you.

- Lynette aka the Stylish Ole Woman
@stylisholewoman on Twitter

Forcing quince flowers

Forcing quince flowers

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[Note: I know Diana Raab only through our online connection, and have no relationship with the book’s publisher.]

Even though my creative writing and journaling students hint that I browbeat them, I’ve never told them to buy a book. As a rabid supporter of libraries, I typically urge people to borrow books before buying them. But I want you to trust me on this one. Writers and Their Notebooks, an anthology edited by Diana Raab, is a book you’ll want all to yourself. So, I urge you to just go ahead and buy it.

You’re going to want to read and reread it; write in it; draw stars beside passages; and exclamation marks next to those that are so apt they could have emanated form your own pen, your own heart.

The collection will introduce you to writers you didn’t know before; and you’ll want to read their published work and compare those to what they say about the relationship of their notebooks to the final products. For example, writer James Brown states in his contribution, “For me the journal is. . . a stepping stone to a larger, more refined work… [W]hat you originally thought you wanted to say and what you actually end up writing aren’t always the same thing.”

The Basics
It’s taken me a long time to write this review; the collection is so rich, so perfect I had trouble figuring out who and what to highlight. So, here are the basics.

Writers and Their Notebooks consists of entries by twenty-four highly accomplished contemporary writers of long and short works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. The book is divided into five sections: The Journal as Tool; The Journal for Survival; The Journal for Travel; The Journal as Muse; The Journal for Life.

I’m pleased that Raab didn’t confine this book to just journals, which like diaries suggest daily entries, while “notebooks” covers a broader field. In this collection, we see little of the actual journals or notes. Instead we salivate over glimpses of the secret lives and work they chronicle.

The Many Names of Notebooks
Some of the writers call their notebooks wailing walls. Others, junk drawers. Still others, mirrors. They write in fancy blank books, or in those childhood “copybooks” with the green or black covers, and a big, empty white rectangle for the owner’s name surrounded by squiggles like paint peeling off a wall. Some of the contributors write in tiny old spiral notebooks small enough to stick in a back pocket, and even on tired scraps of paper, as when mental institution personnel forbade a writer to use real books to record her self-healing sentences.

Besides my journals, I’ve got notes on my iPhone, kitchen counters, and the passenger seat of my car. Writers and Their Notebooks gave my habit, my compulsion, legitimacy; allowed me to feel I’d located my tribe, my club—writers who not only turn a literary microscope on others, but also ruthlessly forage around in their own lives and minds.

How and What They Write
I can’t imagine how Raab found these perfect contributors, willing to let us snoop on their private writing habits. There’s Sue Grafton, the über successful mystery writer, who shares her time-consuming system for writing every single one of her twenty-some books. Ilan Stavans’ notebook struck me as a joyous melee: “An idea shows up and becomes a line. I then cross it out and put another one on top, add several below or on the side. I let myself enjoy non sequiturs.” Bonnie Morris’s essay, “Writing in Public Places,” notes “a willingness to create in chaos.” But keeping a journal publicly held its perils. At fourteen, “as a middle-class white girl, living in an affluent country,” she writes, “I listened numbly as a circle of other white girls told me I had a choice—give up my journal…or have neither friends nor protection in our hostile junior high school.”

Not surprisingly, truth and authenticity, either one of which represents the writer’s Holy Grail, make frequent appearances in Writers and Their Notebooks. It’s one of the reasons writers keep journals; it’s a place to tell the brash, unflattering truth, be our real selves, rather than the one we show to the world that we are in, but often, not of.

At the end of the book are appendices, containing ideas for keeping a journal and imaginative ideas about what to write in it; suggested further reading; and bios of the contributors to the volume.

Books about writers’ journals and notebooks can be surprisingly hard to find. But, from now on, I need look no farther than Writers and Their Notebooks. This book’s got it all.

A Single Complaint
The book is profoundly enlightening, entertaining, and downright satisfying; I wish it were double its size.

Do you keep a journal or notebooks? Weigh in about your practices.

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