Book Review: Women Writing on Family

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Interest in genealogy, family history, and memoir* is so intense these days it’s about time a book to guide writers working in these genres became available.

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, an anthology edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland, is that book. Smallwood says she was led to compile the collection when a novel she was working on raised questions concerning writing about her relatives.

“How much to tell, how much to leave out?” she wondered.

When no books came to her aid, she decided to collect essays by published women who were also experienced in writing about families. Why did she choose all women? She recalled Virginia Woolf’s observation: “We think back through our mothers if we are women.”

With eight sections (including one on “Writing Exercises and Strategies”) and 55 essays, Women Writing on Family can help women writing about family stay out of court on charges of libel from irate relatives; carve out writing time from frantic schedules; approach editors in the hopes of getting published; and promote their work—whether self- or traditionally-published—to the public.

In the opening essay, “Family Secrets: How to Reveal What Matters Without Getting Sued or Shunned,” Martha Engber takes writers on a tour of their—and others’—First Amendment rights, and offers tips on protecting yourself and those you write about.

Lela Davidson’s “Laundry, Life, and Writing: Making the Most of Short Sessions and Stolen Moments” (Don’t you love that title?) shows writers how they can make brief bursts of writing productive.

As a writing instructor, I tell my memoir-writing students not to bother writing paeans to their perfect childhoods. I won’t believe them and neither will anyone else. In her no-holds-barred essay, “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” Catherine Gildiner lists the unpleasant memories writers should be willing to excavate from their own pasts, warning that writing a memoir “takes nerves of steel.”

If you’re ready to propel your story out into the world, take a look at “Identifying Potential Markets for Family Writing,” by Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, “Locating Markets for Writing About Family,” by Colleen Kappeler, and “A Writer’s Thoughts on Book Marketing,” by Ann McCauley. All three contain a host of valuable ideas for sharing your writing with larger audiences than your family.

*According to Booklist, the number of memoirs alone published over the last four years increased 400%.

If you’re up to exploring more hard-hitting memoir topics, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.

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Seniors Write Stories from Their Lives

As I’ve written in other posts here, I teach boomers and seniors to write stories from their lives. Our classes are moving, exciting, suspenseful, and a whole lot of fun—because that’s what the stories the students write are.

My Legacy is Simply This

When new students tell me they have this inexplicable urge to write about their lives, but don’t know what to write about, I suggest they take a look at My Legacy is Simply This, a book of short essays by seniors living in various neighborhoods in Boston.

No matter what age you are, these are stories you’ll enjoy. Among my favorites is the story of his dangerous career, recounted by  William Boyle, a former fire fighter. As a young man, he helped quench the big Hotel Vendome fire, which killed nine Boston fire fighters, in 1972. Even after pulling dead coworkers out from the rubble, he still loved his work, especially because that day, he found his boyhood friend, alive in the debris.

Boyle also describes being overcome by smoke inhalation in one fire, and being asked by his wife, as he lay in the hospital, if he would consider giving up the job. But, as his work was one of the loves of his life (his wife being the other), he told her “No,” and returned to work as soon as he was able. His essay ends with the successful CPR performed on a baby.

Dorothy Parks is a woman who lives each day as if it were her last, as a result of the perils she faced in her travels, whether by train, ship, or air. Her essay is the funniest in the collection, as she recounts an absurd brush with death on an airplane with a wing on fire.

Holiday Gift Recommendation

If you’re looking for an engaging gift this holiday season, consider My Legacy is Simply This. Your gift recipient won’t be disappointed. (Note: I have no affiliation with the publishers or writers of this book.)

And if you’ve been considering writing down the stories from your own life, I hope you’ll find the following posts helpful.

You don’t have to be a senior to join my Writing Stories from Your Life class at the Arlington Center for the Arts. Just browse the winter catalog and check page 6 for a description. You can register online.
For writing tips and resources, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.
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Guest Post by Author Lisa Dale Norton

I often use Lisa Dale Norton’s gem of a memoir-writing book in the memoir and life story writing classes I teach. Her small book, Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir (St. Martin’s Press), leads writers along the pivotal path to the heart of our personal stories.

In her guest post below, Lisa explains the critical relationship between the structure of memoir and its meaning. (And don’t forget to check the bottom of this post so you can tune into her AuthorChat on November 10.)

– Lynette

 

Memoir: Let Your Story Tell You Its Structure

Author Lisa Dale Norton

I work with a lot of writers on their stories, and one of the hardest things for most to accept is that the shape of their memoir will not reveal itself until they know what they are trying to say. It’s counter intuitive and certainly not what we are taught in school where there are tidy formulas, all of which are useless when you are pushing forward the fragile idea of a memoir: you live your life, you remember your life, you attempt to make a story out of parts of that life. But quickly, questions plague the would-be memoirist: What do I use? What do I leave out? Should the story be chronological? How much background is necessary, and how do I make it mean something?

Structure follows meaning; it rises out of meaning. You can’t get to one without the other.

So what’s a writer to do?

I advise writers to keep writing the memories, or shimmering images as I call them, those shiny moments you remember above all others. You remember them because there is a key inside them that is a clue to what you are trying to say in the manuscript. If you allow those memories to articulate through story they will help you figure out the meaning of your memoir. In that organic process the inevitable structure will reveal itself.

Here’s an example. In my new book of narrative nonfiction I combine the story of my experiences in Europe with tales of my parents’ travels there shortly after World War II. But that’s not a story.

Somewhere inside those various tales of travel and discovery there has to be something bigger. It’s taken much work to reveal what that something is.  How did I get here? I kept writing drafts of my parents’ stories, my stories. As I researched locations, studied ephemera, searched maps, and hunted my heart for hot points of sadness and joy, I began to understand why those parallel journeys rivet me.

In other words, I have figured out what they mean to me; I know what my story is about. And now I know its shape.

The only way to get here, and it’s a stretch in our control-oriented culture, is a leap of faith. You have to let go of the notion that you know what your story is about, and let it tell you.

Lisa is also the author of the memoir, Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (St. Martin’s Press). You can follow her memoir-writing tips on Twitter. http://twitter.com/lisadalenorton

Writing a memoir and need some tips? Ask Lisa Dale Norton Live!

We all have great stories to share about our lives, but how many of us could translate our life experience into something more permanent…say a memoir?

Join bestselling author Lisa Dale Norton for a live front-row seat as she shares her insights and writing techniques regarding the difference between memoir and autobiography, how to claim your voice, and the art of storytelling.

Lisa Dale Norton is the founder of the Santa Fe Writing Institute and teaches writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

AUTHORCHAT

DATE: NOV. 10th, 2011

TIME: 5:00PM Pacific / 8:00PM Eastern

How to join in:

  • Click widget link: http://t.wbx.me/gb45q
  • Use the guest tab (not registered users tab)
  • Enter your name in the guest field
  • Click the enter button to join
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Memoir or Family History? A Deeper Look at the Differences

Introduction

While sorting out the question of whether my work-in-progress, My Mother’s Money, is a memoir or a family history, I became intrigued by several thoughtful posts on Virginia Lloyd’s blog addressing this and other questions about what qualifies as memoir. So I invited her to discuss the distinction further here.

Perhaps her descriptions of these two genres that sometimes seem to overlap can help you decide if you’re engaged in writing memoir or family. Knowing the difference could be crucial to the way you tell your tale or your role as narrator or character—as well as how appealing your work might be to a publisher and the public.

– Lynette Benton

___________________________

Are You Writing a Memoir Or a Family History? 5 Tips to Help You Tell Guest Post
by Virginia Lloyd

What makes a true story about family a memoir instead of a family history? The contours of memoir, seemingly sharp for many years, are blurring. The genre’s definition is losing shape as it groans under the weight of the associations and expectations we assign it. For memoir, grey seems to be the new black and white.

I think there are as many different types of memoirs as there are authors willing to create something unique. And with the intense competition for editors’—and readers’—attention, unique is essential.

Here are some thoughts about the differences between writing a family history and writing memoir. I’d love to hear yours.

— A family history, by definition, is purely about a family.

It documents the lives and relationships of several members of one family. A memoir, however, can be about almost anything, including family members past and present, but it is not necessarily a history. No one would consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a family history; yet the main characters are her immediate family members.

— A family history implies a long time period.

It covers at least three generations, let’s say, whereas the best memoirs tend to focus on a specific moment in the author’s life. Alternatively, family history could focus on a significant object, such as a family heirloom, or a house, tracked through a number of generations. Either way, the memoir author’s lens is narrow, while in family history it is wide.

— A family history is self-referential.

By this I mean that the author’s attempt to recreate the world of the family is an end in itself, exploring and illuminating the dark corners and forgotten characters from the past. Unless you come from a public family or have some extraordinary historical figure lurking in a previous generation, there is little to connect the reader to your characters.

By contrast, a good memoir is both highly personal and universal. A memoir should enlighten the reader about something larger and more complex than its author. It should attempt to illustrate aspects of human experience that have not previously been explored, or are presented in a fresh and unexpected way.

— In a family history, the author is a historian, and not necessarily a central character. In memoir, typically (but not always) the author is a central figure. The author of a family history could include information on characters who might not be relevant to a memoir written by the same author. This reflects the changing point of view from relatively external (family history) to internal (memoir). Of course, the objectivity of a family history author will always be open to debate—especially by members of the author’s family.

— A family history is less commercially viable than a memoir—unless you’re a Kennedy or have a relative who’s a serial killer.

If you’re still unsure if you’re working on a memoir or a family history, ask yourself why the family figures you’re writing about mean so much to you. What is it about your grandfather, sister, or great-aunt that refuses to go away, even when you’ve so many other things to be doing and writing about? If you can find the emotional core of your passion for the subject, then you are probably writing a memoir. You’re just not quite sure what it’s really about yet.

Virginia Lloyd is a memoir coach and the author of the memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. She blogs at www.virginialloyd.com and tweets @v11oyd.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids (including the additional resources in the comments under that post).

If you’re ready to write about your life or your family, but you’re not sure how to begin or continue, get in touch with me. I’m experienced and easy to work with. If you’re not sure, take a look at the Testimonials tab on this website, then get in touch.

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What Keeps Me From Writing? Gourmet Food

Blog Photo

Writer, editor, writing coach, Lynette Benton

This time last week I was arguing with a salmon. The Whole Foods butcher had boned it nicely, but left some unappealing tan flesh attached to its underside. I was struggling to scrape that off before chopping the fish into chunks for a soup I was making.

I had already cleaned the sand from between the layers of the leeks. Fresh spinach was draining in a colander before being cut into strips to add to the soup at the last minute.

Once that was all simmering nicely, I started on the Spanish—or was it Cuban?—pork stew.

My husband, a vegetarian, mashed up a few of those delicious Garnet sweet potatoes, ladled sauteed mushrooms over them, then topped them with crispy oven “fried” kale. Somewhere along the line, he also peeled steaming yellow beets, a job I dislike.

We are accidental members of the “slow food” movement. Never having had fast food while growing up, neither my husband nor I eat it now. Since we eat almost no processed foods, dislike banal food, and eat many times in the course of each day, we’re driven to cook a lot.

This time of year, my landscaper husband (who used to be a professional cook), is available to do good deal of meal preparation, so cooking interferes with my writing less than during warm weather. When I’m on my own again from April through half of December my writing time will contract accordingly.

I just finished making a roux for a root vegetable “mac ‘n cheese” casserole, a whole lot better than last week’s fight with the fish. So, I’m out of excuses . . . gotta get back to working on my memoir.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “What Keeps Me From Writing? My Furniture.”

Twitter: @lynettebenton

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Memoir Writing: One Important Element

A critical building block of your memoir should be emotion.

This can be particularly difficult for boomers and seniors to incorporate in their life stories. Although many have an urge to tell their stories, they can be hampered by the constraints of privacy and circumspection their generation often absorbed as children.
40K ft above
I see this often when I teach boomers and seniors; truth be told, I suffer from it myself. We’re more comfortable telling our stories from 40,000 feet above the earth, as if they happened to someone else. We might have yelled, “Let it all hang out,” at some point in our youth, but we find it terribly difficult to do that now.

You Want Readers, Don’t You?
But your audience—even if it’s “just” family members—wants to know how you really felt, how it felt to experience the public and personal events you did.

Readers are seeking the emotional significance of and in your life. They want to connect with you. They’re not going along for the ride. They want to be part of the ride.

If you felt doubt or fear, your readers want to know it. Disgust? Show them what that was like. When you triumphed, if you triumphed, they want to hear the audience’s applause and ride the waves of victory with you.

As I tell my students, if you write a boring memoir or autobiography, not even family members will read it. They’ll avoid you at the next social function, just so they don’t have to admit that they fell asleep over your book before they got to page 5.

Make Sure Your Life Story is a Story
The next post will address another element of “story” in your memoir writing.

If your writing seems flat and lacking in emotional content, get in touch with me. I’m experienced and easy to work with. If you’re not sure, take a look at the Testimonials tab on this website, then get in touch.

Share Your Story
And if you struggle to add emotion to your memoir writing or have a strategy for doing it without being too uncomfortable, please leave a comment!

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Tell Me a Better Story

As creative writers, we want to create stories—not reports. We know a story when we hear or read one, but sometimes it evades us when we’re writing, especially when we’re writing nonfiction, like memoir or autobiography.

But even if the audience you envision for your memoir or autobiography is your family, you’ve got to tell them stories to keep them engaged.

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, writes that a simple definition of a story is how you got from point A through point B and on to Point C, where you see things differently from the way you did at point A, the beginning.

Rainer goes on to say that “a story is: what you wanted; how you struggled; and what you realized out of that struggle.” In other words, how your experiences and challenges changed you.

As you think about your life, memoir, or autobiography, think of the way(s) in which what you went through changed your life or your lifestyle; the way that you think; your view of yourself or of others; or your values or priorities.

The struggle doesn’t have to be a fight to the death. It might be something as ordinary as convincing your parents to let you go to college or into the military. It could be about your reaction when you found out you were allergic to your favorite food or when you broke a bone just before a sports trial.

But whatever it is, give it power by shaping it into a story.

Next we’ll talk about the elements of stories. (Hint: one is emotion.)

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Tell Me a Story

In a previous post, I wrote that a “memoir is a story.” Here’s what I meant.

When you’re writing a memoir, or doing most types of creative writing for that matter, you’re not just presenting a collection of facts or opinions. Not if you want anyone to read and relate to what you’ve written. Not if you want them to care enough to follow your retelling.

Sometimes when boomers and seniors in my classes write about a period in their past, it turns into a paean to the great outdoors (very often in Vermont).

By writing about this period in their lives, my students are re-imagining a carefree portion of their past. So, they write lengthy—and I mean lengthy—descriptions of the fields, mountains, and the gorgeous glare of sun on snow. They might include generalized activities they pursued, or briefly mention a picnic in that pastoral setting.

But, real people—individuals—are missing. It’s as if en masse, everyone (who are they?) left the house, skiied down a mountain, or rolled in a field. There are no incidents: no one fell, got cold and had to go home, reached for a sandwich, or spoke.

Despite the use of imaginative language and a lot of adjectives, these are reports, not stories.

A brief definition of a story is “a sequence of events, one leading to another.” More specifically, the events need to show cause and effect. And they need to convey meaning.

Since it’s so challenging to define “story,” I’ll address it again in future posts—specifically as the term applies to memoir and autobiographical writing.

In the meantime, here’s a kernel from Ira Glass, the marvelous storyteller-host of public radio’s This American Life.

According to Glass, the writer has two essential “building blocks” for stories. One is the incident. The other is the reflection.

Reflect on that for a while. Or read (and see) what Glass actually says.

Now that you’ve got the basic idea down pat, take a look at Tell Me a Better Story.

For more tips on every aspect of writing, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.

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Memoir Writing Tips

If you’re writing a memoir, or planning to start one, I hope you’ll follow this series of articles on memoir writing, and leave a comment about challenges you’re facing in your writing, or share updates on your progress.

Memoir or Autobiography?
Many of the boomers and seniors I teach are working on memoirs. (Only one has written her autobiography.) So, one of the first things we do is distinguish between memoir and autobiography.

Here’s the difference. An autobiography covers the whole of the writer’s life, while a memoir covers only a single time period or a single theme in that life.

If your memoir is about a period in your life, it can cover your childhood, teen years, child-rearing years, or middle age, for example.

If you choose a theme, it can be jobs, or your discoveries of exotic foods, or specific challenges you’ve overcome—say mountains you’ve climbed, or illnesses you’ve survived. It can be anything that has played, or is playing, a significant part in your life.

Take a look at the approach my friend (and fellow member of Chicks Who Write), Maria Judge, took in chronicling her bout with a serious illness. It’s called, “Toxic, Tattooed and Tougher Than Margaret Thatcher.” Her memoir is a fabulous photo essay—demonstrating the options writers have for recording scenes from their lives.

A Memoir is a Story
A requirement of memoir writing that we address in my classes is a memoir needs to be a story, not just sentence after sentence of what happened to the writer or what the writer did.

In upcoming posts, we’ll look at the elements of “story,” including using suspense to keep readers interested.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!