Examples of Boomers and Seniors Writing About Their Lives

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

When people tell me they have a pressing 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. The short essays were made possible by Grub Street, a prominent Boston writing institution, and the City of Boston. (Note: I have no affiliation with the publishers or writers of this book.)

No matter what age you are, these are stories you’ll enjoy, and what’s more, they can serve as examples for your own writing.

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.

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.

But most of those whose essays appear in the book write about ordinary aspects of their lives: their homes and hometowns, their children, their families, their careers.

If you’re looking for an engaging model for your own writing, consider reading this book. By the way, it’s one of five volumes sponsored by Grub Street and the City of Boston.

If you want to get the stories from your own life down on paper, I hope you’ll find the following posts helpful.

Writing Stories from Your Life
Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas
Teaching Creative Writing to Boomers and Seniors, Part 2

You don’t have to be a boomer or senior to join my Memoir Writing or my Writing Stories from Your Life classes. Just keep your eye on the Upcoming Teaching Events tab at the top of this page to see where and when I’ll be holding classes next.

Or, you can work with me privately, as many others have and do. Your choice. Just use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch.

Free Memoir and Family History Writing Talk

Interested in writing memoir, stories from your life, or family history?

I’ll be presenting a free (and lively) talk on Tuesday 7/12 at Robbins Library, in Arlington, Mass. at 1:00. I hope you’ll join us. This talk could help you get started or work your way to the finish line!

Rewriting: When it’s Time to Start Over

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.

Clichés Bugging You? Me, too.

That's me, after hearing a cliche

I used to think of journalists as the leaders, rather than the lemmings, of our language. Well, maybe I was thinking of print journalists, New Yorker writers, who don’t go in for clichés as broadcast journalists too often do. They (and the self-aggrandizing pundits who appear on their shows) seem to have sunken happily into the sloth of clichés.

Old enough to remember the first Gulf conflict, when Stormin’ Norman and Colin Powell brought us “prosecute a war?” For months after that war ended, you couldn’t watch a news show without hearing someone mention prosecuting something—and they weren’t talking about a person or a courtroom.

On the Ground
There’s nothing like a war to stir up broadcasters to copy military terms and apply them long after those terms have anything to do with war.

I hear journalists using “on the ground” for just about any exciting event, especially bad weather. A tornado has passed through? They tell us they have a reporter on the ground, then ask the reporter: “Can you tell us about the situation on the ground there?”

War Zone
Most of us haven’t ever seen a war zone (thank heavens) except on TV. But anywhere there’s rubble, a broadcaster’s sure to exclaim, “It looks like a war zone!” The phrase has caught on to the extent that people use it to describe their offices and their teenagers’ bedrooms.

For quite a while after journalists began traveling as part of fighting missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, everything was embedded. Everything.

Order of Magnitude
Does anyone really know what an “order of magnitude” is? I hear it on the radio practically every day, particularly in reference to the escalating US debt.

Ugh. I don’t remember who it was, but someone wrote that you could just substitute “not” for arguably and come close to the truth. Try it.

Fiercely Independent
One of my longtime annoyances. Some family protecting its rights in Vermont is fiercely independent. The phrase is written as if its constituent words cannot be separated. Why is no one ever intensely independent? Forcefully independent? Ferociously independent?

The same goes for “companionable silence,” although I admit that one usually pops up in novels.

Why Do So Many Journalists Employ Clichés?
The habit of leaning on clichés could be tied to the pressure of writing stories under tight deadlines (or just plain lazy brains). So, I asked Shari Lopatin, a journalist who doesn’t rely on clichés, for her take on the subject.

“As a journalist and media strategist, one of the first lessons I was taught in journalism school, was to avoid clichés. And I try my darned hardest to stick to that lesson! Nevertheless, those clichés will arise inevitably. Have I noticed a rise in the clichés used by other journalists? Not any more than I’ve seen in the past.

“I cannot think of specific clichés that rub me the wrong way (catch that one?). But I have other pet peeves in print-and-broadcast writing that drive me bonkers—such as beginning a sentence with ‘There is.’ Or adding too many ‘thats’ to a paragraph. I understand the pressure that comes with writing news under deadline, but I always try to go through my work and check for clichés before submitting it. Because the best writers and journalists think outside the pen.”

Mired in clichés yourself? Try Phrase Finder. And see: Are You Addicted to Clichés? Help Is On The Way!, by Russell Working. He’d also be grateful if you’d take a look at the trailer for his book, The Hit.

Add the clichés that bug you in the Comments below.

In my next post I’ll rant about rampant incorrect usage: “Hopefully,” anyone?

Book Review: Women Writing on Family

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

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.

They Came for the Cookies

For some of the creative writing classes I teach—thankfully, not all—I’m paid according to the number of students who enroll. Each student pays a very modest amount, so a small class means small remuneration for me.

After recently teaching six students at an arts center, I screwed up my courage and told the personable program coordinator I wouldn’t be able to offer my services there again.

“It simply doesn’t pay enough,” I said.

“How about offering a free seminar to the public so more people can learn of the class? Some of them might enroll,” she suggested.

To boost enrollment at a couple of places where I teach, I twice (make that three or more times) offered talks about creative writing. I put in extra time coaching my students so they could read from their own very fine work. The audiences sighed and clapped and laughed at all the right moments during the programs.

Afterwards, we held receptions and served coffee, tea, and pastries. Often I bought or baked the goodies myself.

Guess what? Few people who attended the talks ever took a class. One time, several people just wandered into the room and sidled straight up to the cookies.

No more freebies for me.

Since then, I’ve made it a point to seek (and get) teaching jobs that pay a flat fee.

But that can be tricky, too.

Recently I had an opportunity to submit proposals to teach several writing classes at a community education program where I’d always longed to teach. Then I learned they would pay $22.00 per teaching hour. Nothing for preparation. Nothing for the 30 minutes after each class answering questions from students too shy to ask during the class. What about the emails from students between classes?

So, I had to learn to demand not only a flat fee, but a decent one.

Writers are mostly paid peanuts, considering our formal education, and post college training and experience. (I won’t even go into our years of blood, sweat, and tears.) Most of us have written for free many, many times. We even guest post on one another’s blogs—for free. But, at least that’s usually reciprocal.

No more ridiculously low-paying teaching gigs for me. Well, except for two classes I’ve had for years and love.

How about you? Do you teach writing for pennies? Are you fed up with writing for free? Have you got a plan?

If the World Were About to End

Grounds of a Sculpture Park

If my husband learned the world was about to end, or that he only had a short time to live, he’d stuff some chocolate in his mouth. Then he’d assemble all the sweets we have in the house and go out and stock up on some more.

Under similar circumstances, though, I’d hasten to get my hot (and I do mean “hot”) hands on just one little item: a prescription. I’d march into my HMO and accost the first person I came across, and demand to to see my grim primary care doctor.

“I want a prescription.”
“For what?”
“Prempro? But . . .”
“Prempro. Now.”

For you fortunate ones who have no idea what Prempro is or does, and no need to know, it’s the drug that offers miracle relief to women like me. It makes us cool. And comfortable. It eliminates hot flashes and night sweats. It eliminates the need to adjust the thermostat in my husband’s car every few minutes, depending on whether or not the sun is shining through the windows on me, or don or remove a sweater each time I move from room to room in our 80-year-old, unevenly-heated house.

Prempro says to my faulty temperature-regulating hypothalamus, “Everything’s fine. There’s no need to flood her with perspiration to cool her, when she’s standing outside in 30 degree weather in a tank top. No need to soak her short, sleeveless cotton night gown when it’s 60 degrees inside. Turn off the body heat.”

So, if you hear the world’s about to end, run to the candy store with my husband, if you want. Just please don’t get in my way. I wouldn’t want to step on you on my way to get that big, fat dose of delicious Prempro.

If you have hot flashes, or know someone who does, you might enjoy “What Keeps Me From Writing? The Fire Within.” Part 1 and Part 2.

Seniors Write Stories from Their Lives

Click the cover image to learn more about the book.

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.

My Wonderful Creative Writing Teens

Recently the extraordinary teens in my creating writing class read from their work in a public forum. It’s true the audience was mostly made up of the teens’ relatives, but even that’s meaningful. Some of my students had never allowed their parents to see their work before. And trust me, their writing is worth sharing.

When I agreed to teach teens creative writing at my local library, I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t have teens, and haven’t spent much time with teens since I was one. In fact, the only teens I’ve spent any time with were my husband’s and my two nieces and two nephews.

I teach creative writing in numerous locations—to students decades older than these teens. In my first meeting with the group a year or so ago, I brought along my usual lesson plans. I’m glad I listened to them read their work before I got started teaching, because after I became familiar with their writing in that first class, I told them, “You don’t need any of this stuff,” and I tossed my plans.

These teens were well beyond my introductory material.

What they needed from me were those tools and tactics published writers use to keep readers engaged; reminders to avoid cliches in favor of sharp, original wording; ways to shape a story so that is flows well; and methods for making their ideas as clear as possible.

They also needed a place where they felt comfortable revealing their work. I’m amazed at how considerate they are in offering feedback to their classmates, and how willing they are to help one another come up with a title or a name for a character.

They write dystopian and fantasy/SF fiction. One writes mainstream novels. Another writes brilliantly intellectual, yet thoroughly accessible short fiction. And one of them even undertook the ambitious writing of a villanelle, a highly-structured, 19-line poem. (Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is a villanelle.)

While I listened to my students read their work to the public yesterday, I was as proud as their parents.

Guest Post: What You Deserve From Your Copywriter

In my past work as a marketing communications director, I hired and supervised a ton of copywriters. Shakirah Dawud is among the best I know.

In her guest post below, Shakirah explains what you have a right to expect from any copywriter you engage.

– Lynette

You want to send an effective message via your branding, brochure, advertising, or press release. You need to communicate clearly to get the reaction you desire from your intended audience. So you’re in search of a good copywriter—or you’re about to work with one you’ve already chosen. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

A professional background you’re comfortable with. Check the portfolio of the writer you’re interested in. It’s not necessary for every project to fall within your industry, but it is necessary for you to feel drawn to her style—or the flexibility of her style—for your purposes. If yours is an ultra-specialized or socially sensitive area, ask about her background with those types of projects, and how she’s addressed such issues in her writing in the past.

Appropriate language. Although we all learned English at home and in school, marketing copy is not a college essay. Ask about or be aware of differences in expression, spelling, or grammatical constructions that may be common and correct in one context but inappropriate for your purposes.

Talent. It comes in many forms, and your definition of talent may be totally different from mine, but you know it when you see it. It makes you want to read more, find out more, and eventually contact a particular copywriter. Another copywriter may be technically and stylistically excellent, but like any art, greatness of expression is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t settle for less.

Communication—as much of it as necessary. If you want to know what’s going on at any point in your project, it shouldn’t be a hassle to get hold of your writer. Keep leaving messages? Are emails left unanswered for more than 24 hours? Try setting up weekly meeting times to get updates, ask and answer any questions, and offer further input as the project takes shape.

Professionalism. Can your copywriter meet the tight deadlines you throw at her? Can she meet those deadlines without sacrificing consistently high-quality results? Is she honest with you about her capabilities? Find out what past clients say about her work and her working style. You can do this by getting references and testimonials, running a Google search, or placing a few phone calls. The extra effort is worth it when both your peace of mind and your business’s reputation are on the line.

For more wisdom about copywriting, visit Shakirah’s site, Deliberate Ink, and follow her on Twitter @deliberateink.

You can also read Shakirah’s post, The Mystery of Character in Memoirs.