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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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?

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Finding Time to Write

If you’re always putting other activities before your writing, try the tips in the list that follows.

1) Eliminate distractions and time wasters.

  • Get on “do-not-call” ( and “do-not-mail” ( lists to stop telemarketers’ calls and junk mail.
  • Mute the TV and write during commercials.
  • Cancel subscriptions to magazines you don’t have to time to read anyway.
  • Limit (but don’t eliminate) socializing.
  • Leave the house or your office to write.
  • Tell others not to interrupt you during your writing time. (Put your mean face on or a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door, if necessary.)

2) Free up time to write.

  • Write while waiting in traffic.
  • Arrive at appointments early and write while you wait.
  • Set appointments with yourself to write.
  • Write while on vacation (See How to Find to Write While Traveling. Scroll down to find the article, if necessary.)
  • Write during your lunch hour and breaks.
  • Arrive at work early or stay late to write.
  • Write while the children nap.
  • Apply the two-minute rule. Write for two minutes. That’s it. Two minutes and you’re done for the day!

3) During your dedicated writing time, no matter how long or short it is, don’t get distracted by:

  • Reading email.
  • Responding to instant messaging.
  • Surfing the web.
  • Answering the phone.
  • Doing housework.
  • Exploring the contents of your refrigerator.

It’s all right to take a drive or a walk, so long as you let your imagination roam or gather impressions for your writing. It’s not all right to include errands on this drive or walk.

You’re making space in your mind for writing. You’re putting responsibilities and interactions on hold for a while so that you can think about your writing. After all, a huge part of writing is thinking. That’s why writers often seem preoccupied, the glazed look in their eyes signaling that they’re mentally removed from what’s going on around them. Our world is noisy and busy. Separate yourself so that you think – and write.

Here’s how some other writers found time to write.

How Other Authors Found Time to Write

Anthony Trollope, author of Barchester Towers and many other novels, got up at 5:00 a.m. every day, and wrote before he went to his job as a postal clerk. But even more encouraging to boomers and seniors out there: His mother began writing at the age of 53 and wrote 41 books before she died at the age of 84.

With a husband and four children, as well as surviving many bouts of her own and her husband’s surgeries, Margaret Walker accomplished decades of research and writing to complete her acclaimed historical novel, Jubilee. Sometimes Walker even left her busy home and stayed with relatives so she could write in quiet.

Above my desk, I have a quote by Linda M. Hasselstrom, author of Windbreaker: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains. She counsels women who want to write:

“Say NO. NO! NO! NO! . . .

I will NOT bring a hot dish to the Ladies’ Aid society meeting.

I will NOT pick up your child or your cleaning.

I will NOT serve on a committee, no matter how high-minded its purpose.”

Learn to say “no.”

If you find that you still can’t make yourself write, maybe you don’t really want to write. Talk it over with a writing coach.

Recommended Resources

What are You Willing to Sacrifice to Write?

Making Space for Change

How Does a Mother of 5 Find Time to Write? 

I’d love to know how you make time to write? Please leave a comment. And if you know of writers who are struggling to find time for their writing, please share this post with them.

For a steady stream of writing tips, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.

Having trouble staying inspired?

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Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

The main branch of my town library invited three instructors to lead creativity workshops for folks 50+ years old. I had the pleasure of running the workshop on memoir and life story writing with three different groups of participants.

I’d worried beforehand that the evening was packing too many activities (drumming, collage making, and writing) into too short an amount of time, that people would be exhausted halfway through the activities, and saunter home to bed before it was over.

But the night crackled with excitement. One man even shouted, when I said we only had a minute to go, “But you promised us 4 more minutes!”

After writing the difference among autobiography, memoir, life stories, family history, and genealogy, on an easel, I handed out prompts to get people writing right there in our section of the children’s library.

Life Story Writing Prompts

Here are a few of the writing suggestions I provided participants. At the end of this list, you’ll see the ones most people chose.

  • the first house you lived in, as a child
  • something you’ve struggled with for years
  • myths prevalent in your family, for example, “She’s the pretty one, he’s the smart one, this other one is the athletic one.”
  • what your birth order meant in your family
  • your favorite jokes, and why you love them
  • a near miss in your life
  • a time when someone didn’t stand up for you
  • a secret you discovered
  • Complete the phrase: “I thought I would be more (or less) _____________by now.”

Of these, most people wrote about their first house, something they’ve struggled with, their favorite jokes, or “I thought I would be more (or less) __________ by now.” The birth order prompt generated intense, and even hilarious, discussion when those who wrote on that topic read their pieces to the group.

Participants also wrote about:

  • an accomplishment they were proud of
  • a trip they took that revealed something, and
  • why they love writing—or hate it

Subscribe to this blog to be notified when I discuss “a secret you discovered” in a post about writing family histories.

Get inspired by excerpts from life stories by Boston seniors.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Writing Stories from Your Life.

Maybe you’ve got the stories, 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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Writing Stories from Your Life

I teach memoir and life story writing. Reading my students’ stories has given me a peek into the lives of those who’ve fought in wars or made ends meet on the home front; and of little girls who wandered along wooden floors in an old dime store, accompanied by the slightly sour aroma that emanated from the lunch counter on one side of the store.

My students have written of childhood dinners with the famous, or how they overcame a complex challenge. I learned about the life of a devastating, giant Boston fire through the life of a trolley driver, in a tribute written by his daughter.  In these classes, I get to experience the richness of life behind the headlines, and believe me, that’s the most riveting view.

Leaving a Legacy

Life stories are among the most significant legacies anyone can leave to their children and grandchildren. I wish my deceased relatives had written down the events and circumstances of their lives: what it was like when their home was moved from the quiet Florida neighborhood they’d lived in for half a century to make way for a broad, new highway. Or, how they treated certain illnesses. They certainly didn’t visit doctors as often as we do these days.

We’re Not Talking Autobiographies—Necessarily

Autobiographies begin the day you were born (or close to it) and continue up to the present. Memoirs cover a chronological period in your life, like your teen years, or a subject, like all the jobs you’ve held. Life stories are more like little true tales (although some can run for many pages).

You’ve Got Stories to Tell

Everyone’s got good stories. They’re the anecdotes you’ve told friends, who’ve said, “Wow. You should write that down.” They’re those jokes a relative told at Thanksgiving that made you laugh till you almost upset the green bean casserole.

They’re about the houses you’ve lived in or the pets you’ve loved.

Stories from your life can be about the spot-on advice you got when you desperately needed it. Or about the lousy advice you had the good sense to ignore. Your stories can be humorous. They can be prose or poetry—or even fictionalized. (One of my students is completing a mystery novel based on his work as a security guard.)

Your stories can retell incidents from your past that you’ll never forget, or slices of your family’s history.

My Legacy is Simply This is an engrossing collection of life stories written by Boston-area seniors. (Note: I have no connection with the book or any of its contributors. I have just found the book useful and inspiring in the memoir writing classes I teach.) See portraits of some of the writers.

Subscribe to this blog to be notified when I post provocative ideas you can explore in writing stories from your own life.

For more tips, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton

Join one of my lively memoir and life story writing classes. I’m always posting additional classes, so check back soon. Or just email me at

Here are a few testimonials.


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What Keeps Me From Writing? The Fire Within, Part 2

Feeble Counter-Measures

I have tried all the known methods for minimizing hot flashes. I take deep breaths to calm myself while grasping an icy beverage when a hot flash threatens. I eat tofu, lentils, and garbanzo beans, drizzle flaxseed on my food, and drink one cup of coffee in the morning. I never drink alcohol, since a mere sip makes me feel as if I’ve been on a 3-day bender.

I sleep in skimpy nightgowns with the bedroom window open all winter long. In the summer, an air conditioner and a fan blow all night.

Each of my fifteen thousand hot flashes has its own characteristics.

There are those that alert me to their slow, mild arrival, so that just moving into a cooler part of the house prevents them from developing into full-fledged heat events.

Then there are those that show up by stealth. When I notice them, my upper body is already saturated in sweat.

My quality of life has been so thoroughly compromised over these past two+ years that I made a desperate call to a menopause counselor for advice. But, what she could possibly offer that I hadn’t already tried? Hold my nose while executing a moonwalk? Stand on my head while swallowing a live fish?

The menopause counselor (flaunting her normal body temperature by wearing a thick mohair sweater and a wool turtleneck) didn’t have new tactics. But I did learn 3 important things from her.

It’s not my imagination that I have a very narrow comfortable temperature range—from around 69 to 71 degrees.

Second, since going off HRT is the equivalent of just entering menopause, I could expect it to take two years for the hot flashes to cease. (I’m now well past the 2-year mark now, and nothing’s changed. I expect to be sticking to the sheets when I’m on my deathbed.)

Third, I can take an epilepsy drug to counter night sweats.

What About All My Other Chronic Conditions?
If I had a choice of which of my many menopause-induced chronic conditions to give up, it wouldn’t be the freezing index finger, nor the unexpected allergy to wool, nor the intense muscle pain I feel after working out 3-4 times a week.

I would give up the inexplicable, irritating, unpredictable, embarrassing (imagine the impression made by sweating one’s way through a professional presentation) hot flashes.

Ah, Screw It
I don’t want to go back on medication, but on days when hot flashes slam me a couple of times an hour I know that if this condition doesn’t disappear soon, I wonder if I should resort once again to medical measures.

Or, maybe I’ll learn to view this as one of those nasty things—like insomnia—that people suffer from for no reason at all, and quit complaining about it.

If you’re a hot flash sufferer, I hope you’ll read What Keeps Me From Writing? The Fire Within, Part 1.

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