Did you know that Labor Day got its start in 1894? It was a “workingman’s holiday,” back when a typical job meant 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Ugh. Just think of that.
But jobs or occupations can make a great entry point for a memoir!
So, what did your ancestors do for a living? Many times, you’ll know the answer to that right off the top; it’s the kind of detail that’s often handed down in the family. But if you don’t know, census data can often help fill in that important blank.
In this fascinating example above from the 1880 Census in Virginia City, for example, we see an accountant, a butcher, a bartender, a watchman, a mill worker, and even a “tailoress”!
Women’s occupational opportunities were often pretty limited a century ago, but might include teaching, sewing, milliner (hat-maker), and occasionally medicine. And many women, of course, were considered to have no formal profession. Instead, they were said to be simply “keeping house.”
But what did that mean? Chances are, they weren’t languishing in the parlor doing needlepoint all day. There was laundry and house-keeping; cooking and baking; tending gardens and mending clothes; and of course all the hard work of raising children. Some women also brought in extra money for the household by raising chickens and selling eggs, or taking in laundry.
My own great-grandmother a talented seamstress. That meant following the latest fashions and sewing beautiful clothes – often without a pattern.
My grandfather was a carpenter in the early 1900s. His skills were put to use not just building houses; he also hammered together wooden crates for a tomato-packing shed in early Florida.
So, how about the folks you’re writing about in your memoir? A little bit of research can give you a fresh perspective on what their daily lives were like!
Here’s a fun memoir exercise, just for Labor Day:
* Do a bit of research about your ancestor’s occupation. A simple Google search like “what was a farmer’s life like in the 1800s” can pull up a wealth of information. (Did you know that winter was often just as busy a time for farmers as the summer growing season? Or that many farmers also did work for friends and relatives?)
* See if you can locate family photos, old magazine illustrations, or other images that help show that profession. What tools might your family member have used, like the old-fashioned sewing machine or carpenter’s plane, above?
* Imagine what the “fruits of their labor” meant, in terms of the time your ancestors spent. How long would it have taken to sew a new dress? How many months did it take to build a house? What hours would an average work-day have spanned for a dairy farmer?
These real-life work details can be so fascinating, I really hope you’ll share what you find out!
And if you’d like to learn a little more about the origins of this great holiday honoring workers, here’s a bit of history just about Labor Day: https://tinyurl.com/yxgqc4g6
Some American soldiers in Vietnam never came home. Some came home, but were never the same.
Rich Duffy joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 at the age of 18, and was sent to the front as a Forward Observer – one of the most traumatizing and dangerous posts imaginable. Then while deep in the jungles, he received a “Dear John” letter from the young wife he’d left behind.
“The brother I knew, the one who left, didn’t return,” says Rich’s younger brother, Dan. “In a way, Rich’s first disappearance happened sometime during his one-year tour of duty. Then in 1969, after Rich came home, he disappeared a second time, this time out of my life completely. His girlfriend mailed my mother a cryptic postcard saying, ‘Rich and I went to the Rio Grande, took LSD, and when I awoke he was gone.’ We never heard from him again.”
It’s been fifty years, now, since Rich disappeared.
A Quick Introduction: Brother, Brother is Dan’s memoir about his family and his quest to find out what happened to his missing older brother. With an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, Dan tells the story as if his brother is sitting right beside him as they recreate Rich’s fateful journey to the Rio Grande in a candy apple red ’66 GTO convertible.
Dan kindly shared his successful memoir writing journey with us, plus some helpful tips for how he took his book from inspiration to reality.
Q&A With Dan Duffy: Q: What made you decide to write this book? And how long did it take, from start to finish? A: Every December since my older brother Rich’s mysterious disappearance in 1970, I’ve been haunted by images of his disappearance beside the Rio Grande River. Could he still be living somewhere in the cash economy, leaving no paper trail for me to follow? Or did he drown without a trace in the Rio Grande there in Corrales, New Mexico?
Over the years I’ve tried every avenue I could think of to try to solve the mystery. In the mid-’70s, I drafted a letter describing Rich and the circumstances of his disappearance. This was the pre-internet age, so I contacted a mailing list company and sent letters to over 100 men who shared his name. No luck. I used his social security number and military service number to inquire about any recent activity. No luck. I had the Veteran’s Administration forward a letter to his last known address. No luck. I conducted driver’s license searches of his name in four Western states. No luck.
Finally, after I retired from my administrative career in higher education, I decided to put pencil to paper in the hopes of articulating and understanding Rich’s experience in Vietnam, his conversion to a “Jesus freak,” and his decision to move to the Southwest, where he disappeared under such mysterious circumstances. This book was the result.
All told, it took me three-and-a-half years to complete the book. I started in February, 2013, when I joined the “Open Mic” program at the Gloucester (Massachusetts) Writers Center, and began sharing some memories I’d written about growing up with my brother. I received good feedback, and set myself a goal of presenting new writing each month. Concurrently, I joined a writers’ group of six other writers. We met twice a month to read, review and critique each other’s writing. Their honest feedback was extremely helpful. It was also an excellent method to keep me and my fellow writers focused on our writing and editing. I finally published the book independently on Amazon on May 1, 2016 — my brother’s 69th birthday.
Q: What was the hardest thing for you about writing this book? And how did you overcome that hurdle? A: In 1959, my mother left my father, and moved Rich, me, and our three other siblings to the New Jersey Shore. As a single parent, she struggled to provide for us by waitressing, which often required her to work evenings and weekends.
For me, the hardest aspect of writing about that was recognizing that we kids had lived in such an atmosphere of silence: nobody dared to ask; nobody dared to tell. At the time, I didn’t know any other kids who lived in a broken home. So we never talked about things like our estranged dad, our absentee mom, kids having to supervise kids, teenagers hanging out at the house each night, or Mom dating a man we called Bill.
It was somewhat scary, in a way, to discover how I’d really felt about being adrift, in the absence of adult supervision. But writing about my early family circumstances also made me realize that I had broken free of any real or imagined “cycle of poverty” that my mother’s divorce may have fostered. I’ve been the only one from my family who ever attended and graduated from college. I’ve been fortunate to have continued my education, obtaining A.A., B.A., M.Ed, and Ed.D. degrees. For me, education was a pathway to my future success, both personally and professionally.
As Barack Obama has said, “Every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for their father’s mistakes.” Obviously, I fell into the latter category.
Q: What (and maybe who) helped keep you going? Did you feel like your brother was there speaking in your ear, encouraging you to tell his story? A: I am grateful to many individuals who engaged me along my writing journey. Some urged me on from ahead, and others exhorted me from behind, but most – my fellow writers — accompanied me by my side. That’s a metaphor, but even in the physical world it’s often “journeying together” that provides the encouragement people need to explore new horizons and traverse unfamiliar territory in the first place.
My wife, Helene, and six members of my writers’ group read my early drafts, provided constructive feedback and advice, and encouraged me to continue writing.
I also truly believe that my brother Rich was beside me while I typed my final draft, guiding my hands and providing encouragement. I might have even “channeled” him from time to time as I thought about several of his nightmarish Vietnam War experiences that left him with PTSD.
Q: You’ve used a fascinating blend of both fact and fiction, weaving in your own recollections with a fictionalized account of your brother’s journey. Did the process of writing help you come to peace with your brother’s disappearance, imagining what he went through and experienced? A: Although my brother was the focus of my story, it’s really about the impact of his life on mine. So my memoir includes fragments of distant memories of my older brother’s life and our shared eighteen years.
I yearned to better understand Rich’s war experiences, which left him with a “nervous condition.” Today, it’s diagnosed as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) So, I’ve included my own mental images of his Vietnam and post-Vietnam experiences. I’ve also used my imagination in reconstructing his 1970 cross-country trip to New Mexico. The “journey” with my brother in the book is equal parts myth and reality, as my first wife and I took our own cross-country drive in the Summer of ’72.
I smile when I reread some segments of the book describing Rich and me playing together. Those memories continue to bring me joy. But there are other portions of the story I’ve written that I’m unable to read aloud at book readings. The memories still seem so fresh and painful to remember.
Writing my story did bring me closer to Rich. Describing our shared cross-country trip – fictional though it was — added to the sense that he was alive and still with me. But after I published the book, I’ve learned even more about my brother’s last year of life, before he disappeared. So my own search is continuing. I still have several avenues of investigation I want to pursue to try to discover what happened to him.
The closest I could say I’ve come to “closure” was when I visited Corrales, New Mexico several autumns ago, and walked along the area of the river known as North Beach, the location where he had disappeared. As I stood in the wilderness beside the mighty Rio Grande River, I was overcome with a feeling of serenity and thought, “This would be a magnificent place to die.” Maybe Rich was trying to convey something to me from beyond the known.
Q: How did you go about publishing your book? For many authors, this is the hardest part. A: I’m the kind of learner who loves to examine resources. I read books about writing, and also visited several indie publishing websites to learn from others who had preceded me on my writing and publishing journey. I’ve included a list of publishing resources I’ve found helpful, below.
My learning style also emphasizes “learning by doing,” so Amazon’s KDP Self-Publishing Platform (www.amazonkdp.com) was a good fit for me, and that’s what I used to get my book in print. For indie writers, the best part about Amazon KDP is that it’s free. Aside from maybe the cost of a cover design, there’s no cost to publish your book (they also have a free cover-creation tool). The KDP platform also offers an Indie Publishing Community where you can ask questions and receive advice from others who have already published their books.
For the writing process itself, I used the Scrivener software. This allowed me to do things like reorder chapters by “dragging and dropping” them, a function that Word doesn’t offer.
Q: What advice would you give to other memoir writers, based on what you’ve learned along the way? A: I’d say, simply begin writing. Don’t necessarily think about beginning to write a 300-page memoir. Focus on memorable “scenes of your life” and write about what happened, and most importantly, articulate how you felt about the experience. Author Anne Lamott’s advice is to give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” By that, she means, get your thoughts and experiences down on paper without worrying about correct spelling or grammar at first. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your writing after you have something written.
I’d also advise beginning writers to create a time and place for your writing. Bestselling author Andres DuBus III suggests getting up an hour earlier than you normally would or staying up an hour later to concentrate on your writing. “Your book doesn’t care how tired you are,” he said at the Newbury Writer’s Festival.
Join other writers in a writing group, even if it’s just two of you who meet every other week to read each other’s writing, give each other honest critiques, and hold each other accountable for meeting your next meeting’s deadline for new material.
Dan Duffy kindly shared these resources he’s found helpful:
The Craft of Writing:
Learn from a master story teller, Stephen King by reading his book, On Writing. (Amazon Associates link).
Oral history is a rich source of family and local information. But it’s an incredibly fragile source. Memories fade. Old-timers move on to whatever the next life brings.
Does your local museum or historical society already have an oral history program capturing those elusive memories? If not, consider launching one!
In just the last few years, my own community has lost more than a dozen local elders. And with each death, an encyclopedia’s-worth of memories and how-to knowledge has vanished.
We’ve actually been lucky – the memories of at least a few of those elders were written down before they departed. But not every community has a formal or informal oral history program in place.
Like to start an oral history program in your community? Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you get started!
How To Start Your Own Oral History Program: (1) Decide just how wide you’re willing to cast your net. Are you only interested in preserving memories about your area? Or are you willing to capture the stories of folks with a fascinating past, even if they’re describing another town or country?
(2) Invite a group of potential volunteers to kick around the mechanics. Do you plan to just digitally record a series of interviews? Is someone a great videographer? Are there transcription services you can utilize to create a searchable print version?
(3) Identify a small handful of local elders (say 4 or 5) whose oral histories you’d most like to preserve. Then appoint an outreach person to contact each elder to see if they might be willing to share their recollections for your project.
(4) Brainstorm a list of questions ahead of time, so you won’t forget to ask anything that’s really important. But don’t let a fixed written list dominate your interview. Conversations naturally tend to ramble – be willing to let that happen. Some of the most fascinating tidbits of information can pop up when you just let the conversation flow.
Most of all, don’t wait! Reach out now, while you can. You’ll be so glad you preserved the precious memories that you did.
Like more tips for collecting oral history? Check out our book for more helpful ideas and suggestions!
I’ve been fascinated lately by the concept of ‘resilience.’
Our ancestors had it. Somehow they made it through wars and food shortages; terrible pandemics; losing a spouse or a child to disease or accidents.
And medical care? Well . . . some of the very best medical treatments back then would be cringe-worthy today. Sure, they had opium, laudanum, and whiskey to dull the pain. But just imagine trying to recover from a leg amputation during the Civil War, or an appendectomy in 1900.
Having a baby wasn’t just a happy event, one hundred years ago. It was a life-threatening one. Some parents watched child after child die before reaching adulthood, from accidents or illness. Families moved across the ocean or across the country in search of excitement and fresh opportunity. But that often meant they never got to see their loved ones or hometowns again.
And yet somehow, despite all their trials and sadness, people kept going. They found ways to bounce back and find joy in life again.
So, how did they do it?
Let’s start with the obvious: People generations ago didn’t expect life to be easy. That’s number one, I think, in the resilience game: understanding that life’s joys and challenges come as a package deal. People back then knew they had to accept the “bitter with the better,” as the old saying goes. Somehow we’re not so geared for that, today.
Part two of our ancestors’ formula: Community really was a ‘thing’ back then. People shared the good and the bad with each other. Weddings were festive community-wide celebrations. Funerals were a time for communal grieving. There may have been petty rivalries, bickering, and disputes in those communities, too. But when pain and loss came along, you knew you weren’t facing the hard times alone.
And perhaps the biggest resilience-secret from days gone by: The connectedness of life meant important reasons to keep going. No matter what, the cows still had to be milked every evening. Family and friends still depended on you to put food on the table or get the hay in the barn. Today, too, simple daily routines reminding us how much we’re still needed can be an incredible steadying force when life throws us a curve ball.
Hope you’ll be thinking about the wonderful stories of resilience in your own family — they’re more great material for your memoir!
Here are a few writing prompts about ‘resilience’ to help you get started:
* What ancestor or friend was a great resilience model for you? What challenges did they face, and how did they get through them?
* What group or community came together to support you when you really needed it, or were there to share a special happiness? How did that happen, and what did it feel like?
* What strategies have helped you recover from your own challenges or losses? What lessons have you learned about resilience that you’d like to “pay forward” and share with future generations?
GUEST BLOG: Q&A With New Memoir Author Jane Sweeney
Jane Sweeney’s book has been umpteen years in the making. This year she finally did it — her memoir is published and out!
I asked her to share her how-did-you-do-it story with our readers. Hope you’ll find inspiration in Jane’s story, and encouragement to keep pursuing your own writing and publishing dreams!
* * * * * * *
A Quick Introduction:
Jane Sweeney grew up in the Sixties in a suburb of L.A. That meant quirky opportunities like getting to ride Zorro’s horse, and being hired to be an “Indian Maiden” at Disneyland. Plus a great college education for just $54 per semester.
Then, when Jane was just 34, her mother died. That opened a whole new world, eventually leading her to a career as a hospice director during the AIDS pandemic of the Eighties. And as only Jane could do, she’s got the funniest stories about that!
Really?! Hospice and humor?! You bet. Jane’s learned to leaven everything with humor, she says, because people will listen if what you’re saying is funny.
And funny she is. (I keep telling her she should try stand-up comedy.) Her acknowedgments page includes all the usual suspects . . . and coffee. Her early favorite song: “My Country Tisathee.” And you gotta love the image of motorhome trips spent reading to the kids, while husband Tom yelled, “Look out the window for God’s sake, it’s the Grand Canyon!”
Jane has wanted to tell her stories for years. They’re filled with the love of all the things Jane herself loves: family, animals, and navigating life’s hurdles with hope and humor.
More than ten years in the making, Jane’s book is now out. And here’s Jane to tell how she did it!
Q&A With Jane Sweeney: Q: What made you MOST want to write your book? Is it just for your own family, or who else do you hope will read it?
A: Two things made me want to write my book. The first was to tell my stories. I wanted people to hear what I had to say! The second thing was to tell about my experience with Hospice. I wanted to tell people how it started, and what it can provide.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle for you in writing your book? And how did you overcome it?
A: I’ve been writing this book off and on for about ten years or more. Something funny or unusual would happen, and I would say, “That’s going in the book!” Because I though a record should be kept. Then as I got older I began to think people might be able to learn something from my experiences. I love to tell my stories, and sometimes people laughed, which just encouraged me. As you will see in the book, I think all of us just want to be heard.
My biggest hurdle was just inertia. There are always so many other things that need doing. I had to make the book a priority.
Q: What kept you going with this project when the “going” got tough?
A: I like to think that when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. I had notebooks with “My Story” and “Memoir” on them for YEARS. I got tired of looking at them. Once I passed the age my mother was, when she died, I felt even more pressure. What if I didn’t live any longer? The stories would all be lost. And part of what kept me going was your book, From Stuck to Finished, and your wonderful words of encouragement: “Don’t give up, you’re almost there.”
Q: What’s the biggest take-away that you hope readers will get from your memoir?
A: The biggest take-away I hope readers get is that life is full of amazing moments. Share them. Also I want people to know they are good enough. After all, I thought I was good enough to write my story!
Q: Do you have any advice for other people working on their memoir?
A: My advice is, don’t give up! We all want to be heard, and your story may help or inspire someone. If you don’t write it down, it will be gone when you are gone.
Q: Where can readers buy your book, Living Out Loud?
A: It’s available on Amazon.com (AmazonAssociates link) and Bookshop.org. They can also get a signed copy from me for $15.00 postage paid. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Right now the Kindle version is available for $3.99. Amazon is supposed to have the paperback available, too, but I don’t know when.
Thank you, Jane, for sharing your story with our newsletter folks and with the world!
Find Jane’s book here at Amazon.com! (AmazonAssociates link)
This memoir how-to post is all about you. Your memoir goals. Your writing journey. Those chasms-without-a-bridge and 600-pound-gorillas standing in your way.
It’s a quick and simple quiz, designed to give you added insight into where you want to go, and a few ideas about what might help you get there.
I’d love to hear about your insights, your progress – and your hurdles! I hope you’ll share your experience, thoughts, and questions on our “just for memoir writers” Facebook page (@WriteYourMemoir), and connect up with other memoir folks going through the same things!
1. What made you want to write a memoir?
2. Are there one or two stories you most want to tell, or a lifetime of stories?
3. How much have you written on your memoir so far?
4. What’s been your biggest writing hurdle? Where have you gotten stuck?
5. If your fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and gave you three wishes, what things would you wish for that would help you write your memoir?
6. What do you do right now to encourage yourself to write?
7. Would the accountability and regular feedback of a writer’s group be helpful to you? If so, have you checked for an online class or a group near you?
8. Have you read any how-to-write-a-memoir books for help or encouragement? If so, what tips or ideas did you take away that were most helpful?
9. What is your end-result hope for your memoir? Who do you want to read it, and what do you hope it will mean to your family or the world?
10. If you had to name one thing that would help you the most to finish your memoir, what would it be?
That’s your memoir post for this month! Love to hear your feedback.
There are certainly plenty of ways to describe the Great Coronavirus Experience. “Unprecedented” springs to mind. There’s also Stressful. Lonely. Depressing. Ugh.
But flip that “half-empty” glass around and the times we’re living through are also pretty darn exciting: Medical advances at super-nova speed. Heart-warming fits, too – neighbors looking out for neighbors, strangers helping strangers. And how about inspiring – legions of doctors, nurses, truck drivers, cashiers and cops, working around the clock to keep us safe, fed, and healthy.
I don’t know about you, but thinking that way makes my glass feel pretty darn full.
It’s certainly a time in our lives we’ll never forget. We truly are “living through history.”
Unexpected as this has been, it’s a teach-able moment for all of us. It’s also a teach-able moment for those who’ll come after us. That means your memoir is a great vehicle to share not only experiences, but lessons, too.
What can you share to help the next generation – and the next – understand what living through this unprecedented time has been like? What have you learned? And even more important, what advice can you give them about how to cope?
Here are three Writing Prompts to get you started:
1. What little thing that you can’t enjoy right now do you miss the most? Maybe it’s going out to breakfast with your spouse. Maybe it’s telling jokes with the guys at work, now that everyone’s not working. Or perhaps it’s hugging a grandchild (okay, that’s a big thing, actually!)
2. What have you learned from not having those things? Maybe you’ve realized it wasn’t actually going out to breakfast that you miss; it’s sitting there holding hands. Maybe it’s not the jokes at work that were so important, it was the sense of camaraderie. Did you discover anything surprising by having those simple things disappear?
3.And now the million-dollar question: What’s helping you to cope, and might help others someday? Do you remind yourself “this too shall pass”? Does it help to turn off the TV and immerse yourself in a silly novel? What work-arounds and substitutes have you found? (Scrambling an egg at home and putting a flower on the dining table to recreate “breakfast out”? Skyping with a grandchild? Emailing jokes to the guys at work?)
What’s been the greatest source of help and support for you in these trying times? And who’s helped “fill your glass” and brought a smile to your face?
There you go — your Memoir Tips for the month!
Here’s to lifting spirits and sharing YOUR wisdom!
Stay in touch! Drop us a line on Facebook and let us know how your memoir is going, or ask your memoir questions! And feel free to SHARE this newsletter.
New beginnings? We’ve all had them. In fact, life is always starting anew, it seems. And not just when we’re young!
Maybe you recently retired – and a whole new vista has opened up: Time to travel. Time to sew or read. Time to just explore what you can do and who you might be without the confines of a job.
And think back: Going off to college, or clocking in that first day of a new job. The birth of a child. Getting married and jumping off into a whole new life as a couple. Or how about a big move? To a new town, a new place, or a new house. Yes, those were all fresh starts, too!
Take a minute to remember all new beginnings you’ve had your life. (You’ll probably find it’s a long list!) Who were you, back then? What were you excited about as you started something new? What fears did you have? Did things turn out as you expected? Or did the river of “real life” sweep you off to somewhere totally unexpected?
This month, I wanted to share three fun writing prompts
to get you thinking (and hopefully writing) about your own fresh starts in life!
Remember a time when you found yourself in a new physical space. What did you do to embrace this change? What steps did you take to get comfortable and make this fresh place yours? How did you personalize your dorm room or your first apartment? Did you plant anything special in the yard at your first home? What did you hang on the wall at a new job? Did you bring a special mug to work or add a favorite picture to your desk?
Now think about the ways you have personalized your space at home right now – things that make you feel especially good to look at; things that remind you of what you love and who you are. Maybe it’s plants or family photos. Maybe it’s an antique that used to belonged to someone special. Perhaps it’s a favorite pen or coffee cup for your desk. Or simply shells you picked up on the beach. What do those things say about you? How do they reflect what you care about?
Finally, share what you’ve learned from the transitions and “new beginnings” in your life. Maybe you found that taking things slow made the transition much more manageable. Or perhaps you adored the adventure of jumping in with both feet and figuring things out as you went. What would you tell a child or a grandchild who was fearful of starting something new? And what stories are you eager to share about one of your most memorable new beginnings?
There you go! Your Memoir prompts for this month!
Hope you’ve enjoyed them. Please drop me a line on Facebook
and keep me posted on how your memoir is going!
Want to get more accomplished? Check out our new booklet, The Power of Lists! It’s a quick Kindle read. Check it out right here.