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!
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Imagine being just a few yards away from the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2001. Hearing the first of two planes fly directly over your head. Running for your life as pieces of concrete and other building materials rained down around you.
Author Jodi Graber Pratt takes you there, in her new memoir: In Its Shadow: A 9/11 Memoir. It’s anguishing to feel it yourself, through Jodi’s clear prose. But it’s also a surprisingly hopeful book. Because from her own struggles to make sense of such a life-altering experience, Jodi asks us to think about what we as a country can learn from the 9/11 tragedy — and how we can build on America’s most positive traits and values.
Jodi kindly agreed to share her memoir-writing journey with other would-be memoir writers here! Hope it’s fuel for your fire — to encourage you to finish your own memoir!
1. What was process you went through to write a book about your experiences? Did you start journaling about the experience right away?
Actually, I didn’t intend to write a book initially. It wasn’t until a couple of years after 9/11 that I started writing about it, as therapy to help me reclaim full-function of my brain. At first, it was just random flashes that I tried to capture, which helped me start to process the experience. Over the course of several years, they evolved into a journal. Then the journal became an example of my writing style for a writing seminar instructor, who encouraged me to develop it into a book for publication.
2. What hurdles did you face in writing your book, and how did you overcome them? Was the experience itself something that was hard to write about, at first? What kept you from quitting when it got hard?
Initially, trying to allow the memories to come to the surface was difficult; I had been beating them down so viciously for the first two years, they were shy in exposing themselves again. And I didn’t have a regular writing schedule; career and personal obligations did not allow for much uninterrupted quiet time. That’s partly the reason it took so long to get to the journal stage; it was often months between quality writing sessions.
But writing comes naturally to me; when asked to communicate, I’d rather write than talk. That’s not to say the perfect words fall in precisely the right order as soon as my fingers touch the keypad; I usually find myself writing and rewriting many drafts before I’m satisfied to share a draft with anyone, even for a first review. But I enjoy the process, so I never felt like quitting. Nevertheless, I often felt very frustrated that I couldn’t write faster. I was anxious to get to that stage where I started feeling good about it.
3. Did you have a specific reader in mind for your book? Are you taking any specific marketing steps to reach your readers that could be helpful for other writers to think about?
I didn’t have a specific audience in mind at first; it was just for me, to help me – finally! – process what I had witnessed and come to terms with it. Once it had become a journal and I decided I was going to share it with friends and family, I wanted it to be as accurate and honest as I could possibly make it. I wanted the reader to be able to feel like they had been in my shoes, experiencing it first-hand. I was pleased when some of my beta-reader comments included, “Your experience is now indelibly linked with mine,” “I was right there with you,” and “It had me in tears but I couldn’t stop reading.” That told me I had found the right words.
Since this is my first writing effort, I’m only now developing my author’s platform,” which I’m learning is extremely important. As a more introverted person, my approach leans heavily on written opportunities (e.g., blogging, trying to reach influential people for reviews that can be “flaunted” for PR purposes, applying to award programs (with fingers crossed), trying to place op-ed pieces, doing book giveaways). And reaching out to my state and federal public servants is definitely on my short list for marketing purposes. I hope to help to contribute to the effort to raise awareness of the importance of voting mindfully, looking for ethical, wise and capable candidates who understand and value our founding ideals and will model how to fulfill them, both domestically and nationally. And, of course, make it a priority to cast your own vote, no matter what the polls are saying.
4. You’ve said that you hope your book contributes to a discussion of ways to “nourish both prosperity and morality for all.” How is your book a vehicle for that?
In recent decades, I believe we have returned to old, aristocratic economic models, where only a small fraction of the population enjoys great wealth and the benefits that come with it. At the same time, less and less of our combined profits “trickle down” to the hundreds of millions of people whose efforts – while individually small – together keep this country among the most creative, productive and successful in the world.
Our founders have left so us much information to learn from. On this issue, my favorite (so far) is Benjamin Franklin, born into a poor family (15th of 17 children from his father) in the early 1700s. He had to work hard to become successful. And when he felt he had earned “enough,” he turned his excess resources to encouraging and enabling others, and investing his time and money in improving America socially and politically. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he held himself accountable for his mistakes and took responsibility for them (e.g., recognizing and providing for an illegitimate child). Sharing generously from his bounty made him no less able to enjoy the comforts of life until his death.
That’s a great model for American Capitalism. I believe our most privileged citizens should be expected to share a portion of their bounty with society. Each generation needs to be responsible to prepare for the next, always nurturing and encouraging talent no matter where in society it exists, giving it wide berth to fully develop for the benefit of all society.
5. What do you hope readers will take away from your book the most?
No matter how “civilized” and past barbarism we think we are, the veil between peace and disaster is razor-thin. The only thing protecting us is the vigilance, dedication, intelligence, wisdom and vision of our leaders. When our government loses its focus on its most important function – to keep America safe and at peace, within itself and with all other nations – the “American Experiment” (i.e., our democratic system) fails.
We choose our leaders through our votes and our voices. We are responsible to select the best, brightest, most wise, most disciplined and most ethical individuals among us to represent and serve us, and we must hold them accountable to honor our trust in them.
6. What advice can you give other memoir writers? What helped you that might be surprising, for example?
Naps. Learn the value of taking naps. When I’ve been struggling with particularly challenging section for a while that I just can’t seem to get a handle on, I take a nap. When I wake up, a clear direction usually pops into my mind. I think it has something to do with releasing the “creative” part of our brains from the filtering of the “logical” part of our brains,which happens through sleep. This book represents a huge number of naps!
So there you go! Hope Jodi’s kind words encourage you to finish your own memoir!
Ever hit a long-winded passage and turn the page, hoping the story would pick up later? I see a few hands out there.
This month, I wanted to share three quick writing tips to avoid page-turning-reader syndrome and let your writing sing!
(1) Look for “padding” you don’t need.
An easy place to start: those extraneous, repetitive, extra, unnecessary, duplicative, redundant and overused words. (See what I just did there?) Yeah. You don’t need every single one. Get out the pruning shears and chop away.
Here’s a great example of a slightly different kind of “padding”:
“Her mouth was parched, and a slow fever seemed to kindle in her blood, and creeping slowly through every sluggish vein, touched the torpid tide with stinging fire. Her languid eyes gleamed with a fierce light…”
Oh dear. No, it’s not a passage from a modern romance. This was an 1865 writer. A very breathless 1865 writer. And it’s a great example of what happens when you lean too hard on adjectives to paint your scene.
Moral of the story: watch out for “adjective addiction.” So, how would it read without all those adjectives?
“A fever seemed to kindle in her blood, and creeping through every vein, touched her with fire. Her eyes gleamed…”
Still a bit on the dramatic side. But way better!
(2) Vary your sentence structure.
It’s easy to fall into a “same-same” sentence pattern. But changing up the sentence structure can make things a lot more fun for your reader.
Like some examples of different ways to craft the same sentence? Here you go:
My mother loved baking cookies.
December was the time of year when the aroma of cookies always permeated our house.
Cookies? We had them all. From shortbread to chocolate chip, lemon bars to oatmeal, butter cookies to gingersnaps.
Bonus tip: Unless you’re doing technical writing or striving for formality, don’t get hung up on using complete sentences. I know, I know. It’s what we learned in school, right? But for less-formal writing, short and pithy works just fine. (Check out that third bullet point above, for an example).
(3) Chop overly-long sentence into pieces.
If you really want to know why overly-long sentences don’t work and how they frustrate your reader, how obnoxious it can be to get to the very end of a sentence and have no idea where the thought actually began, and why most editors reach for their red pencil frequently to separate long, wordy sentences into two, three, or even four different parts, just think about how your attention quite naturally wandered away when you were forced to wade through a word-salad mess — like this ridiculously convoluted sentence.
Okay, I did that one on purpose. How about this real-life example (from 1865 again):
“The opportunity was offered him in July, 1862, at Boonesville, by an old class-mate at West Point, and one who subsequently won, under Bragg and Forrest, a character for belligerency similar to that now enjoyed by Sheridan.”
Huh? That requires some real work on the reader’s part to parse out the meaning! Chop that run-on stinker into two sentences and it might read like this:
“In July, 1862, an old class-mate from West Point offered him an opportunity at Boonesville. That same class-mate would later serve under Bragg and Forrest, winning himself a reputation for belligerency similar to that of Sheridan.”
Unpacking those two ideas into separate sentences makes them easier for your reader to digest. (Extra bonus credit for anyone who noticed that the rewrite also shifted from passive to active voice! That helped, too.)
So there you go. Hope these three simple ideas help your memoir writing sing!
And now I’d like to hear from you: What questions do you have about memoir writing? Where are you getting stuck? Drop a line and let me know.
It’s easy to think of our memoir as just our own story. But how many other paths crossed yours to make you who you are today? Probably thousands and thousands!
In this pool table game of life, we’ve all taken hits from a few random cue balls. Our trajectory has been disrupted by unexpected forces that coaxed us, prodded us, or simply whacked us off the table for a little while.
Not all of those forces were benign. But some were encounters with people who made us better.
Maybe those inspirational forces were your parents. Or perhaps your biggest inspiration was long-gone historic figure, or a celebrity you never met in real life.
But we never, ever forget our heroes. Role models with stories so compelling we aspired to be like them. People who challenged us to reach higher, be better, try harder.
It could have been a movie star; a saint; a surfer; a favorite teacher.
But when you ask yourself, Who inspired you? chances are someone’s face immediately came to mind!
So here’s a memoir tip: Don’t forget to mention those special forces that altered your trajectory. The heroes and heroines who inspired you can add a fascinating dimension to your memoir!
A FEW MEMOIR WRITING PROMPTS:
* How old were you when you first felt inspired by this person? How did their path happen to cross yours?
* What form did “inspiration” take for you? What about this person did you want to emulate?
* What might have happened if you’d never had their encouragement or inspiring example to follow? How did your life trajectory change as a result?
* What have you done (or might do in the future) to “pay it forward” and inspire someone else?
That’s it for this month!
Let us know how your writing is going! Leave us a post on Facebook: @WriteYourMemoir
Serendipity gives me goosebumps. Just as I was about to write this post about “food memories,” I stumbled on a terrific example of this exact form of family-history writing.
“From Billee’s Kitchen” is a great, simple collection of not only recipes but memories. Compiled in pdf form by Melissa Corn Finlay, it honors her grandmother, Billee Barton Corn. And you can read it for free, here! It’s packed with Billee’s favorite recipes, from Shrimp Victoria and desserts to die for, and great family photos. But best of all, it includes Melissa’s memories of her grandmother.
Born in 1918, Billee used to keep a jar of bacon drippings on her stove. (Sound like anyone you knew?) She went to bed every night with a Louis L’Amour novel in her hand. Granddaughter Melissa got sips of Billee’s favorite nighttime beverage (Dr. Pepper over ice) as she joined Grandma under the puffy down comforter. And Melissa can still recall the tantalizing smells of her grandmother’s apricot “fried pies.” Special memories indeed!
So, what fascinating nuggets of family history and memoir material might be lurking in your kitchen? And how can you easily preserve and share them?
Start by pulling out that old card file or family cookbook, and thumb through the recipes. What dishes were your parents’ favorites? And what do they say about your family’s travels or the way things were?
What special culinary treasures have been handed down from long-gone relatives? I treasure my great-grandmother’s recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake just because it’s a legacy. And I love the visual image of my great-aunt’s recipe for Deep Dish Peach Cobbler, scrawled in her own spidery handwriting. How fun to know that these special treats once graced their tables, too, and how rewarding to pass the recipes along to future generations!
What memories do certain recipes bring back for you? I still remember the welcome smell of my dad’s Beans Bretonne simmering in the oven — a family favorite — as I walked in the back door after school. (In case you want to try it, here’s his recipe — with some hilarious comments from my sister.)
And you might even find surprises tucked away in that old cookbook or filing box! As I was writing this story, I discovered a long-forgotten collection of old newspaper clippings in the back of our family recipe box. Domestic goddess that she was, my mother had tucked them away in the 1960s, preparing to be the perfect party hostess.
Sharing food-and-family memories doesn’t have to be a huge production. Make it easy on yourself! You might simply copy those old family recipes and bind the pages together, or paste individual recipes into a small scrapbook, as my sisters did (see below). If you’d like to “pretty it up” as Melissa did in her family recipe book, just create a Word document with images, then convert that to a pdf for sharing.
Okay, that’s your Memoir Writing take-away for today: Let favorite family recipes prompt your memories of both food and family!
And of course I’d love to hear what stories you remember.
’Tis the season (or soon will be) for gift-giving. And don’t forget those upcoming New Year’s Resolutions. (Hope yours will include writing!)
Whether you’re thinking about a gift for a fellow writer, or perhaps a motivational gift for yourself, here are sixfun gift ideas. And keep reading to the end for three helpful writing tips to keep your inspiration level high through the holidays!
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Notebooks to Take Everywhere: Every writer needs a handy notebook to keep them at all times — because you never know when inspiration will strike! Check out hundreds of artist-created notebooks on Threadless.com – including this charming “PalmPlants” design. From silly to crazy to just plain beautiful, grab your favorite for between $10 to $20 bucks. Or if nothing strikes your fancy, upload a design and create your own notebook! (Wouldn’t that make a great holiday gift, too!)
Preserving Memories: Gaylord.com offers tons of archival supplies that make great gifts for memoirists. They even devote a special section of their website to products for preserving family history. The Gaylord website includes helpful free tips and how-to videos, too. Just one gift possibility: their embossed leatherette photo album.
Pens & Ink:
Love the feel of a great pen? Ink & Volt is just one site offering beautiful writing implements for every taste and budget – including fountain pens ranging from $18 to over $150. Doesn’t the “Pilot” pen, shown below, look like something writer Erle Stanley Gardner would have used for his Perry Mason novels!?
Calendars for Writers:Okay, you could buy a traditional “writer’s calendar” from Writer’s Digest. Or you could make your own! Here are five free calendar templates, courtesy of Lemon Thistle. (You can’t get better than free, right?) In addition to a spot for notes on the side, this one also includes a prominent box at the top for your goal. Great concept.
A Memoir to Read by the Fire: Amazon is full of memoirs to read. And there’s nothing like a great example as a teaching tool. Choose a memoir to read this holiday season — not only as something to enjoy, but as a sample to learn from and help you improve your own craft.
A couple of possibilities: “Reminiscence: Life of a Country Doctor,” by Carl Matlock, about medicine in a small town back in the days when doctors made housecalls. (Here’s our AmazonAssociates link to find the book).
Then there’s “My Stars Are Still Shining” by Amina Warsuma, about her journey from the streets of Harlem to a career as an international fashion model. (Here’s our AmazonAssociates link for the book). As she puts it: “I have felt throughout my life that people were my greatest asset as they suddenly appeared and disappeared in my life. I have wondered for years why I came in contact with wonderful and not-so-wonderful people. As I reflect back, there is a lesson I learned from each significant encounter and involvement.” Bet you can relate!
Getting From Stuck to Finished:
And, of course (bit of shameless self-promotion here), our own “Writing a Memoir” book about the craft of memoir-writing makes a great holiday gift, too. Hope you’ll consider gifting a copy to someone you know who’s working on their life story! (Find the book here with our AmazonAssociates link).
And here are 3 Memoir Writing Tips!
These cold winter days are a great time to stay indoors and write, right? Try these three Keep-Going Tips — just for memoir writers!
1. Picture Your Hero: Choose someone who’s already written a memoir similar to the one you’re hoping to write. (Perhaps it’s the person whose memoir you picked to read, above!) Post their photo or a picture of their book right over your computer. Remember: If they can do it, you can do it, too!
2. Narrow Your Lens: A wide-angle lens is a great tool for photography. But it can be overwhelming as an approach for memoir. Instead of trying to figure out how to jam your entire life into book form, choose just one event, one place, or one person to write about next. How to pick just one? Your heart probably already knows what you most want to write about. Or, if you’re still stumped, jot down ten possible ideas as quickly as you can and throw them in a hat – then close your eyes and pick one. (The “quickly” part makes sure you don’t over-think this step.) Extra bonus from this exercise: Now you have nine more ideas just waiting for you!
3. Talk It Out: Sometimes we’re just not ready to start writing. Sometimes we need to talk about what we’re going to write, first. My theory: talking out loud and writing words down on paper use different parts of the brain. But once you can sayout loud what you’re excited about writing, it unleashes new energy. Find a friend; take them to lunch; and describe what you’re working on and what you hope to write about next. You might be amazed at the fresh inspiration you come home with to sit down and write!
Well, that’s it for this month!
Please keep me posted how your writing is going!
And if you’d like to get more memoir tips every month, you can sign up for our free Memoir Writing newsletter here — and get a free Scheduling Tool, too!
Sally Bailey has danced with some of the biggest names in professional ballet. Think Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. She became a professional ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet at the age of 19, and spent the next 16 years on a whirlwind of stages: from New York to Ecuador, Istanbul to Cairo, Egypt to El Salvador. And in 2003, she captured some of those fascinating memories in a memoir: “Striving for Beauty: A Memoir of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.”
I was fortunate enough to meet Sally Bailey at a booksigning, and was immediately a fan. She’s bursting with life, high energy, and enthusiasm. And her book shares some astonishing stories from her high-octane career with the San Francisco Ballet. (Don’t miss the one about leech soup in Rangoon!)
Me, of course, I was full of questions. Sally kindly agreed to share her answers with us in this blog! So read on — and hope you enjoy this virtual “meeting” with Sally, too!
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Q: What was it like, growing up to be a dancer? A: Dancers often have an unusual time of it. They start younger than in most professions. They grow up in a rarified atmosphere, mostly seeing only each other; and they become more and more removed from ordinary life. But when they manage to succeed, which not all dancers do, this leaves them open to a rare experience: the feeling of complete power and control over a situation, as in a performance when everything just happens to click. I had such an experience once. I still remember it. It occurred while I was dancing Tchaikovsky’s grand pas de deux from the Nutcracker. This pas de deux is indeed grand! When the orchestra is playing full out and you’re dancing full out, feeling every muscle in your body doing exactly as you wish, you and your partner are responding to each other, and the audience is responding to the two of you — it is a heady experience. There aren’t too many experiences like it.
Q: What made you decide to write a book about your years in ballet? A: I decided to write this book because, after all my years in ballet, I had something to say. It’s not only a memoir of my life, it’s also a chronicle of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.
Q: Your book is an amazing 370 pages, and covers the time from when you were nine until you were 35. This must have been a momentous undertaking. What got you started writing, and how did you go about the process? A: It was a big undertaking. From start to finish, the book took me 10 years. My son was in high school during much of this time. I used to get up every morning about an hour before breakfast and write. The original version of my book had over 700 pages — much too long! So after I finished writing, I had a lot of cutting to do.
Q: So many memoir writers quit when their project is half-done — sometimes even after just a few pages. In fact it sounds like your director’s wife hit just that kind of snag. What helped pull you through to the end? A: I had a lot of help along the way. My brother-in-law had been Chair of the English Department at Annapolis; he had friends who also helped. My husband was a real stickler for the English language, and I had friends who were college English teachers. They all read it, and gave me comments. And for me, the discipline of ballet came in real handy!
As I was looking for a publisher, an old friend who was working as an editor offered to read it and came up with many good suggestions. I rewrote it again. And finally, my manuscript sparked enough interest that a publisher read the whole thing. Though she couldn’t afford to take the project on, she encouraged me to go ahead and publish it with Xlibris. And so did my husband and son, who for ten years put up with late dinners. They said I’d better do something with it.
Q: What did you do to stay organized? A: I began with a timeline, and I knew what I wanted to say. I had kept journals while on all our tours, which helped immeasurably with dates and details, though I hadn’t kept many notes when we were home.
Q: Your career in ballet was really phenomenal. And yet, at the age of 35, you knew it was time to change your life and go on to other things. Was that part of your motivation for writing the book? To show others that it’s okay to let go of a career and move on? A: No, my motivation for writing the book was entirely personal. As for the decision to leave dancing, I wanted to quit while I was ahead! Staying in as ballet mistress — a role something like a tutor to the other dancers — felt to me like cleaning up other people’s messes. It wasn’t appealing to me. Many dancers aren’t interested in a world beyond dance, but I knew there was a whole wide world out there and I was excited to explore it.
Q:Do you have any encouragement or advice for other memoir writers? A: I think everyone has to just feel their way through the process, and just keep plugging.
Q: You’ve actually written two books: “Striving for Beauty” and also “After the Applause Stops: Who Are You When You No Longer Do What You’ve Been Doing for Years?” Where can readers find your books? A: My books can be ordered online through Amazon and Borders, or from the publisher, Xlibris.
P.S. Like a free copy of Sally’s book? I’m so pleased to share her story I’m doing a Giveaway! Just drop me a line at email@example.com and let me know why you’re eager to read her book! Best answer (in my humble opinion) before November 22, 2019 wins the book. If you win, I’ll email you for your mailing address.
MEMOIR TIP: Finding the Special in an “Ordinary” Life
Ever feel like “my life was nothing special”? It’s a common refrain among memoir writers. You went to work; came home; cooked; did laundry. Then rinse and repeat, day after day. Where’s the special to write about in that so-called “ordinary” life?
Here’s my take-away after interviewing dozens of folks who thought theirlives weren’t very special: keep asking questions. Some of the greatest memoir material is tucked away right in the details of a seemingly “ordinary” life.
Here’s a couple of examples:
I once interviewed an old-timer who’d never lived far from the spot where he was born. Turns out he was a virtual living library of nearly-lost skills. He’d grown up hunting and trapping — with fascinating tales to share about his days tromping the mountains and the wild animals he’d encountered. He remembered when the local generator shut off at 9 p.m., along with every electric light in town. And brushes with death? It was amazing that he’d ever reached his 80s! As a teen, he’d once been sent out onto a flooded bridge to help break up a logjam threatening to take out the bridge. His “safety gear”: a bit of rope tied around his waist. Bottom line: he had plenty of amazing stories from a truly amazing life!
“I was just a housewife,” one of my husband’s relatives would similarly protest. But a little prodding later, we heard how her journey to school took her over a railroad bridge — a fine thing, until a train was coming, when she’d have to leap over the edge and hang onto a post until it passed. And she beamed as she told us how she and a classmate were allowed to spend the night from time to time with the warm and wonderful teacher from their one-room school, who’d let them roast marshmallows over the chimney of an oil lamp. Special memories indeed!
So, how can you find those fascinating nuggets? Those details that breathe life into the most “ordinary” life story? Here are a few tips:
Think about what special knowledge or expertise you’ve acquired — especially anything unusual by today’s standards. Did you learn the tricks of cooking on a woodstove, or how to skin a rabbit? Did you grew up sewing your own clothes? Tell the story of how you learned, and share the proper steps!
Remember how life was different than today during your growing-up years. Did you ride a bicycle or maybe even a horse to school? Get lost in a cornfield? Ever built a treehouse? What adventures did you have that kids today would never experience?
What kind of “ordinary” foods did you eat — perhaps something that’s anything but ordinary now? And how was that dinner prepared? Were staples in your family’s diet things that aren’t so common today, like parsnips, liver, or Spam? Did your mom make homemade pies made from home-grown fruit? (Do you still have that favorite recipe? If so, be sure to include it!)
What dangers did you manage to survive? Some of those experiences may be very uncommon today! Did you ever get lost in the forest in the snow? Come face-to-face with a bear? Challenge your friends to see who could be the first to swim across a dangerously swollen stream every spring? One of our friends had a simple abscess as a child that was truly life-threatening back then, although today it could be easily cured with antibiotics. Another relative spent an entire year in bed with pneumonia — again, an easily-treatable malady today. Those “ordinary” tales of challenge, hardship, and danger are especially fascinating when viewed backwards through today’s lens!
Bottom line: Don’t dismiss your life as “ordinary.” Remembering the details of that “nothing special” life often turns up incredibly powerful stories — and great memoir material!
Thinking of stories already? Share a few of your special memories with us on our Facebook page!
And if you’d like more Memoir tips, find our book on Amazon!
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.
Jim Lombardi may have started out in life as an altar boy. But his years as a teen were a somewhat different story: Jim was shipped off to boarding school for “not shaping up.”
Shape up he did, operating a successful L.A. restaurant and then joining LAPD as a reserve, patrolling the beat and working undercover vice assignments during his 50-year law enforcement career. But it took his daughter, Lisa Lombardi O’Reilly, to finally capture Jim’s amazing life stories on paper. Just released in March, 2019, “A Sense of Humor” shares Jim’s tales of becoming a helicopter mechanic; rubbing shoulders with famous musicians and notorious gangsters of the ‘60s; and life-or-death experiences as a law enforcement officer. Daughter Lisa, it turns out, was the perfect person to capture those stories. A writer, professional genealogist and family historian, she had been helping capture personal histories since 1997.
So how’d it go, interviewing your own dad and creating a book together? And what advice does she have for other memoir writers? Lisa kindly shares her memoir tips and experiences with our readers!
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Q&A With Lisa: Q: How was it, working with your dad on his autobiography? A: Working on this project with my dad was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I loved the time we spent together during the interview process, going through old photographs and memorabilia (which he still doesn’t know how I found!); sharing with him genealogy records about his ancestors; and, of course, sharing laughs about it all. There has always been a lot of laughter in our family.
Q: Did it change your relationship in some way? A: I’m grateful to say that I’ve always enjoyed a good, close relationship with my dad. Of course, when my siblings and I were young we didn’t get to see a lot of him during the week (especially when he was in the restaurant business), though he habitually made time for us. So I wouldn’t say working on the book together changed our relationship, or even that it gave me more of an appreciation for him. I’ve always felt that. What it did give me was a keener perspective and respect for the man that he is in a broader sense. The man that he isoutside our family, to his friends, and the communities he’s involved with. Discovering how his integrity, sense of humor, work ethic, and self-esteem were ingrained in him, and how they remained a firm foundation throughout his life. It brought full circle everything that he instilled in me and my siblings.
Q: Did anyone else in the family help? A: The only other person who helped was my mom, who, if she was in the room during an interview, would add her own colorful version of a story. Apparently, my dad didn’t remember things ‘correctly’ all the time . . .
Q: Did anything come out that surprised you? Did you hear stories you’d never heard before, growing up? A: I got to hear many stories I’d never heard before, especially about his parents, friends he grew up with, and people he knew that were instrumental in his life. What surprised me the most was his memory — not just his detailed recall about the events of his life, but that he would remember exactly where we had left off in the previous interview. It was uncanny! It took almost two years to get all the interviews recorded because I’d only see him four or five times a year, and the project would get put aside while I was working on other (paying!) projects. Normally, I let my narrators start up with what is foremost in their mind. But my dad would sit down with me and say something like, ‘OK, last time we finished up talking about the boat.’ And it would have been several months since our last interview! So we’d take up from there. He was amazing.
Q: You cover a lot of ground, it looks like. How hard (or easy) was it to organize all the material?! What did you do to keep things on track? A: This was the biggest personal history project I’ve done to date, and was amassed from over 20 hours of interviews. We were able to cover a lot of ground since I had the background knowledge to be able to bring up questions about people or events. It was the most in-depth look at a childhood that I’ve ever recorded and he also has been engaged in several different careers during his life, and we covered them all. We had the luxury of no budget, so I went for it all! It really wasn’t especially difficult to organize the material, it just took longer to organize it all into the narrative flow. Once I got into the design stage of the book, I kept myself on track by giving myself a deadline. Otherwise, I’d still be collecting stories, because they keep bubbling up!
Q: What was the BEST story you heard from your dad — the one you really want the world to know about? A: That’s a tough question. My dad is a great narrator and had a lot of fascinating stories about his boyhood, his family, his restaurant days, and being a police officer with the LAPD. But I think my favorite story was one he and my mother told me together over dinner. There were a few times when I set the voice recorder in the middle of the table as we ate, and it captured some great conversations. The story that is dearest to me involved an evening while they were dating. My mom worked in downtown LA and my dad was supposed to pick her up after work. But he forgot to come get her because he was at home watching a ball game with his uncle! Their back-and-forth as they told this tale was such a perfect example of how they spoke to each other, and the story itself was so funny. And in the end, it turned out to be the night my dad proposed to my mom. I had never heard that story before, and it was beautiful and so them!
Q: Do you have any advice for other would-be writers who’d like to get a family member’s story out? A: The best advice I can give is to just do it. Don’t put it off, don’t wait for some elusive ‘convenient’ time. There won’t be one. You have to treat the project like you would if the person was a paying client, especially the interview portion. Make appointments and put them on the calendar, and get all those words recorded! The book I did for my dad was his 80th birthday present, and I intended to do the same for my mom when she turned 80. But the unimaginable happened and she passed away suddenly. So don’t think you’ll always have time – you won’t.
Finishing my dad’s book was my greatest accomplishment. It’s a true blessing, and I’ll be forever grateful that I was able to present it to him, and that we can share it with our family and friends. My whole life, he’s been the king of my world and now I can let everyone know why. That makes it a precious gift to myself, as well as to him. So just do it – start the ball rolling today. I promise you will reap rewards you never expected. Just remember to listen like you’ve never heard the stories before (even if you have), and keep a sense of humor!
You can find James Lombardi’s wonderful memoir “A Sense of Humor” here on Amazon.com:
To contact Lisa Lombardi O’Reilly to inquire about her services for creating an heirloom book from your own life stories, visit: www.yourstorieswritten.com or connect with her on Facebook: facebook.com/lisa.lombardioreilly.