Memoir Writers: Who Inspired You?

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!

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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

And feel free to share this story with a friend!

Six Great Gifts Just for Memoir Writers (Plus 3 Helpful Tips)

’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 six fun 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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     Find a notebook that inspires you.

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!)

Embossed archival photo album from Gaylord.com

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!?

A beautiful pen just feels good to pick up!
Buy a calendar – or make your own, thanks to Lemon Thistle!

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.

Amina Warsuma wrote about her amazing life trajectory.

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!

Help, tips and encouragement, just for Memoir writers!

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 say out 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!

Speaking of History: 4 Tips for Giving a History Talk That’s Actually Interesting

Show of hands: Who positively hated history class in school?

Virtual high-fives, my friend . . . history class was soooo boring!

Yet this is how crazy life can be: now I write books and give talks about it. So what’s changed?

Well, I finally discovered history isn’t about memorizing names, dates, and wars. Nope. It’s about people. Their loves. Their struggles. Their heartbreaks and successes.

Everyday life in days gone by

Right now I’m preparing a talk for a local historical society. Dreading it? More like totally jazzed! I get to introduce my audience to great people and great stories – tales they’ve likely never heard before.

Stories of sadness and stories of survival. About lives taking fascinating twists and detours. Dangerous times and surprising discoveries.

History is about mistakes as well as successes
Great history stories include mishaps and mistakes as well as grand successes.

Want to skip the yawns and keep your audience wide-eyed and eager to hear more about a historical topic? Here are four tips for the history teachers out there – or anyone fortunate enough to be speaking about “days gone by.”

  • Make it about people—because it’s the people-stories that really capture our hearts and imagination.
  • Use illustrations. Lots and lots of illustrations. Images that grab the imagination. (Wouldn’t you want to know what mission that gent at the very top was off to?)
  • Focus on forgotten or hidden history – not the names, dates, and snooze-worthy facts everyone already knows.
  • If possible, add something that connects those “old days” you’ve been sharing with your listener’s life today. Maybe your presentation includes a photo of an old building that’s now facing demolition. Ask people to consider helping to preserve it. Or perhaps you’ve shared facts or details that you discovered in an unpublished family history. Remind your listeners to think about getting their own life story down on paper, while they still can!

One last point: If there’s a “special sauce” that makes any speaker more fun to listen to, it’s speaking straight from the heart. Let your passion for history’s amazing tales come out. (Because, after all, if you’re not passionate, you can’t possibly expect your audience to be!)

I suspect that’s why I’m asked to speak again and again — because my own excitement is contagious. And that energy is definitely a two-way street. There’s nothing that quite beats the high of looking out at your audience and seeing eyes opening wide and hearts opening up – to history!

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. And yes, she loves talking about history! For more about Karen and other fun stuff she’s done lately, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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GUEST BLOG: Memoir Author Sally Bailey Jasperson

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!)

Author Sally Bailey Jasperson with her books at a recent signing.

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.

Sally dancing the “Roses Waltz Adagio” in Beauty and the Beast, May, 1958 (Dale Smith photo).

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.

Here’s Sally’s book “Striving for Beauty” at Amazon.com!

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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 kdustman@clairitage.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.

Hope her story inspires *you* to keep writing!

 

Writing for Magazines: What Do Editors Want?!

First, the bad news: the magazine markets shrank dramatically over the last ten years, making it tougher than ever to break in. Even if you do land an assignment, freelancing is no longer remotely lucrative unless you’re writing for top-tier mags (think “winning the lottery”). Expect to pull in a few hundred bucks at most for your effort, and count yourself lucky at that.

The magazine market ain’t what it used to be. But there’s still grand opportunity!

Even so, there are several good reasons to write for magazines. If you’ve got a book, a blog or a website, a magazine article can be a great way to promote it. If you’re eager to highlight to your niche or expertise, a well-placed article can raise your business profile a notch.

Magazine-writing can also be a great excuse to travel. (Just don’t expect to make any money doing travel-writing without years of paying your dues!) Still, the “pittance remittance” you can expect from a travel story can help offset a fraction of your travel costs — a definite win/win if you were planning on going, anyhow!

Magazine assignments also allow you to learn new things and meet incredible folks. Thanks to freelance assignments I’ve had the happy privilege of talking to all sorts of cool people, from top national health experts to pet psychics. I even got to interview Margot Kidder once!

And perhaps the best reason of all to write for magazines: it’s just plain fun. Magazine work can bring you great joy, especially if you’re writing about something you love.

What are magazine editors looking for?

So, what are magazine editors looking for these days?

First off, of course, they’re looking for stories that will appeal to their readers. So start out with a good grasp of the magazine’s demographic. Who are their readers, and what’s the age range? Are readers generally men, women, or both? And what are readers looking for from this particular publication? Craft a pitch to assist or entertain or educate the folks the magazine is designed to reach.

Editors want articles that are fun, lively, and haven’t been done to death. A piece on “How to bake an apple pie”? Utterly ho-hum. “How to bake an apple pie in a Dutch oven on a camping trip”? Now you’re talking!

Come up with something unexpected. (In this case, it’s the rabbit who’s doing a hat trick.)

Come up with an innovative way to do something, or interview an expert no one’s uncovered before. Suggest a unique solution, or find a new way to tackle an old problem, and write about that. Explore uncharted territory, and offer tips for others who might want to experience that same adventure. Even if you think your idea is new, check back issues to see if the magazine has already run a similar story in the past couple of years.

An editor’s time is precious. So they’re eager for clean copy they won’t have to spend hours whacking into shape. They’re looking for writers who’ve already learned their craft. They want words that flow logically from one sentence to the next.

Forget deathless prose. Go for clean copy and smooth transitions.

Show ’em your chops, starting out right in your query. Keep  sentences short and tight. Don’t ramble on and on forever, with strung-on phrases, multiple clauses, and endless digressions that lose the reader before they get to the very bitter end of a wandering sentence like this one. Make sure you have a point for your story; then make sure the story gets there.

Don’t make your editor feel she’s doing this to get your story in on time.

Editors desperately need to know they can depend on you. Editorial calendars are unforgiving. If you land an assignment and your deadline is June 1st, don’t plead for an extension on the last day of May. Do whatever it takes to get that story in on time — or submit it early and really make your editor’s heart sing!

Double- and triple-check your work to make sure all your facts are right. Nothing will kill your chances of future assignments faster than sloppy, incomplete research. Don’t guess. Do your homework.

And last but not least — I know you already know this — proofread everything before you send it. (You spellchecked it, too, didn’t you?)

That’s it! That’s what magazine editors want.

Now go make some editor’s day. Pitch away!

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Karen Dustman is a published author and freelance writer with hundreds of magazine articles in print. She still gets a kick from turning them in early. Karen especially loves writing for history, genealogy, and natural health magazines. Check out her books at Clairitage.com, and her magazine clips and credits on her author website, www.KarenDustman.com.

 

Stalking Perry Mason: Following the Footsteps of Erle Stanley Gardner in Ventura

What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!

Erle Stanley Gardner with his signature pipe.

Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.

Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.

The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.

The former Ventura County Courthouse where Gardner practiced – now Ventura City Hall.

Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.

Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.

The Ventura Pier today.

A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.

Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.

Gardner’s office was in this building at 21 California St., Ventura

The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.

As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.

Front door of Gardner’s office building.

The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.

Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.

Gardner met his secretary, long-time companion and eventual wife Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn.

Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!

Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.

Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes.  He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.

All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.

The historic plaque on Gardner’s former office building at 21 California St., Ventura.

Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.

The former Gardner home at 4240 Foster Ave, Ventura, listed by eXp Realty.

And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.

 

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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.

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For further reading about Erle Stanley Gardner:

IMDb biography of Gardner

Kingston Pierce blog

“Thrilling Detective” blog 

L.A. Times story by Jane Hulse (1/11/1996) 

L.A. Times story by Gary Gorman (9/23/1990) 

Wikitree

Wikipedia

And the eXp Realty listing for 2420 Foster Ave

Writing About an “Ordinary” Life

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?

What tools were an “ordinary” part of your household as a kid?

Here’s my take-away after interviewing dozens of folks who thought their lives 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 did your kitchen look like? No microwave, food processor, or trash compactor? Is there a favorite recipe you remember?
  • 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!

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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.

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3 Hacks to Writing Better Copy

by Karen Dustman

There’s a smoothness to good writing. It’s effortless to read. Your eye moves easily through the sentence. You don’t have to struggle to make sense of the paragraph.

Easier said than done, of course. But good writing is part art, part craft. And that means that the right tools and a bit of practice can make a world of difference.

Here are 3 easy hacks to help boost the flow of your copy:

  1. Ditch those really fun, super-amazing modifiers.

Okay, we all have a tendency to gush from time to time. But too many modifiers slow down a reader’s eye. And let’s face it: by the fifth superlative in a sentence, you’re really just “gilding the lily” anyhow.

Here’s a few real-life examples (tweaked slightly to protect the guilty), so you can see what I mean:

“The third edition of Fantastic Health Book is an essential family resource and one of the most successful and authoritative compendiums of its time. Fully revised and updated, it is a definitive reference book and includes time-tested natural treatments . . . .”

 “I’m super excited to welcome Company ABC to our powerhouse Retail Establishment, and so happy to see our shelves filled with their beautiful, artfully-crafted vintage products, perfect to help you achieve your best modern-day wellness!”

Yeah, excitement sells. But don’t over-sell. Apply the brakes to breathless adjective strings (like “beautiful, artfully-crafted vintage”). And try to avoid double-descriptors (“successful and authoritative”; “fully revised and updated”). They’re needlessly wordy.

Compare these (much) cleaner rewrites:

“Now in its third edition, Fantastic Health Book is an essential family resource. It features time-tested natural treatments . . .

We’re happy to welcome Company ABC’s time-tested products to our natural wellness line.”

Yeah. Whew. Much easier on the reader.

  1. Shorten your sentences.

Here’s a real-life example from (sad to say!) a publishing company’s website:

“XYZ Company offers the rare experience of working with a team of award winning writers, editors, marketers and publicists to not only have a book but to have one that makes an impact and gets our authors the coverage they desire and deserve.”

Ugh. Did you read all the way to the end of that 43-word monstrosity? Or did your eyes glaze over half-way through? (Mine did!)

Let’s do a little sentence-rescue and see how we could make that read better. What are the important points in that messy word salad?

  •    We have a great team of publishing-industry experts;
  •    We can get our book into print;
  •    We can help you with marketing and media exposure.

No wonder the sentence is over-long and confusing! There are three separate “messages” all run together there.

The cure is staying “short and sweet”: split that monster sentence into individual “message” components. Here’s one version of how that might look:

“We’ve got an award-winning publishing team here at XYZ Company. Our writers and editors can help get your book into print. And our marketing experts and publicists help writers land the media exposure they’re after.”

Bingo. Shorter sentences that don’t overwhelm you, and individual messages that now make sense.

  1. Learn to tell your “it’s” from your “its.” If there’s one tiny word that gets misused more than any other in the English language, it’s probably that dangerous three-letter “its.” Show your writing chops by using the right one.

Here’s the simple hack: When you see an apostrophe, mentally fill in the omitted letter and see if your sentence still makes sense. So, for example:

It’s the right time of year to go fishing.” Yup, that “it is”!

But: “He took the hat from it’s place on the rack.Nope!It is” doesn’t work here. That hat needs to get put in “its place.” Pitch the apostrophe and carry on! You’ve got it, now.

Hope these simple writing hacks have helped you.  Here’s to writing like a pro!

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I write frequently about history, travel, family/oral history, natural health, and more. Like to discuss a podcast appearance or magazine assignment? I’d love to hear from you. Find clips and more on my author website: KarenDustman.com

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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.

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GUEST BLOG: Q&A With Memoir Author Lisa Lombardi O’Reilly

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!

Lisa’s great-grandparents in North Dakota,1901

* * * * * * *

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!

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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.

Dream of the Water Children: Memoir Tips from Fredrick Cloyd

Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd

GUEST BLOG:  Q&A With Memoir Author Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd

Some stories just grab your heart and demand to be shared. Dream of the Water Children is one of those special books.

Author Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd was kind enough to share some thoughts about his new memoir that I hope will inspire you.

A Quick Introduction:

Fredrick was born in a small town west of Tokyo to a Japanese mother and an African American serviceman father stationed in Japan during the Korean War years. His father finally was able to return in 1963 and brought Fredrick and his mother back with him to the United States. Fredrick grew up with a foot in both worlds —  a “cultural drifter,” as he puts it, not entirely at home in either Japanese or American culture.

Fredrick’s American father, Japanese mother, and himself as a baby.

Fredrick’s journey to complete his memoir spanned more than 30 years, with lots of “bumpy starts and stops.” He finished the first draft of his manuscript while living in a homeless shelter in San Francisco, and later completed his Master’s degree at California Institute of Integral Studies.   He became a serious practitioner of Zen Buddhism, spending years in a monastery. And he’s been head coach and director of several highly-ranked Junior Olympic volleyball clubs. His lyrical memoir is finally out — just published by 2Leaf Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press in April 2019.

“My book wasn’t just about me,” he says. “It was about all the water children.” Stay tuned, and he’ll explain.

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Q&A With Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd:
 Q:   What made you decide to write your memoir? Did it help you come to peace with some of the difficulties you’ve lived through?
A:   Well, it was an organic process that came in steps. I had the idea to “perhaps” write a book on my family history, back in 1983. I kept taking notes on conversations and memory here and there, and attempted a few times through the decades, to write the book. I had another name for my book, and decided it was too “victim-oriented” and I wanted something different from the regular memoirs I had read at the time. But I didn’t know what this “something different” meant or what I was going for yet. It wasn’t until 1997 or so that I started writing in earnest, when some friends of mine in Seattle, where I lived at the time, urged me to take myself seriously. They even set up a time for me to give a public presentation. I thank them profusely now. They recognized the potential of a book from me before I did. At heart, I felt unready — not shy or unconfident, but that the form I had been thinking about wasn’t quite right.

There were times in the writing that were harrowing, when I wrote through tears. From 1983 to the 2000s it was starting and stopping, reflecting, re-writing. But in the mid-2000s, I finally sat down and wrote the final form of the manuscript I would query publishers with. That was an intense process of focus, with some welling-up of tears and happiness at the same time.

In the end, I would say that the entire decades of writing did help me to heal. Some memories came back that I had forgotten or repressed. Some memories were embedded so strongly in my body-mind that I was glad to write them out. I struggled sometimes with structural and language issues, getting the right language, feel, structure, and also the timing (how and when the ‘event’ or memory would show up in my book). The question of why I’m writing about a particular event for a public to read, that was the biggest concern with everything I wrote in the book.

Fredrick and his mother, circa 1960s.

That was healing. It was a great catharsis, and not just for the little boy in me that needed to confront childhood trauma and the ongoing adult traumas that we men are “supposed to” hide and get over in the United States. It was healing also on the level of why I was writing the book — which is for issues of social justice to be touched and introduced and engaged. For me, this is the interplay between myself and the reader in the book — and what I’m hoping will be some of the take-away that readers get.

Q:  I love your title, it’s so evocative. What is the reference to ‘water children’ about?
A:   Several things went into this. In the 1980s I was thinking about a different title for the book — but it was more what I felt to be victim-oriented, a kind of “me and my mother against the world, time, and history” thing, which I needed to get away from. I wanted it to be more reflective of my hopes. Those hopes were not about everyone coming together and singing “Kumbayah” together and loving each other. That kind of romanticized notion of “peace” would be a disservice to myself and others who understand life to be diverse, and thus multi-faceted and too complex for there to be some unified living-together without problems. Instead my vision of peace was more about how to live, how to negotiate across our differences as persons, communities, genders, ages, various sexual and racial and national identities, and about facing our histories and power relations.

So in the end I decided my “memoir” would be more of what I call an “anti-memoir.” As I sat down with all this and thought about the title, I couldn’t immediately come up with anything, and went to bed. In the middle of the night, I came up with this title. This story is actually told in the beginning of my book.

The title comes from a Japanese term, mizuko. Its characters mean “water child” or “water children.” It is a common name for females in Japan. But also, and more to the point, it is a term that was used in the postwar period for an aborted fetus, or dead fetus. Sometimes it is also extended to dead young children. And it is also sometimes used to refer to the mixed-race babies fathered by American and Australian soldiers and other Allied Occupation forces in Japan who were aborted or killed after birth by mothers, relatives, neighbors, etc.. As people might not know, there was an abandoned gravesite discovered in Yokohama prefecture in the 1990s, which contained over 800 mixed-race babies that died of starvation, killing, disease, etc.. That was just in one city. So one can imagine how the statistics that we see today about the numbers of mixed-race babies born in Japan from 1945 to 1955 are not accurate.

Fredrick’s beautiful mother.

There are religious ceremonies (primarily Buddhist) that have special temples, shrines, and ceremonies connected to water children. There are also Japanese Buddhist statues depicting the guardian of the young, which is also connected to this concept. During the occupation, the United States prohibited all indigenous religions in Japan. For grieving mothers who had lost or aborted a child, it was a relief when these ceremonies were finally allowed again.

So my book is a dream for the world that the babies in the other world (the dead) would conjure and wish for. It’s a wish for better understanding and new ways of thinking through our issues in the world, towards something better. It is also an acknowledgment that we, as humans, care for the lost dead children. So thus, the title. It came in a dream.

Q: You are fortunate to have University of Chicago Press now as your distributor. Do you have any advice for other memoir writers who might be seeking a publisher?
A:  Don’t depend only on queries! I initially sent out about 10 to 15 queries to various publishers, asking if they might want to publish my book. About seven wrote back. The others never replied. All seven rejected my manuscript.

I wasn’t sad. I was expecting this to happen. It happens with all authors to one degree or more, and especially with books written by people of color. Cultures differ and the way we express ourselves may not fit into the mold of the largely white establishment that controls the language and structure of what gets out and how and when.

The criticisms that they had on my manuscript were actually not a surprise. All of them said: “Your manuscript is beautifully written but we don’t know what to do with it because it doesn’t seem to fit into an established category.” Of course I was miffed, but not surprised.

But out of the blue, a publisher I had not heard of before contacted me. She said she was interested in my book after reading my online posts. She had read some of my excerpts and blog posts on different sites. So if I have any worthwhile advice for writers of memoirs, it is to put yourself out there online. In my case, it was solely from creating my blog and also writing on other sites about my identity as a mixed-race Japanese, a military “brat,” and about my blackness — it was my work and interviews online that attracted the publisher.

Q:  Do you have any advice to share with other memoir writers? Any suggestions about the writing process?
A:  I think the main thing I can say to other writers is to not be so concerned about your writing process, and to do what you think would work and be willing to experiment. I did not attend writing classes or anything like that, though I did belong to a couple of Asian-American writing groups that helped me for awhile. Then they became what I felt to be ridiculous and so I left them. I had to believe in myself.

It could take a year to finish your memoir, or three decades, like my own process. Trust yourself, but make no excuses when it comes to intention. Sometimes intention goes underground and it is important to be sure you know what it is. Our stories and memories will come out differently depending on *why* we are writing our memoir.

For me, it was about social justice. So I needed to learn about how to express myself towards that goal without sounding like the “good vs. bad” moralizing that kind of dominates social justice writing — which I do *not* agree with. My point is that we have to think about the why’s as well as  the how’s a bit.

Don’t expect it will come out perfectly at first (remember, I took three decades). Just continue to hold your book in your heart and write on it when you can and feel like. Don’t hold back or censor or edit until you have the bulk of the book or the entire first run completed. Censorship can ruin things. Afterwards, we can edit. Censorship often plays into perfectionism and fear, and I notice that in alot of memoir writers *before* they even begin. Just do it! Hopefully this helps.

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Find Fredrick’s book Dream of the Water Children here at Amazon:
https://amzn.to/2X5zAyW

or through University of Chicago Press: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/D/bo40168789.html

Watch the beautiful book trailer here:  http://tinyurl.com/yxervh6z

Visit Fredrick Cloyd’s website: http://dreamwaterchildren.net

Photos used with permission, courtesy of Fredrick Cloyd.