The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 1

This is the first in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

A memoir begins as a seed. It soon becomes a shoot, then a sapling, then a tree with many expansive branches that arches over an entire garden. How does it know to do this?

Tao [dau], n. way

The Tao, the way or the path, views life as part knowledge, duty, rationality, and part religion, morality, truth. It is not a fixed set of principles. In fact, it often employs riddles and paradoxes to convey its meaning. The Tao offers distinctive insight into many of life’s endeavors, including memoir writing.

Here’s the first Tao of Memoir Writing:

The complete truth is that truth is never complete. The unchanging truth is that truth is forever changing.

In our memoirs, we want to honor the emotional truth of events as we remember them while honoring the factual truth as well.

At the same time, we acknowledge that we are different people today than we were yesterday or last year, so today’s perception of yesterday’s or last year’s truth changes as well.

Seek the emotional truth of your story. You may remember the story differently than others, but readers understand this is your version of events. Most memoirists tell the story their way. Period. Others tell the story as they remember it and then state what someone else, usually a family member, says happened. The particular sequence of events, the location of events, the emotional states of those involved, even who was there are remembered differently by different people. Doubt this? Just reflect on any recent family gathering and you’ll see what I mean. All of these facts can change depending on the role of the person in the story and even the amount of time between the event and the writing.

Acknowledge, at least to yourself, that the memoir is your version. At the same time, don’t alter what you know to be the ‘truth’ to have a better story or to put you in a better light.

by Matilda Butler

White Board Magic

by Jude Walsh Whelley

While in Prague for a Deep Writing Workshop with my creativity coach Eric Maisel, he walked us through a demonstration on how to use a white board to focus and track your work. He mapped out a three-month plan to write a non-fiction book. I have found that using the white board to focus my work really helps. I use this technique in different ways; this is the current version.

I note the goals at the top. These are the big ideas, the final products.

Then I list the specific things I am doing that week to advance those goals. Now the nice thing about a white board is the ability to easily erase and revise. So I can set my plans for the week and then adjust them as the week progresses. For example, I may have on the board to read a particular article for research and get that into Evernotes. Then the next step listed might be to incorporate that into the chapter where it belongs, to add some words to that chapter. But if in reading that article, I get leads on two or three additional articles that look good, I can revise my board to include more research time as opposed to writing time.

What is most helpful for me is having the plan in such an easily viewed form. My white board is oversized; many folks work with much smaller ones but bigger is better for me. It is hard to miss this in my smallish workspace. Setting the board up weekly is best for me now because I am working short at the moment, concentrating on personal essays. As I begin to plan a non-fiction book I will move to the three-month plan on the big board with a smaller board for weekly tracking. If I am working on two projects simultaneously, I just use different colored dry erase markers to identify which task goes to which project.

Simple, easy, efficient! Thanks Eric Maisel for a strategy that continues to serve me well.

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

Memoir: The Craft of Revision

Richard and me–in shadows–at Carpenter Ranch on The Big Trip, our last trip together

 

Back in May, I started on one last revision of my new memoir, Bless the Birds, after receiving comments from editors at good publishing houses that they loved the story, but… But it was just too personal, but it was just too intense, but it just wasn’t quite right for them.

I realized on reflection that I needed to shift the balance of voices and detail in the book. Keep enough of the personal, the intimate details, while at the same time strengthening and giving more space to the objective voice, the voice that explains what the story means, not just to me and Richard and Molly, but to us all.

Simple, no?

No. But I was so jazzed by that realization that I set to work immediately, and found to my surprise that as I read the manuscript with my intuitive “ears” tuned, listening for places where that objective voice was missing or weak, I “heard” them, like a click in my mind that said, “Stop here. This needs work.”

And once I focused, I could also hear what I needed to say.

As I worked my way through the manuscript, taking a few chapters each day, I could sometimes even sense in that intuitive way when there was extraneous detail that cluttered up the story, and left readers no space to engage in the narrative. So I did some cutting as well.

Still, by the time I finished that first pass of strengthening the objective voice, the manuscript was much too long for a standard memoir.

(Memoir generally runs 75,000 to 95,000 words; Bless the Birds came in at 103,350 words. In pages, that’s 20 to 25 pages too long. Length matters because more pages means a higher cost to produce the book, which means a higher cover price, and often lower sales. That makes a manuscript harder to sell to a publisher.)

I knew I was going to need another intensive editing pass to slim the manuscript. And I also knew I would bring a fresher eye if I could let it sit for a while.

As it happened, I finished that first revising pass just before I left for Wyoming in early June to teach and then spend two weeks working in Yellowstone where I would camp without modern conveniences like electricity, much less internet access. A good time to let Bless the Birds “season.”

When I returned home at the end of June, I picked it up again, determined to unclutter the story and bring closer to normal memoir range. Back in May, when my agent had asked when I thought I’d be done with the revision–she’s eager to send it out to a select few editors for a re-read–I said blithely, “I’ll have it back to you by July 15th.”

So that gave me a deadline. I worked with focus and intensity, and was surprised that as I read through the manuscript again, taking my time, I could “hear” passages that felt like they weren’t necessary.

What isn’t necessary to a story like this? That’s hard to define: it’s both contextual and intuitive. One thing I listened for was the kind of detail about the medical parts of the story that a scientist like me thrives on, but which can get in the way of readers’ engagement. Another was excessive information about the major characters, or the places we were.

Detail makes a story authentic; too much detail clogs it up like a gut full of donuts.

A sample page of the mss with my trusty editing pencil, one Richard used for sketching sculptures. The blue type is the new objective voice.

There’s no magic formula for how much detail is the right amount; what works for me at this stage is to read the story out loud to myself, listening carefully. When I feel myself disengaging, I stop, and read that part again, listening for what’s not working.

Over the past three weeks I worked steadily, and each day, the total word count dropped. As it did, the story strengthened, its muscles toning, its voice growing clearer.

On Friday morning, the 15th of July, when I read the very last section and finished, the word count had dropped to just over 97,000 words, slimmer by 6,000 words and nearly 20 pages.

I knew when I read the end that the manuscript was ready to go out. The story had touched me again, and now it was done (again).

Here are the final two paragraphs, plus the haiku coda:

Death will touch all of us, expected or not, ready or not. It is simply part of life on this planet. How we deal with the losses and with our own mortality is up to each of us. One thing is sure: Facing what Rilke called life’s “other half” with an open, generous heart makes letting go easier.

I think of the grief I feel at times like this as a tribute to the love Richard and I shared. I am grateful to be reminded of that love, even when my heart throbs with loss. We lived wholly and well, and that love, as the reader’s email reminds me, lives on—heart open, wings spread.

_____ you/ and that tiny glinting hummingbird/ arrow straight to my heart

 

I wrote an email to my agent, attached the revised manuscript and hit “send”–only I had no internet connection. I checked my system, and then called my provider. Which is when I found out that someone had accidently severed a fiber-optic cable, downing phone and internet service for the whole area. “We expect service to be restored again tomorrow,” the chirpy support person said. Great.

It felt urgent to get Bless the Birds emailed to my agent. So I considered who might have a live connection, and ended up asking my local financial institution if they could use their dedicated backup line to send my email with the manuscript. They took pity on the crazed writer and did.

That’s the benefit of living in a small town where everyone knows you. (The drawback of course, is that everyone knows you, so anonymity is nonexistent.)

Yesterday, July 16th, I realized belatedly why I had picked the previous day as my revision deadline, and why I went to extraordinary measures to finish and send out the manuscript.

July 16th was Richard’s birthday. I wanted the manuscript off my mind and my desk before then. It was a gesture of celebration and gratitude to the man who inspired the memoir.

So here’s to you, my sweetheart–Happy 66th! Your story is on its way again; this time I believe it will find a publisher who loves it. And I’ve learned more about the craft of shaping a narrative that is both intimate and universal, one that grabs both head and heart, and doesn’t let go.

Thank you for the gift of you in my life, and the gift of inspiring my growth as a writer and a person.

Richard Cabe in San Francisco, September 2011, two months before he died

 

((This post was originally published on Susan J. Tweit’s blog.)

On Writing Women’s Biographical Fiction

Most readers know me as a mystery author, but for the past five or six years, I’ve been indulging my interest in biographical fiction. My first biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, told the story of Rose Wilder Lane, the woman who rewrote the family stories her mother—Laura Ingalls Wilder—had written down. Together, they created the Little House books. When publishers weren’t interested in the book, I published it under my own imprint, Persevero Press. A Wilder Rosehas sold over 60,000 copies and is under option for film.

My second biographical novel, based on letters held in the FDR Presidential Library, tells the story of the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Titled Loving Eleanor, it too was published by Persevero Press just a few months ago. I’m almost finished with a third, set during WW2 and into the postwar years. The General’s Women is about Kay Summersby, Mamie Eisenhower, and Ike, the man they both loved. It is based on Kay’s memoirs, Eisenhower biographies, and letters I found in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Another project, now in the research stage: a novel about the five women who loved Franklin Roosevelt: his mother, his wife, his lover, his secretary, and his cousin. I’m tempted to call it Loving Franklin, to pair it with Loving Eleanor.

Writing biographical fiction is—for me—deeply satisfying work. I am far more interested in her stories than I am in histories. I am fascinated by stories of women who have set out to do things, discover things, make their way in a man’s world, even change that world and the people in it. Unfortunately, history—that is, our public memory, the culture’s corporate record of events and ideas—is not only written by the winners but written by the men who have won. The stories of women who counted for something are usually hidden in history, behind his stories, because their achievements often challenge commonly-accepted beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. So I spend a lot of time digging around in unpublished diaries, letters, autobiographical fragments, pieces of memoir—listening for voices that need to be heard. Silenced voices, misunderstood voices, whispers. Not history. Her stories.

It’s a good thing that I enjoy research, because any kind of historical fiction—fiction set in the past—requires quite a lot of it. Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research demands. And biographical fiction about a well-known, much-admired woman is extraordinarily challenging. For Loving Eleanor, I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find to read. At the time (2014-2015), there wasn’t much published material about Lorena Hickok, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins and an inadequate biography. The Roosevelts, of course, are the subject of dozens of books, so I ended up with a full bookcase and plenty of film and online resources.
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But since I’m interested in the hidden stories, what I’m chiefly after are unpublished documents. It is our great good fortune that Lorena Hickok, who clearly wanted somebody to tell the story of her friendship with the First Lady, donated her collection of letters and other documents to the FDR Presidential Library. Reading them is very much like listening to hundreds of hours of private, intimate conversation. I found myself pulled deeply into the worlds that Hick and Eleanor shared. That’s when the real questions began to arise. Who are these women, behind the personas history has created for them? What do they want, what do they need? What are they afraid of? What is it they have to learn? Where is the real story, the hidden story? These are the questions that take us deep into the imaginative heart of fiction, but keep us within the boundaries established by the biographical and historical facts—the truths—that careful and persistent research can discover.

I heard filmmaker Errol Morris speak recently about making documentary films. “We don’t  judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth,” he said, “but whether it attempts to seek the truth and asks you to think about the relationship between the film and what the truth might be—if it could be found.”

That’s what I’m trying to do with these biographical fictions about women’s hidden lives. I want to take us toward what the truth of their lives might be—if it can be found.


Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded the Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website: susanalbert.com.

Critique Abundance

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by Jude Walsh Whelley

Last Thursday it was my turn for critique with the Plot Sisters, the five amazing women writers who read and respond to my work. I am new to this group, they have been responding to one another’s writing for several years. We respond to only one writer per session and she has the entire two hours devoted to her work. I gave the Sisters one essay that I wrote  more than a year ago and found as I was cleaning out my documents files. I read it over, realized I could do a much better job with it now and revised it to give to the group. And then I trusted them with a newly hatching piece, only partly written, a true first draft.

They responded to the revised piece first. I can see how my craft has improved! These years of writing almost every day, taking craft classes, reading widely, and attending workshops is paying off. I am a better writer. I had a good start on that essay, I liked the content, but could tell it better. I now have the skill set to be able to look at my work and know what to do to improve it, so I made some changes and expanded the work before sending it to them.

The changes I made were only the first step in getting to a polished piece, a piece ready for submission. Having this critique session with people I trust and respect, gave me a more complex level of response, elevating the essay’s potential. The Sisters gave three forms of feedback: their comments during the session, the writing with either hand marked or track change comments, and a few paragraphs of general critique and suggestions. The photo above was the treasure I took home after the session. Talking over the piece, listening to their remarks and criticisms, seeing it through their eyes, made me want to rush home and immediately begin revising.

They responded differently to the second piece. Recognizing that it was not fully developed, they responded tenderly, simply saying what they liked and what drew them in and what potential they could see. I felt like the egg I had been sitting on, keeping warm so it could grow, was passed from nest to nest and returned to mine a little more developed within its shell. And that now there was some pecking from inside that shell, signaling it was ready to enter the world.

 You can surely see why I titled this post Critique Abundance! I left that session energized, inspired, and easy to revise. Thank you Plot Sisters!

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

Lorena Hickok, Journalist

 

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by Story Circle Founder and President, Susan Wittig Albert

Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research and writing demands. And sometimes, extraordinary challenges.

For Loving Eleanor—the story of Lorena Hickok’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt —I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find about Lorena (Hick, she was called). As it turned out, there wasn’t much readily accessible material, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins, a woefully inadequate biography published in 1980 by Doris Faber, and Rodger Streitmatter’s notes in Empty Without You, his collection of letters written by Hick and Eleanor. I had a lot of digging to do.

Hick was a woman who went through life with her elbows out. She began working as a journalist at the Battle Creek Journal in 1913 when she was just 19. She had a gift for telling a taut, well-honed story, and her abilities were quickly recognized. Two years later, she moved to the Milwaukee Sentinel, briefly to the New York Tribune, then (in 1918), to the Minneapolis Tribune, where she earned her stripes as a reporter, feature writer, and Sunday editor. In an unusual move, her editor, Tom Dillon, assigned her to the sports desk. Her breezy, conversational style was new to sports journalism, and as a female sportswriter, her work was groundbreaking.

In 1927, at the end of a failed love affair, Hick went back to New York, first to the tabloid Mirror and then to the Associated Press. She was the first woman to be hired in the flagship New York bureau. Fearless and energetic, she quickly earned a by-line. In her first year at the AP, she covered the sinking of the steamship Vestris, which gave her another first: she was the first woman to have a bylined front page story in the New York Times. As an investigative reporter, she covered politics (FDR’s election as New York governor in 1928); political corruption (the downfall of New York mayor Jimmy Walker and the hugely complicated trial of banker Charles E. Mitchell); and sensational crime (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). I’ve found her bylined stories in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and almost every story is a standout.

In 1933, at the top of her game, Hick left the AP. It was an anguished decision she felt she was forced to make. Her deepening personal (and very intimate) friendship with the new First Lady made it impossible for her to write objectively about the Roosevelt administration. She believed that she was ethically compromised, and she did the honest–but very painful–thing. She went to work for Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. For the next two years, she traveled across the country, investigating government-sponsored relief programs and reporting on Depression-era conditions in 32 states. Her nearly 80 confidential FERA reports, written in bleak hotel rooms late at night, provide us with vivid, no-holds-barred descriptions of the appalling—and yet heroic—plight of millions of destitute Americans. She felt their anguish. Even now, reading her reports, we can feel it, too.

When Hick left FERA in 1936, it was the end of her work as an investigative journalist–but not the end of her writing career. In another post, we’ll take a look at her 15-year career as a biographer.

 

Lorena Hickok, Biographer

This is Part 2 of a two-part series of posts about Lorena Hickok, the journalist whose friendship helped to put Eleanor Roosevelt into the media spotlight–and the central character in my novel, Loving EleanorPart 1 is about Hick’s work as a journalist. But she didn’t just write newspaper stories. After she retired from political life in 1945, she wrote biographies. This post is a quick sketch of that part of her writing career.

In 1952, at the suggestion of Eleanor’s literary agent, Nannine Joseph, Hick undertook the writing of profiles of women in political life–the first book of its kind. Called Ladies of Courage, it was an inspiring account of women’s struggle for recognition in American public and political life in the thirty-five years since women had gained the vote. ER lent the luster of her name to the book and Tommy typed the manuscript, but Hick spent the better part of two years on the research—including extensive interviews with her subjects—and the writing. Before she submitted the finished manuscript, she shared it with ER, who wrote: At last tonight I’ve finished reading your material [for Ladies of Courage] and it is simply swell I think. Much more interesting than I thought it could possibly be made.

The book, which included profiles of Frances Perkins, Clare Boothe Luce, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and Oveta Culp Hobby, was published in 1954. Thanks to ER’s name recognition, it received extensive newspaper attention. Hick traveled around the country, speaking to women’s groups about the book and about the challenges women faced in political life. In recognition of her authorship, ER assigned her the royalties, which cumulatively amounted to about $4,000 (about $35,000 in 2015).

As a journalist, Hick had always been deeply interested in people who had stories, who met extraordinary challenges. In the profiles of the Ladies of Courage, Hick had found a narrative voice that enabled her to tell these stories. After that book was published, she began work on what would be three biographies for young readers in Grosset & Dunlap’s much-heralded Signature Books series: The Story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1956), The Story of Helen Keller (1958), and The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1959). For Scholastic, Hick also wrote a biography of FDR, this one focusing on his early political life: The Road to the White House: FDR, The Pre-Presidential Years (1962).

Of the four books for young readers, Hick’s biography of Helen Keller was the most successful. It was adopted by several school-affiliated book clubs, and sales were boosted even further by the 1957 teleplay by William Gibson, The Miracle Worker, followed by the Broadway play and the 1962 film of the starring Patty Duke. The royalties would help to support Hick for the rest of her life.

When Hick was doing the research for the Keller biography, she became deeply interested in Keller’s teacher, and went on to write a biography for older teens called The Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller’s Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. The book was published by Dodd, Mead in 1961. Hick felt a special admiration for Macy, who had given Helen Keller her voice. “No author ever finished a book with greater regret,” she wrote in her foreword. “During the months I worked on this book she became as real to me as a living person . . . I miss her.” I can’t help wondering if Hick saw something of herself in Anne Sullivan Macy. Perhaps Hick thought that the empowering help she gave Eleanor—encouraging her to do the press conferences, supporting her early efforts as a writer, urging her to write her newspaper column—was something like the help that Teacher (Helen Keller’s name for Macy) provided her student. Teacher gave Helen her voice and helped to create a place for her in the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hick gave Eleanorher voice, as well.

While Hick was working on the Macy biography, she struck up a professional friendship with Allen Klots, her editor at Dodd, Mead. When The Touch of Magic was finished, Hick proposed to Klots the project that became Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady, the book for which Hick is probably best known. It sketches out their most intense friendship without, of course, giving clues to its intimacy. Finished in 1961, Reluctant First Lady was published just prior to ER’s death. it sold well and the royalties from that and her other projects provided Hick with something approaching a comfortable living.

Throughout her adult life, Hick was severely diabetic, and the disease began to curtail her professional activities in the late 1930s. When she finished Reluctant First Lady, she began a biography of labor leader Walter Reuther (also for Dodd, Mead), but her failing eyesight compelled her to stop not long before her death in 1968. That project was completed by Jean Gould and published under the title Walter Reuther: Labor’s Rugged Individualist—with Hick’s name on the cover, as well as Gould’s. That book brought to eight the number of biographies Hick produced in the last fifteen years of her life.

And speaking of biographies: a new dual biography of Hick and Eleanor, by Susan Quinn, will be out in September. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m anxious to read it. I hope Quinn will pay attention to Hick as a writer, as well as the woman who helped to give Eleanor Roosevelt her voice. Hick’s first biographer, Doris Faber, failed her. She deserves a biographer who understands and pays attention to her professional work, as well as her empowering friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Want to read more about Susan’s journey in writing Loving Eleanor? Check out The Secret Story Behind Loving Eleanor.

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Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded The Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website:www.susanalbert.com

Accountability

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By B. Lynn Goodwin

Writing is a lonely business. Sometimes. Other times it’s a joyous celebration with friends or a slog through one’s own unique valley of despair.

Frankly, I’m glad I’m not on a writing team at the moment, though that might be an interesting project if the subject matter was right. Since I work alone, though, it’s up to me to keep myself motivated.

Lately, my husby has helped. He became my accountability partner last night when he asked, “Did you put in two hours on the memoir today?”

“No. Not today.”

I got up and got in the car by 9—okay 9:10—so I could give my journaling workshop for the Family Caregiver Alliance over in Menlo Park at 11. Then I was going to find a Starbuck’s on or near the Stanford Campus, but frankly, I was too exhausted, so I got in my car for the long trek home, and when I got here I was so tired I fell asleep for an hour and a half.  “I didn’t get it done because of the workshop. I don’t mind your asking though.”

I never mind accountability, except when it makes me feel small or irresponsible. I won’t mind if he asks me tonight, but he won’t because I already e-mailed him that I put in two hours. I might not have done that without his asking me about it last night.

If you don’t have an accountability partner right now and you need a little encouragement, here’s my question: “What did you write about today?” If the answer is nothing, think about your reason. You know I’ll understand. Why not post an answer below, and then you will have written today.

If you need a little encouragement, here’s something I shared yesterday in the journaling workshop, where I encouraged caregivers to vent, rant, process, discover, and find peace. I offer them to you, because every time I read them, I remember the value of what we all do.

Why Write?

“It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”  — Gustave Flaubert

“For many of us, writing is a form of prayer, and when our lives become too busy and we don’t give ourselves time to write and develop our writing, we feel diminished.”    –Sheila Binder

“We cannot live through a day without impacting the world around us – and we have a choice: What sort of impact do we want to make?” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall 

“Problems are opportunities in work clothes.”  – Thomas Edison

“Words, like eyes, are windows into a person’s soul, and thus each writer, in some small way, helps to enrich the world.”   –Mark Robert Waldman

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.Samuel Johnson

“A birddoesn’t sing because it has an answer,

it sings because it has a song. — Maya Angelou, poet

“There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”  —– Edith Wharton

BlynnP B. Lynn Goodwin is the owner of Writer Advice,http://www.writeradvice.com, and the author of both You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and TALENT (Eternal Press). Her blog is athttp://blynngoodwin.com. Goodwin’s stories and articles have been published in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; Good Housekeeping.com and many other venues. She is currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.

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