Tag Archives: Memoir Writing

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.

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by Susan Wittig Albert Last week we published part one of our interview with our Stories from the Heart Conference keynote speaker, Brooke Warner. Want to see Brooke in person? Make sure and sign up early for the conference! Brooke … Continue reading

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by Susan Wittig Albert Brooke Warner is the keynote speaker at Stories From the Heart VIII. She is the founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher at She Writes Press, and author of What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get … Continue reading

Why We Must Tell Our Stories

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by Susan Wittig Albert

As women, we have always found ourselves in story. From the beginning of human existence, while we planted and harvested and prepared food, spun thread and wove cloth, tended our babies and cared for our elderly parents, we told one another the stories of our lives, and the lives of our grandmothers and mothers and daughters and granddaughters. Our shared stories became a many-voiced chorus singing the same song: the story-song of women at work and women at play, women loving and living, women birthing, women dying. Those stories were full of pain because human lives have always been like that. They were full of joy because lives are like that, too. Pain and joy were woven like golden threads through the full, rich, round stories of women’s lives, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter through the generations, so that the experiences of women would not be forgotten.

Of course, the urge to shape our lives in story is not just a woman’s urge. As women remembered themselves in story, so did men, telling tales in which men worked and played and fought and died, honorably and dishonorably; tales in which men governed, wisely and unwisely; tales in which men loved women, fathered children, revered parents.

Then men learned to write and wrote these stories down so that they could share their experiences with other men and pass their knowledge of themselves from generation to generation. When writing became printing, these stories, oral and written, were gathered into books, so that men’s triumphs and tragedies would be remembered.

medieval-woman-writing-detail-150x150But what happened to women’s stories when men learned to write? In one sense, nothing happened. Women still remembered themselves in story as they worked, played, and rested, and those stories still echoed through the generations, from heart to heart. But through the centuries of recorded history, far fewer women than men were initiated into the mysteries of writing, and those who did learn to write did not often write about the lives of women. Because ordinary women couldn’t write, their stories of ordinary life were lost or misremembered or changed. It was the same cycle of decay we find elsewhere in the oral tradition, in primitive tribes or among the enslaved in assimilated societies, overwhelmed by the rush to technology. Because the stories weren’t valued, they weren’t written. And because they weren’t written, they weren’t valued. They were just . . . well, women’s stories. Tittle-tattle. Old wives’ tales. Idle gossip, created to pass the empty hours when men weren’t around. Not worth writing down. Not worth much in the coin of the realm.

This is not to say, of course, that women’s stories vanished. A few women could write, but the stories they preserved were mostly the stories men taught them, or wanted them to write. Women appeared (often in starring roles) as characters in men’s stories, first orally, then in writing, then in print, and much later in movies and television. But these were (and are) women’s lives seen through the eyes of the male storyteller. Men told what they knew about women, what they had been taught, what other men expected to hear. That Adam was evicted from Paradise because he listened to Eve. That women are unclean (and dangerously mad) during their menstrual periods. That women can’t participate in business or government because they have inferior intellects. And until women began to have unmediated access to the printed page, we had no way of crying out, “Wait! These are not our bodies, or our minds, or our lives! They are only men’s imaginings of us!”

So men’s stories about women were accepted, uncorrected and unchallenged, as true stories, and everybody was fooled. Including women. For writing is such a persuasive medium that most of us believed that we were (or ought to be) like the women in men’s stories. We should wait patiently at home, while men discover new continents. We should love men, while men love ideas. We should give birth to children (preferably male children) while men give birth to writing and the electric light and the airplane and the bomb. Of course, there were many women who did not want to wait for men, or love men, or give birth to men’s children, but their refusals were scarcely heard and rarely heeded. Theirs were the deviant voices, singular, sinister, frightening. For many women, it was necessary (and easier) to be agreeable, to be what they were expected to be—at least on the surface.

But underneath the facade of conformable docility, beneath the appearance of a life shaped by men’s stories of how women ought to think and act, there has always echoed a different story, a true story. My story. Your story. Our stories, our real, true, different lives.

 

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Susan Wittig Albert, founder and current president of Story Circle Network, is the author of several books including the long running China Bayles mystery series, two nonfiction books, and two memoirs. She currently blogs at Lifescapes

Mary Amaryllis

By Susan Schoch

Mary Amaryllis is something of a friend to me, though it’s a one-sided relationship. I have come to know and appreciate her, but she had only the glimmer of a future connection with a reader to help her imagine me.

Mary Amaryllis kept journals from 1861 to 1879, beginning on her thirteenth birthday, and through enormous changes and challenges, and over many miles, preserved those journals into her old age. She went through them with an editorial eye when she was in her 70s, making notes in the margins, clearly envisioning that one day they would be read. There are 1700 transcribed pages waiting, perhaps with some of Mary’s impatience, to give her voice again. A rather distant cousin did the Herculean task of reading the tiny script and carefully reproducing it on the computer. I believe that she and I are the only people who have read every word that Mary Amaryllis saved for us, her unknown audience. It’s become my task, and my honor, to edit those words into a book, without altering the character, tone, or intent of that remarkable young woman.

I can just see Molly (as she was often called by family and old friends) curling up with a scrap of paper and a pencil under an appealing tree in the southern Ohio countryside. She was a great one for long rambles to visit friends and family, and liked to keep a record of them. Often, she would later rewrite stories and events in pen and ink in her faithful journal, and sometimes published them as she matured. She also wrote lots of letters and notes, and enjoyed the essay assignments at school. From the very first entry, she had me charmed.

 “Home in the Country. Rome Tp., Athens Co., O.

            Sunday, May 12, 1861          

I am quite too young to write a worthy dedication for the record of my life which I propose to keep from this time thence-forth upon the clear pages of this handsome book, so I will leave such things to older and wiser heads, and begin on this, my thirteenth birth-day, a simple jotting down of the small events of my back-woods life, which seem to me, with my rustic training, great ones. My father is by trade, a blacksmith, but at present is “carrying on” a small farm, upon the Marietta and Cincinnati Rail-road two miles from the handsome little village of New England.”

Molly’s parents valued education, and she did well in school. She was a bright light in her small village, a talented singer and dancer, popular and full of fun, happy to be in the spotlight, definitely flirtatious, and a loyal friend. There are countless mentions of Sunday evening singing schools, and spontaneous late nights of dance and music at home, whenever a friend came by with an instrument. She mentions, too, sitting up with dying family and friends, and caring for younger siblings and neighbors.

As a teenager she was typically self-absorbed, even as she was affected by the traumas of the Civil War. The tedium and restrictions of war seemed to be as troubling for her as the losses. Until tragedy struck closer to home. Mary’s mother died when she was just 15. She had to bear much more responsibility at home, where there were still four younger children, one just a baby. Then her father remarried and the stepmother was a nag. By 17, Mary was charmed and pressured into marriage with a dashing young officer. That decision rapidly proved to be a disaster.

Mary Amaryllis did not, however, give up on anything easily, and through the rest of the War, and for some years after it, she was the mainstay of the marriage, running boarding houses and working as a seamstress, growing as much food as she could, and enduring often-miserable living conditions, illness, awful bouts of homesickness, and her husband’s errant ways. She had a baby. Her sister often came to help. The family kept moving, from the post-War rebuilding of Chattanooga to the booming oil fields of West Virginia, from coal-mining towns to rural isolation. At each place, they made a fresh start and her ne’er-do-well but handsome husband brought them down.

Then he was killed in a construction accident. Their little girl was still a toddler. There is a year missing in the journals, and a silence that surrounds this event all through the rest of her writing. Did she journal during that time? Did she later discard the writing of that year, as too private, or too painful? Certainly she was changed. Mary Amaryllis came out of that loss determined to do more than just survive, and intent on transforming herself into the woman she wanted to be.

How she did that is wonderful to discover in her journals. Starting life over as a widowed seamstress in a shirt factory in Chicago, she worked and studied hard, overcame tremendous challenges, and saw history made. Happily, the ending of her saga is a good one. And having traveled those years with her as her editor, she has won my affection and admiration through the strength of her words. I find myself devoted to helping her achieve her real ambition – publication.  This will likely be an unpaid effort, but there will be enduring compensation nonetheless. It feels right to help Mary Amaryllis tell her story. Her struggle to raise herself up in life, to gain independence and to achieve the love and lifestyle that she longed for, her persistence, strength, creativity, political and social concern, and even her vanity, all are still relevant to women 150 years later. By employing some of that same perseverance, her personal yet emblematic life’s work may yet find many readers like me, who see themselves reflected in some way in her experience, and come to feel enthusiastically a friend to Mary Amaryllis.

The task of editing such historical documents carries much responsibility, and I am discovering resources that may be helpful to other writing women. One such is this book: Editing Historical Documents, (http://tinyurl.com/qcv55od), recommended by Giselle Roberts, author of A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson.  Another is The Journal of American History, (http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org). If you have old family records, don’t hesitate. Mary Amaryllis is surely not the only one of our foremothers who is waiting to be heard.

It’s Time!

It’s time! The day has come. At last, writers can respectably self-publish our own books. Gone are the days of being at the mercy of publishers about content and book title. The two-year waiting period from publisher’s contract to a place on the shelves is over. And we can earn closer to our due for months or years of hard work instead of being paid $1 a book — the usual royalty.

Freedom!

But with that freedom comes a lot of responsibility. To self-publish a quality book we have to hire an editor, a copy editor and a proofreader. We’re in charge of getting the ISBN and related legalities. We need a professional cover designer for the print book and another for the e-book. The interior needs to be designed and the content uploaded to the several digital formats we’ll use for e-publishing. Then there’s distribution and publicity, advertising, review copies to send out, and more. We’re running a business while we’re getting that next book written; you don’t publish a book then rest on your laurels. Successful authors keep an interested audience satisfied.

I faced these facts when I decided to self-publish my book, “100 Years in the Life of an American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010.” I turned to Kickstarter, a world-famous online platform for crowdfunding creative projects.

My Kickstarter will help me publish this collection of over 50 first-person stories about the life and times by girls under 13 in each of the last 10 decades. This book is the culmination of my almost 20 years of teaching memoir and the recognition of all the potential there is in our stories. The diverse stories in the book come from all around the country and show a fascinating cultural path. It’s the stuff you’ll never find in history books and what life’s all about.

If funding is successful this book will the first published in the “100 Years in the Life” series. Everyone will have a chance to submit their own stories to future books — about the life and times as a teenager, a woman, or a man — illustrating life as it was in every decade from 1910 to 2010.

And that’s one of the challenges of a Kickstarter. The big “if.”

Kickstarter is an all or nothing funding platform, which means I have to meet my goal by June 24 for any pledges to be paid. It’s fund completely or fold.

I hope you’ll check out my short video at Kickstarter and learn all about this amazing collection of first-person stories about a girl’s life through a century and the series it could launch. For the price of a couple double lattes you can be a part of our great story of changing culture.

In advance, I offer my heartfelt thanks.

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Suzanne Sherman is an author, editor, memoir teacher, consultant and blogger. See www.suzannesherman.com for her free newsletter and more.

Are You Lying By Omission?

It came as a surprise to me years ago to learn that NOT saying something could be considered lying, at least according to my stepmother, whose opinions on things like that mattered when I was in high school. “But I never said I did [fill in the blank]!” I’d protest, when she confronted me about something that could result in my being grounded for the weekend. “That’s right!” she’d say. “You’re lying by omission.” It was a done deal. I was grounded.

Older now and pretty well traveled around the block, I have to defer to the wisdom one of my favorite writers, Russell Baker. “As memoirists,” he wrote, “we are the editor of own life.”

We have to be the editor of our life when it comes to memoir writing. And we’re well practiced.

In storytelling, which we do every day (“This morning I saw…” “Last Saturday I went to…”), we unconsciously choose what to put in and what to leave out. And when we write from life, we do the same. We include what’s needed for the shape of the story. Where does it need to be begin? We dramatize situations by creating scenes, with descriptive, usually sensory details that help listeners feel they are there, in the present time of the story. If we go off on a tangent with related but nonessential information we can lose a listener the same way we can lose a reader by including more than the story needs.

When we’re writing, we’re not lying by leaving out certain parts of a story; we’re making conscious, artful choices. Don’t tell my stepmother I’ve gotten really good at it (!).

So what do you do with this question of lying by omission or wisely and artfully choosing what to leave out for the strength of the story, among other reasons. Are you lying when you don’t tell the whole truth? Is it expected of you as a memoirist?

What to put in and what to leave out has so many facets I’ve decided to tackle it in this blog in small bites and give attention to each one. I’ll look at the tough subject of writing about a living relative, the question of including details of sexual encounters that were especially significant to you, sharing family secrets, revealing truths about yourself for the first time.

If there are other subjects related to writing the truth you’d like to bring up, write it in a comment here or contact me through my website with the question and I’ll be glad to reply or explore it in detail in another blog post.

The bottom line for all truth telling in memoir:

1) Never write with the intention to cause harm (e.g., to get back at someone or shock someone).

2) Consider journaling to flush out and free fiery emotion that deserves a voice but may skew your story or reveal something you’d rather omit. Write it as a piece of memoir once you have more clarity. Include emotions, but don’t use the memoir to vent.

3) Don’t shock with big news about you or a member of the family. If you can, have a conversation with the person or people who could be negatively affected by new information instead of handing them a paper or a book you wrote and letting the story say it for you. The conversation can be a side benefit of writing memoir.

4) Interview yourself when you hit those hard spots instead of relying on your pat response: “I don’t tell that story.” Pause for a few moments while you’re writing. Take a walk or another kind of solitary break and consider the angles. Ask yourself questions like What could the benefit in writing this be? Could anyone be hurt by it? Do I need to protect them from knowing my truth? Is that more important right now than my writing this story/telling my truth? Can I tell the true story without laying out all the painful details; can I summarize, be more general and still be fair to myself and my story?

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Read more on truth telling and good writing tips on my website blog @ www.suzannesherman.com. And for a peek at what’s going on with my new new book about girlhood through a century (“100 Years in the Life of An American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010“) visit the Facebook page for the book @ facebook.com/100yearsinthelife.

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