We made it to the end of the month, you and me! I blogged every day in June and successfully completed the Freelance Success 2014 30-Day Blogathon. Thank you for reading, or at least hanging in there. (I only got one “unsubscribe” during the month.)
My goal was to take some of the things out of my head and get them onto my website. I wrote some articles about how much I love the genre of memoir and biography, and a little about some of my work in this area:
I will now give you a bit of a break and will stop pelting daily emails at you — though this did get my blogging muscles back in order, I must say, and I will probably be blogging here more often than I had been.
Therefore: “So long!” but only for now, and Thanks for all the fish! (If you don’t know the reference, you should probably read the book.)
Tonight I am uploading a family history/memoir manuscript I just completed for a client. We’re publishing it at Amazon’s CreateSpace, which is such a wonderful option for a book like this. He and his wife wanted to put together his mother’s ancestors’ story, an interesting one of a young couple leaving their familiar Hiroshima, Japan to come and work on the former sugar plantations of Hawai‘i.
The back cover explains that this family’s journey “took them from harsh conditions on a small farm in 19th-century Hiroshima to what became a modest but comfortable long-time family home in Hawai‘i. In earlier years, it’s a story of hard work and sacrifice, and in more recent ones, of appreciation and family connection. Always, it’s a story of perseverance in order to build a better future for the ones to come.”
As always (it almost sounds trite, how often I say this, butit isn’t), I loved getting to know this family a bit and learning what makes them tick. This young couple who left Japan in their 20s came to Hawai‘i, worked very hard and sacrificed some more, and built a good foundation for a lot of descendants who are very nice people. The power of family is strong.
These descendants are now, more than 100 years later, about to have a huge family reunion, and will have this book for those who want to know more about how their family came to be. There’s information in this book that I’d wager most of them – or maybe even all of them – don’t know. We dug pretty deep to find some of it.
Family members who want one or more copies of the book will be able to order it directly from Amazon.com. And this means my clients won’t have to buy boxes of books, keep them in their garage and hope they sell. Instead the books will be printed on demand and distributed by Amazon.com, which doesn’t charge you upfront for the service but merely keeps a small portion of each purchase (and it’s very reasonable).
Awhile back I was asked to contribute to an upcoming book called “Writing the Hawaii Memoir,” by Darien Gee, and today I received a copy of the book in the mail.
I love the cover, designed to make it look like a Hawaiian composition book. Isn’t it great?
The subtitle is “Advice and Exercises to Help You Tell Your Story,” and Darien did a great job putting it together.
From Watermark Publishing:
“Your life is so interesting—You should write a book!”
Sound familiar? Thinking of writing your memoir or family history but don’t know where to start? In this invaluable how-to book with tips from more than 20 Hawaii writers and 25-plus writing exercises, you’ll learn how to:
– Brainstorm different themes and ideas – Build a “bento box” and explore other ways to organize your memoir – Overcome writer’s block and other challenges – Deal with issues of libel, “talking stink” and copyright infringement – Choose the best way to publish your book – Stay encouraged and motivated
Contributing writers include: Billy Bergin, Pamela Varma Brown, Bob Buss, Lee Cataluna, Ben Cayetano, Stuart Homes Coleman, Craig Howes, Patricia Jennings, Frances Kakugawa, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, Beth-Ann Kozlovich, Leslie Lang, Gail Miyasaki, Warren Nishimoto, Mark Panek, Laurie Rubin, Phil Slott, Christine Thomas, David Ulrich, Chris Vandercook and Cedric Yamanaka.
Darien is great. She’s the nationally bestselling author of six novels, three written under the pen name Mia King. Her books are translated into fourteen languages and the Doubleday, Literary Guild, Rhapsody and Book of the Month Club book clubs all chose them. She also writes about writing and creativity in her column, “Writer’s Corner,” which appears every week in North Hawaii News, and she teaches writing classes in private seminars and community college programs. She lives on this island and though we haven’t yet met in person, we’ve been acquainted and “chatted” for years now.
The book looks great and I am eager to read it. I can tell that it’s not fluff — this will be a truly useful book for anyone delving into writing about their life. Darien is an excellent writer and she knows her stuff.
Here’s one of my contributions to the book:
“Include details, and go deeper. How did the thing you’re remembering look, feel, sound, smell or taste? What did it always remind you of? How did your great-aunt always describe it? Looking back, did it fall into some sort of pattern or theme of your life? What is important about it?” – LESLIE LANG
I hope you tell your children, or nieces or nephew or grandchildren, stories about their family that came before them.
Research shows how important it is for children to hear those stories, and how much better they do if they know them. I love talking about my childhood and my parents and grandparents and beyond, and tell stories about those times whenever an opportunity suggests itself. It connects the generations that didn’t know each other, somehow, and is very satisfying for me, too!
Children who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being, according to Emory University researchers who analyzed dinner time conversations and other measures of how well families work.
The research, by Emory psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke, and former Emory graduate student Jennifer Bohanek, was recently published in Emory’s online Journal of Family Life.
“It has always been on the written page that the world has come into focus for me. If I can piece all these bits of memory together with the diaries and letters and the scribbled thoughts that clutter my mind and bookshelves, then maybe I can explain what happened. Maybe the worlds I have inhabited for the past seven years will assume order and logic and wholeness on paper. Maybe I can tell my story in a way that is useful to someone else.”
― Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, a novel based on the true story of Mamah Borthwick and her illicit love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wallage Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Angle of Repose is on my list of favorites. Wow. Stegner once said, “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story,” and I get it. I’ve got one of those in my head, and maybe that’s why I recognize and am so drawn to his.
It’s a novel in which a retired and wheelchair-bound historian sets out to write a biographical account of the lives of his extraordinary grandparents, who went West a hundred years before and carved out a life for themselves on the frontier.
Lyman Ward narrates a century after the fact. Lyman interprets the story at times and leaves gaps that he points out at other times. Some of the disappointments of his life, including his divorce, color his interpretation of his grandparents’ story. Toward the end of the novel, he gives up on his original ambition of writing a complete biography of his grandmother.
Stegner’s use of Mary Hallock Foote‘s historical letters gives the novel’s locations—Grass Valley, Leadville, New Almaden, Idaho, and Mexico—an authentic feel; the letters also add vividness to the Wards’ struggles with the environment, shady businessmen, and politicians. Lyman’s position in the contemporary culture of the late sixties provides another historical dimension to the story. Foils for this plot line include Lyman’s adult son, a Berkeley-trained sociologist who sees little value in history, and a neighbor’s daughter who helps transcribe Lyman’s tape-recorded notes while she is home on summer break from UC Berkeley, where she has been active in the “hippie” counterculture movement. – Wikipedia
So it’s a novel, albeit one using primary historical sources, about a biography. It’s a little complicated to describe, but it works.
This article, which I just came across, calls it “an investigation into a life. But whose life?”
Ostensibly, it explores the life of Lyman’s grandmother, illustrator and writer Susan Ward, reconstructing it from sources including her letters and notebooks as well as her published writings and drawings. And a very interesting life it is, too: from an elegant, cultured existence in Brooklyn Heights, surrounded by sophisticated people and domestic luxuries, she moves west with her engineer husband Oliver to places that, in the 1870s, were still works in progress as outposts of American “civilization.” As jobs come and go and hopes rise and fall, they move around, from California to Colorado, from Idaho to Mexico, each time in a new way re-establishing themselves as at home.
In all his guises (as narrator, as Lyman, as Susan), Stegner writes wonderfully about the landscapes of their travels. (So too, perhaps, does Mary Hallock Foote, the real 19th-century woman on whom Susan Ward is based and some of whose letters are incorporated verbatim into the novel — I say “perhaps” because her materials are not identified so I don’t know what words are hers.) The descriptions are never conspicuously stylish or artful. They are just wonderfully specific and tactile:
“They came out onto a plateau and passed through aspens still leafless, with drifts deep among the trunks, then through a scattering of alpine firs that grew runty and gnarled and gave way to brown grass that showed the faintest tint of green on the southward slopes and disappeared under deep snowbanks on the northward ones. The whole high upland glittered with light.” Read the rest
Three thumbs up. Here’s what others say about it if you are interested in learning more. I’m hoping to talk you into reading it. One likes to share one’s favorite things.
Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions — to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward’s investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.
“Brilliant….Two stories, past and present, merge to produce what important fiction must: a sense of the enhancement of life.” Los Angeles Times
“Masterful….Reading it is an experience to be treasured.” The Boston Globe
“Cause for celebration….A superb novel with an amplitude of scale and richenss of detail altogether uncommon in contemporary fiction.” The Atlantic Monthly
“A fine novel, engrossing and mature…for when all is said individual lives are very much like bits of detritus, rolling down from the high places of stress and emotion until they reach that place where the tumpling and falling stops and they find their angle of repose. To chronicle this movement as well as this novel does is high art — and first-rate writing.” San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I am excited each morning to carry a good cup of coffee into my office, sit down at my desk and start working. I really enjoy being a freelance writer/ghostwriter of memoir and biography, and working with others to tell their tales so they aren’t lost.
Currently I am helping two people write memoirs, and writing a biography for a third client about his mom and her family’s history. It’s a huge responsibility to take someone’s stories and make sure you are wrangling them down onto paper just right, while also correctly grasping the significance. I’m tired at the end of my work day, though it often may look as though I merely sit the whole time. I’m hard at work while sitting!
I really love it, though. Everyone I work with has such an extraordinarily different story, and it’s all fascinating. This work is a great match for me. Hearing people’s stories, figuring out how to tell them, and writing them well – I couldn’t enjoy it more.
Here are some resources if you’d like to read some more about the genre of memoir.
1. Do you know the website BrainPickings.org? If you don’t, you should, because what a great site. Here’s a good entry point:
It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are my thirteen favorite biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013. (Catch up on last year’s best history books.)…
2. My writing colleague Pat McNees,who is amazing, put together this great online resource called Memoir, biography and corporate history. Its subtitle says, Memoir or personal history, biography or autobiography, oral history or interview, corporate or organizational history— resources on various forms of life writing a/k/a life story writing. It is a truly amazing collection of linked reference materials you have to see to appreciate.
3. This New York Times review of Ben Yagoda’s book Memoir: A History, is fun to read. “He ambles past Holocaust memoirs, child abuse memoirs, sexual abuse memoirs, and incest, drug addiction, celebrity, spirituality, eating and parenting memoirs; pauses to contemplate the odd species of “investigative” memoir (written by or for someone who must supplement memory with research); notes with surprise the fake Holocaust memoir; and stops in amazement before the strangest hybrid of them all, O. J. Simpson’s “If I Did It,” a memoir in the conditional mood.”
4. This person, a serious fan of the memoir, has put together a Pinterest page showing memoirs: “I’ve read a memoir a week starting in October 2011,” she writes. “Many of them are listed here, plus other memoirs/biographies that I continue to read.”
Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.
Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.
Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.
He’s a wonderful writer himself, and seems like such an interesting person, too. I looked him up on the Internet to read more about him and that rabbit hole led me to a page of his great essays at The American Scholar. I learned that, as of a year ago, he was 90, blind from glaucoma, and still enjoying his life.
From the New York Times in April 2013:
…A little more than a year ago his many friends and former students received a written invitation from Mr. Zinsser “to attend the next stage of my life.”
He explained that his old enemy, glaucoma, had caused a “further rapid decline in my already hazy vision,” forcing him to close his office and end his nearly 70-year career as a writer. But he was now making himself available as a teacher, mentor and coach from the apartment he shares with his wife of 59 years, Caroline Fraser Zinsser, 82, an educator, historian and his partner, he says, in all things.
To be more specific, he would be available “for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused.
“I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”
What a great “next act!”
Do you know how a memoir differs from an autobiography? Both include a person’s memories about moments or events from their life, both are (supposed to be) factual, and both are told in the first person.
But an autobiography summarizes and tells the whole of a person’s life. It is the story of a life. A memoir has a narrower focus, and tells a story from a life. Author (and memoir writer) Gore Vidal describes the difference this way: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dated, facts double-checked.”
Memoirs go way back. Julius Caesar wrote memoirs. Louis de Rouvroy, duke of Saint-Simon, who lived in France in the Middle Ages of 1675-1755, wrote them, as did others at the time. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is a memoir about two years of his experiences in that cabin he built near Walden Pond. The memoirs of the 20th and 21st centuries are numerous.
It’s such an incredible act to be trusted to help someone write his or her memoir. The number one most important, of course, is getting it just right. There is no place for laziness in writing, or “good enough.” Each angle, thought, sentence and word choice has to be just right, in a precise and exacting way, because otherwise you did not quite capture his or her truth. And by “not quite” capturing it, I mean you got it wrong. And that’s a big huge fail.
It’s a lot of work but very satisfying to help someone capture a story and get both the details and its meaning just right.
Zinsser also edited Inventing the Truth, The Art and Craft of Memoir, which has wonderful essays by memoir writers who describe the pleasures and problems of writing a memoir. The well-known authors contributing to this book include Russell Baker, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Frank McCourt, and I randomly left out a few others just as worthy of being mentioned. I recommend it.
Do you have a favorite memoir? I’d love to hear. Let us know in the comments.
My good friend Don Falkwas just telling me a goosebumps-inspiring tale about researching his family’s history.
He and his brother now have 56,000 names, and many stories, on their family tree; clearly theirs is not a casual endeavor, but an intense one filled with travel and heavy research. His brother Stephen Falk’s History of Genealogy blog details their research.
One of the goals is to keep a running account of new discoveries — discoveries which are as likely to be new interconnections between the Jewish families (or families of Jewish ancestry) of Breslau, towns in Silesia (e.g. Brieg, Namslau, Staedtel, Zuelz, Kreuzburg, Cosel, Kieferstaedtel, Myslowitz, Tarnowitz, Beuthen, Oppeln, Krappitz), and towns in Posen (e.g., Posen, Lissa, Rawitsch, Kempen, Inowroclaw), as discoveries of new ancestors or distant cousins.
Don told me about visiting an archive in Berlin in 2011 and discovering at the very last minute – as the offices were about to close, on their last possible visit there before leaving Germany – that a distant, previously unknown half-great-great-uncle had given a multi-generational family tree to the archives.
He and his brother were so excited, he said. They were like excited little kids. They stayed up late putting newly-found ancestors onto their computerized family tree, saying each name aloud in an act of remembrance.
A time capsule! This Uncle Curt from the past took what he held as important, and left it with an archive for – well, he did not know for whom he was leaving it. But he left it anyway, and generations later it was received with joy and delight and thanks, more than he probably ever would have imagined.
When he did this, Uncle Curt didn’t know there were people yet unborn who would think about him because he’d done this. He didn’t know they would be so excited and so grateful. He didn’t know that, because of clues he left in this “time capsule,” his descendants would finally be able to locate their great-grandmother’s grave– to push back 70 years of ivy from atop her gravestone and find her.
All because of his information. His time capsule.
This is what happens when you go a step beyond. When you gather your family stories into a book that then sits on bookshelves in several homes, each volume being passed down through the generations, you are creating a time capsule for people not yet born.
You might never know them, but because of the gift you’ve left behind, they will know you – and your family, and your parents and grandparents and beyond. They will know what you know about how your family got to this point, knowledge that ordinarily dwindles with each generation. They will learn about your values, if you want to share those, and even what you hope for them, the ones to come after.
Leaving a written, family history “time capsule” is a way to leave a significant legacy, even if you are unable to pass along a monetary inheritance. It will probably last longer than most anything else you could leave behind, and be more valued.
Have you heard the saying that people die twice? One time when they leave this earth, and a second time when there’s no one left alive that knows their name.
Creating a “time capsule” – organizing what you know about your family’s history and leaving it behind for those to come – means that someday, your grandchildren’s grandchildren will know your family’s stories.
There’s family history and then there’s family history. I’m going deep.
I just swabbed the inside of both my cheeks, put the swabs into a vial, and stuck them in a package, ready to zip it off to National Geographic’s Genographic Project.
A short description of this project is that they are using cutting-edge DNA analysis to study how people populated the earth.
Here’s a longer one:
The Genographic Project is a multiyear research initiative led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells. Dr. Wells and a team of renowned international scientists are using cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand our human genetic roots. The three components of the project are:
• To gather and analyze research data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world
• To invite the general public to join this real-time scientific project and to learn about their own deep ancestry by purchasing a Genographic Project Participation and DNA Ancestry Kit, Geno 2.0
• To use a portion of the proceeds from Geno 2.0 kit sales to further research and the Genographic Legacy Fund, which in turn supports community-led indigenous conservation and revitalization projects
The Genographic Project is anonymous, nonmedical, and nonprofit, and all results are placed in the public domain following scientific peer publication.
Soon I will receive analysis of my DNA that reveals my “deep ancestry.”
Since 2005, the Genographic Project has gathered DNA data from more than half a million people (577,000!) from more than 140 countries.
While helping scientists understand how humans populated the world, we learn more about our own family’s migration route out of Africa. I find this all fascinating.
Because really, we know so little about our histories. True, a royal family might know, what?, several hundred or a thousand years of information about its forebears. Maybe a little more? And then there are cultures like the Polynesians and others who have very strong oral traditions and can tell the story of their people going extraordinarily far back in time. Which I also find fascinating, by the way.
But most people don’t know the story of their ancestors over the last 60,000 years. Harper’s magazine once estimated there have been 7,500 generations of people since the first Homo sapiens. Once many of those people left Africa, which way did they go, where did they settle along the way, and what brought us here?
Most people, groups, cultures, just do not hold on to that kind of information over that period of time! But it turns out our cheeks do.
For a woman, the Genographic Project analyzes thousands of genetic markers on her mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child.
But that would tell only part of my story, so guess what my brother got for Christmas?
I got him his very own Geno 2.0 kit, and he swabbed his cheeks today too. Since his DNA includes the Y chromosome passed down from father to son, his results will tell us about the paternal side of our ancestral migration story.
Everyone’s DNA is analyzed for more than 130,000 other markers, too, which reveal “regional affiliations” of your ancestry (“insights into your ancestors not on a direct maternal or paternal line”).
Including — how interesting in this — our hominid cousins the Neanderthals and the newly discovered Denisovans. As we modern humans were first migrating out of Africa, more than 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Denisovans were still living in Eurasia, and we (okay, “scientists”) now know that they met and mingled. Most non-Africans, according to the Genographic Project, are about 2.5 percent Neanderthal. Anyone with solely sub-Saharan African ancestors is not, because their ancestors did not migrate through Eurasia.
Have you done DNA analysis, whether with this sort of migration study or one of the ancestry ones, like Genetic Genealogy or 23andme? I’m really interested in that, too, and you know I will probably end up doing one of those someday, too.
Please comment below if you have participated in any of these DNA studies and tell us about it. Which project? How did you choose? What did you find out? I’d love to hear.