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.)
I was already a huge believer in reading and writing and the power of it all — but have a look or listen to this woman from Nepal, who was a child bride and didn’t learn to read until she was 21, and tell me it’s not magic.
The story she tells — her story — is enormous and beautiful. Now that is somehow who has learned to appreciate the power of the alphabet. Wow.
It’s another This I Believe story from over at NPR. What an amazing collection of essays they are gathering, saving, sharing. People have the most incredible stories. I think everybody probably has one. This woman’s story really struck me.
From her essay, which someone else read in English:
…Before learning how to write, my life was like the nearby Indrasarovar Lake, always stagnant. I had the pain of child marriage, my husband did not support me, abject poverty was my way of life and I didn’t have any skill or courage to do anything. But I saw that the number of people learning to read and write was growing — and their lives were improving. I then realized it was neither wealth nor beauty that I lacked, but letters…
There’s a TED talk by Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors, in which she discusses passion and also women. Specifically, the plight of women in much of the non-privileged world — and it made me think about this one Nepalese woman’s words.
Allende’s talk is really worth a listen. It’s humorous (she says someone asked Sophia Loren how she can look so sexy in her 70s, and she replied something like, “Posture. My spine is always straight. And I don’t make old people noises”) and also poignant and important. Listen to it here.
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.
I’m participating in a “Blogathon,” posting every day for the month of June, if you’re wondering why all the posts. It’s Day 18.
I have been blogging about my two writing focuses: content marketing, and memoir. Today, I am thinking about memoir after stumbling upon a memoir page at Slate.
It’s from a past “Memoir Week,” and has links to articles where writers answer the question, How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?
What has been most striking to us at Slate is how many memoirs these days are anything but coming-of-age stories; instead, they tackle issues and subjects larger than the self. Elizabeth Rubin and Mike Vazquez dissect the story of Ishmael Beah, who became a child soldier in Sierra Leone at the age of 12. Ann Hulbert looks at two memoirs about autism and asks why autism has become a metaphor for our times. Stephen Metcalf studies the scarlet history of the biography. Jess Row returns to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior to see how this seminal memoir holds up. And Meghan O’Rourke and Dan Chiasson discuss the role of autobiography in poetry 40 years after Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath helped start a vogue in confessional poetry.
We’ll also offer a series of short essays by memoirists on the experience of publishing a book about their lives. Sean Wilsey reflects on his stepmother’s threat of a lawsuit following the publication of his memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. Mary Karr recollects telling her friends she was writing about them in The Liar’s Club and Cherry. Alison Bechdel meditates on how memoirs hurt your family. Plus: Frank McCourt on being the most hated man in Ireland; Rich Cohen on his family’s feud over the Sweet’N Low fortune; and much, much more. Enjoy.
Click here to get to that page to browse authors’ varied thoughts about writing memoir.
Recently I wrote some articles for Full Life Hawaii, and I thought I’d share them here as an example of one type of content marketing. Full Life is a Hawai‘i Island non-profit agency dedicated to helping people with developmental disabilities lead happy, productive and self-directed lives, and I wrote about some of their clients and their Full Life support workers (with authorizations all around, of course).
It’s a wonderful organization and I loved working with them. Amazing support workers there are doing work that really makes a different for the individuals who are getting helped, or being able to live independently, because of them. Every one of the Full Life clients I interviewed, too, made a lasting impression on me.
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.”
When Isabella Bird was 19 years old, in Yorkshire, England in 1850, she had an operation to remove a tumor from her spine and the operation was “only partially successful.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s written that afterwards she suffered from insomnia and depression and her doctor recommended, as so many did in those days, that she travel. I wish I had a doctor like that. Though I’m sure Kaiser wouldn’t cover it.
Her father must have been a remarkable man, because four years after that operation, when she was 23 years old, he gave her 100 pounds and told her she was free to go wherever she wanted. Wow! Let’s recap: She was a woman in somewhat poor health in Victorian England who took off and traveled the world, apparently fearlessly.
She traveled first to North America, and stayed for several months in eastern Canada and the U.S., writing letters home to her sister the whole time. Upon her return to England, she referred to those letters to write her first book, a work of travel writing and memoir called The Englishwoman in America. (The full text is online at that link.)
When her father died in 1858, she and her sister and mother moved to Edinburgh, which was her home for the rest of her life. She continued to travel, returning to North America three times and going once to the Mediterranean. Then, in 1872, she boarded a ship in San Francisco that was headed for New Zealand.
She decided to get off in Hawai‘i and she remained here in the islands for six months. I don’t think any visitor ever had a fuller six months in Hawai‘i than Isabella Bird. She learned to ride a horse astride, instead of sidesaddle like a proper English lady, and journeyed to the top of Mauna Loa. She did not travel like an invalid, that’s for sure. Travel seemed to agree with her.
Later, she wrote about her pleasure in “visiting remote regions which are known to few even of the residents, living among the natives, and otherwise seeing Hawaiian life in all its phases.” She recorded her great stay in Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1875 (original title, The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six months among the palm groves, coral reefs & volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands). Full text here.
Though her books are often categorized as travel writing, they are also memoirs. “A memoir,” says Gore Vidal, “is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked. In a memoir it isn’t the end of the world if your memory tricks you and your dates are off by a week or a month as long as you honestly try to tell the truth” (Palimpsest: A Memoir, 1995). Bird was a keen observer and we are the better for being able to read her memoirs, and get glimpses of the worlds she stepped into.
People live more happily than any that I have seen elsewhere. It is very cheerful to live among people whose faces are not soured by the east wind, or wrinkled by the worrying effort to “keep up appearances,” which deceive nobody. – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago
My daughter and I went to look at Rainbow Falls yesterday, a beautiful waterfall in the Wailuku River that has a lot of Hawaiian traditions associated with it, and I always think of Isabella Bird there. She would be astounded to see it now. While the falls probably look about the same, here’s how we got there: we drove our small SUV up Waianuenue Avenue, and then turned onto a well-paved, wide street that leads to the falls and then turned into its clear, open parking lot, which is large enough to easily accommodate the numerous tour buses that roll in and out of there every day. There are bathrooms there, too.
Here’s how Isabella Birdgot to Rainbow Falls, which was then known as Anuenue Falls (did you know that Waianuenue Avenue is named for its wai anuenue [rainbow waters]?), in 1872. They were on horseback (my emphasis): “Miss Karpe, my travelling companion, is a lady of great energy, and adept in the art of travelling. Undismayed by three days of sea-sickness, and the prospect of the tremendous journey to the volcano to-morrow, she extemporised a ride to the Anuenue Falls on the Wailuku this afternoon, and I weakly accompanied her, a burly policeman being our guide. The track is only a scramble among rocks and holes, concealed by grass and ferns, and we had to cross a stream, full of great holes, several times. The Fall itself is very pretty, 110 feet in one descent, with a cavernous shrine behind the water, filled with ferns. There were large ferns all round the Fall, and a jungle of luxuriant tropical shrubs of many kinds.”
She traveled extensively after her stay in the Sandwich Islands, though she settled down in Edinburgh for awhile after her sister died of typhoid in 1880 and married her sister’s doctor. He died just five years after they married and then she took off traveling again, and writing memoirs of all her great adventures.
It is a strange life up here on the mountain side, but I like it, and never yearn after civilization. – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago
Notes on Morocco (published in the Monthly Review) (1901)
Her adventures included traveling alone on horseback from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, riding alone through a blizzard with her eyes frozen shut, spending several months snowed in a cabin with two young men, and being wooed by a lonely outlaw (these stories are all from her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, 1879).
In Amritsar, India, she established a hospital named for her sister, the Henrietta Bird Hospital, and in Srinigar, the John Bishop Memorial Hospital, named for her late husband. In northern India, she met up with someone and traveled with him to Persia, crossing the desert in mid-winter and arriving in Tehran, it’s said, half-dead. From there, she led her own caravan through northern Iran, Kurdistan and Turkey. She did many, many other interesting things in her lifetime; these are only a few.
She was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society (1892). When she died in 1904, at 72, she was in Edinburgh packing her trunks for a trip back to China.
“There is also a dog, but he does not understand English.” – Isabella Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago
I am so glad she was compelled to write as she traveled and explored, and then to publish. It’s as though she’s speaking to us from the past and telling us all about how it was for her then.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that many of the books above are available to read on Google Books for free, because they are out of copyright now. And many of them are free on Kindle – I feel a binge coming on, and I’m off to do some downloading. If only there were more reading hours in the day!
Do you know that buzz phrase “content marketing?” It’s what businesses are calling the content they hire us writers to provide. Here’s the best definition of content marketing that I’ve come across; it’s from the Content Marketing Institute:
Traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star. Content Marketing is showing the world that you are one. – Robert Rose
Content marketing is a focus for me, and much of the content marketing I do is related to Hawaii, where I live and work. I know Hawaii well, and my journalism background and years as a freelance writer makes it easy for me to research and write (or ghostwrite) about just about anything – whether it’s related to Hawai‘i’s business, travel, culture, people, or something else.
I don’t have links to many of my articles on my website right now, so I am compiling a list here. This is just a small number of the many and varied magazine articles, books and blog posts I’ve written for various businesses, corporations, hotels and media outlets in Hawaii and elsewhere.
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.