Monday, March 2, 2015

Cate Russell-Cole On Life Stories

While dozens of useful resources exist on how best to write and market a book, it's not as easy to find strategies to address that all-too-common fear  . . . is my story mundane? Is it worth telling?

As Cate Russell-Cole points out in this essay, writing has value on many levels  . . . and the connections we make by taking that leap of faith and sharing our stories are often surprising. 

"Stories have value. The most mundane one you have is not mundane to someone who needs to hear it," Cate writes.   

"The greater self-understanding you gain from writing will be rewarding, and will assist you through your journey ahead; plus the legacy you can leave for your family, is irreplaceable." 

Cate, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, has researched, written and taught five creativity-orientated courses; worked as a freelance writer and has authored ten non-fiction books. She supports other writers and offers interesting and useful resources through social media.

I was honored to be invited by Cate as a guest blogger recently on her website as she celebrates her 15th anniversary of "Write Your Life Story."  My blog post can be read here:

Please welcome Cate to the Women's Writing Circle

There is no such thing as an average housewife, or a boring person. After fifteen years of teaching memoir, I can confidently state that. 

Some stories are more spectacular than others, but everyone has one that I can be inspired by, marvel at and wonder how I'd cope, if I found myself in the same position.

I've taught a number of different courses over the years and after a time, I find I get restless. I keep hearing my voice churning out the same words again and again, and I grow weary of it all. I have noticed though, that I never get tired of the sound of other's voices, telling their unique tales. Memoir is something I have never wanted to stop teaching.

I have heard stories of tragedy that made me cry; I've heard magical stories of childhood that had the whole class enthralled. Those stories often bring back precious memories of my own, that I'd forgotten. 

I have been known to leave a group then go home and write, as my students have inspired me. A group will pick up threads that elude the individual and working together, the wealth of inspiration that can be pulled together is incalculable. 

I will never forget the day when one of my students introduced herself in a new class, saying that she wanted to write the story of her father, who had been a British pilot in the first World War. 

He had made aerial food drops to a town in Poland. Another lady spoke up and asked, "what town?" It turned out to be the same town where she had lived as a small child. Her family lived barricaded in by enemy troops, and starving. 

That British pilot's efforts kept that Polish child and her family alive. There wasn't a dry eye in the room and those two ladies will be friends for life. Even more remarkable, was the fact that this class was taking place on the other side of the world, as both women had immigrated to Australia.

One of the most inspiring approaches to memoir I have seen, came from an Italian mother, who wanted to write down snippets of her story, plus parts of her family history, in a cookbook form. She also intended to include personal photos and recipes. This book was to have a dual purpose, which is why it has stuck in my mind as being a prime example of the power of memoir. 

There was a rift in her family, which had been around for many years; and the desire was to use the book to mend that rift. It would only be vanity published for family members and the hope was that when people read past their current prejudices, the road to reconciliation could be opened up.

I met her again, several years after the course, and she was one of the very few students who was still continuing to work on her book, despite a very busy life. Having such a strong purpose enabled her to push past distractions, and any lack of confidence she may have felt as a writer. I sincerely hope that book did go to print and achieve it’s goal.

Take the time to write your story, no matter what competency doubts, or time roadblocks may bar your way. It will bring you sorrow, joy, laughter and greatly improve your writing skills. 

If you would like to read more on memoir, Cate’s blog, CommuniCATE Resources for Writers is hosting various memoir authors as guests throughout 2015. There are also a wealth of old, but relevant posts on memoir on the blog. Visit and search for “memoir” at: 

Cate’s Facebook Page on Memoir is here: Write Your Life Story, The Memoir Project

You are also welcome to follow Cate on Twitter. Writing resources are constantly shared in her stream.

Cate’s Bio: Cate Russell-Cole is a qualified creativity coach and social worker, who is fascinated with the psychological and technical aspects of the writing process, characterization and the overall science of creativity. She has a love of the science fiction - fantasy genre and has been writing diaries, poetry and short stories since she was a child. Cate lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and two cats and habitually writes everything in Australian English.

In addition to her freelance work and creativity-oriented courses she is a Christian science fiction/ fantasy author who is working on The Chronicles of Mirchar Series, plus a non-fiction book on the life of King David.

Cate writes and coaches online to an international audience, providing both how-to resources and writer support. Cate also teaches in Brisbane, with both local government and private training providers. More information can be found on her web site at:    Her quick read books for time starved writers can be found on: Most titles are currently 99c.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lessons In Literature For Memoir Author

In her recently published memoir God and Other Men, Myrna J. Smith sets out to love herself, to find an inner place where she can rest and grow.

She writes: I also did what my family members and millions of others all across the world have done when they found the world lacking and their own hearts empty. I began looking for a spiritual path. If I could not find happiness as a wife, mother, and professional, maybe I could find it in religion.

While every writer may have a grand vision for their book, the craft of writing is often developed after reading great literature. A former college professor, Smith, who was 74 years old when she published her memoir, talks about the importance of studying literature with an eye toward honing our own narratives.

An avid world traveler, Smith now resides in Frenchtown, N.J. a small town on the Delaware River. As part of the WOW! (Women on Writing) blog tour, please welcome Myrna J. Smith to the Women's Writing Circle.  

Who could resist continuing to read after the opening line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?

"The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy."

In three sentences O’Connor provides the reader two main characters, a conflict, and a setting.

Certain pieces of literature, such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” appear in anthologies, giving teachers an opportunity to discuss them more than once. This particular O’Connor story lends itself to multiple teachings because her truth is neither pleasant nor obvious. She makes the reader examine her language to find her message. O’Connor’s Christian faith comes through in the story, but she does not impose it on the reader: she lets the reader discover it.

In writing my own book God and Other Men: Religion, Romance and the Search for Self-Love, I knew I could not announce that my main topic was the spiritual search. I had to start with a problem and explore that problem through a story. Like good stories, such as those of O’Connor’s, I wanted mine to say something significant about my own spiritual life and hopefully to help my readers with theirs. Had I not taught so much literature I might have been tempted to over explain why I had come to the point of view that I have.

Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych” is another story I taught numerous times yet never tired of reading and discussing it with students. The story begins with his friends learning of the death of Ivan Illych; it then reverts to the story of his life, a life that resembles the lives of so many people, particularly those of us in the middle or upper middle class. The details of his life are ordinary, but Tolstoy makes us—allows us—to become so involved in Ivan Illych’s life that the mundane becomes the universal. 

The story ends with the dying days of Illych’s life where he sees that his life has been wasted in the pursuit of conformity and materialism. This causes him such extreme suffering that only his servant can bear to stay with him through his last three days of wailing. He, like O’Connor, makes a moral statement but does it without stating it directly.

In these two stories and all good literature, every sentence advances the narrative or contributes to the main idea. My concern about over explaining or being didactic may sometimes work against me. My daughter reminds me that I might do better occasionally to over explain. Perhaps I took too many lessons from Ernest Hemingway or especially Raymond Carver, who pared his stories down to the absolute bare essentials. But I would rather leave the readers wanting more than risk putting them to sleep!

What books inspired you? How has reading made you a better writer? 

Captions: Myrna Smith with a Buddhist monk and guide at the Ananda Festival in Bagan, Myanmar, January 2015. Myrna Smith with a Buddhist guide in Bagan, Myanmar.

About the Author:  Myrna J. Smith held a faculty position in the English Department at Raritan Valley Community College, Somerville, N.J., from 1970-2004, where she took leave for two and a half years to serve as Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning housed at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. She received a Ed.D. from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick, N.J. Smith also had two Mid-Career Fellowships to attend Princeton University, one in English and one in religion.

She recently returned from a five-week trip to Asia: two weeks with a small group to Myanmar and a few days in Hong Kong, where she has friends, and Vietnam for 10 days. The year before Smith traveled to Thailand and Cambodia and the year before that to Indonesia, both with small groups. She also travels in Canada and the northeast U.S. with her sister, brother, and their spouses most years.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Finding Hope and Love in Memoir

In a workshop on Valentine’s Day writers came with hopes that they might begin to write their stories.

They shared their dreams and desires that they and those they loved won’t be forgotten.

What is my story about, they asked? Should I write a legacy just for family? Should I consider publishing my story for a larger audience?

Sometimes the journey of self-discovery and establishing meaningful connections suffices.

As one participant said, “I came today sharing what I wrote from my heart. I’m taking away inspiration. Hearing the words and love from others’ stories opens my heart even more to reach deeper within.”

It’s a tribute to the women who attended "Writing From the Heart" in downtown Tucson that they generously shared childhood memories . . . the mother-daughter relationship; the moment a loved one had cancer; the fear of poorly cutting out our first dress pattern  . . . of not sewing a straight seam in home economics class.

The format – a version of the Women’s Writing Circle read arounds where we light the candle, a symbol of the light and empowerment of sharing voice and vision in the safety and support of the “container,” which is the writing circle. 

Writing prompts assist us.

Our prompts drew from Emily Dickinson quotes on life’s fleeting nature  . . . the timelessness of love that even death cannot destroy.

We offered multicultural prompts - finding within our differences – whether ethnic or cultural - a common journey . . . an ‘aha’ moment of recognition.

As I’ve written before on this blog, the main stumbling block with writing memoirs is fear – fear that others might be angry, insulted, demand retractions of “our truth” because it is not “their truth.”

As author Patricia Preciado Martin pointed out when this topic arose, sometimes the best “route” in overcoming fear is exploring fiction. Fiction offers a creative avenue to journey into the past.

If you chose memoir, I emphasized – “If they don’t like your story, let them write their own.” 

That’s not to say memoir is a page dump, a place to vent . . . get that out of the way before you start. That’s why they invented journals.

Memoir has gained momentum as a literary genre all its own - a movement largely powered by women. 

"I'm taking away today a feast of women's greatness  . . . rich, savory contributions from a wide range of palates."

“I came with a hope I might be able to move forward in writing.  I am taking away more hope that now I can - and will - move forward."

How to get started writing your life story?

We provided information on the narrative arc –  there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story. Good memoir reads like a page-turning novel. 

A memoir imparts some universal truths to the reader, who, by the time they close the book, takes away lessons.


Only you know when or if you want to share your story.

"I brought a little bit of me and shared, something I had not been able to do,” one woman said. “I’m taking with me something I wrote, even if it is just for me. I can always share later.”

Set aside time for you. Writing is a craft and it must be practiced daily.

“I brought my enthusiasm, my listening ear, my presence and my creativity,” another woman said. “I am taking with me energy, knowledge and the wisdom of many wonderful women. I am also excited to have learned techniques to develop my work.”

For me, personally, I came with what I hoped was a  helpful “toolbox” I have developed over the last five years as a teacher and writer of memoir.

I took away with me – as I always do – amazement that no matter where I travel, the desire and longing to tell our stories is a universal thread.
Together, we are united in hope that the written word matters  – “I was here. My life counted for something.”


A special shout-out goes to Denise Morse. She provided an elegant array of gluten and wheat-free delicacies artfully arranged on tables decorated with our Valentine's Day theme of writing from the heart, as well strawberry plants she donated and awarded in gift drawings.

To my lovely co-facilitators Patricia Preciado Martin and Melanie Mizell ... you know that without your help I never could have offered this workshop.

And, finally, to the Pima County and Tucson Women's Commission, my heartfelt gratitude for providing the most excellent venue  . . . your historic building dedicated to women in the heart of the Old Pueblo.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Special Valentine's Day Week

I'd like to thank Kathy Pooler for interviewing me this Valentine's Week about my upcoming novel A Portrait of Love and Honor.

It is the first interview I have given about the book, scheduled for release this spring.

Kathy is the author of an excellent memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse.

My interview with Kathy can be read here:

This week is also special for another reason.

On Valentine's Day I'll be teaching a memoir writing workshop: Writing From the Heart in Tucson, Arizona with two other authors that I admire and respect, Patricia Preciado Martin and Melanie Mizell.

This is the 10th year I've traveled to Tucson in winter months - escaping what many of my friends refer to as the "tundra" that is the Northeast in January and February. The desert landscape inspires me and serves as my "special place" to write and reflect. That's not to say I leave my work behind in Pennsylvania. I continue to edit, write and teach . . . but decompression is a priority.

While some might find Valentine's Day a burden, I believe that the emphasis shouldn't be on romantic love, but simply on love.

One of the greatest titles in literature is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The title speaks for itself in terms of the human condition.

Connecting with others through a positive and hopeful message is the best any of us can do. That's what I've tried to do this Valentine's Day week with more than a little help from my friends.

Happy Valentine's Day.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Indie Author Lands Amazon Publisher

Breaking out of the pack and achieving discoverability is no easy task. That's why some authors dream of transitioning from independent to mainstream publishing . . . less time on marketing and promotion, more time to write . . . and the possibility of much, much larger book sales.

In this interview Carol Bodensteiner attributes "rave reader reviews" for her independently published novel Go Away Home capturing the attention of Amazon's Lake Union Publishing.  "I’ve always figured reviews made a difference, but now I know for certain," she says.

Here are Carol's posts for the Women's Writing Circle on her memoir, Growing Up Country and her novel, Go Away Home. Please welcome Carol back to the Circle,

When did Amazon contact you and offer you a publishing contract with its imprint Lake Union Publishing?

My life as an author took a thrilling turn when I opened my email on November 1, 2014, and read a message from Lake Union Publishing Senior Acquisitions Editor Jodi Warshaw. She’d read my World War One-era novel Go Away Home and wanted to talk about the possibility of me partnering with Lake Union, an imprint of Amazon Publishing.

To what do you owe their interest in acquiring the book?

Jodi told me all the rave reader reviews Go Away Home has received caught her attention and encouraged her to read the story. I’ve always figured reviews made a difference; now I know for certain.

What did you most enjoy about being an indie author? Are you concerned that you may lose some of the creative and marketing control working with Amazon? If not, why not?

I’m an advocate of life-long learning, so when I indie published my memoir and novel, I most enjoyed figuring out the whole publishing process, tackling it, and feeling the success of doing it well. Since I spent 30 years working in marketing, you might think I’d be concerned about losing control of creative and marketing. But not so. Because I worked all those years in a marketing agency, I was used to having a team of specialized experts upon whom I could rely. With Amazon Publishing, I once again have a team of experts working with me. I’m delighted.

As an indie author, you were successful in getting your books in Barnes and Noble in the Des Moines area. How did that happen?

My career before becoming an author was in marketing. So when it came time to market my memoir, (in the years before quality print on demand with Createspace and IngramSpark) I knew what to do, and I marketed aggressively. Statewide media coverage generated a lot of reader interest.When Barnes and Nobel received so many requests for Growing Up Country, they contacted me and guided me through getting signed up with their distributor who specializes in books of regional interest. Now that I am in their system, B-N stores in Iowa carry my memoir on their shelves, and readers anywhere can easily order my book through any B-N store.

Indie authors get about 70 percent royalties for their ebooks.Without disclosing specifics, are you satisfied with the royalties you will receive with your new publishing contract?

I am satisfied with the royalties, which are consistent with industry standards. What I give up in royalty per sale is made up by services provided (editing, cover design, marketing) plus quantity of sales. What makes me salivate about working with Amazon Publishing is Amazon’s marketing expertise. I can imagine with Amazon’s marketing muscle behind my novel, sales could increase exponentially. Less on each book, yes, but sales of tens of thousands of ebooks and paperbacks rather than a few thousand.

Tell us a little about the editors you are working with now? What did they do to "hone" Go Away Home for the historical fiction and women’s fiction markets? Were you an active participant in that process?

I am only partially through the editing process, but so far editing has been a true partnership. I sing the praises of Amara Holstein who was my developmental editor. Amara pointed out where characters needed more fleshing out, where they were acting inconsistently, where I needed more details to convey place in time, and where I could trim copy to focus and move the plot along, to name a few points for refinement. After she sent me the manuscript marked with her observations and edits, it was my turn to address her suggestions. We talked via phone and email throughout. The result is a tighter manuscript that is entirely consistent with my original story, yet is even better.

Amazon wants a redesign of your cover for Go Away Home. What input, if any, did you have on that?

I admit I love my current cover and readers tell me they do, too, but I’m sure there can be another good design. I’ve had considerable input on the new cover, including descriptions of visual details and symbols that recur throughout the book and other ideas I’ve had for the book cover. I explained who I feel the book’s readers are or will be and offered other covers and images that could supply inspiration for the designers. The designs they develop will come to me for input, refinement and final approval.

As a Lake Union author, do you suspect that the marketing of your novel will be primarily geared toward the ebook market?

Amazon’s marketing focus is digital, but that does not mean they’re only expected to sell ebooks. The power of Amazon marketing is in their email list and what they know about customer preferences. If customers prefer to buy physical or audio books, that’s what Amazon will deliver. Also, bookstores can and do stock books from Amazon Publishing on their shelves if that’s what customers want. Amazon does not, however, focus their effort on getting stacks of books in bookstores.

What are your expectations in terms of sales?

I try not to have expectations because expectations often set one up for disappointment. If I have an expectation, it is that Amazon will sell more copies than I could on my own.

Are you working on a new book project and what can you tell us about it?

My work in progress is a contemporary novel that addresses the question, “What would you sacrifice to help someone else?” Since Amazon Publishing has taken over marketing of Go Away Home, I’m excited to be able to focus my efforts on writing. Knowing that Lake Union Publishing is eager to read the next book I write inspires me to stay at the keyboard.

Thoughts on transitioning from indie to mainstream? Carol welcomes your questions and comments.

Author Bio: Born in Iowa and raised on her family’s dairy farm, Carol Bodensteiner graduated from the University of Northern Iowa and Drake University. She built a career in public relations and marketing before turning to creative writing, and she has worked as a freelance writer for The Iowan magazine and The Des Moines Register. Bodensteiner published the memoir, Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, in 2008. Go Away Home is her first novel. She currently lives with her husband near Des Moines, Iowa.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On Writing Book Discussion Questions

Should discussion questions be included in your new book?

Do book discussion guides encourage book clubs to select a book? And, just as interestingly, do writing them help the author by honing in on the book's message and answering the all-important question: What is this book about and why should my readers buy it?

In my memoirs, I did not include book discussion questions. When I published Again in a Heartbeat in 2010, discussion guides didn’t seem in vogue as now. For my upcoming novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, I decided to include them.

Interestingly, what emerged from the process of crafting discussion questions helped me hone in on major themes in the story.

As an editor, I often hear a beginning writer’s – sometimes an experienced writer’s – greatest lament. "What is my story really about? I’m not sure . . . let me think."

Crafting a discussion guide can offer a useful pathway to the heart of your story.

It also serves as a marketing tool – part of your “elevator speech,” if you will.

An example. One of my questions:

Jay realizes that the war in Vietnam is fraught with ethical and moral dilemmas. “My job,” he writes in his memoir – “learn to be a soldier. That did not include questioning my superiors – yet.” Talk about a time when you faced a choice – to question “authority” or remain silent.

As I promote and market my book, I will want to emphasize that this is a story of confronting systems and "authorities" . . . which  leads to realizations and turning points.


Another question: Jay writes in his memoir: “Maybe I learned to live with adversity because of West Point. One thing I now know is that adversity taught me true lessons in life.” What does adversity mean to you? What adversity have you faced in your own life and what has it taught you?

So this is a story of adversity and what we do to overcome and survive.

Composing book discussion questions requires skill.

TIP: Look at your editor's notes. Many of my questions for A Portrait of Love and Honor emerged from reading her editing notes, queries and questions.

I've read many wonderful books that do not include discussion guides. And some publishers do not ask for them.

  • Are book clubs more likely to read A Portrait of Love and Honor  with discussion questions? 
  • Do they act as the modern day version of Cliff Notes, serving as an overview of the story and plot line?
  • Do they open the door to meaningful discussion?

I don't have answers.  I do know that I love the thought of my readers applying some of these questions to their own lives.  (I have crafted a dozen questions. Seems enough.)

Do you, as a reader, find discussion guides helpful? As an author, are you apt to include them, or not? 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Memoir Writing From the Heart In Tucson

Sometimes when things come together, there’s a sense “this was meant to be."  You just know it is all unfolding for a reason.

My upcoming memoir workshop “Writing From the Heart” in Tucson, Arizona on Feb. 14 lends itself to this “magic”.

It started with something as simple as a telephone conversation on a cold winter's day as I sat in my kitchen in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

Tucson friend, Melanie Mizell, who I met when we worked together in the nonprofit sector, called.  I mentioned my upcoming visit to Tucson. We talked about the importance of reaching out to the community in a meaningful way. Why not offer a memoir writing workshop?

Melanie, a Rachel Carson-type naturalist and environmental writer, suggested we also invite as presenter, Patricia Preciado Martin - whose stories and memoirs document the heritage of Mexican American women of  the Southwest.

I met Patricia last year and featured her in this interview in the Women’s Writing Circle. Patricia's enthusiasm to join us encouraged Melanie and me to move forward.

For people struggling to tell their stories, a memoir writing workshop offers a lifeline . . . a pathway to the heart’s desire to be heard; that our stories matter.

Our press release evolved. Please share:

Have you always wanted to write your story or the story of another but weren’t sure how to get started? Bestselling memoir author, Susan G. Weidener, University of Arizona Press author, Patricia Preciado Martin, and Tucson nature writer Melanie Mizell will offer a special Valentine’s Day memoir writing workshop from 9:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 14 at the Pima County – Tucson Women’s Commission, 240 N. Court Avenue. Free parking available downtown on the workshop date. The authors will discuss writing life stories and read from their work. Time provided to write in small group sessions for sharing with the larger group. Bring your favorite writing tools: notebook, laptop, journal. Light refreshments will be provided. Fee is $25 –payable at the door. Cash or check made out to Susan Weidener; no credit cards accepted.  No prior writing experience required. To reserve a space, email

Offering the workshop on Valentine's Day offered its own synergy  . . .writing from the heart. We’ll light the candle and for two and a half hours shut out the distractions of the outside world and concentrate on our writing  . . . all of this in a 19th century building that is the home of the Women's Commission.

Inside, photographs and renderings of women who came before us and fought to be heard and recognized as equals adorn whitewashed adobe walls. I’ll be reading a short excerpt from my memoir, Again in a Heartbeat.

The Women’s Commission, a vocal advocate of equality in Tucson since 1976, serves as rich resource for women struggling with issues ranging from domestic violence and substance addiction to poverty and homelessness.

For centuries, women were not viewed as equals when it came to telling our stories . . . or even voicing an opinion. Sometimes we forget that challenging the double standard - that men could write what they wanted - but not women – is a relatively new phenomenon.  It is one that I believe has driven much of the recent interest in memoir writing.

Writing  memoir serves as a nurturing and healing medium to express ourselves in a way not open to generations of women who came before us.

Our workshop also offers the pleasure of networking with other women and men in the local business community. The Commission is situated in the heart of the Old Town Artisans section of Tucson.

Participants can take a short walk and enjoy lunch at La Cocina, where owner JoAnn Schneider - who I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday - creates the magic of the Old Pueblo – its romance, and distinctive heritage in an intimate courtyard setting . The restaurant is surrounded by speciality shops featuring glass wind chimes, jewelry, art and clothing.

None of us can do this work alone . . . it’s all about collaboration and sharing and coming together in community.

In a world too often isolating and calculating, the essence of the memoir movement resides in the beauty and connection of sharing our stories, finding our voices, offering a listening and supportive ear.

I do hope if you're visiting or living in the Tucson and Pima County area you will join us on a Saturday morning as we write from the heart.