Thursday, March 28, 2013

Turning Points - A Writing Prompt

When we write our stories, we are inevitably compelled to write about turning points in our lives. Those "Aha!" moments lead to a new path, an expected journey, to becoming more whole.

The job of the writer is to understand these "turning point" events in all their multi-faceted dimension ... and put them into context in the larger picture of a life, a destiny, a legacy.

As I ponder Easter Sunday, it brings to mind a major turning point in my life ... becoming a single mother.

My sons stood on the deck against a gray Easter Sunday sky.  Alex crooked a hand in his pants' pocket, his hair slicked back from too much gel ... the inevitable result of getting ready for church. Daniel, wearing his father's navy blue necktie, had tried to knot a tie, no easy task without a dad to teach him.   

Between them, putting on a brave front for their daughter, stood Mother in crimson coat; Dad in a brown felt hat bought on the trip of a lifetime to  Switzerland.  

As I held the camera, I saw my own world unfold through the lens of time.  I wore a denim suit with huge padded shoulders, and black leather pumps ... and cherished a hope that somehow I could make that first Easter as a single mother all right.  No longer the 21-year-old girl who thought only of herself and her own pleasures ... no longer the impetuous wife passionately in love with her husband. I had become a person who rose at 6 a.m. to place quarters, dimes and licorice-flavored jelly beans inside purple, yellow and green plastic eggs. 

Tiptoeing so as not to wake her children, this woman hid the eggs behind the flower-covered sofa, under the pink velvet armchair, inside the piano bench, on a windowsill behind a gauzy white curtain. A tradition she had experienced as a child, the Easter egg hunt conjured magic, surprise, unexpected gifts and with it a mother's love  to carry forth the joy of Easter,  its renewal ... that even death cannot destroy.  

Why writing about a turning point is a revelatory experience:
  • It is a growth experience.
  • It leads us one step closer to learning who we are and who we are becoming.
  • Sometimes turning points are stumbling blocks that lead to greater awareness.
  • It leads to becoming a different person.
  • It puts us in touch with our feelings.
  • It helps us move beyond ourselves and reach out to others.

What was a major turning point in your life?  Can you craft a memory or scene from it? 

At what point did your life change course, affecting everything that would come after? Have you, or are you, writing about turning points and what have you learned?

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Unique Challenges of Memoir

As part of a continuing series featuring authors from around the world who have shown courage in their writing, welcome Boyd Lemon.  Boyd writes about the challenges unique to memoir. Please comment, ask questions . . . there is much here to think about! ~ Susan

Those courageous writers who wallow in the abyss of memoir face issues not faced by novelists or writers of other non-fiction. I have written three memoirs and many short memoirs, sometimes known as personal essays. My first memoir, Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages, was the most difficult because it forced me to dig deeply into my own faults and frailties and deal with the guilt that accompanied the resulting truths and their effects on the lives of three women and four children.

Any memoir presents the challenge of telling the truth, which is shared with all non-fiction writers, but for memoirists the truth comes with greater difficulty and often emotional trauma. Dealing with the truth about one's self is always more difficult than telling the truth about others. The emotional stake we have in our own truths distort what we are telling. The best we can do is to be aware of the potential for distortion and fight against it with all our intellectual and emotional might, so that we write, not an objective truth, but, at least, our subjective truth.
Why do we need to be truthful in memoir? I answer with another question.  What is the point of memoir if we do not tell the truth as we see it?

What distinguishes memoir from fiction is that we are telling our truth. If we don’t do that, we are writing fiction, which has a different value, however subtle that difference may be. We have a moral obligation to tell the truth, as we believe it because a major appeal to readers is that they are not reading about fictional characters, but about real people who lived and faced the joys and sorrows described.
Our memoirs often involve living people, usually family members and others we are or were close to. This presents a problem unique to memoir. Although typical non-fiction sometimes deals with living people, it usually does not involve close friends or family members of the author. For those few that do, those non-fiction writers face this issue too. Writing about living close friends and family members raises several issues.

The most serious is ethical. Is it fair or ethical to disclose information we know about others only because of our close past or present relationship with them . . . facts about them that they reasonably believed their friend or family member would keep confidential? This issue often directly conflicts with the principle of telling our truth. Should we tell our truth if it discloses information about others that they believed would be kept confidential?
Memoir writers have to decide this issue for themselves. I can’t say what is right or wrong, but I will tell you what I decided to do and why. I struggled with this issue throughout the writing of the memoir about my marriages and finally did what I had to do to be true to myself. I wasn’t even certain I was going to publish until after I finished it. Once I decided to publish, the first thing I did was to change the names of all important people in the book, except my own. Therefore, nobody who didn’t know my ex-wives and children would be able to identify them by reading the book. Among those who did know my family, most already knew some of the incidents. Only a small group who knew whom I was writing about would learn anything new.
Second, I decided to delete any information that did not support or contribute in some way to the theme of the book, which was my role in the destruction of my marriages. I could not honestly write about my role without disclosing information about the conduct of my ex-wives, some of which they would prefer not be made public. I agonized over whether to include extramarital affairs and substance abuse of one of my wives and our sexual problems. I decided on inclusion because what I did and my role in the failure of the marriage would not have made sense to the reader if I excluded these facts. My litmus test became whether a given disclosure was necessary to advance the theme of the memoir. If a disclosure did not pass that test, I deleted it. Some decisions whether to include or delete were agonizing. In the end, I disclosed only what I felt I had to. I did my best not to disclose anything for revenge or solely to show my ex-wives in a bad light. I wasn’t nearly as kind to myself.
Another issue that arises in memoir writing is whether to consult other people about the accuracy of remembrances. Generally, I would not. The memoir should be based on the author’s memory. There may be some circumstances in which fact checking with someone else is appropriate. For example, I asked two of my ex-wives about several specific facts that I thought were important, but that I was unsure about or didn’t remember. If what they told me refreshed my recollection so that I believed they were correct, I included it. If it was solely their recollection, and I did not remember it at all, I did not write it. It was my memoir, not theirs. I felt that I shouldn’t include something based solely on what somebody else claimed to remember.
Should we let any of the main characters in our memoirs read the manuscript before it is published? Categorically, no, I say. The only purpose could be to check facts, and I repeat: this is your memoir, not that of a committee. Because others will remember differently, to let them read it, may evoke anger, hostility, gossip and efforts to stop you from publishing it. At best it provides temptation to write something that the author does not remember. At least, it creates confusion. If you have any doubts about the desirability of publishing the memoir, which you most likely will, those you show it to who are part of the story might weaken your resolve.
Should you publish your memoir or just write it for yourself, or your family? That is such a personal decision I cannot give any valid advice, but it is a question you should consider seriously. As for me, I felt that in order help me deal with my demons and, more importantly, to help others deal with issues that arise in many marriages and relationships, I felt compelled to publish.
If you are writing about living people, you must also consider your exposure to a lawsuit for libel. I am not going to give any specific legal advice, except to say that anybody can sue for anything. Publication creates risk. However, generally those you write about are not monetarily damaged by what you say, and if they cannot prove what you wrote is false, they will not win a lawsuit.
People who read Digging Deep often ask me about the reactions of my ex-wives. One said that she did not read it because it would be too painful for her. One read it and said she enjoyed it. One was outraged and refuses to speak to me, even though we share two children and two grandchildren. Memoir writers who publish must be ready to accept the anger, denials and hostility of those they write about. People will deny they did or said something when the author is certain that they did. In the end, memoirs are not objectively true, but hopefully they are the truth of the author.

Boyd's Bio: I lived most of my life in Southern California and moved to Boston in 2007, where I stayed until Spring of 2010. I loved it -- great city. I retired from the practice of law, left Boston and lived for a year in Paris and Tuscany. My memoir, Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior's Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany, is about that year. My newest book is Retirement: A Memoir and Guide, which helps people who are retired or contemplating retirement deal with complex issues that arise when one goes from a full time job to 24/7 leisure time. For many it is a difficult adjustment. My first memoir, about my journey to understand my role in the destruction of my three marriages, Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages, was published when I returned from Paris in April 2011. Shortly after that I published a collection of short stories that I had written from 2006 to 2010, Unexpected Love and Other Stories. I'm learning to draw. I love good food and wine, and listening to music. While living in Boston, I walked and walked around that beautiful city and frequently visited Symphony Hall and the Museum of Fine Arts. When I returned from Paris and Tuscany in 2011, I moved to Ventura, California near my four children and four grandchildren. By the end of 2012 I heard the East Coast calling again. I moved to rural southeast Georgia, where I live in a little old house in St. Mary's among the oaks and pines, next to a used book store and a 200-year-old church. Currently, I am writing my first novel.

Amazon Author Page:

Excerpts, reviews, interviews and information about all of my books:


Monday, March 18, 2013

Telling A Mother's Story

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each others’ life.”  ~ Richard Bach

Our About the Authors series continues with Lynda Clemens.

What inspired me to write fictionalized memoir about my first mother-in-law, Jean? I distinctly remember the day I was unpacking boxes from my home office after yet another move.  Seeking to thin out my ever-expanding paper piles and files, I was reading and triaging various paperwork when I came upon the unlabeled plain brown envelope. Inside I encountered various newspaper accounts of Jean’s death, her obituary and the church program from the funeral service.  A note in my handwriting declared “Must tell Jean’s story.”

Reading everything over, I was immediately back in that painful, unexpected and ill-prepared-for scenario.  People die, after all, from old age, grave illnesses, or horrible car accidents.  Loved ones, in particular, do not get struck by AMTRAK trains in the middle of the night and find it labeled a “tragic accident.” I’d rejected that notion the moment I heard how Jean died. I had promised myself to write what I believed was the story from her point of view based on our long-standing surrogate mom/daughter/friend relationship.
Getting involved with the Women’s Writing Circle in 2012 after my retirement, I seized on the chance to fulfill that promise. With the patience, encouragement and meaningful feedback from the open-minded, supportive women I met in the Circle, my story, "Remembering Jean, My Mentor and Confidante," emerged in time for our anthology, Slants of Light.
The writing experience was tortuous, fun, nostalgic, insightful and cathartic.  I felt revisiting Jean’s impact on my child and young adulthood reinforced the gratitude I will always feel for how she helped me grow and mature in a positive direction.  I explored experiences I had not revisited for many, many years from the new perspective of aging and, hopefully, with a touch of maturity and lessons learned along the way. So . . .  “Thank you, Jean.  I love you very much.” And thank you ladies of the WWC for all your support.
Lynda M. Clemens is co-author of Hit the Job Running: Because landing the job is the easy part, 3rd edition. “We wrote this book to help employees succeed as quickly as possible in a new position because we were involved in layoffs.  We knew why people were being selected to be laid off and it was frequently due to behaviors only indirectly related to work output. We wanted to help people learn to quickly correct these behaviors.” As a recent retiree from three decades doing Information Technology projects for large corporations, Lynda has chosen fictionalized memoir as her next challenge. “I want to share my life’s lessons with others. Perhaps they can glean some valuable insights into their own lives.”
Lynda holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Temple University. A Philadelphia native, she currently volunteers with an adult literacy program and is a member of the Women’s Writing Circle in Chester County where she resides.

Monday, March 11, 2013

TFOB - Festival of Writers

I had the fortune of attending this past weekend the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona where authors, writers, readers and book lovers come together for the weekend.  Now the 4th largest book festival in the country, TFOB offers a dizzying array of writers from all genres, panel discussions, workshops and table after table under bright white tents of books for sale.  Last year, the two-day Festival was attended by 120,000. 
When writers reflect on writing, it is always interesting . . . what makes it more so is the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the publishing industry and how writers and authors are responding.
While many of the presentations were about writing, several focused on the power and importance of author promotion and social media. Three traditionally published authors on a panel discussion about the craft of writing made it clear that while their publishers were urging them (begging might be the better word) to take an active role in marketing their books on Twitter and Facebook, they were either not inclined to do so, or did it half-heartedly.  Said one author, “There is a certain inauthenticity and falsity to it . . .  and hawking your books like that is grim.” 
As might be expected at another panel discussion, an indie author spoke about the “fun of meeting new people, making connections and holding free giveaways of books to entice new readers. I love Twitter," she gushed.
As an indie author with a background in professional journalism, the truth lies somewhere in between for me. Promotion does at times feel uncomfortable; a necessary evil. That said, I tend to lean more toward the advantages of social media, and how it can build relationships with readers and other writers.

One of my favorite panels was entitled “writing your memoirs” by John Elder Robison.  Robison grew up in the 1960s before the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome existed.  The author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Look Me In the Eye:  My Life with Asperger’s, Robison is the brother of Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir Running With Scissors. 

John Elder Robison
When asked how you know if your story is something people will want to read, Robison answered:  “Tell it in an engaging manner, write about a subject that is broader than you and give it a message.”  True stories, he went on to add, are more "powerful" than fiction.
Memoir writers are best served by traditional publishing houses, he contends, since they help protect authors from potentially damaging libel suits.  Protected by a Random House legal team, for example, authors can "breathe easy," since "people will sue you for anything,” he noted.
Robison cautioned memoir writers not to sugarcoat or spare details, especially the unusual or not so flattering things about family members.  Writing about that “crazy uncle who robbed a store,” might “hold a clue” for future generations as to what runs in families, including mental illness. 
For those writing memoirs as a family legacy, but not interested in formal publication, he recommended, the Mormon’s Family History Library, which archives family genealogies in perpetuity for free. 
Robison claims memoir is probably a “more marketable” genre for unknown authors; selling a true story, he said, is a lot easier than selling fiction.  He also encourages all memoir writers to take a screenwriting course.  "It is invaluable to see how writing your memoir might be turned into a movie script."
Another interesting author . . . mystery novel  writer Alice LaPlante.  After going through an MFA program and teaching creative writing at Stanford, LaPlante said she was "always told" to write “literature.”  But writing a mystery novel  -  in this case, about a murder suspect with Alzheimer’s – proved not just a fun exercise, but a way to get in touch with her deeper feelings about her own mother, who was dying of the disease.  Her novel, Turn of Mind, was a bestseller.  “Writing a novel gave me a beginning, middle and end . . . a way out,” she said of her own pain associated with her mother’s illness.

A final footnote . . . I did get to hear actor and author Ted Danson read from Edward Bridge Danson: Steward of the New West,  written by Ted’s nephew, Eric Penner Haury. 

Danson's father, Edward “Ned” Danson Jr., anthropology professor at the University of Arizona, was involved with the National Park Service Advisory Board and the Western National Parks Association. Danson’s reading interspersed with his own personal memories of his father and growing up in Tucson were heartfelt and entertaining.
The Jodi Picoult lecture was scheduled immediately after the Danson reading and by the time I got to that was sold out. Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite “chick lit” authors and being shut out was disappointing.  In the future, I hope Festival promoters and organizers make it easier to attend lectures by “headliners” by not scheduling them so close together.

The "Sanctuary" That Is Writing

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.”
~ Langston Hughes
Our About the Authors Series continues with Ginger Murphy.
I have always been fascinated by the way we find and make meaning in our lives, especially when the inevitable tragedies remind us how little control we really have over what happens to us. Our choice comes in our response to this reality. My story in Slants of Light,  “Live Your Dream!” is about losing a job and with it all the hopes and dreams nurtured over many years of hard work. It’s also a tribute to the people who stand by us in our times of loss.

Women sustain each other with friendships that endure great distances, long years of no contact and the fact that we too often put others first – children, spouses, bosses, clients – anyone who needs anything we feel we can give. And when we’ve taken care of everyone else and we’re finally ready to put our feet up, our friends are there to talk but mostly to listen.

Carla and Serena, two friends featured in my story, have been together since college when they boldly imagined how they would make the world better by coaching and teaching kids. They felt confident and optimistic then. Now many years later, they are confronting the compromises demanded by making a living and the fallout of the Great Recession. Carla has been laid off in this economic aftermath and she is heart-broken.

While fictional, the genesis of this story comes directly from my own experience. I lost my job three years ago and with it my confidence, idealism and any kind of clarity about what my future could still hold. I was in shock for weeks. And I was very, very angry. I had done everything right. But stellar performance reviews, leadership positions and secured funding for my beloved program simply didn’t matter in the end.

To add insult to injury, when I started to apply for new jobs I experienced a bias against “mature” workers. Hard-earned years of experience now seemed like a liability instead of an asset. I hadn’t thought so much about my age since the days of being “carded” when I went out to bars as a college student! I found myself dispensing with my chronological resume and consulting my stylist about hair color.

Ultimately, I spent a lot of time in my garden – it was early spring when I was let go . . . pulling and digging and clinging to fragile strength gradually re-emerging along with the tender green shoots of those hardy spring bulbs. I took reassurance in this graphic reminder that life does go on.
As it turned out, I would meet new friends through the Women’s Writing Circle during this time. I would also rediscover an old friend in writing itself; it would become a sanctuary to reflect, explore, share and begin to find meaning again amid life’s bewildering events.

My character Serena is really a composite of all my friends who listened, encouraged, coached, laughed and cried with me during this time. Eventually I realized that while my lost job was a sad statistic, I didn’t have to become one too. I was still an intelligent and capable person who could again find meaning, a job and maybe even a new dream.

Ginger M. Murphy is a citizen advocacy coordinator, community organizer and true believer in the promise and power of civic engagement. She has worked as an English teacher, tutor and grant writer. She completed her undergraduate work in English at Wesleyan University and holds a Masters degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. “I like to explore how our voices begin to emerge as we dare to tell our own unique stories. I write to discover the deeper layers of my experience; to sift, sort and discover a reflection that holds personal and universal experiences all at once.” An avid hiker and photographer, she lives in Phoenixville, PA with her three wise feline housemates..

Monday, March 4, 2013

Writing A Way Back To Innocence

“Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you.”  ~ Walt Whitman

Our About the Authors series continues with Flo Shore.

I had been a solitary child in many ways.  The little girl I once was  lived in a world of pensive thought and literary exploration. I had a very rich inner life.
I devoured fairy tales from all cultures, ancient mythology and at the library always asked for books where animals spoke like humans. I read poetry, haiku and began writing verse in elementary school.
As I matured, I came to realize how few places there were for aesthetically minded dreamers like me. Over time I managed to transform myself into a rational and logical thinker. I was determined to learn how to fit the societal norms of the day and take my place to be valued by the dominant culture. In doing so, I lost something. I lost touch with the place of innocence. For years I looked to find my way back to that special place of childhood innocence and wonder. 
This gnawing and, at times, excruciating desire to return to “that place” of innocence took me on a long and circuitous journey. It’s been much like the quest to connect with the elusive butterfly in my story "Blessed By a Butterfly" in our anthology Slants of Light. Maybe if I stand still long enough she’ll return, I thought.
It seems we are each and every one of us a "thought leader" in the subject we know most about; ourselves! So I have returned to creative writing after many decades away. My involvement in the Women’s Writing Circle over the last two years has been instrumental in helping me connect with my creative juices after a very long hiatus.
I came to learn through writing, groups, workshops and mentors that the creative spark had never really gone out. It was simply usurped by the business of living, by layer upon layer of worldly wear and toil.
 After several careers which I refer to as my “incarnations,” I’ve spent the last 19 years in industrial sales.  Somehow, I managed to find ways to bring my creative bent along for the ride. It’s served me well but left me hungry for more. Having at last found a place to work and learn in the company of other writers I finally feel sated. I have been writing poetry since childhood and am relatively new to prose. My introduction to memoir through the Women’s Writing Circle has proved invaluable.
So, what about “us” -  a community of writers, historians, poets and memoirists? Can we dip into that creative pool whenever we want, splash our faces and refresh ourselves with all that is truly ours? Perhaps we can wash away the angst and grime that some of us wear like an ill-fitting garment and gain access to the creative portal.
I believe we can! We already sit in the place of innocence. We just need to let the phrases, the kernels of ideas that appear as whispers all around us come to life on paper. We can grab them and share them in our own voice. After all, our thoughts are worth something and could surely change lives.
Flo Shore also works as a part-time professional pet sitter affording her the opportunity to express her love of all creatures. As a pet sitter Flo cares for cats, dogs, and some exotics such as fancy rats and occasional farm animals as well. She enjoys nature, hiking, camping, travel and adventure. Flo is also the mother of a lovely 27-year-old daughter.