Biography and Memoir: how important are approvals

Mockingbird Next DoorThe famously reclusive Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame is in the news recently denying she approved of and collaborated with Marja Mills writing the recently published The Mockingbird Next Door, about her and her sister Alice.What happened? Marja Mills, a former Chicago Tribune reporter swears she had Nelle Harper Lee’s years-long friendship and the go-ahead to write about her for publication. Nelle’s sister Alice and a close friend say Nelle knew Marja was writing a book about the sisters. The Guardian has a good article, “Should Marja Mills memoir have been published,” stating details of the situation. Marja seems like a nice woman and the book is very nice to Harper Lee. Marja and Penguin Press went ahead and published the book. What would you do?

So let’s look at this situation, because I think it could happen to anyone writing a memoir or biography. Nelle Harper Lee was 75 years old when Marja Mills knocked on her door in 2001. She was apparently in good health physically and mentally and became good friends with Marja until at least 2007 when she had a stroke at age 81. Five years later, the book’s rights sold and Harper Lee was angry. At that time her sister Alice wrote to Marja, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.” A close friend of the Lee sisters also verified Harper Lee’s collaboration. Had Alice, the friend, and Marja been going behind Nelle’s back for six years until the stroke? After watching my mother’s difficult journey through dementia, I’m thinking the stroke mixed with elder age affected Harper Lee’s mind a bit.

Marja Mills does not need Harper Lee’s approval. The memoir is not Harper Lee’s ghostwritten memoir or her biography, but is Marja’s writeup of the time she spent with the Lee sisters and the stories they told her. Nobody is saying the stories are lies, and Harper Lee knew (or soon discovered, as she said later) that Marja was a writer and putting together a book. I don’t see any devious behavior, but a lesson here is writers should think about somehow get proof that a subject is cooperating—while the subject is of sound mind. Saved letters or emails would work. Audio or video of interviews can be prefaced with a statement of full knowledge. If there is any question about the mental capacity of a willing person to begin with, there should be no book, or the family should be consulted, too. I have done that myself when capturing stories of a very elderly subject for educational and historical purposes, involving family so as to avoid possible trouble. Even so, if the subject changes her mind, a moral dilemma exists—to publish or not. I am putting together someone else’s historical memoir for publication, but if he balks at any time, I will not publish it despite all my hard work. To me, though, that is more clear cut than what Marja Mills is dealing with.

Marja Mills was honoring her own time and efforts and the still-lucid elder sister Alice’s wishes in publishing her book. She will have to make peace with herself in going against Harper Lee’s change of mind or diminished mental capacity.  She will have to cringe when others who don’t know all the details lambast her for being immoral. Anyone who writes biographies of living persons could have this problem. Everyone who writes a memoir could have this dilemma. Some solve it by waiting until the person dies. Some will forge ahead because they believe the story has an overriding value. Some will go ahead because they primarily hope to make money off someone else’s life. After reading all the details found in the news about this situation, I think Marja Mills could have waited until Harper Lee passed away—up to ten years. I don’t see her, however, as deceptive or money-grubbing. I see a woman who truly liked Harper Lee as a person, worked on the stories with the sisters’ full knowledge, and wanted to make sure they were represented correctly and kindly rather than by heresay and speculation after they died. Because if you don’t tell your stories, somebody else might make them up.

 

Posted in book talk, lifewriting, memoir writing, publishing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A memoir of overcoming: Gwen Plano and Letting Go into Perfect Love

Letting Go Into Perfect LoveToday I am pleased to feature Gwendolyn Plano, author of the memoir Letting Go into Perfect Love:  Discovering the Extraordinary After Abuse. Plenty of people have written memoirs about surviving and overcoming abuse of different types, and these are valuable not only as inspiration for others trying to escape from similar situations, but as learning experiences for those who know nothing about these situations. How can a successful career woman come home and live and mother her children in a hostile environment? Who knows what kind of secret lives hide behind a bright exterior? Gwen, too, shows us that behind someone we might see every day, there are hidden demons at work.

I am impressed that Gwen goes beyond the recognition, struggle, and escape to finding personal and spiritual enlightenment. She seems not just a healed woman, but one who is now flying high embracing life and the goodness of God. Read on to see how writing her story helped her and how her story might help all of us. Thank you, Gwen, for being my guest and telling us about your journey.

* * * * *

When I began writing my book, I expected to simply tell my story: a farm girl goes to the big city, falls in love, marries, experiences tragedy, falls in love again, marries but then knows abuse, and along the way has four beautiful children.  As the pages unfolded though, I realized that my story was everyone’s story. The details of my journey are unique to me of course, but the emotions accompanying those details are universal. We all know sorrow, fear, or regret, and we all travel through life trying to make sense of it all. Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I now understand the agony of which she speaks, for the story ultimately is not mine—it belongs to all of us. I simply held a version of it temporarily.

Writing Letting Go into Perfect Love was an integrative process for me. At times it tore open my heart, such that I could barely breathe. However, my tears and gasps came and went because they could. As I accepted and honored these emotions, compassion emerged; and, it was this development that redirected my writing, and quite frankly, my life.

Why did I write this book? I really did not have a choice. It demanded to be told, awakening me in the early morning and drawing me to my desk. That said, midway through my book, I explain a specific and heartfelt reason that many readers might miss.  The paragraph reads:

For more than two decades I had tried to shield my children from the sorrows in our home, but I now realize that my secret separated me from them. My closeted life held my heart, with its forgotten dreams and innocent longings—a heart that the healers had described as “shattered in little pieces” and “held together with tape and string.” Though I did not know how to bridge the years of hiding, I knew I needed to bring levity into our home and healing into our lives.

When we are not free to be ourselves, a vital part of us disappears under layers of numbness. It is this shell of a person that others see—not who we ultimately are.  As I disentangled myself from an abusive marriage, I re-discovered who I am—and why I had hidden for so many years. I also realized that I needed to bridge the chasm separating past and present—for me and for others.

When any of us come out of the proverbial closet, the fear of disclosure can be overwhelming, but the alternative is a lost life. I wrote Letting Go into Perfect Love to help others realize that they can open the door behind which they hide, and when they take this action, an amazing life awaits them.

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In writing about her own lessons, in learning the redemptive power of love through suffering, spiritual practice, and grace, Gwen Plano allows her readers to reconnect with the painful moments in their own lives and to use those moments to walk a path toward healing and life fulfillment. – from reviewer Bonnie Boron

Gwen Plano is quite an accomplished woman with four university degrees in different Gwen Planofields of study. She has worked mostly as an administrator at various colleges – including one in Japan! She is also a Reiki Master and certified Lifeline Practitioner. Letting Go into Perfect Love is her first book, but when you see her writing style you will think she’ll surely write more. Learn more about Gwen at her website and blog, From Sorrow to Joy, where you will also find she has a Goodreads giveaway that will run from July 1-8.

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Becky Povich – Reminiscing smaller life stories into one big story

Pigtails to Chin HairsI met Becky Lewellen Povich through the St. Louis Writers Guild and found her book, From Pigtails to Chin Hairs: A Memoir and More, to be exactly what I like to encourage in lifewriting. Many people, if not most, do not have a journey of overcoming this or that or of going on a big adventure of personal discovery, but their stories are interesting and worth writing about. My own mother thought her stories of life around WWII in Japan were boring and everyday. “Who cares about that?” she’d tell me when annoyed by my persistent questions.

Our everyday stories usually involve history and culture and the social mores of the time. Those with similar stories bond through common memories. Younger people learn about the “old days.” We might learn about totally different cultures or perspectives. What bonds all of us together in stories are universal experiences and emotions. Becky is my guest today and discusses the writing of her book.

Becky, please tell us why you wrote your memoir, From Pigtails to Chin Hairs: A Memoir & More.

Although I’d never written anything other than personal letters, business correspondence, office newsletters, and the perpetual Christmas letter, I felt compelled in 2001to begin writing my memoir. Every time I actually say or write those words, I think How crazy was that!? But for some reason, I believed I had the talent to do it.

There were two main occurrences in 2001 that prompted me to write: the near death of my estranged father, and reading Haven Kimmel’s memoir, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. As I read Ms. Kimmel’s book, I kept thinking if I were to write my memoir, it would be similar to hers; short snippets of everyday life, some that were poignant, sad, funny, hilarious, insightful. In addition to writing it for myself and my family, I firmly believed a great deal of readers would love it and it could possibly make a difference in their lives. And since I didn’t concentrate on just my young, growing up years in the 1950s and 60s, thus the subtitle: A Memoir & More, I also had faith that it would appeal to women of all ages.

What made you decide to self-publish?

I didn’t make that decision until I’d written my way along a very lengthy path, which basically took 12 years from my very first thoughts, to being near completion of my memoir. After things didn’t work out with a small press that had previously been interested in publishing it, I looked into other areas, which included the possibility of a New York agent looking at it. But, my ultimate decision was to go with Createspace for several reasons. The main one was I was nearing the age of 60 and didn’t want to “waste” any time hoping the agent might look at my manuscript, might accept it, and try to sell it. If I was in my 20s or 30s, I might have gone that route. But, then again, maybe not. I was very particular about the title and cover of my memoir, the fonts used, the black and white photos I wanted included, etc. Yes, I wanted to be in complete control of my baby!

Did writing your memoir prompt you to view yourself and your life in ways other than you originally assumed?

Very much so! It didn’t happen right away, though. It took a lot of writing about the sadder times for me to begin looking at things differently. And although there were things I wished I could’ve changed about my life, I also realized that I wouldn’t be who I am today, if any of those events hadn’t happened. I’m very happy with who I am, and where I am, at this stage of my journey in life.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

Well, I really don’t have one! I’m definitely not a disciplined writer. I’m a “write when I’m in the mood” kind. (Hmm, could be one reason why my memoir took me 12 years to write!) I like to attribute it to the fact that I never had an education in writing. I didn’t attend college, or any writing classes, so therefore I don’t have the proper mindset. (I really am kidding; not about the 12 years, but about my excuses!)

I’m in the beginning stages of writing the sequel to Pigtails, and I know this book will definitely not take years to complete. I learned so much writing my first book and I am a bit more conscientious these days. My goal for the sequel’s publication is 2015. I think I’d better get busy!

- Becky Lewellen Povich is a writer, humorist, and “bliss follower” who started writing later in life. She is published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and other anthologies and periodicals. Find out more about Becky at her website or blog.

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Becky’s stories are warm-hearted personal interest stories of growing up in the Midwest during the 1950s-1960s, dealing with her parents’ divorce at a time when divorce was unusual, coming of age and getting married, and continuing the dramas and peculiarities and amusing moments we all have in our own ways. Smiles, laughter, pain, sadness, we can all relate to those emotions.  I like her comment about how she “realized that I wouldn’t be who I am today if any of those events hadn’t happened.” Sometimes you can learn a lot about life and about yourself by writing down your “everyday” stories, and others may learn a thing or two, too.

In case you think you have an everyday and boring life not worth writing about:

How to Write About Your Boring Life

 

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A family’s stories turn into a novel of love and Vietnam War perspectives

“A mesmerizing debut novel, Once Upon a Mulberry Field tells a heartrending tale of American and South Vietnamese love at a time when both countries were torn apart by war.” I recently discovered C.L. Hoang online in a Facebook group and ordered his new book. Hoang was born in South Vietnam and lived there with his family during the Vietnam War. He came to the US in the 1970s because of the war, and became an engineer, and now an author. In an interview with him posted on MilitaryPress.com, he says:

I started the book as a nostalgia project for my father so that we could capture memories of our family’s earlier life in Saigon, Vietnam, during the war. As I researched that time period to ensure accuracy, I discovered another perspective of the war—as experienced by American service people who fought over there and by their families in the States. I ended up merging these two contrasting points of view, in hopes of providing a more complete picture of that turbulent chapter in the history of both countries. But rather than being a “war book,” Once Upon a Mulberry Field is first and foremost a love story—an ode to the old and the new homelands, and a celebration of the human spirit and the redemptive power of love.

Who can resist a book like that? Not me. I have written before about turning memoir into fiction in order to tell a bigger story. Sometimes the constraints of sticking to a true life story hobble an important message or a bigger picture the author wants to get across. I like how Mr. Hoang wanted to put forth different perspectives of a highly controversial war. For those who don’t know or remember, Vietnam vets were subject to ugly name-calling or worse when they returned home, thanks to discovery of atrocities committed—a complex subject. And who has read personal stories—or any stories—from the Vietnamese side? Read the rest of the interview with C.L. Hoang here in the March 10, 2014, Military Press article: Once Upon a Mulberry Field. Read about the poetic meaning of the book’s title in Huang’s blog post “Mulberry Fields and the Blue Sea.”

I asked C.L. Hoang to tell me a little more about the writing of his book.

“Unfortunately my dad passed away before the book was finished. It was dedicated to him and my mom, who had died before him. My book was to bear witness to their generation who had known war all their lives, from the fight for independence from the French to the struggle against communism. But the book also pays homage to American veterans who served in Vietnam and came home to a hostile political atmosphere.”

Find C.L. Huong and his blog at mulberryfieldsforever.com.

Once Upon a Mulberry Field

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Military historian John McManus tells D-Day and WWII stories

John McManus commanded a jam-packed room at the local library the other night, talking about the D-Day battle of Omaha Beach and specifically about the infamous 1st Infantry Division known as The Big Red One. McManus is a university professor and a well-respected military historian who has written eleven books (so far) that combine war history with commentary and soldiers’ accounts. The Dead and Those About to Die, about D-Day, is his latest.

John McManus

The guy does a lot of research and knows his stuff, no need to look at notes. What could have been a dull, technical talk of numbers and strategy was a fast-paced, insightful and colorful blow-by-blow peppered with first-hand account stories and quotes from veterans. He said the movie Saving Private Ryan was a pretty good depiction of D-Day horrors except the bodies were probably more scattered than stacked, and the logs on the beach are pointed the wrong way. The few amphibious tanks that didn’t drown in the rough waves had a difficult time trying to move around all the dead bodies.

McManus has read a lot of first-hand stories of veterans as part of his research. He likes to get the soldiers’ thoughts and perspectives. One day a Frenchman contacted him saying he tended a certain soldier’s grave in the Normandy American Cemetery. Many local citizens have adopted graves in the American military cemeteries overseas. McManus was able to tell the Frenchman a little about the soldier whose grave he cared for and how he had died. Another time he received a letter from the mother of a soldier who died in action, telling what she knew about her son during the war. She ended by saying that was her only son and that she hoped his story would be important and remembered. Such things inspire McManus to include so many personal comments and stories in his books. He even includes comments by enemy soldiers in The Dead and Those About to Die.

Some notes from John McManus:

-On D-Day, the German general Erwin Rommel was away celebrating his wife’s birthday
-US troops were loaded down with 60-80lbs of gear so some men drowned
-Transport of wounded out was not considered; the focus was on unloading troops
-The Germans were greatly outnumbered, but held the high ground in strong bunkers
-The French Resistance gave the Allies intelligence on the Germans
-One of the German concrete bunkers was turned into a house the owner rents out

John McManus chatting with an Iraq combat veteran and his son

John McManus chatting with an Iraq combat veteran and his son

Standing next to me in line waiting for autographs was a man who helps organize honor flights to Washington, D.C. for WWII veterans. He enjoys hearing the stories that spill from them as they wait to board the planes. He explained about the honors and festivities they receive in D.C. and in the airports and how pleased and touched the veterans are that their service and sacrifices have been acknowledged so.

During the Q & A part of the author program, an audience member asked any WWII veterans there to please stand. Six men rose to applause.

Normandy American Cemetery

Normandy American Cemetery

 

 

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Memorial Day and old war stories

I had an appointment to see my Korean War veteran friend at the veterans’ home yesterday, to work on editing. Since this was Memorial Day weekend, I brought him flowers—and he was astonished about that, probably because he has no family to ever bring him any. We chatted most of the afternoon about his war stories. He is quite excited to finally see his collection of journal notes turning into pages for a book. And what a job! The notes were scribbled down out in the battlefield and carried to the States by returning soldiers who then mailed them to his Stateside address. After retiring from his civilian work life, he spent a few years transcribing the scribbles, then a kind woman visiting her husband at the veteran’s home typed up the rewritten notes. By some odd happenstance, I came into the picture to help create the book. Strange how life works out, but I have a great new friend now, and what awesome and awful stories he has.

Sometimes I am afraid to ask my veteran friend too many questions about his war experiences, but he is always happy to answer them. He was a medic, so he quickly learned to detach from horror in order to do his job well, but I suppose he enjoys having a friend who is such an interested listener, one whose face I know must regularly look incredulous. He has such an upbeat attitude and the war is far behind him, but PTSD lurks in the shadows. He can be watching a tennis match on TV and suddenly the screen becomes the battlefield. He relives seven particular scenes – his seven demons, he calls them—but he has learned to manage them. There are other veterans at the home whose screams at night speak of fiercer demons.

It’s Memorial Day weekend—where’s the party? Fire up the grill and get on the burgers, but be sure to lift up a beer to honor our war veterans. Those who have survived wars have sacrificed a part of their souls to a hell made by man, and the rest of us can sleep well at night.

For another story about the importance of Memorial Day, read Mustang Koji’s touching post about Old Man Jack, a ground crew chief during WWII:  Two Old Keys to Memorial Day.

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Books to read for Asian Pacific American Month

On Twitter and Tumblr #weneeddiversebooks has been trending so thought I’d do my part to push both diverse books and Asian Pacific American Month by posting a list of books to read. Most of these I have personally read, and I listed books by Asian-American authors and that are set in the US. Some are new, some are oldies but goodies.

For children

Anything by Grace Lin (Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat)

Anything by Allen Say (The Favorite Daughter, Tea With Milk)

Anything by Linda Sue Park (The Mulberry Project,* Bee-Bim Bop)

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

Suki’s Kimono by Chieri Uegaki

The Two Mrs. Gibsons* by Toyomi Igus

Kira Kira and The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata (middle-school grade)

1001 Cranes by Naomi Hirahara (middle school)

 

For older kids and also adults

The Red Kimono* by Jan Morrill

Wingshooters* by Nina Revoyr

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (in high school classrooms around the world)

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (available for pre-order, release June 2014)

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Anything by Naomi Hirahara (Mas Arai and now the Officer Ellie Rush mysteries)

* extra multicultural

 

Most of these books are about cultural assimilation and include history—important stories and learning experiences. Someday we’ll have more stories with diverse characters whose cultures aren’t main characters—although, take a look at Naomi Hirahara’s fun detective stories. If you know other good books by Asian-American authors and set in the US, feel free to mention them in comments.

PS: I was excited to meet Jan Morrill at a writer’s conference I presented at on Saturday – and got her to autograph my copy of The Red Kimono! (She’s working on a sequel.)

JanMorrill

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