Some stories need to be shouted out loud

What a week it’s been. Besides the ugly news headlines that appear regularly these days, we’ve had the annual remembrances of the terrible suffering caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As controversial as the bombings were, we can all agree that war causes great suffering for civilians caught up in it. Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs, was so wrong when he said death by the bombs was “without undue suffering” and “a very pleasant way to die.” At what point does the extent of suffering become a war crime?

Today, on August 9, besides being the anniversary of Nagasaki’s incineration, the world remembers another controversial event—the death of Michael Brown of Ferguson, the now infamous little suburb of St. Louis. Regardless of what Mike Brown did or did not do to result in his death, we should all agree that African-Americans in the US still face discrimination and too many become lost by living amidst despairing poverty. At what point does the extent of suffering become a war cry?

St. Louis is still struggling with the results of Mike Brown’s battle cry. His story was a shout out loud that forced us to listen and think, to argue but hopefully learn something about ourselves, and maybe even to step out of our bubbles and actively work for a better world. Someone I love, a Caucasian-American mother of bi-racial children here, has her own stories to tell. With her permission, I am including this message she posted on Facebook this morning:

* * *

I can’t sleep … It’s 4:00 in the morning on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and I can’t sleep. The weight of having a sweet, hardworking, smart and kind, but black husband and two loving, free spirited, happy but caramel babies has hit me like a ton of bricks. It has been coming. When we were first dating at 16, babies ourselves, and people would say, “but I worry about your kids.” Or when a client I was working with would notice the picture of my husband and I gazing into each other’s eyes on our wedding day and say, “but your husband is different.” Or just the other day when I had a brief conversation with a sweet mom, who has heard these same words, and now worries about sending her children to the elementary school I went to and that we recently moved near so my children could attend, because there are no other black kids in this part of the district. Or when a lady tells me she feels like she’s living in Ferguson because there were more black people at her gas station, having no idea the man I call home could have been filling up that day. When someone argues, “All lives matter.” I’m awake. I see it. And it’s exhausting. I do not know if we are brave enough to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” but we’re rolling, full steam ahead. Let’s do this thing.

* * * * * * *

For a beautifully painted story that focuses on hope and healing and is suitable for all ages, you may like the book Painting for Peace in Ferguson by Carol Swartout Klein, an artist who grew up in Ferguson, Missouri.


Show us how through care and goodness
fear will die and hope increase.

-from the hymn “For the Healing of the Nations,” words by Fred Kaan

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Editing and the strategic marketing plan for your book

Battlefield Doc is now with the (real) editor! Nearing the end of a three-year slow journey, this collection of stories by a Korean War medic on the front lines of hell has been occupying my time lately in the big push to publish this November. That month holds Veteran’s Day and is National Lifewriting Month. I am thinking ahead for marketing purposes, to hook into these special occasions. Marketing is a plan, not a last-minute thought.

This morning I spent three hours at a strategic planning meeting for a nonprofit looking for more members and corporate sponsorship. Our facilitators described something like the business plans I am used to creating for book writing and marketing. What is the group’s mission (purpose of the book) and the most important strategic goals to help accomplish this mission (overall objectives needed to reach your specific readers). What are the benefits of being part of your group (why would somebody want to read your book). What initiatives (specific tactics) will you use to reach those goals (readers). Most writers don’t want to think about this, but they should after the first draft is completed or even before starting to write. Answering these questions can help focus the book to its audience and let you add things to the story that will help sell it. This is vital for nonfiction writers, including narrative nonfic writers (memoir authors). Even if your memoir is only for family, you want to consider the specific purpose of the book and what will interest your family.

Battlefield Doc: Memoirs of a Korean War Combat Medic is about the real life experiences of our soldiers beating back waves of enemy (and forced civilians) and how combat medics went with them trying to save lives. I have to target readers who want to know details of grunt soldier’s lives, so nobody leaves a bad review because we didn’t include what President Truman did or didn’t do or how awful General McArthur was at that time. Enough books exist about the history and politics of the Korean War, we want to offer something new. A business (strategic) plan helps identify how your book can stand out in the crowd.

As for editing, I am a ferocious editor, but this book was extremely difficult to put together from a stack of handwritten journal notes, the stories separated and with no dates. My veteran friend and I have picked the manuscript to pieces, so we both are blind to errors now. Our eyes see what they want to, not what is. I sent the “final” draft to the editor and also gave a copy to a friend who loves military stories. She is my beta reader (test reader). Within hours she had suggestions to make the important intro chapter read better (no typos—yay!). Never underestimate the importance of a second (and third) pair of eyes.

What is the purpose of your memoir? Why are you writing it and what will readers get from it?

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A picture paints a thousand words – a memoir of travel and art

Memories can be captured in art as well as words. Sophie Binder is a freelance designer/illustrator who left her job and home in St. Louis, Missouri, to go on a solo bicycle trip around the world. Fourteen months and 14,000 miles later, she returned, having pedaled through sixteen countries, including her birth country France, and Turkey, Syria, Egypt, India, Nepal, and Vietnam. Traveling by bicycle at her own pace allowed her to spend time sketching and to be led by curiosity instead of schedule. She kept a journal and filled seven sketchbooks. “The memories for me are physical. I look at the paintings and sketches and remember the weather, what was going on, the old man who sat down next to me. The sketches retain memories.”

Sophie BinderYears later, Sophie published The World, Two Wheels and a Sketchbook, documenting her epic journey in words and more than 600 in situ works of art. A few weeks ago, she spoke about her trip to a full house audience at a local library. A natural storyteller, Sophie, had everyone laughing at the anecdotes she told about the people she met and the difficulties she encountered. While she saw impressive sights, she was most interested in the people she met. “It is very easy to judge from the background you have, from what you were born to, what you are used to. You don’t have the whole story,” she says. “I learned to step back and refrain from judging too much.”

Since no publisher would take on a big, full color book by a non-famous person, Sophie published the book herself. Using her graphic design talents, she laid out the interior and created the cover. The 280-page plus book combines stories and commentary using typed text and copies of handwritten journal notes, and is full of sketches, watercolor paintings, photos, and ephemera. Sophie’s art (and layout) is beautiful – I will let the photos here do the talking. Because of the cost of printing, she does not make much money from the book, but it is her labor of love and I think the book is gorgeous, well-written, fascinating and amusing, and worth every penny. I and many others at the library event could not resist buying a copy.

Buy The World, Two Wheels, and a Sketchbook or learn more about it on Sophie Binder’s website.

Sophie Binder

While I don’t recommend the average person try to create a masterpiece like Sophie’s, I do encourage anyone with artistic talents to include copies of sketches or paintings in their memoir.  My mother sketched as she told me her stories, and I included those in the print copy of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight about WWII Japan. Poems That Come to Mind about dementia caregiving has some of my own sumi-ink art. These are in black and white, but full color printing is now an affordable possibility IF the book is not too long and IF coffee-table-book art quality is not required. actually does a good job with color interior, but I don’t generally recommend them for public sales (see my article on publishing with Lulu and color printing with Lulu). Amazon CreateSpace and Ingram Spark both do a decent job with color interior, but always get a print copy color proof before giving the green light to publish. If the color is off, ask your interior or graphic designer for help tweaking the colors (greens and blues in particular may cause trouble).

Sophie Binder

Sophie Binder

PS: Sophie had many funny stories about her trip, but as so many people were curious how she survived, I will tell you that she said vultures followed her, probably wondering “When will she drop.”

Here’s another post about using art: Using artwork and photos in memoir

Posted in book reviews, book talk, journal | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Bitch Wall of the Vietnam War

Bitch WallJust in time for Memorial Day, I started reading The Bitch Wall, a fictionalized story of real experiences in the Vietnam War. Author Dennis Lane had a book signing a few days before and little did I know he was famous around town. My friend and I walked into a book store full of his friends. The audience settled in to listen and Dennis spoke with passion, his words tumbling out so rapid fire I was glad I had researched his book a little beforehand. He explaining how this “Bitch Wall” in his artillery unit’s command bunker came to be, how it filled with graffiti that “held the thoughts of all those who had become weak, vulnerable, and crazy since arriving in Vietnam.” And that was pretty much everyone. He took photos of the wall before he left, knowing someday he would write a book about it. He explained the book is not meant to be historical, but 98% of it is what happened. The characters are composites.

Standing in line afterwards to get my book signed, I began talking to the young man behind me and learned Dennis is famous because of his work helping others, whether military veterans or the underprivileged. The young man had known Dennis for quite a while yet did not know about his service in Vietnam. I was curious then since Dennis’s stories seemed to literally explode out of his mouth during his presentation. Many combat vets can’t or won’t speak of their experiences. Dennis said “you never get over war.” He told me he felt he owed it to his combat buddies to tell their stories, and that’s why he finally opening up. He likened the Bitch Wall to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Men who were only 18 to 23 years old “created a holy thing,” a testimony of what they felt, irreverent or wise or despairing, as they lived through the special craziness that was the Vietnam War.

The Bitch Wall is Dennis’s first book and so the writing is not perfect, but the book is a fast read that bleeds truth and dumps dirt while the haze of lit joints swirls in the air. Four well-drawn main characters go to insanity and back. Dennis says the book is meant to make people uncomfortable. While there is sex (not explicit), plenty of drugs, and rock and roll, “most important is the internal struggle, what do you decide to do.” This story, while fictionalized, reflects history and our culture at the time and captures extraordinary circumstances that tested souls. As I’ve mentioned before, fictionalizing real life experiences gives the freedom to explore more ground and create a bigger story. And war stories are big, complex stories.

For another perspective on the Vietnam War, see my post about Once Upon a Mulberry Field by C.L. Huang.

Posted in book talk, history, honoring veterans | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Questions for beta readers, your free author resource

The Korean War memoir I’ve been working on is almost ready for beta readers! What’s a beta reader? B is for beta, the B Team. Once you have self-edited your book, the next step is to find some volunteers to be your B Team – the test team to read your manuscript and tell you what they think so you can fix it up and get it ready for the A Team, which is your professional editor. You don’t want to waste money paying an editor to hack through a manuscript that needs a lot more work, and you need to make sure you will hit the mark with your targeted readers.

The ideal beta reader is someone who likes the genre you are writing and has read a lot of that genre. Hopefully, he or she is also good at spelling and grammar, but that’s not as important since your editor will cover that ground. Beta readers should also be unafraid to tell you what they think (nicely), but that depends on if they perceive you are open to the truth. Authors who have a thin skin will not learn how to make their writing better. Beta readers and editors should focus on how to help your book be better, not on babying your ego.

Actually, I have already given some chapters of this memoir to a couple friends who wanted to read them. One didn’t tell me until afterwards that she didn’t like reading about war! The other is used to reading NYT bestseller war books written by journalists, historians, or expensive ghostwriters, so had to shift his thinking a bit. I have one man’s down-to-earth personal stories of hell on the ground, no Hollywood sheen. Either way, I have already learned I need to get rid of some mission details that a fellow combat vet might like but would make the average reader’s eyes start to glaze. There’s a happy medium to be found, and fortunately my veteran friend is okay with me deleting more of the notes he so painstakingly wrote and rewrote. Not everyone’s ego is that accommodating to their ghostwriter/editor.

Authors should give their beta readers a set of instructions. How detailed those instructions are depends on if their betas are writers or are otherwise interested in spending time thinking about your writing. If you have someone willing to go indepth, here is a post from Joel Friedman’s blog called “Questions for your beta readers” by editor Jodie Renner. Most everyday (nonwriter) readers will likely do better not being overwhelmed by things to look for. I put a new page called Beta Readers in the Resources section of my blog. There you’ll find the “Short list of questions for your beta readers.

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A Zany Slice of Italy – having crazy fun with memoir

Ivanka di Felice, born and raised in Toronto, Canada, fell in love with Italy and is now a ZanySliceItalywriter living in beautiful Tuscany. But from her bio, “She will assure you that it’s far less pretentious than it sounds. In her quest for happiness, she followed Nora Ephron’s advice: ‘Secret to life, marry an Italian.’” Ivanka has written A Zany Slice of Italy,  a delightfully charming and funny memoir made up of short stories about her “Italian Prince,” who was once Canadian, and his many traditional Italian relatives plus equally quirky friends and neighbors in Italy. Under the Tuscan sun you apparently become half baked. I am in love with this book! Here are a couple tidbits:

“The cantina is stocked with at least a year’s worth of food and wine, ready for any impending natural disaster, a world war, or a few typical Italian family dinners,” and later, “although we had just recently visited and returned with a car full of food, an Italian mother knows no bounds. I bring my overnight bag outside and find the car loaded to the brim. A virtual grocery store has once again taken over the trunk. The two chickens are in a little box next to the car.” (Ivanka’s favorite story is about the chickens and a policeman.)

“Giorgio has much to show us, and time is of the essence! Obstacles such as our extreme jet lag will not be allowed to get in his way… Sitting in the backseat, I soon realize I’ll be calmer if I look sideways, rather than straight ahead. In matters that relate to speeding oncoming traffic, it’s best to remain ignorant.”

Following are questions I asked her before reading much of the book, which I then devoured as though it were homemade pasta with zingy fresh tomato sauce. Ivanka includes a few recipes at the end of the book and I made a sloppy American version of the Pappa al Pomodoro (fresh tomato with drowned bread) soup to eat while reading. It was delicious!

  1. You have interesting and hilarious stories of adapting to another culture. Did you keep a journal? At what point did you decide to write your stories and did you intend from the start to publish for the public?

We first lived up in the hills of Abruzzo with no TV, no phone, and no internet. We decided to “spice things up” by buying an old second hand computer (from a fugitive it appears). With not much else to do I started writing short stories to send to update friends about our last known whereabouts. It was thanks to their encouragement and thanks to the advice of a wonderful agent in London that I began to polish up the stories and get them ready for book format.

Or, perhaps I subconsciously wrote so that when my husband and I dispute “facts” then I can refer to page xx of my book and say “well, according to my book….” Of course, if my book confirms that he was correct, then I say nothing and hope it will pass unnoticed.

  1. Did you write linear on a timeline, or scattered stories? Did you work from an outline? How long did it take to write your book?

The stories take place chronologically. As funny things would take place I would jot down notes (behind the backs of many a relative) and then later write a story based on these notes. It was a total of six years from the early beginnings typing on a possibly stolen computer to when I handed it over to my editor, Patti Waldygo, in early 2013.

  1. You’ve probably read or seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” I saw the movie, which is also about adapting and has funny moments. How is your book different, and was “Tuscan Sun” any sort of influence on your writing–maybe even something to avoid similarity to?

While on occasion I cannot help but mention the wonderful food, fashion, and people, my account of our year in Italy includes an unusual angle. Frances Mayes did not have what I have—relatives! Without them, this novel would fail to capture the realities and true essence of life here. Hence, while Frances Mayes was dining by candlelight, my glass candle holders were doubling as tomato holders; each one had a freshly picked tomato balanced on top, courtesy of my mother-in-law visiting.

I write humor and have chosen to write about the quirky situations and occasional mishaps that we have found ourselves in simply because they are funny. Plus, I wanted to avoid readers asking “Just how many more walks in glorious sunflower fields do you think us readers can take?”

  1. What does your husband and his family think about being in the limelight, for better or worse? What do your Italian neighbors think about this book? Did you use real names?

Prior to publishing, I had both my husband and my sister-in-law read the book to see if they felt anything should be taken out. They loved it as it is (whew!), and my mother-in-law, the real star of my book, is really good-natured and laughs out loud when I recount the stories to her. However, just in case, I think it best it never be translated into Italian, and I have put this disclaimer at the beginning of my book:  The story you are about to read is true, though some names have been changed to protect the innocent, namely the author.

  1. Your book is well-written and I like the cover. Can you tell us a little about your self-publishing journey? There’s a lot to learn about that.

Thank you. I was fortunate to find a wonderful editor and great cover designer. The cover is based on a chapter from my book. I sent Joe Shepherd the chapter, a picture of our car, and a picture of David and me—his imagination did the rest.

Dorie Simmonds, an agent in London, gave me suggestions on how to improve my book. I followed them and she took me on as a client in 2013. Dorie worked really hard on my behalf, however due to the abundance of travel memoirs it was hard to find a publisher. In the meantime, I had read up on self-publishing and decided that instead of waiting I would try to self-publish. Dorie was understanding and wished me the best. Even though my book was edited and ready to go, I soon realized how handy it may have been to have a publisher – I spent hours looking for a cover designer, for formatters for the e-book version and print version, getting ISBNs, trying to figure out U.S. taxation issues, etc., etc. And it never ends! You then have to advertise, promote, etc. In order to be successful you need to invest a lot of time (and money, sigh!)

(Marie Lavender’s “Writing in the Modern Age” blog has a great article by Ivanka explaining editing in “22 Ways Most Authors Need an Editor” – Authors, please read!)

  1. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about writing or publishing? I hear you are working on another book.

Find your style and stick with it so that writing is enjoyable. Not everyone will appreciate your book but at least you are doing what you enjoy, and there will be many that do appreciate it. While no author likes getting bad reviews, it is good to remember the story about the Man, the Boy and the Donkey – no matter what you write you cannot please everyone!

Also, it is extremely important to invest in a good editor—one whose style matches yours. I sent out my story “Stranieri Giusti” (The Right Type of Foreigners) to five editors and asked for a sample edit. The story came back essentially the same, but the editor I chose had a style that just merged with mine. She had a perfect balance of fixing grammatical errors and tweaking while letting what she calls my “unique humorous voice” still come through.

Yes, I am working on my next book for our “adventures” never seem to end! ;)

* * * * *

Thank you, Ivanka! I think you have done everything right and are on your way to being a best seller, at least in my books.  :)

Find A Zany Slice of Italy on Amazon US or Amazon UK. I fell in love with the description and was not disappointed. I highly recommend this book so that you, too, can laugh and love those Italian relatives (and bask in the glow of sunflowers). Think about injecting a little humor in your life writing!

ivanka fur

Posted in book reviews, book talk, heritage, memoir writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Is your memoir worth the time to write?

“Worth the time to write?” I repeated—raising my voice into a question—when a man said Denis Ledouxto me at a conference where I was speaking that most people didn’t have a memoir that was worth their time to write. “Not only is every life worth writing about,” I countered, “but the writing of a memoir is a healing and developmental process for the writer. There is something in the telling of a tale that produces satisfaction and resolution and often growth.”

“I don’t know about the healing,” he said, “but I do know that most people haven’t done anything interesting enough to write about, let alone have someone else read it.”

“I don’t think children and grandchildren feel that way,” I answered. “I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t happy to have a memoir by a father or mother.”

“Well, okay,” he conceded, “but who else is interested?”

“First of all, the size of the audience is not what makes the writing of a memoir significant. There is worth in the telling itself.”

An Important Point

While there continues to be an insatiable hunger to know about one’s family and culture, the man’s commentary, of course, held an important point for you—for any of us—to consider. If you have not led a momentous life, are the stories you have to share worth the time to write them?—speak them, yes, because sharing a memoir is a meaningful way one generation transmits stories to another. But, writing them is so much more difficult—is the sacrifice of time and energy really worth it for you?

Let me repeat: it is appropriate to write stories solely for a family or other small readership. There is nothing “wrong” or not worthwhile with a small, familial audience. The value of any piece of writing is not measured by how many people—total numbers—have read it. This emphasis on size is a spin-off of the commercialization of worth. It is a result of the creation and promotion of the “superstar” in our culture.

The worth of a memoir is better measured by the inherent value to the writer and to its selected audience—whether that is your family or the world. The act of writing will change you and your relationship to your life. Writing is significant in itself.

“Writers, if they are worthy of that jealous designation, do not write for other writers. They write to give reality to experience.”

                                                                        —Archibald Macleish

Action Steps

  1. For whom do you want to write your stories? This is your audience. The answer could be as varied as: for my family; for parents of Down Syndrome children; for men who are about to retire; for women who love judo. Describe them, their needs and their interests in some detail.
  2. Why do you want to write for these people? In what way, do you need for them to hear your stories? In what way, do they need to hear your stories? Again, write lengthy responses.
  3. Write about the immortality writing will bring you as your memoir and family history live on into future generations long after you are gone. Is this important and comforting to you?
  4. Place your writing from this exercise in a three-ring binder.

* * * * *

Denis Ledoux is the author, most recently, of How to Start to Write Your Memoir which is Book One in the seven-part Memoir Network Writing Series. This post is adapted from that e-book. Also in publication is Don’t Let Writer’s Block Stop You. A complete list of publications is available. To be placed on an alert list, send an email.

How to Start to Write Your Memoir

Memoir Network Writing Series

 Don’t Let Writer’s Block Stop You

Posted in lifewriting | Tagged | 13 Comments