National Life Writing Month: Turning Memories into Memoirs

Yes, November is National Life Writing Month. That gets short shrift compared to NaNoWriMo. During this National Novel Writing Month, so you’ll find writers around the world sequestering themselves or hanging out at libraries or coffee shops, typing away at their novels, trying to make the 50,000 word count by the end of the month. That’s only about 200 draft book-pages, but that’s a good start. Life writers can do their version of NaNoWriMo by focusing hard on writing their nonfiction stories.

The Thanksgiving holiday can interfere with NaNoWriMo people, but it is a boon to life writers who can interview family at gatherings and enjoy looking at photos and sharing and comparing stories. Our stories capture history and culture, but also important life lessons. How did we cope with problems or bad experiences? Writing our stories can give us insight into our own selves. What do our life experiences teach us about ourselves? Denis Ledoux, in his book Turning Memories into Memoirs, says our stories have power. “If they are preserved, they can offer meaning and direction for your children and grandchildren—just as they can for you.”

Turning-Memories-Into-MemoirsI find plenty of people who know they have great family stories but are intimidated at the thought of writing them down. They aren’t writers, they don’t know how to start, they feel the project is too big, they don’t have time to figure it all out. Turning Memories into Memoirs is an overview that encourages those on the edge who feel inadequate in their writing skills. It breaks down the process of life story writing so it is not so overwhelming. Denis’s book is based on his years of leading workshops and will help any new writer gather and organize information and learn how to put it all together. Memoir does not have to be one giant story, but can be a series of short stories—much more manageable.

Denis managed to cover all the bases, distilling the whole process down to its bones, leaving room in his short book for plenty of valuable tips, anecdotes, and examples of stories and writing technique. Of course he discusses the standard memoir issues of writing around and about painful memories and of what is the truth, whose truth is it, how much do you put in, and what if you don’t know the truth. He mentions a little about publishing, both for private use and public sales, then ends with a list of resources and an index.

I highly recommend Turning Memories into Memoirs to anyone wanting to cut through the fluff and learn more about the actual process of writing and writing well. Denis makes it easy. Brand new writers can feel success just getting their stories down on paper or can be inspired to polish them as brightly as they can with Denis’s explanations.

Do you have a family storyteller? What happens to the stories when he or she is gone? Don’t let them disappear! If no one has been telling stories, it’s time to start. Give your family a past to enjoy, let them feel a connection to history and their ancestors. Who are you, and where did you come from? The personalities and life journeys of one generation affect the next. Think about it. The day after Thanksgiving is the National Day of Listening. Especially if you’ve got a family gathering for the holiday, take the time to ask for stories, because if you don’t, you may never hear them.

I leave you with another comment from Denis’s book:

“Lifewriting is important. Believe in your stories enough to commit yourself—today, tomorrow, and the day after—to write them down for yourself, your family, and possibly the world.”

* * * * *

Denis Ledoux helps people write their memories. Take a look at his Memoir Writer’s Network website to find see the other books he’s written or to see the writing and publishing services he offers. Find helpful articles on his Memoir Writer’s Blog

Posted in book reviews, book talk, capturing memories, lifewriting, memoir writing, storytelling, writing, writing skills | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Remembering Pain: Bosnia memories

“Never forget. If we forget, it’s as though it never happened.” Unfortunately the words fit more than the Holocaust, the genocide of Jews in WWII. Humans continue to commit genocide without apology. Recently, I attended a screening of the new documentary Pretty Village by Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the Omarska death camp in the Bosnian War of the 1990s. What a story he told at an event sponsored by the Bosnia Memory Project.

St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia, thanks to the influx of refugees from the Bosnian War where many thousands of Bosnians were abused, tortured, and massacred. Mr. Pervanic, who has gone back to his home village to visit what is left, says his Serbian former neighbors, friends, and school teachers have their reasons for participating in the atrocities and are tight-lipped and unrepentant. Some say, “We were the good guys, at least we didn’t kill you.” Only 50 of 800 villagers were left.

Sadly, history does repeat itself as too many people only look to their own future and could care less about others. There are many ways to justify the evil we do and many ways to twist a story. Still, the victims know the hope for the future lies in remembering. Someday, caring and peace-loving people may point and say, “Look what happened before when we turned away and did nothing.” Turn away and lose a bit of your own humanity. Interestingly, there is little physical difference between the Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats; the Bosnians tended to be rather secular in their beliefs; and all three groups co-mingled well before the trouble started. What happened?

The stories behind the Bosnian War are complex, but can genocide ever be justified? Some of the Bosnians who fled during the war have returned to live among their former guards and torturers. Mr. Pervanic, who escaped to the UK and still lives there, says another war is in the wings because it was never over. However, he has started a program called “Most Mira,” or “Bridge of Peace,” a British and Bosnian nonprofit working with children in the Prijedor area of Bosnia “to encourage understanding and tolerance between young Bosnians of all ethnic backgrounds.” He also works to encourage fellow survivors of the war to speak up and tell their stories, to “take ownership of their pasts, because without history, you don’t exist. You were a part of the genocide story and need to keep the memory alive.” The Bosnian Memory Project, based in St. Louis, also encourages the telling of stories for the sake of history, to help in healing and reconciliation, and to share the culture and experiences of Bosnians.

A few published first-hand stories of the Bosnian War exist:

The Bosnia List by Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro

Bosnia List

 

 

 

 

 

 

Logavina Street by Barbara Demick

Logavina Street

Posted in heritage, history, war stories | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: history and truth through personal stories

Pruitt-IgoeI love historical documentaries, partly because they usually include personal stories. The other day I saw The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, an independent film documenting the rise and fall of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in downtown St. Louis. All I knew of the project was that it was a controversial symbol generally interpreted as either a failure of public housing or a failure of the poor (especially black poor) to behave civilly, or both. I learned so much from the film and the discussion after with the film producer, a representative of our local history museum, and several former inhabitants of the project. There’s a huge story there, about as huge as the project, which I did not know occupied 57 acres! Apparently the media had its own big failure then by neglecting to explain all the complexities and instead focusing on a simple, negative agenda that became known worldwide. Most of the photos that exist of the project are of it being destroyed.

Much of the details of Pruitt Igoe can now be found online, but not everything. The documentary can’t say everything either in its limited time. That’s where the personal stories come in. Some are in the film, but there’s more to it. Three siblings of a family of fourteen were on stage following the film to answer questions. We learned that able-bodied men, including fathers, were not allowed to live in the development. They could go out and support themselves and let the government provide for their families. Fathers were not to be anywhere near the area, I guess lest some of that free government money ended up in their able hands.

While the siblings missed their father dearly and were resentful of the social workers and rules that kept him away, they said they and others had wonderful memories of the projects—the sense of community and the strong bonds among family, how every child had his or her own bed and a nice place to live – for a while. The cost and difficulties of maintaining thirty-three eleven-story buildings and the grounds were not realistically considered and the buildings began to deteriorate.

White people of the Igoe section of the segregated project began to leave, along with businesses and the rest of the city population, to new suburbs where the cost of land and houses was cheaper than land and renting in the city. Telling is that there are few stories of white people living in the project because they could find jobs more easily and afford to escape, particularly into the new suburban whites-only areas. The projects were but a temporary housing situation for them. As the buildings emptied, crime moved in. When the projects were finally destroyed—only twenty years after they were built—many residents cried. That had been their home, and they had good memories. Every spring a reunion is held with several hundred people who laugh and tell stories of good times and bad.

It wasn’t all bad. The drugs and crime came in later years and was bad outside the projects, too, but these are not the stories we’ve been told. The real stories include strong mothers holding together strong families, kids having a place to sleep and play safely, good schools nearby for them, adult education classes offered in a nearby church – hundreds attended those classes. The representative from our history museum said the public memory of Pruitt-Igoe is fading as time goes along and former inhabitants pass away. That’s why capturing the stories is important. To capture the side the news didn’t tell. To destroy the myth and acknowledge a perfect storm of factors. Public housing is not all bad, modern architecture is not all bad, and poor black people are not all bad.

*Interesting to note, the main architect of Pruitt-Igoe was Minoru Yamasaki, working within the confines of federal government rules and opinions. He was also the architect of the World Trade Center, which was being built as Pruitt-Igoe was being torn down and which in turn was later destroyed, but by terrorists. Yamasaki is also the architect of the original portion of Lambert St. Louis Airport.

Posted in history, memories | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Dealing with family while writing your memoir

“Now it was time to stop the dance I had started . . .”

For several years, Kathy Pooler has been sharing her memoir writing experiences onKathy Pooler cover the Memoir Writer’s Journey blog. She is now celebrating the recent publication of Ever Faithful to His Lead, her memoir of overcoming emotional abuse. She is on a blog tour this month—and October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We think of violence as physical, as in the high profile cases of Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens punching his then-girlfriend unconscious and Victor Blackwell, then a USC football player, arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. Emotional abuse usually goes along with physical abuse, but also can be used alone. Kathy exposes the nature of not one, but two emotionally abusive relationships and how women can be vulnerable to this. Judging by all the people amazed that Janay Fisher married Ray Rice anyway, Kathy’s book is needed. I’m happy to have Kathy answer a few questions on my blog today, and I thank WOW! Women on Writing for fitting me into Kathy’s tour schedule.

* * * * *

Kathy, a number of memoirs document abusive relationships. What made you decide to write and publish your particular story?

I didn’t start out thinking I was going to publish an “abuse” memoir. I knew I had been through several harrowing challenges in my life related to my mental and physical health. In later years, long after surviving those challenges, I looked around and saw the joyful life I was living. I wanted to share my story of hope. No matter how far down into the abyss you may sink, there is always hope for a better life. As I kept writing, the story revealed itself to me. There’s a big difference between journaling your thoughts and emotions and in shaping a story that will appeal to others. It starts with writing raw. If you want to publish, you keep writing until it’s right.

A no-no in writing memoir is to write while emotions are still high, while experiences are fresh. You have done a good job of telling your story in what I think is an objective manner and after you had time to reflect. Did you keep a journal throughout the timeframe of your memoir story and work from that, and when did you feel ready to start writing the book?

Yes, I have journaled for years and those journals became the seeds for my memoir. However, it wasn’t until I began taking memoir workshops and writing vignettes from that time period that I developed a full awareness of the impact those circumstances had on me. In other words, I became connected to the pain and regrets that were still brewing underneath the surface. Sometimes you think you have moved beyond the pain, but as in my case, despite physically moving forward, there were pockets of pain I had buried. They reared up at times when I least expected. When that happened, I had to pause and reflect. Sometimes I journaled. Sometimes I walked away and gave myself some time and space to absorb the truth.

I feel emotional distance from the event does help you see it objectively. Part of the process of writing a memoir is being willing to process the emotion of digging up the pain. The only way to the other side is through. You have to do whatever it takes to help yourself through that process in order to share the valuable lessons learned with your readers. In the beginning, I think it is important to write raw and for yourself. Let the words flow without censoring or editing. And don’t show it to anyone until you’re ready.

When did you first tell your family you were writing a memoir? Did you give your friends a heads up? What was everyone’s first reactions, and did you consult with family during the writing or just show them the final result and hope they were okay with it?

Yes to all the questions. I’ve never been secretive about expressing my desire to write a book so it came as no surprise to my family and friends when I began getting serious about doing so. For the most part, I shared my writing freely and enjoyed ongoing support and encouragement. During the first writing course I took through Writer’s Digest, I wrote stories about my reaction to my son’s substance abuse issues. I mailed him one story and he later told me when he opened the letter on the subway, he had to quickly put it away for fear he would break down in public. He read it when he returned to his apartment and called me to tearfully tell me how my story affected him. It opened up a dialogue between us that remains strong today. Both he and my daughter have read my memoir in its various stages of development. They both have offered their feedback and support. I consulted my family and friends often about details related to scenes in my memoir.

Were you at all afraid of either of your former husbands’ reactions to your memoir? How did you handle those situations?

The irony for me is that “Ed” in my memoir, the father of my children, died suddenly of cirrhosis  six weeks after my memoir was published. I was there at his bedside along with his family and my children. He knew I was writing a memoir, but we never discussed it while he was alive. (We had a civil relationship and mutual respect for our roles as parents.)  If he was alive, it is the consensus between my children that he would not have approved. I changed names and some identifying characteristics to protect his privacy. At any rate, it’s a very sticky issue and one I grappled with many times. In the end, I reconciled my concerns with the belief that this story is about my truth and my choices, and I made sure I did not intentionally disparage him in the story. Both my children read the memoir ahead of time and offered their commentary and blessings. I have lost complete touch with “Dan” and his family by choice and it has not been a concern. I did consult an attorney about liability issues.

When the book was released, did you or your children have second thoughts about strangers reading about your personal lives? That can be cringe-worthy!

Yes, I knew I had exposed my vulnerabilities and flaws and wondered how readers would react. However, by the time the memoir was published, I had addressed all the cringe-worthy scenes. It is tough to put yourself and all your poor choices out there. I’m happy to report that so far, the response from readers has been overwhelmingly positive. We all make mistakes and there is strength in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about writing or publishing your memoir?

Writing a memoir can be a transformational experience for the writer, as well as for the reader. Writing my memoir truly helped me to heal and shed the guilt and shame that had burdened me for years. If one person is able to connect to their story through my story and take away something valuable for themselves, I will feel I have accomplished my goal of sharing hope.

We all have a story to tell. Learn the art and craft of memoir writing. Start writing and keep writing. The story that’s meant to be written will reveal itself.

And one last thing: Enjoy the ride!

* * * * *

Thank you, Kathy! I think many women will be able to understand and relate to your story. Your book is well-written, and I was surprised by some of your insights. For those who are not religious, religion and God are not the main focus. Congratulations on the publishing of your book, and I hope it helps many people understand the complexities of abusive relationships.

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner. She is working on a sequel to Ever Faithful to His Lead entitled Hope Matters, about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer, and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

Kathy Pooler

Posted in book reviews, book talk, inspiration, memoir writing, overcoming | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Silent for Sixty Years: A Holocaust survivor memoir

Several weeks ago I went to see Holocaust survivor Ben Fainer speak – his second booking at our library headquarters because the first one filled the auditorium to overflowing and many people (including me) had to be turned away. Mr. Fainer has a published memoir, Silent for Sixty Years, because Marcie from the Shoah Foundation St. Louis branch kept pestering him to break his silence about his painful past. He had kept his tattoo hidden even from his own children, but they knew their father was haunted by something big.

Ben Fainer is a character, a grandfatherly type with a silken mane and jovial attitude, a great storyteller. He said he survived the loss of his beloved mother and the six years in six different concentration camps because he was a big, strong boy encouraged by fellow prisoners. He was ten years old when taken by the Nazis and put to work, rising at 3:00 a.m. and threatened with death if he stopped to rest or could not go on. A lifetime later, he met one of the American soldiers who liberated his camp. Norris Nims called Ben after seeing a newpaper article about his Bar Mitzvah at age 70 – long overdue since he turned 13 in the camps.

I don’t know how many survivors are still alive now, but Ben is obviously a rarity around here, speaking at schools and to other groups almost daily and serving as docent at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. He has some heart problems and should slow down, but he doesn’t. Marcie, who insisted his stories were important, gave him a way to heal and gave him a passion to pass on the stories and to hope such a thing never happens again. Even though it still does. Even though it hurts him to tell these stories.

I’ve been reading Silent for Sixty Years and it’s like listening to Ben Fainer talk, you across the table with your dropped jaw and pained heart. Ben tells it like it is, no dressing it up or fancy literary talk. I like his book better than Elie Wiesel’s Night because it is so personal. You are watching and affected deep inside as your grandfather shows his arm and tells you nightmares that are not dreams. He tells you what he feels, what he thinks, what he wonders about. And he is gracious, big-hearted and open-minded despite all that was done to him. Grateful and respectful of the US military for his own rescue and all the times it has come to the rescue of others. And no, he doesn’t have answers for how the US can care better for its own people and still go out to save others. All he knows is he is thankful to have been saved and to have a place to live safely and happily ever after.

Silent for Sixty Years

Posted in book talk, heritage, history | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

When a memoir isn’t all about you: Jerry Waxler examines memoir-biographies

Jerry Waxler of the Memory Writers Network studies memoirs. He examines how they are structured, what techniques were used, what works well. I like how he comes at it from a therapist’s perspective, providing a philosophical and almost scientific look at an author’s journey and how it was written. Very insightful. He gives us ideas to chew on while we read memoirs or write our own stories. By the way, Learn to Write Your Memoir and Memoir Revolution are among the books Jerry Waxler has written.

I found one of Jerry’s recent posts to be particularly interesting—and not just because he mentions my mother’s story, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. A great many memoirs are not just about the author. A story can also feature another person who is a key part of the journey. We tell their story, too, meshing it into ours. Sometimes the story is all about the other person! Jerry’s post uses examples to explain how some memoir authors have incorporated a second story into a combination memoir/biography, or in some cases given a voice to someone who wouldn’t, couldn’t, or just didn’t write their own story. Read These Memoirs Are Similar to Biography to learn about this kind of storytelling and maybe find a few new books to read.

Memoir_Revolution

Posted in book talk, lifewriting, writing skills | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Finding and keeping cultural heritage

Besides the usual busyness of my life, I’ve been busy the last few weeks getting ready for the annual Japanese Festival in St. Louis. Per the last census, our area has a little over 3,000 people claiming Japanese heritage, way below the Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese local populations, but we have one of the largest Japanese festivals in the nation. Almost the entire community of us helps with the festival, and seems like everybody becomes Japanese during Labor Day weekend, dressing in happi coats, yukata and even kimono. Yukata is the casual, cotton summer kimono. Plenty of non-Japanese, including men, wear yukata to the festival and maybe even carry sun parasols.

kimono showThis year my younger daughter and I were honored to be models in the very popular kimono show, put on by a certified kimono expert with ten years of training in Japan. I looked so good I didn’t recognize myself, thanks to an elegant emerald kimono and the magic of a specialist hair stylist. My daughter was more beautiful than usual, wearing the long furisode sleeves of young, unmarried women. Women in Japan don’t wear kimono much anymore, and we could understand why! We were (barely) walking pillars, bound tightly by many narrow ties and our wide obi sash.

Since I have never really lived around other people of Japanese heritage before, except for my mother, I feel like I’ve finally found “my people.” I am immersing myself in the Japanese cultural offerings through the Japan America Society and several local universities. I eat Japanese home cooking in potluck lunches with my friends – nothing like what the restaurants serve. I’ve started Japanese language lessons at the Saturday language school because now I have plenty of people to practice with. All this without hopping a plane to cross the ocean.

Japanese food

I guess I’m so enamored with my cultural heritage because I’m so close to the immigrant generation (my mother). I have her stories and fresh culture she passed on to me. I try to pass on the culture to my quarter-Japanese children, and thankfully we have my mother’s stories in her Cherry Blossoms in Twilight book, but I think it’s all diluted by the river of America. We have to work at passing on the traditions and stories of our heritage and hope future generations care. As I’ve seen, though, our own future generations may not care, but somebody else’s might. Yukata for everyone!

bon dancing in yukata

bon dancing in yukata

Posted in heritage, multicultural | Tagged , | Leave a comment