Writing the Stories: 2020 History Marching On

What a week, what a year! We are so divided yet it is heartening to see so many people coming together – despite the summer-waning pandemic. Yesterday I joined my first march ever. Not congratulating myself since it conveniently went along close to my house and I could only join a little while. I get heat exhaustion too easily, which also prevented me from voting last week as my new voting place (thanks to too few volunteers) required me to stand in line in the hot sun. I sat in the car and watched the line not move for a while, then just drove home disappointed. But what an experience this march was!

Since I live in a small suburb where residents are generally well off and mostly white, I thought the march, organized by the very few black teachers at our schools, would not have many people. I was wrong! Thousands filled the road, mostly white families with kids of all ages, plus groups of teens, and even plenty of older folks. I think they came from nearby suburbs, too. Others lined the roadsides with signs and some offered water. Most people wore masks on this hot day, including me, and I was able to social distance by walking on the outer edge of the crowd. At various crowd sections, someone or two would start a chant or a call and response. “Say his name!” “George Floyd!” “What’s her name?” “Breonna Taylor!” The experience of people of all ages and genders, black and white, joining together to march for change was so powerful and heart-warming that tears came to my eyes, even as I write about it.

Some people think the marches are ridiculous and aggravating, and some seem to think all protestors are destructive. This marching started off later and was way bigger than police had expected and informed businesses about. One business was subjected to someone calling in and screaming obscenities on and on, angered by the marching and that they were unable to get to their pickup order. The workers had not been able to reach the person to give a later time and were left in tears by the abuse.

No matter what your views and experiences are, this is history and you are a witness. Between COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and whatever else controversial goes on this crazy year, think about writing. If you have stories of your own experiences, those are important to capture for history, to help others understand, and for your curious future family generations at least. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write a poem. Powerful writing comes from fear, pain, and frustration. Maybe you just have thoughts about things as an observer sitting back and watching the unfolding—write an essay. Have your opinions changed any along the way? Mine have.

Be safe out there, and think of how you can make a difference, large or small, for the better of all.

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Raised in Ruins: a memoir of adventures growing up in wild Alaska

Raised in RuinsTara Neilson lives off the scenic Inner Passage of Southeast Alaska, but nowhere where you’d be able to find her—she’s off grid. Frighteningly off grid, to me, but she was raised out there along with her sister and three brothers. Her father, a brooding Vietnam veteran, mostly had jobs across the dangerous waters and skiffed back to his family on weekends. Tara’s mother is obviously an incredible woman to have spent so much time “alone” with five kids running wild with a lot of bears and wolves. The introduction to Raised in Ruins, her memoir, already had me in its grip. Then off I went, from one adventure to another.

Although Tara loved to read and write, kept journals, and grew up to write columns for Alaskan media and various magazines, she didn’t think her life was all that interesting to others—it was “normal.” To her. Maybe kind of normal for other Alaskan inhabitants. But then she started her blog, Alaska For Real, and got a lot of interest. An author friend encouraged her to write her memoir, got his editor interested, and then his publisher got interested, and suddenly Tara had a book to start writing. My mother thought her life was normal, too—for someone growing up in Japan during WWII. Sometimes it takes outsiders to help you learn how interesting your life has been. It’s all a matter of perspective.

I love reading about different cultures as well as lived history. Tara grew up alongside a burned-out salmon cannery with a history she wondered about. Who once lived there, what were their lives like? Ghosts of the past. Culture does not just mean life in another country. It can mean life in a part of your own country, in a city or a town or in a house amid cornfields, in the mountains or beachside. And everyone lives during a time that will become history.

I asked Tara a few questions:

Tara, how did you learn to write so beautifully? Your stories require a lot of telling, but the writing is smooth with action sentences, you know how to describe a scene without overdoing the adjectives, you use plenty of realistic dialogue. Did you read books on writing or take classes?

Thanks, Linda, that made my day! I always knew I wanted to be a writer and so did my family. My grandfather was a published author and in my teens he gave me all of his back issues of Writer’s Digest and bought me various writing books. I wore them out! I really think, though, that the best way to learn to write is to read a wide variety of books: good, bad, and classic. Bad books are great for showing you your faults because it’s always so much easier to see someone else’s mistakes. I could then go back and look at whatever I was writing (I was always writing something) and see if I had bad habits that needed to be broken. Adjectives and adverbs were a battle from day one. They’re the empty calories, junk food of writing so they’re very hard to give up once you get a taste for them. As for dialogue, my journal pages were often nothing but conversations I overheard. I loved writing dialogue and my quirky family provided me with lots of material.

I love all your “shimmering images,” the title of Lisa Dale Norton’s book on writing memoir, that you could describe so clearly a scene frozen in time and how you felt at that moment—very sensitive and thoughtful. Did you write like that in your journals or just remember while writing your memoir?

I love the way you write questions. I want to read that book, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I wrote “sensory snapshots” in my journals, capturing all the senses in a moment in my life. Sometimes it was all the senses involved in something as common as hauling firewood, or walking on the beach. I had pages of the “snapshots” that were super helpful in writing the memoir. But I also found that as I re-wrote a scene the memory would come back stronger. I wound up re-writing most scenes five or more times because deeper sensory details would well up the more I remained on a single scene. It was like time traveling with the mind.

Tell us about the process of putting together your memoir. Easy, hard, outline, start-to-finish or just writing and figuring out the puzzle later?

A fairly in-depth outline was a required part of the proposal that I submitted to my publisher, West Margin Press. The outline itself was easy to do, though, and I wrote it in a day off the top of my head. As I wrote the book, though, I discovered that I had waaay too much material. I had to cut out a ton of adventures–it was remarkable to me how much we’d done and experienced in such a short amount of time. I didn’t want the book to just be a series of adventures, though, I wanted to capture the feelings and thoughts I had, and what impact music and movies had on us even as isolated as we were. I had to shift things around a bit in the outline and only touch on some subjects. Perhaps there will be a follow up book, there’s certainly plenty of material for it.

As for whether writing it was easy or hard, it was excruciating. I find writing about myself extremely boring and it takes a lot of effort to get myself in the frame of mind that will let me do it. At one point I was promising myself that if I just wrote 500 words a day it was okay. And even that was hard. Thankfully my publisher gave me over a year to write it, which was a life saver.

I’m curious – your sister, Megan, is an artist living in Florida. She left for city life in the warm sun. Do you all love visiting her in winter, or maybe city life is overwhelming after so much solitude? Maybe she likes escaping to the wilderness?

Our entire family visited her for her wedding, but I’m not sure any of us has ever been back. It was an interesting experience and I think we all enjoyed it, and I keep promising to visit her again. But it’s not really my cup of tea. The amount of people is fascinating to me, I feel like I’m visiting a strange planet. (Megan told me she always feels that way, too, when she goes back home after spending a few weeks in the summer with us.) I like that part of it. But city life is way too structured and regulated for me to ever feel at home in it. Megan loves to visit the wilderness and owns her own island near here which she hopes to build on this summer, but she can’t handle cold weather so we won’t see her in the winter any time soon!

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Tara Neilson is a writer who can make you feel the wildness of a storm or see the sunlight glinting through a dark forest. The poetry of her words adds further magic to these amazing stories of survival in the wilds. I learned so many interesting things about life—and death—in Alaska. Most of us in the Lower 48 have no clue. Read Raised in Ruins and enjoy the adventures—from the safety and comfort of your recliner.

Read more about Tara Neilson’s life on her blog, Alaska for Real, and find her on Twitter (when she can get a signal for internet) at @neilson_tara.


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Writing Your Personal History with COVID-19

These are strange and scary times – history-making times. This novel coronavirus may likely spawn novels as well as science papers, but most interesting will be the true stories of survival. That’s where you can help, besides by sequestering yourself and doing your part to not spread the contagion. Write for yourself, write for your children, write for future generations. Keep a journal, start a memoir, write a short story or essay or even a poem. Preserve boots-on-the-ground history in this war against the virus.

Here are a couple bits of information to start you off:

This coronavirus apparently began in late 2019 in the crowded outdoor food markets of Wuhan, China, actual origin unknown to date but thought to be a jump from wild animal to human.

The virus soon spread to other Asian countries, then to the US and Europe due to travelers coming out of China. CDC Confirms First Case of Coronavirus in the US on January 20, 2020, near Seattle, with a second in Chicago on January 23, both from travelers returning from Wuhan.

Below are a some writing prompts:

What did you think when you first heard about COVID-19? How did your thoughts and feelings about the virus change as time went on and world fears grew?

Did/do you follow news closely, and if so, did/do you feel adverse emotional effects from it? Which media do you get your information from?

What do think about the responses from national leaders? From your town/city/state?

Is your family careful about “social distancing” and cleanliness when going outside or to the store? How are you getting groceries, medicines, supplies? If necessary, have you been able to see your doctor(s)?

Do you think everyone is overreacting? If so, why do you think that? If so, do you still follow social distancing and cleanliness practices, and if not, are you respectful of others who are?

If you or your spouse/partner have lost your job(s), are you laid off or are you furloughed? If you own or manage a business, what has happened there? What are your thoughts, fears, hopes about your job/business/employees and finances?

If you live in a very rural area with no hospital near, how are you and your neighbors reacting? Do you feel safe there? Do you have any special concerns?

If you have children, how are you all adapting to online classes? What do your kids think about having to stay home from school? If you are working from home with kids around, how is that going?

If your area is having “shelter at home,” how is your family coping? Is anyone bored or lonely, or perhaps enjoying it? How are you passing the time?

How have your elderly family members been affected? Are you having troubles with them not taking precautions seriously?

If you or a family member or friend are a “front line” worker (healthcare, public safety, grocery or delivery, etc.) how are you/they coping? What are your/their personal stories?

If you or a family member or friend have been sick with the virus, tell this story.

Are you doing anything special to help others? Checking on elder friends and neighbors?

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I hope everyone is behaving and staying safe! We are experiencing some astonishing history — be sure to come out of it alive and well. And be kind and thoughtful, because that makes a big difference especially during times of hardship. I’m doing fine and keeping busy, but sure appreciate the homemade cookies my neighbor left on my doorstep!

My fellow life writing enthusiast, ghostwriter Kim Pearson, has her own set of writing prompts on her website page for Events & Classes.



Posted in capturing memories, history, journal, lifewriting, overcoming, raising kids, writing prompt | Tagged | 2 Comments