Ghostwriting Family Stories – writing for dad

Whew! I finished writing my dad’s stories of childhood and early adult years the best I could with some writings from him and letters he wrote to his family from his army service in the US and in Japan, late 1950s. How fun to read when he met my mom – my future! It’s in his hands now to correct anything and add to it. He was thrilled to read it!

I was excited to find that my dad’s mother, my grandmother, had saved all the letters he wrote back home. After she died, Dad kept the letters but never looked at them so he was a little nervous about what I would find in them. I laughed and told him, “You’re writing to your mom and dad, so I’m sure there’s nothing to be embarrassed about!”

The letters were fun to read and were a view into what my dad was like as a young man. He had a sense of humor and enough confidence that he was not impressed or cowed by “the brass.” He was surprisingly adventurous considering he came from a rather limited childhood in a family that worked hard to scrape a living farming on the far edge (then) of Chicago. He loved eating the strange Japanese foods and exploring Japan away from other Americans.

If you have a stack of letters from the past, my March 2012 blog post “What to Do With Those War Letters” might help you figure out how to incorporate them into a book. With my dad’s letters, though, I pulled out the interesting bits and added them in story form to his earlier writings of his life. I changed all the verbs to past tense and sometimes moved descriptive information around to fit into the narrative story better. My job was organizing all the bits of his writings into one long story in time sequence and figuring out how to divide the story into parts, sections, and/or chapters.

My dad’s memoir will be family-only, so you won’t be able to read his perspective of the Japan and its people he experienced about ten years after WWII—so fascinatingly different from today! It doesn’t lend itself to commercial sales since it has too much family and personal information no outsiders will care about but that is important to our family. I published my mom’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, because it contains lived history about a different culture and time in a different perspective, interesting to anyone.

Lived history is important to save, even if for family only. Its value is in the saving and passing it along, so it isn’t lost forever. Learning about how people lived, what they experienced or even survived through, enriches our lives, teaches us life lessons, surprises us or makes us cry, gives us inspiration, makes us appreciate what we have. They are special and have more meaning because they are true, not made up. When the person is our family member, the stories are even more precious.

Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul…

Posted in capturing memories, ghostwriting, history, letters, lifewriting, memoir writing, memories, multicultural, storytelling | Leave a comment

Love and War in a British Indian Army WWII Memoir

Uma Eachempati ’s childhood memories of life in South India sound delightful, except this was during WWII and her father, who was a doctor and a major in the British Indian Army, was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese in the Changi Prison, a POW camp in Singapore. At a local writer’s guild online meeting, I “met” Uma and now I want to read her family memoir, Whispers of the Heart.

Uma had the letters back and forth between her father and mother during the war. Her mother, who had been a child bride and had two little girls to care for during wartime, was happy to share her memories of this difficult time in her life. How did Uma and her mother write this book? Uma shares her story with us.

Whispers of the Heart, by Uma Eachempati

In the early nineties, my sister opened a trunk in the storage room full of luggage which were collected over the years. She found a large envelope alongside a khaki-colored blanket, a “dixie” cooking pot, and a water holder—military items. She took out the envelope filled with letters to my mother from my father at the warfront, and all the letters my mother had written which my father brought back with him safely when he returned home. Since these were written decades ago during World War II, we sisters thought they were of historical importance and decided to read them to figure out how best to present them for posterity.

It took over a year to type the letters, then to store them on a floppy disc and later onto a CD. Should we publish them in toto? We also found a couple of ledgers documenting the patients treated daily. Do they belong to the war museum in London? Or do we publish them independently? Over the years it trickled down to writing about the times and including the letters. Maybe all of them, or some, or only excerpts placing them in context. Mother was excited about the prospect of writing about the worst time of her life. She wrote notes on her thoughts as she relived her trials.

With these documents in hand, I talked about them with writers of military books—novels and memoirs—to decide which would be the best for me. Whose point of view, which tense, how much detail? In 2014 I plunged into it and wrote a draft for the “100-Day Book Program” at The Write Practice. Now I had a piece of clay in my hands that I had to mold. I had decided to write in third person as that way I could write my mother’s feelings apart from what was in her letters. Being in British India, my parents wrote to each other in English which made it easy for me. I put the manuscript through two critique groups and a cousin who knew the family background to give helpful advice. Then it was all set with chapters in chronological order.

I then sent the manuscript to a developmental editor, who wanted me to change everything from the title to the structure of chapters. Who is your audience? As to be expected when someone demolishes your house, it took me a while to pick myself up and understand what was wanted of me to make a better presentation of my heart to the world. I reduced the quotes from letters to make it relevant and concise, reduced the number of chapters and made them longer, looked through music albums and poems to get a title, and started to thank my editor for channeling my efforts.

My editor, Catherine Rankovic, wanted more local news from the time. I had written about the war in Europe and the milieu of the household BUT what was happening in town? How would I know? I was only five then. After enquiries to the University of Chicago, the local Washington University, and the archives of The Hindu, the local newspaper at the time in Madras, India, I finally succeeded in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, which had the newspapers from the years 1941 to 1945 in their archives. I reserved a date and went to the LOC for a week, read the headlines of the papers of the four years, took down notes, and made photocopies on my iPhone so that I could get an authentic feel of the times.

The manuscript must have gone through twenty versions to say the least, revising each time I looked at it. I wondered who in their right mind would want to write a book! By 2017 it had evolved into its current shape, and over another two years it got edited and tightened up. I finally decided to send it away, warts and all.

I wrote to Kristina Blank Makansi, of Blank Slate Communications, at the time in St Louis, which had helped me self-publish my earlier book, a translation of my mother’s novel, Power of Love. Seven months later, after Kristina’s editing and formatting and cover design and all the other necessities of publishing, Whispers of the Heart was born on February 29, 2020.

It takes a village to write a book. I cannot count the number of people who helped me along the way, including FedEx for the spiral binding when I thought it was done, not knowing that I would go back another four times. The encouragement and helpful critique by family and friends is gratefully acknowledged. I have a picture of Mount Everest in my room to inspire me to aim high and to keep going. I feel that I have reached the top in paying tribute to my parents for their strength and the values they taught me and the power of unconditional love.

What I want my readers to know is the toll a war inflicts on those at the war front and on the home front. The heartache and fear, the suspense and terror of an uncertain future. The photograph on the first page of my mother and her two girls is special in that it had stayed in the POW concentration camp on their bulletin board boosting the morale of the starving and tortured prisoners, giving them hope of going home someday and to a happier future.

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Uma Eachempati is a retired physician with a certificate in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Whispers of the Heart is not just about war time, but also life after the war when her father returns and how the family adjusts again to “normal.” See Uma’s website for more information about her books which she has written with her mother, Kamaraju Susila.

Posted in book talk, capturing memories, heritage, history, letters, lifewriting, multicultural, overcoming, publishing, war stories, WWII | 2 Comments

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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