New Year resolutions to ask for stories, write the stories

It’s a new year and in the next several weeks I will be speaking to a couple seniors groups to persuade them to adopt new year resolutions to begin writing the stories of their lives – mostly because it’s fun to do! Hopefully they will have lots of happy memories to write about while also sharing the history and culture of earlier times, wherever they lived.

The oldest among us have wonderful stories of an era of incredible changes. My mother-in-law has stories of their first electricity and their first indoor plumbing and of picking cotton in the fields as a small child. My father has stories of when O’Hare Airport in Chicago was a big cornfield and when gangsters took over their barn to put a still in it. My very elderly neighbors had stories of the Depression years and early history of our area. My Korean War vet friend has incredible stories of that war but also fun stories of famous ice skaters and tennis players and local celebrities he hobnobbed with. One of my mother’s friends in the nursing home became mother at the age of sixteen to her three little brothers when their parents died.

My project for the year is turning my dad’s slide collection into high resolution .jpg photo files using the Wolverine Titan film to digital converter (which I highly recommend). Then I need to go through a stack of letters he wrote home to his parents when he was stationed in Japan during the late 1950s. Fabulous photos of old Japan and I’ll get to learn more about my dad as a young man in a very foreign place.

People you know have fascinating stories – you might be surprised. Maybe you’ll make an easy new year resolution of getting to know your older family members better!


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The Last Cherry Blossom – WWII Japan for kids

I’m an adult, but recently I enjoyed reading a middle-grade historical fiction book by Twitter friend Kathleen Burkinshaw. The Last Cherry Blossom is based closely on her mother’s stories of WWII and surviving the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. These days, whenever I search Amazon for “Cherry Blossoms” to find my mother’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, up pops The Last Cherry Blossom, first on the list, and that’s how I discovered Kathleen on Twitter.

Few memoirs have been written by Japanese civilians who survived WWII, which is why I published my mother’s story way back then. They are reticent to tell their stories, even to family. The past is over and nightmares are best kept in the dark. I appreciate the courage of Kathleen’s mother to tell such painful stories. Kathleen also decided to write for middle-grade kids, so they could easily learn about this history and to see that “the enemy is not so different from ourselves.” The effects of the bomb are told gently enough to be suitable for fourth-fifth grade and up, with the possible exception of a couple brief descriptions of horrifically affected people, but even young readers need to get the idea of how awful this was.

Last Cherry BlossomI like how the first page of each chapter features a piece of actual propaganda or news headline. Most people don’t realize the propaganda that went on in Japan, how the media was censored and bad news hidden, how children were indoctrinated in school. Like in Germany. Disagreeing could make you disappear in the night. The Last Cherry Blossom mentions this.

My surprise was that Yuriko’s family was so outwardly loving. My mother’s biggest regret in life was never being able to hug her father or tell him she loved him – it was simply not done, which was normal for that time. You bowed to show respect and love was only shown by work done for others. Overall, The Last Cherry Blossom is a sweet story of culture, family dynamics (including an intriguing family secret), the tragedy we know will come, and a ray of hope. A lot is going on in this book besides war, and for several reasons it is a story each generation needs to hear.

November is Family Stories Month and National Lifewriting Month. Will you be working to somehow save your family’s history?

*Kathleen’s blog recently featured a beautiful post about the International Friendship Bell in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town “born of war” to support the Oak Ridge National Laboratory which secretly produced enriched uranium for the atomic bombs.

Secret City and its Song, Part 3


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Memoir Voice: Keeping the ghost out of ghostwriting

Are you writing or editing someone else’s memoir? I am celebrating after finishing the difficult editing of an ESOL memoir. ESOL means English as Second or Other Language, and in this case it might be a fourth language out of five. This is an international memoir featuring words and phrases in all five of those languages. My job was to make the sentences understandable and flow well but retain the writer’s voice (also making sure all the foreign spellings and the geography was correct). I want his family to hear HIM speaking and not me. If you are writing your own memoir, you want to retain your own voice and not pretend to be somebody you’re not. Don’t model your speech and writing style after your favorite author—your family wants to hear you, not that author or some stranger telling your story.

How did I keep this person’s ESOL voice? How did I keep my Japanese mother’s voice in her Cherry Blossoms in Twilight memoir? How do I keep simple or broken English and not make a caricature or stereotype? How much dialect can you add before it becomes difficult to read? (Have you ever read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God?)

People have their ways of speaking. My mother would say, “She would say to me, ….” rather than “She would say” or “She would tell me,” and she spoke in simple sentences. The ESOL author often used a series of adjectives to describe something and had favorite words and phrases, some of which I had to delete to keep from being too repetitious or overwhelming. His sentences (and my mother’s) are not always perfectly structured. In cases of strong dialect (or very broken English), there is no need to keep every instance of cultural speech, idiosyncrasy or brokenness, but have enough to give flavor – pick the ones you want to use.

Perhaps the biggest compliment for me as a memoir ghostwriter/editor is to hear people say, “I can hear her speaking!” or “It’s like we’re sitting on the porch talking!” Well, also, “I couldn’t put the book down!”


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