Learning empathy through stories

St. Louis is boiling over with anger again. After Ferguson and Michael Brown, there is Jason Stockley and Anthony Lamar Smith. Or rather, Anthony Smith was . . . Our black people here–and all across the nation–are fed up and angry that their stories are being ignored. Michael Brown and Anthony Smith are not exactly the best poster-men for this–they are not “babies” who were “murdered” for no reason by “those racist police”–those are some of the emotionally-charged words people have used. But, their stories are symptoms of a way bigger story going on, and we are so slow to change that story.

The reason a bad story is slow to change is likely because it is not the story of the majority of people in power–in this case, meaning that in the U.S. it is not a white people’s story. Not even a poor white people’s story. And so the majority finds it easy to ignore that story and even to make surface judgments that “those people” deserve what they get, that it’s their fault they have that story. When it is not your story, it is easy to make judgments based only on the first sentence, skipping the middle due to lack of interest and dismissing the summary ending as “garbage.” I like to learn the whole stories.

I read memoirs to learn about others’ lives. To step into their shoes and experience their environment, what they felt, why they did what they did. Taking the time to learn in depth about others teaches empathy and understanding. Our political leaders ought to read memoirs of everyday people, especially of people who are struggling. If you are angry at protesters, you should listen to their stories–the entire stories. Our particular protesters in St. Louis have many reasons to be angry and fed up, and our police have good reasons to be nervous around black men in crime-ridden neighborhoods, as in our country full of guns they have reason to be nervous at any traffic stop. There is an intersection of these stories nobody is seeing as everyone is too busy shouting at each other about the “garbage” last lines.

So I have signed up to do my part to address part of this bigger story. My church is making this easy for me. Yes, not all Christians and churches are bad! I will join others at an after-school program at our church to tutor youngsters from the struggling black neighborhood in our town. After a terrible tragedy, our police and townspeople began to listen to the stories from this neighborhood and have since been trying to build bridges, to build stories of hope and togetherness.

Let’s not shut people out. Listen to their stories, and then be the change you want to see.


Posted in multicultural, overcoming, relationship | Tagged , | 4 Comments

What to do with old diaries (and letters)

When my dad opened an old trunk, he found two diaries his mother had kept from the years 1935 and 1936. At first glance they seemed to be all about the weather, not surprising for a farming man’s wife when survival depended on weather. Those were the days before we thought it was okay to spill all our thoughts into highly personal and private diaries and journals. People were generally more reserved then. When I sat down to read through them, beyond the weather details came a glimpse into a young mother’s life during the Depression years – quite fascinating to me. I found a three-dimensional grandmother, one I never really knew as a child, one who died when I was a young woman away at college.

The family history book I am working on was about done then, but I wanted to incorporate these diaries. Remembering how I did the book of my husband’s grandfather’s WWII letters home, I knew I had to do some serious culling. I ended up with 16 full pages of my summary statements interspersed with pertinent diary entries, often with the weather edited out, sometimes other unimportant details, too. Still, 16 pages to add to the book already full of stories? I emailed them to my sister to see what she thought.

My sister can be bluntly honest—a good trait for a beta reader. (A beta reader is someone who will tell you what she thinks about your work – for free – before you pay an editor and so you don’t publish and embarrass yourself). She said, “I think it’s too long.” Thank you! This gave me freedom to cull more entries out, leaving just the most interesting or most representative. No need to repeat points via multiple diary entries, just add details to my summary paragraphs as needed. Summary paragraphs are easier reading than a bunch of diary entries or letters. Below is a short (and edited) example showing how to handle the left out bits (the more boring parts) and include side comments.

Times were hard during the Depression. Sometimes Pete did not have work or he could not do farm work due to weather. Sometimes he would not get paid and had to go calling later to ask for his money.

Tuesday, March 26: . . . We washed this morning and it dried swell. . . . Chris and the kids and I walked to town this P.M. Pete is around the house every day yet, no work. . . .

Saturday, June 29: . . . Baked quite a lot after we came home. Pete sold all the beets but only got 1 1/2 cents for the last 200. The rest 650 for 2 cents [probably each, but packed by box or bushel].


Note that if you are leaving things out following a complete sentence, use the sentence-ending period followed by the ellipsis . . . so you end up with four dots, as in the first diary entry above.

You may want to include a photo of the diary cover or of the stack of letters as well as a photo of original handwriting. Putting every bit of every letter or diary entry into a book can make for a long, boring read for anyone who is not interested in minute details. You want your family to finish reading your book, not fall asleep.


Posted in journal, letters, lifewriting | Tagged | 2 Comments

Book marketing your memoir: deciding how hard you want to work

Unless you are a celebrity, your memoir may be hard to sell. Do you want to sell it to strangers, or is making a gift for your family enough? Why would strangers want to read it? These are important questions to determine before spending a bunch of money on publishing. Can you tell I just attended a book marketing workshop? (This one with Judith Briles, The Book Shepherd)

Selling to strangers is a business, requiring much more professional diligence and know-how, including about the dreaded marketing. If you don’t get out there and tell the world of strangers about your book, they won’t know it exists. If you are lucky enough to find a traditional publisher for your book, don’t expect them to put much effort into publicizing either. Times have changed. Check out all the famous authors on Twitter or Facebook.

What makes your memoir stand out? Are there others like it? If so, how is yours different? What angles will you use to promote interest in it? Is it worth paying for a good editor, cover designer, and interior formatter if you don’t want to mess with marketing? Assuming you have a decent story decently written, self-published books generally fail for two reasons: unprofessional appearance (including lack of editing), and/or a lack of marketing—or not knowing how to market effectively. Many traditionally published books fail, too, mostly due to lack of marketing. Let’s face it, there are millions of books out there to compete with.

What would be your definition of failure? For many memoir writers, just getting the book created is a huge success. Congratulations, you actually did it, you and your family should be thrilled! That’s no small feat to finish a project like that. How many books would you need to sell before you feel successful? Breaking even financially would be nice, but unless you know what you’re doing in the publishing and marketing department, you very well may not. If you expect to make lots of money on your book, you will probably be very disappointed.

IMAG3414So think twice about whether to publish just for family or whether you want to spend money to perfect your book and then actively market to strangers. Book marketing is an art requiring learning from experts, and knowing how to write your book so that it can be marketed easily is another learned skill. I see a lot of authors on social media who are merely annoying – nothing but buy my book, buy my book. Don’t be that author.

There is no shame in realizing you don’t want to put on a business hat and learn how to be a publicist. Your family should be proud of your accomplishment. You should be proud of your accomplishment. If you want to go family-only, you can relax and just enjoy the journey and bask in that glow of doing something truly worthwhile. If you want to sell to strangers, get your hat on and start learning now. Bask in the glow later.

How much does the average author earn publishing their book – Derek Murphy
(Serious author-publishers, check out Derek’s website, CreativIndie)

Some other book pros and book marketing experts you should know:
Joanna Penn
Joel Friedlander
Penny Sansevieri
Sandra Beckwith
Jane Friedman

Posted in publishing | Tagged | 4 Comments