Blanche and Lulu, 1895 Lulu’s father died 8 months before she was born
Today is International Women’s Day. I reflected again on the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with stories from the 19th century; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me. She started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, who took ships across the ocean. And my mother, Josephine, who’d been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary in the early 1920s while her daughter lived in Iowa with relatives. I thought about how I inherited their struggle as women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much of their history is the history of America.
In my book Song of the Plains–a Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, I investigate these histories–the personal and the cultural. The history of where we came from and what others have lived through marks us all. I inherited broken links, lost narratives, lies, and pregnant silences. I felt each of these gaps and psychic wounds in my body, and the secrets and silences that always hovered underneath. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with visible holes in my body. I felt the shame of being related to my grandmother and mother, and judged by Gram’s brothers and sisters in the Iowa extended family as “bad blood.” Because they were different. Because they both dared to take a different path from the traditional farm woman who would sacrifice herself and die young.
Lulu, about 25
What do we do as women with these inheritances? We search for our identity. Part of my self-definition was to return to the origins of my family and sleuth out their pasts. For four decades, I talked to family members, who would clam up around certain subjects–so I noted the subjects where they were silent, and was even more determined to find out what happened that created the silences. I made my way to dusty courthouses where I lifted down huge tomes of records, each with hundreds of pages filled with names written in lovely cursive writing. The silences I had experienced were about the missing stories– when did Lulu leave Josephine behind, what happened to my mother as a little girl. Why did they fight fought and struggle with each other until the last day of Frances’s life? She died without any reconciliation with my mother.
My mother Josephine was not an easy person to love, though I loved her with the desperation of a lost child who always hoped she’d at last claim me. When I was twenty years old, she told me not to call her “mother.” She was ashamed of being divorced, ashamed perhaps of being herself. The sad story is that my mother never was able to be normal, or able to love me or my children. But I was with her at her deathbed, and in those few days she could no longer prevent me from loving her. The silences lifted and there was a purity beyond the story we’d lived.
Josephine, about 5, in rocking chair with her new aunt.
The search for their history continued for twenty years, and finally, thanks to Ancestry.com, I pieced together their story. My story. The paths I took in this exploration are revealed in my new book. I hope it will give hope to others who want to know the stories that are lost. By doing the research and writing their stories, I healed myself, and could offer a new legacy to my children and grandchildren.
Today I celebrate these women who had to live in a world that was biased, judgemental, and set up not to respond to their needs or their dreams. We need to teach the new generations the histories that shape women and help them understand.
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If you are writing a memoir, or even a novel, and wonder how you can break through the inner critic that silences you, this is a perfect moment to move forward and get unstuck.
As a memoir writer, I know how tough it is to confront the forbidden stories and write them down. Once voice says, “Go ahead, it’s the truth,” while another says “You can’t say that, it’s rude.” Or “What will people think if they know these things about me?” Or the real stinger, “They might get mad at me. They might accuse me of lying.”
You have your own list of what your inner critic says.
Typical Inner Critic messages:
- I don’t know how to write.
- Who cares about my story anyway?
- I’m too self-involved.
- What difference does it make if I write my
- Maybe I’m making it all up.
- My family will never speak to me again if I write that.
- This is boring
Family and friends are the “Outer Critics.” These are some of their voices:
- You’re writing a memoir?
- For heaven’s sake, must you air the family laundry?
- Don’t you dare write that while we’re alive!
- You think you have a right to these stories?
- Don’t darken our door if your write about
- .It didn’t happen that way!
- All you can do is think about the past!
TIP: The best thing to do with your list is to write it down and get it out of your head. Then argue back with it. Answer each doubt that is raised, work on affirmations like, “This is my story. I have a right to tell it.”
TIP: In your first draft you can spill out the whole story. No one knows what you are writing until you share it. Sharing should be done carefully! You want to keep up your story energy all the way through your first draft.
TIP: Write out as many affirmations as you can think of and put them on your wall. They might be phrases like this:
- The words that flow are good, just right for that day.
- I will protect my writing from naysayers, including myself.
- Each paragraph I write gives me strength and forward
- Every scene I write helps me to find a new perspective
- and joy in my life.
- When I learn new skills, I am energized and excited
- about my writing.
- I look forward to my writing time.
- I honor and preserve my time to write
These practices about the critic voices may need to be repeated as you write your book. I used to have a vile, abusive inner critic that kept me silent for months at a time, but I kept returning to these exercises, I kept working on my story bit by bit as I tried to free myself. That’s why I’m so passionate about helping you learn to break through and write your stories.
I just returned from a retreat sponsored by She Writes Press, an event offer by my publisher in gorgeous Boulders Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. Brooke Warner, my co-teacher for the Write Your Memoir in Six Months course for the last five years, is also the publisher for SWP. The amazing stark landscape of Arizona with its cacti, road runners, and cottontail bunnies on the trails, nurtured us with its beauty as we worked on being authors, becoming authors. Trusting that we are good enough and powerful enough to be authors—sound familiar?
At the retreat, Brooke gave a workshop that challenged us about our relationship to empowerment and trust in ourselves, how we can believe in ourselves and connect with our own energy and power to be creators and artists. This is what we all have to do as we wrestle with the various elements of writing our books! We need to feel connected to the energy of creativity, and be able to draw from our passion and inspiration for a year or more as we write our books. Then we need to continue that process as we move into publishing and designing the look of our books. Being empowered and inspired is one topic at the NAMW Fall Telesummit November 11. The Heart and Soul of Memoir Writing.
We need to connect to our power and belief and at the same time continue to educate ourselves about how to write a book—from idea and conception all the way to having a beautifully designed book in our hands! Even though I have published four books, I have to say that learned a ton about writing, designing, and publishing books during the weekend. Our philosophy at NAMW is to continue to offer topics and opportunities to learn more about writing and creating a book that will be successful and that you’ll be proud of.
The Telesummit this week is set up so you can have that experience—to gather knowledge and inspiration as you connect with each presenter. We offer this Telesummit at a super low rate so you can benefit, less than $10 per session. You can keep the audio recording as your resource in ongoing education. I know that many people are now using podcasts and audios as part of their learning regimen, putting it on their iPod and talking a walk. May listen to the event after the Telesummit is over so they can focus on certain parts they need the most. We love giving the audience the opportunity to learn in so many ways!
During the last session of the Telesummit, Brooke and I will be talking about inspiration and empowerment. We’re proud of our new anthology Magic of Memoir—Inspiration for the Writing Journey to be released next week. It’s made up of stories from writers like you about how memoir is magic for them, and several NAMW members are featured. The writers talk about how they find their way to the page, how they sustain their writing and believe in their book. What inspires them and what gets in the way—and how they keep on no matter what.
I think you’ll be inspired to rush to your computer as you read their stories! We’re jazzed that the book also features interviews by well-known memoirists like Dani Shapiro, Sue William Silverman and Mark Matousek, our frequent guests here at NAMW; Mary Karr tells us what make memoir magic for her, as does Azar Nafisi, Hope Edelman, and Jessica Valenti. You will see how these writers struggle with what you struggle with day to day. We hope you come away with fire in your heart for your writing project as you join us for all the sessions and ask your own questions of the presenters.
When you sign up you receive the call-in phone number, but you do not have to be present to join us, though we would love to hear from you in person during the question and answer period. You will receive the audio for your own use to drawn from for years to come.
I love Robin Brooks’ designs and her artistry as she works with authors, and how Lisa Cron always nails it in both her books Wired for Story and Story Genius about the engines that drive a great story. And I know you all need to hear from Helen Sedwick as she reveals the mysteries of the Legal and Ethical questions that all memoir writers struggle with.
We all have a story to tell, but ah–how to tell it, that’s what keeps us at our desk, scribbling in our notebooks, looking for the scenes and moments that we carry in our hearts. Our job as memoirists is to translate what we know and remember to the page, to put images and wispy memories into language and story. Memoirists sometimes feel they have a story that ought to be easy to tell. After all, we know what happened in our lives and why we want to write about it. But this is where memoir writers struggle. A well-written story is more than “what happened.” And a reader of memoir looks for much more than “what happened to you.” The reader wants to be transported into your world, and needs to see how your story helps them, or inspires them in some way. There needs to be a universal connection.
Elements of a Story
There is a plot in memoir—the “what happened when” part; there’s character development, which means understanding the arc of the ways that each major character—including yourself as a protagonist—changes and grows during the story. The craft of writing a story means stepping back from our subjective relationship with ourselves and our memories and offering images and feelings that bring the reader into the world we portray through story. To do this we need to write in scenes.
In a scene you have: action, characters, place, time, a significant moment, vivid descriptions and sensual details. These sensual details are the key to bringing your reader into your world. Taste, vivid colors and description, smell, sound—all these are specifics that tune the reader’s brain into your own brain’s wavelength and make it hard to stop reading. They fall into the world of the story—which is what you want. There are some very interesting studies that show how the brain of the reader merges with the story being told because of these sensual details.
The other thing important in your scene is that you, the protagonist, have a desire, a need, something that’s important to you that drives through the story. The reader identifies with you and your quest, your journey through the memoir and through your eyes, they learn something new. This is why we read—out of curiosity, out of the need to have a new experience and learn something about the world we didn’t know before. I think this is why memoir is so popular now—our need to connect with the experience and life wisdom of others. Our need to feel connected to a larger community.
This week at the NAMW Telesummit on November 11, we’re excited to have a session with our story guru, Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and her new book Story Genius. Lisa makes learning story essentials so easy that we wonder why we haven’t been using these tools all along. She’s going to talk about story making in terms of the brain and how we process information. Understanding this will help make you a better writer, and give you new skills that can help your book to become a success. A good story is what agents and editors are looking for. I hope you join us for this informative and inspiring Telesummit. Read more about all the presenters here.
It’s not a place you might have heard of unless you are thinking of literary sites, but that was my plan—to visit a location where “place” was one of the characters in the story. Haworth is three train rides away from London, and you have to get off at Keithley and get a bus or cab into Haworth itself. A lover of landscapes and literature, I wanted to see how where the Bronte sisters lived and what of that place had influenced the Bronte sisters in their books. Writing at a time when they first published under a man’s pseudonym, they created a sensation with their books, works that “couldn’t have been written by a woman,” according to the reviews at the time. Unrequited love, passion, the domestic lives of women, wind on the moors, freedom from the bondage of marriage not based on love—such incendiary topics. They were rule breakers who drew upon universal themes that were particularly relevant for women. At that time in literature, women were rarely presented as heroines.
As I strode up the narrow cobbled streets of the former mill town, I marveled at the tough lifestyle that they would have endured. The streets ran with sewage, there were intensely cold winds that swept the moors and entered cracks in the stone houses. I feel the shiver of being in another time and place, my imagination triggered by the ruins of the woolen mills that were the economic center of the region. Up and down the streets of the town you see the small houses that once housed the mill workers. The mill owners had fancier homes with large rooms and spacious grounds. They were responsible for their workers, but usually, the wages were not enough to feed the family.
In the parsonage at the top of the hill, where the three sisters Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell lived with their father, small windows deliver dim light. A spotlight illuminates the wooden table where creation took place, a pen and ink box at the ready. Visitors whisper in awe as they view the small rooms. As I wander through the rooms of the parsonage, I think about how much we take for granted in America, having space: large rooms, yards, space to spread out. Privacy. In the parsonage, there was a lot of shared space—the picture above shows the room with table where the three Bronte sisters wrote their first novels. The other photo shows the writing box with pen, ink and blotter. In the museum there are the first editions of Shirley, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
When you visit a place, it leaves its imprint upon you, you revisit it over and over again, the images, scents, and impressions. What I take with me is the immense silence and a vast green space dotted with sheep. I know that I’ve open the door into another time. When we travel, we see the world through new eyes. Here where the Bronte sisters lived and died, I feel that I’ve tasted the world that inspired them to write stories that live and thrive far beyond their time.
That’s what we do when we write memoir—we create worlds that invite others to walk with us. Words bring that world alive, and we create stories that live beyond the space of our own lives. When the Bronte sisters wrote their novels, they were drawing upon the realities of the place that marked them, the moors, the houses, the way of life lived then. Though they are works of fiction, their stories offer us a taste of that time and place, which is we must do in our writing, draw upon details that awaken the senses and make us feel intensely alive.
The next day I toured the Yorkshire countryside with my tour guide Johnny Briggs—a knowledgeable and entertaining tour guy I found on the internet. In his little Fiat, we made our way on narrow roads fenced on both sides with stone. There were rolling hills of green, and lots of sheep. There were ruins from the 15th century, and halcyon landscapes that seem quintessentially English. I was grateful that I was not the one driving through traffic circles and narrow roads, and even happier when Johnny came upon a pub owned by one of his friends who has a Michelin star. Out in the middle of the countryside, I had one of the finest meals of my life. Here we are, celebrating the pub and a great day in the Yorkshire Dales.
Now, I read the lines of Jane Eyre with new insights and feelings. I have stepped in the shoes of Charlotte Bronte briefly as I walked the lanes of Haworth, visited the parsonage, and admired the courage of young women who put pen to page because the worlds in their head were so vivid and alive, they had to write them down.
Let’s all follow in their footsteps—to write with passion the truths that are ours to share.
‘Tis the season for writing conferences! As you know, we writers tend to be solitary people—we have to be willing to slave at our desks alone for months and years while we write our book. Some writers are so dedicated to their writing they’re cautious about taking the time away and spending money, but sometimes we get a much needed dose of inspiration and input from taking the time to invest in ourselves as writers. However, there are doubts and questions about such a venture.
- I already know how to write, so what will I get from a conference that I don’t already know?
- A conference costs money—what value will it offer me?
- Maybe going to a conference is just a distraction from my writing.
- How will it help to get my book finished and published?
These are valid points, but as a veteran of dozens of different conferences, both as a participant and a presenter, I’d like to offer you some great reasons to consider a writing conference.
- You network with everyone, have fun, and build your platform
Yes, there is that term “platform” again! What it means is you’ll get to know people who will become your audience when your book is published. Networking is one of the best reasons to attend a conference. Just think—a whole room of people who are normally solitary get together to talk nonstop about writing, the current state of publishing, agents, social media preferences, where and how to use commas, and other geeky interests writers have.
- At a conference, you connect in person and build your community for outreach, endorsements, interviews, speaking engagements, and publicity in the future.
Virtual events are great and they help us broaden our outreach, but there’s nothing like shaking someone’s hand and looking into their eyes, cozying over to a corner to talk more about—your book, their book, their mentor, agent, or web designer radio shows and podcasts, and sharing yours. The best way to learn the path to successful published book is through networking with others and building trustworthy resources you can draw on when the time comes.
- Even if you’ve heard about writing craft, platform, or query letters before, there’s always the chance you will learn something new!
Every time I go to a conference, I hear experts talk about craft—writing scenes, character development, dialogue, language and description techniques, manuscript presentation—and each time I go, I hear something new and learn a new skill—and I have been going to conferences for 30 years. Though I’m already engaged with social media, I learn new stuff about Facebook, Twitter, and other ways to reach out, which are changing every day. I find out more about the inner workings of these systems and how to use them more effectively. Publishing is changing rapidly as well, and there are always challenges, new practices, and technologies to learn more about.
- It feels good to connect with others who face the same kinds of emotional challenges you do—the niggling inner critic, worrying about family critiques, and writing the truth.
Every memoir writer struggles with the process of getting their truth on the page and standing by it. It’s daunting to dig deep inside our memory banks and come up with memories that were buried, some for good reason. But it’s been shown that writing helps to heal the past, and that getting your story out of your body allows you to move into a better present and future. When you write your story, you become a compassionate witness to the younger you who lived through the events in your story, and lived to tell about it!
- You will leave with new skills, connections, and excited energy about writing and publishing your memoir.
A conference chock full of information about craft, process, networking, social media, and publishing and the process of learning and connecting fills the room with a great energy of excitement and plans for the future. You leave with not only more skills, but with the feeling of being buoyed up and supported. You’ll have dozens of new friends, writing buddies, and social media connections to help you get your memoir finished and out into the world. It’s a great investment in yourself as an author. Wear that title now!
If you hurry, you can get the Early Bird Discount for the Magic of Memoir Conference in Oakland. CA Oct. 15-16.