“Writing Home” for the holidays

I’ve never been comfortable with self-promotion — despite the fact that social media sites have turned boasting into an art form. So, I’d like to point out that this post isn’t solely about buying my book as a holiday gift this year. I’m also hoping you’ll buy dozens of other books, or at least consider the gift of reading for the folks on your list.

Books deliver information and entertainment. They introduce us to different worlds, expand our viewpoints, increase our understanding of others and ourselves, and even provide stress relief. Anyone who’s ever curled up with a riveting novel on a wintery afternoon knows that reading is the next best thing to a real vacation.

Even if you don’t purchase my book for your loved ones, please ask your favorite bookseller to help you match another book with their interests, or consider gifting them with a classic novel or a biography you’ve read and loved.
If you live in the Detroit area, you’ll find copies of Writing Home at Yellow Door Art Market in Berkley along with many unique gifts made in Michigan. ~Cindy La Ferle

How to write a memoir

This article was originally published in Michigan Prime, in November 2015.

Your memoir may be the most valuable treasure you leave for your loved ones. Heres how to get started…

IMG_0384Ill never forget a certain elderly gentleman who showed up at one of the first memoir writing classes I taught at a local senior center, many years ago.

Under each arm he carried a large grocery bag stuffed with old letters, sepia-toned photos and leather-bound journals. When it was his turn to introduce himself to the class, he announced that he hoped to turn the contents of the grocery bags into a “national bestseller.” Then he turned to me and asked if I would look through all the materials and “ghost-write” his memoir. (As I discovered in subsequent workshops, this kind of request wasn’t at all unusual. I had to learn to say “no” as gently as possible.)

For starters, I explained that I wasnt a biographer – and that nobody else can write our memoirs for us. And I wasn’t in the business of editing or ghostwriting. But I promised to help guide him through the process during our time together in the class.

Written by heart — in our own words — our memoirs probably wont top the bestseller lists. But they could be the most valuable legacies we bequeath to our loved ones. Luckily, the gentleman with the grocery bags had saved plenty of evidence of a life richly lived. All he needed was the time and the discipline to spin it into a readable story.

Memoir defined

Whether your goal is to pen a book-length memoir or a few personal essays, its essential to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.

“Memoir isnt the summary of a life, its a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in its composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).

In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with, say, your first memory of nursery school and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, starting with, say, the brittle November afternoon your father was diagnosed with Alzheimers, or the day you quit your office job to work at a rodeo.

Mining your buried treasure

Like the man with the grocery bags brimming with souvenirs, most new memoirists are overwhelmed by the thought of choosing which stories to share – or where to begin. The following tips usually subdue their fears and help plow through writers block at various points along the way.

  1. Silence your inner critic and write freely. Your first order of business is to get words on paper or on the computer. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after youve written a first draft. (See #8.)
  2. Take small bites. Start with a series of short personal essays, each on a different experience. Gathered together, these could be expanded as chapters in your book.
  3. Be a family archaeologist. Unearth old memories while exploring keepsakes and heirlooms. Choose one item, then write about how you acquired it and what it means to you.
  4. Get cooking. Use a family recipe as a prompt and write the memories it stirs. My Scottish grandmothers shortbread recipe, for instance, is redolent of her old-country proverbs and family gatherings.
  5. Brush up your interview skills. Talk with elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a favorite love song to war stories.
  6. Use sensory detail and proper names. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
  7. Avoid aimless rambling, no matter how poetic. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts wisdom or a life lesson. Let your stories reveal who you are.
  8. Read published memoirs; observe how other writers craft their work. Ask your librarian for recommendations.
  9. Polish your gems. Proofread your final draft to catch errors of fact, spelling or grammar. Show your work to friends or family members if youre worried about getting stories straight.

The ultimate reward

Once youve committed a few memories to the page, youre entitled to feel proud of your accomplishment. Keep writing.

As memoirist Mary Karr notes in her new book, The Art of Memoir (HarperCollins; $31), it takes courage to share our true experiences: “None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one by one.”

 

The homecoming dance

This column was originally published in The Daily Tribune on September 21, 2003, when my son Nate was a senior at Shrine Catholic High School. It’s also included my memoir collection, Writing Home. This week, Nate celebrated his third year of marriage to Andrea, the young woman mentioned in this column.

From baptism to bar mitzvah, rituals and rites of passage honor the milestones in our lives. Certain rituals are so closely tied to autumn, in fact, that I cant imagine the season without them. Raking leaves, visiting cider mills, and digging woolens out of storage are just a few.

But the annual high school homecoming dance crowns them all.

At our house, as surely as the maples shed yellow leaves on the lawn, this semi-formal event kicks up a whirlwind of activity and emotion. Some of it is not pretty.

Nat and Andrea1Because I am the mother of a son, my homecoming rituals do not include shopping for the ultimate evening gown and the perfect shade of nail polish. Admittedly, I miss playing Fairy Godmother to Cinderella, so I live vicariously through other moms who have teenaged daughters. Thats how Ive learned that things are different with boys. The angst level, for instance, is much lower in the wardrobe department. Guys dont worry about their hair, and they dont have to obsess over finding a purse to coordinate with a pair of shoes that will be worn only once.

Traditionally, a boy waits until forty-five minutes before the big event to consider whether or not his dress shirt needs to be unearthed from the closet floor. (This is based on the assumption that he owns a dress shirt.) At that point, all hell breaks loose, sending his beleaguered parents in search of an ironing board while the boy hunts down a pair of matching socks. He also waits until the final hour to announce that his good suit has cake frosting on the lapel – a souvenir from the last semi-formal event he attended.

Homecoming rituals will test any parents mettle, but I believe Im a sturdier person because of them.

Engagement4Last year, a week before the big dance, we drove Nate to Nordstrom to shop for a new shirt and tie. Anticipating conflict, I backed off and let him sort through the merchandise with his dad. I tried to keep quiet – until I spotted a handsome gold dress shirt that was perfect for his black suit.

“Look at this one, guys!” I shouted, holding up the prize. On cue, Doug spotted a great tie to go with it. Our sweet son glanced at the ensemble, rolled his eyes, and muttered his new favorite word. “Hideous.”

Seconds later, Nates cell phone rang. It was Andrea – a young lady with impeccable fashion sense. Andrea happened to be shopping in the area and would come to his rescue. She would help him find the right shirt.

Well, when the fashionista arrived in the mens department, she immediately chose – you guessed it – the gold shirt. Suddenly this shirt was awesome, and the tie was cool, too. (I bit my tongue and reminded myself that God really does look out for parents, and lurks everywhere, including the men’s department at Nordstrom.)

As I type this, the next homecoming dance is a week away. Just as I did last year, and the year before that, Ive reminded Nate to ask a date in advance. Once again, Ive explained how girls need time to shop for dresses and book hair appointments. And just as he did last year, the kid kept his plans under wraps until he needed advice on ordering a corsage.

As it turns out, Nates date this year is Andrea, the sharp young lady with good taste in mens shirts. Thinking ahead last week, we bought Nate a new shirt and tie to co-ordinate with her dress. Thank goodness, Andrea approves. Meanwhile, I am not taking any chances and have dropped off the black suit at the dry cleaner. This is senior year, after all, and weve finally learned the steps to the homecoming dance.

Writing Home is available on Amazon (use the link at the top of this page).

Support your local authors

Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a good book.” — Jim Rohn

Earlier this year, I went to a friend’s book signing event that was so well attended it brought tears to my eyes. My friend and his co-author gave a wonderful presentation to a standing-room-only crowd — and sold more books than they’d initially planned.

I was reminded of my very first book signing for Writing Home at our local Borders. Before the signing, I worried that only a handful of relatives would show up. Imagine my surprise, and gratitude, when I walked into Borders and saw a line forming at my table — a line of new friends, old neighbors, and column readers from all over the community. I sold so many books that the manager invited me back to do another book signing at holiday time two months later.

All of this got me thinking: What if I could provide a similar supportive experience — a huge book signing — for other authors in my hometown, all in one location? And what if this book sale event could also serve as an opportunity to encourage aspiring authors who want to learn more about getting published?

The first annual Royal Oak Authors Book Fair sprouted from that seed. Thanks to the Royal Oak Public Library, a dozen authors from Royal Oak will gather for a community book signing and public panel discussion this Saturday, Oct. 9, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.

Nearly every literary genre, from fiction to self-help will be represented at the Fair. Many of Royal Oak’s authors have been featured nationally and are “best-sellers” in their own right: Book Fair authors and publishers will include: Gerry Boyan, David Clements, Judy Davids, Steve Haffner (Haffner Press), Dr. Charles K. Hyde, Steve Lehto, Trevor McCauley, Maureen McDonald, Eleanor Payson, John S. Schultz, Tom Weschler, and yours truly.

So bring your questions on publishing and the writing life to our panel discussion at 1:30 in the Royal Oak Public Library Auditorium. Help us celebrate the printed word. And plan to do some book shopping afterward. I’ll be signing copies of my own book, plus you’ll find several books on Detroit’s automotive history; fantasy and sci-fi novels: a biography on Bob Seger; a hitchhiker’s novel; a photo-history of Royal Oak; a self-help guide; plus memoirs, murder mysteries … and more! — Cindy La Ferle

Royal Oak Authors Book Fair poster (above) designed by Judy Davids. Click on the poster for a larger view.