A to Z April Challenge

During the month of April I will be doing a different spin on my memoir posts. It starts with a song. Each song will be followed by a brief essay that is evoked or inspired by that song. You might want to click on the YouTube link to hear the song as you read the piece I've written. Or you can listen to the song lyrics first and then read. Whichever way you choose, I mostly hope you'll read and leave a comment with your thoughts about my post. Thank you for visiting and please follow the blog if you are not doing so already.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Guest Post: Ann Carbine Best

          In this installment of Wrote By Rote I am honored to have memoirist Ann Carbine Best.  Many of you have read her current release In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets and have raved about it.  I have asked Ann to give her take on a few topics of memoir writing.

Are we ever too young or too old to write a memoir?

I definitely don’t think we’re ever too old. I was seventy-one when I wrote my first one. Harry Bernstein was ninety-six. To quote his obituary: “Harry Bernstein, whose painfully eloquent memoir about growing up Jewish and poor in a northern English mill town earned him belated literary fame on its publication in 2007, when he was 96, died on Friday in Brooklyn. He was 101.” Then he wrote two more after that one.

I’m glad I didn’t have to wait that long. Twenty-five more years! I don’t think I could do it.

The point, of course, is that age doesn’t matter. I think that what matters is the experiences you’ve had, and if you have the ability to write powerful prose.

The late great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor is quoted as saying, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

But it takes time to accumulate experiences, and time to absorb them, and time to learn the craft of writing. I do believe that an unhappy childhood is a goldmine for a writer--or a childhood that was filled with colorful characters; with obstacles, emotional and/or physical; with a passion for life.

Writing about Difficult Topics.

Or about sensitive topics. I know one writer who is finishing up a memoir. I’m not sure how old she is, but I’m guessing in her forties or early fifties. She’s struggling with family members, some of whom don’t like what she’s writing. The late Frank McCourt got backlash from some people in Ireland where he grew up. So what are you going to reveal to the world?

One advantage of writing a memoir at a “later” age is that many of the principals are dead, as was my case. J I felt less constrained where they were concerned. But for the living, one has to be more cautious, and there were some names and details I had to change. And all of my children except my disabled daughter Jen didn’t want me to use their real names. As my youngest daughter (Megan in the memoir) said, “It’s spooky to read about yourself.” But I doubt she’ll ever read the book, even though she has been one of my best promoters, because the memories are painful. And that’s okay.

How Can a Memoir Writer do Research?

I’m currently ghost writing a memoir for a friend who has an extremely disabled son. Ghost writing presents some issues you don’t encounter when you write about your own life. My “research” involves constantly calling my friend. She lives in Los Angeles. I live on the opposite coast, in Virginia. Technology is amazing. If I had tried to write her memoir even twenty years ago, there would have been no email, and no unlimited long distance on my landline.

Hooray for the Internet. When I start writing “stories” of my childhood, it will be an awesome resource to jog my memory of the Forties and the Fifties when I grew up. About fourteen years ago, I also put together a detailed Life History of my parents, with pictures and text. My ancestors are Mormon, and Mormons are big on keeping photographs and journals. I have many stories, written in their own hand, by ancestors I’ve never seen. My mother had them all, and now I do, too; all valuable resources for the memoirist.

As with any genre we want to write in, we need to read, read, read as much as we can. For memoir I would say also read a lot of fiction because good memoirs utilize the tools of fiction. I’m especially partial to dialogue. It moves the story forward in a way that exposition doesn’t.

All my life and for a while in graduate school I wrote fiction. Then I turned to memoir, when I was forty-five. One of my favorite memoirs is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. He uses scenes and dialogue, and the occasional memoirist’s comments. I would often skim through his memoir when I was writing mine.

But exposition is powerful too, as in Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. The beginning of the memoir I’m ghost writing for my friend is filled with dialogue, but I think as it continues there will be more exposition. The material dictates the method.

If you want to write memoir, start recalling memories. Sometimes I lie in the quiet dark and meditate on my past. I see scenes as if I’m back there in the center of them. I’ve started a journal that focuses on these memories. I write the “entries” in scenes so that when I’m ready to write my childhood memoir, or stories based on my childhood--whichever I decide to do--I’ll have lots of material to choose from.


Thank you, Lee, for letting me be a guest on your new blog. I love memoirs, and was excited when my first one came together, thanks to a good small press, WiDo Publishing. I was very impressed with my blogger friend Karen Walker’s memoir, Following the Whispers, and I know other bloggers, three of them WordPress bloggers, who have finished or almost finished a memoir. Memoir is my favorite genre, next to murder mysteries, and I’ll spend my book money first on memoirs if I find one that sounds intriguing. A lot of great ones have been and are being published!


Chat with Ann at her blog: http://anncarbinebest.com.

Her memoir, In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets, can be found online at:

WiDo Publishing. (S&H for a printed copy is less here than at Amazon)




DEZMOND said...

a lovely post, Lee and Ann! Ann is such a nice lady.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee and Ann .. thank you so much for posting this - a great resume of how and why you're where you are .. and some great tips and ideas on life.

I'm sure with more and more people having access to papers etc and now we can share so much on line and research into our ancestors more easily .. more people will write memoirs.

I also think that a challenge for one person/family is a whole enlightenment for the many who follow, who have similarly suffered - or know someone who does.

Then there's the historical element reminding us that actually so much has happened in the last 100 years - we just about have memories of that period.

We need enlightening and educating or being made aware - we ignore, hide etc ... but reading can open peoples' minds.

Great post Ann - and lovely idea Lee - thanks so much to you both ..

Kelly Robinson said...

I recall memories best by talking to people. Often when I'm in conversation at work, a story will come out, and I scramble to write down a reminder on a note pad so I can transcribe it later.

Karen Walker said...

First of all, thank you Ann, for the lovely comment about my own memoir. And thanks, Lee, for hosting Ann here on your new blog. I've always loved reading true stories about real people. What I love about memoir, as opposed to biography, is that they read like a good novel. And Ann's does that. I had to wait until my parents were both gone before I could write and publish my story. I just didn't want to hurt them by speaking my truth. It is a difficult thing for memoirists.

Richard said...

I understand all the things you say about writing a memoir. It can be difficult.

Michelle Fayard said...

Thank you, Lee, for having Ann on your blog today. And thank you, Ann, for being the incredible person you are as well as one of the most gifted authors ever. Historical fiction and biographies/autobiographies have long been favorites of mine, and a memoirist like yours will hold her own against any of these titles.

Tanya Reimer said...

Wow! Great interview to give us some insight as to the journey of writing a memoir. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, I always learn so much from Anne!

Arlee Bird said...

Dezmond -- Thanks for dropping by today. Yes, Ann has many admirers.

Hilary - Our progeny deserve to know our histories just as we want to know about the family members who came before us. History can teach us a great deal.

Kelly -- I'm often reminded of things through conversations or something I hear or see somewhere. Memories can be sparked at the strangest times.

Karen -- In many ways a good memoir is better than a fictional account since it is true and can be something to which we can often more easily relate.

Richard -- I'm sure that laying oneself before the eyes of the world can take a great deal of courage.

Michelle-- So many people have said so many wonderful things about Ann's memoir.


Arlee Bird said...

Tanya-- Thanks for your visit. I think Ann has been a mentor to many.


Ann Best said...

I'm awed by the responses. Thank you everyone, and thank you, Lee, for hosting me. I just love memoirs because I love to read about people, and the people in Bloggerville often write mini-memoirs on their posts. I love the personal touch!

I very much like your response, Lee, to Karen: that "in many ways a good memoir is better than a fictional account since it is true and can be something to which we can often more easily relate." Perfectly said!
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

Old Kitty said...

Thank you Lee for having the lovely Ann over here. I loved her memoir and think being such a poet truly made her book sublime. I think her strongest and most touching chapters of her memoir are from her earliest memories. Therefore I agree with her about having that distance of time. It would seem that the more water there is under the bridge the more the writer is free to express.

Take care

Deniz Bevan said...

A great interview! I'm looking forward to the stories of your childhood, Ann.

Brian said...

I sure enjoyed the post and "In the Mirror" is truly a wonderful read.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey Lee and Ann! Sorry, took me a while to find this post. Lee, you have a lot of blogs now.
Ann, don't think I could ever do a memoir. Had a boring life. Nothing traumatic or exceptional. Nothing anyone would pay money to read anyway!

Arlee Bird said...

Ann -- I'm enjoying the discussion thus far and the advantage to posting on a blog once a week is that this is the topic here for the next week. Hopefully we'll continue to have a good deal more interchange here. A big thanks to you for being here with us on this post.

Kitty -- I am thrilled to have Ann as my first guest on this blog. I agree with you about the distance set by time.

Deniz -- I'm one who also enjoys stories about childhoods. I hope to hear some in future guest spots here.

Brian -- I have heard a great deal of acclaim for Ann's book.

Alex -- Glad you found your way through my blog forest to find this post. As a writer, I think it's up to you to make your life interesting. I think you'd be surprised about how interesting others might find the life you see as boring. The life of another is always of interest to others when that life has been painted in a way that is more fascinating than it may seem on the surface.


Ann Best said...

Alex: Every person is a unique individual, and I'll bet, as Lee says, that you might be surprised about your so-called boring life!

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Wonderful post and a joy to read.


Deb Shucka said...

A great interview to read. I'm inspired by Ann. She deserves every bit of press she can get. Also glad to discover this new blog. I'll be back for more.

Ann Best said...

Old Kitty: I think you're right about water under the bridge. Distance really does help see our past more clearly. From the distance I have now with the memoir, I can see that the first part IS the strongest. Thank YOU for seeing so clearly!

L'Aussie said...

Hi Arlee! Hi Ann! It's great to see you here Ann. Your memoir is so sharp, yet it draws out a reader's emotions. I am so looking forward to your next!

Thank you for hosting Ann, Arlee.


Arlee Bird said...

Yvonne -- Thanks for stopping. Maybe you should do a book length memoir in poetry since so many of your poems are based on your life. I think it could be an interesting concept.

Deb -- Glad you found us here. Hope you will be back often.

Denise -- It's good to see you stop by. It has been delightful to host Ann this week.


Empty Nest Insider said...

Lee, thanks for hosting Ann. This gives me hope as I waited until my boys were away at school before I started writing. In the Mirror sounds amazing, and I appreciate your advice. Julie

Jennifer Shirk said...

HI, Ann!
Very interesting insight into writing memoirs. Thank you for sharing. :)

Carol Kilgore said...

Ann, I'm not sure I could ever write a memoir. I admire those who do.

Arlee, I think you're juggling blogs along with those words and phrases :)

Ann Best said...

I'm having great fun reading everyone's comments. It's going to be a fun week with Lee!!
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wonderful post, Anne. I think you made a good point about how exposed a memoir can make you and the people you bring into your life story.

Manzanita said...

Thanks, Arlee for shining the spot light on Ann. This blog is a good idea and will get a lot of traffic.
Ann, As far as the age to write a memoir, I agree either young or old can bring out some fantastic memories but writing one's memoir when older is like a completion. The writer has had time to pull the fragmented parts together.

Arlee Bird said...

Julie -- I appreciate your visit. I postponed a lot of writing because of work and other things. I don't know if I could ever return to not writing.

Jennifer -- Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment.

Carol -- I am doing a bit of blog juggling for sure. It is interesting but also takes a lot of time.

Ann -- Thanks Ann. You've been getting some wonderful comments.

Sharon -- Writing memoir definitely puts things out there for all to see.

Manzanita-- Age definitely puts a different perspective on how we see things.


Stephen Tremp said...

I've never written a memoir as my life is kind of mundane. Routine. Even boring. Although I once used a rebroadcast, reproduction and other uses of this baseball game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.

Lynda R Young said...

I personally can't even begin to imagine writing a memoir, though I love to read them. Thank you so much to both Ann and Lee. Wonderful post.

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

You are such an inspiration!

I'm so glad we're never too old to write a memoir (since that's my favorite genre). That means I have a long time left to get better (hopefully). :0)

Journaling Woman said...

You are right, Ann, the next best thing to a mystery is a memoir. We like to hear about other people's lives hoping (I think) to get a glimpse of our own life.

Thanks Lee for hosting.

Ann Best said...

I'm LOVE all of your comments. I definitely agree with Journaling Woman. I know I like to hear about others lives. I always identify with others in some way. The experiences might be different, but we all laugh, cry, suffer, recover, plod along....

Susan Kane said...

Your memoir revealed that humanity is bound together by our capacity for love, and our vulnerability. I cried and laughed as I read it. Enjoyed the interview!

Tracy Jo said...

Great, informative interview! This was very helpful because I am working on a memoir of sorts...we will see where it goes. :-) I appreciate Ann's tips. Thank you!

Ann Best said...

Susan: I know a lot of readers cried. I did try to get in something to make you laugh, which I guess I did!

Tracy Jo: I'm glad I was helpful.

Linda Hoye said...

Arlee, thank you for hosting Ann. Ann, thank you for sharing your wisdom and experiences with us. You are, as always, an inspiration to me.

Arlee Bird said...

It's been a great week, Ann, and I want to thank you for being here with us. And as always I thank all of the readers--especially you who left a comment. It's always nice to hear from you.


Healthier And Wealthier said...

Thanks for writing. I've never thought of writing a memoir although I can't imagine why not. I think I should wait a little longer. I've wished I had a memoir from mother, and since she is only 91, there is still time. Gotta give that one some thought. Thk you. Sandra

Jeremy Bates said...

i think writing your own book is tough enough--and u have all the thoughts in ur head--i cant imagine how tough it would be to ghost write something!

Arlee Bird said...

Sandra -- If you are able to you might consider having your mother dictate her stories to you and you write them. I write down some of the things my mom tells me, but I wish I lived closer where I could sit down with her and she would let me video tape while she told me stories and histories.

Jeremy -- Ghost writing could prove to be a challenge to get inside someone else's head and recreate what you think they might write.