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 26, 2011

Cool Cat Chat with Susan Kane

          Today I'm pleased to be joined by Susan Kane of thecontemplativecat and  Susan Kane, Writer.  I've enjoyed reading her contemplations and stories on her blogs and she has left frequent comments on mine.  It's good to get to know a little bit more about her.  She's stopped by to share some of her thoughts about writing memoir.

The family photo was taken in 1967.  Dad insisted that we would not smile.  Consequently, we all had giggle fits, and the photo shoot took an hour. 



Arlee:  I guess one question writers should get asked is:  When did you start writing?

Susan:  In third grade, I had grown into a voracious reader and absorbed books.  The only books available were the classic books, biographies, and Readers’ Digest Books.  The language level was challenging and intriguing.  When I finished all the third grade books, the teacher let me go to the fourth grader’s library.  By sixth grade, I had read all the books in the school, and was working through the Britannica Encyclopedias.

     Part of reading for me was responding to the book.  I wrote in a journal as I read, recording unknown vocabulary and copying down great sentences.  This was how I always read.  My writing branched off on its own, and I wrote the most awful love stories and mysteries. But I wrote volumes.

Arlee:  What inspired you to write as an adult?

Susan:  My paternal grandmother died four days before I married.  She was a brilliant gifted woman, who had told me stories of her generation, 1890s - 1972.  Five years after her death, I wrote a few pages about things she had told me about her fascinating life.  I typed on an old manual Smith-Corona, with my children playing/fighting around me.  It was great.

Then I wrote a romance novel (packed in a box in my office).  That showed me I could write anything lengthy.  I also got pregnant with our last child—too much research, I guess.

I have kept journals about everything:  trips, thoughts, prayers, everything.  Just the habit of writing as a response to life formed my own life as a writer.
My paternal Grandmother Amy is in her rocker; she was a highly educated woman, and loved to write poetry.

Arlee:  Your current work? What inspired this work?  


Susan:   In Preacher’s Creek takes place in a small rural farming town in the early 1950s. The time period is important because WW II is over, veterans have come home, and there is tremendous growth—in number of children and economically.  The town of Preacher’s Creek was established in 1820 and most of the residents are descended from the original settlers. 

       Family history and stories are part of life in this town.  The main character and voice is Ellen Jo Carter, with her brother Kent James.  Both are young children and are blessed with vivid imaginations, adventurous spirits, and insatiable curiosity.  The sleepy town that was content with its predictable life is faced with the issues and unspoken prejudices that the Carter children discover and uncover.

       I am a child of this era in America, born and raised on a farm, and part of the ‘Boomers’.  The events in the book may have a spark of truth in them, but mostly they come from my life experiences.  As an elementary teacher, I do know children and the actions they would take in any given situation. 

      The book is finished; I am currently editing.  This is the most frustrating part of writing, I think.

Arlee:  Why did you decide to write this book now?  Why not years ago?

 Susan:   I was teaching until 2008, and that consumed my creative passions. Two of my brothers died unexpectedly at ages 46 and 44.  My youngest brother’s death pulled my feet out from under me and dragged me in the sand.  Grieving for them and then my husband’s father, “Dad”, had left me emotionally numb. 


        Finally, my pastor suggested that I write, like I always have-- in response to life.  That was the genesis of this book. 

Arlee:  Is there any particular piece of literature that impacted you, as a writer?

 Susan:   Actually, there is one book among all the influential books I have read: The Source by James Michener.  This was published in 1965 just as I was heading into high school.  I had never read such a huge book.  I had study hall in the library; every day I would pull that monster of a book down from the shelves and be carried away by the quality language and events.  History can grab me and amaze me. 

      It was the idea of “layers” of archeology as applied to the layers of writing in a piece of literature that was an epiphany.  Characters are really complex people, multi-dimensional.  Going back in time through the archeological dig was parallel to discovering the characters through their ancestors. 

      The importance of understanding history—our own family’s history, as well as world history—is vital to growth as a person.  I am beginning to appreciate that more and more as I ‘mature’.
The Mark Twain Cave photo was taken in 1959; we were so eager to run to the cave entry, and instead forced to get the photo taken.

Arlee:  What personal characteristics affect your writing? 

Susan:    My sister has informed me that I am positively “dripping with empathy”.  It is true.  I am also compelled to write, not as an obsession, but as a way to make sense of being.

Arlee:  Well, the time is almost up.  Last question:  What can writers do to improve their own writing?

Susan:   My suggestions:  Read quality writing; and, read literature outside one’s own genre.  Too many writers limit themselves to their own area of interest, and that can make their prose stutter to a stand-still.

Arlee:  Well, then.  Let’s stop here.   I gotta go check my dashboard.

Susan:   And, I have to go to the bathroom.  Great talking with you.

        That was abrupt, but when ya gotta go ya gotta go.  It was nice having Susan Kane join us here today.  Be sure to visit her blogs and become a follower if you like what you see there.  


          Thank you, Susan Kane.


           Next week I have a visit from memoir blogger and author Deanna Hershiser .  Please come back to hear Deanna's take on the topic of writing memoir.   






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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lessie Nell and Essie Dell

Main Street todayImage via Wikipedia
Main Street Roswell, New Mexico

          In my Tossing It Out posting from yesterday I mentioned that I had relatives in Roswell, New Mexico.  The following is what I know of this part of my family according to what I was told to the best of my recollection.  There may be some inaccuracies and if there are perhaps I will be able to rectify these later.  To my knowledge the information is at least mostly true if not totally true.

          My grandmother was a twin.   Lessie Nell and Essie Dell Wilson were born in 1903 near Morgantown, West Virginia.   In the early 1920s, shortly after the sisters graduated from high school, their family decided to move to Sweet Grass, Montana.  My grandmother chose to stay in West Virginia and marry Paul Hough Trevillian.  Also staying behind and marrying were two other sisters, Flossie Lanoe, and Lovie Ethel.  My grandparents lived in Morgantown until my grandfather died in 1972.  My grandmother remained in Morgantown for several years after that, later moving to Philadelphia to live with one of her daughters--my aunt.

           But this story is about my Great Aunt Essie.  After moving out west she only returned to West Virginia once in about 1935 with her husband and two children.  My mother, who would have been about seven at the time, vaguely recalls the visit, but does not remember how they got there.  She's pretty sure they came by car--probably from Montana--but she can't say for sure.  Other than that the sisters never saw one another again as far as I know.

          I'm not totally sure why they moved, but I would imagine it was for economic reasons.  Perhaps Mr. Wilson was taking advantage of the oil boom that was starting up in Montana in those days.  Essie met Roy, the man who became her husband, after moving to Montana.  I'm pretty sure that Roy ended up in the oil business as he and Essie eventually uprooted their young family first to Wyoming and then finally to Roswell, both places with strong ties to the oil industry.

           I don't know whether they moved to Roswell before or after the alleged UFO crash in 1947 that has brought such fame to the city, but it was probably somewhere around that time when they settled there and lived for the rest of their lives.

          During the eighties when the show I was managing had yearly bookings in Roswell, I would always find some time to visit Aunt Essie.   Her husband Roy had died in 1983, so since I never met him I know my visits started after that year.  My wife, daughter, and I would go to the house where she lived with her son, Roy Jr., who was probably about sixty years old.  We would always be joined by Essie's daughter Phyllis and her husband.

           We'd share stories about the family members in the east and the west who rarely had opportunities to see each other.  Aunt Essie would pull out photo albums to show me a pictorial family history of the side that I rarely heard anyone on the more familiar side of the family discuss.   These were pictures of strangers who had been separated by distance and time.

            It was kind of funny that though Essie Dell and Lessie Nell were twins, they were not identical twins.  They looked nothing alike and behaved in very different manners.  My grandmother Lessie was a tall, thin woman who looked dignified and spoke like an intellectual.   My Aunt Essie was short and had a down-home air about her.  They both had keen senses of humor and were just as sweet as they could be.  If you'd met them you'd never known they were from the same family.

          Visiting Aunt Essie and her family became a yearly event for me and my family.  I don't remember ever going to see the UFO museum in Roswell.  In retrospect I wish I had brought the UFO crash topic up with my relatives to see what their take on the story was and if they had anything to add to what I'd  heard about it.  Folks in Roswell probably find the tourists' focus on UFO aliens a bit amusing, but I'm sure they welcome the influx of dollars spent in the community.

           My last visit to Roswell was in 1988.  My grandmother died not long after I visited Aunt Essie.  That visit would be the last time I would see Essie and her family.  After that final tour we would settle down in Tennessee for a few years.  A second child had been born to us and our oldest was now of school age.  The road life had ended and so had our yearly visits to my various relatives around the country.

             Aunt Essie died in 1993 at age 90.  I would imagine that Roy Jr. and Phyllis still live in Roswell, but I don't keep in touch so I don't know for sure.  It seems like an odd place to end up, but if you've been somewhere for years why move?  It's kind of a shame that I haven't kept in touch.

            Sometimes it happens.  Families move away and drift apart.  It's like branches being cut off a tree and replanted elsewhere to grow new trees.  One family tree is the beginning, but then it turns into a whole bunch of family trees growing all over the country.  Throughout the country I have family that I know about and probably some that I don't even know exist.

           The nice thing about traveling was that I got to see some of those kinfolk sometimes.  The bad thing about not traveling is not traveling, just being at home, missing those family times. But I guess that can be a good thing too.  You just take the good with the bad and then realize that the bad isn't really always all that bad.  Nothing stays the same anyway.


            Next Saturday Susan Kane from thecontemplativecat and Susan Kane, Writer sits down for a fun and  informational chat with me.   I think you'll like this interview a lot.



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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.

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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!

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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)





         

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Living at the County Fair

         My father had a regular day job as an accountant, but on some weekends and occasional weekdays we would be out working our juggling act.   His idea of a family summer vacation was to have our agent book a two week tour of Midwestern county fairs.  We made money while having a lot of fun.

         The fair circuit usually consisted of performing as part of a grandstand show during racing events or as a feature attraction a couple times a day.  We'd park our trailer in the middle of the track with the other performers and stay a few days until it was time to move on to the next county fair.

         This was great fun for me in my early teens.  What could be greater than living at a county fair for a few days?  We would only have to perform two or three times a day and only for a few minutes each performance.  The rest of the day we were free to enjoy the fair activities.

          As a courtesy, the carnival would provide the show kids unlimited ride passes.  Talk about being unleashed carte blanche in the candy store.  And though we always took full advantage of our ride privilege, there were so many other things to do.

          One of my absolute favorites was walking through the exhibit halls, especially the commercial and public service exhibits where they would hand out free samples, pamphlets, and other advertising materials.  I could always find one booth that would provide heavy plastic bags printed with advertising.  Then I'd take my bag and fill it up with the freebies they were handing out at the booths.  The take might include pencils, pens, buttons, rulers, and all sorts of printed materials.

           Today--November 5th, the day this post goes on line--I'll be at the BlogWorld Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center.  This event will be much like going through those county fair exhibit halls.  I don't know what the freebies will be, but I'm sure I should be collecting some interesting literature, seeing some fascinating exhibits, and talking to some friendly people.

            Did you attend county fairs when you were young?    What are some events that you have attended for the purpose of learning or to just look around?






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