Writing Your Family History: Five Hints from Chloe’ Yelena Miller

My friend Chloé Yelena Miller will present a workshop on “Writing Your Family History” at the Ann Arbor Book Festival Writer’s Conference, which will take place on Friday and Saturday, May 15-16, 2009. (Chloé is also coordinating the Author Breakfast that will take place as part of the Festival on May 16.)

If you can’t get to Ann Arbor, you’ll appreciate Chloé’s guest post, featuring tips on her workshop topic. And if you can get to Ann Arbor, perhaps you’ll want to check out the conference for yourself.

Writing Your Family History: Five Hints from Chloé Yelena Miller

On the first day of an adult memoir writing class I taught a few years ago, I asked the students what motivated them to take the class. One elderly woman said that she has been waiting for her children and grandchildren to ask her about her life story. They never did. She decided to take up the pen and write her own story.

Don’t risk losing your family’s stories. Here are five hints to help you collect, preserve and share family stories.

    1. Start with what you know. Make a list of memories. Then, work step by step to add details and develop the narrative scene by scene. Try to include details that involve the five senses (What did the food taste like? Was there air conditioning?)

    2. Expand on your memories by discussing them with family members. Inevitably, they will remember something differently. One technique is to share what you’ve written and ask them to fill in the blanks. Ask specific questions (What do you remember eating on your birthday? How did you find your first job?) Another technique, which is a more standard interview process, is to ask your family members very open ended questions. You could start with asking them about their earliest memories and what they enjoyed doing as children. Practice listening and don’t interject your own memories. See what they come up with.

    3. Family history isn’t relegated to the past. Journal regularly to keep track of your life and what you witness. Include quotes from relatives that display their tone and speech patterns. Note where and when moments took place such as personal moments between you and a loved one and national moments, like Obama’s inauguration.

    4. Learn (or remember) more about the past. If you are writing about something from your parents’ generation, read contemporary novels that they might have read as teenagers. Watch movies set in that period. Look at local newspaper ads. The word changes so quickly; remember what it was like then (without the internet, cell phones, etc.) Consider how daily life was different and use your findings as prompts for future questions.

    5. Share your findings with family members. You may decide to make photocopies of your stories and documents, share scanned pictures on a website or even ask family members to write their own memories. This last holiday season, I asked family members to write a short piece about past Christmas celebrations. Each resulting piece was intimate and shared a slightly different experience. Being from a younger generation from most of the contributors, I loved learning about their past in their own words. They brought up details that I wouldn’t have known to ask about. Relatives had a chance to organize their memories and reminisce together, even across geographical boundaries.

My mother, a professional photographer, and I have compiled a collection of paired poems and photographs documenting our family’s emigration from southern Italy to New Jersey. These pieces are based on visits to the town where our family originated, oral histories collected with Americans and Italians, historical documents and cultural history about the towns and time periods involved. What we created contains an emotional truth and some facts, but the stories mostly contain facts as we experienced them or as they were told to us. We continue to translate the experiences in the form of our art.

Good luck and enjoy the journey.

Chloé Yelena Miller has poems published or forthcoming in Alimentum Journal, Lumina, Privatephotoreview.com, South Mountain Poets Chapbook, Sink Review and The Cortland Review. Her manuscript, Permission to Stay, was a finalist for the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. She teaches writing online for Fairleigh Dickinson University and edits Portal Del Sol. She received an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. from Smith College.

Saturday Special: Win A Book!

The giveaway is now closed! Thanks to everyone for participating. I’m particularly happy to welcome the blog’s new readers! And I’m delighted to announce that KIMBERLY ZOOK has won a copy of Christina Katz’s Writer Mama. Kimberly, please e-mail me with your mailing address, and I’ll forward the info to Christina.

Saturday posts don’t happen too often around here, but I’ve made an exception to help celebrate the two-year anniversary of the publication of Christina Katz’s Writer Mama book. This post is for all my writing friends, whether they are “writer mamas” or not!

Please welcome our guest blogger, Christina Katz!

The Writer Mama Two-Year Anniversary Blog Tour Giveaway!

Post #28: Your Book’s Features

During the book writing process, you’ve made an effort to make your book as unique as possible, right? Well, now that your book is complete, you have your first opportunity to write down the features that makes your book desirable to your book’s targeted audience.

Features are the simple facts that describe your book like size, length, font choice, cover design, etc. Sure, features sound straightforward, but one of the advantages of working with a traditional publisher is that care and consideration are devoted to every aspect of your book’s production. If your publisher has gone to some lengths to make sure your book has unique features to suit your audience, you’ll want to highlight those features as you prepare to market your book.

For example, Writer Mama has some unique features. First of all, the book was intentionally designed in a small, chunky size so it would be easy to stash in a diaper bag or give as a shower gift to a new mom. Over the past couple of years, dozens of moms have commented to me that they appreciate the stash-able, sturdy size. Will your book have a unique size or shape? Or is size not a marketable feature?

How was your book written to particularly suit your readership? For example, the short chapters with lots of condensed information were purposeful to make Writer Mama easy for a mom to read while sitting in a waiting room or car-pooling. I just re-connected with a friend from sixth grade who keeps her copy of Writer Mama stashed in her car so she can read it while ferrying her four kids around town. Mission accomplished! Now describe your book. What’s special about the way it is written or organized? Have you taken the reader into account? Or is format not a feature you’ll highlight?

You’ve probably noticed that book covers vary greatly from the most simple, two-color text only cover all the way to the fully designed, four-color cover extravaganza. Another unique feature of Writer Mama is the colorful, stylish book design. So many how-to writing books are a turnoff because they are gray, businesslike, and boring. In contrast, Writer Mama is sassy, fun, with a starburst of color on the cover. The book designer, Claudean Wheeler, really outdid herself when designing the cheerful cover and bright inside designs. Does your book’s cover design reflect something about the book’s intended reader?

You’ll want to remind readers that care and consideration has gone into the design and production of your book. So be sure to pay attention during the production process so you can communicate the distinct features when you are ready to start promoting your book.

Today’s Book Drawing: To enter to win a signed, numbered copy of Writer Mama, answer the following question in this blog’s comments:
What unique features will your book have that will take the reader’s needs into account? Or what book from your bookshelf do you love for the way it suits your unique needs as a reader?
Thanks for participating! Only US residents, or folks with a US mailing address can participate in the drawing. Please only enter once per day.

Where will the drawing be tomorrow? Visit http://thewritermama.wordpress.com/ to continue reading the rest of the Writer Mama story throughout March 2009!

Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids by Christina Katz (Writer’s Digest Books 2007)
Kids change your life, but they don’t necessarily have to end your career. Stay-at-home moms will love this handy guide to rearing a successful writing career while raising their children. The busy mom’s guide to writing life, this book gives stay-at-moms the encouragement and advice they need including everything from getting started and finding ideas to actually finding time to do the work – something not easy to do with the pitter-patter of little feet. With advice on how to network and form a a business, this nurturing guide covers everything a writer mama needs to succeed at her second job. Christina Katz is also the author of the newly released Get Known Before the Book Deal, Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform (Writer’s Digest Books 2008).

The Wednesday Web Browser: Questions for Deborah Treisman, Wiki for Job Seekers, and Guidance for Guest Bloggers

Have a question for New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman? Ask it here. And don’t forget to check out the magazine’s new Winter Fiction Issue, which is packed with promising stuff I have yet to read!
John Griswold (aka “Oronte Churm”) points us to a wiki for those on the academic job market in creative writing.
Guest-blogging advice
galore on Buzz, Balls & Hype. (via The Book Publicity blog)

Guest Post from a New MFA Student

I am happy to present this guest post from Deonne Kahler, who is about to begin the MFA adventure here in New York (at Queens College of The City University of New York). Please check back for a follow-up post from Deonne once her program gets underway. Enjoy!

A Fifth Reason to Go to Grad School? All the Ramen I Can Eat!

by Deonne Kahler

When I tell people I’m about to start an MFA program they say, Gee Deonne, you’ve already accumulated hundreds of clips (the result of writing for newspapers for seven years) so you must know how to string words together. Why the heck do you want to spend the money and time on a degree that might not increase your writing income one iota? (Question: is my use of the word “iota” further proof I don’t need an MFA?) And don’t you think you could just spend more time in bars (a la Hemingway, but without that nasty suicide business) and gather material that way? Don’t you think you should skip the academics, live life, and just write?

That’s perfectly fine advice, and I must admit it’s tempting to have a legitimate reason to spend more time in bars. But then I’d probably just end up writing some sad chronicle of my years battling alcoholism, involving overuse of the words “vomit,” “rock bottom,” and “rehab,” and lord knows we have enough of those.

The “just write” part is legitimate if you either feel like you already have a good grasp on craft, or you don’t and are prepared to learn by doing a lot of self-directed reading and writing. But if you’re anything like me that could take a long time, meaning, I’m a world-class procrastinator – I’m the Michael Phelps of procrastination. (Question: isn’t my willingness to use lame metaphors proof I do need an MFA?)

My reasons for going to grad school:

1. Focused, structured study of the art and craft of writing. I’ve yet to find a bartender who offered me a reading list, deadlines and critique.
2. A ready-made community of writers, both fledgling (students) and accomplished (faculty).
3. The chance to work on a literary journal (QC’s Ozone Park). This in tandem with my internship at The Feminist Press should give me excellent publishing and editorial experience.
4. Because I can. I’ve got the savings (for awhile, anyway), I’m entirely unencumbered, and I really, really, really want to do this. ‘Nuff said.

There’s only one thing I’m anxious about: grades. My undergrad experience in that department was, ahem, less than stellar, and I’m already anxious about that first grad school report card, because I’m pretty sure if it’s bad my parents will ground me. Other than that, I’m psyched for the experience. Like Michael Phelps before a race. (Somebody stop me.)

Here’s what I hope to accomplish at Queens:

1. Become a better writer. Duh.
2. Complete a manuscript. Whether that will be a novel or memoir remains to be seen, and I’m giving myself the first semester to decide. We don’t technically have to start our thesis (the manuscript) until second year, but I’m a slow writer and get anxious if I don’t have enough time to do something I care about. So I’m planning to start early.
3. Develop a daily writing practice. Up until now my non-freelance writing has been haphazard at best. I believe great writers are born from hard work and regular practice (how very Calvinist!), and since I do want to be great, or at least extra good, I’ll need the discipline of regular writing to carry me beyond the structure of grad school.

That’s where I’m at. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going, but if you don’t hear from me it means I sent home a terrible report card and am on restriction until I get my grades up, and I’d better quit my crying or I’ll really have something to cry about. Wish me luck.

Friday Find: Guest Post on the London Book Fair

Today we’re lucky to have a report on the London Book Fair direct from the United Kingdom. Wales-based BJ Epstein went to London for the occasion, and provides a guest post here. Thank you, BJ!

On April 14-16, the London Book Fair took place at Earl’s Court in London. The fact that the fair’s official directory was over 400 pages tells you something about how many attendees and exhibitors there were. Categories included everything from animal care and breeding to English as a foreign language, from computer books to religious texts, from fashion to military, and from paranormal to travel books.

The Arab world was the focus for this year’s fair, and that meant that there were many stands with information about various Arabic-speaking countries and their literature. Some offered traditional pastries, travel information, or fact sheets, too. The booth for Saudi Arabia had two very large models of mosques, the Great Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque. Another booth featured 1001 Inventions, an exhibit on what Muslims have contributed to the world, including vocabulary worlds and medical techniques. One of the many cafés at the fair offered foods such as hummus or kebabs.

As a translator, writer, and editor, I often had the sense that the fair wasn’t really for me. Publishers and agents were on the prowl, looking to buy and sell rights, and they weren’t always very friendly when people who were not there to do business came by. Meanwhile, printers, distributors, packagers, stationers, and other such exhibitors sat in their booths alone, seeming a bit lonely. Several times, while looking at books on display, I was eagerly asked what publisher I was from, and when I replied that I was a translator, people quickly lost interest and left me alone to browse. I had thought that publishers would want to talk to people who could serve to translate, edit, or promote their works, and not just to other publishers or literary agents.

Personally, I found it most interesting to talk to people from literary organizations and from magazines. I learned more about how literary organizations from places such as Russia or Thailand try to promote their works abroad and also about subsidies for translation (for more on this, see my blog).

Another part of the fair that I quite enjoyed was a presentation on e-books. I learned that sales for e-books have increased dramatically in the past year or so, especially in the case of academic texts (because students are used to reading on-screen and also appreciate the lower prices of e-books), romance novels, and niche books, among others. An example of a niche book that was given is one that teaches readers how to dance. An advantage of an e-book is that it can be embedded with videos or animation, so that instead of having to use both a book and a DVD, everything is together on one “page”, and readers can read and practice dancing at the same time. I had known very little about e-books before (despite having edited and produced one as a fundraiser for Bryn Mawr College), and I found it fascinating to hear about all the different formats, readers, and methods of promotion. If e-books catch on as the speaker predicted, this could be a real boon to writers who want to cut out the middleman and produce their own books, since e-self-publishing isn’t too respected at the moment.

There were several seminars and readings at the book fair, but I missed them all because of other activities. One thing I didn’t miss was the cooking demonstrations. Next to a very large display of recent cookbooks from around the world, chefs such as Yann Barault from Le Cordon Bleu (who made cod with morels while berating his assistant) or Hayden Wood from Australia (who improvised cocktails, dancing and shaking the bottles at the same time), tempted us with samples of their creations. Many organizations and countries had receptions at various points during the fair, as well, sometimes at restaurants or at ambassadors’ homes.

I was at the fair for many hours, studying all sorts of books from every corner of the planet, and by the end, I felt overwhelmed by all the works out there. I knew I’d never be able to read even a fraction of those books, even though, like many practicing writers, I am an avid reader. I spent the entire train ride back to Swansea reading, visions of all the piles of the books spurring me on.