Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How To Write a Personal History Folks Will Want to Read

By Dawn Parrett Thurston

I picked this class because I needed an emotional break after the last one - couldn't quite handle the parenting class that I was heading towards, so I turned around and went back to this one. I already had to take a dose of Excedrin, earlier in the day than I had planned.

"When an old person dies it's as if a library burns down." You will always wish you had written down the stories they had, you think you'll remember, but you only remember basics, not the details.


some histories lack warmth, not personal, just details.

We come from a long Mormon tradition of keeping histories - Joseph Smith tells his personal story, Nephi starts with his family and their situation, lots of autobiographies of pioneers.

Spencer W. Kimball urges all people to write family history, encourage parents and grandparents to write family journals.

Life stories come in all flavors - personal history
-autobiography - history that covers scope of whole life
-memoirs - a portion of a life, just childhood, for example, like Angela's Ashes - some have a theme, like military career, a hobby, spiritual experiences
- personal essays - take a topic you are interested in, ruminate about it, include stories from your life
-journal, diary -
-blog entries
-story collection - random stories from life
-"graphic" memoir - pictures to go with the stories

What are you writing?
For me, I write blog entries and personal essays, focusing on my life as a mother of young children, so I can remember when my kids are older.

Who am I writing for? I write for myself, first, then my family, and then for friends who are both Mormon and not. My writing is on the Internet, so could be broadly public.

What is my completion deadline? I would like to write continually, not necessarily publish a completed book, but to always be writing. Maybe I'd like to write about my history, in story form, that would be a complete book.

Maybe have family contribute stories about particular topics, and then compile it in an anthology.

Components of a Personal History
Events - school, graduation, etc.
People - who influenced us, who shaped us
Places - they are also characters, where we lived shaped us also
Life Context - what was going on in the world around you when you were growing up, that might have shaped decisions that were made in your life
Reaction - what these events, people, places meant to us - people go awry here because they don't put in these personal feelings, be honest about how we are, how we feel about certain things. Especially in Mormon culture, we try to make us look like paragons of virtue, but it's unbelievable, and feels sterile.
Story - tell it like a story, don't write it like a report, not just expository.

Avoid pedigree chart stories, listing birth date, lists of names and dates, boring.

themes you'll hear this week:
being personal, be human, be honest, be fair, be specific, and use lots of details

getting started: make lists
build a database of information, to help recall
-make list of stories that must be told
-important people - your VIP list
-places you've lived
-favorites: toys, food, songs, and movies
-cars you've owned
-hobbies, classes you've taken, callings
-turning points in your life

What is a turning point?
A major event that changes the direction of your life.
- move, crises, chance comment, sometimes someone says something that changes who we are, mission, military, loss of loved one, new job.

Turning points in my life:
moving to California
moving to Eldersburg
meeting Ryan
having brad
Ryan telling me I should write
auditioning for to kill a mockingbird

make charts: chronological chart of date, event, and historical events that occurred at that time
(i.e. Birth date, event is birth, history is top songs of that year)

here's what I recommend:
1. Make list of stories that must be told
2. Pick a story that interests you and write about it.
3. Then pick another, etc.

big concept: show, don't tell
it makes all the difference in your writing. Telling is the book reports from school.

Comparing meanings: tell is explain, inform, describe, and narrate.
Show is demonstrate, exhibit, illustrate, reveal

"don't just tell me you love me, show me!"
the principle is as important to good writing as it is to good relationships.

telling summarizes, no evidence, instead tell a story or what someone would have really said, it shows who someone is by letting him or her speak. The reader makes the judgment, not you.

Instead of just telling facts, turn it into a scene, where personalities are revealed and feelings are displayed. It makes you feel like you are in the moment, learn more than just the facts.

Some people are gifted, but everyone improves with practice.

show with detailed description, so people can visualize what people looked like. First go round, just get something down on paper. Then on edit, what can you add to make this person be more alive? Add the detail afterwards.

how do you show?
Create a scene
creating dialogue
using details to put readers in the moment
writing descriptions

this is a website with the slides from a class on family histories, shared by the woman sitting next to me:

Wednesday – How To Write About People In Your Life: Making Them More Than Names On A Page

Writers read - read the kind of book you want to write
As you read, analyze what they are doing that makes the book so interesting to read.

Patrick McManus (humor writer) - he made a writing schedule 7-9 pm 7 nights a week and tried never to miss a day. It was pure writing time, not doing research, not making notes, not thinking about writing, just pounding the keys even when there was nothing to write. The writing eventually became better, if not easier.

When could I devote some hours a week to writing?

Online resource: www.memoirmentor.com has info, list of memoirs etc.

Day 2 - about people and breathing life into your characters

There are a lot of people in your life that changed who you are
Old flames

Put flesh on the bones of your people - your challenge is to make the people in your story more than just names on the page. They must seem like real people - what's unique, memorable, and human

Writing exercise - what is unique about a parent?
I moved to a new ward when I was newly married, newly pregnant, and knew nobody. I met a man who had served a mission in Maryland where I grew up. When I told him my maiden name, he burst out into a massive belly laugh, out of nowhere - in exact mimicry of my father. As it turned out, my father was the ward mission leader when this man was a missionary, 15 years before when I was about 5 years old.
My father is known for his frequent laugh. He has a great sense of humor and always looks for the humor in a situation. This gets him in trouble frequently, as my childhood is peppered with incidents where we'd be trying to pay attention to the sacrament talks and he'd be writing on the program all sorts of funny observations. It was completely irreverent, and quite possibly a bad example, but laughter is the main memory I have of my childhood.
Hearing my fathers laugh come out of this strangers mouth gave me an instant feeling of home in this new place.

How do you do it?
Show what they look like - detail, precision. How do novelists describe their characters? Avoid "she was short and attractive" too vague. "Average height and weight and middle aged" "stylish dresser" - leaves too much for imagination. Be aware of generations, who you are writing to, avoid generalities.

Book recommendation: Rick Bragg - It's all over but the shouting. Also the Prince of Frogtown.

Make your similes and metaphors apt and original.
-Hair was straight as a kite string on a windy day
-Words come out in a tumbled rush, like puppies spilling out of a cardboard box
-As dull as...
Don't use the some thoughts you always have.

Show people in action.
Capture your characters' mannerisms and behavior.
Does she fold her arms across her chest when she talks?
Does he clear his throat?
Does she walk or talk rapidly or slowly?
Is he checking his watch cleaning his glasses, straightening tie?
Can she sit still without doing something like folding laundry?

Don't just have talking heads, give them movement during dialogue.

Show how people affected others.
Show the reaction from someone's behavior, how they affect you, instead of just saying how the person is.

Translate emotions into behavior. Don't just say "I felt sad" show your behavior that shows sadness.

Book: Tobias Woolf's This Boy's Life

Get your feelings into it, how you felt about things is how you make yourself seem human.

Borrow a technique from movie directors
Use scenes in your story. Don't just summarize the events, actually recreate the moment and let the reader come along with you.

Writing about Places - Creating your life context

The importance of setting - the places we've lived our lives

Book: Growing Up by Russell Baker

Use senses, be descriptive

Building a place:
Sights, sounds, smells
Weather seasons

Don’t write a travel brochure. Don't include everything on that list; it's not an encyclopedia entry.

Things to consider:
What do people need to know to visualize your community the way you remember it?
What made it home for you?
How can you make your descriptions personal?

Recreate places as they were in your day, not how it is now.

Give a sense of place by using all of the senses.

Establish environment of other places visited, not just where you live.

Can write in the past tense, then enter a "scene" written in the present tense, then go back.

A backyard
An outhouse
A kitchen

Recreating Your World
How to develop your life context

No one was raised in a bubble. Things have been going on around us that influenced us, decisions parents made, or where you went to school, or how you felt about yourself. We can't leave those things out. Write outside the box, not just inside your life.

What is life context?
The communities where you lived - prejudice, small town, socioeconomics, did you fit in, major industry?
The family you came from - money, parent's personalities, discipline style, emotional problems, your position in the family, religion.
Local, regional, and national events - the Depression, wars, economics, local things.
Personality and I.Q.
Trends and fashions of the times - songs, movies

What does this mean? Our readers have to understand our world if they are ever going to understand us.

What does a reader need to know about my world to understand me better?
How was my experience different from what people experience today?
What influence did the event have on me?
Would I be any different if that event didn't happen?

What was it like to be a child in your day?
Family discipline
Relationship of kids to elders
Educational ideas
Recreation - what did you do for fun as a family?
Family routine, dinnertime
Childhood home, bedrooms
Societal norms, what is bad behavior
Family concerns, what did your parents worry about

Don't forget pop culture
Going to movies, going on vacation

Tie context material to your life
Don’t just include a laundry list of events
Show why this is important
Don’t take for granted that people know that history

Use Internet to do research
Life context stuff is vital to ancestral biographies

How has your life intersected with history? What historical events shaped, were memorable in your life?

Friday: How to write a page-turner, giving it some pizzazz.

"History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it." Winston Churchill

How to approach difficult situations, difficult people. If you want to write something that matters, it needs to be a matter of prayer. It's a big responsibility to write about the lives of people that are important to us.

How to write a page-turner:
Bring out conflict, without telling the ending, show the roadblocks, getting feelings on paper so they are rooting for you.

Don't worry about your image, about being the hero of your story. It distances people. Be human, and your readers will be drawn to you.

Book: Inventing the Truth, the art of memoir.

The gorilla in the room - the problem of truth telling. How much do we hold back? If we leave things out or put a fine gloss over things, it takes out the believability of our story. It casts doubt over the rest of the story. At the same time, we have other people's reputation in our hands.

there are ways of telling the truth that are less hurtful. If it's clear the author has an axe to grind, you think less of the author. You know that there's another side to the story. So if you're too hurtful, it's us that come across as bad. There's a way to tell it with humor and grace and have an ability to rise above.

How much truth can you handle? How much truth can your readers handle? It's easier to write about difficult people when they are not alive. But some family members can't handle anything that's not pleasant.

how do you handle personal or family skeletons?

"If you can't get rid of a family skeleton, you might as well make it dance." George Bernard Shaw.

It's a balancing act. Weigh these things:
Its importance to your story.

Writing about children is harder than about people who have gone before, because children still have their lives ahead of them and the promise of repentance.

What is your purpose in writing this story? Are you trying to purge guilt, or vent, or lay blame - selfish purposes, or are you trying to share with family, etc?
Who is your audience?
Your family - what kind of damage can you do?
The tone - are you striking out, blaming, putting labels on people?
Be fair. They often have reasons for being the way they are. Talk about motivations, contributing factors. Show both sides of someone, showing the negative and the good.
Your tolerance for criticism, rejection, or disinheritance.

You get as many chances as you want to get it right. You can write all the junk for therapeutic purposes, then let it sit. Maybe give it to a trusted person to review, see if you can make it gentler.

Tell the truth with love. Look at your motives, find grace and forgiveness, but don't hedge. Keep integrity.

Writing exercise: identify traits and their opposites. What would be the benefit of having that trait?

Get your facts right. What you hear from rumor that's been passed down, make sure there's validation for it.

Avoid moralizing. Stay off the soapbox, labeling people and acting more righteous than people. Remember the generational differences because what is acceptable at one time may not be in another.

Let readers form their own conclusions. Put it out there and don't put a judgment on it.

How much truth should you tell about yourself? Should you reveal things about your past that show you aren't perfect? They know you aren't perfect already. You don't need to show all the gory details - you will seem more human, you can show you've learned, grown.

Don't exaggerate.

Book recommendations:
Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
The glass castle
All over but the shoutin'
This boy's life - Tobias Woolf
When I was Puerto Rican - Esmeralda Santiago

Begin with a hook. Start with something to grab the reader's attention. Put you in the action right at the very beginning.
Middles and endings make better beginnings. Your birth wasn't very interesting.
Begin at a high point. What has your life been about?
Or begin at a low point. Story is about how you got there, and how you got to where you are now.

Journeys are good beginnings, life-changing events. Book: On Gold Mountain by Lisa See.

More than just a hook
Your beginning establishes your style, tone, and theme if you have one.

Cut the clutter. Decide what's essential and what's not. Select incidents that demonstrate certain things, if you show too much you'll bore people. Make list of stories that must be told or outline or chronology or table of contents to keep you on track.

Don't overdo adjectives and adverbs.

Writing is not a McDonalds hamburger. The cooking is slow, and in the beginning you don't know if you're getting a roast, a banquet or a lamb chop. Anne Lamott

Get a pair of fresh eyes to read your story. It's a lonely business, and you don't know how you're doing. You need someone to give you objective reactions.

By writing your story, you'll see you had a meaningful life.

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