David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Category: The Memoir Project

Art of the Memoir: Lisa Schenke: A Son’s Fall to Suicide, a Mother’s Rise from Grief

LisaS_WT_design_blueWe first met Lisa Schenke at Book Towne on the Jersey shore.  In one minute she told us the story of her son Tim’s suicide, which led to a series of copycat suicides in South Jersey.  It broke our hearts.  Not just because it was so gut wrenching, but because she told it so beautifully, and with such breathtaking honesty.  Knowing that there’s an epidemic of suicides among teenagers in America is different than staring into the eyes of a mom who’s beloved son jumped in front of a train.  But having a story and writing a book are very different things.  Without Tim: a Son’s Fall to Suicide, a Mothers Rise from Grief is out, so we wanted to talk to her about the process of turning her tragedy into a book.  And, during National Suicide Prevention Month, about the terrible problem of teenage suicide.

DAVID HENRY STERRY: What made you decide to write this book about such a horrific, and very personal subject?

Lisa Schenke book photo 11-12LISA SCHENKE: I felt that I had a story to tell, a story that would help others. My initial goal was to help those who are grieving, especially from a suicide. However, the further along I got with organizing my thoughts and the content for the book, the more I realized I had a bigger goal: to help teens and young adults who are struggling with the many issues facing them today. That’s how my book developed into two storylines: my recovery after Tim’s death, and glimpses into Tim’s life as he grew up- both his accomplishments and his troubles. I was also kind of motivated by people always asking me things like “How do you survive? I don’t know how you do it? How do you get up in the morning?”

DHS: Was it difficult to go back over these terrible events?

LS: Yes and no. Some days were heart-wrenching; trying to figure out the right way to express something so important to me. I also worried about putting my husband, children and immediate family members “through this” again. But more often than not, the writing helped clarify and solidify the details that I never want to forget. And I often reminded myself that I wanted other young people to understand how much they are loved.

DHS: Did writing this story help you in any way?

LS: Yes, very much. I feel that I voiced what many other parents are unable to share. While trying to convince other parents that they are doing the best they can, I kind of convinced myself that I did my best too. I also feel that it is a tribute to Tim. Also a tribute to my family. I want to make a difference in suicide prevention, I’m proud of my family. So many reasons that I wanted to expressing myself. I don’t claim to have the answers, but feel that telling my story can be comforting to teenagers who relate,  parents who have lost a child, and any parents raising teenagers.

DHS: What was the process of publishing like for you?

LS: Very complicated at first! Nothing I had ever been exposed to before. I chose not to send to many publishing houses and not to wait a long period of time before deciding to self-publish instead. I evaluated the pros and cons of self-publishing long and hard before proceeding. I am somewhat of a control freak, and I really LOVED my cover design. After being denied by a few publishers and realizing that I wouldn’t have control over many aspects of the book, including the cover, I chose to self-publish. I got a lot of professional  help by connecting to quality people for each area including copy editing, proofreading, book formatting, etc. I am extremely satisfied with the final product and feel I did not cut any corners in producing a high quality book.

DHS: Did you get help from an editor, and if so, how did this work?

LS: Yes! Each editor I worked with gave me the option of accepting/rejecting the suggested changes. Whenever I had questions, they were open to discussing. My mentor, Arielle Eckstut, was my content editor and she helped me tremendously. She clearly explained when/where the material did not flow, helped with length of chapters, pointed out all areas where chapters did not have a clear endpoint, the list goes on and on. However, Without Tim was always MY book. I never felt as though any of the editors were taking over the writing process.

DHS: What advice do you have for writers who want to tell their personal story, both in terms of writing and the publishing process?

LS: I think of myself as a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” person. I started with outlines containing many, many details of memories and little stories of things I wanted to include in my book. After months of doing nothing more than writing lists, outlines, and short paragraphs, I was finally ready to begin. For me, writing was not like you see on TV: someone sitting at a typewriter or computer moving along chapter 1, chapter 2, …  Also, I would not suggest using a ghost writer. I tried that for a short time, then ended the contract. I don’t feel anyone can tell your story other than you! Regarding the publishing process: I chose to hire professionals to help me because I have no expertise. Arielle helped me in finding quality help without spending a fortune. I published through Amazon Createspace. Because I was not confident with the book formatting process, I did hire a book formatter even though it’s possible to do it yourself. In the end, I will be happy if I can get “out of the red.” I did not write a book to make profit, but it would be nice if I can earn back my expenses! And then I will choose to donate to my son’s scholarship fund and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)!

DHS: What would you say to parents who are worried that their teenager may have suicidal ideations?

LS: I think parents should seek help, better to err on the side of caution. Even though most  troubled teenagers will not end up going through with suicide, they most likely need some help. And if you or your child doesn’t like or connect with the counselor, keep trying another one. Sometimes the match takes time. I know it is frustrating to have to “start again” with your whole story but it’s worth it if you find someone your teenager trusts. Try to help your teen understand that it’s ok to have fears, insecurities, … and that there is a way to get to a better place. Try to be calm and patient; something I wish I would have been better at.

DHS: Do you have any tips for parents on how to deal with grief after a loss like this?

LS: My book describes much of my journey. For me, the infrequent signs I received from Tim were probably the most motivating and positive aspect. However, they were infrequent and never seemed to come when I asked/begged for them! I was fortunate to be surrounded by so many great people, and kind of forced myself to try to rely on them. I also love fresh air and bike riding and returned to it very quickly. I think the path depends largely on the individual’s personality, and my personality is to “dive in” to whatever project I am faced with, good or bad. My grief counselor constantly reminded me to go with the good feelings whenever I could feel them, even though I often didn’t even want to. Then, when difficult times returned, it would eventually become easier to find my way out of them again.

Lisa Schenke was a longtime systems analyst turned personal fitness trainer, but with her son Tim’s suicide in 2008, she took on another line of work. She became passionate about getting the message out to struggling teens and young adults to celebrate and embrace life, and assisting others through the grieving process after a loss of a child or loved one. Lisa has been involved in the Hold On suicide prevention fundraising efforts for 2NDFLOOR Youth Helpline. She’s been featured everywhere from the Star-Ledger, to MSNBC.com, to the American Association of Suicidology newsletter. Readers can contact her at http://www.withouttim.com

The Book Doctors have helped dozens and dozens of amateur writers become professionally published authors. They edit books and develop manuscripts, help writers come up with a platform, and connect them with agents and publishers. Their book is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.   Arielle Eckstut has been an agent for 20 years, and founded the iconic brand Little Missmatched.  Her new book, written with her mom Joann, is The Secret Language of Color: Science, Nature, History, Culture, Beauty and Joy of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet. David Henry Sterry is the author of fifteen book, and his new book is Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition. He can be found at https://davidhenrysterry.com/

 

 

 

Art of the Memoir: Alan Black on the Illusion of Chaos, Copernicus and the Straight Railway Track to the Grave

To commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I have decided to do a series of interviews with memoirists I admire.  I’ve known Alan black for many years, and I’m not ashamed to say it publicly.  I met him when he was running literary events at The Edinburgh Castle, in the groin of San Francisco’s seed-filled Tenderloin.  In the name of full disclosure, we wrote a book together.

David Henry Sterry: Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?

51Os1eNYbkL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_AB: I didn’t write it in His name. I wrote it I my own name. God had already published a couple of biographies, the Bible, the Koran and He even has a global rights deal out in the East with the Upanishads in India. I thought about using His name but then I figured Oprah would find out and I would be exposed as a fraud and I like to keep my fraudulence private like my flatulence.

DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?

AB: Reversing the Copernican model of the solar system. The sun went around me. When you’re at the center, it can be uncomfortable. I felt I was inventing myself. My entire life work of having others define me was in peril. I had to take responsibility for my own story and during the process of writing the book, all I could think of was Jim Morrison yelling at the audience, “No one gets out of here alive!”

DHS: What were the best things about writing your memoir?

AB: Working with an exceptionally talented editor who kept me straight. When I tried to bullshit him by re-inserting a petulant and infantile chapter in the document, he cautioned me – “Now you’re being a sanctimonious asshole. Let’s just get back to being an asshole.” Pure quality! Refreshing and direct. That’s the editor you want.

DHS: Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?

AB: I don’t see life as chaos. I see it as a straight railway track to the grave. The good parts are being able to go back to the restaurant car for a good meal or sitting in the observation car watching the world go by. And you meet the finest people on trains unlike planes or hot air balloons.

DHS: How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?

AB: None of it was random. I’m a Calvinist. Everything is pre-destined. If you work in a supermarket, you get to understand this. Everything has a sell-by date. It arrives ready to expire. I worked at Safeway as a kid and they still owe me for a week’s wages, the fucking bastards! I never shop there. However, I did learn one think working there – chaos is an illusion.

The beauty of baking the bread in the morning in the store’s bakery was as close to heaven as a person can get. For dough always rises. And tomorrow it rises again.

DHS: How was the process of selling your memoir?

AB: My agent was spectacular, the female 007 of publishing. Within a few hours of it being in the hands of an editor, it was sold.

DHS: How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?

AB: I tried hard – went on the radio, performed readings from the book, Google bought a box, but real life held me back via time. Having to work as a bartender for a living kept me short of hours to sell myself as “the next big thing.” Yeah right! I was busy throwing drunks into the street, breaking up fights, dodging punches, slopping up geographic vomit spatters in the shape of Long Island and sprinkling Holy Water Jameson droplets on bilious sociopaths while delivering the benediction – “the power of Christ compels you!” I am available for exorcisms at reasonable rates. I have met some evil spirits.

AB: Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?

AB: No.

DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?

AB: I don’t think any of them read it. And if they did, they kept it quiet.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?

AB: I hate you for asking that question! Yes, write your memoir. It’s your story. What else is there?

 

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition http://bit.ly/1ancjuE, has been translated into 10 languages.  He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.  He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp.  He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.  https://davidhenrysterry.com/

chicken 10 year 10-10-13

 

Art of the Memoir: Laura Schenone on Shooting High & Raw Parts: Bonus Video

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To celebrate the release of the 10 year anniversary of my memoir, Chicken,  I’m doing a series of interviews with memoirists I admire.  I first met Laura Schenone when I saw her read from her James Beard Award winning book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove.  She’s a beautiful, lyrical writer, who is somehow as good at reading her work as she is at writing it.  She manages to be one of those rare hybrids, a writer who is literary and page turning simultaneously.  I recently read her spectacular memoir, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken and I totally fell in love with it.  And it’s not really my kind of book.  I prefer writing where people are getting their heads blown off and/or are engaged in acts of insane depravity which showcase the darkest heart of humans.  Him but these books are so thoughtful, the storytelling so riveting, and the characters come to life in such a beautiful way, you feel like you’re floating down a warm river through a breathtaking countryside, with some crazy rapids waiting up ahead.  And she also writes about big subjects like family and food and love, using her own experiences often as a jumping off point to illuminate deep human truths.  She’s working on her next memoir, and we thought we would check in with her about what it takes to turn your life into a book.

David Henry Sterry: Why in gods name did you decide to write a memoir?

 

Laura Schenone: I don’t know that I decided.  I think I was writing it in my head my whole life.

 

DHS: What were the worst things about writing the memoir?

 

LS: Complete embarrassment of writing a memoir.  But also trying to make a character out of myself and be honest.

 

DHS: What were the best things about writing the memoir?

 

LS: That’s any easy one:  Italy.  Specifically, Genoa.   My memoir was a quest tale about the search for a long lost family recipe and involved travel there.  I studied the language, and that was wonderful.  I loved the place, the people I met, and the food.

 

DHS: Did writing the memoir help you make some sense out of the chaos we call life?

 

LS: Absolutely.  I felt far more at peace over some things once I’d finished it and still do.  I have much less of a need to look backward.

 

DHS: How did you make narrative out of the random events that happened to you?

 

LS: I had three interwoven themes.  One was the forward momentum of the search for something and an obsession with that.  The other was the flashback associative part in which the past flies up.  The third was me meditating about the present.  I wove them together in the most natural way I could.  In terms of sequence, there was mention of a love story between my great grandparents that had to go more toward the front of the book to hook the reader.

 

DHS: How was the process of selling your memoir?

 

LS: I’d just had a book that had done pretty well, so it was fairly easy.  I loved my editor at W.W. Norton and wanted to stay there.

 

DHS: How did you go about marketing and promoting your memoir?

 

LS: I cooked and made ravioli everywhere.

 

DHS: Did you have difficulty speaking to the public about the most intimate parts of you memoir?

 

LS: The raw parts I never read in public.  But there were times I was uncomfortable when people asked me questions I didn’t want to answer.  Sadly, my book didn’t have much sex in it, so that was no problem.

 

DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to the memoir?

 

LS: Some loved it.  Some really did not appreciate it in the least.  There were some very painful moments.

 

DHS: Any advice for someone writing a memoir?

 

LS: There are many memoirs out there.  Most are not good.  Your memoir really isn’t supposed to be just about you.  Before you begin, try to really understand the form.  Study the ones that manage to elevate personal experience to something far greater.  Shoot high.

Bonus Video:

The Real Clive Davis: Dishing the Skinny with Don Silver, the Man Behind the Man

413PS0eklTL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-70,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Now that Kelly Clarkson has called Clive Davis a liar and a bully, and revealed that she felt violated by his account of their relationship in his autobiography The Soundtrack of My Life, I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of a man who worked under Clive. Don Silver came to New York in his early 20s with stars in his eyes, a song on his lips and a dream in his heart. Using the chutzpah that only the young man can muster, he talked his way into becoming an A&R man, scouring the country looking for great new acts that Clive could turn into superstars. And now he’s written a memoir about it: Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl.

DAVID HENRY STERRY: What did you think of Kelly Clarkson calling Clive Davis a liar and a bully, that she felt violated by his book, that he belittled her and tried to sabotage her record?

DON SILVER: I take her comments at face value. She felt the way she felt during artistic disputes with Clive, whose job is to push artists to use material that will reach the widest audience. That Clive issued a statement saying essentially that her memories and feelings are wrong and that his book was fact checked by five witnesses is astonishing to me. Why be defensive? It actually makes the point that he is always trying to deny, which is that unless they want to be as rich and famous as possible, he often has a different bottom line than the artists he works with.

DHS: Did you observe Clive trying to change other artists to his own end?

DS: He was always looking for hit songs for artists that didn’t write their own. Once, he took what I thought was a pretty lame song I’d pitched for Manilow, “Whatever It Is,” and had Aretha Franklin record it. I thought to myself, really? You’re going to steal the Queen of Soul from her illustrious career with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records and turn her into a middle of the road singer? After the Band broke up, Clive pressed us for covers for Rick Danko, but this time I couldn’t bring myself to send anything in. While I was there he signed the Dead, whom I loved, and put pressure on them to be commercial, which resulted in two of their least satisfying albums, Shakedown Street and Go To Heaven.

DHS: So, what made you want to go into the ridiculous music business?

DS: I was a kid from the Philly who grew up on great music. It was the most important thing in life to me and I wanted as an adult to immerse myself in it. I was in a band, thought I had a really good ear, and I read–and re-read Clive Davis’s autobiography. I mean, I studied that book. I thought he was, based on that book, something of a god among men.

DHS: How did you get a job at Arista?

DS: I sent in my resume and then did what my dad told me every twenty-two year old who was driven did: I kept calling Clive’s office until one day, his secretary Rose called me back and said, “Be here tomorrow at 5. Clive will see you then.” I had enough of that innocent, ballsy belief in myself that used to (circa 1980) open doors–even for a kid like me.

DHS: What was it like meeting Clive for the first time?

DS: It was like having an audience with the great and wonderful OZ: I was ushered into his gigantic office, took a seat, then just listened while he pontificated about the music business. Then he started sampling music and asking me my opinion. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

DHS: What was your job there?

DS: I was a junior A&R guy, so my job was to listen to unsolicited tapes, scout new talent at clubs, and pitch songs to Clive for artists on the label. My office was what had once been a supply closet, but I had a seemingly limitless expense account. I was living the dream! Until, of course, I wasn’t.

DHS: What happened?

DS: I grew-up. Fast. I went through happens to a lot of young people who go into a business believing they’re going to be working with art, but when they get there, they find out that art and commerce don’t really mix. On top of that, I had hugely unrealistic expectations about what kind of a boss, what kind of a person, Clive would be: I thought he’d teach me how to do my job with a certain kind of integrity, a certain kind of style and grace. I expected him to be a sort of mentor figure. But I realized, pretty quickly, that he wasn’t someone I wanted to emulate. At all.

DHS: Why is that?

DS: I landed at Arista when he was in his golden days, building the company into a major label. He’d begun to master the manufacturing of the empty pop star. He wasn’t interested in making great music or cultivating artists–he was interested in selling hits. I was a guy who wanted to be around the kind of amazing music I grew up listening to, and here I was, working for a man who seemed determined to eliminate that soul–that heart–at all costs.

DHS: Don’t you think that’s a bit of a harsh assessment?

DS: Actually, I don’t. I worked for the guy who was able to host a party on the same night his “dear friend” and protege–Whitney Houston–died. And not only did she die that day, she died in the same hotel where he was throwing his party. That qualifies as pretty heartless in my book.

DHS: What happened after you left Arista?

DS: I left after just a couple of years, totally disillusioned, but not defeated: I started my own production company with my friend who’d been Clive’s former assistant. I wound up–of all things–becoming a writer. I guess, in the end, the artist in me prevailed.

Don Silver is the author of: Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl

His memoir about working with Clive Davis is available now.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Founder Chris Baty on Writing, Writers, Doing & Dreaming

We first met Chris Baty about a decade ago, when Arielle agented his book No Plot, No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. We watched as he built this strange, beautiful community of lunatics and dreamers who, every November, write a 50,000 word book in 30 days. NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, now has hundreds of thousands of participants all over the world, writing writing writing. Then last summer, an astonishing librarian named Amy Marshall brought us to rural Alaska with the NaNo team, to make cyber-presentations to libraries in the most remote parts of Alaska. We saw bears and whales and totem poles with Chris. He has boundless enthusiasm, a wicked sense of humor and he listens when you talk. The most telling thing we can say about him is that our daughter loves hanging out with him. She’s five years old. So Chris has moved on from National Novel Writing Month, and we wanted to check in with him to see what he’s working on now, and what he learned from being around all those crazy writers writing all those crazy books.

The Book Doctors: What in God’s name made you want to start National Novel Writing Month?

Chris Baty: I have a history of dragging friends into questionable endeavors, and NaNoWriMo was one of many self-improvement schemes that began with me saying “What if we all got together and…” I thought the 21 of us who agreed to write 50,000-word novels in July of ’99 would do it once, make a complete mess of it and never do it again. But somehow lowering our expectations and transforming novel-writing into a group activity — most of us got together after work to write — ended up doing good things to our brains and books. Our stories definitely weren’t anywhere near bookstore-ready, but they were promising in their own lopsided ways. And the experience of writing them had been more fun than any of us had dreamed.

TBD: Did you have any idea that it would take over your life?

CB: Not at all! It wasn’t until the third year, when I was planning for 200 participants and 5,000 people showed up, that I first realized that the idea might have some appeal beyond my friends.
I kind of blame the name for the event’s growth. For the first two years, everyone who took part in National Novel Writing Month knew it was a homespun challenge run by a twentysomething book nerd with a lot of enthusiasm and almost zero fiction-writing experience. When the third NaNoWriMo rolled around, though, a handful of blogs sent thousands of new folks to the site. They didn’t know the history. They just saw the “National Novel Writing Month” name and the long list of writers taking part and assumed it was some sort of vetted national literary initiative.
I think that gave all the newcomers a healthy jolt of confidence. Behind the scenes, I was worried that the magic from the first two years wouldn’t scale. But because everyone believed our promise that you can write a novel draft in a month, they did exactly that. And that was the tipping point. When those 5,000 people came back the next year, they brought friends with them. By 2006, when we became a nonprofit, we had 75,000 participants. By 2012, when I stepped down as Executive Director, we had year-round programs serving 300,000 writers, including tens of thousands of kids and teens writing books with our Young Writers Program. It was totally unexpected and completely wonderful and I never in a million years could have predicted any of it would happen back in 1999.

TBD: How did being surrounded in the sea of writers change you as a writer?

CB: First off, I think it helped me see that writing can be a great social activity. If you want to get more writing done, try working in the same room with other writers. There’s just something about the sight and sound of people typing that makes it easier to get words on the page.
It also made me a devout believer in the power of shared deadlines. Even if you can’t sit at the same table with other novelists, just knowing that you’re part of a group all working towards the same goal at the same time keeps you writing when the going gets tough. A terrifying deadline, coupled with a supportive community, can work miracles.

TBD: What mistakes do you see writers make over and over and over?

CB: I think a lot of writers set impossibly high standards for their first drafts, which tends to sabotage the creative process. I know why we do it: We’ve read so many great books, and we unintentionally use them as yardsticks to measure our own efforts. When we fall short (which, for me, usually happens around the second sentence), we take it as a sign that our stories are doomed. This is a tragedy because, as Ernest Hemingway said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” Most of the novels that have inspired us started out as horrible messes. Confusing plots. Flat characters. Clunky dialogue. I keep hoping that publishers will offer downloads of the first draft of bestselling novels as a public service to writers. I think we’d be astonished. And relieved.
To me, your novel’s true essence doesn’t become clear until you’ve written an entire draft. Finding out what your book is really about is the consolation prize granted to writers by the Novel Gods for all the hours of TV watching, internet surfing and personal grooming we had to forgo to get to The End. The life-changing thing about second drafts is that you get to take this newly clarified vision for your story and all the best bits from the first draft and shape them into something that’s better than the book you initially set out to write. And the third draft gets even more powerful. Which means that most important thing someone can do in the early phase of book writing is to turn off their inner editor and just focus on getting a beginning, middle and end down on paper. In an early draft, quantity trumps quality. A bad story decision is better than no story decision. There’s a wise saying that you can revise a bad book into a great book, but you can’t revise a blank page into anything but a blank page. Neil Gaiman wrote a fantastic pep talk for NaNoWriMo about how doubting your own writing abilities during a first draft is just part of the process. If you haven’t read it, I totally recommend it.

TBD: Your first book, No Plot No Problem was, of course, nonfiction. We heard on the grapevine that your working on a novel now, what’s it like making the transition to fiction?

CB: Yes! I’m in the middle of revising two NaNoWriMo novels, along with a couple of screenplays that were born in NaNo’s sister event, Script Frenzy. With non-fiction, it feels easier to isolate (and address) problems when something isn’t working in the piece. With novel revision, I get this vague feeling that something is broken in the machine, but it can be hard to know exactly how to fix it. I think this is one of the thing that makes fiction so irresistible and so frustrating — it’s a magnificent puzzle.

TBD: What your favorite thing about Alaska?

CB: Traveling by float plane! I also love the sense of humor that the miserable winters engender.

TBD: What’s it like watching all those NaNoWriMo writers get published? When one of our people gets a book deal, it’s a very happy day around our house.

CB: It’s amazing. Bashing out that first draft in NaNoWriMo is just the start of a long journey, and the writers who make it through to the end of their revisions are heroes regardless of whether the manuscript sells. That said, it’s totally exciting to see projects that started in NaNoWriMo show up on the New York Times Bestseller list or peek out from bookstore shelves. One of my favorite NaNoWriMo memories was going to see the Water For Elephants movie with the rest of the NaNo staff. So cool!

TBD: What are some of things you learned by watching all those people write 50,000 words in a month?

CB: 1) Everyone has a book in them. (Actually, that’s not totally true. Everyone has a bunch of books in them.)
2) Writing one of those books will change the way you see yourself, deepen the way you read and make life feel a little more magical.
3) You can have about a hundred cups of coffee in one sitting before the caffeine becomes lethal.

TBD: Where do you see the future of books going?

CB: I wish I knew! We’re clearly heading into the era of e-books. I’m guessing that within two decades paperbooks will become what vinyl records are now — cool, retro objects embraced by the faithful and seen as quaint and impractical by everyone else. Whatever form books take, though, I still see a big place for them in human hearts. People have been proclaiming the death of novels and reading for a long time. But I’ve watched hundreds of thousands of people voluntarily give up a month of their lives to take part in a writing contest where the only prize is the manuscript itself. I find this very reassuring.

TBD: Is there a huge gaping hole in your life where NaNoWriMo used to be?

CB: Yes! It’s hard not to be working every day with the incredible staff and volunteers who continue to kick so much literary ass. The nice thing about my role as board member emeritus is that I still get to write encouraging emails and give talks. I’m also still a very enthusiastic participant, and look forward to writing my 15th mediocre novel this November. I’ve also continued to work with illustrators to create posters for writers through my latest questionable living-room-based endeavor, Chris Baty Studios.

TBD: I hate to do this to you, but do you have any advice for writers?

CB: Keep going. Keep growing. Finish your book. And have fun.

Chris Baty founded National Novel Writing Month in 1999, and oversaw the growth of the annual writing challenge from 21 friends to more than 250,000 writers in 90 countries. Chris is the author of No Plot? No Problem! and the co-author of Ready, Set, Novel. When not revising his future bestseller about two monsters who find a VHS tape and set out to return it, Chris gives talks about writing and creativity, creates posters through Chris Baty Studios and freelances for such publications as the Washington Post, Afar magazine, theBeliever and Lonely Planet guidebooks. His quest for the perfect cup of coffee is never-ending, and will likely kill him someday.

 

Art of the Memoir: Marion Roach Smith on NPR, Hating Redheads, & Something Larger than Herself

MRS, croppedTo commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I have decided to do a series of interviews with memoirists I admire. Marion Roach Smith not only talks the talk, she walks the walks.  She is a memoirist, journalist, and has now written a book which every memoirist should own and scour. Here’s what she had to say about the Art of the Memoir

David Henry Sterry: Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?

Marion Roach Smith: Ha ha ha. I’ve written and published several, as well as countless radio essays, op-eds and the like from my point of view. My recent book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life, contains lots of personal essays.  I write memoir to understand things. My first book was an expansion of a New York Times Magazine piece I wrote about my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. She was 49 when she got sick, and there had never been a piece in the popular press about the disease. Hard to imagine now, I know. Mine was the first, and went on to become one of the most reprinted pieces in the magazine’ history. The first book followed. My reason for writing the piece was to do some advocacy journalism. Same for the book. Change the world. Get funding. Make people care. It worked.

DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?

MRS: There are no worst things. There are consequences, good and bad. On the good side, I’m quite sure that much like in life, success in writing is all about which aspects of your experience you choose to emphasize. In those terms, the worst thing, as you say, can be learning something you were unprepared to learn.

DHS:  What were the best things about writing your memoir?

MRS: The best thing is learning things you were unprepared to learn. Hey, it beats the hell out of watching reruns on TV or surfing the web. Some of my middle-aged friends tell me they would like to feel something again. Write about your life. I promise, you’ll feel something.

DHS:  Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?

MRS:  Order. Absolutely.

DHS: How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?

MRS: Random? Really? Says who?

DHS: How was the process of selling your memoir?

MRS: I have found that all my different pieces of memoir have done fine. The first sold off of a magazine piece, as I said. The second book-length memoir I wrote was tucked inside a book called The Roots of Desire, which is on the history of red hair. I’m a redhead. No one had ever written that rich history, so it was a first, and easy to pitch, tracing the mutation of a gene back to its eruption in the genome and looking at all the art and story, drama, iconography worship and hatred of redheads. It was a first. The individual radio essays I pitch to NPR, one at a time.

It goes fine.

DHS: How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?

MRS: I learned a great lesson years ago, which is to not go for reviews, but to go for features. So for book-length pieces, I contact newspaper feature editors, beauty and science editors (for the book on red hair, for instance), seeking feature pieces on the topic. It works well. I blog, I promote other writers, and they promote me; I use social media wisely.

DHS: Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?

MRS:  Not a bit. Successful memoir is not about me. It’s about something larger, and I am the illustration. That is, if you want anyone to read it. The intimacy with the audience becomes about the larger, universal topic. It’s a great experience.

DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?

MRS: Family is a pizza, and everyone gets a slice. That being the case, no two family members see or remember a single event the same way, so you are going to get blowback. “That never happened, “ is what you’ll hear. And she’s right, the sister who says that to you. “That’s not the way it happened,” I say to that. “To you. That’s the way it happened to me.”

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?

MRS: Memoir is about territory, and you have to stake yours out, walk its perimeter. When you do, you’ll find that each good story is bordered by your areas of expertise. I’m a woman, a sister, a wife, a mother, a member of my college board of trustees; I live with a fine dog, I sail, garden, play lots of sports. These are individual areas of expertise. Write from one of those at a time and you’ll never be tempted to write one of those turgid tomes that begins with the birth of your great-great grandfather, and ends with what you had for lunch yesterday.

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Marion Roach Smith believes that everyone has a story to tell. The author of four books, all of which contain a large degree of memoir, her most recent book is The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing–And Life, (Grand Central, 2011) an irreverent, quirky, provocative product of the countless memoir classes she has taught for more than a decade. Under the name Marion Roach, she is the author of The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair, (Bloomsbury, 2005), a wild blend of memoir and history; the co-author with famed forensic pathologist Michael Baden, M.D., of Dead Reckoning (Simon & Schuster, 2001), a hands-on, behind-the-scenes journey into the world of forensic science; and of Another Name for Madness, (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), the first, first-person account of a family’s dramatic struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. That book was an expansion of a record-breaking reprint of a piece she published in 1983 in The New York Times Magazine. A former staff member of The New York Times, she has written for The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, The Daily News, Vogue, Newsday, Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, Discover and The Los Angeles Times. A commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, from 2005-2011 she was the author and voice of The Naturalist’s Datebook, heard daily on Martha Stewart Living Radio, Sirius/XM 110.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages.  He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.  He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp.  He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.  https://davidhenrysterry.com/

 

 

Art of the Memoir: Tamim Ansary on Going Viral and the Importance of Not Knowing Where You’re Going

To commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I have decided to do start The Memoir Project.  I’ll be doing a series of interviews with memoirists I admire.  I have known Tamim Ansary for what seems like a lifetime, but isn’t.  He runs the San Francisco Writers Workshop, and in that capacity he demonstrates every Tuesday night how much he knows about writing and books and people.  He’s been a professional writer for a very long time.  I’ve said publicly that he is the wisest men I know, and I stand by that statement.

David Henry Sterry: Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?

ansaryTamim Ansary: Well, that’s a complicated question since I’ve written three. The first one, West of Kabul, East of New York,   I wrote in response to a historical moment. The events of 9/11 had highlighted to rift between the Islamic world and the West, which took most Americans by surprise. I knew all about this issue because I was born in Afghanistan of an Afghan father and an American mother, I had grown up in but grown old in America, and so my whole life had straddled this crack in the culture of the planet. I felt like I was the guy perched on the fence who could see the people on both sides even though they couldn’t see each other. I thought writing about my bicultural life might do some good in the world. The second memoir I wrote was actually someone else’s. I wrote it for an Afghan girl named Farah Ahmadi who  had stepped on a land mine when she was in second grade, had lived the horrors of the long war in Afghanistan, and had confronted them with flabbergasting dignity and courage. The exact circumstances of my writing that memoir are peculiar, but I thought her life was an embodiment of both tragedy and resilience that people should know about.  So these memoirs were attempts to engage with the world of politics and history. But my latest memoir is a very different sort of project. This is a more philosophical examination of “life story,” a phrase we often use without pausing to consider the implications; because the quesiton is, does a life have a story, a narrative arc, in the same way as a novel? A beginning, middle and end that adds up to meaning of some sort?  Several years ago, I was telling someone about a trip I had taken, I happened to tell it all one sitting, and when I was done, it struck me that any journey to any place far away and difficult to reach has a narrative arc if consider it as a whole.  I wondered if I could capture the “story-like arc” of one-whole-life by recounting a selection of iconic journeys. The result is Road Trips. The journeys I chose for this book took place when I was 10,  19,  24,  31,  50, and 52: so the movement is through time as much as space.   This memoir is not hooked to news events or public issues, it tells a private story, and it’s a story I believe all of us have some version of: that odyssey from young to old and the things that happen along the way: falling in love, falling out of love,  breaking up, breaking down, drifting, drowning, searching for solid ground… and finding it…maybe… The details are different for each person but underneath the welter of particulars is, I think, some single story that can be made visible only through the details of a specific life. Mine is the only life I know well enough to use as such a lens, and so I wrote this book. But I’m hoping this book will get readers ruminating on the story-like elements of their own lives even if, as is likely, their lives and mine don’t share a single particular detail. Because my premise here is that the narrative is there in every life; it’s there, you just have to look for it.

DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?

TA: The worst thing, I guess, is getting flak from people whom I mentioned in the memoirs, people whose feelings I hurt, people who didn’t seem themselves the way I portrayed them, people who were disturbed, in some cases, to experience themselves as a side chaaracters in someone else’s life, not as the protagonist which is everybody’s internal identitication of him- or herself.  And there’s another disturbing thing, which is bound to happen when you write a memoir, especially if you’re doing it right, and especially if the focus is on your own life, not on some public event you observed. This is the discovery of narratives you’ve been carrying in your head all your life which are distorted, even false.

DHS: What were the best things about writing your memoir?

TA: I’ll start where my answer to your last question ended.  Gaining discomifting new perspectives on the things you’ve seen, done, and felt is also the good thing about writing a memoir. One can never have too many epiphanies.  And in the case of Road Trips, writing it brought epiphanies not just about my own little life but about the life we’re living on this planet, the implications of permanence and change, culture and identity, memory and time, fiction and reality–I mean writing a memoir, if you share my premise about life as story, does immerse you in the most fundamental issue of them all: everything feels so real when it’s happening, but when you look back, all you see is story. So was any of it real in the first place? And if,like me, you decide it was and you feel a connection to what is real, there is no better feeling.

 

DHS: Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?

TA: Asked and answered, your honor? Well, the true answer is yes and no. A memoir helps you make sense of things. Then life keeps happening and it all grows muddy again.  You look back and the meaning of it all changed, even stuff you wrote about earlier and thought you nailed completely. The train never stops moving and the same landscape keeps looking different as you move.

DHS: How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?

TA: Well, random is a part of life, but so is intention.  We’re never just knocking about like particles in Brownian motion. We’re always trying to push our story forward, through the random flotsam and jetsom of the world.   Some of that flotsam are obstacles and so they inherently become part of our story; some turn out to be tools but only if we figure out that we can use them, and so those are part of the story too. Some don’t fit into the story either way, so we ignore them, forget them. My premise is that when you write a memoir, you don’t “make a narrative,” you find the narrative. Intentions and obstacles are the indispensable elements of story and those exist in real life at every moment for every person.

DHS: How was the process of selling your memoir?

TA: Selling the first one was easie macheesie because I had just written an email in reaction to the events of 9/11 to twenty or thirty of my friends explaining what I, as an Afghan, thought about the horror because I knew they’d all be asking and I thought it would be say it once to all twenty of them.  Those twenty each sent my email to dozens of their friends and by the next day the email had gone viral across the globe and by the weekend had reached tens of milliions–it was, in fact, one of the first examples of the viral phenomenon that the Internet has made possible. That 900 words email took no longer to write than to type. Don’t tell met here is an inherant contradiciton between random events and story: nothing could be as random and accidental as that email and yet it is certainly a story. Anyway, after the email went viral, my agent had no trouble getting publishers interested. The second one, Farah Ahmadi’s The Other Side of the Sky was an odd one. Good Morning America staged a contest for the most inspiring life. Various people sent in one-page descriptions of their life story and the one judged most inspiring got a bunch of cash and a book about them written by a professional writer.  Farah won the contest, and I was part of her prize.  The third one I’ve just completed, so I’m still n the process of selling it. The difficulty here is that memoirs usually sell on their news hook. They promise to take readers to places they have not been and could never go without this memoir. I promise just the opposite: I intend to take readers to places they too have been, not to startle them with how unique my life has been but to startle them with how unique theirs has been.  We’ll see if that concept sells.

DHS: How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?

TA: I’m not much of a guy for marketing and promotion much, so I just write ’em and hope the chips fall were they do me some good. The publisher did send me on an extensive book tour for West of Kabul, East of New York, bookstores mostly, and I read from my book and talked.  With Road Trips, I’ve been reading from it at literary events, bars, bookstore reading and whatnot while I’ve been writing it, to enthusiastic response, so perhaps I’ve been building an audience for it even while it has been in progress.

DHS: Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?

TA: I used to have difficulty speaking in public about anything—really, anything. Then 9/11 happened, that email went viral, and suddenly I was yanked onto various stages and in front of cameras and microphones facing crowds clamoring to know the stuff I happened to know about and the crisis was so intense, I had to tell what I knew, pour it out,  no time to remember that I was shy about speaking in public, I was babbling nonstop, scarcely even knowing what I was saying, for months. When it finally slowed down, I found I no longer had any difficulty speaking in public about anything. And that transformation ha endured. Still, I maintain some reserve. Anything I’ve written about, I’ll speak about. Why not? It’s already out there. Anything I’ve held back about in writing, I will maintain some reserve about in public too.   The thing is, I was out to tell my story. People whose paths have crossed mine have shown up in my story, but they have their own stories and  I try not to be the one that’s telling theirs.

DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?

TA: After I published West of Kabul, East of New York, my mother said “What do you mean I had brown hair? I was a blond!”  One of my cousins said how could I call a famous ancestor of ours “a landowner and a poet.” He was a saint! Another cousin observed that of the uncles I had mentioned, his father should have been named the most eminent.  An aunt wasmiffed that I had called another aunt Elizabeth-Taylor beautiful.  I have also gotten some pretty severe and wounding blowback from Road Trips. On the other hand, I think the first memoir helped me and my brother reconnect after a long estrangement.  If you’re going to write a memoir, you have to be ready for some flak. You’ll get it even from—perhaps most of all from—people you’ve scarcely mentioned.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?

TA: Well, I’ll say one thing about process: I think it’s a good idea to start without a plan and to do your first rush of remembering while you’re at the keyboard typing away, writing it down. I’d say, let the process of association take you where it will. I’d say, don’t pay attention to what you’re saying or what  you’ve just said, focus only on what you’re about to say.   Don’t push the string,  let yourself be pulled. Later you’ll see what you’ve got and at that point you’ll have to apply other skills to craft your work, but the first skill to cultivate is letting go and not caring or judging.  Association is the mechanism of memory, and memory is itself a narrative-creating machine.   We tend to think of memories as videotapes that we bring out of storage, but neural scientists tell us that memories are constructed in the act of remembering. They also say that more than half of what we think are perceptions are actually reactions to memory. When we reach for a doorknob we only perceive a flash of color and shape, memory supplies the fact that it is a doorknob and what a doorknob is and what we can do with one. Expand that perception and you realize that we’re always living as much in a story as in an immediately present world, in a narrative whose shape depends on what has happened before and what we expect or hope will happen later.S ettle in with this truth and you begin to see what a gigantic thing it is to write a memoir.

Tamim Ansary writes memoir, fiction, history, essays, and blogs. His book West of Kabul, East of New York tell the story of a life straddling Afghanistan and America. He runs the 65-year-old San Francisco Writers Workshop as well intensive memoir workshops in his home.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages.  He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.  He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp.  He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.  https://davidhenrysterry.com/

 

 

Art of the Memoir: Sherril Jaffe on Daughters, Husbands & Defense Against the Chaos

To commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I have decided to do a series of interviews with memoirists I admire.  I’ve known Sherril Jaffe for many years.  Not only is she a brilliant writer, she’s also an amazing teacher of writing.  She is a tenured professor at Sonoma State University, has won a 2001 PEN award and was a 2010 MacDowell Fellowship.  She is the author of many books, novels, short stories, poetry and yes, a memoir.

David Henry Sterry: Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?

sherril-jaffeSherril Jaffe: When she was fifteen, my older daughter became rebellious and ran away from home.  My husband and I were terrified and mystified by her behavior.  Advice and blame came at us from every direction, and we didn’t know what to do, so finally I began to do what I have always done in order to process experience; I began to make narratives out of what was happening.  I thought if I could do this well enough that she would read it and understand my concerns for her and how much I loved her and she would stop acting in ways that created so much anxiety for me.  I was writing a letter to her and I was also managing my anxiety by giving form to it.  Toward the beginning of what became Ground Rules, my agent sold the book on proposal.  Selling the book validated my attempts to take the straw of each day and weave it into gold each night, to give form to the chaos we were experiencing.  If I could do this, I thought, I might be able to grasp what was happening so I could address it.  We were all suffering, and I wanted the suffering to end.  I was now writing a book, and books have ends. I had set up things so I would have help getting it right—acquiring an editor when I sold the book. Other people with teenager crises were relying on counselors.  I had tried that without success, so now I was banking on my editor.

I worked on the end of the book endlessly, tinkering and tinkering.  My editor was rigorous, however, and wouldn’t accept anything that didn’t really ring true. But then finally the true ending appeared—everything begins to turn around finally when the parents learn to see, respect, and support their daughter for who she actually is, rather than who they have wished, assumed or feared that she was.

I speak here of “the parents” instead of “me and my husband,” because as a fiction writer it is difficult for me to think of a character based on me as me.  I had sold the book as a memoir but I didn’t give much thought at the time as to what that really meant.  I was very afraid for my daughter and eager for this situation to resolve. Unusually for memoir writers, I was writing as the situation was unfolding.  The consensus of opinion is that the more distance you have on your material, the better chance you have of getting a proper handle on it, but I couldn’t afford the luxury of waiting for my material to age like a fine wine; my daughter’s life was on the line.  As I worked, I kept wishing I could peek ahead to the end of the book to see how things were coming to turn out.  I called what I was working on “The Uncertainty Principle” after Heisenberg’s discovery that the act of observation changes the measurement of what is being observed.  I could not take any of the draconian measures some were advising us to adopt with our daughter: all I could do to effect a change eisenberg’s fin our circumstances was to observe them as closely as possible, distill and transform them until their meaning was revealed and we were all saved.

DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?

SJ: The worst thing about writing my memoir was that I did not know if there was going to be a happy ending.  Although I was the author, every time I attempted an ending that was one that I wanted but which wasn’t exactly true, it wouldn’t work artistically; my editor would catch it, and I would be sent back to the drawing board.  Meanwhile our struggle with our daughter resolved just as, in the book, the parents come to see and love their daughter for who she really is, and that is where the story ends.

DHS: What were the best things about writing your memoir?

SJ: Since I was writing my memoir— though not in letter format—as a letter to my daughter, it gave me a way to try to reach out to her who had become so mysteriously distant, so I felt I was doing what I could to keep her safe and to stay connected with her.

DHS: Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?

SJ: Indeed, it was my only defense against the chaos.  I was also trying to shape the narrative as I went toward a happy ending, trying to make happiness the inevitable outcome of the story, for there are endless possibilities in chaos.

DHS:  How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?

SJ: There was no problem, since I believed the book was simply being delivered to me, chapter by chapter, and that though the events transpiring seemed random, the work of bringing the book into being was the act of discovering in what way the events were actually not random at all.

DHS:  How was the process of selling your memoir?

SJ: I had recently signed up with an agent I loved, so I was not surprised that she sold the book on proposal in short order. There was some suspense as to what the offer would be, and I was disappointed that it was only $15,000, but, on the other hand, knew that $15,000 was the inevitable figure, for at that time I had a magical calendar, and the picture for that month was a painting by Charlie Demuth of a target with one five in the bull’s eye, one in a middle ring and another on the outer band. They offered me five thousand upon signing, five more when I handed in the manuscript and a final five upon publication.

DHS:  How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?

SJ: Very poorly!  However, I don’t think it was entirely my fault.  The publisher rejected my title, “The Uncertainty Principle” and made me call the memoir “Ground Rules,” and so the public misunderstood what the book promised. The public expected this to be a guide to controlling teenagers by doing concrete things, like grounding them, for example, not a testament to living with uncertainty.

DHS:  Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?

SJ: No; I have never had a problem speaking in public about anything; my problems came from people speaking to me in private—people I didn’t even know feeling it was okay to give me their opinions about me and my daughter.  I was used to people giving me a critical response to my writing but not to me, personally. This was a shock. I vowed to never again write another memoir.

DHS:  How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?

SJ: I know now that it was very hard on my daughter, being in the public eye, like that, and I very much regret any pain I may have caused her.  But the plain fact is, the story was written with great love, solely with the intention of keeping her safe by daring to look closely at the terrible reality of life, for nothing looked at squarely can hurt you. And our troubles did end—whether because of the effect of the book on reality or because, like a virus, they had run their course.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?

SJ: Yes.  My advice is, watch out, unless you are an extrovert and the point for you is to have everybody talking about you, passing judgments about you and projecting onto you. It feels good when you are admired, of course, but I’m a writer, not a model; I would rather it was my work, not my person, that was getting the attention.  I felt invaded, and it made me queasy when readers I had never met believed they were intimate with me.

 

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages.  He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.  He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp.  He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.

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Art of the Memoir: NPR Interview Alan Black & David Henry Sterry Break It Down

Alan Black, San Francisco literary legend, and author of Kick the Balls, wrote The Glorious World Cup: A Fanatic’s Guide with David Henry Sterry and lived to tell the tale. Sterry is the author of the memoir Chicken, which is now out in a 10 year anniversary edition.  Nancy Wiegman puts Alan and David through their paces as they break down telling and selling the story of your life. http://kchofm.podbean.com/2010/05/24/david-sterry-and-alan-black/
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Art of the Memoir: Sue William Silverman on Pat Boone, Jews, Incest & Sexual Addiction

To commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I have decided to do start The Memoir Project.  I’ll be doing a series of interviews with memoirists I admire.  Here we have Sue William Silverman, a brave and courageous women who has written about unspeakable personal tragedy with beauty and grace.

Sue_William_Silverman_new_photo_for_web-210David Henry Sterry:  Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?

Sue William Silverman: Not only have I written one memoir, I’ve written two, with a third about to be published this March (2014)! Additionally, I published a craft book on how to write memoir, to help others tell their stories, too.

Here’s why I began to write memoir: Growing up, I lived a double life.  On the face of it, we seemed like a normal, happy family. My father had an important career.  We lived in nice houses, and I wore pretty clothes.  But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, a façade, for the other, hidden life.  It masked the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud either at home or in public.

Before I began to write about my childhood, I didn’t fully understand this double life or the devastation it caused.  Instead, for years, the past appeared in my mind’s eye like faded black-and-white photographs, in which no one seemed to be fully alive. Especially me.

Then, I started putting words on the page, examining my past.  It was a relief, finally, to write my life rather than ignore it, a relief to develop a clear focus and vision.

I’ve been asked:  Isn’t it painful to write about the past, all those scary childhood memories? Yes, writing about pain is painful – but it’s also a profound relief.  With every word the pain lessens.  It’s as if I extract it, one word at a time.

To write is to be constantly reborn.  Now, I no longer hide behind a veil of secrets. After writing my secrets, my life feels lighter.  I step into the world more authentically, more honestly alive.

DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?

SWS: Well, even though I love to write, still, writing is just plain tough. It can take years to discover, say, a true voice for a piece, or discover the metaphors of the experience and craft a cohesive structure.

For example, when I was writing Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, it took five long years to “hear” the voices (yes, plural!) that would convey the totality of the experience. I employ an addict voice as well as a more sober voice, so the book is a twining together of the two. But it took a gazillion drafts before I was able to craft these voices in such a way that they seamlessly revealed the addiction – as well as recovering from it.

Even so, as difficult as it is to write, I’d definitely say that the worst or most distressing thing actually happened during the promotion of Love Sick. Some of the radio interviews I gave, conducted by “shock jocks,” were pretty demoralizing. For example, in one, on live radio, I was asked “where was the kinkiest place you ever had sex.” I was mortified. Love Sick does not, in any way, glamorize sex addiction; it shows how I was emotionally and spiritually dying. So to be asked insensitive questions was, truly, the worst part of the process.

DHS: What were the best things about writing your memoir?

SWS: One of the best parts of writing is the discovery of self, ways in which language can lead to self-definition. Finding answers to your own life’s questions is like following a whisper until it becomes a clear and revealing voice. Sure, writing is time consuming and difficult; nevertheless, I also find it to be almost spiritual.

Additionally, in terms of the promotion process, I’m gratified by the hundreds of e-mails I receive from people who thank me for telling my story because it helps them better understand their own lives.

Here is a short quote from one, so you’ll see what I mean: “Sue, I picked up your story because I thought that I didn’t matter. And in your words I am realizing for the first time that I do matter. I’ve been to lots of therapists, but nobody has ever made me know what it means to be strong until you. I want to be brave like you. You make me know that people can make a difference. You have changed my life for the better and so I just wanted to say thank you.”

To receive a response such as this from a reader, well, it doesn’t get any more meaningful.

DHS:  Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?

SWS: Yes, absolutely! Memoir writing, gathering words onto pieces of paper, helps me re-visualize dark and confusing episodes into a more enlightened state. By framing arc, theme, and metaphor, I give my life an understandable and clear organization. Writing provides a structure with which to convey experience. Memoir creates a cohesive narrative of a life story. In short, it turns a messy life (and isn’t life always messy?) into art.

DHS: How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?

SWS: Well, it’s taken three memoirs to do so!

One way to craft a narrative – or to make sense of one’s life – is to discover the metaphors of any given event. For example, in one section of Love Sick, I write about a maroon scarf that a married man, with whom I had an affair, gave me. The scarf became a metaphor for loss and alienation. Because of the sex addiction, I didn’t know how to hold onto an authentic relationship; ultimately, all I could hold onto was the scarf. By conveying metaphors in this way, experience coalesces into a congruent whole around a common theme. On the surface, Love Sick is about sexual addiction; however, the deeper theme is loss and alienation.

Also, in order to make sense of a life it’s important not to pack too much into any given memoir. A memoir is a facet of a life – not a whole life. By concentrating on specific themes and concerns, I have room to fully explore each. In other words, when writing memoir, it’s more important to develop a theme, rather than a chronology.

For example, in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You I focus on growing up in my incestuous family. In Love Sick, I focus on the twenty-eight days I spent in rehab recovering from an addiction – a result of the childhood sexual abuse. In my forthcoming memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I explore, in a series of essays, my ambiguous relationship toward Judaism.

In sum, in order to craft a cohesive narrative it’s important to maintain a congruent theme, conveyed metaphorically, of the story at hand. By doing so, seemingly random events are artistically rendered into a seamless story.

DHS: How was the process of selling your memoir?

SWS: I submitted my first memoir to a writing contest sponsored by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It won in the category of creative nonfiction. Part of the prize was publication with the University of Georgia Press. The UGA Press also, subsequently, published my craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.

With my second book, about sexual addiction, I got an agent who sold it to W. W. Norton. I’d met an editor at Norton, the late Carol Houck Smith, who I felt would be the perfect editor for this book. I’ll always be grateful to her for taking me on.

Now, with the third memoir, I thought it would be a good fit for the University of Nebraska Press’s “American Lives Series.” I’m delighted they accepted it.

I’m very lucky in that the placement of my books was relatively painless.

DHS: How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?

Rather than rely solely on book reviews or traditional publicity, I heavily market the books in terms of subject matter. I bill myself as a professional speaker and have traveled around the country giving speeches and readings at conferences that deal with child abuse prevention and sexual addiction. These organizations are comprised mainly of therapists and other professionals who deal with clients struggling to recover from similar traumas. Many of my presentations have also been sponsored by psychology or social work programs at various colleges and universities.

Of course, I also give literary readings and workshops at writers’ conferences and at writing programs.

It’s important to think outside the box and cultivate as many different avenues as possible to market your book.

DHS: Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?

SWS: At first I thought I would crumple in a heap having to present my work in person. But, the more I do it, the less scared I become. And the audiences are incredibly empathetic and caring. I feel very supported. It’s powerful to know that your voice has been heard!

DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?

SWS: My parents were dead by the time I wrote and published my first memoir, so I didn’t have to worry about their reaction. My sister was a little scared but, on the whole, was supportive.

What surprised me the most was the reaction of relatives on my father’s side of the family. I thought they’d be angry. They weren’t. In fact, I received many calls and e-mails from cousins, aunts, and uncles telling me that if only they’d known about my father’s abuse, they would have helped me.

At the same time, I know other writers of memoir whose relatives are angry that the family secrets are out in the open. So I know it can be tough to put your story – and your life – out into the world.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?

SWS: This is a good question! I teach writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and, in addition to focusing on craft, we talk a lot about overcoming the fear of revealing family secrets and intimate details of one’s life.

Mainly, I encourage students to try not to allow this kind of fear to stand in the way of writing. After all, we all own our own truths, and we are free to write them. The job of a writer is not to protect people or to make them feel comfortable. Our job is not to sugar-coat experience. I firmly believe in a writer’s right to tell her/his own story. At the same time, literary memoir is not about revenge! It’s about understanding experience. It’s about enlightenment.

Personally, my only regret would have been if I hadn’t written – if I’d let fear stand in my way.

During the writing process, I encourage my students to stay focused on their words, to ignore the outside world as much as possible. This includes family, friends, and even publishers. The most important thing is to first get your story down on paper. Then, after all the words are written, you can decide the next step, how – or even if – you want to share your story with others.

In short, it’s important to take this process in stages. The most important thing is to write, write, write! If you’re scared, just focus on one word at a time…then one sentence, one paragraph, one page. Soon you’ll have a whole manuscript, and be ready to start on the next one.

Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, is also a Lifetime television movie. Her other books are Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award); Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir; and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (forthcoming March, 2014). As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on such shows as The View and Anderson Cooper 360.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. www.SueWilliamSilverman.com.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages.  He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.  He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp.  He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.  https://davidhenrysterry.com/

Art of the Memoir: Josh Hanagarne, the World’s Strongest Librarian, on Tourette Syndrome, Choosing Stories & Being Strong at the Library

To commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I’m doing a series of interviews with memoirists I admire. I’ve read lots of great things about the world’s strongest librarian, so I thought I’d track him down and see what he has to say about writing, memoirs, and being strong at the library.

To see piece on Huffington Post click here.

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David Henry Sterry: Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?

Josh Hanagarne: I didn’t do it in god’s name, but here’s an answer: I’ve always liked to write, but I wasn’t trying to become a writer. I had started a blog called World’s Strongest Librarian, just for fun. I was writing about Tourette Syndrome, strength training, books, and a few other things, and there were a few readers (friends and family).  Two months in, the author Seth Godin wrote me an email and said “You should be writing a book! I’m sending your blog to my agent!” Forty eight hours later, I had a literary agent for no reason, and when she said “So what’s the book?” I said, “What book?” And that’s how it started.

DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?

JH: Spending a lot of time thinking about parts of myself that I don’t like. You really get to know yourself when you write a memoir. When you start turning over those rocks, you don’t get to choose what you find underneath them.

DHS: What were the best things about writing your memoir?

JH: Making myself laugh every time I sat down to write. Paying tribute to things I love. Honoring the people who have helped me have the life I have.

DHS: Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?

JH: Nope. If anything, it made me throw up my hands and say “It all really is chaos.”

DHS: How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?

JH: A memoir is not a life, it’s an aspect of a life. The stories are the illustrations of themes. Once you decide which themes you’re trying to illustrate, choosing stories becomes much easier.

DHS:  How was the process of selling your memoir?

JH: Long! It took three proposals. The first two went nowhere and took almost four years. The third proposal was the one that sold and it got picked up immediately. By that time I had figured out what the book would be and it was an easy sell.

DHS: How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?

JH: My primary driver is speaking. I still work at the library, but I’m giving over twenty talks in October alone. I blog. I’m on Twitter.

DHS: Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?

JH: No. Speaking is what I enjoy most, and it’s by far what I’m the best at.

DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?

JH: With incredible support. Although my mom says that I made her out to be way nicer than she actually is. She’s wrong.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?

JH: Yep. Two things.

  1. Write. No matter what you’re doing, if words aren’t appearing on the page, you’re not writing yet. Don’t worry about people’s reactions during the first draft. Just get it down.
  2. Read The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith. It was the last book about writing memoir that I’ll ever read. And it’s short, if that tells you anything about Marion’s approach.

Josh Hanagarne believes in curiosity, questions, and strength, and that things are never so bad that they can’t improve. At first glance, Josh seems an improbable librarian. He stands 6’7″, competes in strongman contests, and was diagnosed in high school with Tourette Syndrome. But books were his first love: Josh’s earliest memories involve fantastic adventures between the pages of Gulliver’s Travels and a passionate infatuation with Fern from Charlotte’s Web. Everything in Josh’s life–from his Mormon upbringing to finally finding love to learning to control his tics through lifting–circles back to a close connection to books. His upcoming book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, illuminates the mysteries of Tourette Syndrome as well as the very different worlds of strongman training and modern libraries. Currently, Josh is a librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library and lives with his wife, Janette, and their son, Max, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages.  He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.  He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp.  He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.  https://davidhenrysterry.com/

 

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