WRITERS' TOOLBOX                                                                                                             

Writers should read books similar to the one they’re trying to create. There’s no better teacher than an author who has been where you’re trying to go, tackling the same topics and issues you’re grappling with. I’m always reading memoirs to give me ideas for teaching and my own writing. I’ve learned so much about life story writing by analyzing how the “pros” do it. I use excerpts from many of these books in Breathe Life into Your Life Story to illustrate how various writing techniques have been applied to published personal histories.

I prefer to own the books I read, so I can underline words and phrases I like and make notes to myself. In this way, I can refer back to the passages later. If I don’t mark up my books, I find I become a lazy reader, soon forgetting what knocked my socks off when I first encountered it on the page. There’s another benefit to this approach: No one ever wants to borrow a book when I’m finished with it.

Recommended Websites, Blogs, and Businesses

  • Genwriters--This website, created and hosted by Phyllis Ziiller, is an excellent resource for family history writers. Like me, Ziller believes that a well-written family history is more than just collection of names, dates, and places. At Genwriters you'll find useful how-to articles, lists of writing and research resources, and links to books and websites that will provide you with the kind of social and general history information you need to "flesh out your story." Genwriters was designated a "Website Worth Surfing" in the April 2006 issue of Family Chronicle magazine.   

  • APH --The Internet abounds with folks who would like to help you put together your life story or family history. Who can you trust to do for you what they will say they’ll do…and at a fair price? You will find everything you’re looking for through the Association of Personal Historians, an organization with a reputation for its capable, responsible, skilled family history professionals. Go to www.personalhistorians.org for a list of individuals in the United States and elsewhere who can help you produce life story legacies through books, oral histories, audiotapes, videos, DVDs or websites.

  • Your Story Here--This business specializes in video biography and personal history video documentary in Los Angeles and Orange County, California. Also, visit their blog at www.yourstoryhere.blogspot.com.

  • Understanding Your Ancestors--This is a great site from the author of The Journey Takers (see below), that contains all kinds of research and writing helps for family history writers, particularly those writing about ancestors who lived in Sweden, England, or Germany.

  • National Association of Memoir Writers--Offers classes and helpful articles about memoir writing.

  • Story Circle Network...for women with stories to tell--I belong to this top-notch organization for women memoir writers. This is a huge site, with all kinds of resources and opportunities to rub shoulders with talented and generous women involved in personal history writing of various kinds. Also features the largest book review site on the Internet of books by women writers.

  • Women's Memoirs--A good, comprehensive site to help memoirists become better writers.

Recommended Memoirs

·      Linda Joy Myers' Don't Call Me Mother--Myers is a psychologist and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. In this fine memoir, she writes with aching honesty about her lifelong struggle to earn her mother's love. This memoir incorporates scenes and dialogue to good effect and is full of the kind of details that bring people and places to life.

·      Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings-This is the first of five volumes of autobiography by the poet whose gift for language illuminates this story of a black child’s struggle for independence against a backdrop of disappointment and tragedy.  

·      Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle--One can hardly imagine how one could survive a childhood with such flawed, complicated, and self-absorbed parents, let alone write about it with such charity and forgiveness. Yet Walls does just that in this poignant and remarkable memoir that will stay with you long after you finish it. While the incidents re-created in this book could make it a downer of a read, somehow it isn't. Walls' loyalty and fairness to her family shines all through this incredible story of alcoholism, poverty, abuse...and love.

·      Russell Baker’s Growing Up—Former NY Times journalist Russell Baker wrote this Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir about growing up with a domineering single mother during the Depression. Baker will show you how to develop characters and write dialogue better than anyone.

·      Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’I loved this book and underlined sentences and paragraphs throughout. Bragg has a gift for language. All Over is set in the rural South and tells how the author drew strength from his strong, stoic mother to overcome growing up dirt poor in Depression-era Appalachia with an alcoholic, feckless father.

·      Jill Ker Conway's The Road from CoorainThis is a story about an intelligent, independent girl trying to find herself while growing up on an isolated, male-dominated sheep station in the Australian outback. A beautiful example of how setting can create the story.

·      Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys—This is actually two stories: one, about a teenager who learns about the joy of girls and rocket building, and another, about the end of coal mining in Hickam’s West Virginia hometown. A charming book, later made into a movie.

·      Mary Karr’s The Liar’s ClubKarr, a poet, writes a darkly humorous memoir about her childhood in an East Texas oil refinery town in a family with a penchant for alcoholism, violence, and insanity. Nominated for the National Book Award.

·      Jennifer Lauck’s Blackbird, A Childhood Lost and FoundAn excellent model for writers interested in writing from a child’s point of view in the first person, present tense. This is the story of a young girl with way too much responsibility for the physical and emotional needs of an ailing mother.

·      Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes – McCourt grew up in Limerick, Ireland, the son of a chronically unemployed alcoholic. They lived in abject poverty and suffered the humiliation of a family on the dole. McCourt infuses this tragic story with humor and a tone of compassion and forgiveness, making it the satisfying read that placed it on bestseller lists for more than a year. 

·     Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto RicanThis is an example of how to use scene and dialogue to make a memoir read like a novel.  Santiago chronicles her impoverished childhood in Puerto Rico and the family’s escape from their father to a Brooklyn apartment. This is a poignant account of the triumph of the human spirit.

·     Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s LifeThis is a darkly amusing account of surviving adolescence adrift with a mom and new, abusive husband. Wolff’s forthright telling of how he coped contributes to the memoir’s refreshingly honest and surprisingly upbeat tone.


Recommended Family Histories

·      Ian Frazier’s Family—The author captures the complexities and eccentricities of his family history against the backdrop of American history. His family members, long ago passed on, seem like real people in Frazier’s skillful hands.

·      Leslie Albrecht Huber's The Journey Takers--This is a wonderful example of how you can create memorable scenes to bring to life ancestors long gone. Huber focuses her family history on families who immigrated to American from homelands in Germany, Sweden, and England. A standout achievement here. See my review of this book HERE.

·      Bill Griffith's By Faith Alone--TV journalist Bill Griffith's focuses on the ancestors who formed his Protestant heritage, and along the way we learn a lot about America's Protestant roots. See my full review HERE

·      Linda Tate's Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative--Tate's family history focuses primarily on two interesting women, Tate’s grandmother Fannie, and her great-great-grandmother Louisiana, who tell their own stories with the speech patterns and vocabulary of their Appalachian culture. Tate is a scholar in Appalachian literature and grew up in a family who used many of the speech patterns of their ancestors.These women feel real, and you will soon realize that they reveal themselves, flaws and all, through their compelling, often painful, stories. See full review HERE.

·      Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain—This book combines stories from the author’s childhood in Los Angeles’ Chinatown with a mountain of research to produce a compelling multi-generational history of her father’s Chinese-American family.

·     Morris Thurston’s Tora Thurston: The History of a Norwegian PioneerWinner of the Dallas Genealogical Society’s Best Biography Award, this family history chronicles the life and family of the author’s great-great-grandfather, his immigration to American in the nineteenth century, conversion to Mormonism, and colonization of Southern Utah communities under the direction of Brigham Young.  www.morristhurston.com

  •  Rick Bragg's Ava's Man—This is about the grandfather the author never knew, but some how Bragg makes you feel like they had a long history together. This book
     beautifully illustrates what you can do when you combine imagination with research, family and community stories, and, of course, a gift for writing.

  •  John Colletta's Only a Few BonesColletta takes his readers with him on an exciting journey through documents, interviews, and on-location investigation to solve a
     family mystery. He shows you how a pro can make long-deceased ancestors feel like folks you know.

Good Reference Books to Have in Your Library

No matter what your writing ability and experience, it’s always stimulating to learn something new. I find the following tools indispensable, and recommend them to my students to enhance their ability to write a good story.

·     J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder—More than two inches thick, this is the best thesaurus I’ve found. I keep it right next to my computer. Say you’re writing that you wore a yellow shirt the day you became engaged. Why use plain old yellow? Rodale offers you 38 more interesting and specific alternatives.

·     Anne Stillman’s Grammatically CorrectThere are all kinds of books and websites to help you with your grammar issues, but this is the book I turn to time again for clear, accessible answers to my questions.

  •  Katherine Scott Sturdevant's Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History—This book will show you how to use social history to fill in the gaps in
     your family history where information about your ancestors is limited.

Life Story Writing Books I Like

  • Carol Franco and Kent Lineback's The Legacy Guide—Several people have told me that this is a good companion book to mine, and it is. I know of three memoir teachers who use our books together in their courses. The Legacy Guide takes you through each stage of your life, asks provocative questions that will help you see your life in new ways, and gives you the tools and inspiration to write. Good writing samples show you ways you can approach a particular topic.

  • Bill Roorbach's Writing Life Stories—This informative and entertaining book has chapters on Scenemaking, Characterization, Metaphor and Meaning, Reaching Readers. Well worth your time.

Writing Books that Have Inspired and Taught Me

·    Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird—I've read this book several times and have recommended it to a number of people. Enough said. I like her sassy, confident writing style—and her good, no-nonsense advice.

·    Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones—What I said about Anne LaMott applies equally well to Natalie Goldberg. You'll like this book.

·    Rebecca McClanahan's Word Painting—This is an excellent book about writing better descriptions. Most of us need help in this area.

·     William Zinsser’s On Writing Well—Even though I graduated from college as an English major, I learned more about how to improve my writing from this book than any
other source.

  •  William Zinsser's Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past--I'm a real William Zinsser fan. This book does more "showing" than "telling," in that he puts more
     effort providing examples from his own life to illustrate points he makes rather that actually telling you how to do it. If you need real nuts and bolts instruction, this book
     may not be for you. However, I loved it.

  • Stephen King's On WritingI was surprised how much I liked this book since I'm not one typically drawn to Stephen King's work. However, here he provides a captivating
    account of his beginnings as a writer, the struggle to keep going despite early discouragements, the thrill of being recognized. I was with him all the way. He devotes the second part of the book to writing advice
    and it's good advice that motivates and honestly describes the kind of dedication required to "make it" as a writer.

  • Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers--See is always witty and irreverent. In this book she offers practical advice and encouragement for the writer who needs a kick in the pants.