December 18, 2009

9 Tips for DIY Family Interviews

Since many of you have been asking, here are some helpful hints about how to interview your family member this holiday season. It is best to do several interviews if possible, but remember that anything that you can get is better than nothing at all.

  1. The best advice I have is to wait ten (count 'em) seconds after your subject finishes talking before opening your mouth again. The natural inclination for people is to fill a silence, and if you don't, they will. This is often when I get the best stories.

  1. Ask open ended questions (not yes or no) and ask difficult or taboo questions
    in a manner that doesn't show your judgment around it. For example, if you are interviewing a Vietnam vet and want to know whether he was drafted or enlisted, try eliciting this information with a question like: "What was going on your life around the time that you went into the army." You'll get much more interesting information this way and won’t make anyone defensive. If they want to talk about politics, just listen intently. Don’t talk about yours or argue or that will be the end of your interview.

  1. Ask about the five senses. Was it cold? What colors do you remember? What about the smell? The senses trigger a whole world of stories and feelings.

  1. It's always best to ask men what they think/thought about something and ask women what they feel/felt about something. If you ask a man about his feelings, he may shut down, but if you put it in terms of his intellect, and remember rule #1, you will are likely to hear some of the feelings.

  1. Do research beforehand. If he was in WWII, learn what you can about the battles or countries he was in so that he doesn't have to give you a history lesson. You don’t want a history lesson, you want a personal history.

  1. There are plenty of good lists of questions out there (and I will publish my own, shortly) and I recommend having a list, but don’t get hung up on the list. I rarely ask more than 10% of the questions I had planned. It always goes better if you just go with the flow and let them direct the interview.

  1. Begin the interview with the date, name, place and then start by asking easy questions, like: What is your birthday? Where were you born? If you don’t know the person well, you begin by asking about other people first-- their ancestors, family, favorite uncle. This will put them at ease and help them get used to you and trust you. Save the deepest darkest secret questions for later. And I guarantee, if you build trust with them, they will tell you just about anything.

  1. Recording. Don’t ever sneak around. Always tell your subject that you will be recording. Trust is key. Put a tape recorder on a table and it will become invisible. (Video cameras are harder to ignore.) I use old-fashioned, regular-sized 60-minute tapes because they are still the most stable form of voice recording. If you use something fancier like a CD recorder or a digital recorder, always have a tape recorder as backup. I can’t tell you how many digital recordings have been lost or messed up but the tapes never fail. I order them online—no one carries them in stores anymore. And the tape recorder I use cost $50. It is great.

  1. I should note that some people may have an extremely difficult time interviewing their own parents or grandparents. I have discovered that there are several reasons for this:

    • Our own baggage/judgment. We can’t hear their story objectively and they know it. It becomes not an interview but an attempt to convince/persuade.
    • They think we know all the stories already so they leave out vitally important details.
    • They edit too much for their children. Many people are more willing to tell strangers intimate dirt on their life, but they censor it for their own children.

This is why I always suggest using a professional, or if you can’t afford it, trading relatives with a friend.

Good luck and enjoy your family!

Holiday Memoir Round-up

What do you want to get for Christmas/Chanukah/Quanza/Festivus? What should you give that special book worm in your life? Well, you can be sure that I have thoughts, opinions, and a wish list.

My top 5 Giftable Memoirs - as you can imagine, some memoirs don't make the best gifts because of subject matter and other reasons. So this list is my list of favorites that would make a great gift to most people, whether they profess to love memoir or not. I have included some of the book summary notes from Amazon and linked them too. Enjoy!

An American Childhood - by Annie Dillard

"Annie Dillard remembers. She remembers the exhilaration of whipping a snowball at a car and having it hit straight on. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother's knuckles, which "didn't snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge." She remembers the compulsion to spend a whole afternoon (or many whole afternoons) endlessly pitching a ball at a target. In this intoxicating account of her childhood, Dillard climbs back inside her 5-, 10-, and 15-year-old selves with apparent effortlessness. The voracious young Dillard embraces headlong one fascination after another--from drawing to rocks and bugs to the French symbolists. "Everywhere, things snagged me," she writes. "The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world." From her parents she inherited a love of language--her mother's speech was "an endlessly interesting, swerving path"--and the understanding that "you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself," not for anyone else's approval or desire. And one would be mistaken to call the energy Dillard exhibits in An American Childhood merely youthful; "still I break up through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day," she writes, "as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive."

Born Standing Up - by Steve Martin

"At age 10, Steve Martin got a job selling guidebooks at the newly opened Disneyland. In the decade that followed, he worked in Disney's magic shop, print shop, and theater, and developed his own magic/comedy act. By age 20, studying poetry and philosophy on the side, he was performing a dozen times a week, most often at the Disney rival, Knott's Berry Farm. Obsession is a substitute for talent, he has said, and Steve Martin's focus and daring--his sheer tenacity--are truly stunning. He writes about making the very tough decision to sacrifice everything not original in his act, and about lucking into a job writing for The Smothers Brothers Show. He writes about mentors, girlfriends, his complex relationship with his parents and sister, and about some of his great peers in comedy--Dan Ackroyd, Lorne Michaels, Carl Reiner, Johnny Carson. He writes about fear, anxiety and loneliness. And he writes about how he figured out what worked on stage. This book is a memoir, but it is also an illuminating guidebook to stand-up from one of our two or three greatest comedians. Though Martin is reticent about his personal life, he is also stunningly deft, and manages to give readers a feeling of intimacy and candor. Illustrated throughout with black and white photographs collected by Martin, this book is instantly compelling visually and a spectacularly good read. "

Me Talk Pretty One Day - by David Sedaris

"Every glimpse we get of Sedaris's family and acquaintances delivers laughs and insights. He thwarts his North Carolina speech therapist ("for whom the word pen had two syllables") by cleverly avoiding all words with s sounds, which reveal the lisp she sought to correct. His midget guitar teacher, Mister Mancini, is unaware that Sedaris doesn't share his obsession with breasts, and sings "Light My Fire" all wrong--"as if he were a Webelo scout demanding a match." As a remarkably unqualified teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago, Sedaris had his class watch soap operas and assign "guessays" on what would happen in the next day's episode."

Modern American Memoirs - edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley. (This one is on my wish list!)

"Annie Dillard and publisher Cort Conley have collected excerpts from the memoirs of 35 20th-century American authors. The selections represent the best in autobiographical writing published between 1917 and 1992. Included are nine women and 26 men, both black and white, some better known than others, all distinguished writers and wonderful storytellers. Chris Offutt's "The Same River Twice" tells about the author's stint working in the circus; Anne Moody's "Coming of Age in Mississippi" describes her participation in the 1963 Woolworth sit-in. The editors precede each entry with a biographical and contextual note. There's an opening essay on the art of the memoirist and an afterword listing additional classics in the genre. This rich collection serves as an introduction to the nation's best modern writers and a primer on the American experience."

The Gift Card - Okay so i know I said 5. In reality, the best gift if you are not sure what to give them is a bookstore gift card. (Thanks Dad!)

On my wish list:

An Unquiet Mind - by Kay Redfeild Jaimison (several of our fans listed this as their fave and I am intrigued.)

Modern American Memoirs - Annie Dillard and Cort Conley (I want this!)

Driving with Dead People - Monica Holloway (Looks like a downer but I heard her read and she is lovely.)

The Gastronomy of Marriage: A Memoir of Food and Love - by Michelle Maisto (I miss NY and I heart food.)

On my Shelf - Just for your own voyeuristic interest, these are the books that are half finished or that I hope to get around to soon.

The Possibility of Everything - Hope Edelman

Einstein- by Walter Isaacson (ok this is biography)

The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion

Feel free to share or comment on your favorites or your opinions on gifting memoir. Happy Holidays.

December 9, 2009

A Gift To the Community - December Only

This year, for the month of December only, Memoirs Ink is offering a dramatic discount (70% off) on our life-history interview package as a gift to the community.

Communities and families suffer with the loss of our elder’s stories. This season, consider a family gift that will be cherished by generations to come.

Life History Interview Package includes:

Preliminary background interview with hiring party

Background research

Life history interviews (six sessions -90-120 minutes each)

Digitizing and/or formatting digital interview into chapters

Transcription (takes roughly 4 times the length of interview)

Formatting and editing documents

Packaging/Delivery to parties.

Regular price: $5000. December only: $1500* (Payment plans available.)

Our interviewers are trained professionals that know how to listen, ask the right questions and make your relative feel comfortable. Even the most reluctant interviewees become enthusiastic and invigorated through the story telling process.

Don’t wait till it’s too late. Call today: 1-888-486-3664 or email us with questions info at Memoirsink dot com.

*Must purchase in December, but interviews do not have to start or conclude in December. Memoirs Ink will travel at client’s expense. References available.

To learn more about this and our other services, please visit our website.

December 7, 2009

The Midwifery Model

I have always favored the term “memoirist” or “personal historian” when I talk about what I do. But Memoirs Ink does so much more than just this. Another service we provide is help to people who want to write their own memoirs, which I actually prefer to writing memoirs for them. There are several terms for a person who does this (book-doctor, memoir coach, ghostwriter, creative editor, etc.) however, I have never loved any of them, because they don’t capture the diverse nature of the work. However, just last week, in a Wall Street Journal Article, I heard the term midwife used to describe someone who aids in the delivery of a manuscript.

I particularly love this term because my other passion is childbirth education. Knowing what I know about birthing, I know that each birth is different: some take a long time, some are quick, some are painful, and others are relatively painless. But regardless of how fast or the pain scale, giving birth requires a monumental amount of energy (hence the term labor) and pushing at the end. So does a memoir.

A midwife’s involvement in each birth is also as varied as the births, but the philosophy behind midwifery care (which differs from the doctor/technological model) is to trust your body and trust the process. I find that this applies to memoir much better than to fiction. Some people just can’t be taught or helped to write good fiction (their manuscripts might need surgery) but in my gut, I know that everyone can write their own memoirs better than we can, if they try at it.

Don’t get me wrong, we are fabulous at memoir writing, but after years of experience I see that our information is limited, even after hours of interviewing. We can make up some sensory details like the weather or the smell from the factory across the road, to make a memoir come alive, but there is something special when a person writes their own story. Maybe it won’t be written as well if Grandpa writes it, but it has more soul. (Of course, if he’s not going to write it, you should call us, so the stories aren’t lost.)

For one thing, remembering begets remembering, and self-authored or midwife-attended memoirs are usually longer and much more detailed. Though remembering can sometimes be excruciating, reflecting on what happened creates new understanding and even healing. Writing stories down is also therapeutic. It is a form of control and also release. I could go on and on, but my point is that a good midwife trusts the process and when needed, will remind you to trust your instincts. A good midwife knows when to wait patiently, when to worry about the heartbeat, and how to help you through transition and pushing.

Comparing writing to birth is not new. Rilke, in one of his famous Letters to a Young Poet, said “Everything is gestation and then birthing.” It is one my favorite passages in the book:

"Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to lives as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn't matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient. Who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!"

Whenever anyone uses a word like everything, I always perform mental tests on it, and in this case, I feel he’s right. Everything is.

That is as far as I will carry the birth metaphor though. I'll leave, doulas, surrogates, adoption, miscarriage and all the rest for someone else to ponder. I have some pushing to do now.

December 4, 2009

Memoirs Ink's Half-Yearly Writing Contest

It is time again to announce our half-yearly writing contest. It is called the half-yearly because it is half a year away from our Annual August contest and it is half the word count of the August contest. The things we do to help you remember. Well, since it is harder to write a 1500-word piece than a 3000-word piece, I thought I'd announce it right away to give you as much time as possible. We have lowered our entry fee this year because the economy is really crappy and we know writers are feeling it keenly.

Here's the skinny: (Contest Guidelines)

Memoirs Ink is looking for original, well-written personal essays, memoirs, creative non-fiction or personal narratives (does that cover everything?) that are based on autobiographical experiences. The narrative must be in first person, other than that, the contest is open to any type, genre or style of story. It is open to any writer, any age, writing in English--that means Canadians, Brits, Australians, Ugandans and anyone else anywhere can enter.

Contest submission form.

1. Entry must be previously unpublished (this includes websites and blogs).

2. Entry fee: $15 -We lowered it! (Make check or money order to Memoirs, Ink. International entrants please contact us for payment info.) Previous entrants get at $2 discount on entry fee.

3. Prizes: First Prize: $1000. Second Prize: $500. Third Prize: $250.

4. Word Limit: less than 1500 words;

5. Half-Yearly Contest Deadline: February 15, 2010 (postmark) Late Deadline: February 28, 2010 (Postmark - Late entries require additional $5 entry fee per entry).

6. Winners will be announced April 30. We will announce them by e-mail and on our website.

7. Send entries to:
Memoirs Ink Writing Contest
10866 Washington Blvd, Suite 518,
Culver City, CA 90232

8. Please submit entries as follows: Typed, double-spaced, 12 pt. font.

9. Your name should appear only on the contest submission form. Contest submission form.

10. The title of the manuscript should appear on every page. The pages should be numbered.

11. Pages should be stapled.

12. Multiple submissions are accepted, however, an additional $10 entry fee is required for each additional story.

13. Simultaneous submissions are accepted, however, if your manuscript is accepted elsewhere, you need to let us know immediately that you are withdrawing your submission.

14. E-mail questions to Jill at

15. To read previous winners, click here.


1. Manuscripts will not be returned. Memoirs Ink, is not responsible for manuscripts lost in the mail, etc. Memoirs, Ink cannot confirm receipt of your entry unless you provide a self-addressed stamped postcard.

2. Winners must sign a contest winner agreement form that certifies your writing is original and assigns us temporary rights and electronic archiving rights.

3. If you win, we will publish your story. If you do not want your story published please do not submit it.

4. We reserve the right to mention or not mention anyone honorably.


This contest will be judged by a panel of Memoirs Ink judges and the final judge will be:



December 1, 2009

The Calm Within

As I walked down the stairs from Memoirs Ink’s headquarters, I hugged Felice good-bye. I was off to San Diego for a few days, for Thanksgiving weekend.

"Can’t wait to hear all your crazy stories about your family,” said Felice.

People often talk about their crazy families. There is a sort of unspoken, and sometimes very loudly spoken, understanding that families, are, well, nuts. My family is no exception. And to top off being nuts, like other families, we are also Egyptian; which is sort of a double dose of nuts, if you will. Usually, I have tons of stories about my dad’s side of the family, most of whom reside in Los Angeles, and who are especially insane. (For example, every time there is a family gathering, my uncle Paul gives birth. I will explain this in another blog.) But, I was going to my mom’s brother’s house, who lives with his wife and two young daughters, in a quiet part of San Diego. There would be no drama boiling over and exploding like a beaker filled with chemicals that should never be combined; this is what happens when my dad’s side of the family gets together.

“Well, actually, this is the no-drama—still crazy—but in a good way, part of the family,” I said.

“Oh ok. Good. You need that” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. And walked to my car.

The next morning, on Thanksgiving Day, my family and I loaded the car and headed out for the two hour drive from Los Angeles to San Diego. When we arrived at my uncle’s house, we were immediately greeted by him and his family. I hugged and kissed each of them, my uncle Mark, his wife Miriam, and their daughters Catherine and Sarah. As I stood beside our car, I took a deep breath; I could feel the contrast between the stillness of his neighborhood and the bustling streets of L.A. I smiled.

My uncle’s house is tucked away in a small town inside of beautiful San Diego. There is a long walkway from the sidewalk to his front door. There are only a few other houses next to his; his street, and the streets surrounding his, are very quiet. There are no fire trucks, screaming neighbors, or otherwise unexplainable city noises. I welcomed the change. This was the perfect getaway for me and my family.

After I graduated from college, I moved to Los Angeles and started working at a doctor’s office. I planned to take a year off, to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but quickly took on a full time job in a busy doctor’s office because I needed money; I still didn’t know how to pursue a career as a writer, and since I worked at doctor’s offices before, I knew I would get hired. At first, the patients, with their thick Persian accents, and outrageous demands like, “my mom needs a tranquilizer, give her one,” and “I got a ticket on the way to your office because I was speeding, pay for it” didn’t bother me that much. They were funny even. But, over time, when I was spoken to as though I were an idiot because I was working for a doctor and I myself am not a doctor, their words did upset me. Suddenly, they weren’t so funny.

I started interning at Memoirs Ink and I told Felice that this, right here, writing my story and encouraging people to write theirs, is my sanity.

“I think your job is killing your spirit,” she said one day when were out at lunch, celebrating my birthday. I sat there, in a cozy café in Brentwood, and stared at the dessert in the glass counter in front of me. Her words replayed in my mind. Your job is killing your spirit. Ever since I took that job, I noticed that I was constantly complaining. I snapped at people, even my parents, when they were usually just trying to help. My laughter, which, incidentally, "is sort of an event," subsided.

It took a couple more months after my Birthday lunch with Felice, but I finally quit. I decided I’d done enough damage to my soul. I didn’t have another plan, another source of income, or even the slightest idea of what I was going to do next. I just knew I needed to get out of that office. And I was right. I continued interning at Memoirs Ink and eventually, I found my way.

This Thanksgiving, I was especially thankful. And calm. I appreciated that sort of inner peace that I’ve enjoyed for most of my life. As I sat in my uncle’s living room, I remembered an episode of "I Love Lucy” when Lucy moves to the country. She and Ricky can’t fall asleep because it’s “too quiet.” I learned that this uneasy feeling is common amongst people from large cities, like myself. This time, I didn’t feel any uneasiness. Instead, the calmness of the city reflected the calmness inside of me. My spirit was back.

November 25, 2009

Messages From the Future

Classic Little People

A few weeks ago I had a dream about my posterity. I don't remember much but the image of them all in a group, maybe 40 or 50 people of different ages and they were all looking up intently at me. (I'm not sure where I was--maybe in the sky or on a ladder.)

In the morning I tried to look up "posterity" in my dream dictionary to no avail. In pondering it's significance over the last few weeks, I have come up with several things, and it seems clear to me now that the future is trying to send me a message. They are reminding me that they exist. (Right now I only have one daughter, but hey, look at Abraham.)

That they were looking at me intently does not then surprise me--they are keenly interested in what I will do next. Maybe it was a reminder to be good, or to use my time wisely. But I think it also had to do with them wanting to know me. Sadly, too many of us know only shallow details about our relatives two generations back and beyond. This people lived fill lives, yet all we know are the birth, marriage and death date and maybe a few stories that could be categorized as folklore.

I go around giving speeches about the benefits of knowing your legacy, and also, therefore of leaving one. My posterity, whether they like it or not, will have more than a timeline. They will will also know what I thought and felt. I would pay anything to know these things about my mother. She died when I was 11.

I guess what I am trying to get across is, if you think your story doesn't matter, you are wrong. Maybe your kids won't care, but your grandkids will. Do it for them. And if you understand exponents, you know that these people who will be looking intently at you--or your story--will quickly number in the hundreds.

Stories have great power. They make us see what is possible, the help us to feel connected, teach us and can even heal us. So start writing, or if you have a parent who is not ever going to do it, get them to start talking. Memoirs Ink has classes and coaching available to help writers of any level and we have skilled life-history interviewers all over the country. Don't wait till it is too late. It is hard to fill these holes in our hearts and in the universe. Email us or call us today: info at memoirsink dot com or 888-486-3664.

November 24, 2009


Felice wants me to blog. Thinks it will be a good outlet for me. Ugh. I can't fault her for pushing me to trust in my creative side at little more. That's what she does with everyone. But I am much more of a bookworm than I am writer. She says "no pressure, just freewrite," but I am not about to post the uncensored wanderings of my Scorpio brain. If you didn't know, Scorpios tend to be morbid, at least in their thoughts. Luckily I'm tempered with a much more mellow rising sigh. Whew.

Astrology was not what I set out to write about though, it is about energy. Felice and Christina have been working on this book proposal for about--well for about a year it has been theoretical, but they have finally be cranking on it for about a month. It's fun to see them work. I have worked with Felice for a long time, but Christina has only been around for a year. Honestly, I didn't expect her to last long. I've seen interns come and go. Most of them go because Felice inspires them to follow their true passion which eventually leads them elsewhere... (I still miss you Emily!) It took a while for me to crack the mystery that is Christina, but I now love her.

But anyway, here is a little description of what it looks like, from my perspective. Felice is a crazy cyclone of energy at times. She has a million ideas a day and sometimes I joke that my job is to help her sort the good ones from the dumb ones. (So that makes me the genius, right?) Then there is Christina, who runs her fingers slowly through her long, thick, black hair and sometimes takes longer than the normal conversational pause to respond. I used to think that she wasn't listening. But no. Wait for it. She is just processing perhaps on a much different level of consciousness than I am. So to see them working together is funny to me. To see them under that kind of extreme sort of concentration--that is what I like to watch. Every now and then, they will run something by me and then mid-sentence they will stop and go back to mumbling or pacing around or laughing. Incidentally, Christina has a laugh that is sort of an event. My grandmother used to have a laugh like that. It made everyone else join in but at the same time stare in awe, wondering if she might die.

I just nod and try to keep things running while they neglect everything else around here.

Oh, and she wants me to post a picture, because people are totally visual. So here is a picture of my dog Ralls. He likes Jane Austen movies.

November 18, 2009

Smelly Pants

Today I went to lunch with my writer friend. She told me the following story. I laughed so hard I almost peed my pants. I told her she should write about it, but she didn't seem to see the value in it. She told me I could have it. So here it is. I have assigned her to write one of my stories for me, without telling me which. Here is her story. By me.

Smelly Pants

When I was a Freshman, I was getting ready for my English class, and I found a pair of pants in my washer. I remembered that they had been sitting there for three days. I threw them in the dryer, and then I put them on and rushed to class. After class, I stayed to talk with one of my friends. It started to rain. I asked him if he needed a ride to his car.

“Yeah,” he said. While we were walking to my car, something smelled really bad. I looked at him like, “what’s the matter with you? You stink really badly.”

We got inside my car and he said, “your car smells funny,” and I looked at him like, “yeah, uh huh. It’s you.” Because it wasn’t me. I was just in my car. It didn’t stink. He stinks. I couldn’t wait to get him out of my car. The smell was so disgusting. Like, rotten cheese. I was excited when he got out. “Finally,” I thought.

Then, I realized that the smell was still there. Wait. I thought the smell was coming from him. I sniffed around my car and got really close to my legs. The smell was coming from my pants. It was me. The pants sat in the washer and they had mildew. When I stuck them in the dryer, I couldn’t smell them. But, when it started to rain, the smell came back.

Years later, I saw that guy again. I went up to him.

“Hi, how are you?” I asked.

“I remember you. You gave me a ride to my car that one time,” he said.

Yeah, I knew what he was thinking, “you’re that chick that stinks.” I bet he went to all of his friends and told them a story about how some girl gave him a ride to his car, and she totally stunk.

I thought about explaining the story to him. What would I say? “Remember that one time you got in my car and you thought it smelled really bad? Yea, well, it was my pants.”

November 16, 2009

The LA Storytelling Fesitval

David O'Shea defines "fringe" at the storytelling festival.

Last Saturday was the LA storytelling festival and Jill and I graced them with our presence. It was great to see some faces we knew, like Ellen Switkes (Cornucopia) and David O'Shea and meet some new people. The festival was a combination of concerts (people performing their stories) and workshops about storytelling. I saw some great storytellers perform including Kathleen Zundell, who died in May of this year--through the miracle of technology she lives on. I also enjoyed Richard Marsh--Irish guy, nice beard. When he's not here touring festivals, his "real job" back in Ireland is to lead tour groups around and tell stories that happened in those places. Not a bad gig. If you have a chance to listen to him in person or on CD, do it.

Storytelling, I learned, includes not just personal narratives, but also fairy tales, folklore, myth, and anything else that one can tell that will keep people listening. Some tellers, as they are called, are captivating using only subtle gestures and movement--like Jonathan Solomon and Gordon Henderson. Others are big on performance and even use props, like Kristina Wong did in her story (she auctioned off items from her past that contained baggage in exchange for real and symbolic bids--it was a cool idea, though the audience didn't get it as well as she'd have liked.)

Overall, I think the festival struggled a little. I heard that there were a couple hundred people there, and none of the workshops or concerts were empty, but it felt oddly deserted or depressed. The catering was by Mort's hot dogs, and true, he did have veggie dogs, but come on--this is Los Angeles. This is a festival. Where is the movable feast? Also, the intermix of workshops and concerts felt schizophrenic. Either make it all stories and call it a festival or all workshops and call it a conference. But I digress. All in all, it was a great experience and maybe all it needs next year is about 200 more people to go and sit in the back row laughing their guts out.

I was just glad to see David, who I could listen to for hours, and Ellen, who looks duchess as all get out in dark sunglasses. I would tell you about David and his obsession with recording Veteran's stories, but I have asked him to write a guest post, so you will have the pleasure soon.

November 12, 2009

Success Stories

Memoirs Ink wants to announce and congratulate Abby Sher, one of our previous contest winners for the release and success of her novel, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl who Couldn't Stop Praying (Among Other Things).

We also mentioned Melissa Petro, in last month's newsletter, but will do it again here. A version of her winning story, Mexico, has been published in the anthology Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex.

We love to hear about the success of our previous winners, students and clients. Please keep us up to date on your successes or interesting flops. Feel free to send us review copies and if we like it, we'll review it.

Oh dear. I just realized that I juxtaposed a book about praying too much and hookers. I think that is perhaps a great statement about how wide and varied the genre if memoir is-- and why we like it so much.

My Feelings Are None Of My Business

A couple of months ago, I took a writing and performance class with Amy Friedman and Laurel Ollstein. Our class put on a spoken word show. I invited my family. I did not know just how much of a mistake that was, but I do now. I have a very large, overly involved Egyptian family. Many of them drive me insane. I forgot about how many of them there are, and how overbearing they can be, because I moved out of the house for college. I am back. They have not changed.

I was hesitant to invite my family to the show. My teachers said I must; it was my turn to let my family know how I feel.

I shared stories with my family and the audience about life post grad. I talked about how different my life is, now that I moved back home. My best friends and I are scattered in three different cities. I can no longer walk to their apartments. There are no hot guys running around in my hallway.

I talked about premarital sex, same sex marriage, and just how little I identify with the Egyptian culture. My family, sitting out in the audience, was not amused. My father had a stern look on his face; his lips were pursed together, his eyes glaring right at me. He did not smile. My mom was more forgiving. She did smile. She even laughed.

The show ended and people approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed my essay. My family did not. After the show (the same day) and since then, I have had to listen to my family tell me how inappropriate and disrespectful I am. My cousins, who I grew up with, went on to tell the adults in the family just how much they disagreed with my essay. They have yet to say anything to me directly.

When I first started the class with Amy and Laurel, they told us that while we are writing, we must say to ourselves that our feelings are none of our business. So, when I think a piece I am working on is great, or when I think it is lousy, I say, over and over again, “my feelings are none of my business.”

By the same token, my family’s reaction to my piece is also none of my business. I cannot write how I feel, what I am experiencing, my hopes and dreams, while bearing their emotions, or anyone else’s in mind.

As I am preparing to take my next writing class, I am answering questions that my teacher sent out. One of which is, “What is emerging?” I thought about this.

What is emerging.

There is one thing, that I know for certain, and that is, my story.

November 9, 2009

Tell Me a Story - More Please

This weekend I went to a book launch party for the 3rd Tell Me a Story collection. Tell Me a Story started out as a children's newspaper column for a small paper in Ontario Canada. It is now syndicated and appears in over 150 newspapers around the country featuring multicultural myths and folktales from around the world. After 15 years of writing this column, Amy Friedman, the writer, got the bright idea that she should produce them into audiobooks. She has engaged some of the stage and screen's best actors to read them, and the music (by Laura Hall - Whose Line is it Anyway?) is amazing. They are truly magical. They have all won Parent's Choice awards as well as NAPPA Gold awards. And let me tell you, they deserved them. If you have kids age 5+, these CDs are like crack. They can't stop listening, and neither could I. (Long car ride heaven.) And I have a low tolerance for most things in CD format aimed at kids (Eeeek!). But I found myself being moved and healed and transformed while listening.

But besides the entertainment value, if you (or your kids) want to learn a thing or two about storytelling, you should listen to great storytelling. And this is it.

I think you can buy all three for a discount on CD Baby. You can also download them. Do it. I get nothing for saying this by the way. I'm just a huge fan.

November 6, 2009

Not Laughing Out Loud

When we moved to Blogger, this post did not come with, so I thought I should post it again. The other day, a former boyfriend tried to lol me and given that he knows how I feel about it, I equated it with calling me a bad name. I asked if this was his intention and he just responded with lots of exclamation points. Joker. Here's the post:

I have said it before. I will say it again. I hate lol. When I read lol, it doesn't make me think of laughing out loud. The symmetry of the letters is disturbing. It looks like an equation, or like the absolute value of zero. Also, the sounds of the letters don't flow. Lol sounds slow. It makes me think of lolling about, lallygagging, or logarithms--nothing funny about those. If there must be an alternative, "Ha!" is great, and contains just as few characters. It sounds sharp, like a chuckle. Lol sounds insincere. I don't buy it.

But why do we need so many acronyms and emoticons? So we don't have body language over email, so what? We didn't have body language when we used to write letters, either. What's changed? Why pretend like we do now? Why emote? Why not trust that our language will convey our meaning? There is the argument, which has been around since the letter, that one never knows in what tone a letter/email will be read. But this is true of face to face conversation as well. Despite the extra ingredient of body language, people misunderstand each other every day. It's the same with art. You can't control interpretation of it once you put it out there. An artist knows this. Yet believes enough it it's worthwhile-ness to put it out there. Without explanation. Without apology. Without emoticons next to it.

Why is it we don't trust language anymore? Or is that we don't understand it well enough to be able to use it? On Myspace blogs you can select what mood you are in while writing your blog. Give me a break. You don't see novelists writing their mood at the beginning of each chapter. It is part of the art of writing to be able to convey a mood by choosing the correct arrangement of words. Novelists also don't use capital letters to convey shouting. Nor do they use an excess of exclamation points. (I'll save this rant for another day.)

Let's not forget that even in an email, writing is not conversation. It is writing. It is communication. In fact, it should be easier to convey your feelings in an email, because you are not bound by the "show don't tell" rule. In fact, telling is required for effective communication. Let's see, can you guess how I'm feeling?

I can't wait to see you.
Where the hell are you? I'm worried.
I can't tell you how relieved I am.
I'm laughing so hard I just drooled ice cream sandwich on my keyboard.
I'm beginning to wonder if anyone cares.
Fool! You will regret this.

I'm pretty sure my meaning was clear in all of the above. And I accomplished it all with no emoticons, acronyms, and only one (correctly used) exclamation point.

November 5, 2009

Cat Memoirs?

A week or two ago, I told a friend that Memoirs Ink is now writing Child Memoirs. I actually called them Kiddie Memoirs, and she thought I said Kitty Memoirs. Ha! I laughed and laughed, and then I stopped and thought, "Could I?"

"You never know with people in L.A." she said, as if reading my thoughts. I shook my head. There aren't many animals about which you could entice me to write a serious memoir--except maybe this one:

Did you know that Hello Kitty is 35 this year? I only know this because I just (today) went to the Hello Kitty exhibit and art show at the Royal T in Culver City. I have never seen so much Hello Kitty stuff in my life. And the art She has inspired was quite magnificent, from gothic looking sculptures to Hello Kitty Elvis painted on velvet. It was already sold. Damn. I'm sure they have an on-staff historian, but it would be a fun memoir.


November 4, 2009


Danika reaching to pet the orphan lambs.

I made this image in Montana in 2004. I made it with a real camera, loaded with real film. Then I processed it with chemicals in my darkened bathroom; I enlarged and printed it in a darkroom at Santa Monica College. Now I have scanned it, and much of the magic of it is lost and the rest will depend on your computer screen, and the angle of your chair. Sigh.

I am as much a fan of the instant digital age as anyone. But there is something about silver gelatin prints vs pixels and ink. Sigh.

Some days I do a lot of sighing about days gone by. Today is one of them.

November 2, 2009


Today I read some contest entries who wanted feedback. I just have to say, in general, the feeling that I have after reading personal essays is: it is amazing what people survive. Really. Brain aneurysms, abusive parents, molesters, crazy marriages, electrocution. Then there are the people who seem to witness everything. What happens to them is that no one can keep from telling them anything. They always seem to be the third wheel along on the awkward camp-out or stuck between the bathroom and the outer door when the boss is firing someone or doing something inappropriate in the hallway. Then there are people who write about the bushes over their back fence.

I must say, I will read anything if it is well written. I happened to like the story about the bushes quite a lot. And I can handle stories about molesters and abusive parents, but most people who are writing a big story like that are too raw and close to it to understand that is through understatement that readers will feel it deepest. I think that the best way to learn about this is through poetry.

I can think of a million examples, but not one perfect one. But here is one from Linda Pastan:

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

It is only the last line and the title that let us know that this is about a more serious and sad moment of seeing a daughter go. But Pastan chooses to tell the whole big tale in a small moment from long ago.

Another poem I am reading now by Raymond Carver is about missing a person who died of cancer, but he focuses on the face he is making in a photograph to tell the whole story. It is lovely and sad and nagging and all without being sentimental.

More on this another time.

October 29, 2009

Contest Joys and Woes

We just published the winners of our Annual Contest yesterday and I read some of them for the first time. But you will notice we did not publish second place. This is because I got tired of waiting for Kendall Pope to get back to me. He seemed really excited to win second place, but hasn't sent me his contest winner agreement form yet or returned my emails or calls. I hope he's okay. It's totally bizarre. His story was good. I read it and there was one part in it involving cruelty to a turtle that made me cringe and want to look away, but I couldn't. You know. Like roller derby, or speedracing. You may say you don't really want to see girls get clobbered or some hayseed fried alive, but secretly you do. Hopefully Kendall will turn up. If not, I'll have to split his money among the other winners. I'm sure they won't complain.

I have gotten out of judging myself because it is darn too hard. And then there's the problem of what to do with all these stories after it's all over. I feel sort of awful just recycling them because I know these are people's lives. Some of them opened a vein to write these stories.

Also, I know that even though our judges are professionals, personal tastes vary widely. One year I asked for the top ten from 4 different people and none of us had the same ten. Ultimately, when it comes down to selecting the winners from the top 25 or so, it's personal taste. That's why we try to change up the judging every year.

If you are wondering what process your pieces are put through when you submit them to a writing contest I'll tell you how it works here. We do a first read of all the stories. Who makes is past the first read? If your first page is well written and makes us want to turn the page, it makes it into the reread pile. Usually about 50-75 stories make it to the reread pile. So if you know that you tend to have false starts in your writing, this might be what's keeping you back. We'd love to read every word of each story, but we can't. The second read is much more selective. We're looking for good writing and a good story. I can't tell you how many times I find one and not the other--a great story poorly executed or an impressive writer with no story that I can find. After this read we usually have about 12-15 and then is the hardest part. I usually go for what moves me the most, whether it is to laugh out loud or cry or think about it for days after. But again, this is really subjective.

I usually let the finalists know that they were finalists, because I'm nice, and because I know it can be frustrating to submit to contests with no response at all. But everyone who submitted to our contest should know that just by submitting, you have become more of a writer. This genre is, in my opinion, has the bravest souls and has the greatest capacity for healing ourselves and inspiring and influencing others. So keep writing.