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.