Category Archives: Memoir Writing

Write On Wednesdays with Jim Kristofic. Personal to Published

I’m am thrilled to have  Jim Kristofic on today, author of Navajos Wear Nikes, an endearing, colorful, funny and sad memoir about growing up on an Indian reservation. Jim and I are classmates in Write a YA Novel in 9 Months led by Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba. Today Jim talks about his process of going from personal to published.

Jim Kristofic

Personal to Published: Writing Memoir
by Jim Kristofic

So I got the email yesterday. My memoir, Navajos Wear Nikes, a memoir about life on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, released this spring from University of New Mexico Press, just sold out its hardcover run. It’s going paperback.

Two years ago, I wasn’t sure I’d find a publisher for the book. So I was asked to talk about how I got from there to here. Here it goes.

Start Small
Writing the memoir began in small projects. I had memories and stories to tell. They were experiences that were valuable to me, that happened in a place that was more than 2,000 miles from where I was living at the time in Pennsylvania.

It started in a creative writing class (as do many books, I’m sure). We were asked to write a “creative nonfiction” essay about a “fantastic reality” in our lives: something that seemed ‘other-worldly’ to us but also actually happened.

So I wrote about my eighth grade geometry teacher butchering a sheep in the middle of the day at my middle school.  I remembered it all very clearly: the smell of the sagebrush caught in the sheep’s wool, the mud clinging to its hooves when the sheep was carried in, the sounds of its throat cut, the respectful quiet of the students, the way we all worked together to collect the organs after the sheep was skinned, the feel of the sheep’s stomach while I picked it clean of fat in the kitchen of our school cafeteria so that it could be used to bake blood sausage.

Write about what you know
Something clicked. And in writing about a place that I’d loved so dearly – Diné Bikeyáh, the Navajo Land – that place became more vivid and alive for me than before. This was no longer nostalgia. This was truth. This event actually happened. And now – if someone read it – it would happen again.

I graduated from college just a few months later, got married, and found myself still living in Pennsylvania. And still homesick.

So I wrote another essay, this one about how I’d caught a hawk and held it. The next one about saving dogs from a dogcatcher. The next one about encountering Navajo witchcraft and being chased by a Navajo witch. And so on. I understood that these were stories I wanted to pass on to my close relatives and my wife. And I was writing for myself.

Write from example
I tried following the best examples I could. I kept in mind the sharp observation and keen intimacy of essays and short stories like Flood by Annie Dillard, Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle, and Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation by Sherman Alexie. These were authors who had nurtured me in my high school years. Now they were helping me put together these valuable memories.

Eventually, I had so many of these memories written out that it was really approaching a book length. So I contacted some publishers and some literary agents, hoping that the book could be something to reach out and create some meaning of the “Rez life” for my friends who were also living off the Rez  (about 60% of Navajos end up leaving the Rez to look for jobs).

Publishers and agents were initially fascinated by the idea of the book, they felt they were “interesting stories told by a unique voice,” but they weren’t really approaching a “greater sense of meaning.” So they passed.

What were they talking about? A greater sense of meaning? I finally understood what they meant when one agent wrote me and suggested I try reading a few memoirs in order to take the collected essays in a more fluid direction.

My response? What’s a memoir?

Learning a greater sense of meaning through others
So I read memoirs. I studied authors whose memoirs of culture, identity, and place, have become celebrated and loved. I read them with a pencil in hand, made notes, and dog-earred important passages that revealed that “greater sense of meaning” that my own ignorance of the craft hadn’t allowed me to explore yet. And I also had a lot of “Rez humility.” Still do.

I learned about exploring the emotional landscape from Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad, relating the minute to the universal in Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, and spacing small episodes in Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs taught me how to explain a foreign world to the American reader; Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir taught me some cool tricks about writing about childhood; and Dr. Lori Alvord and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt’s The Scalpel and the Silver Bear gave me a clear path to follow in writing memoir specifically about the Reservation.

And in the meantime, I got to know the landscape of the Rez. I did an oral history project. I picked up freelance work from western publications like High Country News, Arizona Highways, and The Navajo Times. I built my writing chops. I tried paying my dues as best I could.

Research
I also found out that memoirs are pretty popular. Memoirs had sold well throughout the decade and propped sagging sales of hardcover fiction. The nation’s fascination with memoirs had spilled over into television with reality TV. And – not surprisingly – Indian life and culture had been a popular feature.

Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days series featured an episode titled “What’s Life Like on an Indian Reservation?”, where Spurlock lived for a month in a Navajo hogan. Likewise, Billy Luther’s PBS documentary Miss Navajo – which chronicled the entrees of the famous pageant on the Navajo Reservation – won the Special Founders Prize at the 2007 Traverse City Film Festival and was an Official Selection to 2007 Sundance Film Festival. And you better believe I included that information in my book proposal. I learned to write a book proposal by reading How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen.

Keep looking for a home for your book
Then I took the book back to the agencies. Most thought it was too “regional” and some really liked it and wanted me too expand it to include other Reservations like the Lakota or the Mohawk or the Tlingit (as though they’re all the same tribe or something). But I wasn’t going to do that. I was writing about this particular place, a place where sheep were butchered in school, where human hands could catch hawks, and where you didn’t go out at night because you might get cursed by a witch.

Eventually, I found a wonderful home with University of New Mexico Press, who loved the book from the start and who have championed it in the bustling literary scene of Santa Fe and beyond. Where it grows from there, I do not know. And I don’t really care.

What has moved me most is the really positive response from the people from the Rez and the Navajo living off the Rez. By marketing the book through Facebook, I’ve been able to make connections with people from New Mexico to Ohio to Ireland.

One reader had just picked it up in a library outside Flagstaff, Arizona, and sent me a message via Facebook as she and her mother were driving up to their sheep camp near Sheep Springs, New Mexico, just to tell me how great it was to see a book about the Rez life.

All I can say to her – and to all the authors who helped me and all the people who’ve read the book – is Aheehee. Thank you.

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Write-On Wednesdays! Self-help author Jerry Waxler reaches out to other writers

Jerry Waxler, M.S.

Jerry Waxler, M.S. author of “Four Elements of Writers,” considers himself a writing-activist, trying to convince people that if they want to write, they ought to overcome obstacles and “just do it.” Jerry answers questions today about how he became interested in helping writers help themselves.

Why are you so passionate about reaching out to writers?
When I was 18, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, a doctor. By the time I was 24, I was living in a garage, preparing to move to Costa Rica to sleep on the beach and eat fruit from the trees. At the last minute, I steered back toward civilization, but it took me another 20 years to put my life back together. Years of being in therapy, and studying self-help books culminated in a graduate program Counseling Psychology at Villanova. After I earned my Master’s degree I wanted to write what I learned so I could help other people achieve their own goals.

When I became serious about writing, I was fortunate to find a club in Doylestown called the Writers Room of Bucks County, where writers congregated and learned from each other. The storefront club for writers turned out to be a powerful incubator for learning about writers and the writing life. The experience made me realize how much writers can offer each other, in support, craft, and also “moral authority,” empowering each other to believe in what they are doing.

Why do you think writers need self-help tools?
Aspiring writers start with the desire to create something entertaining, or beautiful, or informative. That in itself is a lovely goal, but then most of us discover it’s not easy to sit at the desk hour after hour. The blank page is daunting. How do you justify the work when it won’t earn money for years, if ever? Other, easier or more urgent tasks call. In the end, self-management is as important a part of being a writer as the writing itself. And then even after the work is complete, writers face another round of psychological challenges when they have to overcome shyness, and try to present their work to the world.

I realized that many of the strategies that I had been learning to help overcome obstacles in other aspects of life could be applied to writers. For example, writers have to set priorities, establish healthy habits, improve attitude, and steer through a variety of social interactions.

How did you decide to write your self-help book for writers?
Most of the workshops at the Writers Room were directed to improving craft or selling books. There was hardly any training about overcoming psychological obstacles. The directors of the Writers Room in Doylestown, first Foster Winans and then Jonathan Maberry, gave me the opportunity to give workshops to help writers. I developed handouts for those courses, and the handouts grew longer and longer until I finally made them available in a book.

Why is your book only available from your website?
When I finished writing the book, I spent some time trying to find an onramp into the book publishing industry but soon realized that it was going to take a lot of time to find a publisher. I was intrigued by book production and thought I could learn a lot by putting the book together myself. I hired a book designer, cover artist, and editors, and printed the book and sell them directly from my website. That was before the revolution in electronic publishing. A few weeks ago I bought a Kindle, and everywhere I go, I meet people who just bought an e-reader or going to soon. This is all happening so fast, I am only now gearing up to re-publish the book.

One reason I self-published was because it was my first book and I wanted to learn from my mistakes. One mistake I made with that book was the fancy title, Four Elements for Writers. The title refers to  the way I organized the self-help tools into four categories, action, attitude, story-of-self, and audience. Each of the sections corresponds with the alchemical notion that everything is made up of earth, air, fire and water. The title is too abstract and when I republish it, I want to change it to something more straightforward.

So what else do you write?
I blog about memoir reading and writing and treat each post with the same respect as I would if I was writing for a literary journal. Most of the essays on the blog have been through dozens of revisions, including feedback from critique groups. Keeping up with the blog is a crucial part of my goal as a writer, because it lets me publish material at the same time as I’m developing expertise.

In addition, I’m working on two books. One is about the value of reading and writing memoirs, which I propose is one of the great cultural breakthroughs in the new century, allowing people to understand themselves and each other in a more authentic way than any other time in history. And I’m working on my own memoir. This is particularly daunting first, because it is hard turning a life into a story and second, because at the same time as I’m trying to make sense of my life I have had to learn the craft of storytelling.

And at the same time, I continue to connect with writers. In the old days (3 weeks ago) you could be a successful writer by associating with the big publishing houses. That might still be the case for some of us, but the rest of us find our public through the internet. It’s time consuming but I don’t see any way around it. Writers need each other, and these online groups give us a way to connect. I also maintain a yahoo group for memoir writers and I’m on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and volunteer at other groups. I’m always trying to stir up writing community because I enjoy the camaraderie and mutual support.

Why do you push yourself to do all of this?
Like most people who write, I can’t imagine not doing it.

To read more about “Four Elements for Writers” and to order your copy, click here. http://jerrywaxler.com/four_elements.html

To read Jerry’s blog, click here. http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog

Jerry’s Home Page: http://www.jerrywaxler.com

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Write On Wednesdays! Linda Wisniewski “Stretches Herself” Through Memoir

Today I am excited to have Linda Wisniewski  talking about her memoir OFF KILTER, writing advice and her new jump into fiction.

Linda Wisniewski

We met up in June at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference where she presented a workshop on writing memoir. More recently we met at Saxby’s coffee shop in Doylestown, PA where I chatted with this lovely lady who also hails – like me –  from the Capital District Region of New York.

Linda writes for the Bucks County Women’s Journal and Bucks County Herald. She is regional representative of the International Womens Writing Guild and a board member of the Story Circle Network. She also teaches workshops on writing memoir. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, & Her Polish Heritage , was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press.

Linda, thanks for sharing today! I was drawn to your book as I could painfully feel your disconnect with your mother.  But it was hopeful that in seeking  a connection with your mother all of your life you finally discovered one with her after her death.

How did you first know you wanted to become involved with writing?
I was a librarian and after my second child I started my own business of providing online market research mainly to pharmaceutical companies. From there I moved to doing freelance features and book reviews.

For everyone who's known the emotional loss and the surprising beauty of being fully who you are...

How did you get interested in writing memoir?
I took writing workshops and wrote personal essays – of which I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Then a teacher inspired me to turn my one personal essay into a memoir.  I began by writing different pieces of my memoir and then connecting them all together once I saw a flow.

In Off Kilter you talk about stretching yourself. What do you mean by that?
I have stretched myself to write in different genres. I’m writing my first novel now. Very different from memoir! I am also working with children for the first time vs. adults. I’m working with teens to help them discover their stories. This has been a year-long project working with 12-14 year old girls. I’m helping them look at their lives and discover what they want to do with their lives in moving forward from their past.

What was it like growing up in the insulated Polish town of Amsterdam, NY?
Growing up in Amsterdam was a bag of mixed messages. It was a very supportive community and you “knew where you belonged” but when you stepped outside there was prejudice.

Did you learn new things about yourself through writing your memoir?
I learned what’s important to me. I learned what I want to do with my life. Most importantly, I discovered what I wanted to leave behind and want I wanted to carry forward with me.

Do you feel your memoir has a message for others?
Yes, that you can look at your whole life and see the losses are a small part of it and realize the joy that was experienced.

Have you visited Poland?
I visited for the first time in 2010. I toured with an elder hostel which was a fascinating learning experience. Each morning we had a lecture on Poland and then an afternoon tour.

Did any new projects grow out of your Poland trip?
Actually, my new novel is a time travel tale about an ancestor from Poland called “Memoirs of The Queen of Poland.” One of my ancestors from the 20th century time travels to the 21st century because she prayed to the Black Madonna, falls and hits her head and wakes up in the 21st century.

What do you enjoy about teaching most in your memoir classes?
I am intrigued by the stories of others. Their fascinating details, trouble, and loss and how they have overcome tragedies and losses.

Writing Advice:
Write A LOT. Don’t be discouraged if first pieces aren’t published. Don’t take it personally. And just “tell your story.”

How are you involved in the local writing community?
I’ve had half a dozen flash fiction pieces published in various print and online publications. I’m currently in a writing critique in Princeton called Sharpening the Quill that is helping me craft my novel.

Visit Linda at:
www.lindawis.com

Or her blog:
http://lindawisniewski.blogspot.com/

Purchase Linda’s memoir here: Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, & Her Polish Heritage

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