Writing about Family

As it turns out, May 16th is National Biographer’s Day and May 18th is National Relatives Day. I thought combining these two holidays would make a good subject for today’s blog.Ironically, tomorrow I will be visiting my family in New York to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday – so I’m doing exactly what Wikipedia says I should do—visiting relatives!

As a memoirist, the challenges of writing about family are constantly present. Many of my students who write memoir often express their fear of being sued. According to Judith Barrington in her book, Writing the Memoir, the chances of being sued are extremely low. For the most part, suing someone is extremely expensive.  Plus most people w considering the process might not want to bring any further attention to a potentially-embarrassing situation.

The dilemma for the writer is having the desire to do justice to their families, but also wanting to write a compelling story. The fact is, drama sells. A humor columnist friend of mine who frequently writes anecdotes about his wife or married life, clears his short pieces with her first. He is both wise and sensible to do this. It’s good to allow family members to review your writing prior to publication. Not only does it allow you to face your family with peace of mind, but it can also solicit an additional perspective which might also even strengthen your story.

No doubt, the most interesting characters are those who are spirited and who are willing and able to create conflict, the essential element that keeps a story compelling.  There are three types of conflict—conflict within the individual, conflict between individuals and conflict between an individual and society. The odds are that if your story doesn’t contain some type of conflict, either you don’t yet have a story or it will be a boring one.

If you are driven to write about family and fiction is not an option for you, then you must know your limits and boundaries within the world of nonfiction. There are three important things to remember: be as honest as you can, fact check, and preserve other people’s privacy. In any event, here are some terms you should be familiar with:

Defamation: This is damage to someone’s reputation, which includes damaging statements that are either slander (spoken) or libel (written).

Libel: This is being accused that a published statement is untrue. This can only be done by a living person. One way to avoid this charge is to alter character name, especially if you are saying something which can embarrass or invade a person’s sense of privacy.

Invasion of privacy: This is writing something about someone which they don’t want published and then sharing it publicly. This can include embarrassing, personal or misleading facts about a person which you might be obtained from a third party.

Copyright: Most writers are familiar with this infringement, but one thing I recently learned was that letters are copyrighted the second they are written, and that you cannot publish a letter without their permission.

Indeed, there are rewards when writing about family. You might have access to fascinating stories and details which could really sell and might not otherwise make their way out into the world. But, it’s important to be cautious and keep the following in mind:

Set boundaries for yourself; allow anyone mentioned in your writing to review the material and honor the fact that people are entitled to their privacy.

THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO A NEW ADDRESS !!

Dear Readers:

Please note that this blog has moved to a new address:  http://www.dianaraab.com/blog


So update your bookmarks and RSS feeds, and visit me “Diana’s Notebook: Literary Musings” starting this week.

Diana

The New Journal – Author Blogging

Dear Reader ~

The art of being an author means that it is no longer enough to craft a compelling manuscript and submit to an agent or publisher. We are now told that no matter what the size of our publishing house we need to do our fair share of marketing.  We must now be excellent promoters of their work and with this revolution comes the relatively new interface of the author blog.

Over the years, my journals have been a conglomeration of personal and impersonal—

scribblings which sometimes lead to published work, but other times include lists of things to do and books to read. Now that some of my scribbles have gone public, I find myself a little more reflective. I try to keep my blog entries general enough so that those who are not authors will also find them stimulating, but those particularly interested in the writing life will gain some personal insight into their chosen field.

In general, there continues to be an intrigue and mystique associated with the writing life. I learned this while editing my last book, Writers and Their Notebooks (The University of South Carolina Press, 2010), and how fascinated readers are to hear about how the writer’s mind works. Even though we don’t get paid much, many people still say they would love to be a writer if they had time. In fact, yesterday I had lunch with a dear friend whose son asked her, “Mom, if you could be famous for anything what would it be?” She turned to him and in spite of working in a completely unrelated field, said, “I would want to be a famous writer.”

Surely everyone else’s grass looks greener, but if you love to read you probably would be proud to call yourself a writer. OK. I’m veering from the subject of blogging, but also making a point that there are different types of author blogs and it’s beauty is that it gives you a chance to ramble and muse. Alas, I have made a promise to my readers that my blog will never exceed 1000 words, and most often they hover around 700. Long blogs will loose readership. We simply all have too much to do.

Many authors already have blogs, but if you are considering one, here are some things you should know about the different types of blogs:

Daily Blog – Even though at first, this may seem like a wonderful idea because it inspires regular writing, these types of blogs are very difficult to maintain over a long period of time. The idea is that writing your blog should not be a chore, but something you actually look forward to doing. You also want to make them stimulating and interesting to read, unlike the journals you kept as a young child. In your first draft, you can start by writing, “Dear Diary,” and write from your heart, write about what really interests you and chances are it will also interest your readers. Then go back and cut what might not be interesting.

Weekly Blog – This is what I do, because a week’s time frame presents itself with enough material to filter through and find something captivating to write about. If nothing happened or sparked your interest in the past week, then write about something in the news which interests you. Write about what you’ve read. Write about a movie you saw.

Subject-directed blog – This is a good type of blog, particularly if you are a nonfiction writer who specializes in a particular topic, whether you’re a politician, scientist, activist, photographer, fashion designer, medical practitioner, painter or filmmaker. These types of blogs stir up the most controversy and will probably get the most comments.

Group Blogs – This is a good way to go if you are unable to make the commitment to a weekly blog. You might want to gather a group of authors together who write similar books and take turns blogging. If you choose this route, make sure you have a list of guidelines laid out in the beginning. In addition to my personal blog, I am a guest blogger and columnist on a few other blogs and I enjoy the occasional and refreshing nature of this arrangement.
What makes a powerful blog? This is an important question because unlike diaries, there’s really no use for a blog without readership. I suppose we should ask our readers, but many of mine have told me that they were just thinking about the subject I blogged about, which I guess means that my blogs are very timely. So here are some tips I live by which might help you:

1 – Have your finger on the pulse on the times.

2 – Let your personality shine through. Readers are attracted to passion in writing.

3 – Write well and compelling text. Sometimes a good writer can make an uninteresting story or life sound very interesting. It’s all in the writing.

4 – Update regularly. My readers expect my entries on Monday.

5 – Stay ahead of yourself. Typically I am one week ahead, just in case and I cannot blog on a Monday, I always have an entry in the hopper.

And the best news of all, (before this blog entry gets too long), is once in a while we hear that blogs can sometimes lead to a book contract – now wouldn’t that be a perk?

Genre Confusion (Book, that is…)

In my local bookstore I just picked up a copy of Jeannette Walls latest book, Half Broke Horses: A true life novel and as an instructor of memoir, I wonder about this new genre. Walls last book, a memoir, The Glass Castle (2006), was on the New York Times Bestseller list for quite a while. I read it and loved it. I find her writing quite compelling and she openly called that book a memoir, but I must say I am curious why she decided to call this new book a ‘true life novel.’

I do know that many prose writers who want to tell the story of their lives are frequently in a quandary as to whether they should tell their story as fiction or nonfiction. Typically, I tell my students that there is no correct answer. It’s whatever feels right or organic to your story. Some writers might find themselves experimenting by writing the story in both genres to see which one flows better.

No doubt, whatever genre the author chooses, he or she will encounter reviewer flak, once the book is published. A recent article in The Daily Beast (January 19, 2010), claimed that memoirs raise a perennial problem—sometimes fiction is more powerful than memoir and the main reason is that often memoirists are not as adept at using fiction technique as novelists. More specifically, in this particular article, writer Taylor Antrim proclaims that he views memoir writing as “cheating.”  The article mentions that he felt this even before the James Frey circus of events. He further explains that what he means by “cheating” is not necessarily an exaggeration of the truth, but that the stories sometimes contain blatant lies. He goes on to say that it’s not easy telling a good story without fibbing a bit, and it might be the author’s fabrications that bring a dramatic effect to an otherwise boring life.

As a memoirist first, and a fiction writer second, it is my natural instinct to defend my genre. Memoir is what it is and frankly I’m tired of people comparing it to fiction. It is a completely different genre with its own voice and rhythm. Did you ever hear of people comparing poetry to fiction?

The seasoned memoirist typically incorporates fiction techniques and if in fact, this makes the story appear fragmentary, then so be it. It seems that the writer is ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t.’ If they use too much fiction technique and bend the truth, like Frey, they are considered ‘liars,’ if they leave out parts of the story because they don’t remember them, they are called ‘fragmentary writers.’

 So let’s just accept memoir for what it is and respect the writer who chooses memoir over fiction as someone who has courage and guts to write a memoir without hiding behind the veil of fiction. If you don’t like reading the form, then don’t read it and stop complaining. Of course, there’s good writing and poor writing; there are good memoirs and bad memoirs; there are good novel and bad novels. I believe that if someone is a good writer, it doesn’t matter what genre he or she writes in.

In comparing the genres, Antrim shares examples of autobiographic fiction, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Maple Stories by John Updike and The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Then there’s another genre which has been frequently used, called, the autobiographical novel, examples of which include, On the Road by John Kerouac, Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Night by Elie Weisel, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Childhood by Leo Tolstoy. I see two primary reasons for writing an autobiographical novel instead of a memoir —if you’ve forgotten certain events and/or if you want to protect the privacy of loved ones (or enemies).

Another part of me asks “Who cares what the genre is and why are people so intent on labeling?” Perhaps the most important reason for genre-labeling is that bookstore sellers will know where to shelve the book in their stores. In fact, the first question an agent or publisher will ask the writer is, “Where do you see this book in the book store?” Glancing ahead into the future and the inevitable demise of bookstores, I wonder if the genre line will become even more blurred. In many ways, I think it will  be a good thing if it does.

Note to fiction writers: You should know that most of  my writing colleagues are fiction writers and you should not take this blog wrong– it’s just how I feel today, but you know that I love you all and still want to hear what you have to say about this very controversial subject.

AWP Recap

Dear Readers:

I recently attended the annual AWP conference which this year was held in Denver, Colorado. As usual, it was a stimulating conference, highlighted by the huge book fair and exhibit. Last Thursday I moderated a panel called, “Writing Biographies: Making Someone Else’s Story Your Own,” (panelists: Phillip Lopate, Honor Moore, Robert Root, Kim Stafford and Joy Castro). I was thrilled that the conference room we were given was filled to its capacity of 350 persons. I was also delighted that there were two Santa Barbara attendees – Paul Willis and Glenna Luschei. I thought the panel went as well as it could have gone.  I bow to my stellar panelists – you all shined and I thank you!

There were many highlights at this years’ event – Michael Chabon was a keynote speaker and he was hysterical. Although I have not read any of his books, he has inspired me to do so. On Saturday, writers from THE SUN Magazine gave a great reading featuring editor Sy Safransky and writers Steve Almond, Alison Luterman, Ellen Bass and Frances Lefkowitz. The stories made us laugh and cry—just what we want our readers to do. There were quite a few panels discussing the role and future of small presses, and others addressing the future of book publishing. Here’s a summary of one panel I attended which was moderated by Mary Gannon, the editorial director of Poets & Writers. The panelists included agents, editors and publishers. Mary did a fabulous moderating job and she and the panelists left me with many issues to They all gave me many thing to ponder, such as:

1)    The new technology (ebooks) will make readers out of those who are not readers.

2)    There will no longer be professional book reviewers, but the readers or actual buyers of the books will do the reviewing. Book promotion will be done via word of mouth, in the same way people spoke about books in the past—passed on to friends during lunch, coffee and in the same way independent store owners suggest books to their regular customers and book clubs.

3)    Nielsen’s BookScan which has been in place since late 2009, is a monitoring and analysis service which monitors English-language books by providing weekly point-of-sale data. It tracks about 75% of retail sales which includes chains, independent stores, discount stores and  internet retailers. This service now gives publishers the chance to see how many books of a particular title were sold, so if a big publisher is thinking of taking on an author who was published by a small press, they can tell exactly how many books were sold and if sales were low, they might decide not to take them on.

The way I look at it, this is good and bad news for authors, but either way, we are entering a new era in the book industry where not much is predictable except one thing and that is  that our  children’s children may not even know what a paperback novel is. In many ways I feel sorry for them, but in other ways I’m excited for them because the technology might inspire more people to read. I’m not sure this affects those in their 50s like me who has not yet used my Kindle which has been sitting on my desk now for two months. I thought it a good idea to get ‘with the program,’ and buy one, but somehow, I just cannot bring myself to use it. I grew up in libraries and the paper books are a part of my blood.

I’d love to hear how you feel about the book publishing industry—where you think it’s headed and how you feel about it. Please write into my comment section here.

Until next time,

Happy Reading!

Diana

Happy National Poetry Month!

In honor of National Poetry Month, on Saturday I read at the Santa Barbara Library, along with six other poets who also had a new poetry collections published in 2009. It’s really nice to see that people are still coming out for readings and that poetry is still alive and well.

Even if you are not a poet or avid reader of poetry, this might be a good time to bring poetry into your life. Here are some ideas you might want to consider:

1)    Select a poem you love. Copy it and put it in your pocket. For the month of April, share it with co-workers, family, and friends. This is called the “Poem in Your Pocket,” program.

2)    Receive a poem a day. Here’s where you can sign up: http://www.poets.org/poemADay.php. Each morning in your mailbox, you will receive a new poem to celebrate National Poetry Month. Incidentally, the poems have been selected from new books published this spring.

3)    Attend a poetry reading.

4)    Organize a poetry reading.

5)    Subscribe to a literary magazine.

6)    Revisit an old favorite poem.

7)    Memorize a poem.

8)    Write a poem.

9)    Send a poem to a loved one.

10) Start a poetry notebook where you copy and save favorite quotations and poems.

11) Put a poem in your child or loved one’s lunch box.

12) Buy a poetry book.

Although I have done a number of things on this list, the most recent undertaking was to buy a copy of Billy Collins’ latest poetry collection which was just released in paperback. It’s called, Ballistics: Poems (Random House, 2010). As usual, it’s never easy for me to choose a favorite poem of Billy’s because I love them all, but here’s one to whet your appetite and maybe send you to the bookstore to buy the entire collection:

A DOG ON HIS MASTER

As young as I look,

I am growing older faster than he,

seven to one

is the ratio they tend to say.

Whatever the number,

I will pass him one day

and take the lead

the way I do on our walks in the woods.

And if this ever manages

to cross his mind,

it would be the sweetest

shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.

Typewriters, Then and Now …

Ever since childhood, I have had this deep adoration and affection for typewriters.  Perhaps I owe this to my maternal grandmother who taught me to type on her Remington typewriter perched on the vanity in her room. Twenty years later, my first book was typed on a Smith Corona which sat on a homemade desk my husband built for me during my bed-ridden pregnancy. I can still feel the residue on my fingers from the little white out sheets used to correct my inevitable typos.

Those of you who have visited my website, know my splash page features a typewriter and if you’ve visited my writing studio, you cannot help but notice the assorted collection of retired typewriters. At a recent meeting with a colleague in New York  I learned that there are others with this deep-seated affection. My colleague directed me to a website called, “The Classic Typewriter Page,” http://bit.ly/9rKFR3. The site states that typewriters in their original form date back to 1714, however, the actual concept of the writing ball dates back to 1870 when the pin-cushion-resembling ball was released by Malling Hansen.  In 1873, the Sholes & Glidden typewriter was launched  resulting in capital letter typing and the introduction of the QWERTY keyboard which we are still familiar with today.

As a writer, it’s fascinating to hear about other writers and their typewriters. I recently learned that Mark Twain claims to have been the first well-known writer to have submitted a completed typed manuscript to a publisher. Hunter S. Thompson used a typewriter until his death in 2005. Some writers, such as Cormac McCarthy still use a typewriter. In fact, he’s written all of his novels on an Olivetti , which he has been using since 1963. Supposedly in 2009, his original typewriter was auctioned at Christie’s for $254,500. He ended up buying a new one for a mere $20 to continue his writing. David Sedaris is another author who still uses a typewriter, up until the release of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000).  Isn’t it interesting that my research has revealed only male writers? If anyone has any insight into this phenomenon, I would love to hear it!


Quote of the Week


"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me


I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

Twitter Feed

Blog Listings