Posts from the ‘Tip Sheet’ Category
May 13, 2016
A few years ago I worked with Marie Rudisill on her life history. If the name sounds familiar, Marie has a couple of claims to fame. She was the aunt of Truman Capote, and she helped raise him in Monroeville Alabama, whenever his mother dropped him off on her way to New Orleans. She is also known as “The Fruitcake Lady” from her appearances on The Tonight Show in Jay Leno.
Marie’s book is labeled a memoir, but it is also a personal story, a family tale, an account of all the places Marie laid down roots after she left home.
Wherever Marie lived, she found a community. During the 1930s, she lived in New York City to be near her older sister Lillie Mae and her nephew Truman. Of the Big Apple she comments, it “didn’t have one of anything. My goodness, no. There was not just one square, skyscraper, movie house, art museum, science museum, park, playground, hotel, restaurant, deli, diner, dance hall, concert venue, night club, racetrack, bowling alley, outdoor market, or department store, but lots of everything to suit just about everyone.”
Marie made her home in Greenwich Village, of which she writes, “Greenwich Village, in particular, was a real melting pot of Italians, Germans, Poles, Africans, and Jews. They were mostly of an older generation who had immigrated to American through Ellis Island, but they peacefully co-existed with the painters, writers, and intellectuals of the next generation. Into the mix were young, single, working professionals who were attracted by the neighborhood’s low rents and Bohemian lifestyle. In the summertime everyone gathered on the front stoop looking for a breeze to cool off, but there wasn’t much relief from the humidity, even after the sun had set. When the weather turned cold and nasty we took refuge in the tearoom and coffee shops.”
On a personal level, Marie notes, “The best thing about the Village was its friendly atmosphere, and it attracted lots of Southerners. With my pronounced Southern accent, as strong as it ever was, I had always felt like I stuck out. In the Village I fit right in.”
When she married, she moved with her husband to the Carolinas. Of Charlotte, she writes, “Another thing about Charlotte is that the people are so damn nice. They truly are…. Neighbors know each other and talk to each other… In Charlotte, when a new family moved into the neighborhood, we welcomed them with a fresh meringue pie. That custom is still true, unless we’re talking about Northerners who haven’t learned to mind their p’s and q’s. Them we’ll ice up. Southerners can be very clannish.”
Marie saves her bon mots for Florida, where she retired to be near her son. She never really appreciated the Sunshine State, and she writes, “It is not a Southern state, not to me. It has no history, no civility, no gentility. It’s all flip flops, short shorts, and hairy legs.”
What is community? One simple definition is that it’s a social unit that shares common values, resources, and preferences. Those in a community take risks together, and they benefit from taking those risks – together.
Community can be a part of a life or family history. It says something about where you lived and when you grew up. Why not write about it?
© 2016 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
February 2, 2016
Is it too soon to look back at the Eighties? I don’t think so. It was an interesting time, a period of ups and downs and ins and outs through thick and thin. And we survived. How did you survive? Why not write about it?
- Off to a good start. Minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President on January 20, 1981, Iran released the fifty-two Americans who had been held hostage for 444 days.
- But there was a recession. With the Federal Reserve tightening money to curb inflation, which had peaked in April 1980 at 14.76%, the U.S. recession began in July 1981. Unemployment was 7.6%, rising to 9.7% before the recession ended the following year. Still, we made money. The Dow Jones Industrial average began the decade at 838.74 and ended at 2,753.20, coming out way ahead of Black Monday in 1987, when the market lost 22.6% of its value, falling 508 points to 1,738.74.
- Dirty little secrets always come out. The decade had its share of scandals. The Iran-Contra affair reeled the Reagan Administration. The Gary Hart/Donna Rice affair shook politics. The ban of Pete Rose from baseball hit the sports world hard. Milli Vanilli’s lip synching rocked music fans. Coca Cola kept secret its recipe for the syrup that is the basis for its soda, but deigned to change it to “the new taste in Coke.” It fell flat. Pepsi had its own calamity when Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire while filming a Pepsi commercial.
- Moonwalk to the music. Of all the music videos we watched on MTV, and there were a lot of them from our favorite musicians, Michael Jackson moonwalking to “Billie Jean” from his Thriller album got into our heads. From the same album Jackson danced to “Beat It” and “Thriller.” The zombie sequence from the later has been reenacted from Times Square to Hollywood and Highland. We learned Jackson’s moves and recited his words, so we’d always be in step. While Frank Sinatra wore a hat with style, no one did more for a black fedora — or one white glove — than Michael Jackson.
- More stations, more of the time. We watched a lot of television in the Eighties, and not just MTV on cable. Dallas was the first of the primetime soap operas, spawning Knots Landing, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest – I watched them all. In the fall of 1980, the resolution of the Dallas cliffhanger that had ended the third season generated 83 million viewers, more than the number of voters in that year’s presidential election. Just about everyone wanted to know who shot J.R.
- Talk a little. Talk a lot. In 1987, the National Association of Broadcasters bestowed the Peabody Award on Johnny Carson in honor of his 25th anniversary hosting The Tonight Show. Joan Rivers, David Letterman, and Jay Leno were favored guest hosts, going on to their own late night talk shows. Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey’s show went into national syndication in 1986 and soared in the ratings during daytime.
- Tennis, everyone? It didn’t matter if baseliners were playing serve-and-vollyers on hard court, clay court, or grass court. We loved rooting for our favorite tennis player of the decade, of which there were many greats of the game, as they came out swinging, taking on their rivals, wooing crowds, and becoming household names. Leading the men, there was Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl. The women were just as popular and included Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf. And then along came Monica Seles.
- Here come the brides. A lot of famous couples got married in the Eighties. Some of them are still together, including Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan. Others didn’t make it, such as Madonna and Sea Penn, Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. And then there was Prince Charles and Diane Spencer. An estimated global television audience of 750 million watched their 1981 fairytale wedding. Yet for sheer spectacle, nothing was more remarkable than the mass wedding conducted by the Reverend Rev Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. The gathering of 2,075 couples, brides and grooms dressed in identical outfits at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1982, was a sight to behold. Moon matched the couples himself, often pairing differing races and nationalities, in his belief that all of humanity should be united. A church spokesman puts the divorce rate for the blessed at a mere 25%, which, if true, is better than the national average.
- Women first. The Eighties saw a number of firsts for women. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. Geraldine Ferraro, as Walter Mondale’s running mate, was the first woman on a national ticket. Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- The walls come crumbling down. “Tear down this wall,” President Reagan pronounced in 1987. And two years later the Berlin wall came down. Back at home, unemployment was at 5.3%, and inflation, too, had decreased dramatically, falling to 4.65%. And we cheered.
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
May 29, 2015
I’d like to invite you to listen to Dave Isay, the 2015 TED Prize winner. Isay has made his life’s work preserving the stories of everyday Americans. In 2003 he founded StoryCorps in a booth at New York’s Grand Central Terminal. As part of his project, he invited anyone and everyone to honor someone else by interviewing them about their life. The forty-minute sessions were recorded, and they are now archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress.
StoryCorps expanded across the country. Earlier this year it developed an app to bring the project out of the booth into your hands, wherever you are, whenever you are so moved. To make the most of your interview, Isay offers the following five tips:
Ask the big life questions.
Pour your attention into the interview.
Be an active participant in the conversation.
Remember it’s not the story that matters.
Say thank you.
These tips will work for you, whether you’re a personal historian working with others or a grandchild seeking your roots. As Isay says, “Everyone around you has a story the world needs to hear.”
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
May 1, 2015
So many excuses: Too busy. Too boring. Can’t read. Can’t write. Too young. Too old. Too soon. Too late. Too many photographs. Too many questions – Where to start? When to stop?
Too few answers.
So little time.
So, make the time.
Get help. Ask a personal historian.
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
February 4, 2015
Eighty-six year old Betty Halbreich tells her life story in I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist. From beginning to end, although there’s no end in sight, she fills us in on her upbringing as an only child in a well-to-do home in Chicago during the Great Depression, marrying into a wealthy New York family in which she felt out of touch and all alone, bearing two children who she loved and loved to dress up, divorcing her alcoholic playboy husband, and having a nervous breakdown from which she recovered by going to work.
Betty’s work saved her, just as her fashion advice and general counsel rescued those who found their way to her door, down a long, isolated corridor on the third floor of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue, where she worked as the original personal shopper. I truly enjoyed getting to know Betty. She’s a name-dropper to be sure, but she filled her book with candid observations of those she has dressed. Since 1976 movie stars, Broadway actresses, and society ladies have sought her guidance, as have fashion designers, such as Geoffrey Beene, Michael Kors, and Isaac Mizrahi.
Betty always loved clothes, the cut of a garment, the feel of the material, and adding just the right brooch or other accessory. As a girl she played dress-up, secluding herself on weekly visits in her grandmother’s closet filled with “slinky, silky things” and her mother’s closets, two enormous walk-ins, when her parents were out for an evening. In her book she related her purchase of her first little black dress when she was nineteen years old and later acquiring a two-piece Givenchy dress in a “deep blue-gray animal-like print that buttoned down the front in a low neck, small-sleeved jacket and tight skirt,” as a young matron.
What details Betty went into, which got me thinking. Clothes might make the man — or woman, but they also reflect on our culture — from poodle skirts and pedal pushers in the fifties, bell bottoms and miniskirts in the sixties, to pantsuits, if you weren’t wearing jeans and boots, in the seventies. You get the idea.
Clothes also tell a story — about growing up, fitting in, or finding your own personal style. If you’re writing your life or family history, be sure to include your memories of a favorite piece of clothing from decades past. Why did you buy it? Where did you wear it? How did it make you feel? Did you have to earn money to pay for it or did your allowance cover it? If you can find a photograph of yourself in a tailored jacket with shoulder pads from the eighties, so much the better.
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
January 29, 2015
What games did you play growing up? My brother and I had lots of board games – Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Candyland. Outside he shot hoops; I was partial to hopscotch and jacks, always practicing. With other kids in the neighborhood, we played Hide ‘n Seek, Red Light/Green Light, or Mother, May I? With the later, failure to ask permission from “Mother” to advance meant returning to the start and beginning again. Ah, that was the rub.
When writing a memoir or life history, do you first ask permission to write about a loved one or do you skip that step and apologize later? It’s an age-old dilemma. Going back several years to 2007, Slate magazine ran a series of articles by memoirists, including one by Mary Karr, author of Liar’s Club and Cherry. In her essay below, Karr notes she was always upfront and personal with her friends and family.
The Liar’s Club: How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return. By Mary Karr
As soon as you start to leave things out—to shape a tale—you’re maneuvering the actual. Can I tell about the boy who raped me without investigating who may have raped him as a child (data that would certainly spin the moral compass a few degrees at least)? Not without dismantling history. Hence the innate scorn with which memoirists get treated—it’s a scuzzy business at best, displaying your wounds in the marketplace, making close compatriots into “characters.” How dare I? I did take a few precautions.
Every major character in both memoirs (still alive) was alerted to the project in advance and “warned” about scenes they might find troubling—i.e., I told my mother I intended to recount her psychotic break. I told my best high-school friend (Meredith) that I’d describe her cutting herself, as well as her brother’s stint in jail. My pals who show up in Cherry were alerted as well—Clarice (from grade school), Meredith, John Cleary (the first boy I ever kissed), Doonie (the drug dealer), Stacy (an acid-taking volleyballer), along with two high-school boyfriends and my remaining family. While I didn’t call them for “research” purposes, many told me stories I’d forgotten that wound up in print. Those folks are always thanked up front.
Maybe it’s strange that—given my advanced age—I’ve stayed in touch with all these people through the years. Doonie, Stacey, Clarice, Meredith (until she died a few years back), John Cleary, and I remained (and remain) close. Definition: We continue to celebrate each other’s birthdays, at least by phone call and Hallmark card. We speak at Christmas. Every few years, we visit. Many of these folks joined me at the Texas Book Festival in 2000 when Cherry came out.
Maybe this ongoing closeness made writing about them easier. Or maybe they’re just tolerant individuals, which they’d have to be to associate with me for so long.
Once the manuscript was completed, I sent it to these primary characters for fear I’d misremembered or misrepresented them. The one small complaint I got was from a rock musician (an ex-beau) who worried that I said he’d smoked pot as a teenager—a scene he didn’t deny but now found embarrassing. I offered to take the scene out but refused to change how I remembered it. He preferred it stay in.
The large complaint involved my friend Meredith. She asked that I take out the scene of her cutting herself with a razor. She didn’t mind if I reinserted it in later editions, after her elderly mother died. To write it and blur the identity of the “cutter” seemed a fat lie to the reader—plus, it’s a different kind of betrayal: Watching a stranger taking a razor to herself just differs—morally speaking—from watching a dear pal. So, I’d initially intended to cut the chapter altogether. Then “Stacey,” our volleyball-playing pal, said she’d prefer to claim the cutting acts as her own. Stacey felt the scene was socially relevant and in some way “true” and that the book would suffer from its absence. This is the only intentional falsehood I’ve consciously constructed—other than fake names. It’s the one time I’ve let literature rule over fact. And now that Meredith and her mother are both dead, I correct the score.
Oh, and the Liars’ Club stories in that book (minus one I’d tape recorded) were sheer fiction, but since they deal with frozen farts and the like, I figured their historical accuracy would never be under dispute.
After both books’ publications, several minor neighborhood characters and teachers wrote me or came to hear me speak. It tickled me that a number of the guys I surfed with at Meekham’s Pier showed up at a bookstore in Houston. The oddest character participating was an old pal who’d vanished into the Witness Protection Program back in the late ’70s. The greater complaint has been that I didn’t use real names or the real name of our town. In other words, people preferred to be affiliated with their representations in the book. Some folks were pissed I left them out.
I’m certain that I’ve forgotten, blurred, or misremembered a zillion events, characters, and details large and small. Also, at this point in literary history, it’s understood that memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt. That said, I believe a writer makes a contract with the reader to tell the truth. I try to stick with the stuff that’s stuck hardest with me. And if I don’t recall something I know the reader will wonder about, I announce it’s been forgotten. In the one case when a family member differed not on facts but on their interpretation (my sister remembered a grandmother I found malign as a nice old lady), I told the reader as much (I added—not so slyly!— that the same sister also voted for Ronald Reagan: twice). Maybe I’ve avoided complaints due to my own character—not that it’s stellar, but the converse: If someone’s behaving like an asshole in my book, it most always tends to be me.
January 22, 2015
Have you started writing your memoir, but you’re wondering if you’ve struck the right tone? Take some advice from author Tobias Wolff, known for his memoirs, particularly This Boy’s Life, and short stories.
“Don’t approach history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity.”
– Tobias Wolff to Mary Karr, before she began writing Liar’s Club
January 7, 2015
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved