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Posts from the ‘Tip Sheet’ Category

Write About Your Community

May 13, 2016

Susan Marg

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.

Photo by: Daniel Mennerich

Photo by: Daniel Mennerich

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

10 Reasons to Remember: The Eighties

February 2, 2016

Susan Marg

Photo by: © lucidwaters

Photo by: © lucidwaters

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?

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

Seeking the Sixties

December 15, 2015

Susan Marg

Photo by: © nejron

Photo by: © nejron

There’s an old hippie saying: “If you remember the Sixties you weren’t there.” Well, I disagree. I think we all remember the Sixties. There was the hope and excitement that President Kennedy brought to the country when he was inaugurated in 1961; our shared grief when he was assassinated in 1964. President Johnson fought the war on poverty, but greatly expanded our presence in Vietnam. Like-minded individuals marched for civil rights, burned their bras for women’s rights, and rioted for gay rights. Young people flocked to San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, but fled the Hollywood Hills following the Manson murders in 1969.

If these events bring back memories, write about them. Here are some more suggestions to consider when thinking about your own personal or family history.

  1. By executive order. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship in 1961. Although the volunteer organization had its critics, Congress formally authorized the program later that year. Since then, nearly 220,000 Americans have joined and served in 140 countries.
  2. Notorious for being banned. When first published in Paris in 1934, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned here: it couldn’t be imported to the U.S. When Grove Press legally published it in 1961, the battle to read about the adventures of a young expatriate in Paris had just begun. Local authorities in twenty-one states filed sixty lawsuits against the book or those who sold it on grounds of obscenity. When one such case went to the Supreme Court in 1964, it overruled state court decisions and established a new, more liberal definition of obscenity. No longer could a book be banned because of its dirty parts, but rather it had to be without any socially redeeming value, as well as prurient throughout and offensive.
  3. Tell the people what she wore. The bikini first went on sale following an outdoor fashion event in France in 1946. The song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polk Dot Bikini” was the number one song for one week in August, 1960. The sexy swimsuit did not become fashionable, or acceptable, however, until Annette Funicello wore one in the 1963 movie Beach Party. Hers neither had yellow polka dots nor showed her navel.
  4. The doctor is in. In Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Love the Bomb, a 1964 satire of the Cold War, the President and his advisors, including Dr. Strangelove, a nuclear war expert played by Peter Sellers, are trying to resolve a crisis brought about by a crazy Air Force general who unleashed a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It did not end well for anyone. In Doctor Zhivago, an epic drama released the following year, a doctor/poet played by Omar Sharif survives World War I and the Russian Revolution. Both films were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and both lost to musical love stories, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively, demonstrating the wisdom of making love, not war.
  5. The British are coming! The British Invasion refers to rock bands from across the pond, such as the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones, making a big splash in America in the mid-1960s. Few made it to Woodstock in 1969, however. The Who performed, and Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends” earned accolades. John Lennon wanted to be there, but the U.S. government refused him an entry visa.
  6. A shot in the dark. While protesters marched for peace, we witnessed the assassination of John R. Kennedy in 1963, of Malcolm X in 1965, of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
  7. A space odyssey. American astronaut Neil Sheperd went into space in 1961, three weeks after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth. Still, Sheperd was the first person to have manual control of his spacecraft and was widely celebrated upon his safe return home. In July 1969, we went to the moon, landing in the Sea of Tranquility. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong pronounced, stepping outside. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joining him twenty minutes later described the surface as “magnificent desolation.” Their teammate Michael Collins stayed on board to man the controls, while Armstrong and Aldrin collected rocks that President Nixon gave as gifts to 135 countries and all fifty states.
  8. Kings of cool. Dean Martin, former partner of Jerry Lewis, member of the Rat Pack, nightclub entertainer, and movie star, began hosting The Dean Martin Show, a television variety program, in 1965. Always charming, he sang, danced, flirted, smoked, and drank his way through the hour program. In 1967 Tommy and Dick Smothers offered viewers an alternative point of view on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In their opening act they sang folk songs, which usually led to an argument. There were also plenty of arguments with the censors, as their pointed humor was usually directed at racism, the President, and the Vietnam War. The show was cancelled in 1969, while Dean Martin continued to get good ratings through the 1973-1974 season.
  9. Thank you, Al Gore. Contrary to statements Gore made, possibly taken out of context, he did not invent the Internet. Rather the Internet grew out of the ARPANET. Scientists formulated the idea to enable general communications among computer users, particularly corporate, academic, and government researchers, in 1963 and developed a plan to implement the network in 1968. It was up and working in 1969, under the control of the military for two decades. Al Gore as a Senator, by the way, promoted legislation to fund the expansion of the ARPANET to allow greater public access.
  10. Close to home. The Cuyahoga River, dividing the East side from the West side of Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown, caught fire in 1969. Neither the first nor worst time this had occurred, the incident barely made the local news, but it created a national outcry, leading to the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The pendulum swings, and a lot happens in a decade.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Looking Back to the Fifties

November 22, 2015

Susan Marg

When I work on client memoirs, I like to bring in as much social history as I can. After all, each and every one of us have a front seat to history, and that history makes us and shapes us, individually and collectively. It also resonates today. If you are thinking about your personal or family history, consider what past events influenced the way you think and feel.

Photo by: © retroartist

Photo by: © retroartist

Here are some suggestions pertaining to the Fifties for you to consider.

  1. Bond and Brown. That’s James Bond in Spectre and Charlie Brown in Peanuts, who, earlier this month, were numbers one and two at the box office, respectively. The iconic Secret Service agent first showed up in novelist Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1953. Sean Connery played the first James Bond on the big screen in Dr. No in 1962. Peanuts, a 3D computer-animated movie, commemorates the 65th anniversary of the popular comic strip.
  1. Polio take down. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine to immunize children against polio in 1952. After extensive testing and the subsequent licensing of the product, it became universally available in 1955. Although polio has been eradicated in the U.S., it is still recommended that babies receive three dosages starting at two months of age and a booster shot when four to six years old.
  1. City or suburbs. Taking a cue from Levittown be it in New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, the suburbs boomed in the Fifties. But where will Millennials chose to live? Right now, they seem to enjoy urban areas, close to work and play. Census data and survey results, however, suggests that many still yearn for the single-family houses where they grew up.
  1. In the matter of. The Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown versus Board of Education  in 1953. Unanimously, the court declared that “separate educational facilities” for black children were “inherently illegal.”
  1. Baby, it’s cold outside. Tensions ran high during the Cold War, when the West grew anxious over the Soviet Union’s push to advance communism around the globe. Here at home, Senator Joseph McCarthy fueled the fear in 1950 by declaring, “The State Department is infested with communists,” and he went after them furiously and recklessly. In 1954 the Senate voted to condemn him for his behavior to “obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity.” The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which tracked down Communist sympathizers in Hollywood, thrived in part due to McCarthy’s actions. The recently released movie, Trumbo, tells the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of hundreds who were blacklisted, that is, denied employment for their suspected political beliefs.
  1. Hasta luego. The Cuban Revolution took place from 1953 – 1959, when the rebels overthrew the Batista regime and Fidel Castro established a communist government. Two years later President Eisenhower shuttered the American embassy in Havana. After months of negotiations to restore diplomatic relations, Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington D.C. in July of this year and we reopened our embassy on the island in August. Tensions between the two nations still exist, but travel restrictions have been relaxed. It’s possible that U.S. airlines will begin offering regularly scheduled flights to Cuba in the not too distant future. See you soon.
  1. Work hard; play hard. Hugh Hefner first published Playboy magazine in 1953, putting actress Marilyn Monroe on its cover. Known for decades for its scantily dressed, if dressed at all, centerfolds, it announced last month that it will no longer feature full nudity, as it can’t compete with pornography on the Internet, only a click away.
  1. In living color. The New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade in 1954 was the first national television broadcast in color. Bonanza, the television program chronicling the adventures of the Cartwright family on the Ponderosa ranch, was one of the first series to be filmed and broadcast in color. First airing in 1958, it lasted fourteen years. You can still catch the show in syndication.
  1. United we stand. In 1959 Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states, respectively.
  1. It’s now or never. I can’t write about the Fifties without mentioning Elvis. In August 1953, Elvis first walked into the offices of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. In an evening session in July, 1954 with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, he recorded “That’s All Right” which Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played to great reception. In 1956 Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” became a number one hit in the U.S. Later that year he appeared on The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. He also made his first movie, Love Me Tender. In 1958 he was drafted. In March, 1960 he was honorably discharged and returned home.

A lot happens in a decade. What music were you dancing to?

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Listening, Learning, Loving

May 29, 2015

Susan Marg

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.

Photo by: © U.P. Images

Photo by: © U.P. Images

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

Why Haven’t Your Written Your Life Story?

May 1, 2015

Susan Marg

Photo by: © massonforstock

Photo by: © massonforstock

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

Let’s Play Dress Up

February 4, 2015

Susan Marg

Photo by: handmademedia

Photo by: handmademedia

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

Mother, May I?

January 29, 2015

Susan Marg

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.

Stock image from depositphotos.

Stock image: depositphotos.

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.

Beware Low-Lying Fruit

January 22, 2015

Susan Marg

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.

Reach high. Stock photo from Depositphotos.

“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


Resolutions for Personal Historians

January 7, 2015

Susan Marg

You can run, but you cannot hide. Illustration by: fffranzzz

You can run, but you cannot hide. Illustration by: fffranzzz




And re-write.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved