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Posts from the ‘Tip Sheet’ Category

Start Laughing, and Keep Going

December 1, 2014

Susan Marg

Planes_trains_and_automobilesDid you ever have a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles experience during the holidays? The 1987 movie starring Steve Martin and John Candy has become a cult classic, almost always topping the list of best Thanksgiving movies.

Steve Martin’s character is trying to return to his family in Chicago from New York City, following a meeting right before the national holiday. It’s snowing, and his flight is diverted to Wichita due to a blizzard. Due to circumstances beyond his control, this uptight and stressed out businessman is paired with John Candy’s character, a character to be sure, who personifies a oafish affability. In addition to the vehicles mentioned in the movie’s title, together they get on a bus, hail a cab, and hop in a truck for what becomes a three-day journey, squabbling and quarreling all the way home. It’s a comedy, bittersweet despite the pranks and farce.

Certainly, you’ve been in some situations that you’d just as soon forget. But don’t. Instead, write them done. They can be an enjoyable complement to your description of family rituals and holiday rites in your memoir or life history, and we’ve all been there – the time when the turkey was undercooked, the presents didn’t arrive, or the car wouldn’t start.

As Martin says upon reaching his destination, “As much fun as I’ve had on this little journey, I’m sure one day I’ll look back on it and laugh.” He continues, “Oh, God. I’m laughing already.”

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Have You Read a Good Memoir Lately?

November 14, 2014

Susan Marg

UnknownMary Karr’s The Liars’ Club was first published in 1995, and it is often mentioned as kicking off the memoir craze. In her book the author reflects on her turbulent childhood in a small, smelly industrial Texas town in the early sixties. Alcohol-fueled fights and emotional disturbances were everyday occurrences.

In the introduction to an edition published ten years later, Carr commented on the response she received to her book. Liar’s Club was “odd,” she wrote, “not so much in the boatload of mail it generated, but in the length and intensity of letters. At the peak of its selling cycle, when it hovered at number two on The New York Times bestseller list for months, I got four hundred to five hundred letters a week…”

“How many of those letters began. ‘I’ve never told anybody this, but…?’ I didn’t count. A bunch.”

Memoirs resonate with our lives, whether the author addresses growing up, raising a family, dealing with old age, or all of the above in sadness or with humor. If done well they inspire and encourage. They might even motivate us to commit our own memories to paper.

One is never too old or too young to take on a life or family history project. Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when she was 41 years old. She was 85 years old when she wrote Mom and Me and Mom, the last of her seven autobiographies.

If you do put pen to paper, remember that you’re not competing with anyone else or comparing your life – or your writing — with those of others. You’re doing it for yourself, possibly to see how far you’ve come in life or to leave a legacy for your children and their children.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

What Do You Remember?

October 29, 2014

Susan Marg

Are you thinking of writing your life history, but you’re not sure where to begin? For inspiration, pick up a copy of I Remember by Joe Brainard. First published in 1970 the book has become a cult classic.

I Remember coverBrainard, a poet and prolific artist as well as a nice guy, so say his friends, recalls growing up in Oklahoma and then his life in the 1960s and 1970s in New York City. His concept was simple, but brilliant. He wrote down his memories as they came to him, each prefaced by the phrase “I remember.”

And Brainard remembers a lot: thinking of sex, his first crush, his first dance, his first blue ribbon at a county fair. His observations are personal and universal, emotional and thought-provoking.

With Halloween soon here, here are some examples of his commemorating the holiday:

I remember orange icing on cupcakes at school Halloween parties.

I remember usually getting dressed up as a hobo or a ghost. One year I was a skeleton.

I remember one house that always gave you a dime and several houses that gave you five-cent candy bars.

I remember after Halloween my brother and me spreading all our loot out and doing some trading.

I remember always at the bottom of the bag lots of dirty pieces of candy corn.

I remember the smell (not very good) of burning pumpkin meat inside jack-o’-lanterns.

What do you remember? Now write it down!

Gold Nuggets Can Be Found in the Details

September 24, 2014

Susan Marg

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I watched Busby Berkley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. We thoroughly enjoyed the depression-era story: rich boy meets poor girl and saves the play. And then there’s the singing and dancing. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, who play the rich boy and poor girl, respectively, sing “Pettin’ in the Park.” Ginger Rogers sings “We’re in the Money,” while showgirls dance on gold coins.

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in Gold Diggers of 1933

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in Gold Diggers of 1933

It’s a rather buoyant affair, except that no one has any money, apart from the playboy/songwriter and his relatives who want to keep him from marrying an actress. Like any other thirties musical, it’s somewhat frothy and madcap. Love trumps all, until the end.

The mournful ballad, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” carries the finale. From a close-up of Joan Blondell singing the blues, the scene dissolves first to soldiers, some carrying the wounded, marching in the rain and then to men waiting in a bread line for some soup and coffee. The lyrics tell the story: “You put a rifle in his hand; You sent him far away; You shouted: ‘Hip-hooray;’ But look at him today.”

The scene is visually moving and dramatic, but rather startling to anyone watching the movie today. World War I ended fifteen years before Gold Diggers takes place. The war is not mentioned in the movie until that point. Veterans, despite what they had done for their country, were unemployed, just like everyone else.

Knowledge of history makes the ending more fitting, by providing a perspective similar to that of a thirties movie audience. Here are some facts.

The tragedy of the Bonus Army March was top-of-mind. In the spring and summer of 1932, 43,000 veterans and their families marched on Washington, D.C. for the much needed immediate cash payment of bonuses they had been promised. Although payment wasn’t due until 1945, who could wait? With little sympathy, the Hoover Administration ordered the protestors removed from all government property and their campsite burned. Several veterans were shot and later died.

A second, smaller march early in 1933 at the start of the Roosevelt Administration was more quietly resolved with an offer of jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corp. Transportation home was given to those who chose not to work. As the depression dragged on, by the way, Congress voted in 1936 to pay the veterans their bonus then, rather than later.

Gold Diggers of 1933 was one of the top grossing films of the year. To audiences of the era it offered escape from the glum reality of the Great Depression, yet it was still topical. To modern movie-goers it is emotionally satisfying, as well as entertaining, once the details are filled in. The same is true if you’re writing a life or family history.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Not Too Small, But Just Right

September 12, 2014

Susan Marg

Getting started on your life history can be daunting. It’s potentially a big undertaking, but who has time and what about the expense?

One way to overcome this stumbling block is to think small.

“Think Small” was the advertising campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle when introduced to the U.S. in 1959. Print ads displayed an image of the car on a blank background with very little copy. It was so successful in its simplicity that many credit it with changing the nature of advertising.ThinkSmall_Banner_Nov13b

In 1973, a book titled “Small is Beautiful” took hold of our global imagination. The phrase always stuck with me, and I think you can apply it to writing your life history. Here are a small number of suggestions:

Instead of covering your entire life, choose a decade that is particularly meaningful to you. Perhaps it was the 1950s because you had a favorite poodle skirt or the 1980s, as you were a fan of the punk rock band The Ramones. Maybe it was your twenties, when you struck out on your own, or your forties, after starting your own company.

Concentrate on a few experiences that changed your life or accomplishments you’ve achieved. Do you believe good luck or hard work played a role in the outcome?

Limit your topics to your hobbies or interests. If you’re an avid reader, write about the books that had the greatest impact on you. Are you a master chef in the kitchen? Talk about some of your favorite recipes. Whether you’re a sports buff or film buff, who inspires you?

Write about your friends, the places you’ve gone together, the laughs you’ve shared.

Focus on your family, be it sibling relationships or a family feud that’s lasted a lifetime.

I was having lunch with my mother the other day, and she, reminiscing, told me a story I had never heard before. “Do you know what a radiator is?” “Yes,” I responded. A radiator heated my first college apartment. “Well, when I was a little girl,” she continued, “I once burned myself so badly by leaning against a hot radiator I couldn’t sit down for weeks.” Thinking about the incident, she concluded, “That’s what life is, I guess, all those little moments.”

I agree. Now start writing them down!

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

What’s for Dinner?

September 7, 2014

Susan Marg

Today’s Parade magazine in the Sunday morning paper was all about “What America Eats.” It was loaded with statistics.

Fish tacos with mango salsa. We love to try something new.  Photo  by: jpellgen

Fish tacos with mango salsa. We love to try something new. Photo by: jpellgen

Sometimes I was with the majority and, other times, with the minority. For example, 71% of us take supplements. That’s my husband and me. He meticulously dishes them out to take with meals. If we’re eating out, he puts them in old film canisters to take with us.

However, only 12% have a sweet after dinner. We fall in this category, too – his influence. He saves room for dessert. As much as I like sweets, his portion is almost always larger than mine.

95% said they had started diets on either a Sunday or a Monday. Nope, that’s not me. I start diets every day of the week.

11% said they don’t have anything at all at breakfast. Nope, that’s not me either. I always have a cup or two of coffee.

The Parade article doesn’t go into how we eat. We’re all too aware that we don’t often sit down as a family at dinnertime anymore. Who has the time? As Marie Rudisill notes in her memoir Ask Me Anything:

“So much has changed since I was growing up or, even later, raising a family, and not necessarily for the better. That probably sounds like an old person’s point of view, but today, young or old, it’s rush, rush, rush. Go to school. Go to the office. Go to band practice or football practice or yoga. Go to the dentist. Cut the lawn. Wash the car. Do the laundry. Study, study, study. Pay bills. Pay attention. Meet that deadline. Work, work, work. And don’t forget to do your homework. Whew! Does that sound like a good way to live to you? Who has time to peel a carrot? Dice an onion? Chop up a melon? I guess no one, since everything now comes in little plastic containers already peeled, diced and chopped.”

Even as family rituals have changed, everyone has a favorite food or oft-visited restaurant. What are yours? They can be a meaningful part of a  life or family history.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Long Live the King!

September 4, 2014

Susan Marg

I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s a memoir of sorts, first published in 2000. In the first one hundred pages he recalls stories of his growing up, describing how he became a writer. Actually, King was born a writer, but how he became a successful writer is quite a story, from magazines rejecting his short stories to the  publication of one of his first novels, Carrie. Written in 1973 while King was teaching school and living in a $90 a month apartment with a wife and kids to support, it changed everything.

Jack Torrance's typewriter in the movie "The Shining" based on King's novel. Photo by: China Crisis.

Jack Torrance’s typewriter in the movie “The Shining” based on King’s novel. Photo by: China Crisis.

In the second half of his book King gives a lot of advice about writing, particularly for wannabe novelists. His prime rule consists of four words: Read. Write. A lot.

King reads because he likes to read, but he also notes, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

One of the pleasures in King’s book is that he names names — Charles Dickens, Margaret Mitchell, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, John Grisham, Tom Wolfe, J.K. Rowling, and many, many more through the ages. When he’s discussing style, plot development, character development, dialogue, and symbolism, he gives lots of examples, both from his works, as well as from others. For a book on the tools of the book trade, it’s never boring and surprisingly entertaining.

King also goes into detail on his run-in with a light blue Dodge van in 1999, while he was walking on a country road. The van hit him, and King suffered horrific injuries, including broken bones and a collapsed lung, and endured multiple surgeries. The quick arrival of emergency personnel saved his life. Physical therapy sped his recovery process. Eventually, he began writing again.

With the publication of several short story collections and full-length works, such as Doctor Sleep and Mr. Mercedes, over the past decade, it’s safe to say that he’s back and in fine form.

Are you trying to decide what to read? Do want to improve your prose? Or, are you looking for a pick-me-up? Pick up a copy of On Writing by Stephen King. (Oh, that’s so corny. But apt.)

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved