Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Only You Can Tell Your Story

April 8, 2016

Susan Marg


Charles de Lint writes novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, and lyrics. He has a distinctive style, incorporating American and European folklore into his urban fantasies. I want to thank Chris White at Routine Matters for inspiring us with this great quote.


Celebrate the Silly and Serious

March 9, 2016

Susan Marg

The Fusco Brothers by J.C. Duffy

The Fusco Brothers by J.C. Duffy

I’m looking ahead. We’re now into March, and April showers (we hope, here in Southern California) will soon be here. There are lots of things to celebrate this time of year.

For example, April is National Humor Month. Seriously. It’s also Stress Awareness Month. That’s perfect, isn’t it, as laughter can help relieve what ails you. Just don’t let anyone make a fool of you on the first.

During the month there are special days to honor school librarians, Girl Scout leaders, and barbershop quartets. There is an entire week for administrative assistants.

We also recognize some of our favorite foods, including peanut butter and jelly, jelly beans, pretzels, prime rib, and shrimp scampi.

May is Personal History Awareness Month, a personal favorite of mine. So you have some time to think about what makes a day, a week, a month special to you. Then write about it!

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Go For It!

February 18, 2016

Susan Marg

Photo by:

Photo by:

Patricia Arquette has had an interesting life. While growing up, her family lived for a time on a commune. As a child, she refused braces for her teeth, as she thought her flaws would make her a better actress. From starting in the movies in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) to winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, among other awards, for BoyHood (2014), she also has had star turns on television in Medium (2005-2011) and now on CSI: Cyber. Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all performers, and her siblings are in the business. Now she’s going to write about it.

Arquette has inked a contract with Random House for her book, although a release date has not yet been set. Of her new endeavor she says, “Writing a memoir is a lot of different things. It’s illuminating, painful, interesting and strange. … It’s very personal and a big challenge.”

Are you up for the challenge?

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Building a Sense of Family

June 11, 2015

Susan Marg

The Association of Personal Historians is running a twenty-part series on why you should write your family history. Inspired by New York Public Library staffer Carmen Nigro, the weekly posts expand on her list of reasons, going into detail on such topics as the wisdom, humanity, and history that are derived from such endeavors.

I contributed to this effort with “Building a Sense of Family,” shown below. Read on. Read more.



When contemplating writing your family history, there is often the underlying fear of offending a favorite aunt or insulting a beloved cousin, setting off a family feud that lasts longer than the long-running game show. However, it is much more likely that other relatives hold your observations of both esteemed and wayward kin, and your record of your shared history will be appreciated. The rewards of preserving family recollections are so much greater than the risk.

You don’t have to be a writer to do your life or family history. 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, their children, and nieces and nephews, as well.

Research conducted at Emory University shows that “family stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world,” psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke wrote. They appreciate that they belong to something bigger than themselves. The more children are aware of their background, the better their emotional health, the more resilient they are coping with stress.

This research involved asking “yes” or “no” questions, such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your parents went to high school, their experiences growing up, and how they meet? Do you know whom you resemble in the family? Topics certainly discussed around the dinner table and covered in a family history.

But why stop there? What do you remember about growing up, the neighborhood where you lived, and the family rituals in which you participated? What do your children know of your first job, your favorite holiday, or your most embarrassing moment? Why not share your experiences to everyone’s benefit?

A current Subaru commercial, titled “Memory Lane,” which I think is charming, taps into the feeling that comes when different generations of a family relate to each other.

A grandmother, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter are on a drive in the country.   The grandmother, who has that aging hippie look about her, is intent on connecting with her granddaughter. She shows her her crystal collection. At a flower stand where they’re petting a cat, the granddaughter asks her, “Can you really talk to cats?” The grandmother nods and smiles.

When they reach their destination, a tree in the middle of a field, the grandmother says, “This is where I met your grandpa, right under this tree.”

The little girl runs over and hugs the tree.

In the next frame, they’re all hugging the tree, when the grandmother has second thoughts. “Or was it that tree?” she wonders out loud.

The commercial closes with the tagline: Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru. Love also makes a family, and knowing your family history strengthens those bonds.

I was having lunch with my mother the other day, and she, reminiscing, told me a story I had never heard before, one that hadn’t made my family history. “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.”

As a personal historian, I couldn’t agree more. As a daughter, I felt closer to my mother than ever before.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

The Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

May 21, 2015

Susan Marg

When writing a life of family history, we all struggle for the truth. But the truth is a funny thing. It’s shielded by feelings and clouded by memory.

Illustration by: © marish

Illustration by: © marish

In his 1997 memoir All Over but the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg writes of his childhood, growing up poor in the deep South, essentially fatherless, but supported by a hard-working mother and her family. He describes his restlessness, moving around before settling down as a journalist, never forgetting his kith and kin.

Bragg believes he was born to write. As he tells it, “The only thing I was ever any good at was in the telling and hearing of stories, and there was no profit in that. I cannot truthfully even say that I went to work for my high school newspaper because of a love for writing. Writing was hard work. It made your hand cramp, and I couldn’t type a lick. Telling stories was something you did on your porch.”

But telling stories also got Bragg writing assignments working for small town newspapers across the South. He eventually earned an award fellowship to Harvard University. The New York Times hired him as a journalist.

Of New York City, he writes, “Through one of the coldest, nastiest winters on record, I roamed that giant, confusing place, but to say I searched for stories would be a lie. I did not have to search. New York hurled stories at you like Nolan Ryan throws fastballs. All you had to do was catch them, and try not to get your head knocked off.”

Bragg won a Pulitzer for his writing, but his proudest moments came from telling the truth. Of his work he says, “It wasn’t that I had gotten it right – God knows I mess up a lot – but that I had gotten it true.”

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Into the Looking Glass

February 25, 2015

Susan Marg

Stock image: Depositphotos

Stock image: Depositphotos

Upon joining the Association of Personal Historians, a growing organization of professionals committed to helping anyone who wants to preserve their life and family stories, I thought I’d check out some of the recommended resources on memoir writing to hone my craft. I started with Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away.

Goldberg is a poet, an author, and a writing teacher. She inspires and encourages writing, in general, and writing memoirs, more specifically, with beautiful language, thoughtful advice, and practical exercises. But she’s also a disciplinarian, a stickler for details. She won’t accept excuses, although she’d be pleased if you wrote about them.

Goldberg rounds up the usual subjects that you can cover in a memoir – grade school, driving lessons, favorite holidays, and places called home. And then there’s the unusual – your mother’s shoes, your father’s dresser, your brother’s bicycle. Regardless, her exercises always have a point: she wants you to get in the practice of writing. As she observes, “There are no prescriptions in writing, no one way that will get you there forever. A little jig, a waltz, the cha cha, the lindy, a polka – it’s good to know a lot of moves, so when it’s your time, which is right now, you can dance your ass off.”

If you’re writing a life history, Goldberg also wants you to get in the routine of remembering. “Memory doesn’t work so directly,” she advises. “You need to wake up different angles.” Often her directive following her ruminations on a topic is: “Go. Ten minutes.” On this particular subject it’s to spend time on the phrase “I remember.”

As imaginative as some of Goldberg’s suggestions are, not everyone will willingly go where she leads. Clients might not feel like jotting down their thoughts about sex or money. Thinking about “the road not taken” or describing a winter funeral once attended might be deemed counterproductive to the task at hand. However, her sentiments are heart-felt and wise.

I recommend Old Friend From Far Away to anyone who wants to step through the looking glass into a seemingly distant world. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, especially if you practice.

© 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


I’m So Hooked On Six-word Memoirs

January 17, 2015

Susan Marg

Following through on my last post, I bought the book. I visited the website. I read lots of interviews with Larry Smith.

imagesThe book is It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs. It’s one in a series on life, love, and trying to make sense of it all in six words, no more, no less.

The website is, where, after registering, everyone is welcome to share their pithy and concise personal history.

And Larry Smith is the founder of SMITH magazine. He was inspired by Ernest Hemingway, who, when challenged to come up with a six-word story, wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Smith, in turn, challenged writers, even if they had not written anything since leaving school, to develop six-word memoirs. It’s amazing the attitudes, emotions, and humor that pour forth under such constraints. Thousands have found it liberating.

The craze has been going on for quite a while, years even. Schools, churches, politics, tech groups, and senior citizen organizations, such as AARP, have adopted it, but I just discovered it. What does that say about me? And can I say it in six words?

As a personal historian, I thought I should give it a try. I came up with: “Born a Baby Boomer. Still am.” I’m happy with this. It describes me. I believe each generation is different from the preceding one, shaped by social and cultural events that occurred in their lifetime.

Then I wrote six words, let’s call it a biography, for my husband: “Berkeley to Boston. Brrrrr. Back West.” He thought it was amusing. I thought it was spot on. He gets cold watching the winter weather forecast across the country on television.

Smith’s own account is: “Big hair, big heart, big hurry.” One of his others can be purchased on a t-shirt: “Now I obsessively count the words.”

I do, too. I came across a quote from Marilyn Monroe and checked: yep, it’s six words. I think it makes a great six-word memoir: “I am trying to find myself.” Are you?

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved