Sunday, September 30, 2007

Telling Life Stories Through Poetry: A Review

A Review of I Speak of Simple Things, by Donna G. Humphrey (Ampersand, Inc., 2007)

Donna Grace Glenn Humphrey, a native of Kansas, probably came to the world's attention only once, on February 28, 2005, at age 89. On that day, Mrs. Humphrey, mother of a federal judge in Chicago, became a tragic murder victim, along with the judge's husband.

This year, Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Schmich revealed, in a fascinating article, that Donna Humphrey had written poetry for most of her life, but while she shared some of it with family and friends, most of it was tucked into drawers and closets where family members found it only after her death. Fortunately, her daughters, Joan Humphrey Lefkow and Judith Humphrey Smith, joined Suzanne Isaacs of Chicago's Ampersand, Inc. to publish privately these revealing fragments of a woman's life.

Columnist Schmich calls the poems' style "plain and lyrical," and they probably do not rank among the world's greatest poetry. However, as a revealing record of a woman's life, these poems, "dedicated to the strong and noble women of the prairie," are priceless.

The book begins with "If I Were a Poet." It reads, in part:

"If I were a poet / I could speak my thoughts in language / All sublime and terrible . . . . But I, I only know of simple things / Heart-stabbing winter sunsets, / The unexpected thrust of pain / That tells me life is fragile . . . . My thoughts are not profound / I only speak of simple things."

In short poems gathered by the editors into "The Natural World," "The Inner World," "Time," "Home," "Longing," "Family," "The World Outside," and "Faith and Prayer," Donna Humphrey did, indeed, speak of the "simple things" that made up the lives of the ordinary women of her time.

Some of the poems reflect concerns about aging: "A book unopened in her lap, she rocks / And counts her gold in simple things / The heart remembers." In "Old Woman," she sees herself as an abandoned house. "I wait the Wrecker's ball / When with a sigh / I fall and leave a space / For building." "The Widows" begins, "We are everywhere / We with our perms / Our little purses / Our careful steps / Supported by our walkers / Or our canes. / We are the Survivors . . . "

Donna Humphrey, farm wife, mother, general store proprietor, office worker, and hospital assistant controller, lived for nearly 30 years as a widow. According to the book's introduction, she suffered from chronic depression. Still, "Through her faith, determination, and the love and responsibility she felt for her children, she thrived." She survived difficult times, and she lives on in her poetry.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, September 24, 2007

Assignment: Awards, Prizes, and Triumphs

This past weekend, I was reminded how pleasant it is to receive an award--any award. I received a first place award for 2006 contributions to my other blog, "Never too Late!" and a third place award for my first book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor, at the National Federation of Press Women's 2007 conference and 70th Anniversary Celebration in Richmond, Virginia.

These awards are not especially important to the world at large, but they made me feel good, just as did being named high school class valedictorian in 1950 and receiving my Distinguished Service Professor award from Wright College in 1995-96. It's a good feeling to be acknowledged for something.

Write about your moment or moments of triumph. What did you do to earn the award, and how did you feel about it? Don't worry if you can't think of any major prizes or awards. Look for the simple moments of pride during graduation ceremonies, beauty contests, spelling bees, state fair contests, organizational recognition ceremonies, or anything else. Your reward might have been a trophy, a plaque, a certificate, an atheletic letter, anything from money to a simple handshake from a local celebrity or mentor.

You might also write about moments of pride in the accomplishments of a family member. Have you shared vicariously in awards won by your spouse and/or children?

Do you agree that it's a good feeling to be acknowledged? I believe that it's important--and comforting--to remember these awards, prizes, and triumphs as parts of our life stories, and as I have proved, it's never too late for more triumphs!

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Assignment: Write to Combat Ageism!

According to Julian, of "The Tattler" blog, "These are the nine known major stereotypes that reflect prejudice toward senior citizens":

Mental Decline
Mental Illness

Where did these stereotypes come from? What can we do to help overcome them? Let's look for senior achievers and tell their stories--or let's tell our own stories! Let's prove that there is life after 70, or 65, or 60, or 55!

A slightly different version of this post appears in The Elders Tribune (

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Friday, September 14, 2007

It's Almost Here!

Today, I received the proof copy of my new book, Seniorwriting (Infinity Publishing, 2007). It will be published in two weeks or so. Since this is my second book, receiving it was not quite as exciting as receiving my first, but I still was thrilled to see it.

I hope that this brief guide (81 pages, $9.95) can make it easy and enjoyable for senior citizens to write to discover, to heal, to reinvent, and to share their valuable experiences and memories with future generations.

If you're already a writer, you probably do not need this book. It's basically for beginners. I hope it may prove useful as both a guide for individuals and as a text for Continuing Education or Lifelong Learning classes in writing; it is much less prescriptive and structured than the other books of its type I've seen, some of which seem to take a sort of "fill in the blanks" approach. I believe that we need encouragement toward creativity, not rigid writing rules.

My book offers examples of personal writing, including some first presented in this blog, as well as some practical advice on organizing, revising, editing, and publishing or sharing.

I hope to take away the fear of writing and inspire other seniors to find as much joy in writing as I have. Perhaps I'm naive, but I still believe that all seniors should share their valuable experiences and life stories--and that they can!

(No, I don't know who the gentleman on the cover is. His picture was provided by Infinity.)

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Do you Have Publishing Experiences to Share?

If you have published and/or shared any of your writing, I invite you to tell your publishing story here. Either add it as a comment or e-mail it to me (you can find my e-mail address in my complete profile).

Have you downloaded software and followed suggestions and instructions from a self-publishing site to produce a book or booklet? Have you published an e-book or posted your work on a web site other than your own?

Have you looked for or found an agent? Have you published with a traditional publisher, large or small? Have you self-published or used a POD publisher? Have you used a copy shop or small printer to produce a pamphlet or booklet?

New writers often ask the questions, "What next?" "How do I share my work (with the world or with my family and friends)?" Tell us your stories of success or failure, your struggles and/or your triumphs.

Writing is often not about income, but about self-satisfaction. Have you found it, or have you unintentionally been part of a horror story, or both? Either way, please share your recommendations and your warnings.

For a longer discussion of publishing, printing, and sharing, see my September 4 column at eGenerations (see the link on the left).

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Friday, September 7, 2007

Still Another Life Story Writing Site Discovered!

Check out the "Great Life Stories" web site. It offers a series of very specific suggestions to make writing your story easier. If you need a lot of help thinking of things to write about, this easy-to-use site may be for you.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Is Typing Difficult for You?

If you want to tell your story, but have difficulty typing, or simply prefer speaking to typing, you should check out the latest verstion of Dragon Naturally Speaking. For less that $100, you can easily learn to speak into a microphone and have your words transferred to your computer screen. Unlike some earlier versions of the program, this one seems to be getting some rave reviews.

Check out Paul's review in the September 5 The Elders Tribune at

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Assignment: "Wake up and Smell the Roses!"

Are you so busy, so pre-scheduled, so occupied by work or hobbies or activities that you hardly have time to observe the passing scene around you? Here is a short quote from the final chapter of my book Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor:

"Writing is a wonderful way to bring what you see and do into sharper focus. When you write about ordinary experiences as simple as taking a walk ior eating at a favorite restaurant, you expand that experiuence by giving it a texture and depth that it wouldn't otherwise have. Writing forces us to look attentively at what we see and to interpret it, as well as to remember it."

In two chapters of my book, "Taking a Walk" and "Lunch with a View," I do exactly that: I observe my surroundings very carefully and write about what I see, as well as the reactions and memories the scenes inspire. At least once a week, I try to sit or stand somewhere and write a journal entry about what I observe: sights, sounds, smells, happenings, interesting people. I've done this on CTA busses, on city walks, in restaurants and outdoor cafes, on a bench in the park near Lake Michigan. If I'm unable to take notes on paper, I make a point of memorizing the significant details and to write about the experience as soon as possible. It's usually easy to remember the details. You'll see a few examples of such writing on my other blog, "Never too Late!" as well as here in my "Observations" writing assignment, "Clothes Make the Man--or Woman!"

Check out today's The Elders Tribune at to see a video and link to the related Washington Post articles describing an amazing event staged by the newspaper to find out how commuters would react--or not react--to a well-known classical musician's unannounced performance.

An appropriate quote from the article is these two lines from W.H. Davies' poem "Leisure":

'What is Life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare."

Ask yourself that question. Take time to look and listen, and write about it.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne