Monday, November 26, 2007

Those Hated--and Loved--Christmas or Holiday Letters

Christmas letters have probably inspired more parodies than any other feature of our hectic holiday season. They have been called "litanies of bombastic bragging disguised as holiday cheer," "anti-holiday letters memorializing deceased pets and reviewing all physical maladies endured throughout the year," and worse.

I confess that I am still a writer of Christmas letters. I think I inherited the idea from my late mother. After her death earlier this year, the most common comment I heard from her relatives and friends involved appreciation for her newsy Christmas cards and letters through the years. Anyone who received and read those cards and letters got a running report of her varied and interesting life, and she kept up the tradition into her nineties, with my technological help in the last years. She regretted having to give up this part of her routine a year or two ago

As for me, I've sent cards and/or letters for many years, even when I had to rush to finish them between hectic end-of-semester duties and Christmas eve. These cards have helped me keep up a current address list of old friends; when I saw an old college roommate from the 1950's recently, we still knew each other, thanks to our exchanging Christmas letters most years. I like keeping in touch with people whose paths crossed mine years ago.

Ted Pack presents parodies, examples, and suggestions for writing Christmas letters on his web site (see link below). In brief, his suggestions include keeping the letter brief and readable, keeping it light and happy, keeping it jargon-free (those on-the-job technical acronyms may not mean anything to your readers), focusing on highlights rather than trying to cover a whole year in a page, not promoting your home-based business, and above all, avoiding bragging, at least bragging without a touch of humility. I may have erred occasionally, but in general, my letters suffer only from being too long. We writers are like that.

Mr. Pack includes more specific suggestions on what to write about, as well as some humorous parodies of the worst examples. If you're a Christmas letter hater, give them another chance. I, for one, like to know what my friends, relatives, and acquaintances have been up to, and I hope that at least a few people want to hear about me. If not, they all have wastebaskets. I won't let a bit of disapproval deter me. Let's start a Christmas letter revolution. It's one way to share our life stories.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Holidays and Traditions

As I've suggested before for other holidays, why not write about memorable Thanksgiving celebrations, good or bad? Family traditions, family conflicts, cooking disasters, cooking triumphs: those are just a few of the possibilities. Don't let those memories be lost.

To see my recent post about Thanksgiving, go to my other blog, "Never too Late!"

Organizing your Life Story

One question I'm often asked is, "How can I organize my memoir or life story?" Assuming that you have written a series of journal entries, in no particular order, where do you go next? How do you put them together into a booklet, pamphlet, or self-published book? If, like me, you write about whatever experiences come to mind when they come to mind, your material may seem to be an amorphous mass. Here is some of the advice I give in my book, Seniorwriting.

Read through what you have written. Do you find a recurring pattern, themes or problems or triumphs that appear often in your journals? If a theme or a series of themes stands out, that may be a good way to organize your life story. Some possible examples are family, funny stories, illnesses, family tragedies, hobbies, awards, military service; there are many other possibilities.

Do you prefer a more chronological approach? You may want to gather your stories together under time periods such as childhood, youth or teen years, adulthood or working life, retirement, old age, etc. You might organize by years or decades, as well. Another approach would be to organize by major life events or milestones: birth, religious rites, graduations, marriage, children's births, losses, retirement, etc."

There are several books available that make writing your life story almost a fill-in-the-blanks project. Use one of them if you wish. However, it's your story, so my advice is to organize it and tell it in your own way.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Truth About (Old-Style) English Teachers and a Book Reviewer's Dilemma

Do you think those teachers who marked up your school papers in red ink were just being cruel? Did you let them discourage you from writing and make you hate writing? Here’s the truth: we (I was one of them) really wanted to help you learn to write correctly. Another truth: writing errors still can make English teachers (and former English teachers) cringe, at least those of us who belong to the older generations.

So what brought this topic to mind? As you know if you read one or both of my blogs, I am a relentless promoter of personal writing for seniors. I am a strong advocate of sharing experiences and life stories. I advise would-be authors to write naturally, as they speak, and not to let fear of writing errors discourage them. I do advise giving some attention to correctness as a final step: rereading, proofreading, and finding proofreading and editing help, amateur or professional, if necessary. In my "best of all possible worlds," any book self-published and submitted to on-line vendors such as for sale should be nearly error-free.

My ability to recognize writing errors is nearly 100%, while my tolerance for errors in a finished product offered for sale is nearly zero. I just was asked to review a book that created an interior conflict between my roles as writing promoter and reviewer. Should I write a negative or lukewarm review because of the writing errors, refuse to review the book at all, or praise the many good features of the book with just a brief mention of the writing errors? Should I shatter a new writer’s confidence by mentioning the errors, or should I shatter my credibility as a reviewer by ignoring them?

I’m not talking about awkward style or a few confusing sentences here, although there are some examples. What disturbs me are the repeated misuses of lie and lay, like and as, good and well, misplaced modifiers, even apostrophe errors in "it’s." Do these things really matter? They do to me, since they sometimes make reading difficult and rereading necessary to understand a sentence.

On the other hand, I’m sure that the errors don’t matter to, and probably aren’t even noticed by, the author’s relatives and peers. They probably love the book, and they should. The problem, as I see it, is offering it for sale to the general public without the necessary copy editing. Most self-published and small-press books I’ve reviewed have been nearly error-free, but there’s already been too much public complaining about the proliferation of books by incompetent or marginal writers. An error-filled, unedited book offered on Amazon has the potential to give us all a bad name.

So there you have it. What should I do? Blame public education? Despair at the realities of the publishing industry? Not really. Here are my choices as I see them:

1. Keep quiet. Refuse to review the book.
2. Pan the book as poorly written.
3. Write a mostly-positive review (as deserved), but with a caveat about writing problems.
4. Start a small, relatively inexpensive copy-editing service to help as-yet unpublished authors.

Please add a comment. Make your suggestions. What do you think I should do?

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Instant Gratification for Writers?

I just encountered an interesting enterprise, This company promises to print and send fifty or more copies of an uploaded book in about two days (even less time if you are willing to pay extra). The cost can be less than $5 per copy without extras; of course ISBN number, bar code, cover design, file conversion to PDF, etc. cost extra, as they do with other, similar companies.

As you know if you read my blogs, I am an advocate of POD publishing for books not likely to attract wide audiences, especially for those of us too old and/or impatient to wait through years of rejections and fading hope. However, while I have used, where the process takes only a week or so (with no copy minimum), I wonder if is going too far? Will someone dash off a quick, low-quality book and regret it within two days?

I still think writing takes a reasonable amount of thought and planning. In fairness, I assume that this service is mainly for books that have previously been completed, and it offers a way to finally get that book from computer to printed book. I also see it as of possible use to procrastinators with family stories ready to send out as holiday gifts. I imagine there are business uses, too: quickly-needed training manuals and other documents. The company offers formats other than the standard paperback book.

I have not tried this service; if anyone does, please keep me informed. It certainly illustrates the changes computers have made in the publishing world. Whether those changes are good or bad (or more likely, a mixture of the two) is still to be determined. However, I do like the idea of the many possibilities available for those who write. Let's hope we learn to use them wisely.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Writing vs. Marketing

It should be obvious that writing and publishing one's work are not synonymous. However, the proliferation of self-published books both full of errors and of limited interest to the general public has made me wonder if we need to make a clearer distinction between writing and publishing for the general public.

As usual, the answer may be in making careful decisions. I have encouraged, and still encourage, everyone to enjoy the benefits of writing: discovery, healing, reinventing, sharing, and enjoying, among others. It is very important to share our experiences and leave our stories for our families. As records of life in our times, our stories may have lasting value. Still, not everyone has the skills to produce a book that will sell, or the desire to market it. That's fine. Today, it is possible to produce an attractive book at reasonable cost without any expectations of sales. That's what I did with the tribute to my mother, Remembering Violet (see earlier post).

In short, do not assume that every book should be published, or not published. Get some advice. If you decide to publish, you may need an editor. Don't try to publish a book filled with writing errors. I've said that errors don't matter, but they usually do in the commercial publishing world. They also matter to occasional book reviewers like me.

This article from the "Just Write" blog may help you find your personal answer:

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, November 12, 2007

My Self-Interview

As I've said before, a self-interview can be a good way to begin writing. When Nathaniel Briggs, founder of the eGenerations web site, for which I an a columnist, came up with six questions for members to use when interviewing themselves or other members, I decided to try them out. Here is what I wrote for my eGenerations journal in August, 2007:

When I was a teacher, I often suggested that other teachers should try out their own assignments. Few accepted that suggestion, and I can't say that I've always followed it myself, but right here and now, I'm about to try it. Actually, I'm trying out a suggestion made by the esteemed editor of this web site. He proposed that members interview each other on eGenerations as a way to get everybody writing. I'm all for that, although I've taken a more casual, less formal approach.

I've interviewed others in my journal, and most of you have already read more about me than you want to know, but here goes: I'm interviewing myself to test out the eidtor's six suggested questions. I could write volumes on some of them, but I'll try to keep it relatively short. And I assume that most of you would choose from among the questions rather than try to answer all of them.

1. What's your most challenging life experience?

My most challenging experience involved dealing with the final illness and death of my beloved husband, Jules, in 2000. He was a wonderful, active, healthy, gregarious 70-year-old who still rode a motorcycle and enjoyed life. Then he became ill, and his pancreatic cancer was diagnosed in late 1999. There was no hope, no effective treatment, no cure, and to make matters worse, he had seen his younger brother die of the same terrible disease a few years earlier and vowed not to endure aggressive treatment. He didn't.

I had retired only a few months before he became ill, and this seemed to be the end of our rather fortunate life together--and my own life, too. I have no nursing skills and was an inept caregiver, no matter how hard I tried. The disease ran its course; he had hospice help, and eventually died in late March, 2000, in a hospital because I couldn't handle him either physically or mentally.

I didn't really hit bottom until about five years later, when I finally realized that I needed to do something with my life. I began, or in a sense resurrected, my writing career, and "the rest, as they say, is history."

2. If you could re-do something in your life, what would it be?

I would change very little about my life. I might have tried harder to make more friends, but being a loner came naturally, and I've dealt with it. I would have skipped my first marriage; there was nothing wrong with my first husband except the dullness I perceived in him, so we parted, fortunately with no children to be affected by our divorce. Of course the real problem was with me, not with him. The marriage was simply a mistake.

I might have tried to do more writing earlier in life, but my work ethic told me to have a career and always remain self-supporting (hard for a writer to do), so my choice was right for me. Yes, I've made some mistakes, but I have accepted myself for who I am, flaws and all.

3. Have you done any traveling? If so, where?

My answer is yes, I've traveled virtually everywhere. I succeeded in visiting the last two in my quest to visit all seven continents, South America and Antarctica, in 2005. I visited Ireland earlier this year, but travel is getting harder for my arthritic knees. I'm glad I had a wonderful travel companion until 2000, and that we didn't wait for retirement to travel. We began in 1974, and I'd begun earlier than that. Some of my travels are recounted in my book. I wish I'd known more languages (I'm fluent only in English) and been able to communicate better.

4. What life lesson have you learned that is most important to you?

I've learned many lessons, but perhaps the most important is tolerance of others and their abilities, flaws, and ideas. I grew up in an all-white, mainly Christian rural environment, but when I finally encountered diversity, I embraced it.

5. What's your favorite passtime?

Of course it's writing. I write for the joy of it, not for money. I admit that I get a thrill from seeing my name and my words in print and on line, and I don't think I'm overly egotistical. It's hard to explain. I also enjoy reading, opera, theater, and travel. I sometimes enjoy just sitting in my recliner thinking--and I always have a pen and paper nearby. My body may not be very active, but my mind certainly is!

6. What "odd" thing about you don't most people know?

I'm not sure what people know about me now, but I suspect that some don't know that while I'm a loner, I'm basically shy rather than egotistical. I'll never be a "social butterfly," but that's o.k. with me. People may not know that I've survived breast cancer and a broken pelvis, as well as a broken leg and a broken arm. Life hasn't always been easy. A few of my older friends don't even know that I'm a blogger! I hope everyone knows that I'm fine now.

An afterthought: I guess many may not know that this stodgy old professor has toured the U.S. and Europe on the back of her husband's BMW motorcycles. We traveled through the Alps four times, and our final foreign trip by motorcycle was our fascinating trip to Russia in 1990 (see the photo above).

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo from the author's collection


Friday, November 9, 2007

More Encouragement to Write!

In case you need still more encouragement to write your life story and/or to blog, or to urge your older relatives to do the same, check out this link to Ronni Bennett's blog, "Time Goes By." I, too, would like to have "conversations" with my long-departed ancestors, and except for my mother, none have left their stories for me to read.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Reluctant Driver

As you can tell from my mother’s "How I Learned to Drive" below, driving was a sort of rite of passage as early as the 1920's. My mother learned to drive her uncle Bert’s Model-T Ford when cars were rare in her small town, and when it was very unusual for children, especially girls, to learn to drive. She admits later in her autobiography that, since her immediate family didn’t own a car while she was growing up, she didn’t have a chance to drive again until after she was married in 1930, but she was proud to know how.

I, on the other hand, grew up when cars were everywhere, and in the 1940's and 1950's, most young people dreamed of the day they would get their drivers’ licenses and their own wheels. For many then, it was just a dream, but for me, it wasn’t even that. I admired my Grandma Minnie’s old maroon coupe with a rumble seat, but I never really wanted to drive myself. Let’s face it: I was a shy nerd, and I was scared. I was a loner who, as my mother often said, "always had my nose in a book," and learning to drive was never on my agenda.

It seems strange today, but while I welcomed rides from friends and family, I never even tried to learn to drive the family car–and we always had one. I believe my younger brother learned to drive as soon as he was old enough (or earlier), but I somehow skipped that step. My mother claimed that I learned to drive a tractor, but I remember only terror in the field, not successful driving. Of course my brother eagerly took up tractor driving; our parents couldn’t have afforded to buy cars for either of us anyway, and we had no paying jobs.

I finished high school and college, earned my Master’s degree, and began my teaching career in the late 1950's, all without learning to drive. It wasn’t until I quit my doctoral studies to marry the son of one of my professors in early 1959 that my lack of driving ability became an issue. We moved to a suburb of Chicago, and I got a teaching job at Wright College on the northwest side of the city. I needed a car to get there, and before that, a driver’s license. I was twenty-seven years old.

I remember my husband’s (no wonder that was a short-lived marriage) trying to teach me to drive in our new red 1959 Chevrolet Impala, without success. I don’t remember the details; I was just too nervous. I remember trying to practice and ending up on a dead-end road in a small parking lot, where I panicked, cried, and only because I had no choice, finally figured out how to turn around and get out of there. I seem to remember doing some minor damage to that Chevy, but I’ve put the details out of my mind. Eventually I signed up with a professional driving instructor, passed my driving test in the Impala, and bought a red Corvair for myself.

All went well for a while. I kept driving, although I never was especially good at it. By the time I met my second husband, I was the proud owner of a cream-colored Corvair convertible with a black top, but by that time, I had skidded off an icy highway, and the car had a sprung frame. I replaced it with a Dodge Dart convertible, and then went on to my string of red cars (see my June 20 post below), including three 3-series BMW’s and my present 2003 Mini Cooper. I’ve avoided major accidents, but all of my cars have sustained serious dents and scratches from my pathetic efforts to park.

To this day, I have to make three or four passes to back my Mini Cooper out of my tiny garage parking spot; anyone else can do it in one or two. I don’t drive very often, and that’s probably good for the population of Chicago. I may give up my car when I move to the Clare in a year or so, and yet–those new Smart Cars are really cute. I wonder if they come in red?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Violet Learns to Drive

My mother, Violet Uhl Marshall Funston, wrote her life story, My First Eighty-Six Years: A Midwestern Life, in 1997. She died earlier this year at the age of 95, but it seems appropriate to use her work as an example of what we all can and should do to record our stories for our families. This story also is reprinted in Remembering Violet (see below).

How I Learned to Drive, by Violet Uhl Marshall Funston

My mother's brother Bert bought a Model-T Ford. He also bought a long linen duster, dark goggles, a special cap, and driving gloves, the accepted costume for all drivers. There were many cars in the cities already, but few in our small town, so I was fascinated by that Model-T. Every week I helped my uncle wash and polish that car. I liked to sit in it and pretend I was driving. I also liked to toot the horn. It made a wonderful noise, "Ah-Ooh-Ah," which frightened the neighbors' chickens, and according to the neighbors, affected their egg production.

Every night in my prayers, I asked God to have my uncle Bert, Grandma, and Grandpa take me riding the next Sunday. I sat in the front seat with my uncle and watched everything he did and asked him questions. Finally, I decided driving a car was not very difficult, and I started "bugging" my uncle to teach me to drive. Very few women drove cars then, and no children, especially girls. He finally agreed to teach me. We had our lessons in the cow pasture of a farm my Grandpa Blanchard owned. I learned to drive quickly, and I still believe that if you can drive a Model-T Ford, you can drive anything.