Blog Categories Archives
Insights from Hawthorne Publishing

Is your memoir publishable? How? Nancy Baxter discusses the possibilities of putting pen to paper and letting your life flow out. . .

We have talked about some of the essentials of memoir writing: first, including some scenery and history or chronology to set the stage of your memory story(ies). Then, focusing on a few key scenes in the life you are writing about which awaken in the reader experiences of the five senses: dwelling, in other words, at a few key moments on re-creating a scene or two you recall.

We’ve also said little moments can be important if they are treated with a writer’s skills and a view “through the keyhole.” Photos can be helpful in this visual age.

But what will you do with your memoir once it is completed? There are several routes for you, and you’ve probably already considered what you will do with your memoir from the first moment you decided you wanted to record memories. Here are some options:

  1. You are writing only for your own family and possibly friends. This means you can prepare the story, attach any photos you wish, and take it to UPS to duplicate either for stapling or putting in an attractive spiral binding.
  2. Even if it is a private printing, you may wish to consider having it edited and bound as a paperback (or hardcover?) book. Printers now have special departments to handle your manuscript completion process, providing final copy editing and doing digital printing quickly and for a small number of books. Price? About $5 to $10 a book depending on pages and how complicated your book will be. One suggestion: Thomson Shore Printers in Dexter Michigan. They are employee owned, helpful and reputable.
  3. Some memoirs can be published for a wider audience. If your subject would be of state or national interest or the figure you are writing about is known or should be known, you may interest a small press to pick up your book —or a larger one. You can consult Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents, Editors and Publishers in America, which guides would-be authors on the paths to book publishing companies. If you capture a publisher’s interest, they may offer you a royalty contract and put the book out to sell to their part of the book market.
  4. If you are writing about a certain area, town, county or city or state and have some writing experience, for instance if you have written for the local newspaper or believe those in your community will be interested in the memoir, nostalgic or personal, you can also put it out yourself for sales through your own author appearances and talks on the subject at clubs and organizations and libraries and church groups. Develop your own little book-selling business! Get it reviewed and generate interest!

Are there any pitfalls? Yes. Beware of self-publishing companies who offer too many services  for sale that you don’t need and don’t provide quality control. Read the blogs about them and investigate.

Be sure in all cases to think about the people you are writing about in your memoir. Are these relatives who will be startled or unhappy or even hurt by what you are telling? Better avoid that. Is anyone treated with a frankness that could get you into trouble? Keep the writing positive if it involves those still alive. And beware of the true difficulties in involving a process of creative non-fiction in your memoir. That is a yawning cave of troubles for you to fall into, I say and have seen the difficulties. Just tell the truth and write it well.

Nancy Niblack Baxter Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing. Her books are featured on this website.

Posted in Writing Memoirs |

Memoir: Endless variety! And an age of Electronic media to furnish material

We’ve said that a memoir needs honesty but also creativity. It should recapture memories of a life and let them live with vivid description and also create specific scenes which let us see, feel, hear and even smell the scene as you let us experience it.

My own long-time association in both reading and producing memoirs for publication is that the best ones do combine chronology, summary of events or happenings and vivid scene re-creation. Their scope can be a few days that were very important or a week or a month or months or a whole lifetime.

At this time we at Hawthorne are taking the opportunity to do our own memoir—of the president of the company. Art Baxter kept a diary in his sixteenth year in 1949—for just a couple of months. But what months they were! He attended meetings of his high school club, went to dances, failed his driver’s test and they took it so he could drive his new “Studie,” his Studebaker car, showed 16 millimeter movies in his basement to his friends, relished a new scientific device called a wire recorder, singing into the machine, finally got his driver’s license and—welcomed a new baby brother he hadn’t even mentioned before in his diary.

This memoir took the diary and using modern media recreated a segment of time in the life of a young man in 1949. None of this would have been possible a few years ago: pulling public domain photographs off the net and Wikipedia to show Art Baxter attending the Sonia Henie Ice Show, listening to the Lone Ranger, seeing a Robin Hood movie; visiting the league-winning Indianapolis Indians game. We see the church he attended, the state-of-the art new 1949 recording machine the dad brought in for the family, the state park where his boys’ club stayed and got into trouble with the locals by bumping a truck and fleeing—all of this can be illustrated to make a running, illustrated commentary on this diary. That is what we did in compiling and editing the memoir.

The new media, Wikipedia, and thousands of specific historic sites for reference and research are making backgrounding for memoirs easy. Facts about the setting and times are readily available by entering year and location. And the photos in historic sites enrich the story so that plenty of scenery for specific scenes in the memoir can come to visual life. But what about just taking a photo from Wikipedia or a specific website and featuring it in your memoir? Can we do that?  A qualified yes is the answer. Wikipedia is a multi-hosting site and these historic photos can usually be utilized for a limited publication. If your memoir is being issued by a large press and concerns an important national happening or is about a celebrity or famous person, your situation will be quite different, handled by the publisher, who will be careful to get permissions and not violate copyright.

Most memoirs are meant for limited audiences, however: family, friends, a neighborhood or state. These are the types of literary reminiscences that can use electronic media without much fear of copyright infringement. Though it is true that some photo sites say, “This photo may be under copyright,” many photos, especially historic ones,  have been widely distributed before, are not unique and cannot claim to be under copyright.

Recent photographs may clearly say that they must be purchased; a modest fee is due. In that case it is correct to pay the fee and use the photo with permission.

At any rate, there is a good deal more freedom for using photos and illustrations that aren’t for national publication.

And computers and photo scanning make entering memories easier than that process used to be. Just picture Boswell in the 18th century, sitting at a desk recording his memories of Samuel Johnson for the famous biography. He has a quill pen in hand, an inkwell on his desk (ink may spill over any minute onto his shoes) and Johnson’s huge dictionary by his side. Hours will pass for a few pages to be created.

We live in a great age for writing a memoir!

Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing. Check out Nancy’s books by clicking back to the website.


Posted in Writing Memoirs |

Envisioning: What pops into your mind?

We’ve explored the motivations and basic extent of memoir writing in general; now we should get specific. Lyn Jones has advised would-be memoir writers to involve emotional content in creating scenes, and to achieve that, to focus on specific scenes from the past and describe each one fully.  How can we determine which scenes of our lives hold emotional content that we can recapture for readers?

Here’s a simple exercise.  Sit yourself down in a comfortable place, a chair with a piece of paper and pen or pencil handy. Relax, perhaps close your eyes. Let the words “I REMEMBER” enter your consciousness. What is the first thing from your past that comes to mind? Not the very first memory that you recall, two-years-old or so, but  a moment that rings always at the back of your mind, unsummoned until now. Is it a scene at your grade school? Boys gathered around bullying and teasing? Embarrassment when a piece of clothing was commented on by others or ripped or fell down? Something good—a birthday party with a grandparents unexpected visit from far away? I hope it’s something more exciting and emotionally interesting than the examples I’ve just given.

What pops into your mind absolutely first when you say the words to yourself “I remember. . “

There it is—the memory. Now start writing it down, in the present tense as if you are standing in the middle of it. Set the scene. What time of year, interior or exterior, weather, scenery. But more importantly, emotional context. Can you feel the heat in the room or beach setting, the expressions on the faces of people around you, your own reactions, pain, exultation, joy, sadness?

Here’s mine. Pops first and of course once that happens you can’t change it. It’s the default for life, darn it. I’m five years old and standing in our family home in Indianapolis. My parents have gone for a walk down the street and my sister must be in bed for a nap; she isn’t in the memory. I’m standing in front of one of those old-fashioned radiators that gave hot water heat to homes in the 1930s. That radiator is pretty hot but not enough to burn my hands. On the radiator is a pot I have gotten out of the cabinet along with a box of cocoa and a quart of milk. Some sugar is in a five pound bag nearby leaking  out from where I took a spoon and added sugar to the pot with the milk and cocoa.

I am going to make hot cocoa for my family, little housekeeper that I am, and I am proudly stirring the concoction, sticking my finger in it occasionally to taste it, and wondering why, since I have it on this hot radiator to cook, it isn’t getting much warmer. What’s the matter? I want it ready when they come in from the walk. They will be so proud of me.

But what’s this, they are here? I can hear the door closing; Mama and Daddy are beginning to take off their winter coats and hats and are checking me out. I start to say “I’m making cocoa”—but what is it—Mama is coming over here.

“What a mess. Look at this sugar? What are you doing, you’re going to spill that all over your Sunday School dress!”

I start to cry, to sob. They look at each other. “She was making cocoa for us,” They say. That’s the end of the memory.

Yes, I can feel the pain, and yes, as I have looked back when that memory pops up I can see in my little self crying away there over the radiator the me now who likes to please people. But in real life I have learned, I hope, not to expect a reaction that will please back. Do it because it’s good to do and gives you satisfaction.

Anyway, this exercise will be good for any would-be author of a memoir. Write it out, experience again in detail! Just don’t take your trips into the past too seriously! And remember, judge their importance to your full memoir ultimately not in terms of how the memory makes YOU feel, how much purging or cheering it gives you, but how it capsulizes your experience in life at that moment. It should throw light on the times you were experiencing, give insights into the background of your neighborhood or decade, let us live it and make us “be there,” through the evocation of the five senses you give us.

That’s part of a memoir that will live.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing

Posted in Writing Memoirs |

Writing your memoir? What should it be, for best results?

In the previous blog, we invited you to ask two questions if you were considering writing a memoir: “Why are you writing your memoir? And “Who will read this?” If you have answered that question for yourself, now you can ask what the general direction should be. And no one has better defined that for us than Dr. Darolyn “Lyn” Jones, Education Outreach Director at the Indiana Writers Center and Assistant Teaching Professor, Ball State University Department of English. Lyn has helped would-be memoir writers for many years put their memories and “takes” on life happily on paper. For us at the Hawthorne blog, Lyn has written this:

A memoir is…

  • The extraordinary story of an ordinary person.
  • The extraordinary story of a specific time, place, or event in that ordinary person’s experience. Remember: The ordinary might be the extraordinary; it’s all in how the story is told.
  • Particular and well-chosen anecdotes above others. Skip parts of your life to maintain focus on the extraordinary event, place, or time. Get us to the scene, to the memory that you can’t stop thinking about. A memoir is NOT an autobiography, nor does it proceed evenly in an “I was born” until “the present” format.
  • What the ordinary writer believes is important in her/his life. There should and MUST be an emotional quality to the memoir. Make the ordinary, extraordinary with sensory details. Compose your story so the reader can see, hear, smell, feel, taste, and touch each scene. Lou Gutkind in Keeping it Real, says “A good memoirist makes connections. A good memoirist primary goals is to show us something true about ourselves, about what it means to be human” (p. 116).
  • Your story. Your truth. Hold to that and tell it like you remember it and how you know it to be true.

Dr. Darolyn “Lyn” Jones

Next step: envisioning

Posted in Writing Memoirs |