Memoir Writing: Interview with Shelley Armitage, Author of Walking the Llano

llano-front-cover1(This is an edited transcript from a live chat with Shelley Armitage at The Writer’s Chatroom on Jan 22, 2017.)

Moderator Lisa Haselton (aka Lisa J Jackson): Welcome to The Writer’s Chatroom. Our mission is to present fun and educational chats for readers and writers.

Let me introduce our guest, Shelley Armitage, author of the memoir, Walking the Llano.

Shelley grew up in the northwest Texas Panhandle in the small ranching and farming community of Vega, Texas, in Oldham County.

She still owns and operates a family farm, 1,200 acres of native grass, wheat and milo farmland bordering Highway Interstate 40 on the south and the Canadian River breaks on the north. Shelley shared this landscape from childhood on, riding with her father and grandfather to check crops and cattle and later jogging and today walking the farm roads.

Shelley’s professional life has offered her a connection with landscape through studies of photography, environmental literature, cultural and place studies. After living and working in diverse places—Portugal, Poland, Finland, and Hungary, teaching in the Southwest and Hawai’i, researching in New York, Washington DC, Oregon, Illinois, Missouri, Connecticut—place has taken on special meanings.

The author of eight books and fifty articles and essays, Shelley has held Fulbright Chairs in Warsaw and Budapest, a Distinguished Senior Professorship in Cincinnati, and the Dorrance Roderick Professorship in El Paso as well as three National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Rockefeller grant.

Shelley resides part of each year in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

LH: Shelley, what is the Llano Estacado and why was it important to you to walk some of its many miles?

shelley1SA: The Llano Estacado is a vast tableland (much of it at 4,000 feet) – an elevated plateau – one of the largest in the U.S. My modest part is in the northwest part of Texas near the New Mexico state line.

I found it important to walk there in order to really sense the place, its prehistory, history, and the various stories, including the land’s own narrative by actually feeling the place. I say in the book that I felt I took the land up in my body and it came out writing.

Also, that area is much maligned, called by some still the Great American Desert, and stereotyped as flat and “unworthy of love.” I found special beauty and surprising revelations by spending many summers walking there.

LH: Do you remember a moment when you ‘knew’ you’d write the memoir? A day or when you noticed something in particular?

SA: Actually, I had been teaching a memoir course, without having written a memoir! And yes, looking back on notes and photographs I took, I started thinking about what Mary Austin said one time: “it’s the land that wants to be said.” Someone else I had done scholarly work on, a poet, also said she wanted to be a tongue for the wilderness.

I thought that memoir as a form was particularly suited for what I thought about the experiences: it may deal with interiority, but also with the explicit world, thus concrete experience, but also interior thoughts, even dreams, the spiritual, etc.

LH: Shelley, what did you discover about yourself as you walked in relationship to the land where you grew up?

SA: Oh, so many things. The walks were also a respite from the worries I had carrying for a declining mother and later dealing with her death (while this process was going on) and also the death of my brother. I essentially lost all my family while on these walks. I turned to the plains as a kind of family, believe it or not, something that gave me strength and wisdom. I did a lot of research after each walk and thus studied lifeways and beliefs of Native peoples, the care of the land by pastores (New Mexico sheepherders), etc. The stories are what help us along, as Leslie Silko has said, “we are nothing without the stories.” Living these other stories, while making my own, was profound for me.

In one passage, I say I want to be adopted by mother earth and father sky, which sounds very corny out of context, but as an adopted child, it resonated many ways.

LH: What were some of your challenges in writing the memoir?

SA: Well, for one, I had never written this kind of nonfiction. My scholarly works I hope are very readable; I have always thought of myself as a writer (or someone who attempts to be) rather than an academician. So grace and saying through style have always been important. I had never written about myself until this memoir. And it’s amazing how it went through so many stages. I wrote and rewrote it, through a few years. I think each time I got closer to it writing itself, a kind of flow that was natural. A real story. And I learned I could write in segments. That I didn’t have to have a logical sequence. This was the most freeing discovery–this and the realization that memoir allows for fictional devices, so as I say I did not have to make everything logically sequential.

LH: Thank you! Was it challenging to figure out what to include and what to leave out?

SA: Oh, yes. Great question. At one point (and back to the question about the poetic) I clipped and posted up on my garage wall the poetic lines I could not part with. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what to do with them. Then, looking at them on the wall (like Faulkner diagramming As I Lay Dying) I saw they were the subconscious underpinning of what I wanted to say. So I could build on them. That way, I could cull what didn’t fit, didn’t connect as extended metaphor or expanded imagistic theme.

LH: Sounds like quite the process! 🙂

SA: I found it kind of tricky when you already are a critic, a literary professor, and come at literature from that perspective. To critique oneself, yet not gut what is a primal sort of notion, the given line, the lyric voice, was difficult. I found another self, the one I had always wanted as a writer, in this book as in the poetry.

Chatter Janet: A reviewer of your memoir said “She carefully mines the history, character, and geology of the Llano Estacado and combines it with a compelling personal narrative to create an account that flows with lyricism, authenticity, and wisdom.” You have crafted a beautiful story I believe. What period in your life is in the book?

SA: The book, or I should say the experience of the walks, began in my fifties. That was a very transitional time for me; as I say, my mother had all sorts of health problems and I found myself the prime caregiver even though I lived 400 miles away. I think that experience (the combination of adventure and loss) really helped me grow.

Chatter Tricia: You mentioned your mother’s and brother’s deaths. Do you talk about your grieving in the memoir?

SA: Absolutely. I couple those experiences with the hikes, the walking. I don’t know how to explain those chapters, but everything is interwoven, which becomes the heart of the book. I still grieve frankly when I reread passages of the book and am buoyed as well. The walks helped me cope and gave me strength.

LH: Did your approach to the memoir-writing class change after you wrote the memoir?

SA: I think the one thing that most affected me was realizing how narrative is not sequential. I actually wrote almost flash pieces, sections, even some which were aided by prompts (or forced by prompts!!). But somehow there was a thread, a kind of subconscious reality, that, when I looked at the fragments, they could be worked together.

I should give an example. There is the obvious element of water, of the lack of it, in the llano. The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest in the world, runs underneath, but is rapidly being depleted. So in terms of water I had a natural trope emerging. My mother actually died from water on the brain. At one point, thinking about her condition, I say “water will have its way.” This has been set up in earlier chapters with my observations of the landscape where water has previously sculpted the geography. And there is also an earlier section about my father building a dam which didn’t hold against the periodic rains. Water will have its way.

LH: What tips would you have for someone wanting to write a memoir?

SA: Value your own story (stories). Examine your life and think about the seemingly small and insignificant things about it which are waiting for you to revisit. With memoir, we have a double memory, that of the first experience, trying to remember it, and that of recreating that experience. It’s almost like revising oneself, perhaps we become a better self once written out. And I would say write, write, write then look at that writing as if it is someone else’s. What have you learned from it? What is missing? What do you want to know? And, back to my two suggestions, what can be found there? What is remarkable about the seemingly pedestrian elements of our lives?

And I forgot to say earlier that a major theme in the book is that we ARE the landscape. As Leslie Silko has said (sorry, but she is so right on in her comments), we are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders we stand on. In other words, landscape is not something “out there.” But, maybe we could say, in here.

LH: Shelley has been an entertaining and informative guest with much to share with us. Check out her website after chat: http://shelleyarmitage.com/. Our Chatroom Team and I want to thank Shelley for an interesting and entertaining chat. Thank you!

SA: Thanks! Super experience!!!

lisajjacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies and individuals tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Wrap-up of Best Books of 2016 Lists

This collection won’t be anything close to complete, but I hope it will at least offer up a few selections that pique your interest. So, peruse and enjoy. And, if you find other lists that should be added to the wrap-up, please feel free to leave links in the comments. (My list is skewed to my own preference for speculative fiction, so I have definitely overlooked other popular genres like thriller, mystery, and romance; so – please! – let me know your favorite picks!)

Here’s to making your To-read List even longer!!

Kirkus 2016 Best Fiction Books

Kirkus 2016 Best Fiction Books

Tor.com Reviewers' Choice: The Best Books of 2016

Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice: The Best Books of 2016

Guardian: Best SciFi and Fantasy Books of 2016

Guardian: Best SciFi and Fantasy Books of 2016

The Guardian: Best Fiction of 2016

The Guardian: Best Fiction of 2016

Washington Post: Best science fiction and fantasy of 2016

Washington Post: Best science fiction and fantasy of 2016

NPR: The 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On

NPR: The 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On

NPR's Book Concierge - Best Books of 2016

NPR’s Book Concierge – Best Books of 2016

 

New York Times: 10 Best Books of 2016

New York Times: 10 Best Books of 2016

Boston Public Library: Top Ten Books Borrowed in 2016

Boston Public Library: Top Ten Books Borrowed in 2016

Goodreads Choice Awards 2016

Goodreads Choice Awards 2016

Happy reading!!

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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How Do You Manage Your Personal Library?

too-many-books-too-little-time-to-readNo matter how many times I downsize my library, it still seems I have an abundance of books to read.

Not that I mind at all, of course, but space is an issue.

I spent a good chunk of Sunday sorting through all my books, yet again, because I really needed to finish unpacking (moved at the end of Aug and still had boxes upon boxes).

There were boxes of books in my new placet and also in a large outdoor storage unit that I’ve downsized to a small indoor one. It’s crazy.

If I still had my home, my library would be at least 2 of the 3 bedrooms, with piles of books in every other room, too. As it is now, I share space with a roommate, so have very limited shelf space.

In sorting, I discovered a few categories of books:

  • To read and review
  • To read for pure pleasure
  • To read for personal development
  • To keep for reference / research
  • To keep because they are signed
  • To keep because I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements as editor
  • To keep because I want to read them again “some day”

I think it’s too many categories and still too many books, but I feel I’ve trimmed my personal library down to the minimum. Many books need to remain boxed and put away – but at least I know what’s in each box now!

I have my car’s trunk full (literally) of books to donate. As long as I know someone might read them, I don’t feel too bad, but, still, it’s difficult to part with books that have been on my shelves and TBR (to be read) pile for years. Do you have this problem too?

I used to keep an inventory of titles I had in an Excel sheet, but that got overwhelming. I’m on Shelfari and Goodreads, and even with those easy ways to track my ‘library’ it’s still overwhelming.

If you have limited space, how do you manage your personal library? Have you moved to an e-reader to reduce paper books? Do you have books packed away? Do you keep an inventory? 

I’m curious to know how you manage your personal library. Please share.

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

For the love of books and stories and how they change lives

Something a little different today.

 

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Angela James on Publishing

On May 21, 2016, the New Hampshire chapter of Romance Writers of America will be presenting Before You Hit Send, a workshop on self-editing created and presented by Angela James, the Editorial Director at Carina Press (the digital-first imprint of Harlequin). Last month Angela took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about herself, the workshop, and publishing. Workshop details can be found in my earlier post; today, we’ll talk about publishing.

When you think of the background and experience necessary to succeed in publishing, you probably think about a degree in English or maybe business, and maybe an internship at a New York publishing house. That path has certainly worked for many successful people, but Angela James would tell you the most important thing you need to be successful in publishing is a deep love of books and all things related to books, including authors and the editorial process.

Angela’s path to becoming the Editorial Director of Carina Press was not the traditional publishing career path. She grew up in North Dakota, where she learned to hate snow and love hockey, then went to college at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences where earned a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy.

She paid her dues in that field and eventually landed her dream occupational therapy job working on the East Coast at a state psychiatric facility. A lifelong lover of books and avid reader, she took on side work as a proofreader and copyeditor “just for fun.”

When she gave birth to her daughter, she left OT to be a stay at home mom, but quickly discovered she needed more interaction so she stepped up her freelance editing. By then she was working with authors like Jaci Burton and Mandy Roth. When Samhain Publishing opened its doors, Angela was recommended for an editor position.  While at Samhain, she moved up the ranks to Executive Editor, but she kept up her certifications and training credits because even then, she thought she’d go back to the occupational therapy field. Then Harlequin came knocking with their newly-minted Carina Press and Angela’s place in publishing was cemented.

It’s about the book and the reading experience. It’s about giving readers an amazing experience because books are awesome - Angela James with an ocean background

Angela loves new ideas and being able to make plans and take action on those new ideas. The constant change of the industry inspires her to continually develop ways to find new authors, improve things for their current authors, and grow the business.

Without that steady diet of change, Angela fears she’d lose her passion for the job and grow bored. Along with her management duties, James still carries a full editing schedule. She’s on track to edit 15 titles this year alone.

However, being responsible for the business success of Carina is equal parts blessing and burden. As much as she’d like to, she can’t just publish a book because she loves it. “When we say no to a book, it’s not always because we don’t think it’s good, or we don’t love it.” There are a multitude of authors the Carina team loves, or would love to work with, but much to her dismay she doesn’t have the luxury of publishing just to publish. It’s her job to publish books that ensure Carina’s continued growth and success. Sometimes that makes for hard choices. In a perfect world Angela wouldn’t have to worry about whether a book would be a moneymaker or grow the business.

Angela James on the future of publishing

I asked for her prediction about where publishing would be five years from now. On the outside she was polite, but on the inside, I had a sense she was groaning. “It’s hard to say where publishing will be one year from now, never mind five.” Her personal desire would be that in five years we will have long moved past the “us versus them” mentality that has taken hold, the idea that traditional publishers (which digital-first is now lumped with) are the enemy. In her experience, there are many people who work in publishing purely for the love of books, and who work hard to get good books in front of as many readers as possible. “It’s about the book and the reading experience. It’s about giving readers an amazing experience because books are awesome.”

This isn’t just talk. Angela tracked her personal reading on Good Reads last year and she read approximately 650 books. Stop for a minute and process that: six hundred and fifty books! This is in addition to the books she read for work. 650 books just for pleasure reading. Yes, she is a speed reader, and to be fair, some of the books were novella length or serializations, but she calculated it, and it worked out to be about 48 million words. That’s lots and lots and LOTS of words. Clearly, this is a woman who loves books; I guess she found her way to the right field after all.

Next time, I’ll share some of the personal side of Angela James, including what she wishes every author knew about publishing.


Lee Laughlin is a writer, marketer, social media consumer and producer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She writes for the Concord Monitor and her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.

Friday Fun – Books We’ve Read More Than Once

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: Name up to three books that you’ve read more than three times each. (Bonus Points: Reveal why you keep coming back to that particular book.)

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: Other than a couple of writing-related books for grammar, writing prompts, and inspiration, I haven’t re-read any books. There are so many books out there in the world to read, that I just haven’t gone back to re-read one I’ve already tackled. That being said, if I find an author I like, I will generally seek out and read every book I can by that author before moving on to any other books.

M. Shafer, Photo

M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: There was a time in my life when I performed bibliomancy on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I kept a copy by my bedside and opened it at random before I fell asleep at night. I’ve read all six of Austen’s novels more times than I can count – and not just because I wrote my dissertation about them. Other favorites include Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Dicken’s David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

There are others as well: No matter how well I know a book, I almost always reread it before I teach it, so that it’s fresh in my mind. And while part of me thinks this leads to being over prepared and that I should really be reading only books I haven’t read before, I’ve learned that each time I reread a book, I read it anew – because I’ve changed and the world changed, and I always find new meaning in a good story well told.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: There are so many books I’ve read more than three times, it’s hard to limit myself here. One that I’ve mentioned many times on this blog is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which I always learn something from, no matter how many times I’ve read it before. I’ve also read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein at least three times. I hope to read them again–to my son, whenever he is ready for them. And one more book that I’ve read many times is, (like Deborah,) Jane Eyre. I first read the book in 5th grade and I was captivated by Jane, maybe because she’s a child in the beginning of the book, as I was at the time I first read it. Every rereading teaches me something new.

I reread a lot of nonfiction but I also enjoy rereading fiction. There’s something about returning to an old favorite that I love. I think it has to do with the certainty that the book I’m diving into is going to deliver, even though it now lacks the suspense of the first reading. New books, known books, they’re all good friends, aren’t they?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: There are not many books that I’ve read more than once. A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin is one (it’s also one of my picks for best winter reads), and like Diane, I have also read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy multiple times. I also find that I sometimes return to childhood favorites (The House at Pooh Corner, Wind in the Willows, Julie of the Wolves). And lately, I’ve been re-listening to certain audio books (though my return listens have been less about reliving the story in question and more about having a pleasantly familiar accompaniment to some manual labor). Lillian Jackson Braun’s “cat who” mysteries are perfect for this purpose. I am sure there are other books I’ve reread, but their titles escape me at the moment.

As for why I reread certain books, I think it’s mostly to recapture a particular feeling. Most of the books I return to are ones that represent a sense of comfort and well being to me. They create a space in which I feel safe and “cocooned” from whatever trials I’m facing in the real world.

Interestingly, this question has made me ask myself why I keep so many books when there is such a slim chance that I’ll reread them. I have several bookcases filled to overflowing with novels and nonfiction books that I will likely never reread, and yet I cannot bear to part with them. Is it because I just like to have them around me? Do they serve as some sort of physical tally of my reading conquests? Are they still here “just in case” I should one day like to reread a passage or two? I don’t really know. I only know that I’m happier with my shelves full than empty.

Pay What It’s Worth (PWIW) Pricing for Writing Resources

There are so many writing-related resources available through various avenues (websites, Amazon, brick & mortar stores, giveaways, and so on), and sometimes we can find “the perfect” book, audio, checklist, what-have-you, but realize it’s a bit out of our reach financially.

The Renegade Writer is a resource for freelance writers, and its owners, Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell recently conducted an experiment with their audience that allowed people to name their own price(s) on books and other writing-related resources the authors offer. They considered it a successful experiment and are now keeping the PWIW (pay what it’s worth) pricing for everyone.

They encouraged people to share the news, and so, here I am, as I feel you may find something helpful if you are considering freelancing. I’m not being compensated in any way, simply sharing something that may be of value.

13ways_ebook_cover-188x300-188x300PWIW is pay what it’s worth to you, the minimum being $1, the maximum being whatever you like. Check out the resources at The Renegade Writer Store and decide for yourself if any of the books or other products are of interest and value to you.

Ebooks include:

  • Become-a-Confident-Freelance-Writer-COVER_188x300-188x300Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, includes exclusive free downloads, too (originally $9.99)
  • The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success, second edition (originally $9.99) –[I have the first edition and found it inspiring]
  • Become a Confident Freelance Writer (originally $4.95)
  • Write for Magazines E-Course book (originally $29)
  • and more!

A new item in the store is a meditation called “Positive Thinking for Writers – Meditation Podcast” (originally $19.99) — with soothing music and sounds from nature, it could be something your muse enjoys.

If you find any of the resources useful, please let us know!

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, and technology businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

DNF a Book

Vintage Books copyright Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon

© Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon

DNF

I remember the first time I saw the acronym in a Twitter conversation between an editor and an author. I politely intruded to ask what it meant.

Did. Not. Finish.

What? Read a book and not finish it? Back then, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the concept. I was fairly new to the romance genre at the time and was thoroughly enjoying everything I was reading. Prior to that, my love of reading had taken a back seat to my life as a working mom and a visually impaired person who struggled to read small print. Then came the Kindle and my reading addiction kicked into high gear. Not finish a book? Perish the thought! These days I’m an avid reader and more than one book has moved to my DNF list. In the last six months, I’ve had two solid DNFs and a few books that I’ve set aside to come back to with a fresh perspective.

Making the decision not to finish a book does not come easily to me. As a writer, I know the author has poured their heart and soul into the creation of the story. I really want to respect their efforts, but if I’m halfway through a book and every time a main character appears on the page, I want to slap him or her, it’s probably better for me to put the book down.

I should clarify that I’ve completed books that have made me angry. It’s not a different perspective that makes me put a book down, it is usually characters that whine or plot lines that are clichéd or make no sense to me that make me want to throw my Kindle across the room.

When I looked at the titles I put down, there’s no rhyme or reason. There were books by traditionally published authors, and by indies, books by established authors and newbies alike. I haven’t finished books from authors that I’ve read before and authors that are new to me. As a writer this diversity interests me. I’ll admit, I’m much more likely to give an author I’ve read before a another chance after a DNF as opposed to a new-to-me author. I have to remind myself that you can’t please everyone all the time and the book I chose from a new-to-me author might just have been a blip on the backlist. I try hard to really give a book a fair shake. Before I put it down, I will usually come back to a book once or twice before I finally say enough is enough, I’m not finishing this one.

Most of my book recommendations come from trusted sources on Twitter. In general, when I buy books, I don’t look at reviews. I might look at how many stars a book has, but I typically read the description and if that appeals, I’ll download a sample. If I like the sample, I’ll buy the book. if I REALLY like the book, I’ll write a review.

If I do abandon a book THEN I will check out the reviews. Most of the time, others have encountered the same frustrations I have with a story. That always makes me feel better “Whew, it’s not just me.” Without fail a book that has driven me crazy, makes someone else deliriously happy. This phenomena actually makes me happy. I truly appreciate that there are different strokes for different folks. It gives me hope that when I finish my novel and when it gets published (power of positive thinking FTW), there will be people who hate my story, but hopefully there will be people who love it too.

I always feel crazy guilty when I don’t finish a book, (thus the multiple attempts), but I have to remind myself that just like life is too short to drink bad rum, it’s too short to waste time on books that frustrate me.

Sometimes I will FORCE myself to finish a book, but when I do that it is a conscious decision. I have a pad of paper beside me and I’m taking notes on what I think the author did wrong or the things about the story that were making me nuts. Thus making my torture an educational experience.

Do you finish all the books you start?

Do you finish most of what you start?


Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. You can find her on Twitter @Fearless. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com and she is a regular contributor to the Concord Monitor. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.

Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey by Susan J. Tweit – Book Review

I love me a good book recommendation, so when a fellow writer Facebook friend (hi James) let me know about a memoir that he said was teaching him how to write his memoir by its example, my ears perked up.

walkingnatureBut what really made me pay attention was when the author joined in the conversation and left these remarks about the art of memoir writing.

It’s what you’ve learned from your life, not so much what you’ve done. A well-considered life is often more compelling than a dramatic one….

And

If I had to define the art of writing a memoir in a few words, I would say it’s in the reflection and storytelling. Memoir translates what you’ve learned from life into a story so compelling that it inspires even those who had no idea they would be interested in what you write about.

Twins daughters from different mothers. That author, Susan J. Tweit managed to say so clearly what it is I have been trying to say for years –

A memoir is not about climbing the mountain. It’s about how you climbed it, the stumbles along the way, and what you learned when you finally reached the top.

I ordered Susan’s book Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey and started reading.

Walking Nature Home is the story of a woman who, diagnosed with a non-specific connective tissue disease, was given 2 to 5 years left to live. The book tells of how she connected (intentional pun) with her body and nature to get the strength to move on with her life. Susan’s story is uplifting and it gives hope to others who might be in similar life-challenging situations.

My Facebook friend was right. Susan does a masterful job of keeping a solid theme running through her book, the red thread of her life that begins in childhood when her father taught her about the constellations and ends with her gazing out a skylight at the stars content with her life can so clearly be followed throughout the book.

Each chapter is centered on a major star constellation which is introduced with the stars’ history and mythology. These stories of the stars are then personified by Susan’s life experiences and insights.

The organization and woven structure of this memoir is a tapestry to behold. It’s one of those stories that becomes a meditation in reading. Never once does Susan veer from her stated theme of nature, in fact, she keeps it as deeply ingrained as her breathing is to her body. Like meditation, Susan constantly comes back to her breathing- her connection with nature, the reason for her being.

If memoir is your genre (and even if it’s not), I highly recommend taking a look at Walking Nature Home, both for the inspiring story, as well as its brilliant memoir structure.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

 

Book review: Pilgrim’s Wilderness – A true story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia.

Book review: Pilgrim’s Wilderness – A true story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia.

I make no secret of the fact that I love non-fiction books. Tell me how to do something, what you’ve learned, or how and why something happened, and I will be your fan forever.

pilgrimDescribed as “Into the Wild meets Helter SkelterPilgrim’s Wilderness is the riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness—and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.” This book is a well written and researched account of what happens when Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their fifteen children appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy. The patriarch soon sparks a confrontation with the National Park Service, fiercely dividing the community over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins.

The book follows the story of a man – self-dubbed a devout Christian, who terrorized his family and essentially held his children and wife captive, all while rising up against the government. The story ends up being a study in one man’s madness. How mad is too mad?

Tom Kizza has traveled widely in rural Alaska and he wrote for the Anchorage Daily News. It’s the journalist in him that makes this book extraordinary. Some books on events after the fact – are nothing more than a tired chronological recounting of what happened. “First this happened, then that, which led to this.” When you trip over such a book, you often you find yourself deeply sighing while you continually flip to the last page in order to keep track of how much more you need to read. And very often, these are the books that are put aside with the hope that “you’ll get back to it someday.”

Not so the case with Pilgrim. The painstaking research done for this book is impressive. There are accounts of the family and confrontation from various points of view, referenced documents cited, and plenty of interview quotes from all sides. Here’s one writer who did his work and didn’t just Google the story (which is something that seems to be happening more and more.)

Although Kizza is reporting on the story, he uses prose that captivates his readers and which helps to turn the book from an account into a story that grabs and holds you as tightly as any fictional account could. It’s not often that a retelling of something that happened in the news can be made suspenseful, but that’s exactly what Kizza manages to do with this book. You can’t wait to find out what happened. You turn the pages.

Of course, in order to pull this off, you need to have a sharp writing style that feels free to poke at the topic being discussed. Kizza has it:

The dispute over access had been building in McCarthy for some time. Those who accepted traditional notions of frontier progress believed better access – a faster rad, a bigger bridge – was the key to McCarthy’s future. Others saw nothing wrong with a few roadblocks. The pro-footbridge association of local residents, the McCarthy Area Council or MA, was no opposed by a second group, the Coalition for Access to McCarthy, or CAM. When the two groups were involved to pose questions to state transportation planners regarding improved access to McCarthy, the final merged list of 122 queries, ranging from the eminently practical to the nigglingly constitutional, read like found poetry, a free-verse ode to rural Alaskan cantankerousness.

Why should you read Pilgrim’s Wilderness? – Besides the fact that it’s a fascinating story, this book is an excellent example of how to turn a real-life event into a retelling that feels like an exciting and suspenseful fictional story. That’s not an easy thing to do, it takes skill, and it takes knowing your subject matter inside and out. Pilgrim is one of the best examples of accomplishing that feat that I’ve read in a long time.

Read it and learn.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review – the views are my own.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.