Ghostwriting

How Intergenerational Narratives Inform Family Identity

Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.
— Sue Monk Kidd

Research shows that narrative skills are largely shaped by habitual verbal interaction between parents and children. In other words, it is in talking to their parents (or other caregivers) that kids learn how to storytell. 

One large-scale longitudinal study (Pratt and Fiese 2004) found that kindergarten narrative skills significantly predicted fourth and seventh grade reading comprehension levels. The more elaborate the stories told by the parents, the more elaborate the narratives that children were able to articulate as early as preschool.

Duke and Fivush (2006) expanded on Pratt’s and Fiese’s theory of narrative development when they created the Do You Know scale. Their research indicates that kids who can confidently answer questions like “Do you know how your parents met?” are more likely to exhibit higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control, lower levels of anxiety, and fewer behavioral problems.

Why? Intergenerational narratives (stories passed down from grandparents or parents to children) provide key information on what it means to be a member of a particular family, thereby forming a powerful sense of family identity. Not only does the storyteller get to experience the gratification of sharing their personal values with a younger member of the family, but the child hearing the story may receive information that helps them to understand the world or view the world from a different perspective.

In the classroom, teachers have demonstrated how incorporating family history into social studies teaching likewise leads to historical empathy—a direct result of connecting the student’s own family and life to historical events.

NOTES FROM A DISTINGUISHED LIFE is a workbook for kids that guides them through the oral storytelling process, helping them to capture in their own words the stories of family members and friends—stories that will shape the next generation.

Note: Special thanks to Ashley Smith for sharing her graduate school research with me for this entry.

Guide Excerpt.jpg

A Ghost Story

Innocence, well, it's belief in the goodness of things, I guess. Trusting that no matter how many times the world knocks you down, the next person to come along is going to help you up.

It's wearing a heart-shaped locket, with a silver clasp, only it's not a locket but your heart, and the clasp was broken a long time ago, and so your heart just hangs there, vulnerable and exposed, no protective metallic casing, and sometimes someone will hug you too hard and squish your heart between the two of you—this is a metaphor here—but that's innocence: risking weakness, heartache, unspeakable agony. And knowing no different. Because your vulnerability has never been abused.

For example. We were in the basement, sitting cross-legged around the Ouija board I'd gotten for my thirteenth birthday. It was cold down there; goose bumps prickled our bare arms and legs. Though we both sat as I'd instructed, with eyes closed, still the hot orange of candle flames on my inner eyelids. Still the shaky in-and-out of her chest whenever fear grabbed her. The room smelled wet yet from the last flood. And mold—black and thick as new asphalt. A crude oil cancer beneath the carpet, with sticky fingers to hold a body down.

Funny … the game had been my idea, and there I was succumbing to the power of my own suggestion. Invoking the spirit world boldly, as seen in movies, then shrinking inwardly, hoping nothing would actually happen. My little sister trusting me and hating me for it, because I made her believe anything.

Does fear have a taste? That night it was the battery acid in the pockets of my mouth: hot, metallic, dripping too much tar. I showed her how to place her hands on the glow-in-the-dark planchette. Her fingertips against mine still gummed with caramel apple. I told her she could ask the first question, that she better make it good. She asked what she was getting for Christmas.

That's innocence. 

Sometimes ghostwriting IS about ghosts.
— Jess Hagemann, Ghostwriter

Budding Genealogist? Start Here.

Like many American families, mine has a story about a great-great-great-great-grandmother who was full-blood Native American.
— Jess Hagemann, Cider Spoon Stories

... In this case, Choctaw. When I first heard this story, I was 16 and brimming with teenage angst. Feeling misunderstood and like I didn’t belong anywhere, I latched onto this family factoid with gusto. While all I knew for sure was that her name had been Syntha, I embellished—imagining her as a Choctaw princess, huntress, and warrior woman in one. In other words, someone to look up to, and be proud of.

Flash forward to 2018, when I submitted my saliva for DNA analysis to 23andMe. 6 weeks later, the results came back negative: 0% Native American heritage. In fact, very little of anything other than white European. Confused and admittedly a little crushed, I turned to ancestry.com, whereupon my clever boyfriend reconstructed my family tree. Lo and behold, there was Syntha! We even found a picture of her—and handwritten beneath the image, this caption: “1/2 Choctaw.” Okay, so not full-blood … but someone else at least had heard a similar story.

 DNA analysis services like 23andMe can help solve long-standing family riddles.

DNA analysis services like 23andMe can help solve long-standing family riddles.

Where does that leave me? Well, I’m more inclined to believe the science rather than the hearsay. If my DNA shows no Choctaw lineage, then I have no right to claim one, regardless of passed-down stories. The only man I might have clarified things with—my maternal grandfather—is deceased now, so I guess it will remain a mystery.

Luckily, your story doesn’t have to end that way.

What have you always heard about your family history? Would you like to know more? Perhaps build a comprehensive genealogical tree? Take a DNA test?

Or maybe you were adopted, without a clue about where or how to start. 

No matter who you are or what you *think* your story is, here are two great resources in Austin for finding out more. Note: You don’t have to live in Austin to take advantage of their services!

 

Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Twice a year, I teach a four-week memoir-writing class. During the second week, I invite staff from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission to attend as guest lecturers and offer a mini-presentation on the research tools available through TSLAC. They have printed family and county histories, a variety of Texas government records, federal census schedules, and many other resources to help you compile your family history. Sign up for the class here (next session starts October 11!) or reach out to them directly for investigative help!

 

Lauren Gribble, Genealogist

 Lauren Gribble, Family Genealogist

Lauren Gribble, Family Genealogist

Let’s say you pop into TSLAC and feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of old photographs, rolls of microfilm, and software programs on offer. You really just want someone to do the work for you. Lauren Gribble, an Austin-based genealogist and the owner of Find Your Branch Genealogy, works with individuals to build out family trees on ancestry.com and her rates are incredibly reasonable. She even offers a money-back guarantee if she can’t find the specific information you’re looking for.

Like me, Lauren first got into genealogy research because of a family story—or rather, the lack thereof. Her father was adopted as a baby, and didn’t know the first thing about his biological heritage. Through a combination of DNA analysis and artful combing of databases, Lauren was able to find her father’s (and therefore her own) direct ancestors, solving a long-time family riddle! 

 

Jess Hagemann, Ghostwriter

Once you have the *real* story nailed down, it’s time to commit it to paper, so that future generations don’t have to repeat your hard work all over again. That’s where a ghostwriter comes in. Tell the stories you now know for sure to Jess at Cider Spoon Stories, and she’ll write your family history for posterity … because legacy shouldn’t be a luxury!

How to Write and Publish e-Books

Over here at Cider Spoon Stories, Jess gets questions ALL. THE. TIME. about writing and publishing e-books. Here are three of the most common e-book inquiries she fields, and her best advice for maximizing the online writing and publishing processes.

Note: The following pointers apply to works of fiction and nonfiction published to your personal/business website or to Amazon Kindle only.

1. How long should my e-book be—and how the heck do I format the thing?

Compared to print books, would-be authors have a lot more flexibility when it comes to e-books. For example, word count restrictions don’t really apply. Want to make a short 5,000-word PDF available for instant download from your landing page? Done. Prefer to self-publish a 300,000-word monster through Amazon Kindle? Easy. There are no New York City gatekeepers patrolling the internet and dictating what the industry can and cannot support. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, regardless of length, your book still has to be good if you want it to sell. That means picking a single and specific topic (that you ideally know enough about), creating an engaging through-line, or story, with a cohesive narrative arc, and hiring a professional editor to spitshine it for you. No typos or mismatched margins here!

 Note: These rules may not apply to Nook, iBooks, and platforms other than Amazon Kindle.

Note: These rules may not apply to Nook, iBooks, and platforms other than Amazon Kindle.

Depending on whether you offer a reflowable e-book or a static PDF, layout may or may not be as intense as a print book’s considerations. With e-books, you can forget about headers, footers, page numbers, drop caps, and all other manner of fancy formatting, as chances are these won’t be supported by your e-reader platform of choice. If you’re going the PDF route, ask yourself: Is the information important enough—and in-demand enough—to stand alone? Or does it require (or might it be aided by) headers, graphics, brand colors, and the like? (In which case, you’ll want to hire a professional designer.)

2. Does my e-book need a cover design?

One thing you’ll still want to invest in, whether print, e-book, or PDF, is an eye-catching cover. Again, you can hire a designer to build it to spec, or use Kindle’s free cover creator tool to knock out something quickly and (relatively) painlessly. Can a discerning eye tell the difference between a homemade-with-stock-images and a professionally-designed cover? Well, yes. BUT: Decide what your budget can support and stick to it.

3. Does my e-book need an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s the barcode you find on print books that identifies them and allows them to be entered into (and ultimately sold through) bookstore databases. If you’re publishing digitally, you don’t need one, because you’re not being sold through a bookstore. (Duh.) PDFs are good to go with a copyright disclaimer in the first few pages. Amazon Kindle will assign your e-book what’s called an ASIN, or Amazon Standard Identification Number—and that’s all you need to collect every pretty penny from each book sale!

The Best Bloggers Do These Four Things

If you’re reading this, you know that blogging works. 

Like anything else, though, there’s a good way to blog, and a great way to blog.

These four tips will ensure your bloggerly success.

1. Maximize your blog's SEO.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization—which determines how high up your site appears on any given list of search engine results. The higher up you are on the list, the more likely your blog is to be read. (It’s basically like Google giving you the stamp of pre-reader approval.) 

To maximize SEO, focus each blog entry on a single keyword or phrase. Use the keyword often and strategically: specifically in the entry’s title, first paragraph, and in at least one subhead (H2). If you’re using a blogging platform (like Wordpress or Squarespace)  that allows you to edit the entry’s URL, meta-description, and image alt-tags, consider using the keyword/phrase there, too.

2. Use images in your blog.

Let’s face it: we live in a flashy, visual, ad and social media-driven world. Images grab attention and help break up otherwise long, dry blocks of text. Key to populating your blog with images is making sure you have permission to use them. Source free images in the Creative Commons (and available for commercial use) from sites like canva.com and pixabay.com. Pay for higher-quality stock photos from sites like istock.com. Better yet, hire your professional photographer friend to shoot some images for you and support local small business in the process!

Without going into too much detail, let me just reiterate: permissions are super important. Once upon a time, I thought it was enough to credit the source(s) of the images on my blog. It’s not.

3. Vary your blog post types.

Begin each entry with an unusual fact, a quote, an anecdote, a question, or a joke. These “attention-grabbing openers” resonate with audiences, capturing and maintaining interest. Maybe one of these ‘micro-stories’ is enough, and then you can dive into the meat of the entry; or maybe the story is the entry. Try mixing it up with op-eds, reviews, lists, announcements, educational pieces, tutorials, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways.

4. Get your blog out there.

No blog functions in isolation. While yes, some readers will inevitably stumble upon a well-SEO’d blog entry, you can boost your numbers by disseminating your blog yourself. Post it on Facebook with a call to action. Send a digest in your next e-newsletter. Keep your entries short and reader-friendly (300-750 words is ideal), and always post on the same time/day of the week or month, so readers know when and where to find you.

Happy blogging!

7 Ways to Edit Your Own Work

I always recommend hiring a professional editor; most writers are just ‘too close’ to their own work to catch typos, clunky sentence construction, or other mistakes that can create narrative confusion.

If you’re on a budget, however, or just plain stubborn, here are seven things to watch out for when polishing your manuscript for publication.

1. Double Spaces

Are you still typing double spaces after periods? This trend died with the typewriter. It may be hard to break old habits, but it’s worth it: continuing to use the space-space between sentences will instantly date your writing (since it’s not taught in schools anymore) and could make your publisher wonder just how ‘current’ you are on the literary scene.

2. Mis-Capitalization in Titles, Headers, and Subheads 

Four types of words should never be capitalized in your titles, headers, and subheads—unless, of course, they’re the first word. These are articles (like a, an, the); prepositions (think in, out, on); conjunctions (and, but) and be verbs (is, was).

3. Passive Voice 

Back to those be verbs (i.e., any form of the verb be): yes, they get your meaning across, but they’re pretty boring to read. All writing sounds better in the active voice. That means substituting action verbs for be verbs. Instead of falling back on “was” and “were” all the time, try more colorful verbs that bring to life the action on the page.

4. Commas 

Ask three different editors, and you’re bound to get three different opinions about the Oxford comma (the comma that follows every item in a list). I highly recommend using the Oxford comma, and here’s why. [What’s wrong with the following sentence?] “I like cooking my family and my pets.”

Commas also always go before the name of any person being addressed. EX: “Can I help you, Alex?”

5. Em-dashes 

An em-dash is two hyphens together with no space on either side, such as: “The boy said he was hungry—but really, he’d just eaten breakfast thirty minutes ago.” Em-dashes create a pause like a comma, but stronger, and will help clarify your meaning.

6. Ellipses 

One space should precede and follow each set of ellipses. EX: “ … ”

7. Italics 

The names of books, TV shows, and movies are always italicized. Song names can be indicated by double quotes.

EX: Katy Perry’s song “Firework” was featured in the show Glee.

Italics also indicate internal thoughts.

EX: My first thought was, This has got to be a joke.

Good luck! And when in doubt, hire an editor.

What is an Ethical Will? [And When Should You Write One?]

Ethical Wills: A Definition

Another term for an ethical will is a legacy letter. Unlike last wills and testaments, ethical wills are not legally binding. They don’t bequeath assets; they express a person’s deepest, most heartfelt thoughts and feelings about what’s important to them—what matters.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, ethicals wills are a way of passings beliefs, values, blessings, and moral direction from one generation to the next. But they can be used by any person of any faith (or no faith at all)!

What Should My Ethical Will Look Like? 

Ethical wills can be as long as a book or as short as a couple paragraphs. They might look like letters, poems, songs, or have multimedia elements.

They include all of the following scenarios and more:

  • Parents who write a letter to their children every year on their birthdays, saying what the last year has meant to them and how the child has developed or grown.
  • A dying person who writes love letters to his/her spouse, children, or parents.
  • Elderly adults expressing their love to their children and grandchildren.
  • Individuals explaining the decisions they made in their legal will: the reasons why a person or organization received a given asset, or wishes for how their money will be spent.
Ethical Will Pregnant.jpg

When should I write my ethical will?

A legacy letter can be written at any stage of life by anyone who wants to ensure that their values live on.

It can be read and shared among family members, or sealed until the writer dies.

It can also be updated at any time.

 

Want help writing your ethical will?

3 Gadgets You Need to Write Your Memoirs

So, you want to write your memoirs. (Or ghostwrite your mother’s.) You’re going to need some equipment.

1. Invest in a quality digital recorder.

If you struggle to put your thoughts to the page, try telling your stories instead. Out loud. Just like you do every week at bridge club or pilates. You can record yourself actually telling them to someone, or you can pretend like the recorder is your friend and speak to it.

 The Yamaha Pocketrak 7: the only tool you need for crystal clear audio.

The Yamaha Pocketrak 7: the only tool you need for crystal clear audio.

The easiest and cheapest recording technology comes built into your phone. You can use any voice recording app—just make sure you have enough free storage space.

But what if you’re in a noisy place? Or you intend to turn the audio recordings into their own oral history archive? Then you’re going to want something better. I recommend anything in the Yamaha family

Personally, I use and have been delighted with the Yamaha Pocketrak PR7. It’s small, portable, easy to use, and I have over 160 hours of audio stored on mine currently—with no end of available space in sight! (Make sure you’re always backing it up on another device or cloud!) Best of all: I can be interviewing someone in the noisiest coffeeshop ever, and when the beans suddenly start whirring and grinding, you can still hear the subject clearly: thanks to those XY microphones.

2. Transcription software? Try transcribing it yourself.

 Use Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe your audio files.

Use Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe your audio files.

Transcription is tedious. Unless you do it all the time, it’s a skill that can take a while to master. The last contractor I hired transcribed at a rate of 8:1, bless his heart. That is, 8 hours for every 1 hour of audio. Not efficient.

You might be tempted (understandably) to try a transcription software. Dragon Naturally Speaking is still the best on the market, but it sucks. It’s slow, and while it’s supposed to get ‘smarter’ with use (by learning your cadence and intonation), it never got any more proficient that I noticed.

Instead, hire a professional human transcriptionist (search for someone who can transcribe at a rate of at least 2:1, if not 1:1), or do it yourself! I am always surprised to find, upon listening to recorded footage, that I invariably come to a story that I don’t remember hearing. That’s because it’s human nature for the mind to wander. Half the joy is in re-listening to your recordings … and laughing (or weeping) all over again. Plus, if you’re ghostwriting, it’s a great opportunity to listen for vocal tics and vocab—the key contributors to narrative “voice.”

3. Pick the perfect word processor.

 Adobe InDesign is the gold standard for creating book layouts.

Adobe InDesign is the gold standard for creating book layouts.

Whether you hire out your transcription or do it yourself, at some point you’re going to end up with a whole lot of text. It’s perfectly fine to work in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages—two of the most basic and user-friendly softwares on the market. You might also try upgrading to Scrivener. It’s a subscription service, but for your money you get a lot of cool features, like the ability to easily storyboard or rearrange story sections. Google docs can make it easy to share files with your editor or other contributing writers, and saves your precious work to the cloud (for free!)

When you’re ready to layout your book, play around with Adobe InDesign. It’s the premier book design platform, and can require some practice (or maybe an introductory class!) if you’re brand new to the Adobe suite. Check your local community college for affordable and informational Adobe suite classes.

Once you’ve done all this, you’re ready to self-publish!

"You're like my granddaughter,"

the old man said, his kind eyes crinkling with an affectionate smile.

This, from the ex-army chaplain who a week before had told me my ego was "too big for God."

A retired Presbyterian pastor, he couldn't understand why I'd left the church, although when I admitted I'd been raised Catholic, he said, "Well, that was your first mistake."

Army Unit.jpg

Why the 82-year-old man ever hired me to write his life story I do not know, since from the beginning he'd seemed so unimpressed with me.

At our first meeting, he begrudgingly told me that he'd once been operated on by a Catholic, which hadn't prevented the surgeon from doing his job--so maybe, just maybe, a spiritual-but-not-religious ghostwriter could do justice to the tale of a man of the cloth.

Ten hours of interviews and 50,000 words later, the reverend and I had an understanding. God had saved him from Vietnam, when as a combat chaplain all he could carry on the battlefield was a slingshot ... and together, he and I had just saved his stories for his grandchildren. 

Why You Should Write Your Life Story (at Any Age)

  • Leave a legacy
  • Educate posterity
  • Combat cognitive impairment
  • Personal fulfillment

Making 'Big Magic' in Life, Love, and Business

Does the name Elizabeth Gilbert ring a bell? What about EAT, PRAY, LOVE?

Gilbert had authored four books prior to EAT, PRAY, LOVE, but it was the wild success of that travel memoir that really launched her into the international consciousness.

If you haven’t read it, EAT, PRAY, LOVE follows Liz’s travels to Italy (to eat), to India (to pray) and to Bali (to love) after her particularly brutal divorce. 

The next book she wrote, called COMMITTED, picked up where EAT, PRAY, LOVE left off. Liz’s Brazilian, Bali-living boyfriend visited her so often in the United States upon her return that Homeland Security became suspicious and barred him from ever entering the U.S. again—unless he and Liz married. The only problem with that stipulation being that Liz no longer believed in marriage, and never wanted to marry again. Hence a book-length investigation into worldwide cultural norms around marriage, and various interpretations of the institution that challenged her (and my) American viewpoints. Pretty fascinating stuff.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest nonfiction book, BIG MAGIC, treats the topic of creative living. There are lots of amazing moments in there, though none of them are particularly earth-shatteringly new. Mostly they’re interesting because they’re backed up by Liz’s own rich life experiences, of which she’s had more than most. 

The two things that stuck with me after reading BIG MAGIC were her ideas about, well, IDEAS, and trusting your own shamanic abilities.

According to Ms. Gilbert, ideas are like sentient beings with their own whims and feelings. They come knocking on your door, and if you’re listening, and if you’re open, maybe they decide to stick around for awhile. But if you then sit on them and prioritize everything else instead of entertaining your houseguests, eventually the ideas will leave. They will go and knock on someone else’s door, because the ideas don’t belong to you. You didn’t claim them, and therefore they are not yours.

What I love about this concept is the sense of urgency it gives to acting on your hopes and dreams. It’s about getting stuff done, people! Definitely not a guide for the natural procrastinator. At the same time, relinquishing the notion that we ‘own’ every idea also frees us from the responsibility to act on every fleeting thought. We get to consciously choose which pursuits to devote our time and energies to. Ideas are gifts and opportunities, and we can forgive ourselves for not picking up every bread crumb! Such moments are not failures!

The second lesson that really hit home for me is trust. Trusting not that you will succeed, but that you might very well fail (spectacularly), and asking what you would be willing to risk anyway. What is so important that it must be attempted regardless of an undesirable outcome? When you have the answer, go do it, and don’t look back.

My friend Amber* once made a list where she wrote down all the traits she wished to find in a husband, then read it to the universe under a full moon. Later, she met the man of her dreams at a wedding, where he said he’d been led to her by the Archangel Michael. One year later, they married in the same place they met. I can’t comment on the validity of these strange happenings, but it seems like Big Magic to me. They embraced a common idea and they ran with it—marriage being one of the biggest risks of all. They have a lovely life together in Austin, and they’ve never looked back.

Accountability: Why You Need It in Your Business, Relationships, and Even Your Writing

What is an accountability partner?

As Austin life coach Myrna King defines the term, “[An accountability partner is] simply someone who we make promises to about what we plan to achieve, over a specific period of time, within an agreed upon partnership framework. Both partners lay out goals and then take steps towards achieving them.”

Myrna is the one who introduced me to my own accountability partner (and fellow life coach) Dr. Lisa Raphael Bogaert. Lisa and I meet in person or via phone once/month for “check-ins.” We review the list of goals we set for the previous month in regards to our respective small businesses, we discuss our progress and whatever roadblocks or other challenges may have cropped up, and we talk about how to move forward. How can next month be bigger, better, stronger, and what might that mean? More clients? More conversions/better retention? More effective advertising? A new workshop on offer?

BUSINESS

Accountability is key in your business because it keeps you, the solo-preneur, LLC, or C-corp owner on the up-and-up. Your revenue stream spikes when you’re servicing your area competitively, respectfully, and most important—lawfully, and all of these factors create the reputation that one day will either attract or repel all future business. You know, that mythical day when you can stop hustling on street corners and attending every. single. networking breakfast or happy hour in a 25-mile radius because finally people are knocking on YOUR door. [Yeah, I dream about that day, too.] Indispensable things that my accountability partner has gifted me include: self-employment tax advice, business leads, and July’s upcoming co-led workshop!

RELATIONSHIPS

Accountability is so important in relationships that Dr. Lisa Raphael Bogaert and myself are offering a joint workshop on it July 16. Practicing accountability with your spouse, partner, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc, means you make weekly, monthly, or bimonthly goals together for yourselves, your commitment, and/or your family; you “check-in” and hold each other accountable to what did or didn’t happen/improve; celebrate the gains; and re-strategize tackling the problem areas. Ways that I’ve used accountability in my relationships include daily check-ins on the best parts of our days, and News Years resolutions for what we hope to achieve in the next year of being together.

WRITING

Though I am not certified with the International Coaching Federation (ICF), you might call what I do for my Cider Spoon Stories clients “coaching.” As a ghostwriter, I coach you through content curation, design principles, and the sometimes-tricky world of custom publishing. As an editor, I coach you on details like word choice, paragraph cohesion and transitions, and overall content analysis. Sometimes you just need someone to say, “Have 5 pages ready for me to review every week,” just to keep you writing and keep you in the game. Knowing that someone else expects something of you can make all the difference as far as your motivation level!

HOW TO FIND AN ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNER

I strongly suggest that you don't choose a friend or family member for this exercise—at least when it comes to business or writing. People who know and love you are less likely to practice tough love in these two scenarios, quicker to let your goals slide into the next month and the next, and then you're not really accomplishing anything! Obviously, in a relationship your partner is your accountability partner. In business, try asking that really cool, confident, interesting person you met at BNI last week to help mentor you (and yes, you, them!) When it comes to writing, contact Cider Spoon Stories!

Incorporating Oral History Assignments into College Writing Curriculums

Before Cider Spoon Stories, Jess taught writing and art at Benedictine University in Illinois. In both her Writing 101 (Composition) and 102 (Research Writing) classes, Jess found it imperative to assign an oral history and/or interview component as part of at least one major writing assignment per semester, given the wide variety of career fields in which storytelling skills are applicable, as well as the incredible array of corollary benefits that accompany the unique fusion of people skills and technology skills incumbent to the interview process. She recently presented her theories on a panel at CUNY’s “Transitions and Transactions: Literature Pedagogies” Conference in Manhattan in April 2016. The following details her findings.

Career Fields Utilizing Storytelling Skills

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Entrepreneurship/branding
  • Parenting
  • Education
  • Grantwriting
  • Medical
  • Law enforcement
  • Engineering/technical writing
  • Arts/theater
  • and more.

Learning Objectives Met by Oral Histories in Common College Writing Assignments

  • Fosters clear, concise, specific communication
  • Spurs engagement
  • Allows information to be assimilated over/despite the glut
  • Challenges student conceptions/misconceptions
  • Makes history real
  • Broaches uncomfortable topics safely
  • Informs believable character dialogue, motivations, and setting in fiction/CNF
  • Informs documentary poetry and activisit art
  • Creates of the student an ‘expert’
  • Prepares student for real-world experiences post-graduation
  • Fulfills a vicarious experience
  • Generates empathy
  • Refines organizatioon skills
  • Reiterates importance of cross-cultural comparison and artifact preservation

Other Benefits

  • INCREASES FAMILIARITY WITH BOTH PEOPLE SKILLS AND TECHNOLOGY (SKYPE, RECORDER, TRANSCRIPTION SOFTWARE)
  • IMPROVES EDITING SKILLS (TOO MUCH INFO; WHAT TO CUT)
  • PLAY WITH ATTENTION-GRABBERS
  • PRACTICE WRITING FOR DIFFERENT AUDIENCES
  • APA/MLA/CMS CITATION STYLES
  • STUDENTS CAN’T FAKE DOING THIS WORK: THE DETAILS WON’T BE THERE
  • PRACTICE LISTENING, OBSERVING, WITNESSING
  • WHEN TO QUOTE, WHEN TO PARAPHRASE
  • HOW TO MAKE “CHARACTERS” SEEM AS REAL AS THEY DO IN LIFE; GREAT APPLICATION TO FICTION/CNF ESPECIALLY
  • EMPOWERING: GIVES A VOICE TO THOSE WHO MIGHT OTHERWISE NOT BE HEARD. STUDENTS MIGHT LEARN TO VALUE THEIR OWN VOICES MORE AS A RESULT. CONSIDER WHAT MESSAGES THEY’RE CONTRIBUTING TO THE WORLD. SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE POWERFUL, NOT JUST FOOD PORN.

Survey Says: Write a DIY Family History Guide!

Last week I posted a 7-question market research survey to the world of social media. In a nutshell, I wanted to find a way to offer my writing services to families and individuals who cannot afford a full ghostwriting package.

To that end, I intend to write, publish, and sell a DIY family history guide! Here are some of the excellent suggestions I received from fans and readers. If you have another idea to add, please leave it in the comment box below!

Q1. I am authoring a new genealogy guide to help kids write their parents' or grandparents' life stories. The guide will be a full-color, interactive book, with lots of interesting prompts and space for creative expression. Kids might complete the guide over a summer break, a long road trip, or several holiday visits, for example. Is this a product you would buy?

A1: 86% Yes; 14% Maybe.

Q2. Thinking about the ages of your own kids, or kids to whom you might gift this book--what age range should the book target?

A2. 57% 4th and 5th graders; 43% 6th and 7th graders.

Q3. Should the book target a specific gender of child user?

A3. 100% Both boys and girls.

Q4. Let’s say the book is a large paperback, printed on recycled paper. What other features would you like to see?

A4. 43% prefer a hardback format; 14% prefer an ebook format.

Q5. About how much would you be willing to pay for this book? 

A5. Answers ranged from $10.00 to $50.00, with an average price of $28.00.

Q6. Suggest ways to make the book friendly/accessible to users of all genders, religions, sexualities, races, etc.

A6. Include images of children that reflect the noted characteristics; Include an editor’s note to the effect that “family is subjective” and may also include adopted individuals; Allow kids to personalize the book with their photos; Use a template format that kids can build off of and get creative with; Allow kids to design the cover; Include maps and other cultural associations.

Q7. Suggest some interesting prompts for the book. Prompts are the questions that the child will ask his/her parents/grandparents. For example, "How did you spend your summer breaks as a kid?"

A7: Did you like school? Did you ever get in trouble with your teacher ? What grade were you when you had your first girl/boyfriend? What was your favorite book or story? Who is the first person you remember? When did you have the most fun? Who is the oldest person in the family you remember? Who could make you smile/laugh no matter what? What was the worst thing you remember? What were the rules in your house? Who were your best friends? Do you have pictures of them? What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you become that? If not, why not? Who did you admire most? Do you remember when any of your grandparents or other relatives died? What did your house look like when you were a kid? Did you always live in the same place? What important lessons have you learned as an adult? Maybe an activity prompting them to participate in a hobby that their parent or grandparents enjoys or used to enjoy and then reflect on that experience. What is your favorite food? Who was the first friend you remember having, and what did you do together? What was a favorite toy you had? What kinds of games did you play indoors and outdoors? Is there a special recipe you have to share? Describe a typical school day that you remember (from start to end) … how did you get there in the morning, what was the day like, how did you get home, etc. What is a special song you have a memory of listening to? Do you remember your first date/crush? What kind of chores or household duties did you have growing up? What were your parents like? What was your childhood home like? What was the most amazing place you ever traveled to?

Thanks for all the help! GUIDE FORTHCOMING CHRISTMAS 2016!

Who are Daniel Pinchbeck, Terrence McKenna, and Graham Hancock? [Ayahuasca and Other Psychotropic Plant Medicines]

This post is the THIRD in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

I really love contemporary satirical rocker Father John Misty’s music, and not least because his song “I’m Writing a Novel” mentions doing ayahuasca—a psychotropic plant medicine from the Peruvian Amazon. The first time I heard of ayahuasca was in a lecture by Daniel Pinchbeck on the Mayan 2012 prophecy, which of course predicted an end to the world that never happened. Whether or not some other, more subtle shift in global consciousness took place is up for debate, but I remember thinking, This Pinchbeck guy is either nuts, or a genius. And I had to respect someone who’d managed to integrate himself into what are still remote tribes in the Amazon and experience what I’ve come to understand is that rather powerful medicine called ayahuasca.

If I’m honest, sure—I’m curious. I’d like to have that mind-altering, consciousness-shifting experience for myself—one that a close friend describes as the “hardest and the best thing he’s ever done … ten years of therapy in four hours” (that’s how long the high/visions last). But. I want to work for the FBI, and there’s a drug policy. So for now I’ll live through others!

Before we get to McKenna and Hancock, one more name bears revisiting: Timothy Leary. You probably know of him as the LSD guy in the ‘60s. Especially if you've read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. You could say Leary was McKenna’s and Hancock’s predecessor, and indeed McKenna has been called the “Timothy Leary of the ‘90s.” Basically, Terrence McKenna studied shamanism and Tibetan folk religion at Berkley, discovered psylocibin mushrooms in the Colombian Amazon, had a bunch of visions, and determined a fractal pattern in the I Ching that he called Novelty Theory, which supposedly predicted the 2012 world-endingness that had Pinchbeck’s panties in a twist. McKenna was less concerned with the end of the world, however, than using plant medicines to access the collective human memory (he was highly influenced by Jung) in an attempt to manifest that alchemical treasure: the Philosopher’s Stone.

Though McKenna, and later Hancock, were largely dismissed as New Agey, McKenna himself stressed not New Age dogma, but the importance of the “felt presence of direct experience.” He wanted people to trust their inner knowing (called prajna in Ayurveda). Unfortunately, McKenna died of brain cancer (1946-2000) and didn’t make it to see 2012; but Hancock is still going strong.

Graham Hancock espouses a “mother” civilization from which all ancient civilizations sprang. Like McKenna, Hancock believes in using plant medicines, particularly ayahuasca, to access that mother culture (also the collective human memory). According to Hancock, ayahuasca encourages self-improvement and social progress, especially in the form of curing deadly addictions, from alcohol and tobacco to controlled substances.

Want to try ayahuasca for yourself? It’s not legal in the States unless you join the church of UDV. First watch Chelsea Handler’s hilarious exploits with the drug in Peru. Then check out these Peruvian retreats.

4 Things Every Great Bio Should Have

NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE, chances are that at some point in your life/career, you're going to need a bio. Maybe you're a poet about to give a reading, or about to accept an award. Maybe you're a real estate mogul, a financial planner, or a mortgage broker. That little "About Us" tab on your website? Yeah, it's more important than you think.

I know whenever I'm considering engaging a new provider's services, I want to find out everything I can about that person. Both their professional achievements and their personal story--why they're doing what they're doing, where they come from, and where they're going. Because a photo speaks a thousand silent words, I always scrutinize that, too. How does the person carry him/herself? What image are they trying to project?

If all you need is the best bio ever, I write those. If you want to try it yourself, here are 4 things every great bio should have:

1. 300 details.

Okay, not actually 300. But the typical long bio (as in, for a book jacket or a web page) is 300 words, and it should be chock-full of details. NO FLUFF, people. Every word should count, and they should be interesting words. Make yourself come alive on the page! Consider including favorite activities, quotes, or family fun facts.

2. 150 points.

Again, not 150 points exactly, but a short bio (for use in having people introduce you, or for the brief tagline following a HuffPost article, for example) is 150 words, and now you have to be even more concise! If fluff snuck into your long bio, it absolutely must be weeded out here. Instead of the three achievements you listed in your long bio, pick the most important one. Balance it with something non-work-related. Do you love dogs? Baking? The X-Games? Shine, you beautiful soul.

3. Hashtags.

Ghostwriter. Black belt. Down-dogger. #hospicestories
— My career, my achievement, my pastime, and my current campaign.

There was a time when hashtags had nothing to do with literature, and then a time when they were only relevant to tweets. Now hashtags create instant communities wherever & whenever they're used. They help track metrics and unite themes and causes. They're memorable. Use a 6-word hashtag-heavy bio for your social media presence and/or byline.

4. Put the "I" back in TEAM.

Those third-person bios are going to come in super-handy, but you want at least one first-person version. Should you find yourself giving a speech or on the news or even in an elevator, when your pitch is prepared, the sale is already halfway over. Re-work your short bio into a self-introduction, and boom--

It’s (almost) that time of year again ... for Cider Spoon holiday gift baskets!

The leaves are beginning to change, the air temp’s just the slightest bit cooler (even in Texas!), and my mother has begun asking for Christmas list ideas already. While I’m busy planning an outrageous Halloween party, I know many of you are looking even further ahead: to the sometimes-snowy magic that is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or whatever other winter event you do or do not officially recognize.

*IF* you’re the type to plan ahead, and *IF* you love giving super thoughtful, absolutely one-of-a-kind gifts, consider a Cider Spoon Stories legacy package this season. Each gift basket can be customized to fit your loved one’s fancy, and may include any or all of the following:

Email ciderspoon@gmail.com to reserve your gift basket today!

From Baby Books to Back-to-School: Let’s Write a Book for Your Kids!

There are plenty of big adult moments: marriage; kids; job promotions; retirement; travel; etc. Any or all of them would make an excellent memoir. But what about the big kid moments? First crawl; first step; first word; first tooth lost; first Easter; preschool graduation to high school graduation. Your kids will never remember these moments as vividly as you do.

You remember the corduroy overalls they wore, how they smelled like sunshine and cinnamon, the pride you felt as they accomplished something truly amazing.

Let’s write a memory book of a different kind. Not about your childhood, but theirs.

It makes the perfect “Congrats!” gift for next year’s new graduate, or a touching “I love you” for this fall’s college-bound teenager.

Celebrate; remember; relive with Cider Spoon Stories.

Memorializing a Loved One with an Everlasting Tribute

People die. It's not one of the loveliest truths about being human. We don't like to think about death because in many ways it means The End ... of being in contact, of sharing day-to-day life, of making new memories. Just because death isn't a welcome visitor, however, doesn't mean it has to be the end of everything. You can memorialize your loved one with an everlasting tribute: a brief overview of a life well-lived, to be either incorporated into the eulogy or distributed to family and friends, perhaps right then at a graveside service, perhaps on the annual anniversary of your loved one's death.

Tributes can range in length from 1 page to 100+. The page count doesn't matter as much as the stories the tribute captures. Favorite meals and songs, lifetime achievements, wedding photos, letters from the grandkids--these are just a sample of the innumerable tokens of pride and love that could be included in a memorial tribute.

Death doesn't always arrive on schedule. It indiscriminately claims the young and the old, the sick and the well, by age or by accident. Tributes won't lessen the pain, but they will help you remember how to smile on particularly dark days when you wish more than anything that your loved one was still with you.

Publish your prose with Cider Spoon Stories

Okay, so we’ve written your book. Now what?

In the digital age, do you self-publish an e-book? Put it for sale on Amazon and Kindle and Nook? Would you rather have a hard copy? ... Paperback, or leather-bound?

The choices are many, but they boil down to a single decision: how do you wish to preserve your legacy?

You put in all the work to tell your story. Now let’s make sure someone hears it.

Cider Spoon has an established relationship with Forty Acres Press at the University of Texas Co-op, a quality print-on-demand service affiliated with UT, but which functions as a nonprofit and does business right here in Austin, Texas. The UT Co-op produces glossy, full-color and full-bleed perfect-bound covers, with crisp black-and-white interiors printed on sustainably-sourced paper. 

I am also happy to help you navigate Amazon’s CreateSpace, or even publish your book in whole or part to a personal website.

Weddings, Anniversaries, & Family Reunions, Oh My!

Introducing a brand new service: memory compilation!

  My sister and I as flower girls once upon a time.

My sister and I as flower girls once upon a time.

Did you know that not every book has to have a single author? Write an entire book in one day or weekend by asking the whole family to participate!

When you hire me as your event's memory compiler, I'll help preserve your special day forever by interviewing & capturing attendees' own stories, memories, remarks, or well-wishes.

Weddings are great because they bring the whole clan together. Take advantage of that time to record a whole book of family memories. The memories can be of the happy couple, or stories of other family members' own weddings. What was magical and what went horribly wrong that we can now laugh about? What advice do older couples have for newlyweds?

Same for anniversary parties and family reunions! Get all the genealogy down in one go, so unborn generations can enjoy it years from now.