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


Who is Anna Tibaijuka? And Why Did She Make Headlines as One of Twenty “Black Women to Know”?

This post is the FIFTH 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.

India is famous for many things: rich curries, decadent sandalwood, gorgeous silks … and yes, slums. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) helped shed light on life in India’s slums with its Bollywood-tinged rags-to-riches plot line and nod to popular American TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Slumdog was by all accounts successful.

Far fewer people are talking about Africa’s slums. Almost under the international radar, in 2005 Zimbabwean President Mugabe implemented Operation Murambatsvina (literally, Operation Drive Out Rubbish), also known as Operation Restore Order. As its dual names might suggest, the campaign was part of a large-scale effort to forcibly clear out slums across the country—completely disregarding the millions of nationals who would be and were displaced.

Today the United Nations estimates that as many as 2.4 million Zimbabweans directly or indirectly suffered from a loss of home and/or livelihood. Government officials say the operation was intended to curb illegal squatting and the transmission of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, but the relocation of thousands to cramped holding centers only increased the prevalence of both TB and AIDs. To top it off, Zimbabwe’s doctors fled the nation in droves after unsuccessfully striking for higher salaries to compete with out-of-control inflation. Suffering conditions “far worse than the demolished shanty towns,” more than one-third of the population became dependent on food aid and life expectancy plummeted to 33 years.

Further fueling the “humanitarian nightmare” of Operation Restore Order were rumors that the government’s motivations may have been far darker and more corrupt than a simple “spring cleaning.” Zimbabwe’s urban and rural poor comprised a large percentage of the oppositional constituency that threatened President Mugabe’s long reign, introducing a vulnerability that had to be crushed.

In June of 2005, the secretary general appointed Anna Tibaijuka, professor and UN delegate, as his special envoy to study the impact of the Zimbabwean government’s campaign. After two weeks in the field, Tibaijuka concluded that “while purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, [the operation] was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering.” The report was of course censored in Zimbabwe and plans to launch a flash appeal all but silenced. Mugabe disputed Tibaijuka’s findings, insisting that a mere 2,000 people had been affected by his evictions.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka (1950) was born to coffee and banana farmers in Tanzania. After graduating college in Sweden, she earned three doctorates and was the recipient of several more honorary degrees. Until 2010, she was the second-highest-ranking African woman in the UN system. Her resignation was inspired by her desire to run for political office in Tanzania. Tibaijuka won, and currently serves as a member of the Tanzanian Parliament.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Valerie Tagwira, a Zimbabwean medical doctor and author, published her debut novel The Uncertainty of Hope. The story is set in Mbare, Harare, where its characters struggle in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina. Check it out for a more personal (albeit fictionalized) encounter with Zimbabwean unrest.

Who is Neil Strauss? And How Did He Get Hundreds of Women to Sleep with Him?

This post is the FOURTH 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.

Who says you’re allowed to take lessons in motorcycle riding but not in interacting with women?
— p. 247

It’s a widely known fact that to defeat the enemy, you must know the enemy. You must understand his habits, pigeonhole his strategies, and keep him closer than you do your friends. That’s why after so many years I finally had to read that holy grail of man-Bibles: The Game, by Neil Strauss. I thought if I knew what to look for in a pick-up artist, I could avoid becoming his target (or at least his victim). Plus, it’s much easier to disparage a person or a set of principles when you can speak about them intelligently. Meaning, it’s not fair to criticize/condemn ANYone or ANYthing without having that firsthand experience, right?

So, this week I read The Game. New York Times bestselling author Neil Strauss (code name “Style”) published in 2005 this pseudo-documentary about an underground movement among young (and not so young) men training each other on the best way to score. The definition of scoring changes: it might mean to “number-close” (get a woman’s phone number), kiss-close (make-out with her) or f***-close (yeah, that one) … the only real goal (beyond success) being to do so as quickly as possible, and with as many other witnesses as you can muster to later bow down and slobber over how amazing you are.

The thing is, as disgusting as the premise is, by the end of the story you feel pretty sorry for these guys. “Sarging” as the term goes (to “sarge” is to go out clubbing and hunt down women) more or less comes to ruin these men’s lives. It’s not the typical douchey jock who’s playing the game, but quiet, nerdy, unattractive men who have never had the confidence to even approach a women before (almost all of them enter the game as virgins). While, yes, over the course of two years they manage the minor miracle of sleeping with hundreds of women each, it doesn’t exactly make their lives any better. The original ringleader (codename Mystery) succumbs to a violent depression, two others feel so guilty and “defiled” in regards to their past misdeeds that they run off and join seminaries or ashrams, and our narrator Style finally admits he’s just empty and lost. You actually cheer for him when in the last couple chapters, he meets the woman of his dreams and quits the game altogether. For a time, anyway.

Project Hollywood sucked in anyone with mental problems and scared away anyone of quality.
— p. 356

This radical 360, from loser to hottest-thing-in-LA (and that’s not an exaggeration; the men befriend Paris Hilton and Courtney Love), back to well, loser, had me forgiving them on behalf of women everywhere for all the times they’d taken home a one-night stand and never called her back. Or they called back, only to refuse to commit to monogamy and instead suggest that the girl-of-the-week should hook up with the girl-of-last-week (while he watches or participates). You forgive them because while it’s never right to trick a woman into sleeping with you, ultimately the PUAs (Pick-up Artists) tricked themselves into thinking the playboy lifestyle could be personally fulfilling. Instead, it’s exhausting. They live in a pigsty mansion where even the stains have stains, ruin their closest friendships, cut ties with their families, lose jobs, and flunk out of school, all while investing every shred of their self-validation in how many women they “close.” They become robots and clones of the PUA gurus. There’s beaucoup money to be made on ebooks and seminars, but no one escapes happy.

We may have been supermen in the club, but on the inside we were rotting.
— p. 204

My takeaways: Ladies, if a guy approaches you and tries to run the Best Friends Test, entertain you with a magic trick, or ask if you saw the two girls fighting in the parking lot, walk calmly in the opposite direction. These men aren’t dangerous predators; they’re lonely, and kind of sad, and you deserve better than that. Gentlemen, if studying the PUA Way gives you the tips and tools to improve your self-confidence and skills with women, then by all means improve yourself, but for everyone’s sake, don’t ever take yourself that seriously.

Since The Game, Neil Strauss has written several more books, including a sequel that details his subsequent inability, post-seduction community, to stay monogamous to the woman he eventually married. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to. For all its faults, The Game is a hell of a good story. I couldn’t put it down! And that’s the business I’m in—telling good stories.

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.

Who is Elon Musk? [And how many people does he plan to send to Mars?]

This post is the SECOND 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.

PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX. Hopefully you’ve heard of at least one of these companies and know something of the services they offer. What you might not know is that one relatively young man is behind them all—and at 44 years old, Elon Musk may just be one of the most important entrepreneurs and innovators of the 21st century.

Each in its own way, PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX are ushering the world into the next generation of economic and scientific technologies. Musk’s ultimate goal, however, is to ferry mankind right out of this world entirely. SpaceX was the first commercial company contracted by NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Next, Musk plans to deliver human settlers to Mars: 80,000 of them by 2040.

Why? As Musk points out, it’s taken homo sapiens hundreds of thousands of years to evolve to this point. In just the last 60 years, man has both developed the atomic weaponry and effected the climate change to annihilate the entire species, and soon. If we don’t kill each other off, we’ll kill the earth that sustains us (the plot of 2014’s Interstellar). It’s time to explore other options—extraterrestrial ones, as Musk would have it.

Until then, he’s working to make life on earth ever more convenient and safer for its human denizens. PayPal protects your online financial transactions with more retailers than even PayPal can compile into a single directory. Tesla currently manufactures luxury electric vehicles, but promises to offer a sub-compact retailing at no more than $30,000 within the next year.

All of these ventures have (rightfully) made Elon Musk a very rich man. With a net worth of almost 13 billion, he’s LA’s wealthiest resident. Even so, he takes an annual salary of $1 as the CEOof Tesla, the rest made up by stock options.

Born to a South African father and Canadian mother, Musk was educated at Queens University (Ontario) but graduated from UPenn with dual bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Economics. He dropped out of Stanford’s PhD program in Physics two days after matriculating, preferring to follow his entrepreneurial leanings. Today Musk has American citizenship and 5 sons (1 deceased). His other venture capital projects include renewable energy (SolarCity), high-speed transportation (Hyperloop), and artificial intelligence (OpenAI).

Ready to write your memoirs? Contact Jess Hagemann, Austin's premier ghostwriter, today!

Spotlight on: The Marchesa Theatre

This post is the first in a series of mini-historiographies that chronicle the power of PLACE in memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about the ordinary buildings you pass every day. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs about the places you moved and move through.

In an unassuming east-side strip mall, largely empty of other attractions, hides the recently renovated Marchesa Theatre: home of the Austin Film Society and several trademark east Austin events—including the Blue Genie Art Bazaar, an annual holiday art show that just wrapped up at the end of December.

The Austin Film Society at the Marchesa

Walking into the Marchesa takes you back to a time when cinema was really something special. Before the days of movie pirating and Netflix streaming, going to see a film was an event. The AFS makes sure it still is, by screening lots of foreign and independent flicks you won’t catch anywhere else, alongside hard-to-find classics. I’ve never seen a bad movie there, and many of the films that made the carefully-curated playlist have been downright incredible.

To give you an idea of the breadth and depth of the AFS’s inclusive offerings, in 2015 alone they screened Seven Chinese Brothers (2015), Particle Fever (2013), and Blind (2014). The first was directed by local Austin filmmaker Bob Byington and stars Hollywood darlings Jason Schwartzman and Olympia Dukakis. As part of the Science on Screen series, Particle Fever documents the first (unsuccessful) launch of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland and follows several years of subsequent research and trials. Meanwhile, Blind is theextraordinary debut effort of Norwegian director Eskil Vogt—a rather skillfully-told, surreal story about a newly-blind woman who dances at all times between daytime and dreamtime.

The Austin Film Society’s affordable membership packages include complimentary tickets, free monthly screenings, discounts at the Alamo Drafthouse, and a host of other benefits that well outweigh the very fair package pricing.

The Blue Genie Art Bazaar at the Marchesa

Spanning the whole month of December, the Blue Genie Art Bazaar features the work of over 200 Texas artists every year, offering one-of-a-kind handmade gifts to fit every taste and budget. The Bazaar takes over the whole theatre lobby and large side halls, greeting both movie-goers and those who are just there to shop with lots of light and sparkle and good smells.

Knock-out products this year included Hemp360’s Raw Olive Lotion with Lemongrass, handmade in New Braunfels, Texas, and “Grandpa”-scented soy candles from Austin’s own The Burlap Bag. With a true “old-man aftershave” aroma, “Grandpa” definitely had me smiling and reminiscing about my grandfather! Beautiful jewelry for mom, soft unicorn headbands for the kiddos, stylishly screen-printed shirts, scarves, and tea towels for everyone, plus the requisite you-will-find-this-nowhere-else-novelty items rounded out an impressive showing from the Blue Genie.

In the event you get inspired to make your own crafts after seeing the wide variety on offer at the Marchesa, you’re in luck! The theatre butts up to Jerry’s Artarama, the east side’s most comprehensive discount art store with everything you need for DIY fun—including art classes and drop-in figure drawing for the budding enthusiast.

Other Events at the Marchesa

The Marchesa Theatre also rents out its facilities for conferences, expos, birthday parties, wedding receptions, performances, business meetings, etc. They offer a generous 15% discount for nonprofit fundraiser events! Additional services like table and chair setup, bartenders, PA systems, and event cleanup are also available.


Whether checking out the next international film phenomenon through the AFS, shopping for the perfect gift at the Blue Genie, or celebrating a big life moment, remember to support the Marchesa Theatre. Your investment will be returned to you two-fold every time!

Who is Mary Karr? [Why truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything.]

This post is the first 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.

Maybe Karr’s is a name that doesn’t mean much outside of academia and literature, but her story is significant because it taught me, for the first time, empathy for addicts. After battling alcoholism and a loveless marriage, Karr went on to publish three bestselling memoirs and currently teaches writing at Syracuse University. 

Karr also recently came to Austin for a reading at BookPeople, but I missed it because I didn’t then know who she was. My cousin Kelli had recommended Karr’s latest memoir Lit; however, I didn’t associate the author’s name with that other book The Liars' Club, which is required reading in many high schools but was not in mine.

By now, I have read Lit, and I do know (in some sense of the word) who Mary Karr is, and I wouldn’t miss her reading if she came through Austin again. Besides the fact that a book devoted almost entirely to her fight with alcoholism deviates into a strange Catholic conversion story near the end, Karr’s writing is powerful and her language beautiful.

“There’s a space at the bottom of an exhale,” she writes. “A little hitch between taking in and letting out that’s a perfect zero you can go into. There’s a rest point between the heart muscle’s close and open—an instant of keenest living when you’re momentarily dead. You can rest there.” Here Karr describes learning the practice of meditation that proved both a lifeline out of addiction and a gateway to her eventual conversion. 

Mostly, I never understood before why a person with an addiction can’t just stop, cold-turkey, and never look back. Especially when they can see how much the addiction is hurting themselves and their relationships. Karr had a newborn son when they both took to the bottle hardcore: his full of milk, hers full of scotch. When she said: “For me, everything’s too much and nothing’s enough,” though, I got it. For a second, I could relate to the overwhelming anxiety of being alive, and the hunger, always, for something else. If I didn’t personally have more constructive outlets for such moments, perhaps I’d seek solace in blackouts, too.

Then of course there’s the fact that Karr is a writer—a profession near and dear to my heart. In a passage typical of her honesty and directness, Karr admits: “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet—buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift store furniture—than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” In a nutshell, this is the brutal crux of growing older. We construct images of ourselves, and sometimes there is no substance to the image. When it crumbles, or the mask is stripped off, or the visage itself becomes an ancient and wrinkled thing, what is left? Only truth.

Funny, how truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything. Karr’s truth-telling in Lit slides a razor into the soft flesh between ribs, exposing her many-times-over failure as a wife, mother, and writer. It was also returned to her many-times-over in the form of bestseller royalties—and more importantly, freedom from the daily oblivion of addiction.

You can read more about Mary Karr at her author website.

Advice for writers: these 5 steps take your book from idea to implementation

Writing is work, not inspiration.

One day in summer 2010, I was sitting in the audience at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, and feeling every fiber of my being internally resist against everything that the four well-established authors on the panel were saying. Little wisdom chunks like “Writing is work, not inspiration” sounded miserable to me.

To that point, I’d been the artist who painted when I felt like it, wrote when the spirit moved me, and indeed considered myself all-around “inspired.” Because such activities came easy to me, I never thought art or writing was something over which I should have to sweat. THEN I STARTED AN MFA PROGRAM AND BOY HOWDY. Let me tell you, writing IS work.

 Naropa Summer Writing Program 2010: When I still thought I knew everything.

Naropa Summer Writing Program 2010: When I still thought I knew everything.

But! It doesn’t have to be the kind of scullery-maid drudgery to which Cinderella’s evil stepsisters sentenced the one blushing blonde among them. Writing can be, should be, and is all kinds of awesome fun—and it’s hella more rewarding than any other “work” you’ll do today. So let’s get started!

Follow these five steps to take your book from idea to implementation:

  1. When you do get that spark of inspiration, write it down immediately. The physical act of writing turns ethereal thought into visceral muscle memory. Then that great idea is more likely to stay present and active in your conscience mind, where the wheels can spin your straw into gold—meaning you get to keep your baby (aka, your book)! Rumpelstiltskin, anyone?
  2. Talk to people about your ideas. Don’t talk their ears off, and don’t bore them—there’s nothing worse than alienating those who stand to be your first fans. But the more you discuss your plot, the more confident you become in it. When people poke holes in your story, you know where to fix the leaks. Try out different character traits, and take polls on whether they sound believable. Allow real people to inspire your protagonists' fatal flaws—it makes them relatable!
  3. Do your research. Think you’re already an expert, but you need a few more details to make a scene really come alive? Turn to the books that already exist. Walk into a library. Close your eyes. Stick out your hands. Walk slowly (SLOWLY) around, letting your fingers guide you up and down the shelves, over spines, caressing covers, until they happen upon the perfect resource. This is called bibliomancy. Just don’t use it as an excuse to grope people (without their consent, anyway).
  4. Write, and write some more, and build writing into your schedule like you would grocery shopping and doctors appointments. Never miss a writing appointment you’ve made with yourself. When you need a break, read. The only way to become a better writer is to read great writing. Read mainstream fiction, and popcorn lit, because these have made it into the cultural consciousness, and it’s good to know what’s influencing the face of fiction. But read deeper. Read the classics. Troll the internet for books with a cult following. They’re always just about to be the next big thing.
  5. Remember that the worst thing you have written is better than the best thing you have not. You can spend your life doubting yourself and your ability, or you can in the immortal words of Nike “Just do it.” Godspeed.

Using story instead of pills to heal PTSD

PTSD and the DSM-V

The DSM-V (the 5th and current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was published in May 2013. It introduced many important changes to 2000's DSM-IV-TR, including a long-overdue categorical shift that finally removed PTSD (Post-Traumautic Stress Disorder) from the list of anxiety disorders.

For the first time, PTSD is being recognized as a trauma disorder, the direct consequence of exposure to an external traumatic event. Mental health activists hope that PTSD sufferers will in turn be subject to less stigmatization, as the shift finally liberates PTSD from the realm of inherent mental illness, and acknowledges its origins in an etiological event--the traumatic stressor.

Should PTSD be Renamed PTSS?

One more change that still needs (ethically) to be made is the renaming of PTSD to PTSS, replacing “disorder” with “syndrome.” Not only does “disorder” have a more negative connotation, but it fails to account for PTSD's spectrum of symptoms, any or all of which sufferers may experience--rendering the one-size-fits-all approach both futile and inaccurate.

The Psychology behind PTSD

In Jungian terms, PTSD affects the ego, or that part of the person we call the Self. The ego is the center of consciousness; it orients us in time and space; and the ego wants to survive as long as possible with as little pain as possible. When confronted with pain, the ego defends itself with the only weapons it has: projection, idealization, and denial. All three of these defense mechanisms have as their corollary suppression and repression. Because the psyche is a closed system, repressed energy necessarily leaks out in other forms: anxiety and depression, for example. 


No one "cure" has ever worked for every PTSD sufferer, but there are many suggestions for helping individuals learn to cope with high-level stress. The first is practicing empathic presence. Empathic presence occurs when the PTSD-afflicted individual meets with a qualified therapist who simply listens to the individual's story, over and over again … until such time as the story begins to lose its power. At that point, the story stops “owning” the individual.

There are many free or low-cost resources for people with PTSD (click here for a list of Austin’s veteran services, and here for a unique civilian service), but a kind friend with a good ear can also go a long way toward alleviating said suffering. To be an empathic presence for someone you know, practice being a “container” for story, where narratives may be received and treated as sacred. Friends and family members, even more so than therapists, are good about seeing the human being and not just his/her symptoms.

PTSD and Cider Spoon

When asked what war was like, a Vietnam veteran recently replied:
“War is 99% boring and 1% sheer terror.”

PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, but many non-veterans suffer from PTSD. Rape victims, abuse victims, and those who have lived through car accidents are just a few more examples of afflicted sub-groups. While there are more PTSD services than ever before, the paradigm of trauma remains the same. Our vets and others are dealing with the same problems as 40 years ago, and still not feeling heard.

At Cider Spoon, my job is to listen to your story. No judgment, and no “therapy” in the licensed sense … but helping you make sense of your life all the same, through healing narratives. 

Bastrop is burning, but life is good.

As I type, Bastrop, Texas is burning. Yesterday a wildfire claimed over 30 homes. Smoke curtains nearby Austin with a throat-searing haze. My nose keeps running and it hurts to swallow, but life is good.

Many of you will recognize the phrase “Life is good” from the iconic wearables line that really took off at the start of this century. Founder Bert Jacobs spoke to 7,000 women at the Texas Conference for Women on October 15, and he left us with a story about his mother: Dying of cancer, she did not have to run around “making up” for the love she wished she’d given, because she’d given it all her life. Instead she asked her sons to throw her a party—because life is good.

Candy Chang, urban designer and installation artist, reinforced the sentiment with an overview of her Before I Die walls. Stenciled in white paint on abandoned buildings in over 70 countries around the world is the inviting phrase “Before I die, I want to __________.” Hope-filled messages written in every language and chalk of every color overflow her new book that showcases the walls. Chang’s offering of a receptacle (even a shrine) for low-barrier, anonymous community input is her attempt to “make democracy more accessible” while encouraging “unbridled creativity.” “Embrace the honest mess and remember you’re not alone,” she said ... because ultimately, life is good.

Life is good, and it’s fast. Faster than ever before. “Who controls the speed and the incline of the treadmill?” asked Carson Tate of Working Simply. “You do.” We can speed up or slow down life by saying Yes to what best aligns with our highest priorities, and No to those asks we feel we “should” do regardless of personal benefit. When we don’t say No, Tate joked with a smile, we end up "shoulding" all over ourselves—and that’s not what Candy Chang meant by “honest mess” … that’s just a mess. Life is good when we reach the flow state and improve efficiency. When drafting your to-do list, batch ‘like’ tasks and build in time for thinking and reflecting.

And not just thinking and reflecting—but stimulating your reticular activating system. This is the part of the brain that gets a workout whether you’re actually experiencing a given scenario, or just picturing it in your mind. Visualizing success is like practicing being successful—and in this example anyway, practice really does make perfect. The Olympics committee keeps 10 psychologists on staff just to coach the athletes on their mental game. Picturing your prosperity can help actualize it—and life is good when everyone prospers. Focus on prosperity and abundance rather than scarcity and fear.

Bastrop is a frightening place right now, but it will overcome and you will, too. Life is good.

Swallow Your Pills! Seniors & The Pharmaceutical Future

I have a soft spot for older adults. They make up 50% of my clients: grandparents who want to write their life stories for the grandkids. I loved my own grandparents so much that I cherish the time I get to spend with other people's grandparents. Like those grandkids, I only want the best for our ever-growing, ever-aging population.

What does the best look like?

Yesterday I attended Aging 2.0's speed-pitch start-up contest, featuring 8 presenters pitching brand new boomer-oriented problem-solving technologies. We the audience got to vote on the pitches, taking into account such factors as ease of use, impact, and social/environmental responsibility. The products and services ranged from mental healthcare access to home healthcare and personal training; all of them had an app component.

The verdict:

While I certainly believe in capitalizing on the power of technology, especially as a tool of access for seniors, I wasn't convinced that anyone would want to log on daily or multiple times/day to scan healthcare provider profiles or record the number of sit-ups completed. Instead, I was most drawn to the one pitch that promised an immediate and easy solution to a real and pressing problem: that of making sure older adults take their medicines--the right ones--on time, every day.

The product:

As EllieGrid explains it, "EllieGrid is the smartest pill box in the world. We allow people to organize their medications & vitamins in seconds. (Yeah, seconds.)" A riff on the traditional pillbox, featuring large and organized cubicles, EllieGrid allows patients to dump a whole bottle of pills into a compartment rather than counting out the pills by days. EllieGrid can then be programmed such that each day, an alarm goes off reminding the patient to take his medicine. The compartments with the requisite pills for that time light up, and a digital display tells him how many pills to remove from each compartment.


Simple and brilliant. No more over-medication, under-medication, or forgetting whether or not Grandpa has taken his pills already! Now he's guaranteed to be feeling well and up to sharing his stories with Cider Spoon! Thanks, EllieGrid.

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 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.

Do you know HONY?

Humans of New York, or HONY as the popular epithet goes, began as a one-man project in downtown New York City. Photographer Brandon Stanton started snapping sensitive photos of average Big Apple denizens, and captioning them with soundbites from longer interviews about their lives, their hopes, and their regrets. As of July 2015, HONY has over 13 million likes on its Facebook page, 3.3 million Instagram followers, and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable efforts through platforms like Indiegogo.

I am one of those 13 millions Facebook fans who pause to consider every HONY photo that pops up on my newsfeed and read its alternately harrowing, hilarious, haunting, or heartwarming story. There’s nothing false or contrived or fictionalized about it; Brandon simply captures what is, and these briefly frozen moments in time remind us of and reunite us in our shared humanity. Since its 2010 inception, HONY has taken several side-jaunts to Austin, Boston, and most recently, made stops in Jordan, Israel, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ukraine, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Mexico as part of a “World Tour” sponsored by the United Nations. In the same way that HONY made New Yorkers feel like all our friends, suddenly people as far away as Israel where made more real, more humanized, by expressing dreams and doubts that so closely mirrored our own in the States. THAT is the power of story.

You don’t have to have kids to tell your story to for other people to find it interesting. YOUR story is already a bestseller because parts of it are our stories, too. To share your experiences is to guide our own fingers to our beating pulses, whereupon we may joyfully shout, “Yes, yes, we are alive!”

Are you 'obsessed' [enough] with your own story?

Now here's an interesting article about memoir-writing as a cultural practice. I'm more concerned with the American point-of-view than the Asian one, as the only direct experience I've had of Asia was a 2-week research trip to India in 2008; whereas I've been an American all my life. And really, aren't Americans the most fascinating creatures anyway? Or wait, is that the self-obsessed American in me talking?

According to the article Why Americans are Obsessed with Telling Their Stories + Asians Aren't, "Storytelling helps us shape our 'selves.'" And in the land of the free, that's what it's all about, right? Any individual can achieve anything she wants ... even if it means stepping on other people to get there. Because we are separate 'selves," we have to look out for number one. Darwin taught us that. Was Darwin American? He should've been. He will be when he's reincarnated.

And yet, the more self-obsessed we are, the greater the distance and the disconnect from others ... in turn, the lonelier we get. So then we tell our stories and listen to others' not as a way to stand out and be different, but as a way to reconnect and reaffirm our shared humanity.

We learned how useful this tool was when we were 3:

"Sharing personal stories is an essential ingredient in everyday conversations: We are eager to tell our stories and are fascinated by those of others. Even at preschool, 'sharing time' is a common Monday-morning activity ... "

Ah, yes. Preschool, where we in America learn everything we will ever need to know. Wash your hands, celebrate birthdays with cupcakes, build improbable wood block towers (i.e. dream big), and SHARE. YOUR. STORY.

I ask are you obsessed ENOUGH because I want you to know how important you are, Asian or American or Brobdingnagian. YOU have a story to tell that only you can, and I want to help you get it out as a fellow self-obsessed American. Because when I listen to it, I see all the ways that you and I are different ... and all the things we have in common. I share your joys and your triumphs and your heartaches and your losses and your dreams.

A spiritual leader once said, paraphrasing the Bhagavad Gita (interestingly Asian): "Your life is like a strand of pearls, each experience a new bead. When all is said and done, no one has ever had a necklace like that." To wear your necklace proudly (to read your memoir proudly) let's start building it, one bead at a time, today.