Lessons from My Swedish Grandfather Pt. 2: Three Interview Must-Dos When Writing Someone Else’s Story

Guest post by Sofia Kohl Enggren.

Sofia, Cider Spoon’s Fall 2019 Intern

Sofia, Cider Spoon’s Fall 2019 Intern

In July 2019, my family flew to Pennsylvania to interview my aging Swedish grandfather about his life. There in his living room, we practiced the Swedish tradition of drinking Akvavit. He said, “For Swedes, you have to pour something into them to get something out of them.” 

What we got out of him astounded us: stories we’d never heard; pain we’d never addressed; dance moves we’d never seen. In the process, he taught me how to trust in life’s timing, listen more deeply, and remember that endings always mark new beginnings.

LITA TID | Trust in the Timing

We all know that life is just as long as it is short. We are, usually, somewhere in between impatience and reluctance. We can wait too long to tell a story, we can tell a story too soon, or we can tell a story at the right time. It is good to hold the intention of being on time. 

When the time comes for a story to be told, you will know. You will get a little urge in your belly that will seem like hunger, and the hunger will be named “the beginning.” The moment we respond to this impulse, the writing begins. From there, let it be like a baby that grows in the womb, developing little bits of itself at a time. You are its guardian. Try not to rush it, try not to resist it. Remember: the beginning comes at the beginning, the middle in the middle, and the end at the end. Let it be an exciting journey that surprises you at every turn. 

I emphasize this because I am aware that we are an “answer-oriented culture”—we often want quick resolutions and certainty. Before we have an experience, we want to know how it will go, what it will bring, and how it will end. But a good story requires a different kind of attention. It asks for us to invest our trust in it. It requests that we focus on finding the right questions rather than on getting the right answers. Be patient. Be present. Be courageous.

BERÄTTELSEN VET BÄST, LYSSNA | Listen: The Story Tells Itself

Stories are not something we create through force, but rather, that create themselves with our allowance. To do this, it is imperative that we listen—and that we listen well. We should listen into the cracks; listen beyond the words. 

Celeste Headlee, in her Ted Talk “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” brings up the observation that most of us don’t listen in order to listen—we listen in order to respond. Often, we already have an opinion that we want to prove, and we listen to gain evidence for our thesis. This is particularly true in our families, when we have lived and been affected by someone else’s story. It is tempting to think that just because a person’s actions affected us in a certain way, this means the person is a certain way. 

But stop and think about this for a minute. How often have you, yourself, been misunderstood? Have you ever been so upset by being misunderstood that you stopped trying to clarify the truth, and let yourself go on and on being misunderstood? Have you ever behaved in a way that even you, yourself, didn’t understand or approve of? The truth is, very few people are actually evil; most are just misunderstood. We all experience the world differently, and we even experience the world differently, ourselves, depending on the time in our lives. We know significantly less about the truth than we like to pretend we do.

NÄR VI SLUTAR, BÖRJAR VI | Remember the Ending Is Always a Beginning

As I was writing this, I asked my father, aunt, and sister to give me a few keywords to sum up the experience they had with my grandfather in Pennsylvania. Their answers, in no particular order, were: “Love. Regret. Trauma. Healing. Nostalgia. Stories. Endings. Grey Gardens.” 

For many families, there may be a long way to go in fully finding healing and reconnection. I am not suggesting the bypass of emotions like anger, grief, and regret. They are all part of it. But, please know, it is never too late for forgiveness, and certainly never too late for love. 

My aunt added to her words: “All stories have an ending.” To this I would like to add a quote from one of my favorite book-adapted movies, Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton: “The ending is always a surprise.” Often, the biggest surprise is the new worldview that’s left in its wake. A story has the power to change everything—so please, tell yours.

Lessons from My Swedish Grandfather Pt. 1: Dementia and Memoir-Writing

Sofia, Cider Spoon’s Fall 2019 Intern

Sofia, Cider Spoon’s Fall 2019 Intern

Guest post by Sofia Kohl Enggren.

“Far Far” means grandfather in Swedish. In English, the word “Far” indicates distance, and to describe my paternal grandfather, Hans Enggren, this word is appropriate in both languages. 

For some time now, we have known that Far Far is not doing well—he is self-proclaimed to be in his final days. One day this past June, I called my Far Far and asked him if he was open to us visiting. I wanted to ask him questions about his life: a life I knew next to nothing about. He was confused about who I was and how we were related. Hans has relatively advanced dementia—and while yes, he said, he would do his best to tell me about himself, he was unsure whether he would succeed in remembering. “After all,” he said, “I am turning one hundred.” (For the record, he was turning ninety, but there was no doubt in my mind that he felt one hundred.)

The possibility of helping Hans write his memoirs did not vanish, but it took a turn toward a different meaning. What does it mean to get to know someone for the first time when they no longer know themselves? Can forgetting be a process of remembering? And how— after so much hurt—can the process of inquiry into someone else’s truth open us to the transformative power of acceptance and forgiveness?

The Page of Our Psyche

Writing “memoir,” we often think, is about telling the truth. It is about remembering the details and telling our stories—it is about proper and complete documentation—it is about names, dates, occupations, and milestones. But, what about cases when this kind of memory is not possible? 

In the realm of my Far Far, I had to consider that the remembering might come through the forgetting. For example, sometimes we carry identities through our lives that block us from knowing our truths. These identities can be tied to stories, regrets, lost joys—they are tied to memory, basically, and how we have assigned meaning around our memories. But, if we can shift the stories, we might be able to shift the meaning, too. 

The line between fact and fiction is much thinner than we might assume. Throughout my end of life work I have encountered memory-challenged states that have created a crack, in which the person’s spirit or original essence is able to shine through. Ultimately, we have only one page—and that is the page of our psyche. Occasionally, in order to write a new story, an old repetitive story has to fall away.

Returning to Beginner’s Mind

If we are to learn something we didn’t know before, we have to allow ourselves to be surprised. One tip for doing this is to use “beginner’s mind,” as it is called in Zen Buddhism. Beginner’s mind is akin to entering the mind of a child—or an adult with dementia—as if seeing events and people for the first time. Doing this will help us to see things we didn’t notice before—and the doors will open up to new possibility. 

Jack Kornfield shares a bit about beginner’s mind here. He also quotes poet Rainer Maria Rilke who says,

For there are moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.

When talking about the art of story, what are we talking about if not a process of transformation that allows something new to enter our lives? When we drop our preconceptions and learn to listen, it is a service to ourselves as well as the person we are listening to. The more understanding we can allow, the more human the person becomes. And the more human another becomes, the more human we all become. 

Elder-Hood Is a Ripe Peach

I love how author Nikki Gerrard, in her article in The Guardian, describes her experience with her father as his dementia advanced: 

The edges of the self are soft; the boundaries of the self are thin and porous. In that moment, I could believe that my father and the world were one; it was pouring into him, and he was emptying out into it. His self—bashed about by the years, picked apart by his dementia—was, in this moment of kindness, beyond language, consciousness and fear, lost and contained in the multiplicity of things and at home in the vast wonder of life. 
The Enggren family, with Hans.

The Enggren family, with Hans.

Elder-hood, to me, feels ripe like a peach. There is a smell of the skin, a feeling of softness in the eyes. I have heard it (negatively) called “old person smell”—but I myself have come to love this smell. It is as if the skin is soft enough to let the scent through, and the scent tells you so much about what is inside a person. The boundaries thin; people often become visible, and palpable, for the first time. When I said goodbye to my Far Far, I hugged him and kissed his forehead. I could feel him, his sweetness, his humanness, his human desire to love and be loved, seeping through him. My father and sister felt it too, and as we drove away, my father cried for his father. This in itself is the beginning of a new story.

When TV Turns Political: The Power of Story in OITNB

I just finished season seven of Orange Is the New Black. Having followed it from its inception on Netflix, I have a lot of feelings about this show. Primary among them is awe.

OITNB is a Fictionalized Version of the News

Between 2013 and 2019, this series variously explored the all-too-real effects of corruption, funding cuts, privatization, overcrowding, guard brutality, and racial discrimination on prisoners’ and correctional officers’ health and safety in a maximum security prison. Few shows have made me feel as sympathetic toward, helpless over (but the good kind, that moves you to learn more), or inspired to care about the American criminal justice system in general, and women in prison in particular.

Orange Is the New Black  sheds light on the American criminal justice system.

Orange Is the New Black sheds light on the American criminal justice system.

In season four, it was the senseless death of beloved inmate Poussey. In season five, the power and unpredictability of pissed-off women ready to riot. The seventh and final season sees more lives lost, this time to the dual threats of an underground drug pipeline and an unofficial human pipeline (i.e., the lines of bodies led by coyotes moving through the Mexican desert). It might have been this last—the introduction of a storyline about an illegal immigrant detention center—that hit me hardest of all. 

We are living in the era of peak TV, when streaming services have made television production cheap, quick, and lucrative, and amazing writers are in demand. At the same time, companies and writers alike are increasingly turning to the media and the current events of our everyday lives for source material, resulting in hard-hitting “fictionalized” commentary on the world as it is right now. We cry when, in episode 13, Carla breaks her ankle and gets left behind, because we know what it means. She isn’t going to see her kids again. She won’t even make it out of the desert. We know this because we’re hearing and reading about real-life versions of these stories in the news.

OITNB Acknowledges and Contradicts How the World Sees America

OITNB isn’t the only show to do this—to dramatize, and occasionally even satirize, American life and shove it back in our faces. The Handmaid’s Tale is doing it, too. Real-world politicians who want to outlaw abortion even in the cases of rape and incest? Of course there’s an immediate and abiding backlash. We’ve been watching the same play out on Hulu, and we know such lines of thinking lead only to the deepest, darkest level of hell; a.k.a. Gilead.

Women march in 2018 to demand basic human rights.

Women march in 2018 to demand basic human rights.

Where my “awe” enters is in these shows’ deft handling of politics, and the skating of that razor-thin line between rebuke and outright open-faced condemnation, between a call to action and a treasonous turn against our own country. Never once, while wading beside June through the pit of despair called Jezebel’s, have I felt ashamed to be an American. But I have felt ashamed of America—of the people we elect to represent us; of the messages of hate, fear, and control we keep sending to the wider world like an SOS.

Stories such as those in OITNB and The Handmaid’s Tale help to contradict those messages by 1) acknowledging that they exist; and 2) offering a different perspective—the human perspective. When Maritza, an OITNB character whom fans have known and loved for years, gets deported to Colombia in episode 5, by the time her image finishes fading on the plane we’re already crying. She’s not a “ bad hombre” or a nameless face in the sea of asylum-seeking rapists “invading” America’s southern border. She’d lived here for 20-some years and knew no one in Colombia. We mourn with and for her.

OITNB Paves the Way for Your Story

What this TV trend means for you is that as we step away from entertainment for the sake of escapism, and embrace shows and stories that teach us more about the world we live in, space is opening up for you, too. What OITNB did for gay rights, mental health, prison reform, drug abuse, and poverty cycles, The Handmaid’s Tale did for motherhood, reproductive rights, child brides, corporal punishment, and international war crimes—and that’s just the beginning.

Your experiences—the things that are weighing on you right this very moment, the battles you’re currently fighting—are valid, because someone else is fighting that good fight, too. Like you, they need to know they’re not alone. They need to see their story reflected in yours, so they can feel the same kind of “awe” that I do—and the rest of us can be made to feel sympathetic toward, helpless over (but the good kind, that moves you to learn more), or inspired to care about your issues. Because there are so. damn. many. (issues worth caring about, that is).

So get out your notebook (or hire a ghostwriter) and start putting your story on paper. Our TV has turned political, and stories have never been more powerful.

What Boomers Writing Their Memoirs Can Learn from Millennials

Millennials are Comfortable in the Spotlight

At 32, I’m a millennial—part of that much-scorned generation of selfish, entitled, participation-trophy-toting crybabies. If you ask me, of course, we have plenty to cry about:

  • Crushing student loan debt.

  • High unemployment and historically low pay.

  • More stress and depression than any generation before.

  • Being priced out of the housing market.

  • A racist and misogynist president.

  • A dying planet.


What we do have going for us is likewise significant. We’re also:

  • The best-educated generation.

  • Incredibly tech-savvy.

  • Closer to equal pay and gender equality than any generation before.

  • Comfortable with being in the spotlight.

That’s right—since most millennials came of age on the internet, and the vast majority of us have social media accounts, we know what it’s like to put it all out there—and be seen.

After all, we’ve always known Big Brother was watching. He’s just been more obvious of late.

Millennials Demand Great Stories

Captains of our ships, men, women, and non-binary individuals alike between the ages of 22 and 37 are okay with—and may even demand that we’re—living a great story. And we’re okay with earning recognition for it. 

That is: We live big lives, take great risks, and love hard. And then we tell the world about it.

After all, practically any achievement by a millennial in this political and economic climate deserves much more than a participation trophy.

Millennials Live for the Now—and Know Their Worth

In a lot of ways, I and my friends are screwed. We can’t afford kids. We don’t know when (or if) we’ll retire. We don’t expect Social Security. With rising healthcare costs, who knows if Medicare will stick around, either? 

For that matter, who knows if the planet will?

And yet, because we can’t live for the future, we live for the now. More than any generation before us, we celebrate everyday moments big and small—by posting them to Instagram. We Tweet random thoughts over bowls of Cheerios and engage the serious debates that follow. We lift each other up and we never discount our own worth.

Especially the value of our voices.

After all, that’s the only vehicle for social change that my generation seems to have embraced.

Millennials Take Credit Where It’s Due

I cannot say the same for the older adults I work with, who need so much coaxing, so much safe-space-building, to believe that I—or anyone—wants to hear their stories.

Generally, clients 70+ don’t want to write a memoir about themselves, but so many friends and family members have badgered them about it that they’ve finally agreed. Only, once we’ve sat down together over cups of coffee, they downplay their lives. Couch stories about trailblazing careers and raising large families in vague language and a “Well, that’s just what we did”-mentality, refusing to take credit where it’s due.

Boomer Writing Memoir.jpg

Oh, boomers and the silent generation. We want to hear your stories. We want to learn from you. We want to honor you! Let the selfish, entitled, “me” generation teach you what it’s like to focus on yourself … because you never have before.

To my fellow millennials: I can’t wait to read your memoirs. When you’re 70+, you will have under your belts a lifetime of practice at sharing your story. I know they will be spectacular.

After all, you’ve already shown me that they are.

For the Love of Reading: Why Stories Are Worth Hearing [GUEST POST]

A guest post by Annesly Young.

“I Hate Reading.”

Annesly Young, Cider Spoon’s 2019 Summer Intern

Annesly Young, Cider Spoon’s 2019 Summer Intern

When I was in high school, this statement marked you as one of the cool kids who was too busy partying with their friends, being captain of the varsity sports team, or becoming the next Steve Jobs to stick their nose in a book. Only the antisocial, directionless introverts spent their spare time curled up with a Jane Austen or Stephen King novel.

But reading is more than just a hobby for the sweater-wearing, coffee-drinking types. It’s not confined to pages in a book; audiobooks, e-books, podcasts, music, and TV shows are all forms of reading. We can read a room and even a person. Reading, at its core, is simply listening and internalizing. It’s the art of recognizing a story and submitting yourself to it.

Reading is more than just a hobby for the sweater-wearing, coffee-drinking types.

An Escape … and a Responsibility

Stories have plot, which makes life interesting. Our brains are literally created with an ingrained sense for stories. That’s why it’s so easy to get sucked into a good TV show or book—they give us a more immediate fix for the stories we all crave.

But there’s more to stories than a pleasurable escape. With every story comes a responsibility: to process and understand it as it is told, not how you relate to it. Of course, applying a story to your own life isn’t a bad thing—it can actually be very helpful. But we all know that person who turns the conversation back on themselves, responding to your story with an “I feel like,” or “That reminds me of when I,” and we walk away not really feeling heard or understood. Bad listening and bad reading aren’t all that different.

Reading books changes lives.jpg

Beyond the Bookstore

The concept of reading well has even poured over into the medical field. Institutions like the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University have begun programs in Integrative and Narrative Medicine, where healthcare professionals are being trained in the art of listening to patient stories and human connection. Dr. Rita Charon, founder of Columbia’s program, has this to say on the topic:

So right from the beginning, mainstream medical models are centered around a disease — either diagnosing it, or treating it, or preventing it. Right? ... So it is a radical turn to say, 'Even if I know a whole lot about cardiology or even if I’m a gynecologist and know a whole lot about reproductive health, let’s start our work by simply listening to what the patient brings into the office.'  

Attentive listening and empathy are skills that are becoming increasingly valued in medicine, as medical experts are finding that human connection can actually promote physical healing.

What Does This Mean for Reading?

It means that stories actually have the power to heal us. They have a built-in relationship—the teller and the listener—that humans are literally wired for. We crave community and to be known by others. Reading is an avenue to enter into someone else’s experiences, to live another’s life, and become humbly aware that there is a world outside of our own.

“Me Too!”

These two words are some of the most intimate in our human language. Sharing our stories opens a door for others who may have similar experiences and can free us from loneliness. We are able to lift the burden of isolation from each other when we discover how much we have in common, and then build one another up in a community of love and support.

The #MeToo movement powerfully embodies the result of storytelling and shared experiences, creating a space for women to come forth with their stories that inspired thousands more to follow. Not only did this movement call for social change and justice, but it created a huddle of women with similar experiences who would have otherwise remained alone in their pain. There are very real fears surrounding personal stories, but to be read by someone desiring to understand and connect is, well, the basis of love.

The Stories We Tell Each Other

We all have stories we tell ourselves. But when we tell those same stories to others, we may find that healing comes on the other side of vulnerability. Taking our stories out of our heads and holding them out to others may bring in different perspectives, like different angles of light reflecting to catch new meanings and views that we couldn’t have seen on our own.

One semester, my professor had our class partner up and share an emotionally painful story with our partner, who then had to practice empathetic listening and retell the story back to us. I ended up with my professor, which was a little funny to me, but I quickly sobered as she told me the story of when she’d wrecked her bike and broken her leg as a teenager. It was evident that for her, this accident was something she was deeply ashamed of because her parents hadn’t been able to afford a hospital visit.

When I retold her story, I said, “I don’t understand why you seem to feel so guilty. You were only a kid, and mistakes happen.”

To my surprise, she said, “Really? But it was completely my fault, wasn’t it?” After 50 years, my professor was still holding onto the idea that she was to blame for her accident and the consequences. She’d placed an unnecessary burden on herself because of her family’s financial situation. Afterwards, she actually thanked me. “I just always assumed I was to blame. I never even considered giving myself grace.”

When we’re wrapped up in the emotions and consequences of an event, we can’t always see the truth. Good listeners, and readers, pull us out of our mess and provide clearings for healing and new insights. As readers, our voices matter. We may just have the right angle to help someone see a different version of their story.

A Role of Service

Reading can be an escape, but it can also be a descent into another’s pain. From books, to medicine, to movements, to mere conversation, the deep empathy forged through storytelling can build a community of support and love as we seek to truly know one another. We serve one another when we read. We carry each other’s struggles and victories. We internalize a story and allow it to add to the way we relate to the world. To read is to partake in the story of another soul; what pursuit could possibly be more humbling?

4 Twitter Hacks for Writers

Last night, I took a class called Making Twitter a Writer’s Best Friend with Richard Santos of the Writers’ League of Texas. It was fun and informational, and in case you’re a #badMillennial like myself who also doesn’t really know how to tweet effectively, here are the most helpful takeaways (for me) from the evening!

Follow agents and editors.

Agents and editors have always been the publishing industry gatekeepers, and until now, they’ve appeared perennially locked away in downtown Manhattan offices utterly impervious to the likes of little old me. Thanks to social media, however, these people (and yes, they really are just people!) are more accessible than ever before. They have public handles, and unless their accounts are locked, anyone can follow them to see what they have to say. Their daily postings might include a random assortment of writing advice, query letter tips, cat videos, and political jousts—and if you’re extra lucky, a little hashtag written as #MSWL.

Use hashtags the right way.

To be honest, I thought “using hashtags” meant just putting the pound sign in front of random words to make them turn blue. I knew you could search hashtags and find other people using those words, but I didn’t realize there was such an art to it. Two hashtags to search for and start following (and also using yourself, when appropriate) are #MSWL and #submishmash. MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List. If an agent uses this hashtag, it means s/he is hoping that a book manuscript meeting a particular description (which they will then spell out) lands on their desk. Do you have a book like that? Then reply and let them know (in 280 characters or less) and follow up via the proper channels (whatever the submission guidelines on their website dictate). Use #submishmash to find journals currently accepting submissions via Submittable.

These Twitter hacks for writers make managing your social media platforms a breeze.

These Twitter hacks for writers make managing your social media platforms a breeze.

Participate in pitch contests.

A pitch contest is when writerly hopefuls ‘pitch’ their manuscript idea to an agent over Twitter on a specified day or days of the year. Go to this pitch contest calendar to find out when the contests are held every year, and how to participate. (Hint: it’s generally via a hashtag.) Hone and re-hone your pitch until you have something concrete, specific, and 280 characters or less. Finally, tweet your entry into the contest and see what happens!

Contribute more than you take.

If you’ve already published a book, don’t use Twitter strictly as another platform for promotion. The truth is, no one cares about your book unless you also have something more interesting to say! So, be honest, be genuine, be you—and occasionally plug your baby. Also plug other writers’ works, comment on trends in the industry, and be vulnerable or witty or sarcastic (if that’s your tone) about #thatwritinglife. 

Good luck!

Pixel-F*cking: Or The Fight to Stay Relevant

As a writer, I’m forever interested in the origins and multi-layered definitions of words—especially words I haven’t heard of before. “Pixel-fucking” is a term I just learned from a graphic designer friend. Apparently, it describes the way that clients will nitpick a drawing to an absurd degree, requesting that the designer move an element by half an inch, for example, or lighten a color by a single shade: considerations that don’t actually impact the overall effectiveness of a layout, but are nevertheless annoying and even offensive, as it means the client has zero respect for the designer’s time and creative ability. They can’t see the wood for the trees, as it were.

Ghostwriters don’t call this phenomenon pixel-fucking (we don’t generally work in pixels), but the same thing happens in our industry. It tends to present in the form of word choice or syntax—like when a client takes a beautifully constructed sentence that borders on poetry, and mangles it with the insertion of a different word or a run-on phrase that makes the sentence read awkwardly, and nothing at all like the sentences couching it. It’d be like someone dribbling black paint over Bob Ross’s happy little trees on live TV (were Bob Ross still around to grace us with his talent). Sure, the rest of the painting is still beautiful and skillfully rendered, but it’s really hard to appreciate that majestic mountain backdrop with such a glaring error in the middle of the otherwise peaceful stream.

I mean, whatever kind of work we’re talking, you hired a professional for a reason, right? Because you knew you couldn’t do it yourself, or at least not as well as the person you trusted to do it better than you. So let them do their job. Let us do our jobs.

There are so many reasons that pixel-fucking (and its extended family of black sheep cousins) rears its ugly head. Most of them are rooted in control—or a lack thereof. When money is involved, it does funny things to people. Clients think that they’re entitled to services beyond the scope of the clear and explicit contract they previously and in full consciousness signed. They’re unable to acknowledge the creative miracle that has occurred in just a few weeks’ time (that is, the birth of the very thing they said they wanted), when, without the creative professional, it wouldn’t exist at all.

“Pixel-fucking” and its related black sheep cousins are a kind of creative abuse that you should never inflict on your freelancer.

“Pixel-fucking” and its related black sheep cousins are a kind of creative abuse that you should never inflict on your freelancer.

And yes, I know it’s scary. You put your life story on paper, and suddenly it’s out there for the world to read. For the world to judge. But that’s what you wanted, because in an overpopulated world of flash consumerism, you’re fighting to stay relevant. To convince yourself that you matter—that your life has mattered—to anyone other than you.

Ghostwriters (and all other professional creatives) get that … because we want it, too.

Think of it this way. Each of us born with a certain set of gifts, no? Talents and skills, hidden or honed over years of conservatory training. You want a lasting testament to those gifts, for the benefit of everyone who comes after you. (In case you’re doubting, your readers DEFINITELY benefit. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from my war veteran clients about family and my housewife clients about sacrifice. Maybe you’re thinking those two should be switched. Nope. That’s one thing I’ve learned.) Anyway, we professionals have gifts, too—and we’ve chosen to exploit them for financial gain; i.e., “to make a living.” Our legacy is the work we do for you: the product mockups and the fashion designs and the webpage bones and the headshots and the books. It’s how we stay relevant: by making sure that you do.

So, won’t you help us help you? If you’ve hired a freelancer lately, and didn’t tip them upon completion of service, remember it’s never too late. If you’re looking to hire, for the love of pizza don’t quibble over pricing. No one is out to ‘scam’ you: we simply have skills we’ve spent lifetimes developing and we know what they’re worth. You want a high-quality product that makes you stand out—makes you unforgettable—captures you the way you’ve always wanted to be seen. We can do exactly that, provided you leave the black paint at home.

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!

Mental Health, Romantic Relationships, Stigma, and Storytelling

Dr. Allison Sallee, founder of C2 Change: an Austin nonprofit offering free or-low cost mental healthcare services.

Dr. Allison Sallee, founder of C2 Change: an Austin nonprofit offering free or-low cost mental healthcare services.

Dually inspired by NAMI’s recent article on mental illness and relationships, and Cider Spoon’s own forthcoming book on romantic relationships of all stripes (both healthy and not-so-hot), this month’s blog entry is dedicated to overcoming the stigma of mental illness in romantic relationships, and exploring the role that storytelling can play.

Here, I’ve interviewed Dr. Allison Sallee of C2 Change to help us understand this nuanced issue. Dr. Sallee is a featured contributor to Of Tiny Threads (Forty Acres Press, June 2018). Proceeds from book sales benefit C2 Change’s Twogether in Texas curriculum.


What are two of the most common mental health issues prompting couples to seek out therapy today?

Couples most commonly come in requesting help with communication. Poor communication or miscommunication can lead to feelings of disconnection, further contributing to communication concerns.

Secondly, couples often come in regarding their children. They have questions about how best to parent; how to manage the grandparents and/or other extended family members who may be involved; and blended family issues.

How do people in romantic relationships say they have experienced stigma (in regard to their mental health) from their significant other?

Sometimes, one partner may view seeking help as “weak”—or may be scared that seeking help means that the relationship is doomed or in more serious trouble than they want to acknowledge. This fear can often shut down the one partner’s attempt to resolve issues. 

Significant others may also stigmatize their partner’s issues: criticizing them for a reaction to grief, for instance, or for being diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder.

How does storytelling, or sharing their stories, help partners cope with and/or better understand mental health issues?

Sharing stories is an essential human activity. It is one way we connect with others on both small and big levels. When partners share their stories, it can develop and foster empathy. In addition, it helps the other partner to stop making assumptions about the first partner’s behavior.


For twelve real-life stories from married couples (and one thruple!) in America—as well as more illuminating insights from C2 Change therapists Dr. Allison Sallee and Brendan Owens—order your copy of Of Tiny Threads today.

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?


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!


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.


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!


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


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.

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.

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.

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.