Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is the second part of my interview with Carla Odell, a magazine writer I met at the Philadelphia Writing Conference who is turning her talent from life writing for magazines to the entrepreneurial project of writing life stories for individuals. To read the first part of the interview, click here.

Jerry: So how do you transition your interviewing skill from a magazine article mentality, with its brief size and specific point, to a much larger book length work?

Carla: In addition to the one book I wrote from start to end, I also help writers organize their own life stories. During this process, I write or suggest stand-alone chapters that all come together…by magic. Really. After years editing, I know how to bring stories full circle, and I can do it in books too. For instance, the book I did two years ago started with a fire in their barn in the early ’80s. I brought it back there in the second to last chapter with the rebuilding of the barn, then ended with a moment from her recent past. And I mean, I listened. It took about three days. While the barn wasn’t the most compelling part of her story, it was sort of emblematic of other life stops and starts and even though there was no chronology I could weave a cohesive, progressive life story.

Jerry: When you dug in to find the story, your customer’s willingness to cooperate was paramount. Do your interviewees reveal enough material to make a good psychologically rich story?

Carla: Usually yes. When I was in magazine work, we found our subjects because they had already discussed their story somewhere…in a local paper, on the radio, etc. Doing personal history/memoir editing can be more challenging. There’s a need to confess, or purge, just to finally reveal it to someone. But there is also a fear.

A good example is a woman I interviewed who spoke about her father in very broad terms, about their family time when she was a girl, and his old age before he died. No matter how many times I brought him up, she always said the same thing: “I loved my father very much.”

Finally one day, while we were talking about something not even remotely related, she went into a little more detail. “I was never comfortable around my father’s friends.” I used the opening to see if I could go deeper. From some hints she had told me about her background, I asked, “Did you fear they were engaged in illegal activity?” She admitted this to me, and after that she was able to reveal more. But because the book was for her children, we had to suppress most of that material. I felt that even though we didn’t write about it, she was grateful to have the opportunity to talk about it for the first time in her life.

Jerry: Interesting. Another personal historian, Foster Winans, told me that people often reveal things to him they had never told another person. . .

A book length story requires a lot of craft. How did you manage to take their life experiences and turn them into a book length story?

Carla: Actually, that is exactly my mission: to fulfill my own and my customer’s expectations of good writing. However, keep in mind that we were producing personal histories, not memoirs. There is a difference.

Personal histories don’t follow the plot line of novels: no rising action, climax, denouement. A memoir is different because there’s a lesson/realization in this genre, so it will follow more of a storyline.

Jerry: This is an excellent explanation of the difference. When I first heard about Personal Historians, I thought they were writing ghost written memoirs. But unless they go incredibly deep into the introspection process that wouldn’t be possible.

Carla: Even though personal histories aren’t propelled by a dramatic arc the way a more literary memoir tries to achieve, I still do everything I can to craft a good story. For example, I ask my interviewees at the beginning of each challenge in their lives, exactly where they are heading at the end. That helps create the cycle of chapters each of which starts with a goal and ends with a conclusion.

Jerry: So when the process is finished, how does it work out? How do your subjects feel after you have completed the work?

Carla: Before I started writing my book length project, I sent her the chapter breakdowns for approval. She was amazed that I was able to categorize and organize EVERYTHING she’d told me.

When the book arrived, she had a big party. She ordered 20 copies first time around, then another 50! Besides her family and some close friends, I’m not sure who got one. Sadly, her husband passed a few months after we finished. After the service, at her home, she had the book out, opened to the chapter about their wedding. I was touched. There’s something about print. I know people who do legacy videos, which are nice. But there’s nothing like holding a book  – a book about your life – in your hands.

I saw the same reaction in people whose articles appeared in magazines. There is nothing like holding the article in your hands. Even though subjects always knew what I had written about them, I always, always heard from them when the magazine hit the stands. Their excitement was off the charts. Always! I loved that! Everyone deserves their 15 minutes of fame. But when it comes in printed form, it will last a lifetime.

That’s why I am so sad to see the death of so many magazines…

Jerry: Me too! I can’t believe you had such a fulfilling career in an industry that is no longer able to support you. Now you’re trying to figure out how to make the most of your love for writing.

Carla: I love life story writing. I want to do it for the rest of my life.

Jerry: I guess you’re trying to write your own tragedy to triumph life story. (laughing)

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

For a writing conference near you, click here: Shaw Guide to Writing Conferences

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Southeast Pennsylvania is a great place for writers. One reason for our collective interest in word craft is because we are in the extended ecosystem of New York City, the publishing capitol of the world. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, I meet a surprising number of writers from New York City who have been downsized from the dwindling industry and are hoping to find a niche in the more loosely structured writing life of the twenty-first century.

The Philadelphia Writers Conference, held the second weekend of every June, is a natural place for such writers to network. That’s where I met Carla Odell, a former magazine editor. She is trying to reinvent herself as a personal historian, that is, someone who charges money to interview people and turn their lives into stories.

Because of my intense interest in memoirs, I’ve always been curious about personal histories, but I’ve never quite grasped how that would work. To me, memoir writing is an extraordinarily introspective process, involving years of delving into memory to reorganize and shape experience in a way that would make sense to a reader. How does a personal historian incorporate the introspective insights necessary for the interior shading and detail that I have come to expect from a good memoir?

My meeting with Carla at the Philadelphia Writers Conference turned out to be a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the writing industry she is coming from, and the more entrepreneurial version of writing toward which she is attempting to move.

Jerry: Tell me more about your attempt to start a business to write people’s personal histories. How did you get interested in doing that?

Carla: I worked as an editor in the women’s market for almost 30 years. The majority of my work was telling tragedy-to-triumph-type tales.

Jerry: I love that you were being paid to find and shape tragedy-to-triumph stories. What a wonderful training for a memoir writer. What was that like? How did you tease out the information from an interview and shape it into a story?

Carla: I had terrific training as a reporter/editor. Because I was always on a deadline, I didn’t have time for extraneous stuff, and that helped condition me to get to the meat quicker. I did some celebrity reporting too, and you have to get in and out. Celebs are funny: You are their very best friend…for a half hour. I’m exaggerating; sometimes I had longer. But you have to be intentional. You can’t go in and say, “So, tell me about your childhood.” You can’t do that with a personal history either. That’s why “research” is important here too: spending time with their mementos, photos. Also, no matter how long a piece is going to be, while I’m researching or interviewing, I’m already writing it in my head. I jot down notes so I don’t lose my thoughts. I can’t say much more on how I do it, other than what I sent previously. It just happens. I have a good sense for symmetry.

Jerry: Most of the work of writing a memoir is about the introspective aspect of figuring out how all those events fit into the emotional dynamics of a person’s life. How did you capture this “vicarious introspection” – what did it feel like to search through another person’s memory and look for structure?

Carla: Yes, you really need to get into first person view point. For short pieces, I usually do this over the phone, just typing notes when something jumps out at me. These notes provide good compass points for when I go back and listen/transcribe. I also type notes to myself with ideas of where to start and place a turning point. Saves a lot of time especially with deadlines.

As for their voice, I do a pretty good job getting to the language nuances. I think it’s the unrealized actress in me. With magazine work, though, we often knew what the moment or turning point was before we even decided to write the article.

Jerry: Ooh. That’s really interesting. When someone sits down to write their own memoir, they often have to tease the turning points out and then see the way the story will work. For an article, you already know the main newsworthy aspect of the story before you begin. Could you give me an example of such a pre-assigned turning point for an article?

Carla: There were so many…. A mom who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and turned to politics so she could affect policy; a victim of domestic violence who, after that final episode, left and became an attorney specializing in prosecuting DV cases. This was part of a larger in-depth special issue on what was, at the time, the new Battered Women Defense in courtrooms coast to coast. Oh, I did an article on an American nurse in Somalia. It started as just a general overview of what her days were like, and it led to a series on women doing humanitarian work and the moment they knew their “old lives” were over and they were on their way to something more important.

Jerry: A big part of your work was interviewing. That’s a very cool skill in itself. What insights can you offer about how you interview?

Carla: I talk as little as possible. I ask no qualifying questions (but I take notes to go back) because a subject will often “go” somewhere unexpected if there’s nothing to remind her/him of the question at hand.

Of course, if the subject goes on in what seems to be a nonsensical tangent, I will bring the subject back. There’s an old reporter’s trick where you repeat the last part of the last thing they say, questioningly. For instance, if the subject says, “I got this ring for my 25th anniversary.” “Your twenty-fifth anniversary?” “Yes, it was a very special event at the Waldorf. Every one I loved was there. It was such a surprise.” “A surprise?” “Yes, my family went to great lengths…” So if a subject is going on and on, I will do that, and he or she will realize it might be time to get back to the story. Also, watching expressions gives you the tone.

Here’s an example: I did a short piece for a woman who was born in Germany right after the war. As a young adult, she lived in West Berlin but had a friend in the East, and traveled to see her regularly. She was very animated, telling the story of a particular night she was detained on her way home. While it was a frightening episode, I decided, after watching her, to make that part of her story…funny. And she loved it!

However, I don’t only rely on talking. We sat down with her photo albums and documents and I listened as she uncovered each item of memorabilia.

I’ve used recipes as chapters, maps with notations. With one woman we used excerpts of her annual holiday letters to friends as chapter heads. (She wanted to do it chronologically, so we made it fun.)

It’s strange to be sitting among other people’s stuff and listening to a lifetime in the course of what turns out to be about three workdays.

To read part 2 of this interview, click here.

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

For a writing conference near you, click here: Shaw Guide to Writing Conferences

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.