Madison Magazine Memoir Contest deadline extended to 10/31

Published on September 27, 2012, by in Contest.

Not every great story makes it into the news–and that’s why we need to tell our own life stories. One lucky winner will win the chance to work on a memoir with me as a writing partner.

The final deadline for the Madison Magazine Memoir Contest  has been extended to October 31, 2012. We’ve already gotten some great entries–we just want a little more time to get the word out in surrounding communities.

Go here for details and entry instructions.

-Sarah White


Win the Story of Your Life—Published!

Published on August 20, 2012, by in Contest.

Madison Magazine and I  have teamed up to offer one lucky reader the chance to see your life story become a book. All you have to do to enter is write a 500-word autobiographical sketch about a special memory from your life. You could write a scene from your childhood, or describe a memorable event from later in your life concerning jobs, family, personal interests or travels.

The competition is open to people who live or work in Madison, or who grew up in or around the city. Open now for submissions, the final deadline is October 15, 2012.

Go here for details.

The winner will turn something like this…

…into something like this.


If you’re in the Madison area, sharpen your pencil and start on that 500-word sketch. It could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship!

-Sarah White

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Birthing a Book

Published on August 8, 2012, by in Commentary.

On May 28 I got an email from my old friend Seth Kahan. He was in trouble.

His manuscript for his second book had been rejected by his publisher. There was a considerable advance at stake if he couldn’t produce a better book. The publisher gave him until July 31.

His first book had been a bestseller. He wasn’t sure why he was struggling so much to get his second book out of his mind and onto pages, but he knew it was bad. Could I help?

I thought so. I’ve helped others write books. I helped Seth find an agent and his first publisher. I was happy to give my input on a few chapters, see if I could identify where the problem lay.

I saw it quickly enough.

Seth’s book contained great insights, but lacked structure. It needed that subtle S-curve through telling and showing that makes readers feel like they are riding shotgun with a confident driver. It had little of the connective tissue we’ve come to expect from books that teach—the “now let us consider” and “as should now be clear” phrases that signal the transition from one key learning to the next.

I got to work on Seth’s chapters—not re-writing, but simply commenting, reporting my reactions as a reader—“I find this confusing”—“what’s your point”—and indicating where a key learning was not supported with an example, or an example was not explicit about its point.

We worked fast, with a fine sense of flow. But the deadline approached even faster. “I need to come out and work with you,” Seth said. “I can’t get the concentration I need to finish this.” I suggested Holy Wisdom Monastery. He booked a hermitage.

I picked him up at the airport on a Saturday. The book was due Tuesday night.

Holy Wisdom offers a serene, inspiring setting for retreats of all kinds. We quickly found our rhythm. Each day, Seth worked solo in the morning after a run through the monastery’s prairies. I came out late in the morning. Over a simple lunch we’d hold a “production meeting,” assessing what needed doing next.

Side by side, we’d work—one writing, one reviewing, stopping to talk when we hit a sticky point. Chapter order got switched around. Confusing passages got laid out on the table for examination, torn apart and reassembled in working form. Cherries were in season and we popped them like pep pills all afternoon. As suppertime neared, we’d hold another production meeting, then drive into Madison for a meal and a little sight-seeing. Afterward, back to the hermitage for Seth, writing late into the evening. The next day we’d do it all again, shifting from the hermitage to an office in the guest house when we needed WiFi or a change of scene.

It worked. When I put Seth back on the plane Tuesday afternoon, he had a 60,000-word manuscript on his laptop, complete except for a little formatting.  At 9:07 Tuesday evening he emailed his revised book to his publisher.

The author, delivered of his brainchild, is now resting comfortably. Both the author and the midwife are waiting to hear what the publisher thinks*. We’re confident that it is worthy.

When you want to do your best work, two things are required: a leaving-behind and a coming-to. Seth and I achieved that. Thank you, Holy Wisdom.



* This is what we heard:

“It was in very good shape and the author’s voice amazingly clear, consistent, and compelling.” – Editor, Jossey Bass


Does competition motivate you?

Published on August 1, 2012, by in Contest.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys the recognition and confidence that comes with winning a competition against worthy peers, you’ll want to know about Wisconsin Writers’ Association contests.

The WWA offers several contests suitable for memoir writers:

In the Jade Ring Contest, entries that are “Memoir/ Reminiscence: about self and/or family, includes nostalgia. 1500 words maximum” are accepted every year between March 15 and June 15, with prizes awarded at the fall conference in late September.

In the Florence Lindemann Humor Contest, essays that are nonfiction with a humorous theme are accepted between January 1 and March 15. Prizes awared at the Spring conference in late April.

Membership in WWA (a steal at $35) is required to enter these contests.

The Wisconsin Writers Association offers these writing contests to its members for two reasons:  to offer both a challenge and an outlet to encourage our members to continually strive to improve their skills, and to provide members with an opportunity to build their writing credentials, which can assist them in marketing their work to other publishing venues.

Winning entries will be published in the WWA Creative Wisconsin magazine and posted on the WWA website. Residence in Wisconsin is not required, but subject matter should be related to the region.

All contest categories are awarded the same cash prizes: First Place: $ 100, Second Place: $ 70, Third Place: $ 40. First-place winners of the Jade Ring contest also receive… a really nice jade ring!

Rules here

If competition motivates you, WWA offers an excellent venue in which to compete.

-Sarah White


Have the time of your life recalling your life

Published on July 16, 2012, by in Commentary.

When the great sportswriter “Red” Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” he was referring to the agony of turning out a daily column. For memoirists, it’s so much easier—you just sit down, sans deadlines and bosses, choose a vein of memories, and begin mining for gold.

To assure your writing is enjoyable, start with a vein that leads somewhere pleasant. I often encourage memoir writers to begin planning their books by creating a simple life timeline, noting all major transitions. These are the branching points where something happened and afterward, things were never the same. Some branching points are pleasanter than others—winning a trip to Paris beats a divorce any day. If you begin writing about branching points that you recall with satisfaction, you’ll have the pleasure of dropping back into an enjoyable moment in your life when you write.

As many writers have discovered, putting your thoughts down on paper can put you into the “flow”– the blissful state of effortless concentration in which time and distractions disappear. It’s like the feeling of complete immersion you get while reading a good book. But when you’re writing, it’s your book that you can’t put down.

It typically takes about 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus to get into a state of “flow,” which is why many writing guides recommend free-writing for about five pages just to get started, without concern for what topic you write on or how well you phrase your thoughts.

After your free-writing warm-up, switch to a specific anecdote—some experience from the branching points on your timeline—to begin your memoir-writing session. The flow state tends to occur when a person has a clear goal, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Finding Flow. For your writing session, set a goal of completing one story, from opening facts through memory to a satisfactory conclusion. An hour or two should be sufficient to compose an anecdote—but in the flow state, you might need to set a timer to bring you back, you’ll be having such a good time.

There is an enjoyable aspect of writing memoir that takes place far from the computer keyboard (or typewriter, tape recorder, or pencil and paper). This is the research we do to stimulate memory recall, link our lives with social history, and confirm factual details. We visit places we’ve lived—even knocking on doors at old addresses, hoping for a peek into a childhood bedroom or back yard. We catch the genealogy bug and troll through historical records, following the stories of ancestors. We pull out boxes of memorabilia and mine the cache of memory-triggers therein.

With every research thread you follow, whether it’s five minutes on the Internet or a trip back to your old hometown, you add an enjoyable aspect to the memoir hobby and aquifer you’ll tap into the next time you  “sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

When you use a timeline of life’s branching points to find meaningful stories, take time to find the flow state when you write, and give yourself research assignments between writing sessions, you’ll find yourself having the time of your life, recalling your life.



Everything Old is New Again for Memoirist with Alzheimer’s

Published on July 7, 2012, by in Commentary, Guest Post.

One of my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians, Joan Loven, posted to our group’s listserv recently about her work with a client experiencing memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her story speaks to the tremendous benefits of having one’s life story recorded in a book.

Joan writes:

Do you remember Peter Allen’s lyrics to that old tune “Everything Old is New Again,” especially the line: “let’s go backward when forward fails”?

Along those poetic and humorous lines, my business partner Cindy Shoemaker and I at Life In Reflection had the opportunity to become involved in the memories of a retired doctor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. We were novices as Personal Historians, but eager to give it a go.

His family knew him to be fun loving, adventurous, and always ready with funny stories and lightning quips. They told us that the onset of the disease was very apparent to them. His wife decided that capturing as many of his memories as possible could wait no longer.

She was very helpful in jogging his memory after he would say over and over, “I don’t remember.” Some of our appointments went better than others. But as we and she coaxed out the past, his face would light up in recognition, he’d have a slight smile, and, at times, an uproarious laugh.

The book was six months in the making. We were complimented by the family for having captured his sense of humor. They rejoiced in the results saying “it sounds just like Papa!” That was a great reward for Cindy and for me.

But the real reward came later. In that six month period, Doctor’s malady progressed. Much of his time was spent with loving caretakers – and his favorite book about his memories. They say he sits and reads it over and over, communicating his joy as best he can. At one time, I’m told, he said to his wife, “This is one funny guy!”

I love this business!

Joan Loven


Your words outlive you

Published on July 3, 2012, by in Book review, Commentary.

Association of Personal Historians member John Hawkins posted recently the members’ listserv about The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, which his bookclub is reading. “This paragraph leaped off the page for me as an APH member,” John wrote, “since it speaks so directly to the value of what we do. I highly recommend the book, too.”

The excerpt that got John’s attention was this:

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

–Diane Setterfield, writing in The Thirteenth Tale, Atria Books, 2006

Like John, I was captivated by Setterfield’s description of the magical immortality conferred on authors by their books.

Will your words outlive you? If you write them down, they will!

-Sarah White


Ever write a letter to “Dear Abby”?

Published on June 20, 2012, by in Commentary.

Me neither. But today a a response I wrote to a “Dear Abby” letter appeared on the Association of Personal Historians Blog. Titled “Dear Abby… May We Offer YOU Some Advice?” it begins,

On Monday of this week the popular “Dear Abby” syndicated column published a letter from a reader encouraging seniors to write down their memories. “The family history can be passed from one generation to the next, and I cannot think of a more special gift,” wrote “Charlene in Camarillo, Calif.”

Abby (now the founding columnist’s daughter, Jeanne Phillips) responded, “That’s a splendid idea,” and added that children and grandchildren could help by interviewing their parents and grandparents.

Obviously, as a personal historian, I couldn’t agree more. Abby and Charlene are “preaching to the choir” with me.

Please visit the APH blog and read on…. 


Will writing your memoir be good for your health?

In a word–YES!


Past APH President Pat McNees wrote about the beneficial effects of life story and legacy activities in the Geriatric Care Management Journal, Spring 2009, and posted a condensed version of that article on her website.


  • Research indicates that health care professionals working with cancer patients near the end of life should be asking, “Tell me about your life.” The palliative effect is greater than drug-based therapies.
  • Two studies in 2008 and 2009  found that legacy activities have a beneficial therapeutic effect for both patients and caregivers.
  • Research by Robert Butler, a leader in the field of gerontology, points to life review as a normal function of the later years, with memories, reminiscence, and nostalgia playing a part in the psychological task of coming to terms with life.
McNees also mentions the work of Dr. Gene Cohen. I posted previously about Cohen’s work on developmental stages in older adults and the benefits of life review. “Like chocolate for your brain” he called it.

Let me buy you a cup of hot cocoa and let’s talk about getting you started writing your memoir. It’s good for your health!

-Sarah White




A Resource for Writers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Published on May 17, 2012, by in Uncategorized.

“Writing is a powerful tool not only for communicating existing ideas but also for discovering new ones.” That sentence appears in the mission statement of the UW-Madison Writing Center, which exists to help University of Wisconsin students, both undergraduate and graduate, learn more about writing and successfully complete course papers, theses, dissertations, and articles for publication.

The Writing Center website features “The Writer’s Handbook” where short articles elucidate topics ranging from how to improve your writing style to common punctuation errors.

But back to that mission statement. One of the primary reasons I encourage YOU to write your memoir–choosing my Writing Partner approach over the Conversation Approach–is that by writing your own story, you take advantage of the “power tool” that unearths new ideas.

“I write to discover what I think,” said James Thurber.  I’ve often experienced the same powerful sense of discovery as I’ve written.

Try it–you’ll like it!


© First Person Productions