Writing the Memoir: Making Family Legends Fit (or Not)

nasa-1_245Much of what we believe as factual history has come to us in some form of written account, often multiple accounts that make up a body of truth. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a legend is “a story handed down for generations among a people and popularly believed to have a historical basis, although not verifiable.”

Although legend and history might share common ground, they are two different things and should be dealt with accordingly to ensure the integrity of a work of creative nonfiction (see my post “Keeping the ‘Non’ in Creative Nonfiction“). But should writers leave legends out of their memoirs because they can’t be verified? Are there good reasons to include a legend in a memoir?

It would certainly be easy enough to begin such a tale with something like, “I grew up hearing stories of how Uncle Fred was abducted by aliens….” Deciding how to present the story is probably the easy part. Deciding if you should write it to begin with, might be more difficult.

One way to determine whether to include a family legend in a memoir is to put it to the same test you might use when deciding to include any other memories.

  • What does it contribute to the chapter, the theme, the overall story?
  • Does it really belong or do I just want it to belong (perhaps for entertainment value or sentimental reasons)?

Your decision would also depend on your goals for the memoir – a collection of family stories meant only for the eyes of friends and family, or a memoir for public consumption?

I dealt with many family legends when I set out to write This New Mountain, the memoir of private detective and repo-mama AJ Jackson. Two in particular involved important women in AJ’s family history.

The first legend says AJ’s grandmother, Inza Annie, survived the massacre of the Bigfoot Band of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in the winter of 1890. In that historic (and horrific) event, ninety Sioux warriors died and hundreds of women and children were hunted down and killed by a U.S. Army detachment. There was no way to verify Inza Annie’s story, but in 1902 she filed her marriage with the Five Civilized Tribes (the wedding having taken place in 1895). This legal document gives proof of AJ’s grandmother’s Sioux heritage and connection to the Bigfoot Band. I thought the marriage filing gave enough credence to Inza Annie’s story of surviving the Massacre at Wounded Knee that I included it in the memoir.

The second legend connects AJ’s mother to the space race. The story goes that while AJ’s father worked as a contractor for scientists at Sandia Base (later renamed Kirtland Air Force Base) in Albuquerque, he won the bid on a contract to produce new suits for the monkeys who were going into space. A way had to be found to stop the clever creatures from unzipping the old suits and climbing out of them. AJ’s father handed the project to his wife who adapted a child’s pajama pattern to make a new piece of clothing out of mesh material that fit over the original monkey suits. I couldn’t present the story as truth because there’s no evidence to support it from letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. In my research I did find that a chimpanzee named Ham was brought to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico in 1959 for training (and was the first chimp to make it into space in 1961). AJ was 15 years old in 1959, but her memory of her mother sewing the suits is sketchy. I could have presented the story as a harmless legend, but in the end I decided not to include it for a few reasons: 1) I couldn’t find a natural way to work it in; 2) I had other great examples of her mother’s ingenuity that did work; and 3) This New Mountain is not her mother’s biography, it’s a memoir about AJ’s life as a private investigator. The legend of the monkey suits just didn’t fit in the book.

Memoirists can’t expect to include every story from their pasts into a single memoir (no matter how much they love each one), any more than novelists should try to cram in every bit of character back story. Writers pick and choose the most important bits, whether it’s to make a setting come to life or complete the picture of a beloved, and ingenious, mother.

Does your family have stories – maybe a little on the crazy side – that have been told and retold at every family gathering to the point they’ve become legends?


Creative Nonfiction Calls for Submissions Through April 2015

Are you looking for inspiration for an essay or short memoir piece? Read on to find calls for submissions with specific themes for Creative Nonfiction and Chicken Soup for the Soul publications. Have you already rewritten, reworked, and polished your true stories but don’t know where to go next? I’ve found a few paying markets looking for your writing, as well.

Creative NonfictionCreative Nonfiction is seeking submissions for several themed publications, previously unpublished up to 4,500 words. Stories should be well-written, rich with detail and a distinctive voice; compelling, evocative, vivid, and dramatic. All submissions must tell true stories and be factually accurate. Multiple submissions are welcome, as are entries from outside the United States. Submit online or by regular mail – a $3 convenience fee is charged to submit online. Payment is a $50 flat fee and $10/printed page, plus a copy of the magazine. The following are their current themes with deadlines through April 13, 2015:

Beyond “Crazy”: True Stories of Surviving Mental Illness
Although many people experience mental illness, either firsthand or through a family member, friend, or colleague, the stigma surrounding mental illness remains. Creative Nonfiction believes the most important tool we have for defusing the power of this stigma is sharing true stories and revealing the real people beneath the labels. The deadline for this one is very close (sorry!), but I include it here in case you have a piece ready to go. Deadline: February 9, 2015

Becoming a Teacher
This anthology will present readers with the world of education – true stories from the perspective of elementary and secondary school teachers, recalling and reflecting on the most salient moments of their careers. Deadline: March 9, 2015

The Weather
The weather affects everyone, and talking about the weather is a fundamental human experience. Send your true stories – personal, historical, reported – about fog, drought, flooding, tornado-chasing, blizzards, hurricanes, hailstorms, or whatever’s happening where you are. They’re looking for well-crafted essays that will change the way we see the world around us. Deadline: April 13, 2015

Chicken Soup for the SoulChicken Soup for the Soul has published anthologies, filled with motivating and inspiring true stories, for over 20 years. Submit stories that are exciting, heartwarming, or funny, written in first person, about yourself or someone close to you. Start “in the action” and draw in the reader. Speak from the heart. You may use a pen name. Online submissions only and not previously published. Up to 1200 words. Payment is $200 one month after publication, plus ten free copies of the book your work appears in. Follow the detailed guidelines to help focus your submission. As of the date of this post, they’re accepting submissions for five topics with deadlines through April 30, 2015:

♦ Volunteering & Giving Back
Share your true stories about how you found purpose, passion, and joy in your life through volunteering, or how a volunteer helped you. Volunteers are unpaid positions – save those stories about paid heroes for another book. Deadline: February 15, 2015.

♦ Dreams & Premonitions
Tell your stories about your dreams or premonitions and the impact they had on your life. What have you learned from your dreams? Did they come true, strengthen your faith or help change your life’s direction? Did a premonition warn you about something about to happen? Deadline: March 15, 2015.

♦ Make Your Own Luck
Luck is not always just chance. You have to be ready and willing to seize the opportunities in front of you. How did you take advantage of chance events and make the most of what life has to offer? How did your positive outlook change your life? They could also be amazing stories of plain serendipity. Deadline: March 31, 2015.

♦ Stories about the Christmas Season
They publish a new edition every other year, and 2015 is the year they’re collecting stories for their Christmas book. Share special tales about the holiday season – including Chanukah and Kwanzaa – from inspirational and joyous, to heartwarming and humorous. Only “Santa Safe” stories will be accepted so the magic isn’t spoiled for children. Deadline: March 31, 2015.

♦ Think Possible
Almost anything is possible if you think you can. You can dream big, overcome challenges, and turn adversity into opportunity. You can change your outlook, listen to your heart and move forward into the life you want. How did you “think possible” and how did it change your life? Deadline: April 30, 2015.

Here are three publications accepting any theme in creative nonfiction.

Malahat ReviewThe Malahat Review looks for stories strongly based in reality that enlighten or educate the reader through fresh insights, powerful use of language, and compelling storytelling. They accept all forms of creative nonfiction, including personal essay, memoir, narrative nonfiction, social commentary, travel writing, historical accounts, and biography, all enhanced by such elements as description, dramatic scenes, dialogue, and characterization. Online-only submissions. 1,000-3,500 words. Payment is $50 per published page, plus two copies of the publication in which the work appears. Response time is up to nine months.

The Masters ReviewThe Masters Review submissions for their New Voices category are accepted year round. New Voices is open to any new or emerging author who has not published a work of fiction or narrative nonfiction of novel length. They accept simultaneous and multiple submissions. Up to 5,000 words. Pays 10 cents/word up to $200.

Tishman Review2The Tishman Review is looking for personal essays, memoir, lyric essays and literary journalism of up to 3,000 words. Previously unpublished, original works. Accepts simultaneous submissions. Response time up to 90 days. Payment on a sliding scale between $10 and $75 based upon content and word count.

I’ve got a Christmas story I’m going to polish and submit. How about you?

Keeping the “Non” in Creative Nonfiction

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, my intention in writing AJ Jackson’s memoir was to stay true to her voice and to the goals she set for the book. There is one more truth we both dedicated ourselves to in our writing journey – the telling of the stories themselves.

Several steps went into the process of making sure the memoir remained truthful. After listening to AJ’s recorded stories and imagining them playing out like scenes in a movie, I wrote them as I saw them in my mind. If I needed more information or clarification, I consulted AJ. Organizing the stories came next. And when I thought the chapters were ready for proofing, AJ read them over and either gave her approval or let me know what needed changing. I edited, revised, and rewrote accordingly. AJ then re-read the stories and give her input again. We repeated this cycle until we were satisfied with the integrity of each chapter. Even after everything seemed right and ready, AJ sometimes came back and said, “no, this isn’t quite right” or even, “this isn’t what happened at all.” Her memory and my imagination often got mixed up somewhere in the telling and re-telling of her stories.

Because of this process, portions of chapters didn’t pass inspection – couldn’t even be reworked – and had to be deleted. The following, taken from a chapter originally titled “Fools Rush In,” is one of my favorite stories we ended up cutting from the final manuscript:

            I once had two cases working at the same time that were, at first, as different as night and day. A bank had hired me to repo a vehicle, and a private party had hired me to investigate Mel, the father of their grandchild. Mel was up to no good and I needed to gather evidence so he could never get visitation rights with his daughter. Well, this repo and this private deal started intertwining. The same names kept popping up in both investigations. These were names associated with the local drug industry – and we’re not talking Walgreens. In the middle of all this complicated business, I went knocking on doors in the South Valley, handing out my business card, and asking people to give me a call if they saw or heard anything about Mel, my “long-lost nephew.”

            I decided to hit one more stucco-front business, the last one on the block, before I took a break. The mom-and-pop taco stand I’d passed a few minutes before would do just fine for lunch. Sitting in the shade of a turquoise umbrella in front of the taqueria, chugging a coke full of perfect cubes of ice sounded like heaven just about then. Even the cicadas complained about the heat.

            An old man dragged a rake across the rocks in front of the building. The landscaping was already pristine, not so much as a shadow out-of-place.

            “Looks good,” I said as I walked past the groundskeeper and headed for the front door. He stopped raking and squinted at me like I was crazy.

            When I stepped through the doorway, I knew why the guy had given me such a strange look. The inside of the place was empty, gutless, except for a card table, a handful of folding, metal chairs and the five goons who occupied them.

            “What’s going on here?” I blurted out. Two of the guys stood up. The others kept looking at the cards in their hands, smoking away, drinking their Dos Equis.

            “What are you doin’ here?” said one of the polite gentlemen with a hairnet on his head and a silver crucifix hanging down the front of his black t-shirt.

            Then my brain turned on. Take one manicured landscape outside, add shell of a business inside, plus scary – yet religious – goons, and I’ve got…trouble.

            “Sorry.” I backed up. “I must have made a wrong turn.”I went through the door, took a few nonchalant steps, and ran.

            The next day, a lady who lived across from this “business” called me. I had knocked on her door and given her my card. She was sorry, but she was too scared to give me any information, and “would you mind not coming by again?” Of course I didn’t mind. I had no intention of going back there.

            Two days later, the neighbor lady called me back. Somebody had broken out every window in her house, and “if you don’t mind, I’m just going to throw your card away, okay?”

            Not long after that, I got another call. “Lady, you stay out of my neighborhood,” a deep voice told me, “or you better be packin’ if you ever come back.” Another Dirty Harry, you-better-be-packing routine. It gets cornier every time I hear it.

            Well, I didn’t go back, thank you very much. I later learned that place was a money laundering business involving one of Albuquerque’s finest citizens. I ended up finding the repo I was looking for in a garage on the west side. And Mel ended up in prison on drug charges. I found enough evidence against him that when he got out, he only had supervised visitation with his child.

This story had potential and included elements of tension and humor. What was the problem, then? It just wasn’t true. The two cases mentioned in the first paragraph – though both real – weren’t the correct ones. And AJ didn’t find anyone in the empty building, so no goon actually confronted her. I had misunderstood and over-imagined the stories I heard and (because of these and other complications) this particular piece couldn’t be saved. If I had been writing a novel instead of a work of creative nonfiction, I would have left the scene in, expanded it and spiced it up, and had a lot more fun getting AJ out of her scary predicament.

This New Mountain uses all the elements of a fiction story – scenes, internal and external dialogue, tension, imagery, a well-developed main character – but because the stories are true (but read like fiction), the book is considered a piece of creative nonfiction. The process of keeping the integrity of the memoir intact was time-consuming but worth it to stay true to AJ and her life.

If you’ve read a good memoir lately, what did you like most about it?