Birth Stories: From Pregnancy to the Page

Now, I’m not a mom, but I hear the same thing from new parents everywhere: 

[insert Baby’s name] graced our lives with [his/her] presence on [insert Baby’s birthdate]. [S/he] weighed [insert Baby’s birthweight] and was [insert Baby’s height] inches long. Mom and Baby are doing great. Our hearts are full. #Blessed. #SleepySmiles
— All new parents ever
 A nest full.

A nest full.

Usually, this announcement takes the form of a Facebook post. Often, it’s been preceded by monthly photo updates on the growing baby bump, and typically, it’s followed by monthly photo updates of Baby [next to a sign/banner, or wearing a shirt/pin] showcasing his or her age.

These “soundbites” are a wonderful, low-stakes way of keeping friends and family in the loop. Taken together, they recreate a priceless timeline of Baby’s life, from conception to First Communion.

… What about the rest of it, though?

What about the parents? 

How did they meet? When did they fall in love? At what point did they know they wanted to become parents? Did they conceive on the first try? After two agonizing rounds of IVF? Was it even a choice? Perhaps an accident? A Knocked-Up-like-Katherine Heigl-but-it’s-all-good-cause-they-lived-happily-ever-after-style story?

What about the pregnancy? 

Was there morning sickness? A hormonally-induced skin rash? Do stretch marks scar Mom’s body? How does she feel about it? What did the first sonogram show? What did Baby’s heartbeat sound like? Was there a gender reveal party? When did Baby kick the first time?

What about the delivery? 

Midwife, or middle-of-the-night trip to the hospital? Pain or painkillers? Mirrors or phone cameras? Frightened or with family? Complications or smooth sailing? First skin-to-skin contact. First cry. First fingerprint. First and middle names. The moment a parent becomes a parent.

What about the postpartum recovery? 

Or the postpartum depression? Bleeding and breastfeeding and new sleep schedules. A family that’s grown by one. An infant to fit into car seats and introduce the dog to. One that smells like poop and new life. How are the parents handling it? What hopes and dreams do they have for their little one?

What about Baby? 

How is s/he adjusting to life in the big, wide world? What happened on the day Baby was born—in the news, in pop culture, the stock market, the weather? What’s happened since?

… I’m not a mom, but all new parents share a few things in common. Besides having no idea what to do with their brand new squirming skin sac (aka, Baby), they want to tell their story. To be heard. To feel encouraged and validated. They want to remember it: because the next 9 months go a whole lot faster than the first 9.

When you have your Birth Story ghostwritten, you leave a legacy for your child. When you gift a Birth Story package to a new parent, you give the world another story. And as Tahir Shah said, stories are the communal currency of humanity.

How Intergenerational Narratives Inform Family Identity

Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.
— Sue Monk Kidd

Research shows that narrative skills are largely shaped by habitual verbal interaction between parents and children. In other words, it is in talking to their parents (or other caregivers) that kids learn how to storytell. 

One large-scale longitudinal study (Pratt and Fiese 2004) found that kindergarten narrative skills significantly predicted fourth and seventh grade reading comprehension levels. The more elaborate the stories told by the parents, the more elaborate the narratives that children were able to articulate as early as preschool.

Duke and Fivush (2006) expanded on Pratt’s and Fiese’s theory of narrative development when they created the Do You Know scale. Their research indicates that kids who can confidently answer questions like “Do you know how your parents met?” are more likely to exhibit higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control, lower levels of anxiety, and fewer behavioral problems.

Why? Intergenerational narratives (stories passed down from grandparents or parents to children) provide key information on what it means to be a member of a particular family, thereby forming a powerful sense of family identity. Not only does the storyteller get to experience the gratification of sharing their personal values with a younger member of the family, but the child hearing the story may receive information that helps them to understand the world or view the world from a different perspective.

In the classroom, teachers have demonstrated how incorporating family history into social studies teaching likewise leads to historical empathy—a direct result of connecting the student’s own family and life to historical events.

NOTES FROM A DISTINGUISHED LIFE is a workbook for kids that guides them through the oral storytelling process, helping them to capture in their own words the stories of family members and friends—stories that will shape the next generation.

Note: Special thanks to Ashley Smith for sharing her graduate school research with me for this entry.

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Who is Juli Berwald? [Or: The Allure of Something That's Barely There]


Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the wonderful Dr. Juli Berwald, the author of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. She’ll be the guest speaker at Module 1 of Cider Spoon’s Intro to Memoir Writing Course, and I got to talk to her about the inherent weirdness of jellyfish, the art of finding an inciting incident, and why you should always be 100% sure you want to see your end goals before you actually reach them.


 Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

BR: Thanks for meeting with me! At least virtually. So yeah, the first question I wanted to ask was, ‘Why jellyfish?’

JB: Well, I mean, I think that answer is kind of scientific. It started off as a question about what’s happening to our planet. And it seemed like there were these changes that some people were noticing in jellyfish abundances that were saying a lot about bigger questions about what we’re doing to the oceans.

And that moves into this story that was more interesting than other ways to tell that story because jellyfish numbers seem to be growing more in certain places. But no one can agree if the population of jellyfish is actually growing or shrinking. Jellyfish are interesting and we don’t know much about them, which made me kind of curious, and so they were a way into this bigger kind of story that I found kind of fascinating—so fascinating.

BR: Yeah no, they really are. I went through your book a couple days ago and there’s so much cool stuff!

JB: Yeah, they’re so cool! And then once I started looking around scientifically, I was finding out about how they sting, and how they swim, and I just found those stories super interesting, on top of the overall question.

BR: Yeah, that was my favorite part, learning how they swim, how they pull themselves through the water instead of push. And how you tied that into how humans have been developing boats, I was like, man, they’re so simple but they got it figured out.

JB: Yeah, they got it figured out, huh? (laughs)



BR: So in memoirs, there’s often an inciting incident that spurs the person writing the memoir to pursue what lesson they’re gonna learn. So my question is, what advice would you have for someone who was looking for their own inciting incident?

JB: I think the answer is simply being open to good things that come to you in the universe, and instead of walking by a moment and saying “Oh no, that’s not actually something I should step into or deal with,” or “I’m not good enough,” or any of those internal “hater” kind of thoughts, you should just embrace those moments. I could have easily walked by the question “What do we know about jellyfish and acidification?” if I hadn’t been open to it.


BR: So you wrote in your book about the emptiness you felt after finding that rare jellyfish in Japan that you had worked incredibly hard to see in person. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

JB: Yeah, I mean, I think that a big part of that was just that it was dying, and you know, although I have feelings about jellyfish, so this is kinda hard to say, but, because jellyfish have this complicated life cycle and they start as a polyp, they’re kind of like fruit. The jellyfish scientists don’t like it when I say that (laughs). But, you know, the medusa (Note: Medusa is the term for the stage in a jellyfish’s life where they look like the picture at the top of this interview) dying was already gonna happen. It was already at the end of its life cycle.

It wasn’t a triumph because I’m not sure I learned anything by seeing that jellyfish. And I kind of hoped I had, that I would learn something, but I didn’t. Because I didn’t know what to look for in the animal. I didn’t know what answers I would get by pulling it up on the back of the boat. I should’ve paid attention to that before I went looking. So I think it was maybe because of my ... there was a sense of my own unpreparedness for the moment. I was so excited by the hunt, that I didn’t really know what to look for at the end of it.

BR: That’s so relatable though. Definitely worth writing about.

JB: (laughs) I’d have to agree.

BR: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks so much for sitting down and talking with me.

JB: No problem. I’m lucky because my job’s done, now you have to sit down and transcribe all of this (laughs).

A Ghost Story

Innocence, well, it's belief in the goodness of things, I guess. Trusting that no matter how many times the world knocks you down, the next person to come along is going to help you up.

It's wearing a heart-shaped locket, with a silver clasp, only it's not a locket but your heart, and the clasp was broken a long time ago, and so your heart just hangs there, vulnerable and exposed, no protective metallic casing, and sometimes someone will hug you too hard and squish your heart between the two of you—this is a metaphor here—but that's innocence: risking weakness, heartache, unspeakable agony. And knowing no different. Because your vulnerability has never been abused.

For example. We were in the basement, sitting cross-legged around the Ouija board I'd gotten for my thirteenth birthday. It was cold down there; goose bumps prickled our bare arms and legs. Though we both sat as I'd instructed, with eyes closed, still the hot orange of candle flames on my inner eyelids. Still the shaky in-and-out of her chest whenever fear grabbed her. The room smelled wet yet from the last flood. And mold—black and thick as new asphalt. A crude oil cancer beneath the carpet, with sticky fingers to hold a body down.

Funny … the game had been my idea, and there I was succumbing to the power of my own suggestion. Invoking the spirit world boldly, as seen in movies, then shrinking inwardly, hoping nothing would actually happen. My little sister trusting me and hating me for it, because I made her believe anything.

Does fear have a taste? That night it was the battery acid in the pockets of my mouth: hot, metallic, dripping too much tar. I showed her how to place her hands on the glow-in-the-dark planchette. Her fingertips against mine still gummed with caramel apple. I told her she could ask the first question, that she better make it good. She asked what she was getting for Christmas.

That's innocence. 

Sometimes ghostwriting IS about ghosts.
— Jess Hagemann, Ghostwriter

Budding Genealogist? Start Here.

Like many American families, mine has a story about a great-great-great-great-grandmother who was full-blood Native American.
— Jess Hagemann, Cider Spoon Stories

... In this case, Choctaw. When I first heard this story, I was 16 and brimming with teenage angst. Feeling misunderstood and like I didn’t belong anywhere, I latched onto this family factoid with gusto. While all I knew for sure was that her name had been Syntha, I embellished—imagining her as a Choctaw princess, huntress, and warrior woman in one. In other words, someone to look up to, and be proud of.

Flash forward to 2018, when I submitted my saliva for DNA analysis to 23andMe. 6 weeks later, the results came back negative: 0% Native American heritage. In fact, very little of anything other than white European. Confused and admittedly a little crushed, I turned to, whereupon my clever boyfriend reconstructed my family tree. Lo and behold, there was Syntha! We even found a picture of her—and handwritten beneath the image, this caption: “1/2 Choctaw.” Okay, so not full-blood … but someone else at least had heard a similar story.

 DNA analysis services like 23andMe can help solve long-standing family riddles.

DNA analysis services like 23andMe can help solve long-standing family riddles.

Where does that leave me? Well, I’m more inclined to believe the science rather than the hearsay. If my DNA shows no Choctaw lineage, then I have no right to claim one, regardless of passed-down stories. The only man I might have clarified things with—my maternal grandfather—is deceased now, so I guess it will remain a mystery.

Luckily, your story doesn’t have to end that way.

What have you always heard about your family history? Would you like to know more? Perhaps build a comprehensive genealogical tree? Take a DNA test?

Or maybe you were adopted, without a clue about where or how to start. 

No matter who you are or what you *think* your story is, here are two great resources in Austin for finding out more. Note: You don’t have to live in Austin to take advantage of their services!


Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Twice a year, I teach a four-week memoir-writing class. During the second week, I invite staff from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission to attend as guest lecturers and offer a mini-presentation on the research tools available through TSLAC. They have printed family and county histories, a variety of Texas government records, federal census schedules, and many other resources to help you compile your family history. Sign up for the class here (next session starts October 11!) or reach out to them directly for investigative help!


Lauren Gribble, Genealogist

 Lauren Gribble, Family Genealogist

Lauren Gribble, Family Genealogist

Let’s say you pop into TSLAC and feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of old photographs, rolls of microfilm, and software programs on offer. You really just want someone to do the work for you. Lauren Gribble, an Austin-based genealogist and the owner of Find Your Branch Genealogy, works with individuals to build out family trees on and her rates are incredibly reasonable. She even offers a money-back guarantee if she can’t find the specific information you’re looking for.

Like me, Lauren first got into genealogy research because of a family story—or rather, the lack thereof. Her father was adopted as a baby, and didn’t know the first thing about his biological heritage. Through a combination of DNA analysis and artful combing of databases, Lauren was able to find her father’s (and therefore her own) direct ancestors, solving a long-time family riddle! 


Jess Hagemann, Ghostwriter

Once you have the *real* story nailed down, it’s time to commit it to paper, so that future generations don’t have to repeat your hard work all over again. That’s where a ghostwriter comes in. Tell the stories you now know for sure to Jess at Cider Spoon Stories, and she’ll write your family history for posterity … because legacy shouldn’t be a luxury!

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.

The Best Bloggers Do These Four Things

If you’re reading this, you know that blogging works. 

Like anything else, though, there’s a good way to blog, and a great way to blog.

These four tips will ensure your bloggerly success.

1. Maximize your blog's SEO.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization—which determines how high up your site appears on any given list of search engine results. The higher up you are on the list, the more likely your blog is to be read. (It’s basically like Google giving you the stamp of pre-reader approval.) 

To maximize SEO, focus each blog entry on a single keyword or phrase. Use the keyword often and strategically: specifically in the entry’s title, first paragraph, and in at least one subhead (H2). If you’re using a blogging platform (like Wordpress or Squarespace)  that allows you to edit the entry’s URL, meta-description, and image alt-tags, consider using the keyword/phrase there, too.

2. Use images in your blog.

Let’s face it: we live in a flashy, visual, ad and social media-driven world. Images grab attention and help break up otherwise long, dry blocks of text. Key to populating your blog with images is making sure you have permission to use them. Source free images in the Creative Commons (and available for commercial use) from sites like and Pay for higher-quality stock photos from sites like Better yet, hire your professional photographer friend to shoot some images for you and support local small business in the process!

Without going into too much detail, let me just reiterate: permissions are super important. Once upon a time, I thought it was enough to credit the source(s) of the images on my blog. It’s not.

3. Vary your blog post types.

Begin each entry with an unusual fact, a quote, an anecdote, a question, or a joke. These “attention-grabbing openers” resonate with audiences, capturing and maintaining interest. Maybe one of these ‘micro-stories’ is enough, and then you can dive into the meat of the entry; or maybe the story is the entry. Try mixing it up with op-eds, reviews, lists, announcements, educational pieces, tutorials, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways.

4. Get your blog out there.

No blog functions in isolation. While yes, some readers will inevitably stumble upon a well-SEO’d blog entry, you can boost your numbers by disseminating your blog yourself. Post it on Facebook with a call to action. Send a digest in your next e-newsletter. Keep your entries short and reader-friendly (300-750 words is ideal), and always post on the same time/day of the week or month, so readers know when and where to find you.

Happy blogging!

7 Ways to Edit Your Own Work

I always recommend hiring a professional editor; most writers are just ‘too close’ to their own work to catch typos, clunky sentence construction, or other mistakes that can create narrative confusion.

If you’re on a budget, however, or just plain stubborn, here are seven things to watch out for when polishing your manuscript for publication.

1. Double Spaces

Are you still typing double spaces after periods? This trend died with the typewriter. It may be hard to break old habits, but it’s worth it: continuing to use the space-space between sentences will instantly date your writing (since it’s not taught in schools anymore) and could make your publisher wonder just how ‘current’ you are on the literary scene.

2. Mis-Capitalization in Titles, Headers, and Subheads 

Four types of words should never be capitalized in your titles, headers, and subheads—unless, of course, they’re the first word. These are articles (like a, an, the); prepositions (think in, out, on); conjunctions (and, but) and be verbs (is, was).

3. Passive Voice 

Back to those be verbs (i.e., any form of the verb be): yes, they get your meaning across, but they’re pretty boring to read. All writing sounds better in the active voice. That means substituting action verbs for be verbs. Instead of falling back on “was” and “were” all the time, try more colorful verbs that bring to life the action on the page.

4. Commas 

Ask three different editors, and you’re bound to get three different opinions about the Oxford comma (the comma that follows every item in a list). I highly recommend using the Oxford comma, and here’s why. [What’s wrong with the following sentence?] “I like cooking my family and my pets.”

Commas also always go before the name of any person being addressed. EX: “Can I help you, Alex?”

5. Em-dashes 

An em-dash is two hyphens together with no space on either side, such as: “The boy said he was hungry—but really, he’d just eaten breakfast thirty minutes ago.” Em-dashes create a pause like a comma, but stronger, and will help clarify your meaning.

6. Ellipses 

One space should precede and follow each set of ellipses. EX: “ … ”

7. Italics 

The names of books, TV shows, and movies are always italicized. Song names can be indicated by double quotes.

EX: Katy Perry’s song “Firework” was featured in the show Glee.

Italics also indicate internal thoughts.

EX: My first thought was, This has got to be a joke.

Good luck! And when in doubt, hire an editor.

What is an Ethical Will? [And When Should You Write One?]

Ethical Wills: A Definition

Another term for an ethical will is a legacy letter. Unlike last wills and testaments, ethical wills are not legally binding. They don’t bequeath assets; they express a person’s deepest, most heartfelt thoughts and feelings about what’s important to them—what matters.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, ethicals wills are a way of passings beliefs, values, blessings, and moral direction from one generation to the next. But they can be used by any person of any faith (or no faith at all)!

What Should My Ethical Will Look Like? 

Ethical wills can be as long as a book or as short as a couple paragraphs. They might look like letters, poems, songs, or have multimedia elements.

They include all of the following scenarios and more:

  • Parents who write a letter to their children every year on their birthdays, saying what the last year has meant to them and how the child has developed or grown.
  • A dying person who writes love letters to his/her spouse, children, or parents.
  • Elderly adults expressing their love to their children and grandchildren.
  • Individuals explaining the decisions they made in their legal will: the reasons why a person or organization received a given asset, or wishes for how their money will be spent.
Ethical Will Pregnant.jpg

When should I write my ethical will?

A legacy letter can be written at any stage of life by anyone who wants to ensure that their values live on.

It can be read and shared among family members, or sealed until the writer dies.

It can also be updated at any time.


Want help writing your ethical will?

3 Gadgets You Need to Write Your Memoirs

So, you want to write your memoirs. (Or ghostwrite your mother’s.) You’re going to need some equipment.

1. Invest in a quality digital recorder.

If you struggle to put your thoughts to the page, try telling your stories instead. Out loud. Just like you do every week at bridge club or pilates. You can record yourself actually telling them to someone, or you can pretend like the recorder is your friend and speak to it.

 The Yamaha Pocketrak 7: the only tool you need for crystal clear audio.

The Yamaha Pocketrak 7: the only tool you need for crystal clear audio.

The easiest and cheapest recording technology comes built into your phone. You can use any voice recording app—just make sure you have enough free storage space.

But what if you’re in a noisy place? Or you intend to turn the audio recordings into their own oral history archive? Then you’re going to want something better. I recommend anything in the Yamaha family

Personally, I use and have been delighted with the Yamaha Pocketrak PR7. It’s small, portable, easy to use, and I have over 160 hours of audio stored on mine currently—with no end of available space in sight! (Make sure you’re always backing it up on another device or cloud!) Best of all: I can be interviewing someone in the noisiest coffeeshop ever, and when the beans suddenly start whirring and grinding, you can still hear the subject clearly: thanks to those XY microphones.

2. Transcription software? Try transcribing it yourself.

 Use Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe your audio files.

Use Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe your audio files.

Transcription is tedious. Unless you do it all the time, it’s a skill that can take a while to master. The last contractor I hired transcribed at a rate of 8:1, bless his heart. That is, 8 hours for every 1 hour of audio. Not efficient.

You might be tempted (understandably) to try a transcription software. Dragon Naturally Speaking is still the best on the market, but it sucks. It’s slow, and while it’s supposed to get ‘smarter’ with use (by learning your cadence and intonation), it never got any more proficient that I noticed.

Instead, hire a professional human transcriptionist (search for someone who can transcribe at a rate of at least 2:1, if not 1:1), or do it yourself! I am always surprised to find, upon listening to recorded footage, that I invariably come to a story that I don’t remember hearing. That’s because it’s human nature for the mind to wander. Half the joy is in re-listening to your recordings … and laughing (or weeping) all over again. Plus, if you’re ghostwriting, it’s a great opportunity to listen for vocal tics and vocab—the key contributors to narrative “voice.”

3. Pick the perfect word processor.

 Adobe InDesign is the gold standard for creating book layouts.

Adobe InDesign is the gold standard for creating book layouts.

Whether you hire out your transcription or do it yourself, at some point you’re going to end up with a whole lot of text. It’s perfectly fine to work in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages—two of the most basic and user-friendly softwares on the market. You might also try upgrading to Scrivener. It’s a subscription service, but for your money you get a lot of cool features, like the ability to easily storyboard or rearrange story sections. Google docs can make it easy to share files with your editor or other contributing writers, and saves your precious work to the cloud (for free!)

When you’re ready to layout your book, play around with Adobe InDesign. It’s the premier book design platform, and can require some practice (or maybe an introductory class!) if you’re brand new to the Adobe suite. Check your local community college for affordable and informational Adobe suite classes.

Once you’ve done all this, you’re ready to self-publish!

"You're like my granddaughter,"

the old man said, his kind eyes crinkling with an affectionate smile.

This, from the ex-army chaplain who a week before had told me my ego was "too big for God."

A retired Presbyterian pastor, he couldn't understand why I'd left the church, although when I admitted I'd been raised Catholic, he said, "Well, that was your first mistake."

Army Unit.jpg

Why the 82-year-old man ever hired me to write his life story I do not know, since from the beginning he'd seemed so unimpressed with me.

At our first meeting, he begrudgingly told me that he'd once been operated on by a Catholic, which hadn't prevented the surgeon from doing his job--so maybe, just maybe, a spiritual-but-not-religious ghostwriter could do justice to the tale of a man of the cloth.

Ten hours of interviews and 50,000 words later, the reverend and I had an understanding. God had saved him from Vietnam, when as a combat chaplain all he could carry on the battlefield was a slingshot ... and together, he and I had just saved his stories for his grandchildren. 

Why You Should Write Your Life Story (at Any Age)

  • Leave a legacy
  • Educate posterity
  • Combat cognitive impairment
  • Personal fulfillment

Who is George Lucas? And Why Do Fans Hate Him? [GUEST POST]

All this hate for George Lucas, the person, has done nothing more than alienate the creator from the fans of his work.
— Caleb Heine

Star Wars isn’t perfect. I’m a hardcore fan and I’m willing to admit that. I even wrote a seminar paper on how George Lucas screwed up the Prequel Trilogy by choosing the wrong character as the audience’s POV. I love having heated debates about which parts were amazing and which parts sucked. But I have never understood the hate for George Lucas. I disagree with many of his storytelling decisions, but I have never in earnest uttered the phrase "George Lucas raped my childhood," a common phrase in Star Wars fan communities.

 Caleb Heine, Guest Blogger

Caleb Heine, Guest Blogger

This hatred for Lucas comes mainly from his decisions post-Original Trilogy (released from 1977-1983). Beginning in the 1990s, he made a Prequel Trilogy which told the origin story of Darth Vader, one of the greatest movie villains of all time, and he released special editions of the Original Trilogy on DVD and later Blu-Ray. Both sound great in concept, but Lucas failed greatly in execution. The Prequel Trilogy is overloaded with CGI, has terrible dialogue, and shows Darth Vader as an angst-ridden, mopey teenager. Lucas added CGI to the Original Trilogy in the special editions and even changed the story in some very iconic scenes. But his worst mistake of the special editions was not allowing the original versions to be released, so if you want to watch Star Wars but not on VHS, you must watch the special editions. 

Yes, George Lucas made stupid decisions with the thing we love, but he’s the one who gave it to us in the first place. He has the right to do what he wants with it, including run it into the ground. And the fans have the right to criticize the work, the choices, and not watch it. But all this hate for George Lucas, the person, has done nothing more than alienate the creator from the fans of his work, so much so that he sold Star Wars to Disney. As a writer and creator who aspires to create fictional worlds as captivating as Lucas’s, it is daunting to think that any fans I accumulate could one day turn on me, too.

WHISPERS: Healing & Triumph after Sexual Assault

Every July, Cider Spoon Stories (Austin's premier ghostwriting and editing company) publishes a collection of stories from central Texas that center around a particular theme. This summer we'll be publishing WHISPERS: HEALING & TRIUMPH AFTER SEXUAL ASSAULT.

The book, which includes the inspiring true stories of ten survivors and survivor-advocates, will debut at a launch party in the Sharp Noggin shop-home space, on Tuesday, July 25, from 7:00-9:00 PM. There will be:

  • Complimentary food and drinks
  • Readings and giveaways
  • Free parking
  • Copies of WHISPERS available for sale for $15 + tax

A completely nonprofit event, a portion of the proceeds benefit SAFE (Stop Abuse for Everyone). The rest of the money will go toward producing Book III in the Untellable Tales series. Book I (POSTMARKS ON OUR FOREHEADS, July 2016) is also still available for sale here.

Everyone is welcome. Please join us for live contributor readings and free giveaways, and stay for the great food and drink. Look for us in Paggi Square park in the Mueller development, just 3 miles northeast of downtown.

While a limited number of copies will be available for purchase at the launch, you are encouraged to pre-order your copy at

Who is Jan Svankmajer? [And What's With His Claim That We're All a Bit Sadistic?]

This post is the EIGHTH 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.

In August 2016, I had the opportunity to interview Czech animation king and Surrealist film director Jan Svankmajer at his summer house outside Prague. The questions stemmed from a Masters thesis that I wrote on Svankmajer’s work in 2012 (available here). Enjoy his thoughtful answers, below.

  Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

1. Do you believe that childhood is malevolent?

I do not think that childhood is malevolent, though it could be said that childhood is “cruel”—at least from the adults’ point of view. Children stand outside of “good and evil.” They have not been domesticated yet. Unaware of morality or its lack, they are innocent—even as they tear the wings off of flies.

2. What is special about children that makes them more sensitive to magic, surrealism, terror, imagination, etc.?

Neurologists have determined that mankind’s instincts—the lizard brain—have not changed much since the Neolithic Age. Despite the pragmatism and rationality of civilized life, man’s tendency is toward the irrational (even the magical). There is no ‘homo economicus;’ rather, civilization is at odds with human nature, and that is why it cannot end well. Evolution occurs too slowly for people to keep up with civilization as it changes. The preschool-aged child is protected from this contradiction. Just as children are exempt from morality, so, too, are they immune to those habits of civilization like logic (the principle of reality). They live by the principle of pleasure—which has its source in the imagination.

3. How do you think the intrauterine (prenatal) experience influences the people we become?

Surrealism concerns itself with mental morphology, or how the preschool-aged child’s milieu/surroundings influence the formation of his interior life. As Freudians, Surrealists place the greatest importance on the first three years of life, and much less on the intrauterine experience. That said, I do not want to claim that the prenatal experience has no influence—but I am afraid we would be veering too much into the realm of speculation. Who could retain any relevant memories from the prenatal state?
  A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

4. What color is your imagination?

Brown—puzzuola to be more precise. When I was five, my family (my father, mother, and two older sisters) moved to Vrsovice (a district in Prague). One of my earliest memories is of painting the kitchen floor brown in my family’s new house. I’ve never forgotten it.

5. From where do sexual fetishes originate? Phobias?

According to Freud, fetishes and phobias arise during the pre-genital phase of psychosexual development—probably in the sadistic-anal phase. Phobias are therefore relics of childhood. They are rationally unsuppressable, because having once accepted them emotionally, phobias and fetishes live in our emotional cores. For the same reason, they are the strongest sources of individual creative output.

6. What are your dreams like?

Colorful and usually related to persecution. I was growing up at the time of World War II, during the German occupation. At night I used to be haunted by recurring dreams in which I was being chased by soldiers and I had to escape through gardens and yards in a block of houses. (I reference those dreams in my film Surviving Life—and they still come back in different variations.)
  The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

7. In what ways are men manipulated like puppets?

When I compare people to puppets controlled via wires and strings, of course I mean it metaphorically/symbolically. In reality, those wires or strings can be, for example, advertisements, populist politicians, religion, mass media, laws, the police, etc. Civilization is based on manipulation. How else would the minority be successful in controlling the majority? We live in a manipulated democracy—as Noam Chomsky remarked.

8. What value is there in isolating objects from their original contexts (e.g. feet dancing by themselves?)

Comte de Lautréamont, the predecessor of Surrealists, wrote this sentence: “As beautiful as the meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Real poetry begins when we take reality out of its natural surroundings and put it into an inadequate context. Only then does it excel in its forced/constrained/unnatural beauty, which Surrealists love so much.

9. How are fear, dream, and eroticism related?

Fear, dream, eroticism—and I would also add childhood—are our imaginative values. They are the most significant and the most intense sources of imaginative (magical) creation/output.

10. Why the emphasis on the tactile in an audio-visual medium?

Sight and hearing have been ‘spoiled’ by an audio-visual-heavy society. I think that just the ‘primitivistic’ touch could bring some fresh authenticity to creation.
  Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

11. Are we all a little bit sadistic? Narcissistic? Masochistic?

Yes, we are. At least Freud says so. According to him, as children we are poly-perverted, and remain so to a certain extent into adulthood—some people more, some people less.

12. How do you feel about technology?

Even though computer animation made new techniques possible in animated films, I still have objections to it and whenever possible I do not use it. I miss the tactile dimension that gets lost in digital animation. Computers works in ‘non touched’ reality, which I believe deprives animation of one important emotional level.

13. Can you pinpoint the loss of your childhood innocence?

I cannot, because I view my childhood as not being over yet. I consider it to be an unfinished chapter of my life. I am infantile. I have never closed the door on my childhood and I am still having a dialogue with it. I do not understand how I can be getting away with it in this civilization of adults.

What to Wear & How to Network in Austin and Beyond

In her book The Intentional Networker, Patti DeNucci lays down the basic (and some more advanced) ground rules for professional business networking. Two of her points are worth exploring in more detail here: (1) what to wear, and (2) how to network—especially when it comes to referrals and asking others for their time.


When DeNucci gives the example of a woman who wants to make $75K but dresses in sweats and has perennially dirty, unkempt hair, chances are that on some days you recognize yourself in that woman. Maybe you work from home (and let’s be honest, possibly in your PJs); maybe you’re a firm believer that it’s the person, not their appearance, who should be judged. Call it quality over quantity of designer suits, jewelry, or briefcases. I, too, wish the world worked this way … but it doesn’t. Not when it comes to business. 


The last date I went on, I knew very little about the guy in advance. I’d asked him out after only a brief encounter (on the volleyball court no less). Given the casual circumstances under which we’d met, I decided to err on the side of caution, picking a nice but fun dress and funky statement earrings for our dinner. Whether he showed up in jeans or a suit, I felt I’d be okay. I arrived at our meeting place earlier than he, but I spotted him immediately as he approached my table. He wore fitted pants, a button-down shirt and a blazer, with an exquisite leather belt and Italian shoes. VERY put-together, and quite frankly, he kind of took my breath away. He dressed better than he ‘had’ to (given that he’s also just naturally good-looking), but the extra effort spoke volumes about his character, ambitions, and how seriously he took the date.

Right away, I was reassured that I was in the presence of a calm, confident, well-to-do gentleman. That’s exactly the type of person I like to date, and exactly the type of person I want to do business with!


If there’s a networking event on my calendar that I’ve planned for well in advance, I always take pains to look professional going in. A dress, or dress pants and a blouse, are standard for me, as well as either elegant or funky jewelry (depending on the mood of the event). I’ve learned that the accessories are what pull a whole outfit together, so don’t skimp on the shoes or bag either. (I just placed a bag order with this great Italian company on Etsy—check them out!) It's better to be overdressed than underdressed.


Then there are the days I leave my house in my jeans or even yoga pants because I’m ‘just walking to the grocery store.’ Yet, it never fails that as soon as I walk through the doors of HEB, I see someone I know or end up in line behind someone who wants to make conversation. And those are networking opportunities, too! Maybe I’m in a bad mood, or not wearing make-up, but as the face of my business, I always have to be ‘on’ and ready to go. It’s a challenge—one that can excite you, or leave you perpetually anxious. Work on the excitement by always having a non-salesy elevator pitch in your back pocket, and a desire to make a genuine connection.


Sometimes other people in your network facilitate the connection. They introduce you to their friend or a potential contact, and wait for the sparks to fly. You’ll connect authentically or you won’t, but three words that instantly turn me off are “pick your brain.” Anyone who asks me to make time for them in my busy schedule with no inkling of a return on the investment isn’t going to get much from me. Business is transactional (a give-to-get) before anything else.

I recently found myself in that exact scenario, but wearing the other shoe. There was a filmmaker I wanted to meet, whose work I greatly admired but who had no real incentive to make time for me. So I made it worth his time. I wrote my thesis on his complete filmography, had it translated into Czech (his native language), and sent it to him with a request for a meeting. I offered to come to him in Prague, arrange for an interpreter, and have my questions prepared. Clearly, I’d done my homework, and was conscious of making my request as easy for him to fulfill as possible. The value to him was also already clear: he got more exposure in America through the publication of my thesis in a popular film journal here. I’d demonstrated my sincere interest in who he is as a person and artist; I was not just another ‘fangirl.’ I gave to get.

Bottom line:

Dress to impress (because it does impress). Be on your toes. Do your homework. Offer value to get value. Good luck.

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!

Who is Colin Meloy? [And How Does He Get Away with Pseudo-Rapey Art?]

This post is the SEVENTH 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.


Every single one of you fall into one of two categories: lyrics-person, or melody.

Me, I’m a writer. I hear the words long before I memorize the telltale guitar riff or that wicked drum solo. If the lyrics are boring, unoriginal, or just plain silly, the singer/songwriter/band has lost in me a fan.

Then there are those of you who will be humming mindlessly along with your quote-on-quote “favorite” song one day and go: “Wait—THAT’s what those lyrics says?” You’ll shake your head and smile at your own ignorance and your life will go on … because, hey, you still like the music.


Luckily, there’s at least one band who combines them both: witty writing and exceptional chords. Colin Meloy is the front man of the Portland-based Decemberists, a group unmistakable for their signature sound (and voracious vocabulary).


I remember the first Decemberists song I ever heard: “A Cautionary Song.” Set to an upbeat yo-ho-pirate accordion frenzy, it tells the story of a young mom who is kidnapped and gang-raped at sea every night, so as to pay for the collard greens that her children then refuse to eat. Dark, yes, but darkly hilarious and infinitely catchy. All the Decemberists songs follow a similar bent: epic storytelling, fairytale morality, tragedy that inevitably falls just shy of morose, and fantastic phraseology like “indolent,” “odalisque,” and “parapet.”

talented colin

Colin crafts these masterworks almost singlehandedly: as the band’s singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter, he has produced seven studio albums, eight EPs, thirteen singles, two compilations, and a live album. He variously plays the acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, electric guitar, bouzouki, harmonica, and a handful of percussion instruments.


When he’s not song-writing, he’s fiction-writing! The Wildwood Chronicles are a trilogy of 800-page tomes marketed to young adults (I still read them, though). Colin writes the text, and wife Carson illustrates. Together, they describe the story like this:


Colin Meloy, musician, author, hipster heartthrob: please come read/sing my someday-children to sleep.