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

A guest post by Annesly Young.

“I Hate Reading.”

Annesly Young, Cider Spoon’s 2019 Summer Intern

Annesly Young, Cider Spoon’s 2019 Summer Intern

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

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

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

An Escape … and a Responsibility

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

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

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Beyond the Bookstore

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

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

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

What Does This Mean for Reading?

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

“Me Too!”

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

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

The Stories We Tell Each Other

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

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

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

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

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

A Role of Service

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

5 Questions to Ask Your Ghostwriter

So, you’re thinking about hiring a ghostwriter. Whether you go with Cider Spoon Stories or any other company/individual, there are five things you’ll want to ask your prospective hire.

1. What’s your experience?

At time of writing, Jess has ghostwritten dozens of memoirs, two hands’ worth of self-help/business books, six novels (her own just came out from Cinestate), and as many screenplays. She’s also edited more than that in each category. With a masters of fine arts degree in creative writing, she’s taught writing at the university and community levels and has run Cider Spoon Stories full-time since December 2014.

Bottom line: Make sure the person has at least some experience in the field. If you’re their first client (and thus, their grand experiment), don’t be afraid to ask that the price reflects entry-level work. By the same token, don’t ask a ghostwriter with many years’ experience to lower his/her pricing. Most of us have more clients than we can take on as it is, and you’ll end up being kindly dismissed.

2. How do you charge?

Any ghostwriter worth her salt will charge by the project or the word count—not the page. Why? Page count means literally nothing in this field, as there are far too many variables. What’s a page? 8.5”x11” or 6”x9”? Times New Roman or Arial? 11 pt font or 12? Single or double spacing? Microsoft Word or Apple Pages? Raw file or laid out text?

Bottom line: Anyone who quotes you by the page will screw you, or screw themselves, and someone will end up unhappy. Word count, on the other hand, is unarguable—it is what it is. Project pricing may be more fair for longer-term relationships.

3. How long will it take?

Jess Hagemann, Austin-based ghostwriter and editor.

Jess Hagemann, Austin-based ghostwriter and editor.

Jess schedules her clients for 6-12 months out, so everyone can plan accordingly. Once we start, it takes 3-6 months to write, edit, polish, lay out, and print your book. The exact timeline depends on book length and specs. Do you want a 5,000-word digital ebook, no printing? That won’t take more than a month. A 75,000-word memoir? Now we’re talking closer to 9 months when all is said and done.

Bottom line: This goes hand-in-hand with experience, as more experienced ghostwriters will be able to tell you with more accuracy how long your proposed project should take depending on factors like book length and how fancy/involved your final (printed) product will be.

4. Who owns the rights?

At Cider Spoon Stories, the copyright remains 100% in your name at all times. If you go on to sell hundreds of copies of your self-published book, or strike a deal with a commercial publisher, you keep every penny of the proceeds. The flip side is that Jess always gets her fee upfront (because the amount of work she puts in doesn’t change either way) and never writes on commission or for royalties.

Bottom line: Every ghostwriter has a different business model. Think about what will work best for you according to your goals for the book.

5. Who else is involved?

Jess is a writer. It’s what she loves most and she’s good at it. She has less experience in (and less love for) graphic design and printing—so she subcontracts those parts of your project to trusted professionals. If those are your area of expertise, then you can even do them yourself! She’ll get you the file types you need to preserve any formatting in the translation to print.

Bottom line: Confidentiality—and a great product—are key in ghostwriting. Make sure your contract reflects that, and that the business you hire values integrity and hard work in its primary employees and subcontractors.

4 Twitter Hacks for Writers

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

Follow agents and editors.

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

Use hashtags the right way.

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

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

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

Participate in pitch contests.

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

Contribute more than you take.

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

Good luck!

Profile Writing 101: Guest Blog by Marissa Merkt

Cider Spoon Stories’s spring intern, Marissa Merkt!

Cider Spoon Stories’s spring intern, Marissa Merkt!

In addition to interning with Cider Spoon Stories, I write cat profiles for a local animal shelter, Austin Pets Alive (APA!). A profile is a type of feature story that covers a particular person—or in my case, cat—and what they are currently up to. Oftentimes, magazines highlight celebrities with a profile.  

But how do you successfully write a profile, capturing someone's total essence?

Start Strong

First off, grab the reader’s attention right away. Make them want to read on and find out more about the person you are writing about.

Rachel Deah, columnist and news director for Publishers Weekly, advises, “Readers will decide whether to keep reading based on your lede and how much you have piqued their interest.”

Cover the Basics

Make sure you include the most important facts. Try to weed out the unnecessary filler information and find, as Marie Kondo would recommend, “what is purposeful.” Today's attention span is brief, so the shorter the better.

Additionally, make sure all your facts are correct. Common mistakes include incorrect name spellings, locations, and dates.

Identify a Key Characteristic

How do you want your subject to be remembered? Are they a nature-lover like Anne of Green Gables, or maybe a tough fighter like Katniss Everdeen? Try to come up with a couple characteristics to focus on when writing your profile. This makes the profile more interesting and less like a boring biography report.

Keep in mind that writing is more powerful when you “show, don't tell.” This can be done through word choice and descriptions. For instance, if I am writing about a single mom who worked 3 jobs to support her children, I don’t need to state that she is resilient. Just by describing her work ethic, you can see this.

Feature a Catchy Anecdote

Writing profiles is fun when you follow these easy steps!

Writing profiles is fun when you follow these easy steps!

As mentioned in our bio-writing class, engage the audience with something funny and entertaining. Don't just state mundane facts. Is there a quirky story on how the subject got involved with their vocation? Typically, for my cat profiles I make a joke or reference based on their name. For example, one cat was named Ralph, so I alluded to the Disney beast by writing: “Ralph is on a mission to wreck people’s hearts with his too-cute-to-handle face.”

Keep the Goal in Mind

For my cat profiles, the end goal is to portray the cats in a positive light, so they get adopted. Is the profile you’re writing for the subject’s company website? A graduation program? Purpose drives the writing style and determines what material to cover.

Happy writing! If all else fails, hire a profile writer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Haunt and The Hunger: Writing to Heal PTSD

The Haunt and The Hunger

Just this week, I worked with a female soldier to share the story of her rape. It happened over a decade ago, but she’s still processing what her therapists call “non-combat-related PTSD.” As a physician in the army, today she helps patients just like herself come to terms with assault: both The Incident itself, and The Incident’s aftermath: STDs. Uncontrollable crying. A feeling like the world is caving in on you.

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Sexual trauma is not the only type of trauma, of course. Cider Spoon Stories also writes war veterans’ stories. I’ve worked with six Vietnam vets alone in the past two years. Mark my words: we’re about to see a flood of Vietnam stories on the market. These vets are getting older, and they’re ready to tell their side—some for the very first time.

One man I know never told his family anything, because he’d been met by Vietnam protestors when his plane landed stateside … protestors who spit on him and made him feel like the last year of his life had been meaningless … a hollow nightmare … and like his friends and comrades-in-arms had died in vain.

In March, I’ll start ghostwriting the life story of a former child soldier from Uganda. When we met, she asked me how I handled listening to, and writing about, trauma. I won’t pretend it’s easy, or that I don’t feel drained afterward. But that’s the point of doing the hard work: those stories live inside a body … until we can purge them to the page, and everyone can heal.

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No matter what’s happened to you, what you’ve witnessed, or what you’ve done, writing about it—and through it—can help you come out the other side. Sometimes release is found in the act of confession. For others, the book itself becomes a container, a safe space in which to deposit “the haunt and the hunger” (True Detective).

PTSD AND THE DSM-V

The DSM-V (the 5th and current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was published in May 2013. It introduced many important changes to 2000’s DSM-IV-TR, including a long-overdue categorical shift that finally removed PTSD (Post-Traumautic Stress Disorder) from the list of anxiety disorders and reclassified it as a trauma disorder with origins in an etiological event (the traumatic stressor).

THE PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND PTSD

In Jungian terms, PTSD affects the ego, or that part of the person we call the Self. The ego is the center of consciousness; it orients us in time and space; and the ego wants to survive as long as possible with as little pain as possible. When confronted with pain, the ego defends itself with the only weapons it has: projection, idealization, and denial. All three of these defense mechanisms have as their corollary suppression and repression. Because the psyche is a closed system, repressed energy necessarily leaks out in other forms: anxiety and depression, for example. 

COPING WITH PTSD: EMPATHIC PRESENCE

No one “cure” has ever worked for every PTSD sufferer, but there are many suggestions for helping individuals learn to cope with high-level stress. The first is practicing empathic presence. Empathic presence occurs when the PTSD-afflicted individual meets with a qualified therapist who simply listens to the individual's story, over and over again … until such time as the story begins to lose its power. At that point, the story stops “owning” the individual.

There are many free or low-cost resources for people with PTSD (click here for a list of Austin’s veteran services, and here for a unique civilian service), but a good friend with a kind ear can also go a long way toward alleviating said suffering. To be an empathic presence for someone you know, practice being a “container” for story, where narratives may be received and treated as sacred. Friends and family members, even more so than therapists, are good about seeing the human being and not just his/her symptoms.

PTSD AND CIDER SPOON

When asked what war was like, a Vietnam veteran recently replied: 

War is 99% boring and 1% sheer terror.
— http://www.soulrepairtx.com

PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, but many non-veterans suffer from PTSD. Rape victims, abuse victims, and those who have lived through car accidents are just a few examples of afflicted sub-groups. While there are more PTSD services than ever before, the paradigm of trauma remains the same. Our vets and others are dealing with the same problems as 40 years ago, and still not feeling heard.

At Cider Spoon, my job is to listen to your story. No judgment, and no “therapy” in the licensed sense … but helping you make sense of your life all the same, through healing narratives.

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]

[GUEST POST by BEN RICHARD]

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.

WHY JELLYFISH?

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)

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EMBRACING THE INCITING INCIDENT

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.

EXCITED BY THE HUNT

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 ancestry.com, 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 ancestry.com 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 canva.com and pixabay.com. Pay for higher-quality stock photos from sites like istock.com. 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.