Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

In my last post, I wrote about participating in a community reading program. The book the planning committee chose was Jennifer Wilson’s memoir Running Away to Home. The final event for the reading program was a presentation by the author. I was looking forward to that because I wanted to know what life has been like for Jennifer and her family now that they are home from their journey to Croatia. I especially wanted to know how the trip had changed them.

I didn’t need to ask the question. Another woman beat me to it. The nods from people in the auditorium clearly indicated that the question had been on their minds as well. Jennifer’s first response was that she and her family were relieved to be home again and they easily fell back into their regular routine. Her two children who had been homeschooled by their dad in Croatia were eager to get back to school with their friends. Jennifer was happy to go back to her travel writing.

Was I the only one who felt a little disappointed with that answer I wondered? So much had happened in Croatia, and Jennifer wrote about it all so eloquently in her book. I didn’t want to believe that the trip had not changed their whole family in some significant way. I was not the only one who wanted more. Someone else in the audience tried again asking the question in a slightly different way. Certainly the trip had changed them in some ways she suggested.

With the press for more details, Jennifer talked about small changes they had made. After spending four months in Mrkopalj where villagers raised almost everything they ate, the Wilsons started a garden in their yard. They have also learned to live on less. They no longer shop as recreation and they don’t hoard. More recently, they moved to a smaller home. But most of all, Jennifer says she has a new appreciation for her life in the U.S. She understands now how hard it was for her ancestors to immigrate to this country, and she fully appreciates the sacrifices they made. For instance, after her father settled in the U.S., he never again had contact with his family in Croatia. Jennifer has also seen how different her life would be if her ancestors had stayed in Croatia.

Another woman wondered about Jennifer’s children. They were only 4 and 7 years old when they made their journey to Croatia. “Do you think they’ll remember the trip when they’re older?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Jennifer replied. Then she expressed her hope that the trip will help them learn to value travel as she does because it’s important to see more of the world.

Jennifer ended her presentation with a challenge for all of us. She said she and her husband had spent nine months planning for their trip. There were many times during that period when they had doubts. But always at the back of their minds there was a voice urging them forward. She challenged us to listen to our own inner voices and to push doubts aside to follow our hearts. It’s a risk, but the rewards can be great.


Running Away to Home

1309310021book-cover[1]This month, I’ve been participating in a community reading program. For that annual event, people are invited to read a book chosen by the planning committee. There are activities such as book discussions and it all culminates with a presentation by the author. It’s one of those things I’ve always intended to do, but never got beyond the thinking about it stage. So I kind of surprised myself when I signed on. What was different this year? The main thing was that I was intrigued by the book selection, Jennifer Wilson’s memoir Running Away to Home.

The long subtitle pretty much sums up what the book is about: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters. Jennifer, a travel writer and mother of two, was frustrated with her frenzied, materialistic world of work, soccer practices, swimming lessons, and shopping trips to Target all fueled by caffeine from Starbucks. “Is this the American Dream?” she wondered. “Because if it is, it sort of sucks.” Her husband shared her dissatisfaction and her spirit of adventure. So they set off with their two young children, headed for the small Croatian village of Mrkopalj (MER-koe-pie) in search of Jennifer’s family roots and a simpler life.

Surprisingly, Jennifer, who is the most passionate about travel, is the one who had the hardest time adjusting to the unstructured lifestyle and to living on Croatian time where things get done whenever. (The rooms that were supposed to be ready for them when they arrived for their four-month stay were still a work-in-progress.)

Gradually, Jennifer did settle in and became immersed in the daily life of the village. She wrote with humor about the community and the friendships they formed there, and I loved her descriptions of the area. She also did a great job of building tension. At first, there are only roadblocks as she researches her family roots, but the story builds as she uncovers clues and begins to make progress.

I was tempted to skip some of the early sections about Mrkopalj’s history. I didn’t because I sensed it was an important part of the story, and I was right. I got more interested in the history as I learned more about Jennifer’s ancestors and began to see how the past had influenced their lives. I always say that I never cared much about history until I started writing biographies. But putting real people into the history makes it come alive, and that is the case with Jennifer’s story.

The book ends in Mrkopalj, so now I’m looking forward to the final part of the community reads program, Jennifer’s presentation. I’m hoping she’ll talk about what life is like for her family now that they are home again. I’m wondering how, or if, the trip changed them.

As much as I enjoyed Jennifer’s story and admire her spirit of adventure, I know I’ll never have a similar one to tell. I’m too much of a homebody. A week of vacation and I’m good for at least a few months. What about you? Would you leave everything behind to live in another country for a period of time? Would you make a journey like that with children, or would you prefer to travel on your own or as part of a couple? Or maybe you’ve already enjoyed your own adventure. I would love to hear about it.

Writing Advice

“Write what you know” is advice authors often hear, but I’ve been intimidated by it sometimes. It leaves me wondering what I know about that could possibly interest anyone else. So I’ve expanded that idea to: write what you care about. Nancy Furstinger has followed that advice better than anyone I know.

She is a lover of all types of animals and an adoptive mom to both dogs and rabbits. She also specializes in writing about animals. It’s those two loves that have led to her most recent picture books.

5677929[1]The first, Maggie’s Second Chance, is about a pregnant Lab mix who is abandoned in an empty house. The Realtor finds her and takes her to an animal control facility where her puppies are born. They are adopted, but Maggie is not. Jeff, a fourth grader, is upset when he learns from his teacher that if Maggie is not adopted, she will be euthanized. Jeff and his classmates convince the city council to open an animal shelter, and it is through that shelter, that Maggie is given her second chance.The book is based on two true stories. One is about a dog Nancy rescued. She was abandoned in a house after her humans moved. Nancy planned to foster her until a forever home could be found, but as Nancy admits, she flunked Fostering 101. She adopted the dog renaming her Jolly because that best described her personality.

Nancy and Jolly

Nancy and Jolly

The other part of Maggie’s story came together when Nancy read about a fourth grade class in Texas. They were upset when they learned that unwanted dogs in their town were being euthanized. Determined to do something about it, the students and their teacher, Diane Trull, convinced their city council to set up a no-kill shelter. In 2003, the Dalhart Animal Wellness Group and Sanctuary (DAWGS) was founded. Diane and her family work with children ages nine to eighteen to run the shelter. Although their resources are limited, they have rescued more than 7,000 animals.

imageedit_1_8691751036Nancy’s new picture book, to be released April 1, is also based on one of her adopted pets, a large New Zealand white bunny appropriately named Marshmallow. Her first three years were spent in a tiny outdoor cage until Nancy adopted her and she became a house rabbit. It’s something that happens too often when bunnies are given as Easter gifts. Children enjoy them for a short time, but they quickly lose interest and the bunny is soon neglected.

Nancy and Marshmallow

Nancy and Marshmallow

That is the fate of Bella, the bunny narrator of The Forgotten Rabbit. When the children grow tired of their Easter bunny, she is left outside in a cage without enough food or water. Fortunately, another girl, Rosalita, rescues Bella turning her into a house rabbit. Nancy adds fun and tension to the story by having Rosalita set up an obstacle course for Bella and then entering her in a rabbit agility competition.

“Write what you know” is good advice because, as Nancy shows, it works. What do you know? What do you care about? The answers to those questions could lead to some of your best writing so far.

Inspiration to Write

Last week, I re-read The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. It’s something I do occasionally when I’m slacking off with writing and need to get back on track. Prize Winner is about Evelyn Ryan whose success with contests helped to keep her family financially afloat. It was during the 1950s and 1960s when companies ran contests to advertise their products. Participants were given challenges such as writing the last line of a jingle or telling why they liked a sponsor’s product in 25 words or less. With her wit and ability to write under any circumstances, Evelyn was very successful in contesting. She won small prizes as well as larger ones including $5,000 and a Triumph TR3 sports car, which she sold using the money to pay bills. She also wrote short humorous poems and essays that she sold to newspapers and magazines.

Prize Winner, written by Evelyn’s daughter Terry Ryan, is a great read for anyone who enjoys stories about people overcoming obstacles. For writers, it is also a guide to success. It’s just a matter of following Evelyn’s example. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from her story.

No Time to Write Is Not an Excuse

I’ve whined about not having time to write more often than I care to admit. But it’s hard to do that after reading about Evelyn. Did I mention she had ten kids? “Sometimes it feels like I live in a circus, and all the animals are loose,” she once said. But in the middle of chaos, she wrote.

Read to Get Better

Humor and brevity were tools of Evelyn’s trade, and she honed her skills by reading works of the masters. Some of her favorites were Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Ogden Nash.

Know the Market

Evelyn made it her business to know what advertising agency was hired by the sponsor to judge a contest. Some judges liked humor; others wanted serious entries. Some appreciated a play on words; others preferred straight forward prose. Evelyn knew what the judges wanted and tailored her entries to meet their preferences.

Don’t Let the Doubters Get You Down

Contesting was competitive. In one Dr. Pepper contest, there were 250,000 entries. With such great odds, some people could not understand why anyone would bother. So they offered their advice. “Wouldn’t taking in laundry be less risky than entering those contests?” a nun said to Evelyn after Sunday Mass. But Evelyn believed the real risk was in not trying.

Perhaps the cruelest comments came from her husband, an alcoholic who could not handle the taunts he got from his co-workers at the garage where he worked. “We know who the real breadwinner in the Ryan family is,” they said. Such criticism was hard to take in the 1950s when men were expected to be the breadwinners. It was Evelyn who suffered the brunt of her husband’s anger with his co-workers, but she did not quit writing.

Keep an Eye on the Prize

It was a competitive business, but Evelyn improved her chances by entering each contest many times. It was simple logistics – having more entries “out there” improved her chances of winning. She said she didn’t win contests because she was lucky. She won because she was determined.

Even so, she did not win every contest, but rejection was also part of the business. She once told her daughter that writing was like working in her garden. She could be proud of what she had done even if others didn’t like it. She had no time to dwell on rejections because she was already moving forward with the next contest.

None of this is new advice. These ideas are covered in almost any book about writing. What’s inspiring about The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is seeing how Evelyn put it all into action and was rewarded with success. Whenever I’m in a writing slump, I know that reading even a few sections of the book will get me back on track.

With the Winter Olympics set to open this week, I decided to post about one of my favorite Olympians – Shaun White. Most of us know him as a gold medalist in snowboarding and as a champion skateboarder. In 2003, he became the first athlete to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter X Games in two different sports.

But did you know that his dreams of being an athlete were almost derailed after a serious skateboarding accident when he was eleven years old? Or that he had two major heart surgeries before he was a year old?

Shaun who grew up in Carlsbad, California, was born with a heart defect that required those early surgeries. But he was never a frail kid. His family, including his parents and a brother and sister, enjoyed taking weekend trips to the mountains to ski.

Shaun learned to ski when he was four. By the time he turned six, he was swishing down slopes at a speed that worried his mother. She decided he should learn to snowboard. She thought that would slow him down, but Shaun was just as fast on a snowboard.

The family began making more trips to the mountains so Shaun could take part in snowboarding competitions. They traveled and slept in an old camper van with a heater that sometimes gave out in the middle of cold nights.

Shaun had a lot of energy and trips to the mountains were not always possible. So he learned to skateboard and soon began competing in that sport too. When Shaun was eleven, he collided with an older, much bigger boy during a skateboarding exhibition, and was knocked unconscious. He ended up with a fractured skull and broken bones, and told his mom he was done with skateboarding. She understood his fear, but she also knew how much he loved the sport. So she continued to take him to the YMCA for skateboarding lessons. Shaun was upset with her at the time, but later he was happy she made him stick with it.

Shaun turned pro as a snowboarder in 2000 when he was thirteen years old. Two years later, he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. He missed the cut by 0.3 points, but he did not give up.

In 2006, Shaun tried again. That time he made the Olympic team and traveled to Torino, Italy where the games were held. Shaun got off to a shaky start after a bad landing in his qualifying run for the men’s halfpipe. But he came back and captured the gold. Four years later, he struck gold again at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Fans are amazed with Shaun’s daring twists and flips on a snowboard, but he is impressed with the bravery of kids who are fighting life threatening illnesses. In partnership with Target, one of his sponsors, he and his brother designed the “Shaun White Great Room.” That recreation room is in the Target House where families can stay while their kids are getting treatment at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Shaun hangs out with the kids as often as he can.

In writing biographies for children and young adults, I’m always looking for good role models. Unfortunately, when you’re writing about the current stars and athletes that kids want to read about, you take a chance. You never know when those celebrities will disappoint. I would have felt bad if I had written a biography about Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber. I know because I did write about Lance Armstrong. So as Shaun White takes the international stage again, I’m hoping he’ll make us proud at the Olympics and long after the games are done.

One Funny Lady

A couple of weeks ago, I read a short paragraph in our Sunday paper about Allie Brosh’s graphic memoir, Hyperbole and a Half. The long subtitle – Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened – was my first clue that she is very funny. It’s been a cold, snowy winter and I needed something to laugh about, so I went to her blog. It is also called Hyperbole and a Half and it is where her book began.

Apparently, I’m one of only a handful of people new to her blog. She started it in 2009, and in less than a year, she was getting almost 2 million views a month. By 2011, that number had grown to between 3 and 7 million each month. It’s easy to see why. I spent a lot of time exploring her archives, and she had me laughing out loud with her twisted way of looking at events in her life.

Her essays are a combination of text and illustrations. On her FAQ page, she says she uses Paintbrush for the illustrations that look deceptively simple. Some may call them crude, but Allie notes that it’s a “precise crudeness.” She may revise one drawing many times. She also puts careful thought into deciding what sections of her posts should be text and what parts work better as illustrations. She’s a perfectionist, who has been known to delete posts from her site because in hindsight she felt they were not her best work.

Her blog also includes some serious posts, most notably the two about her experiences with depression – “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two.” Her serious posts are just as compelling as her humorous ones. “Depression Part Two” brought 5,000 comments from her readers who were touched by her honesty.

About the only complaint her viewers have is that her posts have been infrequent in the last few years – only 3 posts in 2013. Perhaps that is because she’s been working on her book. According to information from the publisher, the book contains some of her blog posts, but 50 percent of it is new material.

Of course, if you’re just discovering her work, as I am, it’s all new material, and I’m glad I read that small paragraph in the newspaper that introduced me to her writing. After all, it’s still cold and snowy, but humor is great medicine for cabin fever.

Writer’s Block?

My first three biographies for young adults were about very accomplished writers – Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Toni Morrison. Writing those books was fun for me because I’m always interested in how other writers get their ideas and how they work. The three authors had some things in common. They all were influenced by strong mothers and the stories of their ancestors, and they all wrote with passion about their cultures. One thing that interested me about Amy Tan and Toni Morrison was what they had to say about writer’s block.

Amy struggled with it when she began her second book. In fact, it was such an important part of her story that I devoted one whole chapter to it in my biography about her. The title of that chapter – “Fear of the Second Book” – sums up much of what caused her writer’s block.

The huge success of her first book, The Joy Luck Club, made it difficult for her to work on a second one. She was afraid it wouldn’t be as well received as the first one. Comments from other writers didn’t help. One said, “The critics are always worse when the first book was really, really big… With the first, they put you on this great big pedestal. But by the time The Second Book comes around, you realize you’re not sitting on a pedestal at all. It’s one of those collapsible chairs above a tank of water at the county fair.”

Every time Amy sat down to write, she thought about critics and her fans and her desire to not disappoint them with her second book. Her mind was filled with worry, which affected her writing. She wrote eighty-five pages of a novel and gave up on it. She started another one writing fifty-six pages before giving up on that one too. In total, she started six different books and discarded all of them.

It was advice from her mother Daisy Tan that helped Amy get past her “block.” Daisy told her daughter she was tired of explaining to people that she was not the mothers in The Joy Luck Club. She said, “Next book, tell my true story.” Amy liked that idea, and it was learning more about her mother’s story and the stories of other ancestors that lead to her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife.

Toni Morrison also had some experience with writer’s block. She said there were times when she wrote day and night, but other times she didn’t write at all. She was not concerned about not writing. She believed she was “blocked” because she was undecided about something in her story. She needed to give herself more time to think about her characters and their stories, trusting that the solution would appear.

At first, I thought their ideas about writer’s block were completely opposite, but I’ve decided there’s some similarity in their methods for overcoming it. Both authors found that the way to get past their “blocks” was to get more information.

One thing I like about writing biographies is that I always learn something from the people I write about. From Amy Tan and Toni Morrison, I learned that the way to handle “blocks” that threaten to upend my own writing projects is to delve deeper. For me as a nonfiction writer, it means I need to go back to the research and dig deeper.

Have any of you struggled with writer’s block? If so, what has helped you get back on track?


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