Happy International Women’s Day

Two years ago I blogged here about my personal connection to International Women’s Day. I invite you to revisit that post

…and listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Shakin’ the Tree” as you read.

-Sarah White

Or here’s one you won’t hear on commercial radio… John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”.

(Performance from “Gimme Some Truth,” Remastered 2010.)

Woman is the nigger of the world
Yes she is…think about it
Woman is the nigger of the world
Think about it…do something about it

We make her paint her face and dance
If she won’t be slave, we say that she don’t love us
If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man
While putting her down we pretend that she is above us
Woman is the nigger of the world…yes she is
If you don’t belive me take a look to the one you’re with
Woman is the slaves of the slaves
Ah yeah…better screem about it
We make her bear and raise our children
And then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen
We tell her home is the only place she would be
Then we complain that she’s too unworldly to be our friend
Woman is the nigger of the world…yes she is
If you don’t belive me take a look to the one you’re with
Woman is the slaves of the slaves
Yeah (think about it)

We insult her everyday on TV
And wonder why she has no guts or confidence
When she’s young we kill her will to be free
While telling her not to be so smart we put her down for being so dumb
Woman is the nigger of the world…yes she is
If you don’t belive me take a look to the one you’re with
Woman is the slaves of the slaves
Yes she is…if you belive me, you better screem about it.

We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance



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About Writing “Mountain Girls”: An Interview with Stephanie Kadel Taras

Stephanie is my  friend and colleague in the Association of Personal Historians. In this interview she reflects on writing Mountain Girls, her memoir published in 2013. Last week I posted an excerpt here on True Stories Well Told.

kadel taras 2013 headshot

Sarah: What got you started on this project?

Stephanie: I had originally thought, back in 2003, which is where the book begins, that I’d like to use the skills that I’d been developing as a personal biographer to get to know some of these stories of women in West Virginia, which was where I had lived until I was 16 years old. I was really interested in this whole sense I was getting from my projects about how much had changed in just a generation’s time. When I started thinking about my friends’ mothers and other older women in the state, really, we were talking about the difference between subsistence living and modern life and that they lived to see that transition. If you lived in the mountains, you might not be able to get into town in the wintertime, so you would have to know how to can and store food without refrigeration and be able to feed your family for several months. It was that cultural history that intrigued me at the beginning.

I started interviewing these older women and hearing their stories. That was really what I had in mind for the book. I wanted to use my interviewing skills, my research and writing skills.

I wasn’t thinking memoir at all, but what happened was, I kept going back to my hometown and meeting up with my friends, and especially Lisa Armstrong, who’s the other main character in the book. She was living in Baltimore at the time and I was in Ann Arbor. We would meet up together and stay for a few days, and I would do the interviews, and we would drive around. At night I would sit up writing on my laptop, about what we had done that day, what we had found out about our own past, and that would lead to my memories about us as friends when we were highschoolers.

All of a sudden, I was generating much more personal memoir material. But as we know about the writing process, you never get what you thought you were starting out to do. So I got out of my own way and started piecing it together as a combination of historical stories and memoir stories, and then more contemporary stories because I was thinking about why we both longed for West Virginia even though we had very successful and enjoyable lives in other places—what we missed about the community where we had grown up.

It took on this other life of musing about women’s choices and modernity. I ended up finding the structure of each chapter being a different cultural or women’s issue like music or food or or nature or sex and motherhood. That gave me this way I could put together all these different stories from these different time periods. Once I figured that out, I knew what the book was that I was writing.

Sarah: I think the structure is very successful. I really like the feeling of being with you on this journey. How did you make time to do all this work?

Stephanie: Well, I will remind you that the book started in 2003 and I published it in 2013 and it’s only 135 pages. In some sense, it was definitely a when-I-could-find-the-time project. For a long time I had a box of files on the floor in my office and it was always staring at me. Sometimes a year had gone by and I hadn’t looked at it. But at the same time, every year I would always put on my Do list ‘finish West Virginia book.’ Then I started working with a writing partner where we agreed to meet every week. Once I had that deadline, I would make the time to do it. All of a sudden, I was making progress.

That was around 2010. The final push came when I asked a client who had a cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan if I could go there by myself for a week to complete the first draft. I felt like I was far enough along that if I just had uninterrupted time where I didn’t have to do anything else, I could get it done. That was a real game changer. At the end of that retreat, I had a manuscript.

Sarah: I was delighted when I came to that, because for me, the U.P. has also been a productive place for writing. The combination of physical activity and then burrowing in with my writing work feels heavenly to me.

Stephanie: It was really special. I walked every day on the beach and then I’d come in and meditate. It felt right to spend the time just breathing and envisioning what I want this book to do for people. Each day, I had a different thought: The book would be beautiful, it would be meaningful, it would make people happy, all these goals I had for it as a work of art, I infused into that last push to get the tone right. That was an unexpected process for me.

Sarah: How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out? How do we describe our adolescent experiments without embarrassing ourselves and revealing too much? I thought you did a very graceful job of that.

Stephanie: Part of it is that you write a lot more stuff than you actually end up using. There definitely were a lot of stories from my teenage years on the cutting room floor. It becomes, well, what is your overall narrative and what is the message that you’re trying to get across through the story itself? By structuring it with these themes, I could say, ‘Okay, that scene with Lisa doesn’t have anything to do with music or food or babies or nature.’ If I already had a scene that explains how close we were or that shows our personalities as teenagers, then I don’t need a second scene to do the same thing. And the same with the stories about the other women too, I just needed a little bit to talk about what it meant to feed your family and a little bit to talk about the choices women make to have children early or late or not at all. The story drives the choices of what to include.

Don’t forget that I worked on it for 10 years. I would never suggest that somebody purposely take 10 years to write a memoir, but I benefitted in that I didn’t feel that close to some of that writing anymore, so it was easier to delete it. And another thing is all during those years, my writing was improving and growing. I could have published the book years before, but I think it’s a much better book because I got more experience as a writer in the meantime.

And then the other weird thing, when it’s a contemporary memoir, is that you’re still living your life. Things happened in my life and in Lisa’s life while I was working on the book that got incorporated into the story.

Sarah: And that leads into my next question: other people in the book. Clearly, you worked very closely with Lisa. She knew she was becoming a protagonist. Tell me how you handled the sensitive question of writing about other people?

Stephanie: Well partly, you ignore that at the start so it doesn’t get in the way of your ability to get it down on paper. Eventually, I asked Lisa to read the whole thing. She did make some changes. I didn’t want to do anything that would make her feel uncomfortable, and I was happy to do that because my memory could certainly be skewed.

I showed the relevant chapters to the other people who are in the book, so that they would have a chance to see how they were portrayed and what I quoted them as saying. Not only was that important for honoring and respecting them, and for making sure that there wasn’t anything objectionable, but it makes it a lot easier when you start marketing the book, like in my hometown, to know that they know that they’re in there, and that they approved it. It would be really awkward if I showed up with this book and they didn’t even know.

Now all of that said, I did not include my mother in the process, and she’s a big part of the book. I didn’t interview her, and I didn’t have her review it in advance, and that was probably unfair, but it was also just the nature of our relationship. I took the risk to say, ‘Alright Mom, this is going to come out, and I hope you’ll forgive me, and remember I’m talking about my teenage perspective…’

It turned out fine. She loved it and she told me it made her feel like a good mother. I was very relieved.

And then the other thing, of course, is my own revealing. I did talk about my sex life as a teenager, and my awkwardness. I just decided that I couldn’t, for example, talk about the issue of having babies when you’re young if I didn’t admit what I didn’t know about having babies while young.

Sarah: What was hardest to write?

Stephanie: The chapter that I really wrestled over the most was when I started reflecting on my and Lisa’s career choices and our current lives, our work and the art that we do. It was hard to really get to the truth, and I think it was because I was so close to it. I really went through a lot of drafts to get the right tone in that chapter.

Sarah: I understand that Lisa is a graphic designer. Let’s talk about the mechanics of getting the book published.

Stephanie: She did everything, which is part of what makes it such a fun book to have out there in the world, because it’s a story about me and my best friend and I’m a writer and she’s a designer, and the book is our book. She took the photograph on the cover. She designed the cover. She drew the map. She did the layout. She helped me figure out where to get it printed and bound. She’s been a partner to the whole effort.

mt girls cover

Sarah: Where did you have it printed?

Stephanie: Lightning Source, which is a print-on-demand company. I ended up choosing Lightning Source for a variety of reasons, but one was because they had a distribution service but you don’t have to use that, and I haven’t yet pursued those services. My thought was that I want to sell as many of them one-to-one to my personal connections upfront, to maximize how much I can earn from the book until I run out of my connections. Then I will expand my distribution and earn less per book by using other outlets.

I do have a lot of readers now and people have sent me nice emails. I’ve told some of them, ‘I might ask you if you wouldn’t mind doing a review for me when the time comes that I put it on Amazon.’

Sarah: I hope it does wonderful things for you.

Stephanie: I would have to say it’s been just complete joy to have it out there. I love my work as a personal historian, but this is whole new realm of fun and learning and excitement. It’s a new injection of joy in my work. I highly recommend it.

- – -

To purchase Mountain Girls or read more about Stephanie and her work, click here.

Posted in Book review, Guest writer | Leave a comment

Two Memoir Writers’ Salons meets in first week of March

First [Day] First Person–now I’ve gone and complicated things!

Monday evening  or midday Friday, whichever suits your schedule, join us to share and critique writing in the first person with like-minded people!  Sign up on arrival to read on a first-come, first-served basis, and receive group feedback. Listeners welcome as well as readers.

First Monday, First Person (Monthly)
March 3, at Goodman South Madison Branch Library,
6pm – 7:45pm
2222 S Park St, Madison, WI
This salon will meet on the first Monday of the month through 2014 except for Monday holidays.

First Friday, First Person (Quarterly)
This salon will  meet on March 7 – June 6 – September 5 – December 5.
11:00 am – 1 pm
Pinney Branch Library,
204 Cottage Grove Rd, Madison, WI

Thanks to the support of the library Friends groups, these events are free.

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Excerpt from “Mountain Girls”

by Stephanie Kadel Taras

Stephanie is my  friend and colleague in the Association of Personal Historians. She published her memoir Mountain Girls in 2013, from which the following is exerpted. Next week I’ll post an interview with Stephanie about the process of blending her personal history with her inquiry into what it means to be from West Virginia.

mt girls cover

“I can remember when I was a kid I wouldn’t eat biscuits, wouldn’t eat cornbread,” Hazel Wood tells me today. She grew up in Elkins in the 1940s and ’50s. After Hazel’s mother, Lucy White, married Teaberry Lantz, they moved off the mountain and into town, because they’d had enough of “living out,” as Lucy called it.

“Mom would make homemade vegetable soup,” Hazel remembers, “and I’d say, ‘No, give me a can of Campbell’s.’ I look back now and think how dumb I was.”

I’ve come to the local 4-H camp to talk to Hazel (my mom’s friend and former voice student) about food. Winner of eighty ribbons in a single year at the Mountain State Forest Festival “Ag Day” for her canned vegetables, cookies, pies, cakes, candy, breads, and garden produce, Hazel is, well, pretty adept in the kitchen.

Hazel's mom's parents Amos and Texie White, holding two homemade cakes. (Date unknown.)

Hazel’s mom’s parents Amos and Texie White, holding two homemade cakes. (Date unknown.)

Every dish I’ve been privileged to eat at Hazel’s home—like beans and cornbread or chicken salad or fried zucchini—remains the best home-cooking of my life. Even cottage cheese and sliced tomatoes seem to taste better coming out of Hazel’s kitchen. When we were children, we begged Mom to ask Hazel to bake her famous chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting for our birthdays. I long to be able to cook like Hazel, but I won’t get there with instant gravy and frozen biscuits.

The 4-H camp is just outside Beverly on the top of a rise, surrounded by high-altitude farm fields and distant views of rolling blue peaks. This spring, Hazel and her sister, Helen, are cooking meals at the 4-H camp for public school students at a day-long science camp. Today’s lunch is beef and noodles, salad, green beans, and rolls, all made from scratch and way better than most school lunches I remember.

I went to 4-H camp in these very buildings more than thirty years ago. I can even find myself in a black-and-white group picture that hangs on the wall in the main building. I’m shorter than most, my blonde hair a bob with bangs, my skin pale, my eyes squinting in the sun.

The camp grounds today look exactly the same as they did then. After the science campers have eaten and gone, Hazel brings a plate of lunch out of the kitchen to sit with me. She is short and stocky, wearing slacks and a T-shirt that says “World’s Best Grandma.” She is sweating and wiping her brow.

“I’m always like this now,” she says. “I get so hot, the sweat just pours off me.” Hazel, like my mother, is in her late sixties. Gray is showing in her short, layered hair, but her brown eyes are bright behind big, round glasses.

“How do you make these rolls?” I ask, taking a soft bite out of a perfectly shaped dinner roll, white on the inside, browned on top.

She shrugs. “Oh, you just make the dough and then pinch off pieces and put them side-by-side in the pan.” I think it must be hard for Hazel to talk to me about cooking, since it is all a wonder to me, and it’s so old-hat for her.

“I never did any cooking when I was growing up,” she assures me, “except fried potatoes and onions. Fried potatoes was a staple in our house, and we loved onions in them. Even when I was a kid in junior high, if I wanted something to eat, I would go to the kitchen and fry me a skillet of potatoes and onions.”

When Hazel married at seventeen and had her first child, she learned quickly how to cook, sew, and take care of a household. “I just kind of picked up cooking skills, one dish at a time.” She called her mother and aunts for help. “I taught myself all the family recipes. I didn’t use cookbooks for that.”

Hazel comes from a long line of good cooks. She remembers eating at her grandmother’s house every Sunday afternoon when she was a girl. Many of the ten children of Texie White and their kids would come together for a big family meal, a softball game, and some music. Hazel loved her grandmother’s applesauce pies. “Grandma canned everything,” she says, “all her own vegetables and fruit. She made her own sausage when they’d kill a hog, and they would cure the hams with salt and brown sugar. She canned a lot of their meat, because they didn’t have freezers then to store food.” The family improvised refrigeration by building a “spring house” where crocks of milk were kept in the cold, running water from the spring. “I’d hate to even think of how many jars of food Grandma White had,” says Hazel.

I am awed at the thought of women like Grandma White feeding their families every day from the food they produced. Think of the time and skill required to cook on wood stoves and preserve garden produce without refrigeration and stretch food through the winter when the mountains could make it nearly impossible to get to a store. I wouldn’t want that life today, but I wish I had that knowledge. By the time I was a kid in the 1980s, almost nobody remembered that way of life, and I didn’t know it ever existed.

© 2013 Stephanie Kadel Taras

To purchase Mountain Girls or read more about Stephanie and her work, click here.

Posted in Book review, Guest writer | 3 Comments

“Braving the Fire,” by Jessica Handler

Suffering is a teacher, and  writing  is a way of taking lessons from it. Jessica Handler’s book Braving the Fire is an excellent guide to this aspect of writing craft.


I have read other books on writing as a way of healing but I found something unique in Jessica Handler’s approach:

…Perhaps you want to write about the ways that grief came into your life and what has happened in its aftermath, or you want to commemorate a loved one or way of life that’s gone. After you’ve survived the death of a loved one, an illness, a broken romance, the loss of a home, country, or even a social structure, the story of who you are changes.

 I like that Handler recognizes loss comes in many forms; not just loss of people (loved ones, or previous versions of ourselves), but also loss of places and cultures. This book has relevancy for anyone who has  moved beyond the place or circumstances of our birth.

Jessica-Handler_Web-72ppi-7x10“Simply tell your story, and you begin to build a bridge that connects who you were with who you have become,” Handler counsels in her introduction, and then goes on to structure an excellent curriculum around the five stages of grief first identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the early 1970s. Handler adds to Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance a sixth stage—Renewal. “Renewal is…a stage that’s purely about what happens to the grieving writer as she crafts and finishes her true story,” Handler writes.

There are problematic aspects to a book as thoroughly researched as Braving the Fire. Handler draws on dozens of memoirs of loss, culling helpful writing lessons and encouraging words. But every quote is prefaced with identifier phrases that after a while made me feel like I was at a rather lugubrious and over-crowded cocktail party. “Haven’t I met you before?” “Oh yes, you’re the one who’s son died too young…” I don’t have an alternative to suggest, but I know it began to seem like a nervous tick and I wished she’d just trust us to keep the players straight. (An excellent bibliography is included.)

On the other hand, Handler recognized that many people will not read this book front cover to last page, in that order. Just as grief processes don’t run straight down the tracks of Kübler-Ross’ stages, writers of grief stories need the flexibility to create their own sequence. And thus, the repeated introductions, for people just arriving at the cocktail party, whatever the page.

Braving the Fire  knits together well its several elements—teaching points, tips and end-of-chapter “next steps,” and personal observations from Handler’s own experience as a writer of grief, chronicled in her first book, Invisible Sisters.


She faces head-on the difficulty of writing from grief without becoming lost in it. “Grief is a fire that’s burned you once, maybe even more than once. In order to write about it, though, you have to hold your hand over that fire again,” she writes, and she had me from the moment I absorbed that beautiful, true, metaphor. She has excellent advice on how to care for yourself while playing with  fire.

Handler is a compassionate guide.  She shares her own struggles and process and, even while creating a masterful blend, convinces us that ordinary people, too, can write transformative stories that make meaning from our losses.

Jessica Handler lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches creative writing at Oglethorpe University.  Mutual friend Audrey Galex introduced me to Jessica while I was in Atlanta recently. The three of us shared a delightful lunch and remarkable conversation rambling far across our shared interests. If I’m ever trapped on a deserted island I hope Jessica and Audrey are with me. -Sarah White

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The Robbery

By Gina Chirichella

I lived in Boston from 1982-1984. It was a highly eventful two years. The city adopted me from the very first day, that is until a fateful incident proved to be the beginning of the end.


I, along with my boyfriend Kent was working at a clothing store aptly named Jungle Jive. It was located in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood near the Dover Station “T” stop on the Orange Line in Roxbury. Not exactly Beacon Street.

gina kent and lizard in shop

We carried a pan-global stock of military costumes, aviator glasses, combat boots, harem-style baggies for the break dancers, Hawaiian shirts, long tweed coats, kimonos, jewelry, vintage dresses, and even camouflage design skirts and bags effortlessly custom made by our in-house seamstress, Kim.

A Vietnam veteran who had fallen in love with Vietnam and the Vietnamese people named Mike owned the shop, and he was a most generous boss. He treated us all like Family, and Kent, as the manager, was especially proud of our unique little place.

One early spring evening, just as we were preparing to lock up, Four black teenagers walked in together. They had nylons on their heads and pulled them down over their faces in a well choreographed move. They were each carrying a sawed off shotgun. “Get down on the floor”, the apparent leader screamed, “lay down, face down”. Frankie (another employee) and I were behind the counter. Kent and Kim were in the clothing aisles. It was difficult to “lay down, face down”. There simply wasn’t enough room, I had to lay in a fetal position.

“Where is the cash register?” he demanded. “We don’t own one, just this cash box” Frankie exclaimed, and reluctantly surrendered it. It contained a mere forty dollars. “That’s it? Everyone give me your wallets.” I had a small change purse in my cargo pants pocket, which was actually a rosary purse, unbeknownst to me at the time, with ten dollars inside. He grabbed the cash and threw it back to me. The others gave up their cash, too.

“We’re going to kill you.” After he made that threat it all seemed kind of surreal because the all-consuming fear and terror had taken complete command of my body and soul. “Where is the rest of the money?” I heard him ask, although by now I was in some sort of daze, like during airline turbulence, only far more intense. “That’s all we have, and can I get my wallet back? There is a phone number for a girl I like inside.” Frankie again. Did he really say that? Who would do something so foolhardy? Now we will be killed for sure. Although you couldn’t actually detect facial expressions through the nylon covering his face, his body language proved that Frankie’s request didn’t even phase him. He tossed the wallet back and all four unceremoniously exited.


None of us were injured, and the culprits never returned. This experience taught me why armed robbery is considered such a serious crime: to make people feel that they are powerless and threaten them with instant death is unbelievably cruel. I also secretly wished that rather than becoming paralyzed with fear, that I might keep my wits about me, as well, Frankie managed to do.

Kent and I moved back to Madison soon after. Actually he had no choice in the matter, as a few weeks later we were pulled over in Mike’s van for having expired license plates and Kent had no driver’s license. He attempted to give the officer a fake name, but the cop wasn’t buying it. Finally Kent gave me a look of resignation and stated his real name. He was extradited back to Wisconsin for an old bail-jumping charge. I always felt that subconsciously he  was relieved at having to leave Jungle Jive and Boston after the robbery, because it had affected him more than he knew and the same went for me. I was forced to end my relationship with Kent soon after returning to Madison for many reasons. Would we have stayed in Boston had the robbery never taken place? I guess we’ll never know.

© Gina Chirichella, January 27, 2014

Gina attended the UW majoring in Theatre, and perform swith local Theatre groups. She’s new to writing, but enjoying it.  She love swimming at beaches, skating, dancing, music (especially punk rock), reading and liberal politics.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

“Make Love Not War” in book trailer for “Seasons of Our Lives”

Back in July 2011 I posted here crowing about winning a writing contest. The story, titled “Make Love Not War”, is about my brief love affair during a summer-study abroad program in 1978.

Sarah and Halim, 1978, Dijon, France

Sarah and Halim, 1978, Dijon, France

Now that story has been published  in Seasons of Our Lives, a new ebook series available on Amazon’s Kindle Store from Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett of Women’s Memoirs. And they asked me to read my story for the book trailer!

You can view it here–

They’d like me to tell you that “These are award-winning life stories that will charm, intrigue, captivate, and inspire. There is a second treat in these volumes. After each story, there is a takeaway to help readers think about their lives and consider effective ways to write their own life stories.”

I was delighted with the “takeaway” Matilda and Kendra wrote to accompany “Make Love Not War.” They called out aspects of my essay that I had not yet seen–such as the way the details of time and place are essential to this story. And they liked the way the repeated phrase about the telephone “brings change and creates hinges in the plot.” It’s nice to know that something I worked hard on actually worked for my readers! (And please, let’s talk more about my writing. This feels good!)

I believe this was the most revised piece of writing in my memoir repertoire. I boiled away episodes and even characters until some would read this and say, “That’s not the way it happened at all,” in order to make it work in the Women’s Memoirs short essay format. This is the craft aspect of writing memoir. I killed a lot of darlings to create that contest entry. (For my actual memoir, I’ll go back to the 30-page version and see if I’ve learned enough to make it work.)

So here’s my request–my message in a bottle. IF YOU know someone who was part of the Group Indiana, 1978, Dijon France–If YOU know the whereabouts of a boy from Lebanon who passed through Dijon before moving to Moscow to study medicine in 1978–whose family was from Morocco and may have returned there–if YOU are, or knew, the boy we called “Miko” who loved Halim as much as I did–please get in touch. What are the Internets for, if not unlikely reunions?


Posted in Sarah's memoir | 3 Comments