Upcoming workshop in Madison

This morning I’m staring down the work I need to get done before leaving for Nova Scotia, the writing retreat I’m leading, and my graduation from my Big MFA Adventure. I’ll only take a quick moment to update you about workshops coming up this summer, and then–back to work!

I’m starting my next Remember to Write! workshop June 12 in South Madison.

Turning memories into memoir essays presents a spectacular opportunity to explore the writing craft while you discover new perspectives on your life. Each week in this 6-week workshop we’ll discuss different aspects of writing short memoir essays, then read and share our stories. You’ll produce up to five short essays (3-5 pages) that reflect your adventures, observations, and unique writing talents.

I’d like to try offering this as an online course, so if you’re intrigued but live outside Madison, let me know.

  *   *   *

I’m in the planning stages with my next Guided Autobiography group, in downtown Madison. Once I have the time/date/place firmed up for this 10-week workshop, I’ll offer a couple of free previews, so you can explore what guided autobiography is all about.

If you think you might like to participate, let me know–call 608-347-7329 or email me at sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

James Birren’s Guided Autobiography approach helps individuals find structure and meaning in their lives, and convey it in a written life story. We use themes and priming questions t evoke memories of events once known but filed away and seemingly forgotten. Writing and sharing life stories with others is an ideal way to find new meaning in life as the uncertainties of the past, and the contradictions, paradoxes, and events of life are put into perspective. Participants typically achieve greater resilience, direction, and appreciation of their lives. The focus is life review, but we do touch on writing technique as well.

And that’s what I’ve got to offer this morning!

  • Sarah
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The Business of Being a Writer – Sarah Style

I’ve got nothing fresh to post today. I’m too busy being a working writer.

A few weeks ago I posted a review of The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman. In it she lays out how most working writers make money through a mix of activities–writing books, yes, but also magazine articles, teaching gigs, and other kinds of writing.

A moment during Jane Friedman’s presentation at the Wisconsin Writers Institute, April 5, 2019

As a working writer, in the last two weeks, I have…

  • Continued writing my work-in-progress started in the MFA program, working title The Soulful History of Glory Foods,
  • Written several 600-word profiles for the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center of successful client engagements. (Find some samples here–scroll to bottom of page),
  • Prepped and taught sessions of “Remember to Write” workshops for the Arts+Literature Laboratory,
  • Submitted an article on Slow Food-UW’s work in South Madison to Isthmus,
  • Worked on several clients’ life stories by interviewing, transcribing, and editing,
  • Worked on two articles for publication related to my Glory Foods project,
  • Prepared and presented a talk to an estate planning group’s clients on why they should leave their legacy in the form of life stories, and
  • Planned workshop content for my upcoming Writing Retreat in Nova Scotia.

Life is good–if busy.

The only thing missing from that list is working on my own memoirs, for the pleasure of writing. Oh wait–in fact I’m producing work in the Arts+Lit Lab workshop along with my students, so that base is not entirely untouched either.

I may have nothing fresh to post next week either. I’m too busy being a working writer. What are you working on? Got something to submit to True Stories Well Told? Guidelines here.

– Sarah White



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Snow Day!

By Mona Jean Harley


Snow Day! I would say unexpected, yet I was up until midnight goofing around with my son who is still home from college on winter break, pretending there would be a snow day today whether or not the dream would become reality in six short hours.  Now snowed in, I pulled out my semi-forgotten lap desk from the back of a closet, wiped off some cobwebs, and nestled in front of a crackling fire with a warm cup of green tea, laptop on the lap desk.  The lap desk was Dad’s Christmas gift to me years ago when I was a teenager. It is very large, made of plywood about 3 ft. long and 2 ft. wide, with a curved cut-out in the middle to snug up against my body.  Dad secretly made 3 of these one year at Christmastime, one for me and each of my siblings, in Bernard Simmon’s workshop, the old neighbor across our country road.  Dad had a similar lap desk that he would spread across the arms of his favorite Lazy Boy chair, grading exams or scoring psychological testing.  My brother, my sister and I coveted and fought (in a peaceful kind of way) over Dad’s lap desk, so that we could nestle comfortably into the red corduroy of that Lazy Boy chair to do our homework.  It almost felt like paradise–had it not been homework I was doing–to sit in the comfort of that chair while having plenty of space on the board that had been transformed into a desk, to take notes or write out and sort index cards for those first research papers from long ago, on vegetarianism and Broadway.

Mona Jean enjoying her Snow Day

Using the lap desk has brought back vivid memories of Dad’s death and a move, where I nearly left behind my lap desk.  I don’t have a clear memory of actually receiving the lap desk that Christmas years ago.  I have a vague memory of feeling surprised and excited when Dad brought the boards into the house from the garage, as we were gathered in the family room by the Christmas tree.  It’s just not a crisp image.  In contrast, I do have a vivid image of seeing this board another time, and not seeing my dad, and realizing I would never see him again.  It’s easy for me to calculate the date, July 28, 1990, eleven days after he unexpectedly died at age 55.  My husband and I had just bought our first house and we were preparing to move. Instead of packing our apartment, I had stayed behind in Indiana with my mom and siblings while my husband drove back to Wisconsin to pack the apartment.  I returned to Madison the night before we moved.  Moving day I was a zombie; I carried out box after box of items I hadn’t packed, and most of them my husband hadn’t packed either.  He found that he also felt like a zombie when he was supposed to be packing, so a friend did much of the boxing up of items. On moving day when the apartment was emptied, I took one last sweep through to see if anything was missed.  I walked into our empty bedroom, peered into the vacant closet, then peeked behind the bedroom door.  The homemade lap desk.  The lone item in the room. In that instant, it felt like this handmade treasure was all that remained of my dad.  It was a poignant and heartbreaking moment, and I once again was moved to uncontrollable sobbing.  This lap desk was a touchstone for my fresh, raw grief.

Working at my lap desk again, almost 30 years later, led to memories, thoughts, feelings, gratitude and connection. Today when I saw this lap desk in the back of the closet, I experienced a much more mundane and emotionless thought, something like, “Oh good, I thought this is where the lap desk was, and here it is!” One of my many gratitudes in life is how the simple and sometimes the mundane can bring such connection, and how objects, thoughts, images, feelings, senses, and experiences can be so connecting.  They are grounding.  They punctuate life.

Connection.  Noticing, experiencing and finding connection through thoughts, experiences, people, relationships, nature, travels, objects and relics.  I receive such deep joy and appreciation from connection.  So this morning when I had unexpected time in a quiet house, it was a great opportunity for me to pause and write.  I thought perhaps I would write about some of the thoughts and experiences that have been circulating in my head for awhile.  Instead, I was present to the moment, the Snow Day, the lap desk I was using. One thought led to another, to a story I didn’t even know was there, to a story I didn’t even know I needed to tell.  So on this wintry day as I sit by the warm fire with my now cool green tea, I felt even more connection after writing for an hour at my lap desk. I am connected to this homemade lapdesk, to memories of my old neighbor Bernard Simmons, to myself and my siblings as kids, to the house that I grew up in, to the first apartment and first house that my husband and I shared in Madison, to my dad, and to grief, healing and memories that have been and are transformative, into love that is ever-present.

© 2019 Mona Jean Harley

Mona Jean Harley was delighted to stumble across the “First Monday First Person” writing group in Madison Wisconsin in the fall of 2018, which has been a perfect space to become more fully inspired in writing and in paying attention to life.  “Snow Day!” was her first story written for and read to the talented writers in this group.


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Olé Toro

By Suzy Beal

This is the ninth episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.


We experienced another cultural adventure Mom and Dad thought important for us to see.  I wasn’t so sure when Mom announced that Conrad and Frank were too little and it might upset them.  I didn’t understand why, until I realized we were going to a bullfight!

Waiting for the bullfight to begin – Mom, Carl, Jan, Suzy and Hank

 The gate opens, the band plays and the participants parade into the ring.  First, are the lesser matadors.  Next the picadores, men on foot with sharp spears in their hands followed by the banderilleros, men on horseback with long spears.   The crowd comes to its feet, hollering the matador’s name, and the band plays his song, a pasadoble. The beat of the pasadoble is quick and racing, just like my heart, but when the trumpets sound, the matador steps into the ring.  He parades around the ring waving his hat and bowing.  Then he retreats behind a wooden protective fence.

The side door opens.   A large, black bull enterers the ring, snorting and holding his head high. Banderilleros come out first on foot with a barbed spear (banderillas–little flags) in each hand, hollering at the bull to get his attention.  The bull turns and charges, the banderillero steps aside and drives the spears into the hump on his neck, they stay in his neck, swaying with his movements.  With each movement they cut further into the bull’s muscle, sick with apprehension, I cover my eyes.   Next come the picadores on horseback.  I’m worried about the horses getting gored by the bull’s horns, but they cover them with huge padded blankets that go all the way to the ground.  The lance the picador carries is on a long pole. The riders can reach the bull from horseback.  Angry and hurting the bull lunges at the horse. The picador shoves the blade into the hump on the bull’s neck cutting the neck muscles.

Blood oozes down the bull’s neck, matting his shiny black fur.  I cover my face.  It is too cruel to watch. The band strikes up the pasadoble.  The beat of the music intensifies and causes me to hold my breath. This music means the matador is about to enter.  By this time, the bull has difficulty holding his head up because the muscles in his neck are so damaged.   The Spanish ladies cheer and everyone hollers “Olé” every time the bull charges the matador’s cape.  His suit of shimmering gold fits skin tight, so the bull can’t catch it on his horns.  He sways with the cape.  I try to focus on the cape and not the blood when Mom screams.  I can’t believe it came from her.  The look on her face shows she can’t believe it, either.  The bull has charged the matador and caught him under the arm.  With a motion so quick we almost miss it, the bull tosses the matador over his head. Suddenly our emotions switch to side of the matador.  The other matadors run out with their capes to draw off the bull.  The matador rises unhurt; at least he isn’t bleeding.  Relieved, we see him pull a sword from under the cape. He poises himself with his back arched while making subtle motions with his cape to keep the bull’s attention. The bull hurdles himself towards the quivering cape. The matador leans forward and shoves his sword into the bull’s hump clear to the hilt.  A hush comes over the crowd.  I can’t breathe. The bull stops in his tracks for a few seconds as if suspended, falls to the ground, and rolls on his side, dead.

The roar from the audience is deafening. I’m stunned by what I’ve seen.  A team of horses comes out to pull the dead bull from the ring, but first the matador slices off an ear.  Dripping with blood, he parades it around the arena holding it high in the air as a trophy. He presents it to a lady love in the stands.  My stomach lurches.  The crowd wants more blood.  I wonder who these people are, and whether I can adjust to their strange customs.

We stand up to leave and everyone around us is talking to us and motioning us to stay seated.  We realize they are saying the drama isn’t over yet and there are still five more bulls to fight.  Mom makes it clear: We were leaving, so they let us pass.  Once outside, Dad says tradition dictates we go to a tapas bar after a bullfight.  Sick to my stomach after all the blood I want to cry, but the tears won’t come.  Food is the last thing on my mind, Dad insists.   I recognize the eels, squid, and octopus, but am too afraid to try them.  I’ve tasted the black olives before and know they are bitter and skip them.  The potato salad made with olive oil makes my stomach turn.  I decide on the fried calamari and a coke and then leave them untouched on the table.


© 2019 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.



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“The Business of Being a Writer” by Jane Friedman

The final required text for my Big MFA Adventure was The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman.

If you don’t recognize that name, it’s time to change that. Advice and resources from publishing guru Jane Friedman have consistently come up in the University of King’s College MFA program, from the very first handouts to us overwhelmed rookies back at Residency I through this text–required for our final Marketing assignment–and Jane’s lecture at Residency II in January. I had the good fortune to see her present a keynote at the Wisconsin Writers’ Institute just a couple of weeks ago, and it reiterated the importance of this book and its topic: treating your writing as a business.

As Jane put it, she “came on the scene with the dawn of the era of universal authorship” (2000). She encourages writers to think in terms of a business model that allows us to live comfortably as creative people. We’re lucky to be alive in the time of the Creative Economy, as opposed to the Middle Ages when we would have required a patron to survive.  She begs us to believe we live in a time when writers can be materially successful. It’s time to stop perpetuating the myth of the starving artists.

This is also her theme and call to action in The Business of Being a Writer. It can be difficult to accept that material success is possible in a time of such exponential growth in the amount of published content out there. But the happy truth is that, if we provide something for everyone along the demand curve, money will come.

Oh, the demand curve is new to you? She means “offer something for everyone from freeloaders to superfans” (her words). “Freeloaders” are the people who access your content where it appears for free (think, this blog post) to those who willingly pay for your one-to-one consulting (think, my writing partner model). In between those points on the curve  are the teaching gigs, magazine articles, books, and other intellectual property from which a working writer earns a living.

The Business of Being a Writer  is a business education divided into five parts:

  1. First Steps
  2. Understanding the Publishing Industry
  3. Getting Published
  4. The Writer as Entrepreneur
  5. HowWriters Make Money

Appendices cover contracts, legal issues, and recommended resources.

The book is a helpful complement to books on how to get published (such as our earlier assigned texts, Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato and  How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen), and sales-oriented works like another assigned text, Build Your Author Platform: The New Rules, by Carole Helen and Michael McCallister.

It’s also an excellent complement to craft-focused books like Story Craft by Jack Hart (reviewed earlier on this blog). While we all start out working on our writing craft, it’s eye-opening to consider the business model early on. It helps you find your place in this big universe of creativity, whether that’s writing purely for satisfaction or targeting a niche and going all-out for published success in it.

But perhaps Jane’s most important message is that as a working freelance writer/author, it’s never all or only “about your book.” Your book is not your end game. It’s the milestone that opens the door to a life as a Writer/Entrepreneur. Jane Friedman shows you how.

Follow Jane’s blog at https://www.janefriedman.com/blog/. You will grow as a writer–and an entrepreneur.

© 2019 Sarah White




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It’s Spring,Think Alvin

By Donna Biddle

Today Spring arrived at 4:58 p m and for the first time in years, my thoughts turned to Alvin.

Alvin is not his real name, but it certainly fits him. When I was Chief of Operations for the State of Wisconsin Medicaid, back when we were still able to be compassionate, I met Alvin. Alvin was a foster child with special needs and was awaiting an adoptive home. He was about ten years old and had not been dealt the best hand. Small for his age, he wore what were sometimes called coke bottle glasses because they were so thick. Both ears were covered with hearing aids and he was missing his left arm below the elbow. He also had lost his legs below the knees. And he was adorable. Bright sunny smile and a can-do personality that you made you think, how high is up?

We had a family that had three children of their own, two boys and a girl, and an adopted son with severe asthma and hearing difficulties, Paul. They wanted another boy closer to Paul’s age so he would have a playmate. They were foster parents to Alvin and they wanted him as their son. Luckily Wisconsin had an adoption assistance program which allowed us to cover Alvin’s medical needs. Because Alvin’s problems were from an illness at birth, Alvin had preexisting conditions that could not allow him to be covered under their health plan. We could and would cover his medical expenses under Medicaid. This program was cost-effective and humane. The parents were completely responsible for every other part of his life and he had a family and home.

I was with the family when Alvin became theirs. I handed them the papers and the Medicaid card and they left for either Kansas or Missouri, for the father’s promotion. Alvin might be adopted and live out of state, but he was all ours for health care. I heard about Alvin on and off for the next year and was glad that he had turned into a good student and seemed to have integrated into his new family and community. He was also a big brother– his parents had a new baby girl.

Then it happened. Alvin discovered sports. At first it wasn’t too bad. A little baseball with his brothers in the backyard, no big deal. But this was Alvin. There was always a bigger and better chapter to the story. Dad called and said Alvin was going to play Little League. They could cover all his special equipment, the helmet to protect his hearing aids and his goggles to protect his glasses. He got on the same team as his brother Paul, so they knew how to protect him in the field. It was also his older brothers’ league. They were in regular Little League. He was in a branch of that league and now part of the family tradition.

Then came the But. Alvin had had a spurt of growth and his prosthetic arm and legs no longer fit him. Well, we saw that as a necessary expense–kids grew but their prostheses didn’t. And one more thing. Alvin was roller skating. He needed special knee, elbow, and shin guards. The helmet and glasses protector worked for all sports. His dad was so proud, that kid was good and he was a fearless little athlete. Wisconsin did not want a fearless athlete. Mom and dad covered the extra padding and we felt okay. After all, how much trouble could a small eleven year old get into? Mainly he was a scholar–he made the honor roll.

Midway through the summer, we got the call. Alvin needed a new right leg. He couldn’t have had another growth spurt, how tall was he going to be? Those usually lasted at least a year. But no, Alvin had slid into second and his leg broke in two, sort of. Dad bragged, ““I am so proud, such a fearless little short stop.” Now we had a problem, the Feds weren’t very sympathetic to fearless little short stops. Not covered.

By this time, Alvin was a legend and a success. The staff went into overdrive. Find a leg. And find a leg they did–with help from nonprofits, Alvin had a new leg. It was too bad 3D printers hadn’t been invented yet; Alvin was made for one. Over the next couple of years, I lost track of the repaired and replaced limbs. Alvin thrived and was not only happy, but made everyone else a little better and bigger in spirit. The wonderful couple who took this spunky little guy were saints in my book.

Alvin was now in high school, you know, the time when guys play football. We were running out of ways to get new legs. Alvin’s mom called to tell us that she did not want her son playing football. It scared her that he would get hurt. We all relaxed–Alvin wasn’t playing football. I envisioned a brilliant captain of the debate team. Maybe chess club. But this was Alvin. Mother continued, ““you know what a great roller skater he is. Well Alvin can also ice skate. He going out for varsity hockey.”

By noon, the rumor had spread throughout the staff. Alvin was going to play Hockey!


Shortly after we heard that Alvin was in high school and wanted to play hockey, I lost touch with the family. I have no idea what happened to him, but I believe he was okay. He was bright and made good grades. He was a small boy who had to overcome so much. He had a beautiful family who loved him dearly. And he was a fearless little athlete who rode a bike, roller skated, and played short stop in Special Needs Little League. He was very hard on his prostheses. He probably also played Special Needs hockey. I wish him well.

Alvin was a Super Hero whose special powers were Courage and Spirit.

© 2019 Donna Biddle

Donna Biddle is an occasional writer who knows she has a memoir or novel to be told and hopes to finally write it.

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Naming Names

By Nancy Smiler Levinson

No plan was hatched.  It just happened one morning, the first day of sixth grade at Burroughs Elementary in Minneapolis.  Like many a pre-adolescent girl trying on a different identity, the previous year I’d changed my spelling from Nancy to Nancie, dotting the i with a tiny heart.

In my new classroom that morning, I slid into a desk seat, Karen Lindahl across the aisle  and Karen Neidermeyer behind-me, the three of us whispering about the new teacher.  Our first man teacher.  Was he mean?  Married? Why did his mustache look like a brush?  Good morning, my name is Mr. Johnston, he announced.  What are your names? Begin  with row one here, nice and loud. 

John, Tom, Susan Lee,  Karen Ann, John. . . when it came my turn I said, “Diana.”  Oh! I perked up at my own voice. Mr. Johnston didn’t know me, and now he would call  me Diana, the lovely name of the school librarian.

For a full class day I floated on my gossamer name, akin to the pretty blond lady who sat at a desk piled high with books and helped us borrow them with a stamp on a card next to our signatures.  But the next day the teacher approached me with the class record book  in hand, puzzled why no Diana Smiler was listed. I was exposed! Well, Nancy, I have a daughter who insists we call her Wonder Woman.  He winked. Two questions answered.  He was married.  He was not mean.

Shortly thereafter, while reading a library book (an historical Russian story called Katrinka), I learned that my grandfather had emigrated from Russia to Minnesota with the name  Smilovitch, but my father had gone to court and changed it.  If I had been born in that icy, barren, country, I mused, my name would have been Natasha Smilovitch. That’s the name I wrote on my Katrinka book report. Mr. Johnston made a smiley face next to it alongside a grade of A+.

I celebrated my twelfth birthday late autumn and devoured three gifted Nancy Drew mysteries. Years later I would learn that the author of the series, Carolyn Keene, was not her real name.  She wasn’t even a real person.  Carolyn Keene, it turned out,  was a writing company with a bevy of writers handed plot outlines.

Snow-bound one day that winter, I put pencil to a big notebook from Woolworths and wrote a short story. My first.  I’d become infatuated with both a new name and teenage glam.  So teenage Kim daringly stowed away on a ship headed for adventure.


I took my husband’s name, Levinson, when we married. Before our meeting, I’d worked as a newspaper reporter and educational book editor.  With the birth of our two sons, (basic, standard names, Matthew and Daniel), I became a stay-at-home mom until  they entered school.  Throughout those years we encountered Max and the wild things;  Charlotte and her web; Christopher Robin with Winnie the Pooh, Amelia Bedelia; Curious George. . . We read poems, serious and silly.  We bid goodnight to the moon.  Again and again.

During those afternoons and bedtimes, sharing, bonding, feeling, growing. . . I was  reading beautiful poetic language, finely tuned rhythm, while all along, unconsciously, the lyrical sounds were tapping into me. And then something happened.   I began writing for children.

A wide world of naming opened to me—names that fit characters in their times and settings,  imperative always in creating authentic individuals. I based an historical fiction chapter book on the original book wagon, invented in 1900 by a Maryland librarian.  With a strong German  population in the region, I named my protagonist Clara. Naming the librarian offered no choice  because she was real.  Mary Titcomb.

Betsy came to life as a prairie child seeking friendship with a citified newcomer, Emmeline.  A 1920s middle-grade story, Sweet Notes, Sour Notes, about a boy struggling to play  the violin, is named David.  He calls his grandpa the Yiddish word, Zadey.  His sister  is Rose and her mischievous friend, Queenie.

Your Friend, Natalie Popper, a young girl going to sleep-away camp for the first time, was close to me.  Hence.  Natalie, and Popper for rhythm. Her much-admired counselor is Babs,  the name of one of my childhood camp counselors. Another story centered on a radical,  feisty grandmother shocking her family and the township by wearing bloomers and riding a bicycle!  She endeared herself to me as Lola Slocum, while the outraged schoolhouse head  appeared as Principal Snippenlooper.

When I began publishing, in the 1980s, writers were beginning to include their maiden names. So, following the crowd, I made my mark as Nancy Smiler Levinson. Several books later, I came to regret that mouthful, but it was too late to change. I might have become an A-list author or at least more memorable had I picked a pen name  like N. Shakespeare, Pink, or Lady Blu-blu  I hadn’t hatched a plan.

© 2019 Nancy Smiler Levinson

Nancy is the author of thirty books for young readers.  Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines, literary journals, and anthologies.  Moments of Dawn: A Poetic Memoir of Love & Family, Affliction & Affirmation was published by Conflux Press. She is  a member of Sheila Bender’s “Writing It Real” and lives in Los Angeles.


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