“First Monday, First Person” turns 4!

In Madison? Join us on October 2nd for the fourth anniversary of our memoir salon, “First Monday, First Person”!


 We meet at 6pm at the Goodman South Madison Library Branch, 2222 So. Park Street. We enjoy light refreshments and stories until the librarians chase us out, close to 8pm. Writers in the first person sign up on arrival to read. Listeners are just as welcome as readers–we all need an audience! This free salon meets on the first Monday of every month. Hence the name, First Monday, First Person.

This salon grew out of my “Remember to Write” workshops, which I’ve conducted at the South Madison library and other libraries and senior centers around Madison, since 2004. By four years ago these free “get started” workshops for beginning memoir writers had gotten so popular that when I would announce registration opening for the next workshop, it would fill up within 15 minutes. Repeat students wanting to continue were leaving few seats open for new students. What to do?

That’s when I remembered a suggestion received in 2002 from Kitty Axelson-Berry, founder of the Association of Personal Historians and of Modern Memoirs in Amherst Mass., one of the first professional personal historian services. We’d just met at my first APH conference. She told me she conducted a monthly salon, called First (Whatever Day), First Person. That it worked to build community and raise awareness of her business. And besides, it was just damn pleasant. “I’ll do that someday,” I thought.

So there I was in 2013, unable to fit more “Remember to Write” workshops into my schedule and unable to fit more students into my existing classes. Time to start a salon, I realized! I would start a “three repeats, then graduate” policy for the workshops. Graduates would become the core of the salon, our place to keep in touch with each other and with our writing intentions. Because what does every writer need? A deadline and an audience.

The Goodman South Madison Library offered me a meeting room available on Monday nights, and thus First Monday, First Person was born. Indeed, my former writing students have become the core, but others have found their way to our table, and their talents expand and inspire us.

For more about my workshops, see this page–and the lovely video there that Gretta Wing Miller made for me to help promote a Power2Give campaign to fund workshops a few years ago. I think you’ll feel the power.

Join us, if you’re in Madison and free next Monday! And if you’re not–well, that’s why True Stories, Well Told exists. This is where, as a virtual community, we keep in touch with each other and with our writing intentions.

You can help me celebrate this anniversary–and keep this blog well-stocked with true stories, well told, while I pursue my time-consuming Big MFA Adventure–by submitting your writing. Submission guidelines here.

 2017 Sarah White

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Join me at the “Pinney Mini” Book Festival on Saturday, September 23!

I will be participating in an event for authors and those who WANT to be authors at the Pinney Library Mini Book Festival on Saturday, September 23, details here.

The event begins at 1:00 with a panel–poet Fabu, fantasy fiction author Lori Lee, and creative non-fiction enthusiast I–will discuss tips for getting published. An “Author Blitz” featuring readings by six local authors will follow at 2:30. Let’s nurture some community among local writers!

What tips do I have for getting published? Ah, now there’s the rub…  just back from the first residency of my Big MFA Adventure, in some ways I feel more daunted about the state of the publishing industry than ever.

What hope is there, when writing is such an introverted activity, and promoting yourself and your book is such an extroverted activity? And today, authors are expected to do more to promote their books than ever before. Events for writers have more content about building your platform than writing craft, these days.

One of the resources our excellent faculty at University of King’s College pointed us to is Jane Friedman, www.janefriedman.com. Our first assignment was to write our book proposal, and we were referred to several excellent articles on that topic in Jane’s advice archive. Schedule some time to browse there!

I do believe a book proposal is an excellent place to start, even if you are nowhere near seeking a publisher, or intend to self-publish. A book proposal is a business case for your book. It’s a positioning statement, a definition of your personal brand, a market analysis, and a pitch of your specific  book idea, all rolled into one. But even more, a book proposal is a work plan. It defines who you’re writing for and how to serve up what they will want to read. It is your touchstone when your book idea starts to get wobbly. It is your cheerleader when you start to think, “who would be interested in my words?”

Book proposals are a must for nonfiction authors like myself, because they prove the case that the book idea is worth investment (your time, the publisher’s money). And if your book proposal doesn’t convince YOU, you know it’s time to move on to your next big idea.  You can save yourself TONS of time by working on a book proposal before you begin writing that manuscript.

For fiction authors, it’s more common to write the entire book, then seek a literary agent and begin the journey to publication through query letters, book proposals, etc.

Memoirs are in a muddy area between the serious creative nonfiction book and the novel. Jane has good advice for writers of memoir here. Scroll down to “The Problem with Pitching Memoir.”

Good luck with your book! And if you’re in Madison, come see us at the Pinney Mini Book Festival on Saturday.

  • Sarah White
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Musings on Author’s Notes, Disclaimers, and Such

I have recently returned from my first residency as a student in the University of King’s College MFA-Creative Nonfiction program. One of the reasons I chose this program (let’s not speak of the attractions of a program requiring visits to Nova Scotia) is that it was born out of a respected journalism program.

Like journalists, authors of creative nonfiction write true stories. That is the essence of the creative nonfiction contract. The thin line between fact and fiction must not be crossed. And yet, what mortal can reliably distinguish the difference between the two?

In creative nonfiction, we work with the vagaries of memory, the bias of individual perspectives, and the demands of reducing complex events to comprehensible stories. “Writing nonfiction narrative is like viewing a distant butterfly on an old black-and-white TV,” writes Jack Hart in Storycraft. “Reality may exist out there, but capturing it with an imperfect recording device fuzzes the outlines, dims the colors, and neglects everything that takes place outside one narrow field of view.”

A good ally, then, is the Author’s Note or Disclaimer. This is the short section that precedes (my preference) or follows the body of the work, that tells what “narrow field of view” the author reports from, what rules we played by. Here’s where we own the truth of our writing process: Did we contract or rearrange time? Create composite characters? Exaggerate for effect, like David Sedaris who describes his stories as “realish”?

I’ve just read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and I found his conclusion to the introduction a very good example of an honest, informative disclaimer. After reading this, we know exactly where Vance is coming from. We’re ready to be compassionate readers as we turn the page to Chapter 1.

Sometimes in my beginning memoir writing workshops, I ask my students write their disclaimers. I think it’s very helpful to decide the rules you’ll play by before the game gets underway.

Jack Hart writes, “The most important purpose of nonfiction narrative is to help us cope with a challenging world. The closer we come to portraying that world accurately, the more helpful our stories will be.” That, to me, captures why I find memoir–true stories about our lives–so compelling.

© 2017 Sarah White

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As I bought my ticket to visit the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, the receptionist commented on what a slow afternoon it had been. “No one wants to be inside during the eclipse.” I enjoyed the thought that I would have the exhibits mostly to myself.

A couple of pleasant hours later, I stepped back into the streets. And there, to my surprise, I found a cluster of people–half oriented skyward like so many sunflowers, and half staring downward in the opposite direction, into handmade paper boxes. Eclipse-viewers! “May I see?” “Certainly!” And there it was, the dark little disk like a cookie with a bite out–the Eclipse as seen from 44.6° N, 63.5° W, 2:52pm. Walking the streets back toward my hotel I passed more of these friendly little knots, and cadged a few more views. I had told the art museum receptionist I didn’t care about an eclipse but in retrospect, I’m glad I saw it, when and where I did–even if I didn’t fly my Lear Jet there (with a nod to Carly Simon). And now, to WanderN Wayne’s account of his experience. – Sarah White


By “WanderN Wayne” Hammerstrom

In several Native American stories an eclipse is a transformational lesson, in other cultures an eclipse foretells omens of future or past actions. My observation of the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 was an awe-inspiring experience of this magnificent natural spectacle. I became attentive, sensual, immersed into presence. 

With my sister, we left Madison beneath cloudy skies, driving southward, bisecting Illinois on Interstate highways, joining a flow of others searching for the projected path of eclipse totality. We ramped off the congested highway into rural Christopher, Illinois, to hide beneath a vacant carport away from skyward looking crowds gathered 20 miles further south, near Carbondale.

Monday morning dissolved into a humid, partly cloudy afternoon. From our shady retreat we occasionally stepped into full sunlight to look up with our protective eclipse glasses, their certified lenses further reducing the sun’s yellow tint into a tangerine colored orb. As the moon’s black disc moved across the sun, disturbed circadian rhythms reversed their day/night cycles; crickets chirped loudly from darkening crevices, an owl voiced displeasure or curiosity, solar-timed street lights awoke, and people interrupted their activities to peer skyward. An eerie artificialness produced by this cooling otherworld luminescence unsettled us until the moment of the eclipse totality.  

As if a hole had been punched through darkness, the sun’s corona escaped the envelope of the moon’s obstructing dark disc, piercing the edges of night towards stars outside the shadowed region of the eclipse umbra. Diminished by Earth’s atmosphere, we now could see brushstrokes of sunlight radiating outward on solar winds toward edges of the solar system. Lasting only moments of convergence, the concentric boundary of overlapping discs slipped with a sudden release of light as the moon and sun diverged along separate orbital paths. The “diamond ring” celebration of a celestial coming together. 

Maybe we are more aware, perhaps, transformed by the eclipse. This daytime Children’s Moon, seen by youngsters unable to stay up late nights, showed that the moon has a companion, a playmate in the sky. Adults who remember watching two men first walk on the moon in ’69 occasionally might look away from their busyness up to see the inspiration of poets and the subjects of photographers. The eclipse’s natural duality of dark and bright, the yin and yang of Chinese philosophy, remind us that opposites may be complementary and interdependent.

© 2017 Wayne Hammerstrom

Wayne Hammerstrom has been a lifelong traveler who now wanders (WandrNWayne) serendipitously on journeys near and far. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Nearly Normal: Surviving the Wilderness, My Family and Myself by Cea Sunrise Person

I read Nearly Normal: Surviving the Wilderness, My Family and Myself by Cea Sunrise Person and I survived.

Opportunities for do-overs are exceedingly rare in publishing, as in life. Yet Cea Sunrise Person has been given that opportunity, and with Nearly Normal has written a book that revisits and updates her first memoir, North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both, HarperCollins, 2014. Both books explore her nontraditional childhood and its reverberations through her life.

I was assigned to read Nearly Normal as part of preparation for my MFA-Creative Nonfiction residency at University of King’s College-Halifax, because Cea Person is our writer-in-residence this year. Students were assigned to write a 500-word response to Person’s book. This is what I didn’t say in that essay.

Two questions necessarily demand the attention of readers of memoir—can the author write? And is his or her life interesting enough to make a book? My first reaction to Nearly Normal were immediate and negative. Coming down hard on the first question, I found the author’s voice uneven and frequently annoying. On the second, I sensed the early life of Cea Person was indeed interesting enough to make a book, if only I could find my way through her spiraling structural approach. (Flashbacks and -forwards weave three time periods together–the original childhood tale constructed of scenes omitted from the first memoir, the period after North of Normal’s first publication, and the present circa 2014.)

Nearly Normal is essentially a memoir about the aftermath of publishing her memoir, an interesting premise. It compelled me to read North of Normal. More of that book is based on interviews with people about the years Cea was too young to remember, and I find her writing in North of Normal more agreeable.

This book falls squarely in the genre of the “Awful Childhood Memoir,” joining the acclaimed Frank MCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle, plus favorites of my own such as Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. And many more. (This is a crowded genre.) Certainly the weirdness and deprivation of Person’s early years hold their own against all comers.

The conflict that gives both of Person’s memoirs their forward motion is her desire for conformity to a “normal” with only the vaguest idea of what defines “normal,” confounded by her distrust of her own intuition and instincts.

A secondary theme in both her memoirs is motherhood/what constitutes appropriate “mothering.” Here, Person falls too often into the trap of passing judgment. As Tristine Rainer says in Your Life as Story (Tarcher/Putnam 1998), “Judgments stop the unlayering of character and block our engagement with life’s mystery, including the mystery of evil…. If you include all sides of a person, the dark and the light, then it is possible to tell even ugly truths about someone without committing character assassination—if your motive is not to condemn but to understand.” Person has a legitimate bone to pick with her mother—and her whole family of origin—but fails to restrain herself from passing judgement in her writing. As a reader I feel her motive is to condemn.

I find Person’s writing best when she is reporting events in scenes, especially scenes based on interviewing others. Person’s writing is at its worst when she is reflecting on her sense of betrayal by her family. Reading Nearly Normal, I was continually hoping to get away from current-day Cea, whom I found an unreliable narrator, and to spend more time with child-Cea, whom I found appealing and resilient.

Today, 40-something Cea is an author, teacher of memoir writing, wife, and mother,  happily “normal” at last. Her book is ultimately about the search for acceptance—by outsiders, by family, and finally, oneself.

I am glad Person found the healing that expressive writing can bring, transmuting her pain into art. That is the real message of this book–if Cea can do it, so can you.

Now, how did I feel about Cea’s role as writer-in-residence at the 2017 U-King’s MFA-Creative Nonfiction residency? I’ll save those thoughts for another day.

© 2017 Sarah White

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By Doug Elwell

You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.

Harry Truman


I have a problem I’d like your advice on Mom.


My friend wants to give me this little dog and I don’t know what to do.

You already have two dogs. Isn’t that enough?

She says she’s busy and can’t keep her any longer.

Look, you’re going to school full time and have to be gone from early morning to late afternoon most days. You have a part time job. You live in a relatively small condo. And dogs are social animals. They need attention. They need to pee and poop. They need exercise. How are you going to do all that?

But she’s a friend in hard times and I want to help her out.

Understood. But you’re in hard times too with trying to finish school and work part time. Why do you want to take in someone else’s problem when you’re up to your eyeballs with your own?

I know, but…

Besides your friend knows your situation. If she’s really a friend, she shouldn’t even ask.

I know, but…

Our advice is tell your “friend” thanks, but no thanks.


It’s true; free advice is worth what it costs. Days later we learn she took the pooch in. As we predicted, it didn’t work out. The other two dogs, a hyperactive, out-of-control Chihuahua that should have been on Ritalin and a senile old pooch of indeterminate origin were driving the little waif to seek refuge in her crate almost twenty-four hours a day. She was living the proverbial dog’s life.


Mom, I can’t keep her. She’s not doing well with the others. She sits in her crate and snarls whenever anyone comes near and she digs holes into the couch. Would you take her? Apparently the daughter would have her digging into our couch rather than hers.

There was much gnashing of teeth. When I first saw the dog my heart went out to her. She is a light brown and white Chihuahua/Italian Greyhound mix. Her Chiauahuaness is evident in her head and tail. What is in between is short haired greyhound with the characteristic deep    chest, long slender legs and lean hips. There isn’t much to her since she weighs in at a svelte ten pounds. I saw in her eyes she knew she wasn’t wanted. She seemed to plead through them. I imagined her thinking, here I go again. After I vented my spleen over the poor decision to take her in the first place I saw us enabling daughter’s poor judgement in taking her and now we were facing the consequences. Mom relented. Grumbling, we took the poor thing off her hands. We loaded her into her crate along with her food and some vet paperwork and liberated her from her dog hell.

We got her set up in her new home and I began to sift through her paperwork to get an idea of her history. It is spotty and some interesting and unknown movements are lost, known only to her.


Jaden was whelped in April, 2013. She was named Jaden which is a horrible name for any dog. Actually I wouldn’t even name a kid Jaden, but that’s another subject.


In July, 2013 she was renamed Pumpkin and went by Punky only marginally better than Jaden. I can only guess it was a reference to her tawny coat. She somehow ended up in the Wabash County Animal Shelter in Indiana. How she got there is not known.


She next showed up at the Animal House Shelter in Crystal Lake, Illinois in August of 2013 where she was spayed and vaccinated then adopted on the 18th by Tiffany, the so-called “friend” of our daughter.


In early 2014 Tiffany wheedled Pumpkin/Punky onto our daughter then fled to Las Vegas.


A couple months later our daughter realized she couldn’t keep Punky so we took her in. Immediately we relieved the little thing of the Pumpkin/Punky moniker. I took it upon myself to re-name her Mick. Not that she looks Irish, but more because dogs ought to be given single syllable names that can be spoken sharply without necessarily having to raise one’s voice. A quick sharp Mick gets her attention and we can go from there. I didn’t ask her about it but in a short time she responded to it so I assume she likes it. At least I believe she is grateful to be out from under the anthropomorphic Jaden that sounds like a Wellesley lit major and the Pumpkin that makes her sound like a front porch decoration in October.


So, little Miss Mick has had a chequered history.


She settled into her new home quickly. It didn’t take her long to “decompress”. She had to share her previous place with the aforementioned hyperactive Chihuahua and Max, an old fart, who mostly sits around tisk-tisking the out of control Pups the Chihuahua.

I set her crate up in a small niche near the kitchen and family room. The crate had been her safe place and she seemed comfortable there. Very soon we discovered she had remarkably good habits in spite of having been passed around at least three times in her short life. She sits patiently while we prepare food in the kitchen and when we’re at table. She doesn’t chew the furniture. She doesn’t chew anything other than the beef knuckle bones we give her occasionally. She gets on the couch only when her towel is laid out for her. Otherwise she lies on a carpet or retreats to her crate which she thinks of as her “room”. She doesn’t sleep with us; after all she and we respect each other’s privacy. She has never done her “business” in the house. From the beginning she has been a model addition to our small family. We have welcomed her and she has responded in kind.

I don’t know if someone trained Mick or if she’s just damned intelligent. But no matter. Miss Mick is a model citizen giving us much more than we expected. She knows several words. Of course she recognizes her name. She also knows Eat?, Walk?, Come!, Stay, with a hand signal, and Heel when on leash. She also has a remarkably accurate internal clock. Within minutes of eleven in the morning she sits in front of me staring.

You have to pee?

She makes for the door.

Between twelve and one, weather permitting, she sits by the door for her walk. The Italian greyhound genes are calling. We walk smartly to a nearby open area on the edge of town. I let her off leash and she bolts and runs like the wind far out then around in a huge circle. If she sees a bird she gives chase. After a few minutes she slows then works back and forth a few yards in front like an English setter on the hunt. When she’s ready she looks then comes to me. I put her on leash and we return home.

At four thirty she appears again, sits and stares.

You ready to eat?

She goes to her dish, tail wagging.


I talk to her a lot. I don’t know what she thinks about it, but she is quick to make eye contact and looks interested. I’m calm when she’s on the floor next to my desk curled into a tiny ball, sleeping blissfully. I thought I was retired, but now wonder if she sees herself as my new career. I hope so.


© 2017 Doug Elwell

Doug Elwell grew up on the prairie of rural east central Illinois. His stories feature the characters, lore, and culture of that region. He explores the depth and richness of the inner lives of its people and communities. He is an occasional contributor to The Australia Times. His work has also appeared in The Oakland Independent, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource, Writers Grapevine, Ruminate and Midwestern Gothic literary journal. He has a Kindle novel, Charlie, available from the War Writer’s Campaign at www.warwriterscampaign.org. Proceeds from purchases go directly to the campaign, a non-profit that helps re-integrate veterans into society following their deployments. Doug can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

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Summer Highway to the Future

By Jeremiah Cahill

I get a thrill out of summer travel—road trips, camping and the occasional long vacation. My wife and I enjoyed two weeks this summer through the mountains and along the coast of Oregon, where I reveled in stunning forests, riverside hikes, plus the rare chance to rent a board and wet suit and head out into the surf.

Of course, all this recreation comes at a price and reflects our American lifestyle—consumption. Food, drink, fuel, experiences—as the saying goes, “we’re livin’ large.”

Sure, I enjoy it as much as anyone: Looking forward to the next great meal, fresh-roasted coffee in the morning, the latest craft brew toward evening. And, yes, it all comes due when the next Visa statement arrives.

But what about the other costs?

The amount of fossil fuel burnt in our recreational playgrounds is stunning. RVs, trailers, mega-trucks, classic cars, motorcycles, off-road vehicles, boats, jet skis—and the air travel to get there—it’s all high horsepower running on cheap oil.

To me, as a climate activist, this is daunting: our love affair with fossil fuels won’t end easily.

Toward the end of our trip, these thoughts discouraged me as we drove through the Coast Range headed back to Portland. But then we stopped briefly in a rest area.

Ironically, I found roadside comfort and inspiration in the Tillamook State Forest while reading signage that describes what’s known as the Tillamook Burn.

“The Burn” was a series of fires that destroyed 350,000 acres of magnificent old growth forest in four separate fires between 1933 and 1951.

The first fire started when a steel cable dragging a fallen Douglas fir rubbed against dry bark, creating, in the words of one writer, “a tiny spark that blew into a hurricane of fire.” That first blaze was eventually extinguished by seasonal rains, but debris from the fire reached ships 500 miles at sea. The loss in lumber was estimated at $442 million in 1933 dollars—a serious loss to a nation struggling through the Great Depression. Remarkably, only one firefighter was killed.

Repeated burns led some to think that massive wildfires were inevitable and the land was now too damaged from intense heat to ever again sustain forests. The wildfires presented a scope of devastation that simply overwhelmed people’s thinking and dampened their spirits, leaving discouragement and doubt.

But over time, cooperation by citizens, government, land owners, scientists and others resulted in efforts to restore The Burn. Hearings begun during World War Two eventually resulted in a decades-long reforestation program.

One key to success were the joint public-private efforts. Volunteers included young people who eagerly hand-planted about a million seedlings over twenty years—still just a fraction of the 72 million trees planted. Everything from state prisoners to newly designed helicopters played a part in that massive restoration.

Reforestation took place simultaneously with forest-industry research into better methods of planting young trees and maintaining mature forests. Eventually trees and wildlife began to recover and in 1973 the areas was dedicated as state forest.

In 1949, a forester holds packets of seedlings to be used by young tree planters in reforestation.

As I stood there this summer under a shady canopy of impressive second-growth forest, one fact jumped out at me: in central Oregon, when pressed, people, institutions and communities rallied to deal with a problem that at the time seemed impossible.

What really brought me hope was realizing that nowadays, facing climate catastrophe, we have similar abilities to cooperate and innovate.

Can we apply lessons from the Tillamook Burn to an Earth already damaged by climate change? Maybe—but why not go one step further—come together and prevent planetary burn in the first place.

Leaders in business, politics, and science now think there’s a way to make this happen. It’s called carbon fee and dividend. That simply means making dirty fuels more expensive (the fee) and returning that money to each household (the dividend) so we can buy cleaner fuel and better technology.

Carbon fee and dividend has come to the fore through the efforts of Marshal Saunders, Citizens Climate Lobby founder. Early on, Saunders realized that climate peril, in his words, “would demand a solution sufficient to match the problem.”

The fee and dividend approach is “a climate solution where all sides can win,” to quote Ted Halstead, founder and CEO of the conservative-led Climate Leadership Council. Halstead sees carbon dividends as an avenue “so promising it can break through seemingly insurmountable barriers.”

These and other groups lead a rapidly growing national and international movement to price carbon, slow atmospheric warming, and create a healthy future.

So, yes, I’d love to spend more time in stunning outdoor Oregon. My wife and I have standing invitations to return. But when we do, I plan to enjoy it while tooling around in an electric car!

(c) 2017 Jeremiah Cahill

Jeremiah sometimes thinks he’s too old or infirm to go surfing, but is occasionally delighted to prove himself wrong.

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