“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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Paella at Dragonera

By Suzy Beal

This is the eighth 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.


On the chosen day, we gathered at the quay where two boats lay ready to take us to the island.  We didn’t have a choice whether to go or stay. The decision being made for us by Mom and Dad who thought it would be another cultural experience for us.

I wanted to stay on the quay with the friends I was making. Every time I settled in or made new friends, Dad threw in a new experience he felt we should have.  We got into the boats and headed out to sea.  I spent the entire time holding on to the gunwale of the boat trying to concentrate on blue water and not on the rolling; my stomach lurched with each wave.

One man on the boat explained and Tommy helped translate that the name paella comes from two words in Spanish, “Para Ella”, meaning “for her”.  This dish began as a meal cooked out of doors at the water’s edge.  When the fishermen brought in their fresh catches from the sea, they cooked this dish “For her” which meant the women had the afternoon off and they visited and gossiped together.

Cooking paella on the beach is a happening, a social event, a meal, but most of all, a cultural and culinary adventure.


Our hosts had spent several days gathering the freshest ingredients.  They bought the seafood off the fishermen at the dock.  They found the plumpest chicken and the perfect sausages. Fresh red peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and meats lined a board brought for that purpose.

Dad, Mom and us kids watched the men scooped a depression in the sand for the olive wood, because it burns hot and long.  When the fire was hot enough, they placed a soup kettle filled with water on one side of the fire.

The men cut the fish, sausage, and pork up into pieces. They scrubbed the mussels and clams in a bucket of water from the sea.  The head chef crashed through the chicken with a meat cleaver, bones and all.  They washed the shrimp, but did not take off the outer skins.  They peeled lots of onions and cut them into small pieces and set them aside to await the right moment.  The chef grabbed a large knife and cut up garlic and parsley together.  His knife flashed as he diced up this combination. He told me the name of each ingredient as he dumped it into the pot. I didn’t recognize some of them even in English.  This was the first time I’d ever seen raw squid or sobrasada sausage (blood sausage.)

The cooks drank wine along with my Dad.  They’d brought tapas (traditional Spanish finger food) to enjoy with the wine. The caracoles (snails), cooked in olive oil with parsley and garlic, gave us kids pause.  I didn’t want to try those, and I saw that my siblings were shaking their heads, except Tommy who tried everything including the wine.  Albondigas (meatballs) with garlic dip, and tortilla patata (potato omelet) cut in small triangles adorned a plank brought from home for this purpose. We kids tried a few of the tapas. We recognize the tortilla patata because Carmen made it for us at home.

Once the paella pan was on the fire and the olive oil added, the tempo slowed as everyone gathered round the fire. The chef browned the chicken and set it aside.  He made the Sofitoby browning the pork with onions, garlic, red pepper strips, and fresh tomato.  Fish scraps and spices slid into the soup kettle sitting on the coals next to the paella pan.  The aromas of the red pepper, onion, and garlic gave us a clue of wonderful things to come.  I watched each step and found myself interested in the process. I wanted to learn more.  Maybe Carmen would let me help her in the kitchen at home.


They poured the strained seafood broth into the paella pan with the Sofrito and added one handful of rice per person, plus four extra for those who wanted seconds.  Saffron strands sprinkled by the chef created an aroma I’d never smelled before, a cross between sweet and pungent. Everyone nodded their heads, “Si, Si” as the rice took on a golden, yellow color.  The chicken, more onions, sausage, and the parsley/garlic paste went in next.   The chef dropped the white fish, langoustine, mussels, and clams into the hot broth to cook. In a small frying pan on the side with heated olive oil he cooked the cleaned squid and shrimp. He added another tablespoon or two of the parsley/garlic paste.

The chef placed the seafood on top of the cooking rice, and then the squid, shrimp, and fresh peas last.  He decorated the top with roasted red peppers, added more seafood brot, and covered the pan with a huge lid.  He told us this helped the rice to absorb the flavors.

Who gets to taste and who gets to decide when to take it off the fire?  Will there be enough for everyone? I didn’t understand the conversations around this.  The chef nodded, but signaled it must rest for ten minutes.  Those ten minutes stretched on forever.  I’d forgotten my upset stomach.  The odors made me hungry and my brothers and sister had their plates in their hands.  We didn’t want to wait.   They served it with bread, radishes, and lemon wedges.

We took our plates to the fire, so the chef could serve us. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat the squid, but I took one piece.  Everything else looked delicious.  I didn’t understand about the radishes, but after watching the men shove the rice onto their forks with the radishes, I tried it, too.  I cleaned my plate and had seconds, as did most of my siblings. The cooks smiled at our reactions to the meal and the experience.

They’d brought fresh fruit for dessert.  We learned that desserts were not common after meals.  Fruit and cheese were the usual fare.  One man showed us how to peel an apple in one complete peel.  Our eyes wide open, he did the same with an orange, then he showed us how to eat a banana by cutting it in half then rolling it in our hands and squeezing the banana up by pinching from the bottom. Even eating fruit was a new experience.

Next, they placed aluminum espresso coffee pots on the coals and soon the aroma of dark coffee wafted its way to the table.  We kids didn’t have coffee except for Tommy.  Everyone added lots of sugar.  They sat back stretching out their full stomachs and sipped the dark, sweet syrup of an afternoon “caffetut.”


© 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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What is Guided Autobiography? How do I teach it?

Guided Autobiography” is where it all began for me–one book that got me started on leading reminiscence writing workshops. The year was 2004. I’d just heard about Guided Autobiography from the first personal historian I met–shout-out to Anita Hecht–who recommended the book when I spoke of wanting to find a memoir writers group. That Spring of 2004 I got a copy (now battered and dog-eared).

I couldn’t find a memoir writers’ group to join, so I put up flyers on bulletin boards around town asking people to join me in a group using the Guided Autobiography method. Soon I had ten people, one a preacher who offered his church as a meeting place. We were off and running on the 10-week curriculum. I read from the book and we did what Dr. Birren told us to do. I had a 21-year-old creative writing major and a 94-year-old fundamentalist preacher in that group–and the other eight people were unique in their own ways too. The way we bore witness to each others’ experience, without judgment, convinced me that this was something I wanted to make a permanent part of my life.

Dr. Birren’s Guided Autobiography became the foundation on which I overlaid my own gradually expanding knowledge as I created my series of “Remember to Write” workshops, such as “Start Writing Your Memoir,” “Write Your Family History,” “Flash Memoir,”  and others. I sit here in Spring 2019, fifteen years later, amazed at what these groups have brought into my life.

So, what is Guided Autobiography?

Dr. James Birren (who died in 2016) spent 40 years researching and developing a method for helping people document their life stories–but more, he wanted a method that helped them find new meaning in life and to put life events into perspective (his words).

The core of his method is a series of writing prompts and a class format in which there is instructor-led discussion, followed by participants reading and sharing their writing. The  prompts take participants through a sequence of themes that are common enough that just about anyone would have experience with them–family history, the role of money, history of one’s life work, health and body, development of sexual identity, ideas about death, spiritual life and values, and goals and aspirations for the future. Because of their universality, the themes work across cultural, economic, racial, and gender circumstances.

The wisdom and magic of Birren’s method is the gentle way those prompts lead from things you’d share with a relative stranger to things you might not discuss with your best friend. An intimacy grows over the course of the class. It’s not uncommon for an ongoing group to form after a ten-week workshop. No one emerges from the ten weeks of reflection without a changed perspective on life. (Strong statement, that–and I stand behind it, having experienced it myself and witnessed it in others.)

How do I teach it?

At some point I noticed that Birren’s teaching material includes barely a mention of how to write well. This is a curriculum based on writing to find out what you know, not learning to write. And that’s okay. Over my years leading workshops, students have asked for writing craft instruction and I’ve given it. I gradually came to realize that I know some things–but could know a lot more–and that led to my Big MFA Adventure (now ONE ASSIGNMENT from completion).

And at some point, I noticed I’d gotten pretty far from Birren’s curriculum, and I started offering pure Guided Autobiography workshops again.

As my time opens up after completion of the MFA, I am looking forward to getting back in the classroom (virtual or in-person–the method can work in an online class or an in-person one (but not a blend of the two). And I’m looking forward to teaching in many flavors, from straight-up Guided Autobiography to my own craft- and -reminiscence-driven curriculum.

Want to join me? Give me a holler at 608-347-7329 or sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com!



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I have a Madison workshop starting in April: “Remember to Write! Memories to Memoir”

“In a community meeting room, participants in a reminiscence-writing workshop are gathered around a table. As we shift from discussing writing technique to sharing our stories, I witness again the power of writing in small groups. I see my participants gaining satisfying skill at a craft, discovering joy and perspective as they explore the meaning of their life experiences. I observe friendships forming, often at a stage in life when we lose more friends than we make.”

those words are excerpted from a grant proposal I wrote ten years ago. The application was successful; in fact a reviewer said, “That’s the first time I cried while reading a grant application.”

I’d been teaching small writing groups for five years by then–it all began in summer 2004 when I wanted to join a reminiscence writing group and, unable to find one, found ten people who’d join me around the table with James Birren’s Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography as our curriculum.

Over the years I’ve evolved my curriculum but always kept in mind that the people in my classroom are “outsider artists” of a kind–not striving for literary perfection or a career as a writer, just intent on bearing witness to a life of choices and chances.*

Here’s what has stayed constant: In my writing workshops we explore different aspects of the writing craft. For each class meeting participants write a few true pages about their life experiences. Each class meeting includes time to share what’s been written. Rough first drafts, but boy do they move the heart!

Sarah teaching at the Westside Senior Center, 2012

In April I’ll start a new workshop, at a new venue for me–the Arts + Literature Laboratory on Madison’s East Side. We’ll meet for five Tuesday evenings, April 17 through May 14, from 6:30-8:30 pm, at 2021 Winnebago Street. You’ll find information about the workshop and registration here–


*Do some of us go on to achieve success, however we define that? Absolutely! I received this note from student Jackie Langetiegrecently–

“every time you send me one of these notes, it brings up the memory of you and the wonderful Memoir class at the Verona Senior Center and our  1:1 meeting later. You were of great help with my manuscript and I went on to complete it and publish it as Filling the Cracks with Gold, available on Amazon” (print and ebook).

I’m proud of Jackie and all my students who have fulfilled their intentions. And I’m eager to meet you in my classroom in April!

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Happy International Women’s Day!

Eight years ago I blogged here about my personal connection to International Women’s Day. What started as a Socialist political event has evolved into a celebration for women’s economic, political, and social achievements–in Europe, anyway. USA–not so much. Let’s change that!

I invite you to enjoy this book trailer for What She Said, a compilation of women’s stories about their “aha!” moments published by A Fund for Women in 2013. Every time I watch it, tears come to my eyes. The book is out of print, but the sentiment? Indomitable!




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