ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.

Adirondack Memoir Retreat

Mary Beth Coudal is hosting a 3-day memoir writing retreat from October 25 to 28 at Skenewood, an historic Georgian manor house in Westport, New York. Participants in Coudal’s Adirondack Memoir Retreat will complete a publishable story from their lives, discover the next steps in their memoir process, and connect with a community of memoir writers to share and support their journey. (Essex on Lake Champlain)

Hats off (and a deep, balance-testing bow) to Mary Beth Coudal for organizing and hosting an inspirational long-weekend on Lake Champlain for a group of inspiring memoirists. I was fortunate to lead a pair of workshops with Coudal and to present on the importance of storytelling in the digital age. But my favorite part of the weekend was connecting with great storytellers forging new paths in this wild and wooly world of publishing. Readers, you are in for a treat once these stories are ready for you!

Coudal’s Adirondack Memoir Retreat took place in an amazing location, but I’ll let the video images speak for themselves. If you’d like a first hand experience, you can rent or buy this childhood homestead of playwright Robert Sherwood, or—with a little luck—Coudal will host another writers’ retreat before the property is sold. Stay tuned…

Although I was only able to participate in the first day and a half due to conflicts, I spoke with many of the writers on their last night and they offered glowing reviews. I wish I’d been able to attend the final reading!

Immersion Writing

Hats off to Patrick Ross (@PatrickRwrites) who’s blog The Artist’s Road chronicles his open road quest to live an art-committed life. His AWP post on immersion writing struck home note only because it reported on a panel I was sorry to miss on the final day of AWP Chicago (too many compelling, concurrently scheduled panels!), but because he reflected on a couple of familiar memoir writing/revising challenges.

I attended a Friday morning AWP panel titled “The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing.” As a sports fan I grew up admiring George Plimpton, who immersed himself so deeply in his writing that he even got to be a “quarterback” for the Detroit Lions. But as explained by Robin Hemley–a multi-published author and director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa–immersion writing should be viewed more holistically, incorporating “Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.” (OK, I cheated there; that’s the subtitle of his book A Field Guide for Immersion Writing.) ~ Patrick Ross in The Artist’s Road

Ross shared Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s story about being asked by editors to include more personal personal details in her first book. Include more of yourself, they told her. She did. And she promptly received two offers!

Ross apparently received similar advice for his memoir, and the overwhelming feedback I received from agents during the 2011 Writer’s Digest Conference was similar. I was pitching Rosslyn Redux as an Adirondack counterpoint to A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun. The memoir had already evolved dramatically since inception as a book about green renovation and historic rehabilitation. As the chapters collected and the page count rocketed to catch up with the national debt, I was drawn more and more to the social and historic narratives connected with the house. “But what’s your personal experience?” I was asked again and again.

Ross also sharedJoe Mackal’s (author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish and editor of River Teeth) advice to let interviewees read what you’ve written before publishing your work. Their feedback and perspective is valuable even if you ultimately decide what to cull and what to keep.

This advice was echoed in several memoir-focused panels I attended, but the reason was slightly different. By sharing your manuscript before publication, those represented are less likely to object, and the author has the opportunity to discuss and convince. If they only read the final, published work they stand a greater chance of being offended and angry. Unless your portrayal flatters the pants off of them!

2012 New Year’s Resolutions

English: Two New Year's Resolutions postcards

Resolutions (Image via Wikipedia)

Cheers to a razzle-dazzle 2012! I’m saluting the new year with a confession: I failed my top resolution for 2011.

There it is. I tried. I failed. Period. But last year is history, and the new year is my story!

That’s right, I’m totally undaunted. Humbled but not discouraged. Perhaps I was overly ambitious. Perhaps my resolve faltered. Perhaps I needed humility, checked ambition, faltering resolve. Perhaps I needed to unlearn and relearn and regroup and refocus…

One year ago today — with all the hubris and fanfare of a precocious adolescent — I threw caution to the wind and sang out across the interwebs.

I do hereby firmly resolve to publish Rosslyn Redux in multiple formats and to share my experiences over the next year while moving toward this goal.

My most important 2011 new year’s resolution was to deliver Rosslyn Redux to its audience. And I failed. Mostly…

But rather than sulking and groveling and begging absolution, I’m going to double down. My timing was off, but my goals were spot on. Last year whistled past like a downtown express which sucked my clutch of papers and carefully coiffed do down the tube in its wake. After standing on the platform for a while I learned to read an iPad and wear a hat. Now when the train bullets past I don’t blink.

My 2011 resolution numero uno eluded me, but I made strides and learned plenty over the last twelve months. Now I’m ready to deliver on my promise. I’m gambling that new year’s resolutions (like wine and cheese) tend to improve with proper maturation!

But good cellaring alone won’t be enough to deliver the goods. Dreams are dandy, but it takes good fundamentals and process to mature goals into accomplishments. Here are a few pointers I’ve collected to help guide me.

  • pick very small resolutions, measurable actions that you can fulfill… You want small goals you can meet in a short time. (
  • make your resolution specific, with a tangible, achievable outcome. (
  • create a timeline… that gives you enough time to make the right choice. (How to keep your New Year’s Resolutions)
  • Get back to scrappy… and do fewer things, better. (
  • outline the small, manageable steps you’ll need to take in order to achieve [your resolutions]… [Create a] a step-by-step plan…  (
  • [When you encounter] setbacks, don’t throw in the towel. Pick yourself up and start again. Setbacks are not a sign of failure; they are opportunities to learn and start again. (
  • Counterbalance all of these resolutions with a resolution that inspires you. Something you just want to do… Something that just makes you happy to be alive for another year. (

Not bad coaching, right? So far I’ve got goal and guidance. What’s missing? Inspiration. For the rocket fuel of success, no better place to turn than Seth Godin.

The thing is, we still live in a world that’s filled with opportunity. In fact, we have more than an opportunity — we have an obligation. An obligation to spend our time doing great things. To find ideas that matter and to share them. To push ourselves and the people around us to demonstrate gratitude, insight, and inspiration. To take risks and to make the world better by being amazing.

You get to make a choice. You can remake that choice every day… you have the power to change everything that’s to come. And you can do that by asking yourself (and your colleagues) the one question that every organization and every individual needs to ask today: Why not be great? (

I always and forever agree: we live in a world filled with opportunity. And we have an obligation to find, create, inspire and share greatness. In order to do so, we have an obligation to take risks.

I mentioned earlier that I mostly failed to deliver Rosslyn Redux to its audience. There are two exceptions. Last April the Rosslyn Redux blog was born. Nine months and four dozen posts later readership is growing and the chronicle/adventure is evolving. While working through the book manuscript the blog offers an open workshop to learn from my readers what is working and what is compelling and what is not. Reader comments and feedback have become an invaluable measure of my storytelling and focus, and I’m excited to ramp up the posts in the new years.

The second exception was Redacting Rosslyn, a solo performance at The Depot Theatre of readings, storytelling and vignettes ranging from a wader-wearing Amazon named Rosslyn to a perennially pickled bathtub yachtsman. Turning my book inside out for a capacity audience was scary and thrilling and addictive. I wanted to stay in that collaborative space, that creative tension between storyteller and audience forever. It was the first time that I’ve invite the public into the story, the first time I’ve shared the characters and scenarios with which I’ve been obsessed for years. The performance explored the uncanny parallel between renovating Rosslyn and redacting the Rosslyn Redux manuscript.

Renovating Rosslyn was an adventure. Writing and editing Rosslyn Redux is an adventure. Redacting Rosslyn is an interstitial adventure tucked into the folds of both, a wander into the unfamiliar. And it demands new methods and rhythms, new risks, new exploration. (

In this world filled with opportunity, this world in which we have an obligation to take risks, the blog and the live performance were my first two forays into the fulfillment of my 2011 new year’s resolution. In 2012, they will serve as the foundation upon which I find, create, inspire and share greatness.

I do hereby firmly resolve to publish Rosslyn Redux in multiple formats in 2012. In the weeks ahead I resolve to define small, measurable actions and to arrange them into a viable timeline in order to produce specific, achievable outcomes. I’ll organize a step-by-step plan and reduce it to the fewest, most necessary elements in order to succeed. I’ll get scrappy when necessary, and I’ll turn setbacks into lessons that will propel me toward my goal. One year from today I will celebrate success.

Thank you for your confidence!


5 Reasons to Write a Memoir

I’ve just read Sue William Silverman’s defence of memoir-writing, an essay full of grounded, honest advice learned in the trenches. A timely pep talk while venturing through the back alleys of my own memoir. Read the article in its entirety, but to pique your interest, here are the five reasons Silverman suggest that your life will be enhanced by discovering and telling your own memoir:

  1. Writing Memoir Helps You Overcome Fear “you’ve already lived through, survived, the actual moment… Now, tell yourself, you’re “only” writing about it, figuring out what it meant… Once the words are down on paper, you’ll feel as if a great weight, the weight of the past, has been lifted… I feel lighter, freer, as if I can truly breathe.”
  2. Memoir Helps You Understand the Past and Organize Your Life “I gain clearer insights about my past when I write it, rather than simply sitting around thinking about it in the abstract… Writing is a way to interact with—and interpret—the past. It helps us make sense of events whether they are traumatic, joyful, or just confusing… Memoir writing… helps us shape our lives… we give our lives an organization, a frame, which they would not otherwise have. Memoir creates a narrative, a cohesive life story. It gives your life a previously undiscovered structure and theme.”
  3. Memoir Helps You Discover Your Life Force “To write is to give birth to a more complete self… There is only one of you. Your voice is unique. If you don’t express yourself, if you don’t fully explore who you are, that essence of you will be lost forever… The act of writing is where the spirituality of artistic endeavor resides.”
  4. Memoir Helps You as well as Others to Heal Giving a voice to your past is empowering to you and your audience.
  5. Confessing through Memoir is Good for the Soul “As you challenge yourself, you’ll feel more courageous every day. Writing memoir energizes your psyche, nourishes your soul… To do so is to feel your horizons expand… Writing is a way to take possession of—to fully own—our lives. Only you own your memories.(Numéro Cinq)

Sue William Silverman’s most recent book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir is available at in paperback and Kindle editions.

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Memoir Darts and Regurgitation

Like many writers and readers I’ve been chewing on Neil Genzlinger’s “Problem With Memoirs” and swinging back and forth between reproach and praise. It’s a provocative piece that continues to provoke dramatic responses.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. (

My reactions are complicated by the fact that Rosslyn Redux, my current work-in-progress, is a memoir. Besides, I agree with Genzlinger that an awful lot the whiny, angry drivel masquerading as memoir should still be standing vertical in forests.

Over the last few months that I’ve been chasing publishing answers and advice I’ve often heard that the best selling memoirs are born of strong platforms, not strong writing or stories. Celebrity memoirs are the obvious example. Publishers apparently love them because they sell, sell, sell. Makes sense. But doesn’t exactly fuel the sort of mighty memoir creation that Genzlinger craves. He acknowledges that there’s plenty of quality memoir being produced, but it’s swamped by forgettable, regrettable spamoir!

Sure, the resulting list has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. (

That he lumps unheard-of memoirists with porridge producers continues to bug me. He seems to suggest, albeit obliquely, that memoir writing should be limited to writer’s sitting atop successful publishing careers. Or celebrities? Maybe this is like the agents and publishers and editors drumming the “Platform, Platform, Platform” chant. Or maybe he genuinely believes that  memoirs will be better if written by widely known/read authors. In any case, I don’t understand. And — as a newbie — I’m annoyed to be categorically dismissed. Porridge producers, be damned. But I’m confident that newbies can dish up delicacies too.

Am I being thin skinned? Sure. And this is the complexity of Genzlinger’s piece. I credit that he’s intentionally pushing buttons, intentionally chastising and provocative. And the brunt of his thinking is spot on. He closes with advice:

If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key… (

Sure, he’s posturing and fanning the flames, but he’s right. But who decides? Writing and storytelling and memoir are subjective. And the marketplace often veers wildly from the literary merits of work published. Obviously the authors have a tough time typing “The End” and then condemning the preceding 180k words to the dustbin. And publishers are altogether too happy to pass the porridge along to starving readers with deep pockets. So who decides? Perhaps his point lies elsewhere; perhaps he’s simply trying to redefine what makes a good memoir.

That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.(

This sings, soars, then arcs toward the target. Bulls eye! Bravo, Gun-slinger. This is what he’s after, the recipe for a meaningful memoir. And I want to stand and pump my fists in the air as I cheer and bellow, “Hurrah!”Memoir is discovery.

I differ with Penny Jar who’s response to “the great wack-a-doo in the memoir world” unleashed by Genzlinger’s piece concludes that a manifesto to brilliance is at work.

I don’t see the article as being the snobby, dodgy, shut-your-pie-hole critique it may have been served up as. I think it’s a call to brilliance. (Penny Jar)

Brilliance and excellence, yes, but this is always the case in great writing. What sets memoir apart? Discovery. I’m reading Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Storywhich breaks down this discovery even further into the narrator’s discovery of self through a larger, more plot-driven discovery. (I’ll tackle this idea again soon in another post.)

Absent the discovery, memoir is a pointless chronicle, a panful traipse through the wasteland of experience. So what? Who cares? If the reader is to become invested in the story, the author must share their discovery openly, honestly, artistically.

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman develops this last idea further by referencing a comment made by Scott Morris (Waiting for April and The Total View of Taftly) a couple of years ago during a manuscript critique workshop she attended in Oxford, Mississippi:

A memoir must be artful and not just real. Yes, you’ve lived it—the abuse, the loss, the suffering—now you have to get up and above it, distance yourself, and spin a good yarn. You’ve got to create art from what you lived. (There Are No Rules)

So, where does this leave us? I’m still swimming upstream, trying to distill 400k of regurgitation into a tidy story. I’m enjoying the journey, but the discovery is still unraveling. As for art, though I’m courting her night and day, she’s an elusive soul. Not giving up yet…

Are some memoirs better as fiction?

William Zinsser on Memoir Writing

Though I’ve never met William Zinsser (Writing About Your LifeOn Writing Well), he’s been one of my mentors over the last year. In addition to sharing a Deerfield Academy history, his writing and teaching have propelled me toward a simpler and deeper understanding of the memoir I am writing. If it didn’t sound absurd, I might even suggest that Zinsser advice has served as Rosslyn Redux‘s midwife!

In a recent blog post, “How to Write a Memoir” tackles my current mega-challenge, organizing and reducing my memoir.

Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never get written at all. (The American Scholar)

According to Zinsser, writing a memoir necessitates a “series of reducing decisions“, starting with pruning out all non-essential characters. If they don’t absolutely need to be in the memoir, remove them.

You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don’t need to be there. (The American Scholar)

More easily said than done! One of the most transformative aspects of the almost four years which my wife and I spent consumed with renovating our new home in the Adirondacks’ Champlain Valley was the proliferation of stories. So many lives have touched (or been touched) by this historic property. Rather than a home, we inherited a museum-full of lives, histories, artifacts, stories. It was a humbling and fascinating experience. And I wish to preserve as many of these stories as possible.

Early on I saw the memoir as a literary museum à la Plutarch’s Lives: Rosslyn’s Lives. Less ambitious in some respects, but more so in others. I’ve struggled with letting go of many of these stories, not for good, but from the memoir. Out of the memoir and onto the Rosslyn Redux website where I’ll aggregate and curate as many stories as I can before they disappear.

Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important”…. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life. (The American Scholar)

This is helpful, almost a permission to focus and reduce. And yet it is far more easily prescribed than administered! Even on the simplest level, my wife frequently grows frustrated with my omissions. I remind her that my story is different from hers. What may continue to anger her about an error we made or a contractor who disappointed may have become humorous for me. Perhaps she’ll find time to record her own memoir?

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Smashwords: Your Ebook, Your Way

Image representing Smashwords as depicted in C...

Smashwords is an ebook publishing and distribution platform for ebook authors, publishers and readers… At Smashwords, our authors and publishers have complete control over the sampling, pricing and marketing of their written works. Smashwords is ideal for publishing novels, short fiction, poetry, personal memoirs, monographs, non-fiction, research reports, essays, or other written forms that haven’t even been invented yet.

It’s free to publish and distribute with Smashwords. (

I’ve been hearing more and more about lately:

And just about everywhere else that folks are chewing the publishing industry fat. I’ve wandered their website and read miscelaneous tidbits here and there, but I’d really like to hear some firsthand accounts. Have you published a digital version of your book with Smashwords? What was your experience? Thanks!

‘Memoirs of a Scanner’ Is a Digital Storytelling Triumph!

Memoirs of a Scanner (Martinibomb Version) from Damon Stea on Vimeo.

I’m always excited by innovative techniques for storytelling in the digital age, and ‘Memoirs of a Scanner‘ definitely qualifies. It’s a giant leap for office nerds! The super creative folks over at Mindfruit Films made this uptempo melodrama using only an office image scanner… It’s short, intriguing, disturbing and only a minute long. How can you pass that up? And it just might trigger some ideas for how to tell your own story in a clever new way!

Check out these links:

Why Authors Need a Platform More Than Ever

Photo via

So here’s the thing: It’s difficult to sell a cookbook now, with a platform, so why would these three unknowns think they can sell a memoir without one? Creating and building a readership takes time, sometimes years. I can think of three possible explanations:

1. They’re unrealistic

2. They’re not serious

3.  They don’t believe in themselves enough to invest.

Because if the opposite were true: they’re realistic, serious, and believe in themselves, they’d get to work.


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Are Some Memoirs Better as Fiction?

“Too often, memoir seems to me an excuse to be fragmentary, incomplete, narratively non-rigorous. Lemon and Flynn’s books are guilty of all three.” ~ Taylor Antrim via The Daily Beast

Taylor Antrim considers whether Happy by Alex Lemon and The Ticking Is the Bomb by Nick Flynn wouldn’t make better novels than memoirs. Both rekindle his sense that “Memoir writing is cheating. I’ve always believed this,… And, anyway, by cheating I don’t mean exaggerating the truth. Of course memoirs contain misrepresentations, even outright lies…” What Antrim means is that they are cheating the reader out of a good story. They are cheating by compiling collection of vignettes, of sketches and passing these hodge-podges along to us without ever bothering to develop their narratives. “I kept wanting Flynn to do more, to apply his imagination to these insights, to tell me a story. But Bomb is content to be a sketchbook, a collage of ideas and scenes—a memoir.

Antrim contends that memoir (at least these memoirs) is the lazy storyteller’s alternative, and that a novel – at least sometimes – is a more compelling vehicle to tell the same story more thoroughly, more engagingly and with a more deftly crafted narrative. It’s a provocative assertion, one that I’ve been grappling with while writing a memoir about renovating a historic property on Lake Champlain. Memoir may fall short of the novel’s narrative finesse, but there is something fascinating about traipsing through the artifacts firsthand, exploring the sketches and conversations, rather than being swept along a Disneyfied storybook interpretation. Much like the best novels, successful memoirs sweep the reader up in a story and carry the reader from beginning to end without losing them in awkward fragments, without abandoning the logical wonders that the narrative trajectory provokes, without suggesting the reader should have waited to read the final draft. And yet, the current obsession with reality storytelling does seem to shift this assertion slightly. Is there a growing wariness if/when memoir becomes too narratively slick? Is there a higher tolerance for scrapbook storytelling?

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