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Tips on writing your stories
   - from Rick Kamen, the Harnessmaker's Grandson

For thousands of generations, elders transferred wisdom through stories. Elders still need to tell them and the rest of us still need to hear them.

Traditionally, we tell our stories verbally, but it isn't encouraged by our society anymore. Writing is a good alternative, but may be difficult for some elders. So how do you get your stories onto paper?

Hire your kids or grandkids. They're going to get the money anyway. As they write your stories, your relationship with them will extend to new dimensions. Their lives will be enriched, and you can be sure that your stories will be read centuries from now.

How can we be so sure? Let's say you had stories from your grandparents' childhood. Wouldn't you treasure them and distribute copies to each of your grandchildren? And wouldn't these stories be even more valuable to them? Your stories are instant heirlooms. And they get more valuable with every generation. They'll be cherished more than any chair or vase.

You may be tempted to record your stories with audio or video tape. It's fun, but temporary. Tapes deteriorate after ten or twenty years and the machines to play them may not be available later. Also, you want your stories easily recognizable. What happened to all those wire recordings of important family events? Ink on paper is the only recording medium with a good track record.

Another advantage of written stories is that you can edit them. The finished product might not be exactly what you would say, but it's what you want to say. And people will enjoy reading it.

Catch-22 book writing

The best way to write a book of memoirs is to not plan to. Write individual stories for your family and local newspapers. After a year or two, you may have enough stories to edit into a book. If your initial goal is to write a book, you'll take a lot of the fun out of the process and may not complete it. Also, the fun is what makes the behavior so healthy.

As you read Harnessmaker's Son, you'll remember stories of your own. Write them down in a notebook. Even the most trivial snippet may work with another memory to produce a wonderful story. You'll fit them together later. The notebook is your "permanent file." The most entertaining of those stories you'll polish for publication.

That(ford)'s Entertainment was made from several memories that were cute, but not big enough for their own story. So was Brownsville Bouquet, a story about the smells in the neighborhood. Jack's favorite story, Important Man, started as two memories told six months apart. The last line of the story ties them together. 

The "family story" format is a powerful way to transmit your personality and attitude, your most important tools for success in life. By using the first person, you let readers know how your mind works. You'll be writing about old situations, but describing them with the knowledge you have today. When your readers encounter similar situations, they'll have the benefit of your lifetime's experience.

But your stories can't sound preachy. On the surface they should be just short, funny, cute tales. The fact that you are the author will infuse them with your wisdom. Maybe you don't think you're wise, wise people never do. They call it "common sense."

Do the twist

Family stories usually end with a twist that leaves people laughing. It's a powerful tool for transmitting values and beliefs. The unwritten sentences before the punch line contain the moral of your story.

Most stories in Harnessmaker's Son use the twist ending, including the shortest one, The Coat. The unwritten sentences in The Coat tell us things like don't drink too much, don't call late, or don't annoy people, but the twist ending says it a lot better. Click here to read it.

The twist ending isn't always funny. It can transmit other thoughts and emotions also…sometimes two conflicting ones simultaneously. The power of it is that you're putting a thought directly into your readers' minds without writing it. The readers think it's their thought.

And everyone loves the laugh that the twist usually gives. The more humor in your stories, the more people will read them.

What if your stories aren't funny?

You may have some painful experiences. Mention them, but don't dwell on the pain. The important thing is how you dealt with it and what you learned from it. That's what the young people need to know.

The first story in Harnessmaker's Son is about mass murderers on a rampage. All of us have a family story like this. If we're black, the bad guys are the KKK. If we're Native Americans, it's the U.S. Cavalry. In our story, it was Cossacks.

Three Words, the first story of the book, honors heroism. Whenever someone speaks, it's three words. Usually "three words" refers to "I love you." Even though that's a major theme in the book, those words are only used once. They're the last words of the last story.

You may relate this story to one about another Jewish carpenter who sacrificed his life for others. That's coincidence, but another good example of how a story can positively deal with a horrible event. What are the positives in Three Words? It could have been worse, the hero had some noble qualities, and we have those qualities also. To read Three Words, click here.

Just the Gems, please

You may be proud of your kids' college degrees or the list of awards you've won. If you can weave them into a funny or interesting story, include them. Otherwise, leave them out or attach them as an appendix. The most important writing rule is "Don't bore your readers." As soon as you bore them, they're gone. They won't catch a glimpse of the rest of your gems. Put the boring stuff at the end if you have to include it.

As we were getting ready to print Harnessmaker's Son, My father insisted I include his two awards for sinking a hole-in-one at the local golf course. (Boring) We didn't have a golf story. Writing and polishing one might take a week.

"Just stick it anywhere," he said. I knew I had to make it funny, so I inserted it at the end of a story about playing stickball on the streets of Brooklyn.

The original story ended romantically:

I didn't play much ball after I got married. As a newlywed, I found more enjoyable things to do.

Then I tacked on the new ending right after the old one. Now it reads:

I didn't play much ball after I got married. As a newlywed, I found more enjoyable things to do.

I even got awards for it--twice.

I keep the plaques above my desk. They say "Hole in One. Rancho Park Municipal Golf Course."

That ruined one of the few romantic endings in the book, but it's better with the laugh. What makes it even funnier is knowing that not all readers are going to understand the sexual overtones. That's the way family stories work. They speak to everyone in different ways.

We encourage you to use the Harnessmaker's Son stories as models for your own. We didn't invent the style. Elders have been using it for thousands of generations. To order your copy, click here.

Trigger your memories by reading a story from the book every month. We'll help by sending you a story from the book each month as part of our newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter by sending a blank e-mail message to Harnessmaker-subscribe@topica.com Unsubscribe instructions are just as simple and are included at the bottom of each newsletter.

Would you like me to help you write your stories? Click here to find out more.


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