Writing About Lives

Authors, journalists and bloggers all do it.

May-22-2013

Writing Your Life Story

Everyone has a unique life and the best way to describe it is by writing your life story and sharing it with family and friends. If you belong to the tribe that yearns to write a book to chronicle and preserve all your life experiences, then write in a manner that fascinates and motivates your readers. It is important to write in a style that is compelling, entertaining and intriguing and makes your readers yearn for more. Anyone, irrespective of the age or background, can write their life story once they learn the tools to give form to their personal experiences.

Why should you write your life story?
If you think you have savored life in various colors and wish to share it with others, then you shouldn’t hesitate to put pen to paper. You may have got the chance to experience various cultures in different places and would like to share your experiences. Let’s face the fact that everyone has something interesting to tell about. The lack of creative or writing skills can be the only deterrent for many people. But if you are motivated enough to record your life experiences, all it takes is to pick up the necessary tools for writing and transform your life events into exciting and energetic writing.

What you can write about in your life story?
You can write about your childhood, the people who had a lasting impression on you at various stages of life, the places you’ve visited and all your memorable experiences associated with them. As you write about your memorable experiences, consider them in the form of a story with plot, characters, theme, dialogues and details that involve the senses so that your story leaps to life and can inspire and uplift your readers. Make your writing vivid by including details about the dates, season, places and context of your life event.

Your story started before your birth, so remember to include interesting details about your family background and the circumstances that brought you into this world. Your life story may include special events relating to the culture and region in which you were born and how they affected your upbringing. This could include details of the family values and customs, food, language and rituals practiced at home.

How to format your life story?
You can write your life story in a simple autobiographical essay form with an introductory paragraph, the body containing a couple of paragraphs and an interesting conclusion. When you realize that your life story has something really interesting to tell, it will surely be enjoyable to your readers as well. Alternatively, you can write your life story in the journal format wherein you write a number of pages on each significant event of your life. You may choose to write the facts of your life by organizing them in a chronological or thematic manner or simply base it on the interesting anecdotes of your life.

If writing reams of matter about your life story seems to scare you, you can always begin by writing in small chunks. The moment you recall an important event that occurred at some point of your time-line, write it down and then integrate it into your narrative. When you just write about your experiences in a given day, you realize that at the end of it you have a really invaluable collection of events to create your fascinating life story.

Posted under Daily Posting
Jan-24-2012

“Family” – from Creative Nonfiction’s Brevity

Nov-29-2011

The Little Essay that Could

A very generous professor in Columbia’s MFA program told me she thought I had something with this “black guy in Utah story.” Armed with her belief in the idea, I spent a month in the summer of 2006, ten years after I had left The Salt Lake Tribune, and researched and wrote on my time as a young journalist in Utah. The first draft was eviscerated in workshop.  I dropped it as a book idea but pursued it as “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow,” over the years. For years I submitted this essay to literary magazines and contests with no result. An editor I trusted dismissed the idea as a list of gripes. In the summer of 2009 I sent it to a little-known creative writing competition called Soul-Making Literary Contest in San Francisco, really almost as a last ditch effort. It won second place in the intercultural category, selected by Tara Masih. I flew to the west coast and gave a reading at the San Francisco Public Library. A bunch of my friends showed up. That was in the spring of 2010.

Almost two years later, thanks to the tireless efforts and faith of  Tara Masih, who convinced a publishing house to run with a collection of essays from relatively unknown writers from various cultural backgrounds. The Chalk Circle: Prizewinning Intercultural Essays will come out next summer with Wyyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. I’ve published a lot of work in newspapers, magazines and online. This becomes my first full chapter post-newspapers.

 

Cheers!

Posted under The Writing Life
May-18-2011

My Unlikely Magic Carpet Out of Daily Newspapers

Ten years ago today, The San Diego Union-Tribune, my last newspaper, carried my front page story about Cupcake Brown’s remarkable journey from a life of street gangs, addiction and prostitution to graduating from law school. Writing this story catapulted me into a world of literary agents, college teaching, an MFA program and the world of nonfiction book proposals.

By Samuel Autman

High on a four-day crack binge, crouching behind a trash bin to light her pipe, Cupcake Brown saw the face of imminent death, her own, reflected in a storefront window.

Hers was the face of a trash-can junkie – eyes sunken, lips scabbed and burned, a once-beautiful face ravaged by years of heroin, cocaine, angel dust and the constant struggle to get high, to find money to get high and to stay high.

On Sunday, the onetime high school dropout will graduate near the top of her class at the University of San Francisco’s law school, having completed a journey from the gritty streets of a childhood in San Diego and Los Angeles. She says hard work and faith in God helped her.

And a boss and other mentors who didn’t turn away.

With no shoes on her feet, wearing a dirty green dress, Brown walked from the trash bin at 47th and Imperial Avenue to Sixth and B Street, to the law offices where she worked for Kenneth Rose and said: “`Ken, I am an addict and alcoholic. I just came in to tell you I need some help.’ ”

Rose says he remembers that day. Brown had been an exemplary administrative assistant, although she behaved erratically at times. Brown’s plea for help showed her as someone redeemable. Rose helped enroll
Brown in a drug and alcohol treatment center, a step toward her recovery.

***

She was born Cupcake Lavette Brown in Sharp Memorial Hospital 37 years ago. Her mother, Edith Long, was groggy after the delivery. Nurses mistook Long’s request for a cupcake to be the newborn’s name. The name stuck.
Brown’s early years in a small house at 30th and Franklin in Logan Heights are among her happiest memories. Tim Long, her stepfather and the one whom she called Daddy, recognized Brown’s penchant for argument. At 7 years old, she pestered him with questions on the validity of Santa Claus until, flustered, he conceded there was no Santa Claus. That’s when he told Brown she would someday make a good lawyer.

At 11, Brown lost her mother. Hearing a radio alarm clock blaring, she stepped into her mother’s bedroom to find her dead from a seizure.

Brown’s biological father, a man unknown to her, stepped forward as the legal guardian of Brown and her older brother. He placed them in foster care. The same year her mother died, Brown was introduced to marijuana and alcohol by neighborhood kids.

Over the next few years, Brown bounced from one foster home to another in San Diego, Spring Valley, La Mesa, Sherman Oaks, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Simi Valley and South Central Los Angeles. Brown alleges that in some of the homes she was physically and sexually abused but says she never complained to social workers because her foster parents were always present during visits.

To escape, Brown ran away. A prostitute told her she might as well start selling what her foster father had taken for free.

She hung out on the streets of Los Angeles. She joined the 8-Tray Gangster Crips gang.

“It was the closest thing to a family I had had since my mom died. If I was hungry, they fed me. If I was cold, they clothed me. I loved the camaraderie and devotion. I thought I wanted to die a gangster star.”

When she was 15, Brown almost got her wish. In 1979, a rival gang shot at her. She was hit by nine pellets from a sawed-off shotgun and two bullets from a .22-caliber handgun. Lying in a hospital, she vowed to God that if she walked out, she would quit gang-banging.

Brown kept that promise, but she continued using drugs and selling her body. In the midst of lawless living, she harbored a desire to practice law. But it seemed like a pipe dream.

Long, her stepfather, certainly thought so.

“She was just a little skeleton,” said the retired sheet metal worker. “Her clothes hung off of her. She didn’t care if she took care of herself. She didn’t take a bath. All she cared about was drugs.”

***
Even after landing a job in 1987 with attorney Rose, Brown still used. “I didn’t just put the crack pipe down and say I wanted to be a lawyer. It was a process.”

The journey began that day at the trash bin. Brown went through rehabilitation, stayed clean for 69 days and had one relapse. She has been drug-free since Oct. 15, 1989.

Joining Alcoholics Anonymous and taking classes at San Diego City College were turning points, she said. It took her five years to graduate with honors from City College in 1995. There she learned the art of studying.

But it wasn’t until her belated arrival in Larry Burns’ prosecution class at San Diego State University that her love for the law sprouted. Ordinarily, Burns would not allow students to remain in his class after missing the first few sessions. He relented, but he warned Brown that was her last break.

Burns, now a U.S. magistrate, said Brown got the highest grade in the class. She had always done the reading and could answer any question he hurled at her. He was impressed.

Brown told her teacher she wanted to go to law school but was unsure of herself.

“She feared she did not have the right stuff,” Burns said. “I told her, `You have a very incisive mind and understand opposing viewpoints on both sides. I think you are a perfect candidate for law.’”

After graduating magna cum laude from SDSU in 1998, Brown applied to the law schools of the University of San Diego, Santa Clara University, Southwestern University, Loyola Marymount and the University of San Francisco, which took a chance on her.

Carol Wilson, director of USF’s academic support program, said she saw more than just Brown’s entrance exam scores. “She had been through so much and was obviously a survivor,” Wilson said. “She showed commitment. She went through a treatment program and stuck with it. To stick out three years of law school, you have to be dedicated.”
Brown has an infectious, back-slapping laugh and calls most people “Sweetie.” A walk across the law school campus is full of hugs.

When she graduates on Sunday, she will have a large cheering section, including her stepfather Long and mentor Burns.

Brown held down three and four jobs a semester, took out student loans and had eight scholarships to help pay for law school. She has interned for Associate Justice Joyce Kennard of the California Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins. She has worked at two well-known law firms in San Francisco: Brobeck Phleger & Harrison, and McCutchen, Doyle, Brown and Enerson.

She will be a civil litigator and criminal defense attorney in white-collar cases for McCutchen after graduating.

“This is a remarkable story of the survival of the human spirit and what can happen when professional schools look beyond the numbers and see people who are marginalized and brutalized,” said Jeffrey Brand, dean of USF’s law school.

“Ms. Cakes” is her California license plate. Pictures of her mother decorate her Oakland apartment. “Cake’s Place” is written on her front door. Lady J, a purple parakeet, a gift from Ken Rose’s daughter, is her pet.

Brown frequently speaks to audiences at high schools, prisons and juvenile halls. Her message is simple: “If I can make it, anybody can.”

Sometimes she shares graphic details of her life so people can connect with her. She is working with law professor Peter Honisberg on her autobiography, tentatively titled: “A Piece of Cake.”

“I thought I would have to be a dope-fiend-gangster-ho for the rest of my life,” she said. “I never really thought I could become a lawyer.”

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted under Inspirational Stories
Feb-16-2011

The Last Time I Saw Him

GRADY, Ark. – My grandfather and I were about to head to Star City to visit Aunt Rosie, at 95, our oldest relative who resided in a convalescent center. As we were about to get into the rental car, a large black and gray German shepherd from a neighbor’s yard broke free. Growling and moving in attack mode speed, the k-9 zipped directly toward my grandfather.

I fretted, having seen a similar dog attack my younger sister not more than 100 feet away in the same town.

In my gut it seemed certain the dog was preparing to lunge for my grandfather’s throat. I braced for the worst. Granddaddy at 5-foot-7 leaned over, picked up a stick and bent his frame into the dog and screamed, “Get on out of here!” The dog stopped, sniffed him and made a u-turn. That was in the spring of 2006.

On February 15, 2011, after having been married to my grandmother for 74 years, Roy Herbert Gray got up, ate breakfast, lay back down and died in his sleep. He was 94 and a force of nature to me and legions of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Less than a year ago he was outside cutting grass, bailing hay on his tractor and hauling wood. He was the most physically agile human being I ever met at any age. Recently one of my uncles who is in his 60s could not keep up with granddaddy. He worked him so hard that he had to go home early. Granddaddy kept on working until sundown.

Back in 1996, granddaddy had to be hospitalized. At 80 and with chest pains, I wondered if this wasn’t the end of his life. I reached him on the phone in Pine Bluff. I was living in Salt Lake City at the time.

“How you doing granddaddy?”

“I’m alright son. The doctor says I need an angioplasty.”

“Are you gonna do it?”

“No siree. I told the doctor ‘there will be no cutting.’ I’m already 80 and I’m just not gonna do it.”

“So, what are you thinking? Are you thinking this is the end?”

“What?”

“Are you thinking that this is the end? What are you thinking about?”

“What I’m thinking about is getting back and getting on my tractor. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

And he made it back to that tractor and rode it for another thirteen years with no angioplasty – eating eggs, bacon, biscuits and rice daily for breakfast. Longevity in my family has, over the years, become my bragging rights or heritage. My grandmother is 90. Aunt Rosie lived to be 99. My father’s mother is 92. Granddaddy’s mother was 91 when she died.

He lived his entire life in about a ten-mile radius in Lincoln and Jefferson counties. It was a rich, textured existence, layered with a deep and abiding love for family and people. He was a part of the “Greatest Generation.” Fortunately for me, I have pages and pages of interview notes from the times we spent talking about all he had seen in his life time. He saw us go from coloreds to Negroes to Afro Americans to blacks to African Americans. He saw us go from a people barely being able to vote to seeing a black man as the nation’s chief executive in the White House.

Last Christmas I did something I had never done; I drove an extra twelve hours out of my way to see him, on what had already been a grueling trip to Dallas. I had a nagging feeling.

We sat, laughed and talked. He was weak, had not been eating and slept a lot more than normal. I spent the night at their house in Grady and could hear the sound of my grandparents talking into the night, like they’d been doing for more than seven decades. There was something comforting about their voices blending deep into the darkness.

As I left, I stopped in his bedroom and he was sleeping. I hesitated but I woke up him to say goodbye. We touched hands affectionately. I told him I loved him and I’d be back in the summer.

“Alright son,” he said to me. ” I’ll see you.”

Posted under Rural Landscape
Jul-13-2010

A slow birthing of “Sanctified: A Memoir”

A few days after my birth in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, my parents drove 27 miles south and east to Grady, the town where Mama grew up in the Mississippi Delta. I weighed 8 pounds and 6 ounces and was 21 inches long, tall for a newborn back in 1966. Mama pulled the sheet back and presented me to her mother, Madea: “Most women have a pretty baby, but girl you sho have brought home an ugly ass child. He looks like a little Thimble, doesn’t he?”

This is a tiny excerpt from “Thimble, from Grady” available on a website called Postcard Memoirs.

For the rest of this essay click here http://www.postcardmemoirs.com/post/802626469/thimble-from-grady

Posted under The Writing Life
Jun-11-2010

Visiting Tahiti and French Polynesia’s Islands of Paradise

PAPEETE, Tahiti – From that first whiff of fresh gardenias on board on Air Tahiti Nui’s late-night flight from LAX, our delegation’s trip from rural Indiana’s flatlands to South Pacific’s plush utopia, had already entered a new realm of sensory bliss.

The flight attendants placed flowers in our ears and switched to traditional Polynesian wraps. Champagne flowed freely. The pilot’s instructions were in English, French and Tahitian. Every passenger had private television screens, earphones, pillows, blankets, and seats that reclined in exquisite comfort. It was as if everyone were flying First Class. French Polynesia and 118 islands’ hospitality had already kissed us and we hadn’t even yet touched her soil. The airline industry could learn a lot from those folks.

For the next two weeks, two professors (myself included) would take 20 American college students on a 10,000-mile round-trip excursion via airplane, bus, van and boat to the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine and finally, Bora Bora to discover the people and culture of French Polynesia.

Just as expected, locals greeted us at the airport in Papeete (pronounced “poppy eh tee”) and placed leis on every person who got off the plane. Getting through customs went smoothly because of the trilingual agents’ efficiency. While most of the service industry and structure is fluent in English, it would be helpful for someone in the travel party to speak conversational to advanced French.

Our hotel, the Royal Tahitian, had such deep green shrubbery, it was as if we had all entered a new kingdom of greenery. Each morning, we’d get up and find flowers had fallen from the trees and landed on the walkways. The beachfront Tahitian indeed treats each visitor regally. Mornings began with freshly cut pineapples, mangoes, watermelons, croissants and coffee.

For the entire entry on the “I’m Black and I Travel” blog, click on the words “posted under.”

Posted under Travel
Jun-7-2010

Small Town

SPENCER, Ind.,- Pride festivals in San Francisco, Chicago and New York City boast hundreds of thousands of spectators every June with their go-go boys, drag queens and dykes on bikes. Courage drew activists together some forty years ago to create something out of nothing in those urban centers. Now they’re pretty much corporate organizations with big budgets.

But here in this town rural Indiana town of 2,500 souls, a band of drag queens performing on the Owen County Courthouse steps in the rain proved to have even more courage. And Courtney Anderson’s cartwheel in high heel boots, was the show stopper. That’s Miss Gay Indiana 2009.

Drawing a strong contingent from nearby Bloomington, a handful of courageous souls braved the weather for this town’s fourth annual pride festival. Last year organizers were proud to claim 250 people – “more than double the prior year’s turn out.” It’ll easily be up to 300 this year.

When the drag performers came out to do their routines, a few law enforcement officers on duty elbowed each other and winked. Yeah, it’s easy to mock drag queens but how much courage does it take to show up in Spencer dressed in full regalia without a gun?

By 3 p.m. the festival organizers were packing up and shutting down. A mob of LGBT folks wearing a rainbow of outfits took over Skid Row Bar & Grill directly across from the court house. When John Mellencamp sang “I’ve seen it all in a small town” in the 1980s, Spencer is the kind of a rural Indiana town he had in mind.

Posted under Rural Landscape
May-31-2010

Reading at the San Francisco Public Library

This is my reading from the Spring of 2010 at the San Francisco Public Library:

Posted under The Writing Life
Mar-30-2010

Soul-Making Literary Competition Awards Ceremony in SF

This has Youtube footage of my section of the reading held at the San Francisco Public Library. There were almost 40 readers that day. We were each allotted 4 minutes. I guess I went over. Again, thanks to Rowena, Jennifer, Philip, Lane, Orlando, Dan and Cupcake for all showing up to support me. It turned out to be an incredibly special day.

Posted under The Writing Life