Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing
Edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland
The Key Publishing House Inc., Toronto, Ontario (2012)
$27.99; 343 pp; ISBN: 978-1-926780-13-9
(Reviewed by Lisa Fraser)

Writing about family is a time-honored activity for women, whether it is keeping a private diary, writing a family history, or crafting a novel. And while the world of publishing offers ever-increasing opportunities for new writers, it can be difficult to take the step from writing for oneself to writing for a broader audience. Women Writing on Family is a start-to-finish resource for writers facing this challenge. Like a trusted writing group, the authors provide insight and advice on everything from mental preparation to marketing and promotion. The personal experience of the contributors lends credibility, but the focus of the book is on helping the reader to reach her writing goals.

Co-editors Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland have assembled an impressive array of contributors for this anthology. While all are experienced authors, each has taken a different path to reach that goal. They are psychologists and nurses, college professors and secondary school teachers. Several teach writing courses, and many have won awards for their work. Their accumulated knowledge and skills are the backbone of this book. These are women whose advice I would not only trust for myself, but pass along to my friends. For example, Kezia Willingham’s contributions go to the heart of two major challenges for many women who write. In one chapter, she gives concrete tips for balancing writing, family, and work, while in the other she discusses the emotional risk of writing with honesty. Willingham knows what she’s talking about. She was a single parent and high school dropout in her teens. She has gone on to earn a Master’s in Social Work and now works for Seattle Public Schools. Her work in Women Writing on Family exemplifies her journey as a writer, a parent, and a family participant. Each of the contributions brings a similar quality of authenticity and experience, even while the ages, professions, cultures, and publishing backgrounds of their authors are widely diverse.

There are many resources for writers, some of which focus on women. The emphasis on writing about the family is what sets this book apart from the others. The unique issues that women face when they use their family as the basis for their writing transform an activity that is already highly personal into one that may be fraught with risk even while holding the potential for significant personal and professional development.

In her chapter “Family Secrets: How to Reveal What Matters Without Getting Sued, or Shunned,” Martha Engber explores the tension between the right to express oneself in writing and the emotional and legal consequences that can result from publishing others’ personal stories. She explains concepts such as libel using clear, jargon-free examples, then goes on to suggest five ways to reduce the likelihood of damaged relationships and limit exposure to legal action. Additional chapters on personal and legal issues help the reader assess her subject matter and make informed decisions about whether and how to share sensitive topics as part of her work. This advice is supplemented by insightful words meant to encourage the writer who is still uncertain whether she is ready to reveal her work–and her family–to the world.

Families are a never-ending source of stories ranging from full scenes to tiny snippets. The challenge is using your own writing style and solid technique to develop the characters, setting, and story into a finished piece with reader appeal. Women Writing on Family offers several viewpoints on crafting both fiction and nonfiction. In “Making Up Grandma: How to Blend History and Imagination Into Powerful Family Narratives,” contributor Lela Davidson offers on-target advice for effectively blending historical fact and imagination to bring family stories to life. She offers guidance on how to embellish a single incident using historical details about the place and time, as well as exploring the likely emotions of the people involved. Asserting that “…it’s a shame to let a story die just because it’s only a snippet,” Davidson gives permission to combine fact and imagination in order to portray family stories more completely.

The internet is a valuable tool for writers, and three chapters written by successful bloggers provide information about opportunities for career development through online writing projects. Other career-related topics include marketing, self-publishing, and efficient use of writing conferences. Of course, many authors writing about family are doing so between loads of laundry and during naptime. A particularly valuable section on balancing writing and family commitments provides inspiration for those days when everything seems to hit at once.

Women Writing on Family is a gift from experienced writers to their sisters who are just starting down the road to a writing career. The techniques, exercises, tools, and tips make it a resource to consult again and again. Poet or family historian, blogger or novelist, this book offers something for every woman seeking to write about family. Amazon.com includes several reviews.

LISA FRASER is a librarian with King County Library System and an adjunct lecturer at University of Washington. She writes on local and family history and library practice.

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