It’s summertime. If you’re like most families in North Hawaii, you’ve got trips planned, beach parties to go to, graduations, weddings – major fun on the horizon. All those plans rack up forever memories – the type you know you should get down on paper, but who has the time?
The bigger roadblock for most people is the thought, deep down in their gut, that their writing isn’t good enough to chronicle for themselves, let alone future generations or public consumption.
But according to author Darien Gee, not only are you good enough, but you also are the most qualified person on earth to do the job, or at least to direct it.
“Our stories are important,” Gee said. “We are all inter-connected, and sharing our stories strengthens those connections. Writing our stories down is a way to make sure those stories that mattered most aren’t lost.”
Even if people realize they are good enough and that their stories are worth committing to paper, they often have no idea where to start.
Gee has put an end to all excuses with her new book, “Writing the Hawai’i Memoir.” The 127-page, nine-by-six-inch paperback published by Watermark Publishing in Honolulu has more than 25 exercises to prompt writing.
Chapters in the book address important issues such as setting goals. It also offers tools for remembering, developing characters in your life story and it even helps with getting through writer’s block.
“It is really important to me that if people have a story to tell, they have the tools to tell it,” Gee said.
In the book, Gee said that memoirs differ from biographies or autobiographies that are based in fact. Instead, memoirs are based on memories and moments. She writes, “The value is not in the event itself, but in how it shaped us.”
“Memoir is a slice of life,” Gee said during an interview in her home with North Hawaii News. “It can be a period of time, a person, an experience. It would be really anything – that is what I love so much about this form of life writing.”
Gee has also written “Friendship Bread,” “The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society” and “An Avalon Christmas,” as well as three novels under the name Mia King – “Sweet Life,” “Table Manners” and “Good Things.” As a community contribution, she writes a regular column for North Hawaii News called “Writer’s Corner.”
After teaching workshops on creative writing, memoir writing and publishing for more than 15 years, she said that last year, she was talking to George Engebretson at Watermark Publishing about how her memoir class is different in Hawaii than in other places because certain issues, like saving face, hold a higher value. The conversation led her to “Writing the Hawai’i Memoir.”
“My real focus was wanting to encourage,” Gee said. “Hawaii has so many good storytellers, and they exist among our friends and family. I didn’t want stories important to an individual or to a community to get lost. It is just a matter of getting it down.”
So how does Gee advise writers to narrow down which stories to tell in a memoir?
“Choose the stories that have the most power for you,” Gee said. “They don’t have to be the most exciting or traumatic or important stories of your life, but ones that stayed with you – those that come to mind and put a smile on your lips.”
Gleaning from other Hawaii experts
Peppered throughout “Writing the Hawai’i Memoir” are tips, nuggets of advice and words of encouragement from some of Hawaii’s top writers, including North Hawaii’s Dr. Billy Bergin, Patricia Jennings, and Phil Slott, with a pule ho’omaika’i written by Danny Akaka Jr.
“We all have different experiences and backgrounds, and I didn’t want to presume what anybody needed,” Gee said. “Turning to these other experts gave me a chance to make sure the reader was going to get a full picture of writing a memoir in Hawaii. It was exciting to have people (included) who have been very successful in writing about Hawaii and sharing it with others.”
Dr. Bergin, a veterinarian who has authored the “Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch” series, talks about collecting oral history in “Writing the Hawai’i Memoir.” He gives effective advice for gathering information that includes listening “with your whole being” and using a recorder and transcribing the notes. He also suggests researching the person before the interview and helping the interview along with prompts.
He said that after having interviewed dozens of people for his books and for his displays at the Paniolo Preservation Society, he often has family members of his interviewees approach him, sometimes holding a child, and they express their gratitude that Bergin took the time to chronicle the profound contribution their great grandfather or other relative had made. He called those moments “magic.”
“In fact, at the end of the day, you always talk about a person or persons,” Bergin said. “When you do that, you are committing to print background and history that is now permanent.”
He said he encourages others to write, especially those who are fascinated by their own heritage.
“Everybody needs to write. Everybody can write,” Bergin said. “You are the only one that can do it from your family’s perspective and examine the continuity of human life.”
Leslie Lang, a freelance writer and ghostwriter from Hilo who helps people write their memoirs and biographies, also gave advice in the book. She said she reminds her clients and budding memoir writers to remember that writing isn’t a quick process, and that manuscripts go through several drafts that require feedback and additional information added along the way.
“Taking the time to do it this way is like broth slowly simmering on the stove — — the story gets richer as we keep talking and more of the flavor comes out,” she said.
Beyond the book: memoir writing classes
If you still need help with writing and live in North Hawaii, Gee offers local classes to help.
She’s also worked with fifth grade students at Waimea Middle School in creating their own six-word memoir, another chronicling technique developed by SMITH Magazine where people write their memoirs in exactly six words. Gee describes the six-word memoir in her book, and gives examples written by her students.
Gee also offers classes at the Waimea Community Center in Waimea, and she’s offering classes this summer at Tutu’s House, Spencer House and Anna’s Ranch (see box).
Andrea Dean from Hawi, who is working on a collection of personal essays, is one of Gee’s students. She said she hopes to complete a draft of her book by the end of summer to take advantage of Gee’s master class in the fall for final revisions.
Dean said she typically writes on food self-sufficiency for magazines and other publications, and that it was difficult to make the switch to writing personal accounts.
“Darien’s approach to life and writing has helped me to free myself up to actually get the writing done,” Dean said. “Instead of being a wicked task master to myself, which is my normal mode of operation, but wasn’t working for a creative project, Darien has helped me to relax into living my life and then to write about it.”
Local origami artist Bonnie Cherni, who is writing “Honeymooning in 30 Countries for 20 Years,” a work in progress about her travels with her husband, Steven, said she turned to a memoir writing class to help her to finish her goals using Gee’s techniques.
“Your time in Darien’s class mimics the discipline and playfulness needed to finish any project,” Cherni said.
George Keoki Manu Sr., a retired airline executive and manager for Hawaiian Airlines, has one of his six-word memoirs published in the book, “Polynesian, Oriental, European, all in one.”
He also took Gee’s memoir class as a way for him and his wife to sift through their thoughts as they prepare to write their life stories.
“Brooke and I took the course with Darien because we, like all of the others in our class, had what seemed like a very interesting and fascinating life filled with wonderful experiences that we thought many others would appreciate re-living with us through written expression of our life experiences,” Manu said.
Elsbeth McKeen is working on a memoir project about growing up on a sugar plantation with the working title, “Plantation Days.”
“(I) took the memoir writing class because I have been recording bits and pieces of my life, and others in an oral history sort of way, sporadically, but wanted a way to form a perspective and create some cohesion … ,” she said. “One of the inspirational things flowing from that class was that, although I am not famous nor a prominent figure, I might have something interesting and maybe even important to convey. I doubly realized that when listening to the stories of those in the class.”
“Writing the Hawai’i Memoir” is on sale at Bentleys in Parker Square and the Crackseed, etc. store.
Emily Hoover, owner of Bentleys, said she carries books from local authors because people who visit the store “love to come and hear about their stories and to share similar stories.”
“It brings the community together – brings people out of their safety zones,” Hoover said. “You really get to meet people you might not have before because, in some way, they have a shared interest.”
“Writing the Hawai’i Memoir” may be purchased for $14.95 at www.bookshawaii.net. If bought before July 31, the book includes a packet of exercises, tips and inspirational quotes from the book. The book is also available on Amazon, with a Kindle edition now available at a discounted price of $4.99.