A note from Lulu: this post originally appeared just over 10 years ago (so 2008) on the Lulu blog. After reconnecting with Lisa recently, we’re reposting it with some very slight updates to the text and formatting because we believe her story is unique, important, and worthy of attention even after a decade.
Read on and be inspired.
Coming to Fruition: A Manifesto
Over a five month span, Ruth, Mike, Carol, and Marwayne went from senior writers to book authors. If I had not shown them my father’s book, my mother’s book, and one of my books—all done in the same way we planned to do theirs—they would not have believed the dream could come true for them. I assured them we could get past any barriers they might encounter with the technology. I told them we would recruit volunteers to help and I asked them to allow me to guide them through the process to create their own books. Although they did not understand how it would all happen, they placed their faith in me and the process that I had outlined for them. I promised them we would cap off our successful work together with a group reading event.
Those short few months of designing their books culminated in a reading at the West Seattle Senior Center. Over 50 people came to hear the four new authors read and to celebrate their achievements. I was the proud emcee. As the authors sat up at the head table in the front of the room, their smiles and sparkly eyes beamed and told me that it was worth all the work. This day—this triumph—was a big deal for them and the audience responded warmly. It was a big deal for me, too, and I am sure I will remember this experience as one of my best of 2008.
First up to read was Mike, except that Mike asked me to read from his book for him because he was recovering from his fourth stroke and had trouble forming long sentences. When I heard last month that Mike had suffered another stroke, I worried because I lost my mother to a stroke. I didn’t want Mike to miss seeing and holding his first and likely only book—we were so close to finishing it. He is recovering quite well, but is still not back to being the 90-year-old he was before the stroke. I read a short and funny essay Mike had written about driftwood ropers and mincemeat ranchers. He watched me and laughed as I read his work—I love it when people laugh at their own jokes. Mike’s essays span 70 years and tell stories about eating squirrels, jumping rail cars in Alaska, and being drafted to war.
Tale of Two Tails: And Other Essays
This is a collection of essays by Mike Mulhall.
Carol read from her collection of pieces about photography, travel explorations, and family. She writes about places using beautiful, poetic sentences. I love her piece about how ponderosa pine trees smell like vanilla. She read an essay about her first job picking and wearing strawberries and another essay about the time she climbed to the summit of Mt. Rainier. Some of Carol’s pieces include short bits of song, and she sang as she read these portions tonight—that took a lot of courage. She dedicated her book to the grandparents she had never met or known. She wrote her stories so that her grandkids and great-grandkids would know something about her and the family.
The Only Thing Higher is Sky
This is a collection of essays by Carol Farnham.
Marwayne read portions of two of her six stories about horses she had raised on her farm. Her book is unique because it is told from the imagined perspective of a red barn and written for a teen to young adult audience. She wrote the book for her daughter and her grandchildren. There are very few family memoirs written for younger readers. Marwayne was thrilled when we were able to get her book done in time to take to a family wedding in Texas. She said the kids loved the book, especially because the horses had really existed and their stories were true. The book includes pictures of each horse and some of the photos were nearly 50 years old.
The Little Red Barn And the Horses Who Lived There
This is a collection of six stories about six horses.
Ruth was the final reader and she read several small pieces from her collection of poems and short nonfiction. She started with a poem called “Exposed,” explaining that this is how she felt, having never read her work for a large audience. Ruth’s work is provocative and sassy, and she likes bending and stretching conventional thinking and norms. When I first met Ruth, she said she wanted to create her book to be handed out at her memorial service. As the book was coming together and she saw how beautiful it was going to be, she got excited about sharing it now, while she is still very much alive.
Thankful That the Tree Still Stands: And Other Musings
Poems and short prose pieces by Ruth M. Ward
After the readings, the authors were available to answer questions and to sell and sign books. The audience loved the readings and people mingled and talked for a long time. When I think about this evening’s celebration, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of urgency, a sense that something is still undone. I wonder what would have happened had Ruth, Mike, Carol and Marwayne not published their books. Their stories might never have been shared, and this would have been a tragedy.
My sense of urgency comes from a belief that there are thousands, perhaps millions, of other senior writers out there whose work is hidden away in old stacks of paper; faded, handwritten journals, or lost in the digital catacombs of old 386 floppy-drive computers. How do we ensure that seniors who have taken the time and care to write their stories have a chance to pass on their work?
Three Realities and a Manifesto
Reality number one: Print-on-demand publishing is simpler and more cost effective than ever. It is very easy to design, load, and publish a nice looking book. There are no or few upfront costs. For example, a 100-page book with a nice color cover will cost around eight dollars to print and there is no minimum order required.
Reality number two: Most seniors do not have the basic computer skills needed to design, upload, and publish their writing using the newer print-on-demand methods. Mike does not type at all. Ruth types, but does not understand how to save or format her work on her computer. Carol and Marwayne can type and save Word files, but do not understand how to format files or upload them to an Internet site. Each senior writer will face different technology barriers. The print-on-demand publishing process is simple, but not for those who are not comfortable using computers.
Reality number three: If you are my age or younger (I’m 40 something), you likely have the skills you need to help bridge the gap between a senior writer and their finished book. Can you format a Microsoft Word document? Can you place pictures in a Word file? Do you buy books from Amazon or other online retailers? Are you comfortable attaching files to email messages? Can you create a PowerPoint presentation? If so, you have all the skills needed to design, load and publish a print-on-demand book.
The manifesto: I would like to see senior publishing workshops crop up in cities across the country and world. I want there to be millions of Ruths, Mikes, Carols, and Marwaynes who have the opportunity to publish and share their writing. How many stories end up rotting in basement cardboard boxes or landfills? Our elders’ writings are important and they deserve to be valued, preserved, and shared. Happily, new technologies have made publishing their works easy and inexpensive. But people like you and me are needed to bridge the gap—to become enablers—between the writers and the technology.
I believe that anyone with the desire to help can become a powerful catalyst and facilitator for a senior writer. Start with your parents or grandparents. Ask them if they have written down any stories or memories and let them know you would like to help them publish their writings so the whole family can read them.
Get comfortable with the print-on-demand publishing process by giving it a try. There are many print-on-demand vendors to choose from, but I like Lulu because there are no upfront costs and it is very easy to use. You can upload a Word document, make a few standard choices about the cover style and design (Lulu offers several preloaded alternatives) and order your first book in about an hour. The cost of this experiment will likely be less than ten dollars. If you are not a writer, publish your son’s book reports or your mother’s stories.
Although I am a writer, this is how it all started for me: with my parents. My 73-year-old mother was a budding writer when she died unexpectedly two years ago. She had nearly completed her memoir, with just the final chapter to write. My mother was a member of a spirited writing group for seniors and she and I attended writers’ conferences together. We were connected by a love of writing. She published several short pieces in regional publications. Writing fueled her final years and days. I saw how it enlivened her spirit. Having retired from the Cape Coral Police Department communications department, my mother had good computer skills and could type and edit her own work, and so her manuscript was in pretty good shape. Because her memoir was nearly complete before she died, I was able to finish it for her and publish it for my family.
Although an uneducated man, my father has been writing his stories about family and life for over a decade. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s and plagued with heart disease, his ability to remember and write his stories has diminished. My father’s wife types his stories despite her severe rheumatoid arthritis in both hands. She knows enough about computers to type the stories and insert pictures amongst the text to create homemade books, coil bound at the local Kinko’s. I remember the look on my father’s face when my siblings and I presented him with 20 professional looking, perfect bound copies of his book called, 75 Years and Lee’s Excellent Adventures.
For his 75th birthday, we put together a collection of his stories and created a print-on-demand book on Lulu, complete with his author bio and picture on the back cover. He was a published author and the book was available for our extended relatives in Canada to buy online. He gushed with pride and happiness, signed copies for his Wednesday afternoon beer buddies and mailed a copy to his only living sibling. He tells me now that he re-reads his book often to keep his memory tuned up.
The writing my mother and father have done is precious to my siblings and me, and I know that writing was and is important to them, too. Their work shares little in common except that it provides a window into their hearts, minds, and lives. Working on their print-on-demand projects gave me the confidence and resolve to help other senior writers publish their stories.
Once you feel comfortable using a print-on-demand website, the next step is to offer to help senior writers go through the process. A great place to find older writers is your local senior center. They often have writing courses that help seniors recall and write their stories. Find and partner with the class instructors and offer a follow-up workshop for those who have written enough to create a book (anything over 25 pages or so can be made into a book). If you are not comfortable with the technology but are interested in helping seniors publish their writing, partner with someone who is a computer whiz. Keep the group size small—no more than six people at a time—because there are lots of little details to cover and some of the work you will need to do one-on-one.
In my case, I taught a nonfiction writing class at the West Seattle Senior Center and then pitched the publishing class as a second offering. Only three from the first class (Ruth, Mike and Carol) felt they had enough finished work to proceed to the publishing workshop. I volunteered my time and materials for both of these classes, but I think it would be fine to charge a nominal fee to cover basic expenses (keep in mind that many seniors are on fixed budgets).
If your writers need help getting their work typed, proofed, or edited, you will want to recruit volunteers. I asked my community blog, the West Seattle Blog, to post a request for volunteers. A lot of people responded because they felt the project was important and worthy. I had eight people who typed 20-50 pages each, three proofreaders who helped spot and correct typographical errors, and three people who offered light editing to improve the readability of the writing. Because the workshop, writers, and volunteers were all located in my West Seattle community, meetings were easy to plan. I met many of my volunteers at a nearby Barnes & Noble coffee shop to hand off work that needed to be typed. Once typed, the work could be emailed back and forth to be proofed and edited.
My workshop had five class dates and then one-on-one time as needed to get all the books completed. Because each book project is unique, some were completed more quickly than others. Our first group meeting occurred on January 28th and our reading celebration was May 14th. While the classroom work occurred over five group sessions, there were gaps in meetings as work was being typed, proofed, uploaded, and as we ordered and reviewed the draft books (Allow ten days for each book order, or a total of 20 days to accommodate two rounds of draft books).
Ruth, Mike, Carol and Marwayne designed their own books. I created a template for the type of information I knew that I needed to format and load their books and then I walked them through considering and making their own decisions about how their books would look. I think it is important that each writer make these choices, even if this makes the process a bit slower and more cumbersome. Each class was two hours long. For the first 40 minutes I would explain the book elements we would work on and make assignments. Then I would put them to work on the assignments while I met one-on-one with each writer to determine what needed to happen next to move their books forward.
Here is a list of the design elements they defined and completed:
- Book title and subtitle
- Design of their front cover (color, picture, font style)
- Design of their back cover (author picture and short biography)
- Book dedication and acknowledgements
- The introduction or preface
- The author bio for the back of the book
- The flow of the book – how they would like their writing to be organized into chapters or sections.
The seniors really enjoyed working on these design elements because they could see their book coming together exactly how they wanted it to. I gave the seniors some structure for the sake of simplicity and time, making it clear where we needed to have consistency. For example, I told the seniors that their books would be 6” x 9” perfect bound, softcover books with a color cover and black and white printing inside. Lulu offers many sizes, but by keeping it the same for everyone, I could use one basic Word template for all the books.
The hardest part of this process is turning each writer’s work into a correctly formatted Word file so it can be uploaded to Lulu. Asking everyone to agree to the 6” x 9” softcover style made my job much easier. As it turned out, Carol and Marwayne deviated a bit and included color pictures inside their book, but this difference was not difficult to accommodate.
I found that the easiest way to create the front covers was to design them using PowerPoint. You can make the page size 6 x 9 inches and then place any pictures onto the cover. Using PowerPoint, I was able to sit with each writer and instantly show them different title fonts and background colors. Most of the writers used pictures they already had for the cover, which I then scanned and placed onto the PowerPoint page. Once the cover is designed, you can save the PowerPoint page as a jpeg file, which can then be easily uploaded to your Lulu account. Make sure that the jpeg is 300dpi or better.
I am sharing these details about the process to give you an idea of how easy it can be to create a nice looking book. Yes, there were a lot of little things we had to design and define; but it was a fun process and these writers really got into it. Do you have team volunteer projects at work? Share a copy of this essay with your peers and say, “let’s do this!”
You might be thinking that there are publishers out there who will do all the work and publish anyone’s book. This is true, and one of the writers in my group had been given a quote for $4,000 to publish her book. This quote included a minimum of 500 books, which is about 350 more than she would ever need. Many seniors live on fixed budgets and cannot hire people to publish their work. The print-on-demand method is more labor intensive, but it allows all writers the opportunity to share their work. I used volunteers to help with typing, proofing, and editing, but it would be nice if every senior writer could have his or her work edited by a professional. I’d like to see grants written for senior book projects that would cover costs for basic editing and typing when needed. I would bet that many philanthropists would love to support this work.
I have had a few people ask me about the quality of the writing, suggesting that not everyone’s stories are good enough to be published. I look at writing much the same as I do the visual arts. There is fine art and there is folk art. Fine art might demonstrate more technique and craft, but folk art is often more interesting and generally tells a story. While some seniors are experienced writers who have developed their craft, many are writing folk art. I would put my father’s writing in the category of folk art, but his stories are wonderful! I believe that any elder, who has taken the time to write, deserves to be published and read. And when I work with senior writers, I do not try to change their style of writing or fix things beyond typographical errors and basic grammar and sentence structure.
Writers like words and I remember using a word that got a big reaction from my group of senior writers. The word was fruition and I was referring to the ability to complete a writing project so that it was available for others to read. They ached for fruition. They wanted to feel relevant and appreciated, and their stories offered them an opportunity to live beyond their earthly days. We get energy and satisfaction from all aspects of writing—the creation of our work and the act of sharing it.
I can remember the first small piece that my mother got published in a magazine for seniors. This initial success powered her confidence that led to the writing of her memoir. The piece is short enough that I would like to share it here:
Evidence of a Good Life
by Barbara McCranie
I feel good about the weirdest things. This week I’m wallowing in the recognition that our worn table napkins validate a fine lifestyle. Not just great dining but a higher level of living.
It started when my husband suggested new napkins. The dozen white cotton dinner napkins are still good and proof of thousands of dinners for two. The same old couple dabbing and wiping until their napkins are threadbare. You can’t replace that.
Worn table napkins are symbolic of the soft touch of wrinkled hands, worn elbow patches on a favorite sweater, a book with eared pages, a fireplace stained by smoke—testimony of a meaningful life.
New napkins would offer a promise; old ones are evidence.
On a list of wishes for my children: worn napkins.
And I remember the first time I was able to walk into my local bookstore and find something with my name on the cover. I cried. Having one’s written work appreciated and shared is extremely important. We can all live on through our writing and this gets more precious and important (and difficult) as we age. Please join me in my quest to bridge the gap between the precious stories written by seniors and the new publishing tools that can allow more people to read and enjoy them.