June 21, 2015

What Book Will Be at Your Bedside?

My favorite moment in thirty years of helping others write their memoirs occurred beside a deathbed. I was visiting one of my favorite clients, Dick P. He was flat on his back and very pale, but smiling as usual.

His wife was by his side. It was she who pointed out the book on Dick’s hospital side table: the memoir he and I had worked on together five years before.

“He shows it to everyone who comes in to see him,” she said. “Especially the pretty nurses.” It was a measure of the satisfaction his memoir had given Dick.

About ten years later, my father lay in a hospice when his book was delivered to him. Inspired to start Memoirs Unlimited by my grandfather’s life story, I had proposed to Dad and my daughter that they work together on his story. Granddad’s book, when I put it between hard covers, was titled Country Boy. My father, in deference to his father and perhaps as a sort of sly joke at his own expense, called his book City Boy. 

The photo here shows Dad and Granddad playing backgammon in Minnesota in the 1950s.

My daughter had begun the project of interviewing Dad and then editing his words about a year before. By coincidence, fate, or grace, his printed books were delivered in time for him to hold one. That book, like Dick P’s, was laid on Dad’s bedside table and was with him at the end.

May 21, 2015

New Project: A Second Edition

Today I signed a contract to write and publish the second edition of a company history I first worked on twenty-five years ago.

The Nordblom Company is a vital and innovative Boston real estate development and management company now led by the fourth generation of Nordbloms. In 1990, via referral from another client, I began work with the third generation, Rodger P. “Rod” Nordblom (pictured).

The result was a 120-page hardbound anecdotal history illustrated with 30 photographs. I know that Rod was pleased with it, especially as the book helped memorialize his father, Robert C. “Bob” Nordblom, who had died in 1989.

Recently, I was approached by Rod’s son and successor, Peter C. Nordblom, about reprinting the original book. I answered that while this was possible, I thought the book needed updating—that Peter and his management team, including brother Win and cousin Richard, had by now written their own impressive record, which should be at least appended to the first edition.

Like a good real estate man, Peter negotiated and I did my best to counter. We finally agreed, and today I had my first informational meeting with him, signing the contract and beginning to outline the Nordblom story since 1990.

It’s a good one. I know that Rod, who passed away in 2013, would be proud to read it.

May 5, 2015

Time: God’s Gift to the Memoirist

I sometimes joke with memoir clients that God invented time to make our job easier. When trying to decide in what order to tell and/or edit one’s life story, I say: “In the order God gave us, of course. Chronological order.”

The wisdom of this profound insight was brought home to me while reading Bob Smith’s otherwise appealing, chronologically disjointed memoir Hamlet’s Dresser.  

Smith’s story is remarkable: how being raised in a dysfunctional family while taking care of a severely retarded younger sister, often by himself, he fell in love with Shakespeare and—forty years on—found a remarkable calling reading Shakespeare aloud with senior citizen groups in New York City.

Truth to tell, I heard Smith lecture on Shakespeare at a private club about ten years ago. He is a compelling, highly entertaining expert. When I learned that he had written a memoir, I had to look at it.

April 27, 2015

My Favorite Memoirist? You Would Never Guess

I am preparing to teach a seven-week adult education course on Memoirs: Reading Others, Writing Yours. My idea is for students to read and discuss famous memoirs as inspiration and guidance in writing their own.

Students will keep notebooks but they will not be asked to finish writing anything—only to be inspired, only to get started. As a thirty-year professional writer, I know that getting started is half the battle.

Seven weeks is not long enough to write a book about anything. But it is long enough to light a fire.

So in the four months remaining before the course begins, I am reading memoirs by the dozens, intending to select six or seven of these to excerpt for weekly assignments, and several dozen more to be cited as examples. Naturally, I am beginning with memoirs that I already have read and in some cases re-read.

This has brought me to the awareness that the memoirs I feel drawn to say a lot about my own life and how I see it. I imagine that my students will make a similar discovery.

Some examples:

January 2, 2015

Getting Back At It

After finishing up my history of The Governor’s Academy in 2012 and walking the Camino de Santiago with my adult daughter, I have spent much of the past 30 months writing my own memoir. The story of that project can be found at my other blog, Witness.

Now, at the beginning of 2015, I have decided to get back into the business of helping people write and publish their memoirs. In the days and weeks ahead, I will be posting more material here about this process and about incentives I plan to offer my first clients after a long layoff.

If you have considered writing your memoir and want help writing, editing, designing, and publishing it, give me a shout. See “What You Can Do” in the column at right. And check back at this page in the weeks ahead.

November 28, 2011

The Governor’s Academy History: A Debriefing

Two days before Thanksgiving, I submitted a 70,000-word manuscript on the history of The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts—complete with 200 photos and captions. The submission is now being reviewed by Governor’s headmaster Peter Quimby and others on the book committee.

Founded in 1763, before the American Revolution, the former Governor Dummer Academy is the oldest boarding school in New England. The school seal, shown here, was created in the workshop of Paul Revere.

I had eight months to research and write the 250-year history. That’s just one month of work for each 30 years, a challenge! There was little choice, however. The Academy needs books by mid-August 2012, in time for a series of anniversary celebrations. After internal review, the edit-design-proofread-index-print process typically takes about eight months.

The book committee recently accepted my suggestion that I write a short “debriefing” document on my experience, while everything’s fresh in my mind. Here is the story I am submitting for the Academy’s use:

November 11, 2011

Memories of Dad on Veterans’ Day

Most of my memoir clients seem to prefer talking about their parents and grandparents than to talking about their own accomplishments. This desire to remember those who went before us—instead of bragging about our own stories—is especially keen on days like today, Veterans’ Day in the USA.

My father, David F. Bull, died in 2008, but I still remember him telling about serving during World War II. Dad was attached to an anti-tank company in the US Army during the push through France and into Germany in late 1944 and 1945. Born in 1925, Dad was just old enough to be drafted before war’s end.

October 13, 2011

How We Remember Others

In my work as a ghostwriter of memoirs, I am frequently impressed by the way healthy older people remember mostly the best about others. I think this is a conscious choice on their part—or the result of many, many tiny choices made through long lives. My clients, average age 80, seldom have bad things to say about others, especially those closest to them, and I have come to see this as the marker of a life well lived.

September 24, 2011

MGH Bicentennial Gala

On Friday, September 16, my wife and I were invited guests at a gala celebration of the 200th anniversary of Massachusetts General Hospital (left). I was asked to participate as co-author of Something in the Ether: A Bicentennial History of Massachusetts General Hospital, 1811–2011.

My co-author and daughter, Martha Bull, is now studying for an advanced degree at Columbia University and could not be with us for the event.

June 1, 2011

The Oldest Boarding School in New England

Since March, I have been researching and writing the history of The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Founded in 1763—and known as Dummer Charity School, Dummer Academy, and Governor Dummer Academy—this coeducational boarding school will celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2012-2013. My charge is to deliver books in time for the opening of school in September 2012.