Episode 2: Writing as Witness

Time-Stamped Show Notes

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[0:39] From the Margins theme intro.

[1:34] SEGMENT ONE: Brian Doyle describes losing his friends on September 11 and explains why writing stories matters.

  • [2:51] – Brian’s daughter encouraged him to write about 9/11.

[5:12] INTRO: In this episode of From the Margins, we explore what it means to bear witness and to try to tell the story of the people who are no longer with us.

[7:08] – SEGMENT TWO: Marie Tillman, author of The Letter, talks about what it was like losing her husband, Pat Tillman.

  • [8:40] – Marie’s husband died at war. She fought to find out what really happened.
  • [10:36] – Writing her book helped her move forward.
  • [11:09] – Marie is the public face of the Pat Tillman Foundation, which helps put veterans and their spouses through school.
  • [11:26] – Marie advises writers to stay true to their own stories.

[12:29] SEGMENT THREE: Carine McCandless, the sister of Christopher McCandlesswho is the subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wildtells the rest of the story.

  • [13:14] – Carine tried to make sure Chris’s story was told accurately.
  • [14:55] – Carine realized she could no longer stay silent about the truth of Chris’s story.
  • [17:16] – Carine and her brother witnessed an event that showed them that they could leave.
  • [19:10] – Decades later, Carine realized that not permitting Jon Krakauer to write about certain topics in Into the Wild was a disservice to both him and Chris.
  • [20:43] – “It got to the point where I couldn’t not write it.”
  • [22:06] – “The students didn’t learn from lectures; they learned from stories.”

[25:17] SEGMENT FOUR: Editor Jenna Land Free gives tips to memoirists on how to decide when it’s time to write and what to include.

  • [25:34] – Jenna Land Free, Carine’s editor for The Wild Truth, describes the initial writing process for the book.
  • [27:30] – For many people, knowing when to start writing comes when the story you want to tell has ended in life.
  • [27:55] – What makes a really good memoir is when somebody has been through hell and back. But you have to be back. When somebody is using their book to work through something, they’re probably not ready.
  • [28:27] – If there is so much negativity and anger coming across on the page and the author can’t pull back from it, it might not be time to write the story yet.
  • [28:52] – What might have been an interesting and powerful experience for you in life might not be so interesting and powerful on the page.
  • [29:48] – How do you make a remarkable life feel relatable to readers? How do you make a typical life feel remarkable?

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  • [31:16] – Visual Quill’s senior designer, Kate Race, explains how Visual Quill helps an author find success.
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[32:27] – SEGMENT FIVE: Loung Ung survived the Cambodian genocide. She wrote about it in her memoir First They Killed My Father from the perspective of her five-year-old self.

  • [34:51] – To Loung, a memoir is a “collection of memory.” Because her experiences as a child were so traumatic, she was able to remember them so vividly.
  • [38:18] – “On that day, Cambodia would become a prison. And for the next three years, eight months, and twenty-one days, the people would suffer horrendously under the Khmer regime. At the end of the regime, more than 1.7 million Cambodians would die . . . Among the victims were both my parents, two sisters, and twenty other relatives.”
  • [43:50] – Loung was sent to a child soldier camp, where she was taught propaganda and trained to kill.
  • [46:05] – Writing out her memories changed how Loung saw herself.
  • [47:27] – She started writing as a coping mechanism.
  • [48:01] – Another reason she wrote her story was to make sure people knew an honest account of what happened.
  • [49:19] – “When I came out of [writing], I had to go into therapy . . . There were times when it was very unhealthy for me.”
  • [50:49] – First They Killed My Father has been adapted into a film directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt, which will air later this year on Netflix.

[51:14] SEGMENT SIX: Devon’s mom, Dara Fredericksen, talks about writing down their family history.

  • [52:39] – After Devon’s mom survived breast cancer, she started writing her own memoirs so that Devon could have them.
  • [54:26] – Devon’s mom reads her uncle Warren’s last letter to his parents before he was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • [55:58] – “There’s a life in these letters. They live on through what they have written.”

[59:30] SEGMENT SEVEN: Brian Doyle tells the story of Dawn and Mary, who were heroes during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and talks about what makes a good story.

  • [59:49] – “What’s the most powerful and useful thing a writer can be? Witness to everyone else’s grace under duress.”
  • [1:01:01] – The real job of a writer is to be a story catcher. “There are millions of stories to be caught and shared. Some of them really, really, really matter. To try to publish is very important.”
  • [1:01:41] – “There’s an awful lot of things for which we just do not have words. Stories are a way to tiptoe toward things we can’t explain.”
  • [1:03:46] – There are the big stories, but the “small” stories are just as important and worth spreading.
  • [1:05:01] – “If you see something cool, take a note.”
  • [1:05:21] – “A lot of what writing is is to witness the largeness of the small.”

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[1:06:18] Closing credits.

Key Points

  • Marie Tillman’s story shows how writers should write their own stories, not the stories that everyone else wants to hear.
  • Carine McCandless talks about how she knew when she was ready to tell the rest of the story of her brother, Christopher McCandless.
  • Jenna Land Free gives tips on how memoir writers can tell when they’re ready to write their stories and what parts of their stories they should include.
  • Loung Ung discusses her process of writing through the trauma of surviving the Cambodian genocide.
  • Devon’s mother, Dara Fredericksen, talks about what it’s been like to write their family history and why it’s important to get those stories down on paper.
  • Brian Doyle recounts writing about 9/11, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and why catching and sharing stories matters and how we should also bear witness to “the largeness of the small.”