Posted in interviews, journaling, memoir, writers

Spilling the Family Beans, an Interview with Ralph Keyes

Many authors quote the following story, but my favorite account is by Ralph Keyes  in his book, The Courage to Write.

“To open a lecture at Columbia University, Sinclair Lewis asked the students, ‘How many of you here are really serious about becoming writers?’ Hands shot up all around the room. ‘Well, why the hell aren’t you all home writing?’ roared Lewis.”So true. How much time do we spend talking about doing the writing?

Keyes book, The Courage to Write is always at my desk. It’s a writer and word journeyer’s faithful companion. For me, the book is akin to holding hands with your psyche. Turn to any page and find inspiration.

In journaling we are writing from pure emotion and observation. We’re working the gnarly, raw, and crappy first draft of a longer work yet to come. Later, we have to bear the devastation of having another person read our work as it stands there naked. Only for a while is our personal process safe, yet as experts will testify, writing is an absolutely healing expedition. However, the motivation to take writing out into the world may be intimidating. Be prepared to be challenged, changed, and transformed. Forge ahead!

Example: The critical librarian wrote to E. B. White, author of Stuart Little, who declared his work was “non-affirmative, inconclusive [and] unfit for children.” He was not deterred however.

Another Keyes book is Is There Life After High School? (ITLAHS). Adapted into a musical comedy (long before Glee), now available in E-book, ITLAHS? was excerpted in Cosmopolitan and other publications. It’s been reviewed on Oprah, The Tonight Show, and NPR’s All Things Considered, and more.

According to Vonnegut, Keyes’ perspective is uniquely American. Exploring adolescence is so often a dramatic topic because our very existence is in question on a cellular level. Imaginations run wild. Add hormones, cliques, social groups, and the phenomenon of identity crisis. Entire volumes are written on rites of passage, or lack thereof. Keyes writing rests on the pulse of male development and cultural experience.

Sons on Fathers, is an exceptionally beautiful anthology written by men about their families–sons and dads– from all walks of life. I can’t stop spot reading the book because I’m fascinated by emotions and honesty. I’ve been splurging with men’s memoirs which I’ll highlight later on.

Nice Guys Finish Seventh, False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations is another Keyes five star original, filled with historical tidbits about things you thought you knew, such as: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Turns out the saying originated with UCLA coach, Red Saunders, not Vince Lombardi.

I asked Ralph two questions for those of us who want to write our life stories.

1) When you work,  do you ever write in a journal? How do you organize your thoughts as a writer?

Keyes: I don’t journal as such. I do always have paper and pen in my pocket to jot down ideas as they occur to me. Later I sort these ideas by topic and put them in related folders. When writing about these topics I open these folders and voila! There my ideas are.

2) Ultimately, how did you deal with the dilemma that you discussed on page 40 of The Courage to Write, where you wrote, “emotionally candid writing can jeopardize important relationships.”

Keyes: We all have stories to tell, powerful stories. The most compelling stories often involve members of our family– which poses problems. How will people whose opinion matters to us feel about appearing in our stories?

If you’re going to tell honest stories, ones that deal with difficult subjects, you must take into account the reaction of others who show up in these stories. This creates a dilemma: the more honest we are in telling our story, the more powerful it will be, and the more it will engage readers. But to do that we must be candid. And the more candid we are, the more we risk spilling the family beans.

Imagining the response of people we care about is a real challenge for those who want to tell their stories in print, and tell them honestly.

However, a lot of our anxiety about the reactions of others if we tell our stories with power and candor turns out to be unfounded. Honest storytelling strikes chords with readers for which they’re more often flattered that we’ve written about what we wrote.


                                                 line drawing of man

  Thank you for the testimony, Ralph Keyes!

I feel that journaling, then seguing into writing memoir is a truly valid journey. We tell our story until we’ve tired of it and, hopefully, healing from trauma becomes reality. To take risks is to live. To be truthful means delving into pain as well as joy. Even if there is disruption and discomfort, non-fiction memoir writing can be productive. As Pennebaker states, “the payoff, however, is that it can increase the odds that you will be able to get on with your life.”


I made it this far and plan to keep going. I believe nature heals the soul. I love to journal, to write, do art, and music. I'm not afraid to tackle tough subjects. Solar-powered & drive hybrid. Trying to do my part. Earned my BA at 53. And, I believe, it's never too late to have a happy childhood.

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