An Awesome Award—Plus The Story that Took 50 Years to Write: an Interview with Michael Harris

Ruth and I are totally jazzed to announce that this blog has been named one of the Top 50 Blogs for Writers by Tribal Messenger Daily. To be up there with Konrath, Kristen Lamb, and Jane Friedman is an amazing honor. Here's what they said:

One stimulating blog, two of the most prolific digital and print authors of today– that’s the Anne R. Allen Blog with Ruth Harris. Together, they make time to impart their successful writing and publishing techniques with other budding writers. This blog is replete with industry updates and other information that will make writing in the digital age easier– although not without hard work– and more successful than most. Anne Allen is the author of five comic mysteries while Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author and former editor. In this blog they take turns in sharing what helpful tips and updates they have to fellow writers.

So: A great big THANK YOU to the folks at Tribal Messenger Daily!!

When I spoke at the Central Coast Writers' Conference last weekend, somebody asked me why this blog has taken off when most don't. I didn't have an answer for her. Why does one blog or book take off when other great ones don't?

Nobody knows.

All we can tell you is that making money from writing—whether it's for a book or a blog—is tough, so don't do it if it's not fun. Writing has to be done for the love of the process.

My post last week produced some thoughtful comments on the Kindleboards about whether authors should blog at all. Blogging certainly doesn't generate direct sales. But it does raise your overall profile if you do it regularly.

This week in a great post asking "Would Hemingway Blog?" Social media guru Kristen Lamb said "blogging is probably the ONLY form of social media that 1) draws from a writer’s strengths and 2) doesn’t try to fundamentally change our personality."

That change in personality thing is what happens to me on Facebook and Twitter, where I feel I have to pretend to be an adolescent. Here Ruth and I get to be grown-ups. Maybe that's why this blog works. 

That and the fact that we have such awesome readers. Thank you all!!

Speaking of grown-ups, we have a fascinating piece for you today on writing memoir. Michael Harris put off writing his story for longer than most of you have been alive. But it was a story he knew had to be told—about nuclear testing in the 1950s—and the horrors those tests created. He wrote about the experience at the time—smuggling manuscript pages from the secret test site at great risk (and this was in the days when there weren't even Xerox machines to back up your work.) But the book didn't come together for half a century. He'll tell you why.

Agents tell us memoir is the toughest genre to sell. It's also the toughest genre to write. It involves revisiting the most difficult scenes of your own past. Today we interview Mr. Harris and ask him about that process.

I find his last tip especially interesting: a third person omniscient voice can give you control over a shocking story. I usually advise against using omniscient voice, but in nonfiction, it can give you distance and authority.

Reliving Trauma in Memoir: Offering the Real Truth Vs. Fictionalizing Your Own History interview with Michael Harris 

Q. As a young Army draftee you were sent to the island of Eniwetok in the South Pacific during the U.S. H-bomb tests in 1956. What made you want to write about an experience that you’ve told me was very difficult?

M.H. I knew at the time that I was witnessing an important slice of American history at the Pacific Proving Ground during Operation Redwing. I wrote about the experience while I was still there, and a friend who left the island before I did "smuggled" the manuscript back to the States for me.

Q. Why did your friend have to smuggle out your manuscript?

M.H. Eniwetok was a security post. There were signs everywhere impressing on us that the work going on (I mopped floors, typed and filed requisitions and wrote movie reviews for the island newspaper: All The News That Fits We Print) was Top Secret. “What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, leave it here.”

I was afraid they would confiscate the manuscript if they found it. My friend concealed the pages in the clothing in his luggage and luckily they weren’t discovered. When he got back to the States, he mailed it to my father.

Q. What happened when you got home?

M.H. When I read it, I was dissatisfied. In order to avoid disclosing classified information, I had written about my year as a novel — and left out too much. I wanted to rewrite the book, but I also wanted to forget what I had seen and experienced, a common response among veterans. I was happy to be home and I was determined to get on with my life.

Ten years later, I wrote a new version of my H-bomb year, once again as a novel. This too was a failure. I was using "fiction" not just to follow security regulations but to avoid the truth — I was also leaving out unclassified material.

1. I blocked out the anger and frustration I felt about the life-threatening incompetence I observed in the officers in charge.

2. I buried the fears that my health had been damaged and that my life was going to be cut short by my exposure to radiation.

3. I shrank from the lies I had been told about our safety (“There will never be any fallout on this island!”) and tried to forget the deadly mistakes, some of which led to radiation sickness and worse. I tried to forget the three-eyed fish swimming in the lagoon. And the men whose toenails glowed in the dark.

4. I was reluctant to confront a deeply disturbing personal incident — the only doctor on the all-male island (the man most responsible for our well-being) tried to force me into a sexual relationship and took vengeance when I refused.

Q. How did you come to terms with your experience?

M.H. My perspective gradually changed in the years after I married Ruth. An editor and best-selling novelist, she read what I had written and, in conversations with her, I began to remember what I had tried to forget:

1. We were told we had to wear high density goggles during the tests to avoid losing our sight but the shipment of goggles never arrived — the requisition was cancelled to make room for new furniture for the colonel's house.

2. We were told we had to stand with our backs to the blast — again to prevent blindness. But the first H-bomb ever dropped from a plane missed its target, and the detonation took place in front of us and our unprotected eyes.

3. Servicemen were sent to Ground Zero soon after Zero Hour wearing only shorts and sneakers and worked side by side with scientists dressed in RadSafe suits. The exposed military men developed severe radiation burns — and many died.

Using these memories, I wrote a new version — one that a number of editors admired — but wanted me to recast as a memoir. Once again I started over, but by now decades had passed. I had changed and certain important external realities had changed.

1. Top Secret documents about Operation Redwing were now declassified. I learned new details about the test known as Tewa: the fallout lasted for three days and the radiation levels exceeded 3.9 Roentgens, the MPE (maximum permissible exposure). Three ships were rushed to Eniwetok to evacuate personnel but were ordered back after the military raised the MPE to 7. That, they reasoned, made everyone safe.

2. I was finally able to confront my memory of the Eniwetok doctor and relate the incident to a long-repressed episode of sexual abuse in my childhood.

3. I made contact with other atomic veterans, some of whom I had known on Eniwetok. They told me about their own experiences and in some cases sent me copies of letters written to their families during the tests. As we talked, we also laughed: about officers who claimed Eniwetok was a one year paid vacation; about the officer who guarded the daily island newspaper by deleting "pinko propaganda," including a speech by President Eisenhower.

4. Finally Ruth, who by now knew the material almost as well as I did, was at my side and on my side, providing crucial input and detailed editing expertise.

I was finally able to pull all the strands together. I had overcome the anger, the self-pity and the knowledge that I and the men who served with me had been used as guinea pigs. At last I could understand my nuclear year in its many dimensions and capture the tragedy and the black humor that came along with 17 H-bomb explosions. After 50 years, I was able write the book I had wanted to in the beginning.

Q. Do you have any advice for someone who’s thinking of writing a memoir?

M.H. 1. Make sure you have enough distance from the experience so you have perspective on what happened. Sometimes it’s obvious right away as in my once-in-a-life moment of meeting the Beatles at the airport. The facts themselves tell the story and being objective is a matter of reporting. Exposure to radiation—anger, terror, incredulity—are powerful emotions that take time to process.

2. Figure out how to use (or keep away) from your own intense feelings. In the case of the H-Bomb tests, anger and self-pity were emotions to stay away from. So was the hope of somehow getting “revenge.”

3. Voice/Point of view. Sometimes the unexpected works:

4. Figure out (by trial and error) how much or how little of yourself you want to reveal.

How about you, scriveners? Have you had to confront personal trauma in order to write a story you know needs to be told. Did you fictionalize it, or try to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Do you think you're at the point where you can laugh at it the way Michael has? Ruth Harris will respond to your comments below. And don't forget, now Ruth has her own blog with daily links to fascinating articles. 

SHOCKING, FUNNY, SAD, RAUNCHY!   Catch-22 with radiation!   Area 51 meets Dr. Strangelove!

"A gripping memoir leavened by humor, loyalty and pride of accomplishment. A tribute to the resilience, courage and patriotism of the American soldier." Henry Kissinger

An entertaining read in the bloodline of Catch-22, Harris achieves the oddest of victories: a funny, optimistic story about the H-bomb."
Publisher's Weekly

"Brilliantly conceived, elegantly rendered and persuasively authentic."
Robert B. Parker, bestselling author of the Spenser and Jesse Stone series

Attention Email Subscribers! Feedburner is apparently no longer sending emails to many people subscribed to this blog. (Does anybody out there know what really happened to Feedburner? I hear so many conflicting stories.) Until I can figure out how to get a new email service to work on a Blogger blog, I'm making a list manually. So if you'd like to get notifications of new blogposts, and Feedburner has let you down, just send me an email at annerallen at yahoo dot com. I will put you on my list of personal blogfriends and send you a notice when the Sunday blogpost is up. (I promise not to spam you with anything else.)

Also Short Story Writers! I don't usually plug magazines here, but since I keep telling you how you should be writing short fiction, I thought I should tell you about a no-entry-fee contest that sounds like a great opportunity:

And We Were Hungry, a New Literary and Arts Online Magazine, Announces Inaugural Short Story Contest. 

Four winning writers will share prize fund of $5,000 and publication in the inaugural Winter 2013 issue. Contest writing theme is “And We Were Hungry.” Top prize reserved for the short story that connects the theme with nature, in honor of the short story contest's sponsor, "Ashes and Snow" artist Gregory Colbert. No entry fee, deadline November 30, 2012. The Magazine publishes original creative writing in the form of fiction (more than 1000 words), flash fiction (1000 words or less), creative nonfiction, and poetry; as well as essays, photography and visual arts.

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