How I can help you
(1) Full Biographical Memoir
At our first meeting, we will spend an hour or so discussing exactly what you hope to accomplish and reviewing whatever you’ve done so far toward that goal. If possible at this point, we can make an outline of how you believe your memoir should be shaped (chronologically, by subject, or any other way you wish) and agree on a working schedule.
Immediately after this meeting, I will email you a list of potential topics to prod your memory and imagination, plus some suggested techniques for proceeding productively.
From then on, you will work on chunks of your memoir on your own, in whatever chronological or subject order you wish, and then give these to me as you complete them to edit and shape. You may do this by writing and emailing them to me, or by tape-recording your material for me to transcribe, edit and return to you for approval and further editing by both you and me.
Alternatively, I could interview you and tape record your comments – for all or part of the process. Note that this could result in a significantly higher fee (see hourly rate below).
Whichever route you choose, as I receive material, I will edit your memoir, shape it as close to your instructions as possible, and send the edited version back to you – either in chunks or as a complete draft manuscript – for approval and further editing by both you and me.
If you wish, I would enrich your memoir by interviewing family and/or friends to get comments about you, and work these into your manuscript.
During the process, we can meet as often as you wish to discuss the project and to allow you to give me feedback on the edited version. Or we can accomplish this via email and telephone. Either way, we can edit and re-edit as much as you wish to result in the legacy memoir you have in mind.
When the text is completed, you can decide whether to include photographs and other images in the completed manuscript – after which you may either handle printing and electronic records of your memoir on your own, or I can continue assisting you through the process.
Fee: $50 for first consultation; $30/hr subsequently
(2) Second Option: A Word Portrait
This a much shorter, magazine-style memoir or profile similar to the many I wrote for decades in Chatelaine, Toronto Life, Maclean’s, Canadian Business and other leading publications, as well as the Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star.
If you choose this course rather than a full memoir, I will give you full details of how we would proceed when we meet. To show you what I mean by “a magazine-style profile,” there are two Word Portraits I wrote in the past at the bottom of this section of my website. It’s important to note that, because confidentiality is guaranteed to all my private clients, the stories here have been published in magazines or newspapers. So, because they are already in the public domain, I am not violating anyone’s privacy by sharing them with you now.
Fee: $1,000; 50% deposit
Gift Certificates: Some clients, usually adult children who are having difficulty convincing their parents to write their memoirs, choose to motivate them by giving them a non-refundable gift certificate for my services – for either a Full Autobiography or a Word Portrait. This can work like a charm, especially because it proves to the parents that their stories really are valued.
Fee: $100 (non-refundable); Total Fee: same rates as above
Terry’s Credentials: I am a recently retired journalist with a 30+ year career writing for top magazines and newspapers in Canada and the U.S., and the author of the non-fiction book: No Fat Chicks: How Women Are Brainwashed to Hate Their Bodies & Spend Their Money. (more at: www.terrypoulton.com) For the past four years, I have moderated a memoir-writing class called Recording Recollections at the Life Institute, an organization for seniors affiliated with Toronto’s Ryerson University.
WORD PORTRAITS SAMPLES
Rocky Comito. It’s a Hollywood-perfect name for the president of one of the toughest locals of a famously feisty trade union. But it wasn’t destiny that chose the ideal moniker for someone who would grow up to be president of a United Auto Workers’ local. It was his dad.
The year was 1951 and the place was Patterson, N.J., where a local hero named Rocky Marciano was headed for the heavyweight championship. For an avid boxing fan who was about to become a proud papa, the name choice was a done deal if the impending bundle of joy turned out to be a son.
Roughly 50 years later, that son, who was indeed christened “Rocky,” sits in the tidy office he inherited when, unexpectedly, he was drafted to the position of president of Local 862.
Along with Comito’s new digs, and his sudden promotion from vice president, came responsibility for more than 14,000 current and retired employees of the Ford Motor Company’s two Louisville, Ky. plants. Many of them were Comito’s co-workers during his 16 years on the assembly line at the Kentucky Truck Plant and the seven more he spent subsequently at the Louisville Assembly Plant, where he worked his way up to being a journeyman in industrial truck repair.
Comito’s name may be just right for his new authoritative role but, casting-wise, his appearance and demeanor seem out of character. He resembles neither the burly, bombastic stereotype of a labour leader nor the flamboyant pugilist of boxing lore. Instead, he is slim, soft-spoken and self-effacing.
Yet despite the superficial contradiction, people who understand the realities of today’s labour-management relationship unanimously predict that as president, Comito will turn out to be as successful as the champ for whom he was named.
Their reasoning? According to former local president Carl Dowell and other savvy veterans of bygone battles, Ford and the UAW are still natural adversaries. But these days, both parties are playing a new game with new rules.
“The old hammer-and-fist power struggle from back when Rocky and I first hired in at Ford doesn’t cut it anymore,” says Dickie Sutton, UAW’s building chairman at the truck plant. “Today, you’ve got to be a diplomat and you’re got to be educated enough to really know what you’re talking about. Rocky measures up in both respects.” Thus, if speaking softly and carrying a big collective bargaining agreement is what it takes to be an effective union leader in the 21st century, Comito’s casting is right on the money. But, ironically, he says he grew up with “no preaching whatsoever” about union philosophy or history. The closest he came was watching his father’s state-by-state lobbying efforts trying to gain professional status for dental technicians.
By then, the family had moved to Miami. Comito says he was an average student with above-average mechanical aptitude. He took machine shop all through high school and apprenticed at a garage half days during graduation year. When his older brother joined the Navy, 17-year-old Rocky tagged along.
“I never had a vision of what I wanted to do,” Comito recalls. “I just thought, ‘Let me get my duty over with and then I’ll figure out what I want to do with my life.’” Although the Vietnam War was raging at the time, he ended up doing his whole tour in South Florida, learning to be an electrician.
Lingering in Key West after mustering out, the directionless young man was prodded by Cupid’s arrow into heading north to Louisville in 1974. That’s where he finally laid eyes on the friend of a friend he had been courting, sight unseen, via letters and phone calls. They married soon afterward.
“He liked Kentucky right off the bat,” Dorcas Comito remembers with a laugh. “But he hated the cold after growing up in Florida.”
With Comito’s expertise and the veterans’ preferment policies of the era, landing a job wasn’t too tough. Comito applied at Ford and at General Electric. Ford called back first, hired him on the spot and put him to work on the line.
During the next four years, Comito contentedly shuttled between his Louisville home, where he and his wife began raising their two daughters, a community college, where he was pursuing an associate degree in applied science and the truck plant, where he worked the night shift. Whatever time was left over he devoted to playing softball – a lifelong passion and, according to friends, the only activity in which he allows himself to be a blatant aggressor.
Although joining the UAW union was mandatory at Ford, Comito says he was too busy to give much thought to union activities. That is, until he got a wake-up call that resounded throughout Kentucky in 1980.
Driving to work the evening after a carefree family vacation, Comito heard on the radio that Ford, with no prior warning, had laid off the entire night shift at the truck plant. “From that day on,” he says with quiet ferocity, “I swore I’d never be in the dark again.”
During a layoff that stretched to two worrisome years, while both he and his wife worked low-level part-time jobs to make ends meet, Comito kept up his studies at the University of Louisville. He earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration in 1983.
By then, he’d been back at Ford for a year, this time at the assembly plant. Comito’s dedication to union activity became so intense that Ron Ray, his best friend on and off the line, remembers telling him “over and over that he’d wind up as president of the local some day. Rocky just kept saying, ‘Hush up, man, I’m not cut out for that.’”
But Ray obviously wasn’t the only one who saw leadership potential lurking within Comito’s tranquil persona. Beginning in 1984, when he successfully ran for a spot on the election committee, he progressed steadily toward the vice presidency of Local 862, to which he first was elected in 1997. He was returned for a second term by acclamation.
Why is Comito so popular? Dowell, Sutton and Ray all say it’s a combination of factors: credibility from working on the line for so long; perceptible sincerity and trustworthiness; plus an objective approach to solving grievances – even when his solution riles members who believe that their union rep should side with them no matter what.
“But you can’t just tell people what they want to hear,” Comito explains. “You’ve got to tell them the truth about how things are.”
Now that the UAW powers-that-be have pushed Comito into the deep end of a still-choppy pool, two years earlier than he thought he’d be running for the presidency, what are his plans for keeping his members afloat?
His top priority is building on the historic working partnership between labour and management that was created at Ford in 1992. It took 11 months of wrangling and inch-by-inch relinquishing of mutual mistrust. But the “modern operating agreement” that emerged has transformed conditions for Ford workers.
They have gone, in Comito’s estimation, “from feeling like numbers who had to do whatever they were told” into team members who “have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day because they’ve helped make a better-quality product and had input into the way they do their jobs.”
Another of Comito’s top priorities is encouraging and enabling more community involvement by union members, many of whom already volunteer at the Home of the Innocents orphan centre and in nursing homes, as well as sawing planks and pounding nails for Habitat for Humanity homes.
And then, he says, there’s the challenge of trying to further reduce both absenteeism and a knee-jerk negativity harbored by “a minority of members who still think management is always watching so it can put another screw to them.”
Comito’s to-do list goes on and on. And so do his work days, which are stretching to double-digit hours and averaging seven per week. Just back from a trip to Washington, D.C. to participate in a labour rally protesting expanded trade with China, Comito had to immediately head to UAW headquarters in Detroit to attend an emergency meeting.
The timing made him a no-show at a recent event he very much wanted to attend – a banquet at which the Kentucky governor presented an award honoring Local 862 and Ford management for achieving their healthy working relationship.
Characteristically, Comito expresses no complaint about the frequent traveling required in his new post, even though he considers himself “a homebody.” Beyond a quiet mention that he’s not playing much softball these days, there’s no hint of resentment.
But one telling clue indicates the personal price Comito is paying for reaching the top spot in the union local. His favourite song isn’t “Solidarity Forever” or “We Shall Overcome.” It’s Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which expresses poignant regret about the precious time parents are often forced to rob from their children.
The loss Comito seems to be regretting when he chokes up while naming his favourite song happened years ago, when his daughters were growing up. And it’s also happening today, when he hasn’t enough time to take his five-year-old grandson for frolics on Grampa’s riding mower.
“That song hurts every time I hear it,” Comito says, almost under his breath. But his composure quickly snaps back into place. “I’ve conditioned myself not to mind. I love the membership. Whatever needs to be done, I’m willing to do.”
“She’s got moxie.” It’s an edgy, faintly begrudging compliment we’ve seldom heard since the heyday of gutsy movie actresses in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But the term was recently resurrected by TV Guide in a rave cover story about a new series called The Practice and conferred on its “most interesting character.”
She’s a feisty, flawed, left-leaning Boston lawyer named Ellenor Frutt. And she’s played by Camryn Manheim, whose real-life moxie has been a literal lifesaver in a profession where whittled-down women snag the leading lady roles, while statuesque ones audition in vain or play mostly buffoons and codgers.
If it wasn’t for sheer spunk, in fact, Manheim, 37, wouldn’t have survived her bitter battle for recognition of the talented actress inside the gloriously non-standard, 5’10”, size 22 body – a battle that nearly cost her her life after she overdosed on speed trying to be thin. And she certainly wouldn’t have won the coveted, career-cinching role of Ellenor without an audacious gamble.
Manheim’s try-out for The Practice with television’s top hit-maker, David E. Kelley – creator of Picket Fences, Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal – was an “absolute flop because I was so not what he had in mind.”
Then Manheim, a fiercely competitive card player, spotted a cribbage board on Kelley’s couch and challenged him to a game. “For the first time, there was a flicker in David’s eyes,” she recalls. “So I said, ‘OK, I can continue trying to impress you like I’m doing unsuccessfully now, or I can play you for the part. If I win, I walk out with the script.’”
Kelley didn’t accept the dare, but he did rethink the character and auditioned only plus-size actresses. He ended up choosing Manheim, whose portrayal is now being hailed as a breakthrough. It’s high time – according to a flood of excited fan mail – that a major TV drama featured an interesting, non-stereotypical female character who actually resembles millions of the viewers who tune in.
At a studio beneath the venerable Hollywood sign, the gregarious actress recently relaxed while two other members of The Practice’s ensemble cast shot courtroom scenes for a typically up-to-the-minute episode about a teenaged killer.
Manheim would soon be flying back to her sunny loft on New York’s lower east side, to her longtime theatre friends and haunts, her two feline roommates, her beloved Honda 650 motorcycle, the drama classes she teachers and her thrice-weekly workouts with a personal trainer.
Plus resuming work on a feature film she’s writing and a documentary she’s shooting about “the underground world of pro-fat activists.” Plus awaiting the release of Happiness, a dark mystery that scored big at the Cannes Film Festival in which she stars as a painfully shy recluse involved in rape and murder. Not to mention awaiting several other upcoming movies in which she co-stars with, among others, Rosie O'Donnell, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, in a dressing room pleasantly strewn with quirky objects and chummy snapshots, Manheim tells a bittersweet tale about what a difference moxie can make and how devastating it can be to live without it.
Grit and chutzpah – two other labels for the same can-do attitude – came naturally to her as a child growing up in a cerebral Jewish family in Peoria, Illinois. She was the second daughter of a schoolteacher and a college math professor who were devoted to liberal causes and encouraged their children to fight injustice. Manheim thrived in the progressive atmosphere, exercising her individuality at an early age by rejecting her given name of Debra and replacing it with such monikers as Chloe, Blue, Sam, Sydney and ultimately the “deliberately androgynous” Camryn.
“I grew up wanting to be unique,” she says. That this might be problematic in a world more comfortable with conformity didn’t occur to her until her family moved to body-conscious California when she was ten. “Suddenly, I was seeing people doing the two scariest things in the world simultaneously: wearing bikinis and shopping for food!”
Manheim rebelled against the pressure to be superficially perfect by putting on so much weight that her appalled parents began hounding her to reduce, sending her to a succession of hypnotists and therapists and repeatedly bribing her with written contracts. “(“If you lose 30 pounds by September, we’ll get you a puppy.”) Her self-confidence crumbled in the face of, not just the usual adolescent humiliations, but anti-fat prejudice from a family that stuck up for every other kind of underdog.
Summer work performing at a Renaissance fair, from age 16 to 19, was her only respite from feeling ashamed. “This should have been my era because I’m basically a Botticelli baby,” Manheim says, gesturing to a photo of her younger self in a costume that ideally flattered her ample curves and made her feel “sexy, beautiful and bawdy.” She completed her psychological liberation from phony standards while in college in the hippie bastion of Santa Cruz where, she says, “weight was never an issue because it was all about peace and love and having sex with flowers.”
But then, when she headed east for a master’s degree in drama at New York University, Manheim’s hard-won sense of self-worth once again came under attack. “I was told I had to lose weight or I’d be asked to leave. They said it was because my body was my instrument, but it was really that they wanted lots of beautiful students to become stars so NYU could say ‘Look at our roster of famous graduates.’”
Her fear of being kicked out was so severe that Manheim began exercising obsessively, eating minimally and taking speed. She rapidly dropped 80 pounds. “And then everybody drooled over me and told me how beautiful I looked and how successful I was going to be. Nobody cared how I did it or asked if I felt OK.”
As her health spiraled dangerously downward, Manheim got her degree. Then she took part in a climactic graduation ritual: a mass audition in front of scores of top agents, who post the names of the actors they want to interview. “Some of my friends were on 200 lists, but I wasn’t on any.” Her huge blue eyes well up at the memory of “the single worst moment in my life, knowing that nobody wanted me and I had done it all for nothing.”
Soon afterward, she took a near-fatal overdose of speed, wound up in hospital and then went through months of depression, professional rejection, withdrawal from both speed and nicotine and consequent weight gain. Desperate for encouragement, Manheim flew home to California.
But instead of getting support from her family, she hit rock bottom because they were “obviously horrified to see me fat again.” When her father suggested that she resume smoking to lose weight, she packed her bags and didn’t speak to him for more than a year.
After returning to New York, Manheim somehow dredged up the gumption to redefine herself on her own terms. She plunged into a variety of liberal causes, studied to be a sign language interpreter, took up pottery and stopped going to auditions.
Then ever-perverse fate delivered an overdue plot twist: an invitation to act in a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning theatre director Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame). Finally back where she belonged, Manheim spent the next several years appearing in intriguing off-Broadway productions, winning an Obie Award in 1995 for her poignant performance in Missing Persons.
She also was cast in a string of movies, appearing with stars like Anthony Hopkins, Bruce Willis and Mira Sorvino in, respectively, The Road to Wellville, Bonfire of the Vanities, Mercury Rising and Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion.
Television offers were mostly unappealing, so Manheim boldly instructed her agent to send her to auditions for male roles and began playing doctors, lawyers and other self-respecting characters on such series as Chicago Hope, Law & Order and Touched By an Angel.
With her self-esteem once again intact, she tackled a project she had been dreaming about for years: writing a stage play about her life as a fat woman in a world that’s been manipulated into preferring Lilliputian-size females.
The result was a powerful, hilarious, excruciatingly honest one-woman show called Wake Up, I’m Fat, which she produced and performed to packed, wildly appreciative audiences (including her proud parents) at New York’s Public Theatre. Plans to take the show on tour were put on hold when she landed her role on The Practice.
As grateful as Manheim was to get the plum part, and “totally in awe of [writer/executive producer] David Kelley, who’s now akin to the Wizard of Oz in Hollywood,” she nevertheless balked on her first day at the studio.
“The director wanted the very first shot of me, in the very first scene, to be eating a donut. I had to say no because there was no way I was going to reinforce that stereotype.”
Since then, with what she calls her “moral barometer” on red alert, Manheim has vetted every script for similar insensitivity. Whenever she finds it, she does some instant consciousness-raising on whomever requires it, up to and including Kelley – whom she praises for being “completely non-defensive” and for not only discussing size discrimination with her, but consequently writing two episodes explicitly addressing the issue.
Sometimes Manheim’s on-set crusades are minor, such as insisting that the props people move a big bowl of candy from Ellenor’s desk to a coffee table. And sometimes they’re major, such as bird-dogging the addition of a boyfriend for her character.
First she implored the casting department to make sure the actor they chose was attractive. “Lots of gorgeous men love large women in real life,” she told them, “but on TV all we get paired up with are ugly loser types.” Next, she protested the lack of an on-screen love scene. “I said, ‘Look, when [co-stars] Bobby and Helen kiss, you not only show it, you promo it as the most exciting part of the episode. But all the fat girl gets to do is talk about having had sex.” Manheim got what she asked for: a handsome co-star and some passionate close-up smooching.
As Manheim conducts an impromptu tour of the bustling studio, attracting enthusiastic smiles, greetings and hugs along the way, she sums up how she feels about becoming a hero to people who yearn to see increased size diversity on-screen.
“I used to resist it. Then I realized that it’s a miracle for any woman my age to have any sense of dignity or pride or self-worth today because everything we see – every bus stop, every magazine, every TV show – tells us that our bodies are undesirable.
“On The Practice, I’m walking a road that was paved for me by [full-bodied] actors like Roseanne and Kathy Bates and Conchata Ferrell and I’m reaching millions of people every week. That means the torch is now in my hand. So I’m gripping it and raising it high.”
As for her own bodacious dimensions, Manheim says she’ll never forget that “when I lost weight, I lost myself. Now I know that it’s crucial to stay as I am, and who I am, and keep marching to the beat of my own drummer.”