Pat McNees

Writer, editor, ghostwriter, personal historian

Pat, speaking to Association of Personal Historians (credit: Pam McComb-Podmostko)

Art Begins with a Story (YouTube: Pat McNees at the Writer's Center, 12-17-14)

Personal History Segment on February "Seniors Today" program (Debbie Brodsky and Pat McNees appear on Austin Heyman's "Seniors Today" program, on YouTube)

Telling Their Life Stories, Older Adults Find Peace in Looking Back (Susan B. Garland, New York Times, 12-9-16) 'Pat McNees, who conducts guided autobiography classes in person in Bethesda, Md., said getting feedback from a supportive group “gives you a perspective on your life.” For example, Ms. McNees said, someone whose family struggled with money problems but spent lots of time together may come out with a “positive take on life” when listening to another participant who had a lonely childhood because the father was always at work.'

"Tell your story before someone else does it and gets it wrong."
~ sign hanging in storyteller Ellouise Schoettler's office

DYING: A Book of Comfort Healing words on loss and grief ed. Pat McNees

My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History ed. by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg, a great gift for that person whose life stories should be recorded or told but who keeps saying, "Who cares what happened in my life?" Read excerpts here and order here to order directly from APH. Backstories about the process of getting the stories into print will be of particular interest to those who want to help others tell their life stories. "At last, a collection that shows the 'why, what, and how' behind memoir as legacy." ~ Susan Wittig Albert, author of WRITING FROM LIFE, founder of Story Circle Network

I have only three or four copies of the original print edition.

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About Pat

Pat McNees spends most of her time these days helping other people write their life stories and helping organizations tell their stories well enough that people actually read them. The life story writing workshops she leads at the Writer's Center in Bethesda ("My Life, One Story at a Time") are the most enjoyable part of her life now: Participants write something about their life each week and read it aloud to the small group. "I do very little except offer writing prompts and encourage honesty and good storytelling, and somehow their writing gets better, and the group bonds, and we feel we know each other in ways even our long-time friends do not -- because the whole exercise is to dig deep and figure out what important things happened to us, and why they were important (or memorable, or moving, or funny). Too bad we don't do this early in life or with our family and friends. Maybe there is something about opening up to friendly strangers--the workshops do draw interesting and empathetic participants--that facilitates this process of self-discovery."

Here's Pat's professional life, once over lightly: She grew up in southern California, where her parents had settled after fleeing the Dust Bowl in Kansas. After graduating with honors from UCLA, Pat did two years' graduate work at Stanford University, where she taught freshman English, graded papers for Wallace Stegner, studied with Irving Howe, helped organize Arthur Kornberg's library (at the time his research fellows were collapsing helix coils), and cooked for her room and board.

Convinced that academia (or at least eighteenth-century literature) was not for her, she moved to New York to become an editor in book publishing — first for Harper & Row and then for Fawcett. Then, after a year's sabbatical in Europe and the birth in Rome of her daughter Romy, Pat began freelancing, first as an editor and rewriter and then (after ghosting) as a writer — of service pieces, personal and humorous essays, profiles, and narrative nonfiction.

After moving to Washington, DC, she supported her writing, eating, and dancing habits by editing and rewriting documents of varying lengths — from reports and white papers to conference proceedings. She also wrote several thousand executive summaries, developing a special niche: analyzing and summarizing reports, conference discussions, and the like — for example, synthesizing stakeholders' comments about an organization's strengths and weaknesses for its incoming president. She is hired to make the unreadable readable, to bring a light touch to serious subjects, and to pack maximum information and insight into an easy five- or ten-minute read. She has written about business, economics, the developing world, women's issues, education, health, medicine, and medical research — as well as food, books, and dancing, among other topics. (Like many others, she became a writer partly to satisfy her curiosity about the world--in various forms of "paid nosiness." ) Pulling together a book about global public policy, she realized that public health policy was far more compelling than other areas and she has been writing more about medicine and health ever since.

Her report-writing workshops have taken her as far abroad as Lesotho and Myanmar (Burma) — see photos under Workshops and Presentation. At the Writer's Center in Bethesda and in libraries in Montgomery County, Maryland, she teaches a workshop called "My Life, One Story at a Time," a nontraditional workshop of short personal writing designed to help participants capture their personal and family legacy for the next generation--to examine with candor their important life choices and experiences, achievements and mistakes, beliefs and convictions. Much laughter, some tears, wonderful story-sharing, great bonding.

Her feature articles have appeared in New York Magazine, Parents, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, but in recent years she's spent more time writing books than articles. She has edited four literary anthologies and has written several life stories and organizational histories. (She has a flourishing sideline helping people write and publish their memoirs.)

Her 2003 book for the National Science Foundation (New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering — synthesizing best practices for interesting girls and women in studies and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math — "sold out" its first printing in five weeks -- and more than 102,000 people downloaded the book in PDF format in the first two years after its publication. (You can download the book free here.) Pat then wrote stories about patients in research, drawing on her experiences writing Building Ten at Fifty (selections here), a prize-winning history of Building 10, the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health, the huge Bethesda hospital and clinic that contains half the medical research beds in the country. You can read a booklet drawn from BUILDING TEN AT FIFTY here.
Her personal history projects (life stories for noncelebrities) have included
An American Biography: An Industrialist Remembers the Twentieth Century, by Pat McNees, with a foreword by Robert Kanigel (see website description)
Starting Over: The Life of Herman Ernst Sheets by Herman Sheets with Pat McNees. See website description.
Reflections on a Silver Spoon: How a Foodie Found Home by Kim Firestone (Kim wrote it, Pat coached and edited him--you can buy online at Amazon or in person at his wonderful restaurant and market, Firestone's, in Frederick, Maryland).
• Other projects, including several photo-memoirs, were privately published.

Pat's organizational histories include:

Changing Times, Changing Minds: 100 Years of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine by Pat McNees.
Building Ten at Fifty: 50 Years of Clinical Research at the NIH Clinical Center by Pat McNees ((brief writeup here).
By Design: The Story of Crown Equipment Corporation (often cited as a model of a compelling company history, showing how a focus on stories about and the people in the company, and photos, can bring to life the story of a product like a lift truck--in this case, the BMW of lift trucks) -- or order directly from Pat
YPO: The First Fifty Years. The early history of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO). See selections from and about the book.

Pat has also edited several anthologies, including:
DYING: A Book of Comfort. Healing Words on Loss and Grief, ed. Pat McNees. (You can buy new copies of the beautiful hardcover edition only directly from Pat.)
My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History ed. by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg
Contemporary Latin American Short Stories, compiled and edited by Pat McNees, in print since 1974.

Pat, who has received several awards for her writing, is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of Health Care Journalists, Authors Guild, National Association of Science Writers, PEN, STC, and the Association of Personal Historians (for which she served as president, 2010-2011). She and her friend Kristie help organize the monthly meetings of the Washington Biography Group and the semi-annual socials; in December 2016, the group will celebrate 30 years of meeting regular, and many biography friendships.

Pat lives in Bethesda, MD. Until recently, on weekends she could often be found at her favorite dance venue — Glen Echo Park's Spanish Ballroom — at the Sunday waltz, occasional ballroom dances, swing dancing, or (very, very, VERY slowly) learning the Argentine tango. Recently she's put her physical focus on zumba classes and other ways to keep her body in shape, but she's thinking of returning to Glen Echo, wondering if it will still work for an "older woman."

At one time she happily wrote articles, until she realized that it didn't pay well enough to provide a decent living. Links to a few (of many) articles:
An Abnormal Reunion (The Scientist, March 2008). Pat's story about Mennonite and Brethren men and women who volunteered as normal controls at NIH in 1950s and 1960s. "In 1958, Jim Conrad, a Mennonite from Oregon, volunteered to eat the same solid foods every day for several weeks, then nothing but corn oil and skim milk for nine weeks, then a combination of coconut oil and skim milk for six weeks, and finally, fish oil and skim milk for two weeks - all in the name of biomedical science. It's the kind of experience that might turn people off of medicine. But in this case, it helped confirm Conrad's decision to become a physician.

"Last Fall, at Conrad's invitation, 25 other Mennonites and Brethren sat around long tables in the medical boardroom of the National Institutes of Health's new Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., for an unusual reunion: Like Conrad, they had served as normal controls in NIH studies conducted between 1955 and 1970...."

From Generation to Generation (Dara Kahn's story about Pat McNees's life story writing classes), Bnai Brith Magazine Fall 2010

The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities (Pat McNees, from Geriatric Care Management Journal, Spring 2009)
Bag Lunches: Some innocent truths about school lunch
The difference between a preface, foreword, and introduction
Tips for buying caviar
Great and unusual online shopping
Eulogy for Eleanor (Pat's mom)
What to do with portobello mushrooms
Books for book groups
The boy in the plastic bubble
A bad heart and housemaid's knee (Marian P's experience at the NIH Clinical Center)
Why Janie Can't Engineer: Raising Girls to Succeed
How to buy upholstered furniture
Starting a small business
Selling your diamonds: fact vs. fantasy
Learning styles
Scared speechless? Join Toastmasters
Cool science sites for young people
The anatomy of medical error
The stages of grief
Reforming the U.S. health care system
[Back to Top]

My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History , ed. Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg ($19.95). Read excerpts here. Read a review here.

"At last, a collection that shows the "why, what, and how" behind memoir as legacy. Spanning more than a century, these intriguing reflections of personal as well as global social and political history are told in the unique voice and viewpoint of each storyteller."
~ Susan Wittig Albert, author, Writing from Life, founder, Story Circle Network

“This anthology sings with Walt Whitman’s spirit of democracy, a celebration of our diversity. Each selection is a song of self; some have perfect pitch, some the waver of authenticity. All demonstrate the power of the word to salvage from the onrush of life, nuggets worth saving.”
~ Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story and Writing the New Autobiography

Pat, the editor

Both a writer and an editor, Pat is especially useful for

* Writing, redrafting, or heavily editing your articles, papers, books, white papers, and other documents.

*Helping YOU figure out what you need to do on something you are writing yourself but having trouble with.

* Synthesizing or summarizing long, complex documents, presenting the key messages in a voice that will not put the average reader to sleep. Usually this involves coming up with a meaningful title, providing a 25-words-or-less summary line, and an executive summary four paragraphs to three pages long (depending on the audience and purpose). Pat has written several thousand (yes, thousand) executive summaries, for clients such as the Urban Institute, USAID, the World Bank, and various medical research organizations.

* Bringing dull or dullish material to life ——generally by injecting anecdotes, examples, narrative, and other devices that make the material more dynamic and interesting.

* Bringing a lighter touch to academic writing and translating into plain English writing dense with jargon.

* Synthesizing the main conclusions or arguments made in meetings and conferences. Telling a story or conveying messages in many voices but with a unified purpose.

* Building a narrative from a collection of oral histories or transcripts of interviews. This might be a life story, the history of an organization, or the story of an event.

* Bringing a uniform tone and voice to compilations and conference proceedings and bringing intelligence, structural clarity, and good taste to anthologies (Pat's anthologies stand the test of time.)

Here’s what one client (the author of a book on the defense industry) said: “As an editor, McNees has a keen eye for restructuring an early draft of a report and a gift for shortening and improving sentences, paragraphs, and papers without distorting their technical meaning. McNees has an ability to edit a manuscript at almost any level of detail the writer needs—as a broad-brush overview, at the paragraph-by-paragraph level, right down to line-by-line blue-pencil editing.”

Pat often combines editing with coaching. Experts for whom writing is difficult often ask for her because she helps them improve their sense of audience and their ability to write more cogently, concisely, clearly, and persuasively. Having a sense of humor helps ease the anxiety most people associate with writing projects.

Coming in early 2009:

Edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees

Foreword by Rick Bragg (Personal History Press)

“This anthology sings with Walt Whitman’s spirit of democracy, a celebration of our diversity. Each selection is a song of self; some have perfect pitch, some the waver of authenticity. All demonstrate the power of the word to salvage from the onrush of life, nuggets worth saving.”
~ Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story and Writing the New Autobiography

"At last, a collection that shows the "why, what, and how" behind memoir as legacy. Spanning more than a century, these intriguing reflections of personal as well as global social and political history are told in the unique voice and viewpoint of each storyteller."
~ Susan Wittig Albert, author, Writing from Life, founder, Story Circle Network

Books, articles, and more

Writing or telling life stories
Everyone has a story to tell. What's keeping you from telling yours? Become a storykeeper or personal historian or find one.
Read aloud at a memorial service decades later
A loving testament, or legacy letter, sharing your life experiences and lessons with the next generation
Learn to write articles, reports, ethical wills, or life stories (memoirs and beyond).
Mom — hardworking, sassy, and full of surprises
Mutual support and discussion
Social history through the life of an ordinary Midwestern businessman.
Dancing, food, good books, and other diversions
Favorites of several book groups
What is the single lunch-bag item most hated by all children?
What heightens the caviar experience is the price of those little gray or black sturgeon eggs.
Links to dancing venues and calendars for the Washington, D.C. area.
Midlife "first dates"
Did she fall in love with the man or the waltz?
Also related: jive, hustle, hand-dancing.
All the dancing your feet can take
Choosing a school of dance
Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish
The big ones, with dirty stems
"A rich, varied, and highly rewarding collection," says Joyce Carol Oates
Ceilis (Irish dancing)
Medical mysteries, patient stories, and practical links
John Travolta played the boy in the movie. The real story ended far differently.
Thin little Marian had a cholesterol problem most people have never heard of.
You've probably never heard of this national research hospital and clinic. But someone you know may be able to benefit from it directly and all of us do, indirectly.
Understanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the debate on health care reform. Avoiding medical errors
Dying, mourning, and other inevitable events
"This remarkable collection, coming from personal experience and wide reading, will help many find the potential of growth through loss." --Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement
For those dying, for caregivers, and for the bereaved
Listen to samples of popular songs and music
Girls and science
Cool science sites
Best practices for teaching science--to strengthen the science workforce.
Some links and a selection
Practical matters
Identify children's learning styles and improve their ability to learn.
Six weeks to hassle-free homework.
Why parents should be concerned.
Public speaking is a craft, not an art. It can be learned.
Can you wash it if it says "dry clean"?
Fact vs. fantasy
One woman's story.
Don't focus on the fabric.
Organizational histories
A frank history of the Young Presidents' Organization.
The little lift truck that could — a story of brilliant marketing in America's heartland.
Online Shopping
Best places to shop online