Ten Years of Lessons about Lifestory Writing, Part 1


As I consider lessons I’ve learned about the heart of lifestory writing, I think back to the first class I taught for the Carnegie Mellon University Osher Program ten years ago. I’d taught several classes on this topic before without qualms. But here . . . at Carnegie Mellon . . .  ropes of anxiety bound my chest. My Inner Critic exploded to life:

What do you really know? What are YOU doing in these hallowed halls? You might bluff your way through a Senior Center class, but this is CARNEGIE MELLON. They expect the best. They expect EXPERTISE!

In case that wasn’t enough, within minutes one woman in that first class boldly announced that she had just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh’s nationally renowned MFA program in creative non-fiction.

You’re screwed! She knows more than you do, and she’ll know you’re a fake. Quick! Run out of the room RIGHT NOW! Go home and don’t answer the phone for a year.

I’m not a quitter! I’ll give it my best shot, and we’ll see where it goes. Besides, with that one possible exception, I know more about lifestory writing than anyone in this room, and that’s something. 

Taking a deep breath, I plunged in. I was weeks away from the official release date for The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, published by Lighthouse Point Press. I knew quite a lot, but Inner Critics are hard to placate or silence. I took a deep breath and plunged in after explaining that although I knew a lot, I didn’t know everything, that I continued to learn more, and we’d all learn from each other.

The class went well. CMU Osher invited me to teach again. And again. Eventually I also taught for the University of Pittsburgh Osher LLI program, across Panther Hollow from CMU. Teaching for the Osher programs at CMU and Pitt are among my most treasured memories of the years I spent in Pittsburgh. I’d always dreamed of teaching at an esteemed university. That dream came true in an unexpected and welcome way. As classes progressed, some students were new, but many returned, time after time. “I don’t write when I’m not in a class, and I always learn something new in yours.”

Well, yes. They learned something new because I continue to learn something new and share what I learn. May that always be so! Much of what I learned came from reading their stories with them. I recently stopped to survey what I’ve learned over the past ten years. Some lessons come from experience and others from newly published research. It’s challenging to sort them into a linear list, because many are intertwined, but I’ve given it my best shot and you can read the first four of ten items on the list below:

1) You don’t learn this stuff all at once — I began with piles of short stories. I polished them as well as I knew how. And I kept reading and writing and revising. I learned about scenes and story arc and building stronger connection with readers. I discovered that the more I wrote, the more perspective I gained on life and myself. What a bonus! The adventure continues, and I hope I never quit learning.

2) You don’t learn this stuff alone – I’m more firmly convinced than ever that writing is best done as a collaborative, team sport. You can improve your writing by yourself, but you’ll learn more and learn faster in a class or a writing group. At the very least, find some trusted critique partners online.

3) One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read – Painters study works of the masters to learn technique. Writers can do the same thing. Find fiction or memoir writers you love and pay attention to how they structure stories and use words to pull you in. Read voraciously and constantly. Join a book group.

4) Importance of clear purpose and focus — I learned this more deeply from reading students’ stories than my own. Some stories seemed to ramble without any point. “What are you trying to tell us? What’s the most important thing you want readers to remember?” I ask. They get it.

To be continued in the next post.

By the way, that MFA grad? I quickly discovered that she had not covered this subject in her studies. Furthermore, I couldn’t tell from her stories that she’d ever had a class of any sort. Who knows? Moral of that story? Never make assumptions! Claim whatever power you have and forge ahead.

What writing life lessons have you learned? I invite you to share in a comment.

Lifestory Writers Need a Village


Fellow blogger Linda Austin included a reminder in a post on MoonbridgeBooks that at least for stories about the larger family, the more family members you involve in the process, the more complete and vibrant the book will be.

Amen to that! Especially when you’re writing about multiple generations within your family. The principle still pertains when focus is solely on self, but in the latter case, you may be better advised to rely on a group of writing buddies rather than relatives. Writing buddies won’t try to hijack your story and feed your inner critic by reminding you “That’s not the way it was!” or “You sure do have a creative memory” or “Why would you write about that?

Whether writing about self or family, every lifestory writer needs a village of collaborators at various stages. These are people you can turn to for inspiration, encouragement, feedback and more. Your writing buddies, whether a formal group or scattered people, can help neutralize Inner Critic assaults. They can tell you when you’ve talked about people without saying who they are or jumbled your timeline. They can warm your heart with wows. They can jog your memory. They can throw logs on the fire and hold your feet to it to keep you writing when the coals run low.

I might quit writing without my village. Mine consists of students, former and present. Local writing groups. Losing my Pittsburgh groups was the biggest wrench in moving to Austin, but Austin is crawling with writers, so I was quickly at home. NAMW is an important part of my village. Most of my village lives in my computer. You are part of it, especially when you leave comments here or on Facebook.

You’ll notice I’ve been slow to post lately. Ditto on working on my book. Hey villagers, keep my feet to that fire. Let me hear it!

If you don’t already have one, find a village, online or in town. Write your heart out, then craft the draft. Persist with your writing. I invite you to share your experience with your writing village in a comment. Or leave a suggestion for others on how to find or build a village of their own. Or tell me to get off the dime and WRITE!

Don’t Wait Too Long

Ben-Melton-1998As I mentioned in my last post, my father died last month. The last few weeks I’ve become obsessed about writing family stories while digging through genealogy material and old pictures. I’m finding dozens of dots I never noticed before and discovering new insights with roots that reach beyond the Civil War.

One of the most touching things I’ve found is this emailed letter from my father that’s been lurking in my files for a couple of years. He must have memorized this piece. He recited it, almost verbatim, with a few new embellishments, the last time I talked to him, shortly before he died. I’ve been wishing I’d thought to turn on my phone recorder that day, but no matter. Turns out, I already had the transcript. I don’t think he’ll mind my sharing it as a tribute to him with a message for all of us.

Reflections on my life
Ben Melton, June 25, 2015

The most beautiful woman I ever met (1943):

Marjie in scarf

The most beautiful (the same one) woman I ever met, with me, 50 years later:

Ben & Marje, 50 years later

I’ve led a wonderful life. 

I married the prettiest girl. My children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren are good-looking, good-natured and brilliant.

I’ve had, and have some wonderful friends.

In a multi-faceted career, I’ve had some exciting, interesting and rewarding jobs.

I’ve shot the biggest deer I ever saw, caught the biggest salmon I ever saw, flown the hottest (in my day) bomber, and the biggest bomber, and done acrobatics in a fighter plane.

I’ve survived multiple encounters with the grim reaper in the air, on the highway and in the operating room.

Fortunately, I’ve had a few dull moments to round out the spectrum.

My life doesn’t owe me a thing.  It has already delivered more than I could possibly ask for.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because if I wait too long, I’ll lose the opportunity to express my awe and gratitude for a richly rewarding life!


Ben sigBen's Snoopy Plane


In that recent phone call he added, “I’ve done everything I was ever afraid to do except jump out of an airplane. I didn’t do that when I had the chance because I’d hurt my foot and was afraid I’d break my leg when I landed.” Reality-based fears like that are worth respecting!

At 187 words, this letter is a clear example of a mini or micro-memoir with a theme of gratitude. It’s also a love story and a celebration of life. It hints at obstacles overcome. It touches on triumphs with faint whispers of shadows, which he did not dwell on.

He wrote other stories too, but this is his capstone. It could have been his obituary if we’d remembered we had it. What a wonderful legacy he has left. I’m in tears all over again.

I hope this can serve as an example that less may be more. Pay special attention to his last words:

 Why am I telling you all this?  Because if I wait too long, I’ll lose the opportunity to express my awe and gratitude for a richly rewarding life!

It doesn’t need to take a lot of words. Now, get those fingers flying and write on!

Write Bites and Sight Bites: Memory Capture Tools

Especially during busy, turbulent times, tiny tidbits of micro-memoir in the form of write bites and sight bites can help preserve the essence of memories for future elaboration.

The past several weeks have been turbulent. The turbulence began in late March when I had a diagnostic heart catheterization procedure, then learned right after that I needed a pacemaker immediately to regulate increasingly frequent skipped heartbeats. The pacemaker is working fine, but complications from the cath procedure have taken a few weeks to resolve.

As all that began settling down, I had a strong sense that I needed to buy a ticket and fly up to Richland, Washington right that minute, to tell my 96-year-old father goodbye. Although I was on a plane three hours later, I did not make it in time. My brother caught me with the news just before I boarded a connecting flight in Dallas. But that was okay. We’d already said good-bye a few times. Perhaps that inner urge arose from the fact that I needed to be up there right then for an intense week of sorting things out.

Sooner or later, this period of time and related events will emerge in fleshed out story form connected with memories of my dad. In the meantime, raw impressions, random thoughts, and a timeline of recent events are scribbled in my journal in a form I’m calling Write Bites. The following few are typical.
I've never had such a clear sense of “before and after” as I’ve had the last four days since getting my pacemaker. Life has changed in some dramatic way I don’t yet fully fathom.
I've always felt secretive about health matters. How rewarding and liberating to receive tremendous support from disclosure. 
I never expected to be one of those people who talk about life and death drama on a cellphone in an airport boarding area. I tried to talk quietly, but I did stay in my seat and I know a few people heard. 
I've seldom been as relieved as I was when I saw George's text telling me he was waiting to pick me up at the airport. I would not have to spend half an hour driving a strange car through the, confusing maze of streets to his house in the middle of the rainy night. 
I just realized my father was only interested in the headlines of people's lives, not the details. He was a story teller par excellence, but not a listener.
I wrote a lot more than that, but I hope you can see that write bites like these are enough to take me back into the moment. They’re also enough to give those who know me some sense of what was going on. In fact, they are closely akin to Story Idea List entries, which also fall into the category of Write Bites.

Another tool I used a lot was my cell camera. I snapped the sight bite picture above from my seat on the plane. The thought Mother Nature is crying with me ran through my mind when I saw those raindrops on the window next to my seat, minutes after calling the family. The flag image in the background seemed a fitting symbol. My dad proudly retired as a Lt. Colonel from the USAF Reserves, and this picture evokes the military honors he received at his inurnment a few days later. It’s an odd photo without the story, but as a sight bite, it strongly brings back the reality of that moment.

So what do you do when life gets intense? Jot a few write bites. If your journal isn't handy, use your phone or whatever you can find to write on — and/or use the camera to snap a sight bite. Someday you may want to flesh out that micro-memoir at length.

Connecting Dots to Find Story

Connect-dotsMy cousins and I play an ongoing game of Connect the Dots as we try to piece together a fuller picture of our forebears’ lives. What we are learning opens choices about how to shape stories we leave behind.

The most intriguing set of dots right now involves my great-grandmother, Matilda Evelyn Grammer, who married Robert Milo Roberts, son of Governor Roberts of Texas when she was not quite 16 and he was 37. When she was widowed at 26, she was responsible for two nearly-grown step-children and four of her own, ranging from one to ten years old. Two years later, she married Paul Arthur Preuit, the (great)grandfather my cousins and I share. We know quite a bit about the Preuit part of her life, but her life with Roberts Roberts is largely a blank. We’re working on that.

Last year a cousin wanted to know if I could tell her anything about the possibility her mother (my aunt) lived for a short time with my father’s family – before my parents were married. That opened a  new package of dots about both our families and the enduring friendship between these aunts. 

Why does this matter? Why do we play Connect the Dots?

Our brains are wired to crave story, drilling down to details and closure. What is closure? Understanding WHY things happened and WHAT they mean. To some extent, we look to the past to explain how things are now, and imagine how they might be as we move forward. We explore examples of ancestors to make sense of ourselves and how we can handle the curves life may throw.

As my cousins and I continue to dig, we’ll find more information about where people lived and maybe glimpses of what they did, but for the most part, we’ll have to make up story to connect those dots. We’ll know, for example, that in 1888, Texas women did not have air-conditioned houses and we’ll speculate about what life must have been like as they toiled in gardens and doing laundry in the blazing Texas summers in long sleeves and long skirts. We’ll have to wonder if mid-wives helped deliver Grandmother Tilly’s children, or perhaps a doctor drove up in his buggy just in time.

We’ll conclude that we come from a line of tough women who knew how to survive. We’ll never know how Grandmother Tilly felt about the ups and downs of her life. What were her regrets? Did she wonder what life would have been like “if only”?

Implications for Life Writers

We can document our lives on two levels, detail and meaning. Details give the dots. Our descendants will know what happened when, in general terms. That leaves them to wonder and connect dots themselves, the best they can.

We can do them a favor and connect the dots for them, writing stories rich in reflection and insight. We can show the lessons we learn and what the bumps we roll over mean to us. These rich stories will satisfy our descendants, helping them quickly and easily understand us and our times.

The key to writing these rich stories is to take the time with each story we write to ask ourselves

  • Why did this happen?
  • What does it mean?
  • What did I learn?

Include the answers to these questions in your story and intrigue readers of any time and generation. They’ll thank you for making the effort.

If you don’t have time or inclination to dig so deeply, fret not. Keep writing anyway. Remember,

Anything you write is better than writing nothing.

At the very least, you’ll leave them dots to connect if they wish.

Three Tips to DemystifyTense


Question: “Is it ever okay to switch tenses in a story?”

Answer: Since you included the word ever, the answer is yes. Sometimes switching up your tenses adds power and interest. But generally no. These tips should take the tension out of working with tense and help you decide.

#1 – In general, choose one and stick to either present or past.

Because we may switch back and forth naturally in conversation, tense changes can slip easily into writing. It may take a keen eye to notice it, but some people will. Pointless switches signal lax editing and may be confusing. Only switch when you have a clear reason.

Present tense can enhance the tension and make short stories with lots of drama even more compelling to read. It’s an especially good choice for stories written to stand on their own. Past tense may feel more natural and works well for anthologies, composite stories, and memoir.

#2 – You may need to mix tenses if you are writing in the present about someone who died.

For example:

My father loved to tell stories about the olden days, and every now and then he e-mailed stories about cowboys, hunting jack rabbits, raising chickens and other nostalgic topics to family and friends. He was a masterful storyteller, and his work is polished and entertaining. Although it barely scratches the surface of his life, it’s a cherished legacy. We looked forward to each story.

He DID love, and his (remaining) work (still) IS . . .  Mixing tenses is the only accurate way to state this and other cases where one thing is gone and a related one endures. This sort of shift is clear and easily understood.

#3 – Switching tense for flashbacks may be a powerful option and set them apart.

If your main story is written in the past tense and you reflect back to an especially dramatic scene, it can work well to write that scene in present tense, bringing the reader into the moment. Conversely, past tense makes sense for flashbacks inserted into stories written in present tense. Even if the reader does not specifically notice the shift in time, the change of tense signals it to the unconscious, preventing most confusion. Tips on writing successful flashbacks abound on line.

Think of tense as a two-lane highway with fast-moving traffic. In general it works best to stick with your lane. Look carefully for the right time and signal your intent when you have reason to change.

Guest Post: Still Me After All These Years

Still Me book coverThey say getting old is hell, but it beats the alternatives. Still Me After All These Years, Karen Helene Walker’s anthology of essays and poems on aging, written by 24 authors who know, may convince you it isn’t hell after all. It's a pleasure to be participating in the prepublication Blog Tour for this charming, funny, and enlightening collection, and I thank Karen for agreeing to answer a few questions about the book.

Karen is offering a tour-wide giveaway featuring two print copies (U.S. entries only) of Still Me and two eBook copies  (International entries). Instructions for entering are at the end of this post.

Now for the interview:

What motivated you to take on this project?

It really began when I had to care for my aging dad and then my mother-in-law. I saw what aging does first-hand and began to think about what would happen when I got older. Then an 88-year-old friend made the comment, “I don’t see me anymore when I look in the mirror.” That really stuck with me. While on retreat with a friend, it came to me that putting together an anthology about aging might be inspiring and helpful to those of us who are already seniors, as well as those caring for aging parents.

What value do you find in a variety of viewpoints?

It surprised me when I began receiving submissions that each writer chose a different aspect of aging. I’d been afraid I’d have to reject submissions because they were too similar. Other than surprise at the various viewpoints, I learned a lot from how others think about the aging process as well as how they deal with the issues.

What have you learned about life and aging from this experience?

That I’m not alone. That each and every one of us is at some point in the aging process. That aging is not a choice, but living is. That none of us knows when our time will be up, but we can choose how we use the time we have left. I’ve learned that our attitude about what life hands us is crucial to maneuvering through this process with grace and dignity.

This book seems like a huge project, from soliciting entries to editing, to laying it all out and publishing. This may be like asking a woman who just gave birth if she wants another child, but ... do you think you'd do it again? 

Sheesh. It is like labor pain where the memory of the pain diminishes with time. Working on the anthology was a very rewarding process, especially seeing the end result. There were challenges, though, especially having to reject submissions. As a writer, telling a person I couldn’t use their work was one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever faced. Would I do it again? Perhaps. If I did, the subject matter would have to overpower the reasons why I wouldn’t want to, which at this point would be mostly financial. It was costly to produce this book.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the contributing authors for their hard work and diligence in making the necessary edits, but most especially for their wisdom and humor in tackling this most difficult topic. And thanks to Mark David Gerson for his wise counsel in editing and his amazing book design. And lastly, thanks to Kathleen Messmer for her wonderful photography

Do you have any thoughts in closing?

These words from Tom Clancy seem to sum things up:

Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.

Karen, those words are perfect, and I totally relate to them, as I know many readers will. I hope they inspire others to persist with a writing project. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! I hope this book will touch countless lives around the world.

Readers, after reading all the stories in this book, I deeply regret that I did not get my act together to contribute. This is an anthology I’d be proud to be included in. If you are already eligible for senior discounts or soon will be, you’ll find meat for both body and soul in these pages. Younger readers, this book will give you personal perspective and empathy for elders. Give copies to senior citizens in your life.

Still Me After All These Years is available at the following sites: Amazon (print and Kindle), Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and iTunes. Be sure to add it to your shelf on Goodreads.

Follow Karen and the other authors on their tour . Check the schedule HERE.

About the Authors:

Rev. Clara Alexander is an ordained New Thought minister who creates and performs sacred ceremonies, including unique weddings, funerals, memorial services, baby blessings and house blessings. She is also a popular speaker, inspiring groups with her talks on how we cling to our grudges, how we overuse the phrase “I’m sorry” and how we can live the life we love.

Wendy Brown recently retired from a career in wildlife biology, where she studied sandhill cranes and whooping cranes as they migrated from Idaho to New Mexico. Wendy eventually found a permanent home in Albuquerque, where she and her husband enjoy the sounds of sandhill cranes from their deck. Since retiring from state government in 2014.

Valerie Capps has bypassed the porch rocking chair to pursue her life-long passion for writing, thereby proving that in today’s world, life can begin again at 65! Valerie lives in Nashville with her husband and their spoiled-rotten Welsh Corgi. Find Valerie's books on Amazon.

Mary W. Clark retired from her law practice in 2007 and transferred her observation and composition skills to travel writing. She is currently working on a book about her father’s World War II experience flying “the Hump” from India to China over the Himalayas. Mary lives in Paris, Texas. www.maryclarktraveler.com

Fran Fischer: “I was born at a very young age and that happened 82 years ago, so I don’t remember much about it. I’ve crammed as much living into my life as possible, and I’m not through yet. I’ve traveled extensively and I even flew in the same zero-gravity plane that the astronauts trained in. I live in California with my first (and only) husband, and we celebrated our 62nd anniversary this year.”

Pat Garcia (Patricia Anne Pierce-Garcia Schaack) is an American expatriate living in Europe. An accomplished musician as well as a writer, she has been writing (and reading) since childhood.

Mark David Gerson is the author of more than a dozen books, including critically acclaimed titles for writers, award-winning fiction and compelling memoirs. Known as “The Birthing Your Book Guru,” Mark David works with an international roster of clients as coach and consultant, helping them get their stories onto the page and into the world with ease. www.markdavidgerson.com

Holly Deuel Gilster plays “make believe” for a living. In other words, she is a professional actress and musician. Holly also loves painting with words as an accomplished poet, an award-winning short-story writer and a book-reviewer for The Or Echo.

Aaron Gordon is a retired social sciences community college professor. He and his wife, Ellie, have been married for 65 years and have three children and grandchildren.

Ellie Gordon is a retired public school teacher who spent the best 20 years of her life in the classroom. A Chicago native, she now lives in New Mexico.

Karla “Rosie” Harper recently retired from teaching elementary school, freeing her to return to her early love of dancing. Today, when not helping out with her grandchildren, Rosie is taking dance lessons, spinning on a dance floor or performing in senior centers and retirement communities with Albuquerque’s Sugartime, as singer as well as dancer.

Linda Hoye is the author of Two Hearts: An Adoptee’s Journey Through Grief to Gratitude, available through major online retailers. A native of Saskatchewan, Linda currently lives in British Columbia (by way of Washington State) with her husband and doted-upon Yorkshire Terrier. www.lindahoye.com

E.V. Legters hasn’t so much retired as she has exchanged one life for another — from rewarding years with career and children (while pursuing the arts on the fly) to a life with the arts at its center. She is the author of Vanishing Point and Connected Underneath and is currently hard at work on her third novel. www.evlegters.com

LD Masterson lived on both coasts before becoming landlocked in Ohio. After twenty years managing computers for the American Red Cross, she now divides her time between writing, volunteer work and enjoying her grandchildren. Her short stories have been published in several magazines and anthologies, and she is currently working on a new novel. www.ldmasterson.com

Kathleen Messmer not only runs a film production company with offices in the UK and the US, she is an avid photographer and wildlife advocate. In the unlikely event that she ever retires, Kathleen plans to live on a ranch with draft horses and pygmy goats and vineyards and fruit orchards, somewhere near the water. Oh, and a cowboy...maybe. www.kathleenmessmer.com

Karen Norstad has worked as cashier/gift wrapper, secretary, boutique seamstress, administrative assistant, manager of employee stock options, executive assistant and budget analyst. Now retired, Karen’s life revolves around lounging about, wearing PJs until four in the afternoon, obsessing over the news, reading, fusing and slumping glass, practicing piano, keeping a small balcony garden and cooking.

Matt Nyman’s nonlinear career path has included working in the geological sciences, teaching high school, stay-at-home parenting and, currently, training tomorrow’s teachers. Poetry equently resides near the surface of his existence, occasionally erupting onto paper.

Jill Plaman was born and began aging in Milwaukee, but she has lived and worked in Albuquerque since 1977. She holds a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MSW from the University of Minnesota. Her special interests are travel, international folk dancing, reading, hiking and spending time with family and friends.

Maureen Polikoff is a clinical social worker/ therapist who has always pursued many other creative endeavors, including painting, playing music and, now, writing. A Connecticut native, she lives in New Mexico with her husband, Michael.

MaryFrank Sanborn left Boston 33 years ago, to apprentice with photographer Walter Chappell in Santa Fe. Still in love with the beauty of the Southwest, MaryFrank photographs, writes, hikes, travels, teaches yoga and meditation, makes soups on Sundays, and dreams of the ocean and whales.

Patricia Stoltey is the author of four mystery novels. The most recent is Wishing Caswell Dead. She lives in Northern Colorado with Sassy Dog, Katie Cat and her husband, Bill. www.patriciastolteybooks.com

Susan Swiderski grew up in Dundalk, Maryland, where everybody calls everybody hon and eating steamed crabs is a sacrament. Although she’s happy in her adopted Georgia, part of her heart still lingers on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, explaining the setting for her novel, Hot Flashes and Cold Lemonade. Susan is currently working on a trilogy, proof that this old gal is still a pathological optimist. www.susan-swiderski.blogspot.com

Jan Castle Walker is a retired teacher and an active artist. She lives in Davis, California with her husband, Mack. www.jancastlewalker.com

Karen Helene Walker is a novelist, memoirist and essayist and the author of The Wishing Steps and Following the Whispers. When not writing, Karen is tap dancing, folk dancing or performing with the musical group Sugartime at retirement communities. Karen is currently working on her second memoir. www.karenfollowingthewhispers.blogspot.com

This tour-wide giveaway is for two (2) print copies (U.S. entries only) and two (2) eBook copies of STILL ME … AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: 24 Authors Reflect on Aging. The giveaway will end at 12 a.m. (EST) on Tuesday, April 4.

To enter, click on this link and follow the instructions. The widget may take a few seconds to load so please be patient.

Thanks for stopping by today. Be sure to check out this charming book.

Blog tour managed by  MC Book Tours

How to Write About a Change of Perspective


The meme you see above has prompted millions of laughs, but can you imagine a more life-changing moment than a priest, monk or nun hearing this revelation after decades of devotion?

Misperceptions like this do happen, and they can shape lives. This meme came to mind recently when a woman told me how she spent her child and early adulthood terrified of burning in hell. She knew in the core of her being that ministers thundered messages of hellfire and brimstone “all the time.”

Eventually she discovered that her particular church believed that yes, the wicked did perish in “The lake of fire,” but they did not burn forever. The perishing was mercifully quick and permanent. The wicked were punished only by being deprived  of the multitude of blessings the righteous are due to receive. She did hear about a lake of fire. That was true. But the burning forever part must have leaked in from outside, according to her informant. “I assure you, that was never part of our teaching.”

By the time she heard this, she had moved away from that church. But learning this still angered her: I didn’t have to spend all those years so scared!

Now she’s wondering how to write about this: “I really did believe that. That is how I heard it. If I was wrong, and I only have that one person’s explanation to go on, I still totally believed it. But now things have changed. And I’d definitely never go back to that church. How do I tell this story?”

“That was your truth back then, and nothing has changed that,” I said. “Not even finding out you were, or might have been, wrong.” My advice to her was simple and four-pronged.

1) Write about what life was like back then. Explain what you heard and how that affected you.

2) Write about the whiplash you experienced when you heard the other point of view. Who told  you? How did you know to believe it? How did that affect you? How did you and do you feel about all this? What has changed?

3) Write with compassion. True, you may feel angry and betrayed. Own that and write it. Then consider the angles. Did any one purposely deceive you? Did you ever ask for help or tell anyone you were scared?

4) Sum it all up. By the time you’ve written through steps one, two and three, you will probably be feeling some closure, if you weren’t already there. Stories demand it, whether they’re still at the stage of self-talk or written down. Readers crave it.

Conflict or tension, especially the internal sort, is the meat of this and any story. Jump into the middle of the mud with both feet and let it all rip. Be brave. Write it real. Polish it to flow smoothly, but leave those emotions in place. They are the lifeblood of your tale. They add the juice and the glue that bonds reader to story and helps them gain their own insight from your message.

Two Terrific Tools for Managing Word Documents


Time for some Tech Talk or Geek Speak to answer this reader’s question for the benefit of all concerned.

I have seven chapters and ninety-three pages in my memoir now, and I’m having a terrible time moving around the document. I tried separate files for each chapter, but with seven chapters and counting, even that’s a mess. And I’m a real klutz at moving chunks of text from one place to another. What can I do?

A Faithful Reader

Tah DAH! Help is at hand!

That help is in two little-known features of Word: the Navigation Pane and Outline view. Let’s take a look.

Navigation Pane (F12)


I keep the Navigation pane (or Nav pane as I call it for short) open all the time when I’m working on a long document. Press F12 in a Word document to open it on yourself (or click on the View tab, then click the box next to Navigation Pane). The gray area in the image above is the Nav pane. I can jump to anywhere in my document, whether it has four pages or four hundred, by clicking on one of the items. The arrow points to the section seen at the right. Of course you will not have that red arrow on your screen, but you will see the blue highlight the arrow points to. If I click on Get Off Your Buts and Write!, I’ll instantly be at the top of that chapter.

Here’s the deal. The Nav pane works with Style defined headers. The items above with arrows beside them are chapter titles. Each chapter title has a Heading 1 style attached. Indented items are sections. They have a Heading 2 style. This won’t be as much help in a memoir, because your only headings will be chapter titles, Heading 1. But being able to jump from one chapter to the next will help. And here’s an idea for the adventurous: you could use section headers for your working document and delete them for final copy.

Don’t throw in the towel if your eyes cross at the mention of styles! Believe me, you can learn enough in five minutes to save hours and hours of frustration finding your way around your document, and it will be easier to format later. Here’s the deal. Go to YouTube and search for “using styles in word 2007.” For best results, substitute your version number for 2007 if it’s different. Scan the search results and find one that looks promising. You might want to try two or three.

Outline View (Alt+Ctrl+O)


In Outline view, the Nav pane remains open, but it has a white background so you won’t be confused. In Outline view, you can move chunks of text slick as a whistle. In the view above I have all text displayed. The red arrow points to the round bullet next to a paragraph I want to move. When I triple-click a paragraph or hold the cursor over the bullet, the paragraph background turns gray.

When I hold the cursor over the bullet, it turns into a four-headed arrow.  When the cursor is in that arrow form, press and hold the left mouse button to drag the entire paragraph into a new position.  As you move it up or down, you’ll see a fine horizontal line between paragraphs that show where the one you’re moving will end up if you let go. Spacing will automatically be adjusted. No need to fix extra paragraph breaks, etc.

If dragging with the mouse is awkward for you, or you’re stuck with a laptop touchpad, use the up or down keyboard arrows to move it one paragraph at a time.

You can also highlight a paragraph and use cut-and-paste to move it to a spot too far away to easily drag. Place your cursor at the beginning of the paragraph beneath and paste. Again, all spacing will be adjusted.

By the way, you can highlight and move multiple paragraphs the same way as long as they’re adjacent.

Green arrow

The green arrow points to the outline tools that manage your view. By default the Show Level field is blank and everything shows. Click on the arrow at the right end of that field and you’ll find a number of options. If you want to move entire chapters around, select Level 1. I often work at Level 2, letting me reorder sections.

One other time Outline view really shines is for reordering bullet or numbered lists. Leave the Level view at default (or select All Levels found at the bottom of the list). Move list items around like paragraphs. Numbering will be automatically reordered.

Blue arrow

The blue arrow points to the Close Outline View button, the easiest way out. Please note: the Close button only shows on the Outline tab, and that tab is only there when you are in Outline view.

While these panels and views aren’t much help for writing simple short stories, but they can be a life saver on longer projects. Take three minutes to explore them. You’ll be glad you did!

What Word tricks make your life easier?

Personal Truth vs. Factual Truth


Rereading old stories often sparks new insights. Ditto with old blog posts. En route to finding an old post about something else, I found “My Brain on Story.” That post is based on an incident where a witness to a mock crime testified that what turned out to be a plastic water pistol was the gun that fired the shot she heard.  Rereading the post led me to reconsider the controversy about Truth I reported there. My son-in-law’s adamant position was that although the perception that a water pistol was a bullet-firing weapon was real, it was not true. I disagreed, clinging to my assertion that the perception was true.

Today a flash of insight penetrated my skull. Sally’s perception of an actual gun and speeding bullets was personal truth  or perceived truth. The documentable fact that the gun was a water pistol was factual truth. While not every instance of questionable truth has documentable evidence to prove it “right or wrong,” in this situation , the matter can be settled. I still maintain that each form of truth is equally valid, but I’ll concede they are different.

Bottom line, in my opinion, it still does not matter. We’re still talking about terminology and the fact that perceived or personal truth plays a powerful role in our lives.

Sally’s personal truth that a pistol was aimed at her and that shots were fired is still as true today as the day it happened in 1984. I did not stay in contact with Sally, but I can say with absolute certainty that she remembers that personal truth, how real it was, and how stunned she was to hold the water pistol. I’m willing to wager that her life turned a corner that day.

The timing of this discovery is amazing. Life has intervened, and that new volume of advice for writing your lifestory is not finished, though I’m deeply engrossed in it again. I believe it’s no coincidence that I’m currently working on the chapter on memory and truth.

This flash of insight holds two jewels for that chapter:

1. Truth comes in at least two versions, maybe more. Each or all are equally valid, just different.

2. Insight and understanding evolve. I’ve written about this before. Lessons sink in and begin to grow when their seed sprouts, and some seeds can take a long to sprout.

My life is full of slow-cooker lessons and evolving understanding. What are some things you’ve been slow to learn?

Mistakes Make a Story More Interesting

The statement in this title may be a stretch, but a well-informed one. In item #7 on 10 Surprising Facts About How Our Brains Work, Belle Beth Cooper reports that “We tend to like people who make mistakes more.” The article explains that people who do everything perfectly seem unapproachable and intimidating while messing up makes a person human.

It’s  a short step indeed to conclude that readers will relate more strongly and sympathetically to people who admit to doubts and mistakes in stories than to pure sunshine and roses reports. But of course! Who among us has not made a mistake, whether disclosed or not? Who hasn’t felt klutzy, embarrassed, or inappropriate at times? We may slap on a mask of invincibility, but inside we cringe.

Here’s an example of how this unfolds in story: A few years ago I read a soap opera superstar’s memoir. I had never watched the program, didn’t know the star, and don’t remember her name today, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. The book sounded like it had been written by her publicist and read like the Death Valley weather report: sunshine 24/7/365. If she had a single moment of doubt or discouragement, it was missing from the book. Anything resembling a setback or problem was immediately recognized as God closing a door and opening a window.

With all due respect, this left me cold. It didn’t sound honest. I can’t believe that woman is so close to sainthood. In my experience, life is not like that for me or anyone I know. In fact, such a well-oiled life sounds, well, boring.

Contrast this with Willie Nelson’s best-selling memoir, It’s a Long Story: My Life. Willie is a bigger superstar than the soap opera queen, but his story rings true. He has stepped in one mud puddle after another through his life, but his sense of humor and destiny come through loud and clear. He makes no attempt to disguise his many short-comings and shares lessons he’s learned from them. He sounds like someone you could walk up to on the street and he’d be happy to see you, whoever you are.

Which story would you rather read?

Take away tip

Temper your story’s sunshine with shadows to give depth and create reader connection.

Thanks for Reminding Me

BlushRemind: to cause a person to remember; to bring something to (someone else’s) mind.

Thank goodness we have people to bring to mind things we have virtually forgotten, even when they turn our faces beet red. I just found this 15-year-old story scrap in a log of posts to the Lifestory Yahoo Group. It illustrates both the power of collective memory and the value of keeping a scrap bag of story pieces.

The other day my honey told a story that totally cracked me up. When I finally quit laughing, I said, "Well, I guess nobody can accuse me of taking after my mother when it comes to having a sense of humor."

My mother is widely considered to have lacked a sense of humor until the last few years of her life when her brain began melting down. Then a childlike sense of humor emerged, and she laughed at the drop of a hat, even at the silliest things.

"Your grandmother had a sense of humor, why wouldn't your mother?"

"My grandmother had a sense of humor? You've GOT to be kidding!"

My grandmother was born ornery, and she was occasionally downright mean. Actually I do remember her giggling at things when we were alone. She had a cute tinkly laugh. But I don't recall ever hearing her laugh around other people. As the oldest grandchild, I enjoyed special status, and I saw a side of her others missed.

"What about the time before our wedding when you were showing off your honeymoon nightgown and negligee?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You don't remember how embarrassed you were when she laughed and told you how nice it would look pulled up over your head?"

I nearly fell on the floor. Until he mentioned it, I’d forgotten all about that, including telling him about it. I never ever would have recalled that story on my own. So much for not remembering that Grandmother did laugh in public. All the women in the family were gathered around, and I had to have been the color of a ripe tomato when she said that. Embarrassing as it was back then, today it seems hysterically funny. Impossible as it seems, I'm ten years older now than my grandmother was when she said it. Maternal generations in my family were short.

My honey is helpful that way, remembering things I forgot decades ago, and I help him out the same way. He remembers large chunks of what I've forgotten, and other relatives remember things beyond that. Lifestory writing is even better when it's a team sport! Unless your memories collide in a combative way, and that can get tricky. But that’s a subject for another post.

In a different vein, I recall half a dozen stories from that summer of our wedding: The Breakfast Fiasco, Can You Bring a Gun To My Wedding?, The Case of the Missing Room Reservation, Dashed Expectations, and a couple more yet to be written. Perhaps I shall polish these and piece them together as a sort of paper patchwork memory quilt, much like I’ve already done with Adventures of a Chilehead.

Finding that scrap was a good reminder of the value of saving bits and pieces of story, even if they lack the conflict or other elements of full-fledged stories. Short anecdotes can be thought-provoking or fun to review later, and often come in handy. You might want to finish them later as full-featured stories. Or you can tuck one into a larger story or an email or a blog post, or even post it on Facebook.

When I posted stories to that group, mostly a handful of paragraphs and fewer than 500 words, to post in that online group, I pasted each one into a Word document for safekeeping – which turned out to be an excellent idea because the group suddenly went poof! I have over 500 stories and anecdotes in those archive documents. Each was quick and easy to write, usually prompted by previous posts.

Follow my example. When you write a new story in an email, copy it and save it in an ongoing document as I did with this one. Those accounts form a sort of journal, and your scrap bag of stories will grow. Who knows? In five years you may find that you’ve written a book, one email at a time.

Do you have examples of long-buried memories someone else reminded you of? I’d love to hear about them in comments!