February 25, 2015

A Grounding [TAP?] Root of the Tree of Life Writing

Denis LedouxGuest post by Denis Ledoux, founder of The Memoir Network.

Just as with so many big projects in life, you’ll benefit by taking a moment to consider why you ought to start—or continue—to write this memoir of yours that is intriguing you and what role you anticipate it will play in your life.

I like to think of my thoughts below as one of the roots of the Tree Of Life Writing that needs to be nurtured.

You may not know it yet, but your impulse to write is probably solid.

In late autumn of 1988, as people were hunkering down for another Maine winter, I was asked to read from my first collection of short stories (What Became of Them) to a gathering of volunteer Foster Grandparents.

My collection clearly made use of autobiography—the approach to fiction that has always compelled me the most. Several dozen men and women, sitting at long tables, many smiling in recognition of elements in the stories I had just shared, said in one way or another, “These are people just like us!” They seemed to recognize the child climbing the apple tree at the edge of the meadow or to glimpse once again their own parents in the tired women and men trudging through the tenement district on their way back from the textile factory.

Most of the basic material writers work with is acquired before they reach the age of fifteen.

Willa Cather

Story share time proves dynamic and teaches me something about why we write

After the short program of reading from my book of short stories, as has been my custom, I asked people to share their own stories with me and with each other. An astounding—but, as I was to find over and over again, completely natural—response occurred.

In a torrent, members of the audience began to tell me their life stories. These Foster Grandparents spoke with eagerness—as if speaking their stories was, at last, satisfying a hunger of long standing. Or, perhaps it was a need to preserve their story, to achieve some snippet of immortality if only in the telling to their fellow Foster Grandparents.

Their memories were set in a number of countries around the world and in a variety of cultures within the US. As people spoke, some grew animated while others exuded peace. Some spoke with pride; others with sorrow. All, however, seemed to need to tell the stories of their lives and of their families.

Stories prime the pump of memory

Once again, storytelling had “primed the pump” of memory to enable personal and family stories to pour out. After my reading that day, I left for home feeling justified in my faith in the primal function of storytelling to affirm and reaffirm meaning in our lives.

It’s fine to write for yourself—you deserve to be honored

Like the Foster Grandparents, if you need to write—or tell—lifestories because you need to establish a “monument” to your experience in the “city park” of your memory—and of the world’s memory—then you have a reason that may well see you to the end.

My big takeaway that can be yours, too.

I have come to also realize something more about writing, something that is a corollary of this need to be public: telling your story to yourself (in the privacy of your office, for instance) does not satisfy that hunger to tell.

People need to tell their stories to an audience. Sometimes that audience is your own family; sometimes that audience is much larger—as large as a city, a region, a whole country, or even the world.

Is that why you want to write: to share with a larger audience? If so, that is natural and good.

Questions to ask yourself as you start to write

Besides starting to write a memoir that records the story you so much want to tell, part of what you need to do is start to address who the audience for your memoir will be. (This is an on-going task, and you are likely to revisit it during the entire process of your writing.)


~ who needs to hear your story?

~ whom do you need to share this story with?

Our distant ancestors told stories around the campfire. They did not tell stories just for themselves, sitting in the woods far from others: they told stories to an assembled group because they understood that telling and hearing were part of a process.

Yes, it can be intimidating to realize that your words are going to be read by an audience of real, live people—people who, in some cases, will criticize you. But, these real people—both those with appreciative remarks and those with cutting riposts—are part of your writing experience.

My send off as you begin—or continue—to write

Write for an audience (even if sometimes that audience is only you). Don’t let fear of judgement stop you. Pursue your dream of sharing your story.

Writing a memoir is important work. Do it!

Action Steps

1. Whom are you writing for? Be insightful now: whether your answer is my grandchldren or the Noble LiteraturePrize Committee. State why you have this audience in mind. What difference will this memoir of yours make for this audience?

2. If your audience is small, is there any way you could make it larger and still be comfortable with your goals? (I find that people’s sense of audience often grows as they write more.)

Denis Ledoux is the author, most recently, of How to Start to Write Your Memoir which is Book One in the seven-part Memoir Network Writing Series. This post is adapted from that e-book. Also in publication is Don't Let Writer's Block Stop You. A complete list of publications is available. To be placed on an alert list, send an email.

February 18, 2015

To Finish or Bail?

parachuteWhen do you bail out on a story? That’s not an easy decision for yourself, and even harder when someone asks for  your opinion. A couple of days ago, one of my writing buddies sent me an essay she’d planned to post on her blog, but wasn’t sure about. “Is this too boring? Should I post it?”

I knew she’d struggled with that piece and put a lot of heart in it, but after a quick read, my answer was “No. Do not post this. It actually is boring, and here’s why.” Along with my reasons, framed as suggestions future stories and essays, I included the following personal experience:

By interesting coincidence, yesterday I asked a friend to read a story of mine. I'd worked for ages on that story that I thought was deep, meaningful, and well-crafted. A true masterpiece. My friend’s assessment was blunt: “This needs a lot of work. You need to start with the end and you need to add more detail here, here, here (basically everywhere) and develop the character (me) more. I can't tell if you're narrating from now or then, and you don't give me enough ... blah, blah, blah.” He neglected to say what he liked, though I'm sure there were a couple of things.

My friend hit every one of those nails squarely on the head. 

Now I face a decision about whether to continue working on the story or bail. Either is legitimate. I've enjoyed the project so far. But the expanded detail I agree with him that it needs calls for more exposure than I care to dare. Besides, my memory is hazy, and if I flesh it out, it will cross the line into fiction. Does that matter? Where are the boundaries? Actually, I may switch to third person, forget about facts, and morph it to fiction. I might. Or not.

So I ask myself,

  • "Why am I writing this?
  • Who am I writing it for?
  • What am I trying to achieve?"

When I got totally honest with myself, my answers to these questions weren’t quite what I expected, and gave me good reason to back off. Writing this story helped me sort out a few thoughts, and that was valuable, but the world will turn just as well without it.

By my standards, I see now that it’s not appropriate for public dissemination. But I’m glad that I shared it with one person. I did think it was amazing, but from his remarks I learned that before it will work for the world at large, I must open the doors to more nuance of experience.

Why the huge disconnect? I had failed to understand the true breadth of the chasm between what women take for granted and what men understand about women. That’s hardly a surprise, but I doubt a female friend would have caught it so fully.

That’s a big deal and worth exploring. But finishing and publishing this particular story will not add one straw to that stack of understanding. It’s time to move on.

Here’s the bottom line:

All stories deserve to be written, but not every story needs or deserves to be finished or shared.

I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago in a post, “Piles of Unfinished Stories.” In that post I refer to the pile of painting scraps my mother left behind as well as my own growing pile of unfinished stories.

More recently I was heartened to read a post on Cate Russell-Cole’s CommuniCate blog sharing a rosy outlook on the growing publishing glut. In the post she shares this poignant point: “If you interpret success as achieving payment or recognition of some sort, be aware that there are both benefits and risks in judging your success by outside acknowledgement. Research into creativity suggests that in many cases, working for money, accolades and another’s vision, can dampen your creative spirit.” (Italics mine.)

So, break free from reader expectations as well as your own. Write your heart out for the sheer joy of writing. Try new things. Explore and relive. Like your journal content, some will be fit for others to read, some will be for your own pleasure and edification.

Write now: write a story about something secret and juicy, for your eyes only. Ramp it up, vamp it up. Write things that scorch the page. As you edit, ponder other ways to look at the situation and see what you can learn. You may decide later that it’s worth sharing, at least with a writing buddy or two. But give yourself permission to bail before you start writing. Enjoy the experience. Feel the wind under your wings.

February 09, 2015

Happy Blogiversary to Me

Nine-candleIt’s time to stop and celebrate nine years of blogging, 640 posts, (that’s a little over 70 per year), countless thousands of comments, and I have no idea how many hundreds of thousands of viewers from all over the world. But what are statistics among friends?

I will point out one small thing derived from those stats: writing steadily, even a relatively small amount (word count average for posts is close t0 700), six times a month will add up to a pile of 650 stories over nine years. Even one story a month will add up to 108 stories in nine years. You can do the math. On the other hand, waiting until the right moment to start can add up to … an empty book.

How persistent are you?

Don’t think these posts have been a completely steady flow. In the beginning I wrote three times a week, sometimes more. Never on a schedule, but reliably often. Later, they slowed to twice a week. The last few months of last year they were more like twice a month, with even longer intervals at times. On several occasions I was tied up with travel or other obligations that left large gaps. Life happens, and that’s okay.

At the beginning of this year I decided nine years was enough. I sat down to write a post saying “It’s been nice, but I’ve said it all, several different ways. Please continue to use and enjoy the archives and similar sites. I’m moving on to other projects now.”

As my fingers fumbled for those words that flow easily in retrospect, I couldn’t do it. I kept thinking of things I have not said yet, or new ways of saying old things. I realized afresh that

  • I love sharing new thoughts and discoveries
  • View stats show that despite relatively low comment rates (something Janet Givens blogged about recently), viewer count has actually climbed.
  • Although blogging gurus insist successful blogs must post on a rigid once-a-week at the same time every time, my results suggest that’s not entirely true. Despite my irregular, sometimes infrequent posting schedule, viewer count has climbed.

So I wrote 2015 Writing Resolutions instead. I will not be bound by Expert Advice to post compulsively at 5 a.m. every (Tuesday) morning, come  hell or high water. I’ll continue to follow my sense of what works for me – and apparently also for readers – and post when I have something to say.

That is my gift to you: no posts written to a deadline. If I ever post more than once a week, you’ll know it’s important!

So there you have it. The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting will continue for the foreseeable future.

Write now: consider a long-term project – writing or something else – that you are feeling burned out on. Write a story about dropping it. Write about what you’ve learned. the rewards (tangible or otherwise) you’ve received, and why it’s time to stop. Is the last part hard to write? If it is, you’ll know it’s not time to stop.

January 29, 2015

Boring or Brilliant?

BoredThe cliché of watching someone else’s home movies has always been “It’s always just a saddening bore.” What’s surprising is that the farther we find ourselves removed in time and place, the more these old films have the capacity to move us, to entertain us, or simply to remind us of life as it once was.

From My Private Italy, Steve McCurdy

Ask around and you’re bound to hear this sentiment about boredom expressed with regard to reading life stories written by “ordinary” people, especially strangers. You even hear it expressed by people about their own stories: “My life is so ordinary. Nobody would be interested enough to read it.”

Hold the phone! Notice that McCurdy goes on to state that with time and distance things change. He went on to explain that old home videos have become hot properties now selling to strangers for premium prices on eBay. Various organizations are building archives for documentary purposes.

The same thing can happen with life stories. Some memories or stories, especially though without compelling drama or even a plot, may seem boring today, but brilliant fifty years from now. Ideally you will find a way to add drama and interest to any story, but don’t be deterred if all you can do is describe how you did things.

In fifty years, people are likely to be fascinated with how things were done “back in the olden days." For example, children today may be blown away to read simple descriptions of how kids amused themselves in the 1950s with no computers, video games, or cell phones, limited TV, and freedom to roam. Accounts of using a standard manual typewriter may sound as arcane as whittling quill pens out of goose feathers. Given the current pace of change, by 2050, what seems cutting edge today may have been supplanted by something far more advanced and they’ll wonder how we got along.

So, you see, even stories that are primarily documentary and lacking drama are worth writing, if only for the fun of remembering and creating a legacy of family history. Let McCurdy’s observations guide your purpose and path as you plan how to approach this adventure, or where to go next if you’ve already begun. Who knows? Your descendants could make a mint selling the collection of stories you couldn’t get anyone to read today.

Write now: Write a simple documentary story about some area of your daily life that has changed dramatically over time, for example how you helped hang laundry on the clothesline before you or your family had a clothes dryer, or how your family spent Sunday evenings playing canasta in the days before TV. Include details of how you did things and add reflections on differences between then and now if you wish.

Image credit: Jose Izquierdo, Creative Commons license

January 22, 2015

Writing About Friends

FriendsSooner or later most of us want to write stories about people who are or were special to us. These stories may be free-standing tributes, or you may include friends as characters in memoir stories. Some such stories work better than others. In fact, as much as I hate to say this, some can be downright boring, the exact opposite of what we intend. The boring stories are generally limited to an account of things you did together, which makes the story more about your experience than the friend.

While it’s perfectly fine to write about shared experiences, it takes more to define a relationship. Use these tips to write glowing tributes that will help readers love your friends as much as you do.

Give examples of what makes the person special to you.
If you say only that “Joan was a wonderful friend,” we have no idea what that means. Tell us what Joan did that set her apart, how she went above and beyond. Did she have a special sense of humor that always lifted your spirits? Was she one of those people who always shows up with chicken soup when someone is sick?

Season with feelings.
Embed reports of how you feel about this person, what emotions he or she evokes. Use specific actions or conversations to give context to these reports.

Add some action.
Yes, this is another way of saying, “Show, don’t tell.”

Include some quirks.
Make your friend real with quirks that set her apart. Does she laugh too loud? Compulsively rearrange a dishwasher after someone else loads it? Is his desk a disaster?

Dramatize with dialogue.
Dialogue is one area of writing where clichés and jargon are welcome, in moderation. Let the way your friend speaks add color to your portrait.

Seek input from others.
When you write about people dear to you, you become immersed in a holographic memory of events, experiences, and the reality of that person. You may not realize that you’ve left out key details like what the person looks like and similar things.

Make preliminary notes.
While it often works well to simply start writing, for a special tribute planning can help. Use a pen and paper to jot down a few thoughts as you pause to ponder

  • What does this person mean to you?
  • How does she make you feel?
  • What does she do to make you feel this way?
  • What is sets this person apart and makes him special, in general and to you in particular.
  • What do you want the reader to understand about this person?

Crystalize your answers into terse statements. For example for “How does she make you feel?” you may write, “treasured, valued, understood.” When you draft your final story, include the thoughts you’ve uncovered this way to make your story glow with heart-warming energy.

Write now: write a short tribute to a special friend or someone who has been helpful and inspiring to you. Use the points above to flesh it out. Then send a copy to your friend.

Image credit: Stu Seeger. Cropped image shared under Creative Commons license.

January 10, 2015

Jumpstart a Personal Timeline

Dates,-lgJanuary is a great time to begin or update a personal timeline. If you are serious about lifestories or memoir, a timeline is invaluable for recalling story-worthy events and keeping your thread untangled. I have good news: a free download to simplify the process of starting or enhancing yours. Read on.

On February 24, 2006, I published “The Value of a Personal Timeline” as my  ninth post on this blog I began that month. The material in that post has stood the test of time. It explains the basics of why you need one and how to get started. Rather than repeat what I said in that post, I refer you back to it.

I wrote the post while still working on the original draft of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, and had not completed the section on timelines. In the finished book, I include considerable detail about the technical aspects of creating and customizing a timeline. This graphic shows how something as simple as changing the font gives a dry document a more human feel.

H&C Timeline

You could make your own table from scratch, as I describe in the earlier post. But there’s an easier way. I just finished updating two basic Personal Timeline templates. Both are published in the Word 2003 .doc format and work equally well in later versions of Word or other programs that accept .doc files.

One is for filling out on your computer; the other has larger table cells to print and fill out on paper. Both come with the year column already numbered from 1910 through this year, and the numbering will continue as you add years in the future. I include instructions for deleting unwanted years at the top, and other helpful tips.

To download, click on the Free Stuff tab at the top of the page and scroll down to the timelines. No registration is required, and no hidden nasties lurk within. Consider them my gift to you to celebrate a new year. Enjoy!

Write now: read the earlier post, then download that timeline (and anything else that appeals to you) and get busy filling it out. If you don’t already have a copy of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, order one now to find more detail on timelines and other tips.

January 01, 2015

New Years Resolutions


Happy New Year!

I spent considerable time crafting general writing resolutions (in no particular order) that I feel able to keep, but will also push me a bit. I invite you to shamelessly steal any or all that appeal to you.

Some of my underlying thoughts:

PRIMARY INTENTION: I want the concept of lighting a candle in the darkness to underlie everything I write. This is the first year I’ve stated a primary intention. It feels right write.

Write what I want when I am ready. The emphasis here is on when. 2015 promises to be a challenging year of transition, and more than ever, I shall follow whatever schedule works, for writing in general and for writing blog posts. You may see large gaps this year, but no problem. I don’t flatter myself that you can’t face a week without reading a post from me.

Take as long as it takes to write it right. I’ve seen too many people make themselves crazy and produce less than their best work because they set an unrealistic deadline to publish, whether for the public or private distribution. I have that t-shirt in my drawer. Honor your writing and don’t do this to yourself.

Write something every day. No, grocery lists do not count, but a carefully crafted email with more than a paragraph does. Speaking of which, email is a good chance to practice being articulate and organized in presenting your thoughts. While it’s true that urgency may rule at times, take care that you’ve made yourself clear and fix egregious errors, especially those introduced by autocorrect.

Play with words. I’ve written so much about this. Write yourself out of your rut. Constantly think of new and fun ways to express yourself. This resolution links to Write it colorful and considering every angle.

Gorge on rich reading. Let everything you read serve as a self-directed writing workshop. Read once for the story and review to explore structure behind the magic. Make notes to nail those insights, then review the book, for your benefit as well as the author’s.

Share lots of stories informally. Gather a group of people who appreciate your writing and send stories around. Encourage their comments, good, bad and indifferent. You’ll learn a lot and they’ll enjoy the reads. Don’t limit yourself to just writers. All readers count.

Write it real. This thought goes beyond sticking to the facts. I’m reminding myself to include sensory detail, character quirks, self-talk, and those other elements that breathe life into scenes, real or imagined.

Check everything five times. This advice goes beyond checking spelling and grammar. My inbox overflows with emails describing sign bloopers, i.e. “Persons are prevented from picking flowers from any but their own graves.”

 Consider every angle. This advice is especially helpful for lifestory writers. You may be amazed when you consider how others may have viewed a situation or why they may have done what they did. These insights can be life changers.

Sign your name! to cement ownership and intention.

I wish for you a year filled with gratifying results from your writing, whenever, however you do it, with whomever you share.

Write now: make your own list of writing resolutions if you haven’t yet done so. I strongly urge you to do this on paper – pixels are okay if you use a stylus as I did. I’m partial to the Papyrus android app for such projects, partly because my markers have dried up and I like to use lots of color. The idea is to involve brain centers and muscles that add personal value to the writing process.

December 18, 2014

Pros and Cons of Disclosure

     “Gideon, how are you? I’ve been worrying about you.”
     “Worrying? Why?”
     “Because you–I don’t know, you always get into… adventures that never happen to anyone else. There isn’t anything wrong, is there?”
     “Wrong?” He laughed. “No, of course not.” What was a bomb in the morning mail to the truly adventurous? Besides, why bring it up now when it couldn’t serve any purpose other than to worry her? Later was good enough. If there was going to be any comforting and soothing as a result, he didn’t see why he shouldn’t be there in person for the benefits. “Not that things haven’t been exciting,” he said. “Let’s see, when did we talk last?”

In this short passage from Aaron Elkin’s fourth Gideon Oliver mystery, Old Bones, Gideon Oliver makes a decision not to worry his wife with full disclosure of all details about the perilous adventure he’s become embroiled in while lecturing at a conference in France. His choice to tell or not tell is little different from decisions life writers often face.

Few topics are more passionately discussed than boundaries around what you include in shared stories. Some taut the benefits of disclosure. Joshua Becker tackles this topic on his Becoming Minimalist blog in “Stories We Don’t Tell.” Both sides of the issue are explored in a long list of follow-up comments.

Leah McClellan puts a different spin on the matter in her Simple Writing post, “5 tips for personal stories in blog posts.” Don’t be put off by her focus on blog posts. The factors she explores apply to any lifestory.

As you read these posts, should you choose to do so, and as you make decisions for written disclosures of your own, keep this principle in mind:

Words once read can never be erased.

Factors to consider include

Shocking disclosures forever change relationships. You may get past things, but the knowledge is always there, always a filter, for better (that is possible) or worse. Shocking disclosures can explode in ways you never expected, even years after the fact.

Perspectives may change over time. Anger today, even if the incident occurred a dozen years ago, may look different in another few years. You may eventually want to write the story of how your thoughts and attitude evolved.

Unanticipated fallout for others. Few actions happen in a vacuum. Your disclosures are likely to have impact on one or more other lives. Yes, it’s your story, and you have the right to have your say. Are you willing to perhaps break up someone else’s marriage, create problems for them at work, or start a (another?) war in your family?

Shining light on secrets to bring truth to bear is powerful and healing. But shining bright light directly into the eyes of others may exact a higher price than you realize. Go ahead and write those stories of pain, guilt and trauma. Then use Byron Katie’s tools from The Work to dig more deeply and explore alternate perspectives for insight and transformation. Rewrite your story and share with a trusted friend or adviser before deciding who else should see it and what factors might be involved.

Write now: Write about an old or current resentment and its roots. Use The Work to turn it around. Use this new story to spread love, peace and forgiveness in this season of love and joy.

December 12, 2014

Kumi What?

Kumihimo is a Japanese form of braid-making. Cords and ribbons are made by interlacing strands. Kumi himo is Japanese for "gathered threads".Wikipedia.

I first learned of kumihimo when I stopped to visit a craft-klatch group that met each morning in a lounge on the ship while I was crossing the Atlantic last month. I had no idea at the time that those few minutes started me on a loop leading to deeper insight into writing and creativity in general.

One woman in that group held a circular foam disk with strings of beads hanging around it and a thick beaded cord emerging below from a hole in the center. As she methodically moved strands back and forth across the disk, the cord grew longer. I was fascinated. I want to do this! It looks so simple!

As soon as I got home, I plunged into a sea of YouTube tutorials and was instantly hooked. I made a disk from a stray scrap of foam board, snipped off eight lengths of red cord, and began braiding. Sure enough, basic kumihimo is simple. My first project was a cord to replace the tacky ribbon holding a beautiful glass pendant I bought from a street vendor in Rome. Then I returned to YouTube for further inspiration.

YouTube videos are mental popcorn. Sidebar suggestions are addictive, and so is creative action. One video led to another, from Kumihimo projects to soda straw weaving, to paper tube baskets, to paper beads, to hammered wire craft.... Oh my! So many beautiful things to make! That mental popcorn was exploding. Where should I start? Transform worn storage boxes with fake forged metal finish? Braid another necklace? Make paper beads? Dig out denim scraps for a jacket? Maybe stop and clean house? I was paralyzed by possibility.

After a good night’s sleep, I realized that I’d gotten more than project ideas from those hours on YouTube. I picked up new understanding and skills. They showed me how I could decorated those aging storage boxes more durably. I didn’t know to base coat the cardboard. I didn’t know about using old credit cards to spread glue smoothly or about sealers for the paper I used. When I do tackle those new projects, I’ll be better prepared.

In the dawn’s early light I realized that creativity knows no bounds, and changing channels can recharge energy all around. After switching from writing to creative channels with more physical involvement and nonverbal imagery, I see writing with fresh eyes. I see a connection between the tutorials I just binged on and all the writing-related blogs posts and books I’ve read, podcasts I’ve listened to and classes I’ve taken. Just as I discovered new ways to braid and make jewelry, use the tools I already have, durably decorate boxes and more crafty tips, over time I’ve accumulated piles of writing tools and learned to use them.

Now I see that my YouTube journey into crafting has been a perfect sidetrack, jolting me out of mental ruts, exposing me to new ideas, and showing me new skills and tools. Best of all, these videos reminded me of a part of The Story of Me I’ve neglected and miss. Last post I suggested we all make Happiness lists. I’d forgotten how happy I feel when I’m making things. Finally, it all circles back to writing. This post is a trip journal of sorts, adding more depth and meaning to my crafty discoveries.

Write now: If you are distracted this month with holiday preparations, relax into them. Savor them. Enjoy the season. Make a few notes and process it all on the page in a few weeks. Hopefully you too will find fresh perspectives and inspiration. If you have time, do something unusual and creative. Bake Christmas cookies. Make a couple of gifts or decorations. Let this creativity fuel your writing later.

November 22, 2014

What Makes YOU Happy?

happy-stick-girlThis question, “What makes you happy?” is so simple, but who ever stops to consider it? I hope you will, as I have been doing the last couple of days. It could change your life.

I found this question in the draft of a book I’m beta-reading for a friend. The book will soon be published, and you’ll learn more about it before long. Meanwhile, although answers to this happiness  question could easily fill a book, my initial list has helped me find a focus to reboot this blog.

Let’s take a look at my list. In addition to obvious things like laughing with family and friends, blowing dandelion fluff, piles of freshly washed and folded clothing, having someone else fix my breakfast and that sort of thing, I listed

  • meaningful connection with people who share my interests and values
  • discovering something wonderful
  • sharing wonderful discoveries with those who will appreciate them
  • the satisfaction of polishing a piece of writing – or doing any job well
  • reading masterful writing
  • playfulness in writing and life
  • writing true to myself and my voice

No real surprise here. Involvement in the global writing community makes ME happy! For over sixteen years I’ve been studying and practicing different aspects of life writing and sharing what I’ve learned with others in classes, writing groups and privately. I love that!

But as with other things, it’s easy to go along with the crowd, to be swept up in trends, to keep telling people what you think they want to hear. It’s easy to stick with the same old same old, the tried and true, to say and write what others are saying and writing.

That’s a recipe for burnout.

Recognizing that I was drifting into serious burnout with writing and teaching, I’ve taken an extended break. For a month I didn’t even write email. My husband and I flew to Rome for a few days before boarding the Celebrity Silhouette cruise ship to loop around the Mediterranean for two weeks. We visited Malta, the Greek island of Kephalos, Ashdod (nearest port to Jerusalem), Haifa, Ephesus in Turkey, Athens, Sicily and Naples before returning to Rome. We stayed on the ship for two more weeks, visiting Toulon in Provence, the Spanish island of Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Tenerife in the Canary Islands before heading across the Atlantic to Ft. Lauderdale.

We had a great time with without email and Internet for a month, opting for digital detox. I took this one step further and wrote nothing other than a few trip notes. I did read. Between constant Trivia games I read mysteries and memoir and most of a book about writing. But I didn’t write.

By the end of the month I felt alone in a crowd of 3500 people. I met dozens of interesting people, but no writers. Nobody I met gave a hoot about writing, and few even read. Only one was more than marginally digitally literate. I felt like I was on the wrong planet.

Compiling that list of things that make me happy has brought me home to my keyboard, refreshed and ready to write. In playful new ways. With new focus. I’ll fill you in more on that focus in future posts.

Write now: pull out a piece of paper – the back of an envelope or piece of junk mail will do. Make a list of things that make YOU happy. Aim for 100. Hang onto this list. We’ll work with it more later. When you finish, pick one simple thing from the list and do it. Then do a quick Happy Dance.

October 13, 2014

On Hiatus, Part 2

Break timeI’m touched by the outpouring of people who contacted me yesterday after reading that terse notice that I’m taking a break from blogging. Thank you for your concern, my friends! I’m deeply touched to realize the extent of the cyber community that has developed among those of us writing our lives.

But never fear. All is well. It’s just time to formalize the break that had already begun with  no plan. It’s time to reevaluate the purpose of this blog and what I want to achieve. A month or more offline will be digital detox to restore clear vision and balance.

A primary focus for me has always been to pay back the pot for all the golden information others shared with me, and to provide help and encouragement for those who lack the resources for high admission events. If people buy my books as a result, so much the better!

The blogosphere and memoir community have grown and evolved over the nearly nine years since I began this blog, and so have my interests, perspectives and skills. When I began, the few websites available were mostly bait to get people to sign up for expensive classes and services. Sites like that still flourish, but there’s plenty of free fodder to graze on – more than anyone can possibly keep up with.

A secondary aim has been to encourage those who write for personal growth and to create a legacy of family history. Publishing is great. Fame and fortune are great. The web is full of advice – good, bad and indifferent – on how to polish and promote your product to make that happen. I hope to keep people aware that unpolished, unpublished pebbles are also worthy of respect.

I admit that I’ve neared burnout on social media and my passion for posting has cooled. But embers till glow. I do expect to be back, refreshed, reconnected with passion, full of new ideas.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received is “You make me think!” I hear that enough often enough, from a broad enough base, to realize that may be my greatest skill and primary value. I feel on the threshold of Big Thoughts myself. Writing will help crack that shell. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, for poignant memoir writing tips similar to things I post, please visit Elizabeth-Anne Kim’s inspired and compassionate blog, Lives In Letters. Elizabeth is a local writing friend, a generation younger than I. I’m a huge fan of her fresh insights and amazed at the depth of her knowledge. She’s living proof to me that wisdom knows no boundaries of age, and she fuels my hope for the future.

I invite you to join me for in digital detox if you’re flaming out, and write on, as I shall always do.

September 11, 2014

Tips for Dealing with Details


Several pages into a highly recommended memoir, a factual error popped my eyeballs nearly out of my head. Can you find the mistake?

In September 1963, the Cuban and Russian governments placed
          nuclear bombs in Cuba.
In October 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended….
In November 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In December 1963, I was born….

The Cuban Crisis was in 1962! Both that event and the JFK assassination are indelibly burned into my memory. The author can’t remember, I thought, but how could something this obvious slip by the editing involved in a traditionally published book? I checked Wikipedia to be absolutely sure, then kept reading. Along the way, I found half a dozen typos, and by the time I finished, I’d found several loose ends in the story along with an apparent contradiction.

But still, I do appreciate the book and its many strengths. The story is powerful and the author’s voice superb. I understand the book’s appeal. The mess saddens me on the author’s behalf.

In one sense I felt vindicated that such casual editing was released by an established publisher when self-published authors are widely slammed for flooding the market with slop. But the point is to write your personal best, not to meet standards.

Whether you are writing a few stories for family or a major opus for the world, these guidelines will help you smooth wrinkles in your stories.

Check your facts. Always validate times, dates or places, if you’re sure you know. Those erroneous dates for the Cuban crisis may be accepted as factual reality by younger readers. Your error about a birthplace or date could throw genealogists into a tizzy years down the road.

Look for loose ends. They may be subtle. For example, this author doesn’t mention how she generated income, but despite a divorce, she spent money like it grows on trees. She says she remarried. To the man she had the amazing relationship with?

Look for conflicts. She reports reflections of someone with her son’s name who met a celebrity she was about to meet. It makes no sense that her young son would have met this person before she did, or that he would relate such a mature impression. Ebooks make searching easy. No other person with that name was mentioned at any other time. Confusing!

Look for missing information. She cites results of certain studies with assurance. The topic is new to me and I’d like to read more. I don’t need footnotes, but I’d love to see an appendix with references and suggested reading.

Rely on beta readers. You aren’t likely to notice loose ends or missing information, because you fill in the blanks from memory as you read. Even family members may gloss over omissions like these. Discerning readers who aren’t privy to the backstory will pick them up in a flash.

Don’t rely too heavily on professional editors. I don’t know what shape this manuscript was in when it arrived on the editor’s desk. Perhaps she did as much as she was able in the time allotted to meet deadline or budget. Maybe loose ends fly under her radar. If you are paying for editing, remember that more time means more money, so have things in the best shape you can before you seek help. Professional or not, nobody is perfect, and any given reader will fail to notice something. Have two or three more people read for further edits and errors after the formal edit is done.

Be gentle with yourself. Readers love this book in spite of its flaws. Write great stories, give them your best shot, and then chill. If you pour your heart into them, readers view mistakes with compassion – if they notice them at all. Many won’t.

Write now: if you don’t already have a writing group or a list of trusted beta readers, find or start a group and begin a search among friends, local or online, who can read pre-release versions and give you reliable feedback.