April 14, 2014

Thoughts on the Writing Process

bunny-hopToday’s post is part of a group effort. Last week in a guest post on Linda Austin's blog, Moonbridgebooks.com, I was invited by Mary Gottschalk, author of the memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam and a forthcoming novel to join a collective discussion on personal aspects of the writing processes. I found the questions useful in clarifying my thoughts on this matter and urge all writers to do likewise.

1) What am I working on?

I’m dabbling in flash memoir. I’ve spent the last few months intensively studying techniques for evoking emotion in readers, and one key concept that snapped sharply into focus is the need for laser precision in determining what details to include in any story. Flash memoir is a perfect vehicle for practicing focus. Soon I plan to write more about my experience as a square peg in a round hole world.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My most recent published project, Adventures of a Chilehead, differs in one significant way: it’s a mini-memoir, far shorter than most published memoirs, and it includes a slew of recipes that explain process rather than relying on set formulas. I kept the memoir part purposely short because I wanted to focus exclusively on my life-long love affair with hot chile, showing its origins and the evolution of this evolving relationship. I did not want to dilute that focus by including “padding” material. I said what there was to say and called it a book.

I write more instructional material than memoir, distinguished by combining a bit of humor and conversational tone with clearly defined, step-by-step instructions with more information on technology than others include.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write memoir primarily for family and friends. I write these stories as a legacy of personal history, to entertain my  readers, and to clarify my thoughts about the past and what it means.

I write instructional material because learning is more rewarding when shared with others. My main metaphor for  life is that of a wilderness explorer who later leads others on a tour. Few things are as rewarding to me as helping others become stronger writers.

4) How does my wiring process work?

Different ways on different days! In the first chapter of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing I emphasize the importance of finding your own best work style for writing. In her fantastically helpful book, The Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson uses the terms "plotters and pantsers." Plotters plan everything out before writing. Pantsers write intuitively, "by the seat of their pants."

I'm primarily a pantser, forming a rough idea what I have to say, dumping my thoughts onto paper and organizing them later. Sometimes I'll begin jotting key concepts on paper, but always turn to the keyboard before finishing half my list. Writing by hand works well to unjam my thoughts, but need keyboard speed to let them run free.

Once I get that draft on the page, I edit like a fiend, questioning every word. Typical questions I ask myself include:

  • How can I streamline this?
  • How else can I describe or say this?
  • Does this detail add to the story or do I just love it?
  • What else does the reader need to know?
  • Is this the best place to say that/

If I plan to publish it, the story (or book) goes out to beta readers. After I get their input, I start editing again. Usually life intervenes and two or three months pass before I get to final publication. By then the material is cold enough it seems new again, and I do another round of tough edits. Last week I shared a flash memoir with an online writing group. I kept track of the number of times I resaved the pdf version: 43 at last count. The story has 482 words. That's pretty typical

Write now: take some time and answer these four questions for yourself. You may be surprised what you learn. If you have a blog and decide to post your responses on it, please link back.

April 07, 2014

Memoir with Recipes

Although few things bond people like food and sharing recipes, I didn’t intend to include recipes in my mini-memoir, Adventures of a Chilehead, for several reasons:

1) Some of the stories are set in restaurants and I couldn’t include recipes for those.
2) Recipes for things like frijoles, chile con carne and enchiladas are easily found on the web.
3) When I cook, I use recipes as mere suggestions and cook by the seat of my pants based mostly on what’s in the kitchen at any given time. How do you write recipes for that?
4) Some ingredients, like chile powder, are unreliable in strength.

The finished book bears the subtitle “A Mini-Memoir with Recipes.” Obviously I changed my mind, primarily because most people who read early versions of the manuscript told me they wanted recipes. Since I value their input, I accepted their inspiration and set about writing creative recipes for food the way I make it. The way I make it varies from one time to the next so in addition to the standard list of ingredients and preparation steps, I had to include variations.

That resulted in long, involved instructions that explain a process rather than serving as a formula, but once I got started, thinking through all the factors involved turned out to be fun. In fact, it gave me a reason to make those dishes a time or two to be sure I had not missed anything, so we had lots of yummy dinners.

I explained things like where to buy good chile powder (perhaps online). Chile quality and potency is fickle, so I had to explain how to test the heat level of a new batch, and how to adjust recipes to individual tolerance levels. The recipe for homemade corn tortillas is over three pages long and gives guidelines for when it’s not worth making them as well as what brand of masa you’ll do well to avoid, and how to use grocery bags to simplify rolling or pressing them flat.

Most memoirs that include recipes put a single recipe at the end of each chapter. For example, Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone and Judith Newton’s Tasting Home follow this pattern. Since some of my stories take place in restaurants or feature hot pepper sauce, and some stories spin off three or four recipes, it didn’t make sense to put them with the chapters. Besides, the length of the recipes would interrupt the flow of the stories.

Once I got rolling with the first few, I was having so much fun that I added many more favorites. Over half the recipes in the final list are not mentioned in the memoir section.

I’ve received a pile of emails from happy readers who have tried recipes with good success, and my family is delighted to have those recipes they grew up with documented for all time.

You don’t have to write an entire memoir, mini or full-length, to write about recipes. Next time you share a recipe, take the time to tell the history of the recipe, including some favorite memories, to go with it. Sharing its story builds the sort of bond I write about in the last chapter of Chilehead when I tell of feeling a link with centuries of women who have prepared chile for their families.

Write now: select one of your favorite recipes, perhaps one that has been handed down in your family, and write a story about how you came to have the recipe and memorable occasions when it has been served by you or others.

March 24, 2014

Which Memory is Real?

Memory1Everyone knows how memory dims and darkens with time. Yesterday I began writing about a memory from the summer after first grade when I felt “outside the circle.” I'd written  about this incident before, but decided to begin fresh. After five paragraphs I could see no further benefit in continuing the rewrite and tracked down a version from five years ago, intending to graft in some of that material.

When I read the earlier story, my jaw dropped. The theme was the same, the other main character was the same, but circumstances were quite different. Yesterday's  story begins as I approach a cluster of kids that included Carol (the girl across the street) and half a dozen neighborhood boys. In the earlier version, Carol was jumping rope alone in front of her house.

Which is real? Has my memory changed that much in five years? Which version should I use?

As I closely examine the versions, slight differences begin to emerge. In the jump rope version, Carol does invite me to play, in an off-handed way. I do mention that Tom, the boy our age who lives in the other end of her duplex, won’t play with me. In yesterday's memory and story, I arrive as Tom finishes telling a dirty joke. I hear only the ensuing laughter. An older boy tells me I shouldn’t have been listening (I wasn’t!), and all the boys run off, leaving me to play with Carol.

In both cases I felt awkward and uncertain. Both my mother and I had only our younger sisters to play with before we began school, and we both lacked social savvy. I was desperate to learn. The jump rope story works well to emphasize that awkwardness. The second story works better for emphasizing my discomfort with groups, my feeling of being on the fraying fringe of things.

I’ve concluded that two memories are involved and that both memories are real – as real as any memory can be. As I further refine my theme, I believe the choice of which story to use will become apparent. Or I may use both in a longer version.

The important point for now is that both memories are tattered and faded, dark fragments of the moment. The “actual facts” of what “really” happened are only faintly discernible. The “truth” of the encounters lies in emotional memory.  That’s where the story is. Knowing the specific date, time of day, color of Carol’s hair, or names of the boys serves no purpose. I don’t care about those myself!

I shall include only details directly relevant to the story such as:

  • The comforting feel of summer sun on my shoulders and espresso-brown hair.
  • The view from my vantage point in front of my house, eighteen stair steps above the street and two hundred feet away.
  • Feeling sad, alone and "different" as I watched.
  • Feeling confused and clueless about how to join Carol or the group.
  • Feeling awed by the beautifully decorated bedroom she had to herself.

Details like this form the reality of memories. My challenge is to develop brightly lit scenes that crisply convey this sense of loneliness and longing — the core truth of both memories and countless later incidents.

Write now: Without looking back, rewrite an emotional memory you wrote about at least a year ago (preferably much longer) in a story or journal. Don't look back before you write, but compare versions when you're done. Make note of differences and dig for those golden key emotions underlying the memory. Follow their trail through the years.

Photo credit: Dan Sakamoto

March 16, 2014

Eternal Optimists Piss Me Off

RoseColoredGlassesAt the risk of sounding judgmental (how human would that be?) I’ve got to admit that when I continually hear nothing but rosy accounts from the same person, I grow suspicious, even angry at times.

For example, an elderly woman I knew many years ago never had anything but the kindest, nicest things to say about people, even about people I found monstrously arrogant or rude. She was always smiling and cheerful, even in her nineties when I knew she had aches, pains, and countless physical problems and not everyone treated her well. By her account, people were always delightful, and her cheerfulness never ended.

Get real, Gertie, I thought. Admit it. Some of the cherries in that bowl are rotten.

Another example is an acquaintance who seemed authentically forthright and open. Until serious illness set in. At first, rosy Caring Bridge accounts of awesome friends and caregivers, minimal side effects, and even the blessing of illness seemed brave and spunky. Later, when no post ever mentioned the least affliction of the spirit, I became suspicious. These sound like press releases from the Ministry of Positive Thinking and Eternal Gratitude. What's it really like? What are we not hearing?

Snarky bitch am I not? But those reports increasingly reeked of dishonesty. I became increasingly convinced I was not reading the whole story. I felt disrespected and misled. While happy to hear good reports, I wanted to read about the challenges of remaining positive in spite of the odds, in the face of obstacles. I wanted survival lessons "just in case."

Now, lest you decide I’m totally lacking in compassion, please understand that I realized both these people presumably held back for good reasons. The old lady belonged to an ethnic minority and learned from her first breath not to make waves. My annoyance with her was fleeting. The ill acquaintance was probably hanging on by fingernails, frantically stomping all negative thought, hoping thereby to promote healing for self — and also for the world. This person is like that. Genuinely compassionate and caring, expecting the best of others and determined to set a great example by walking the talk

But it pissed me off. Reports — STORIES, that is — that lack conflict, lack a bit of appropriate, expected pain, suffering and angst don't ring true. Authenticity holds my attention, especially authentic transcendence. You can't transcend what you don't experience and unless you give a fuller picture we don't know but what you had a fortunately light case of whatever, sort of like being passed over by a blizzard after dire forecasts.

I'm not perfect. I obsess, fend off fear, dread and demons of doubt and despair like anyone else. I bite back now and then. So the last thing I want to read or hear about is someone so good, so saintly, that they don't have these carnal thoughts or problems. That makes them unattainably better than me. I must cut them down to size or feel diminished myself. Unfortunately, cutting them down to size makes me feel rotten, not encouraged.

So here's the irony for lifestory and memoir writers:

If we record only the light sides of ourselves, our noble accomplishments — the sides we want to be remembered for and examples we want to provide, we come across as plastic stereotypes who set an unattainable standards. Through perceived insincerity, we run a great risk of pissing off readers.

To claim admiring respect spin around in front of the camera, for at least a quick rotation, and prove that you are/were human. It doesn't have to be much — only what's required to flesh out the story. A few lines of inner reflection may be enough, if they support the story to help readers understand your point and person.

Only vampires and liars lack shadows.

Write now: pull out an overly bright story and add a few lines of shadowed reflection for depth and credibility. Readers will love you for it.

March 10, 2014

Reading and Writing Across the Gender Divide


I just read Pittsburgh author Dave Newman’s story, “Asteroids Falling Up,” in The New Yinzer, a fine online literary magazine  published here in Pittsburgh. My eyeballs occasionally bulged as I read this risqué coming of age piece.

This story punched windows into walls of reticence as I read. Perhaps, I thought, I can write more boldly – on other topics. Whether fiction or memoir, Newman’s compelling story would not ring true or have such impact had he toned down or skirted his topic.

I mention this story, this experience, to illustrate the value of reading across the gender divide. As a writer I benefit from exposure to a wide variety of ideas, perspectives and writing styles. I could never get this credibly bold glimpse into a developing male psyche from anything written by a woman.

Which brings me to writing groups and classes. I’ve been teaching memoir and creative writing classes for over fifteen years, all but a couple with mixed groups. Like Marion Roach Smith, I use the laboratory method for teaching memoir: students write stories on topics of their choice and read them aloud in class for group discussion. Some might assume mixed groups would stifle the range of topics. Experience has proven otherwise.

Thousands of stories have reflected a cross-section of life, often sweet, maybe salty, sometimes humorous, occasionally spicy or painful. Women have written about abuse, grief, rape, abortion, menopause, sex and more. Men have written about abuse, grief, humiliation, disabilities, sex, and more. In every case, classmates of both genders have responded with support and acceptance. After deeply intimate disclosures I’ve checked with individuals. Each said s/he felt relieved and validated to have shared the story. Several said the mixed group was an unexpected comfort.

Not everyone shares this view. “Many women have been traumatized by men and they need the safety of a women’s group to heal,” I’m told. Maybe so, especially if the deeper purpose is therapy. Maybe that’s true for certain men too. Some organizations offer support exclusively to women, assuming some will need this safe haven – or just want to hang out and write with the gals. Men must find their own way through the storm.

Sharing nascent stories and receiving encouragement and acceptance powerfully energizes group members and builds deep bonds of camaraderie and compassion. My hope and dream is that over time we’ll all feel strong enough to share stories about anything with anyone, especially across the gender and other divides. How else will we understand, accept, and possibly forgive those who are different? How will we fully heal from abusive treatment of whatever sort or degree without at least symbolically confronting perpetrators? Writing buddies and classmates make splendid stand-ins.

My interest in the topic of exclusion and personal experience with being excluded is deepening and intersects with the writing community. As I continue to write and explore, I’m saddened and embarrassed by the divide posed by women’s writing organizations that exclude men seeking support such as they offer. How could I tell a mixed class that some of them might benefit from membership in a national organization, but “no boys are allowed”? No way! I dream of the time these organizations will find a way to meet individual needs while also building bridges across the divide as the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) is already attempting to do.

For a simple, email-based mixed group experience, I invite you to join the free Life Writers Forum I co-host on YahooGroups with memoir expert Jerry Waxler. Members run the gamut from widely published to novice. The sidebar gadget on the right is the easiest way to join. Lurk awhile or jump in.

I also encourage you to read across the gender divide to limber your write brain and broaden your perspective. Let Dave Newman punch windows in your walls.

Write now: without naming organizations, write a comment as long as you wish about your writing group experience. Have they been a help or hindrance? What would an ideal group be like for you? Mixed or single sex? Further explore your thoughts in essay form, for yourself or to share.

Image credit: “Writing Group” by James Mitchell, Creative Commons license

March 05, 2014

The Book I Wish I’d Written (and May Yet)

memoir-project-coverWhat greater praise can an author give a book than to say “This is the book I wish I’d written!”? That’s the praise I heap onto Marion Roach Smith’s book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-standardized Text for Writing & Life. How can I count the ways I admire this book? I’ll list a few:

1) She had me laughing the whole way through. Her rainbow of material covers the tragi-comic spectrum, but even the tragic has an amusing twist. I adore her off-the-wall humor and perspective. She nudges me to look at life from even more corners.

2) She walks her talk. She constantly illustrates her key point of writing with intention (that being focus at the closest range) by using short annotated clips of her own material. Many of these are items that have never fit anywhere else and finally found a home in this volume. Quite amazingly, she sticks to the point so tightly that she covers her material a mere 112 power-packed pages.

She also holds to a a primary tenet of memoir by closely framing her material and not attempting to cover the full gamut of all aspects of the writing process. She sticks to finding your story and framing it sparely, making every word count.

3) She brings fresh perspective to key points I hold dear. We both urge people to use small cards to collect story ideas. We both urge all writers to carry writer’s notebooks to record those ephemeral observations, thoughts and other gifts of the muse that are fragile and fleeting as soap bubbles. We both firmly hold the belief that there is no right way to write, although she’s a bit firmer on urging people to stay in one place and I tend to wander.

4) She has cleverly disguised a memoir. In my opinion, this book is at least as much memoir as instruction. It’s an ideal combination of using snips of life experience to illustrate writing principles. Her entire approach simply oozes with creativity.

5) She eschews writing prompts. I always read and admire them in other books, but use them only when they ring my bell to write something real. But wait. I do benefit from briefly considering whether they work for me. So I’ll stick with Write now: prompts on at the end of each post on this blog. I’m quite sure most readers use them as thought ticklers and suggestions and seldom actually write.

6) “What’s this about?” I can’t cite a page or copy in a quote, but this key question seems to permeate the material and is a key take-away focus for me. It’s not a new idea. I’ve included some version of this concept in a pile of previous posts. But the fresh emphasis is timely and the key to the tight focus she propounds.

I initially waited months after requesting a copy of this book from the county library system. When it finally arrived, I read a couple of chapters, then returned it and ordered my own print copy. This is a book I want to refer back to. It’s a book I want to wave in front of groups and quote from. It’s soft and feels good in my hands.

In the final analysis, I realize our two books complement one another well. We take rather different perspectives and cover different ranges of material. On balance, hers has more heart focus, mine more craft. So I suggest that if you already have a copy of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, you absolutely want to place The Memoir Project on the shelf right next to it. If you don’t have either one, order both!

Meanwhile, visit her website and subscribe to her excellent weekly blog.

Write now: leave a comment if you’ve read this book and tell us what you especially like about it. Or write a comment about how you use scraps and snippets of memory that don’t fit longer stories. Write a vignette about such a memory.

February 18, 2014

Winter Wonderland–It’s All in How You Look At It

Sunburst in snowy woods SL (Custom)This photo is my favorite of all the snow pictures I’ve ever seen or taken. I was standing on our sun porch the morning of December 10, 2003 (I know the date because it’s embedded in the original digital photo file), rejoicing in the return of sunshine after the first serious snow of the winter. I had my camera in hand, already framing the shot, when a branch in the background suddenly relieved itself of its burden. Diamond mist filled the air just as I snapped the shutter.

I lowered the camera and watched this enchanted scene play out. I was bursting with gratitude that I’d been there to see it. This picture reminds me that even during the dreeriest, darkest, coldest times (like the past several weeks in the northeast), flashes of beauty and gratitude appear to lift our spirits.

It reminds me that beauty is all around us, if we learn to look. I was indeed fortunate to be there that day and see a scene nobody could ignore. But I can find beauty anywhere. I look around the room where I sit and admire the tapestry fabric on a chair. I see Chinese embroidery, fine as spider’s web, preserved on a tiny tray that serves as a coaster for my coffee mug. Even when it’s snowing (again!), the flakes and new fallen blanket are beautiful. Slush? I’m working on that.

These are physical objects I can see with my eyes. Finding the beauty may be harder in situations. How do you find beauty and gratitude in pain, anger, loss and grief?

My method is to write. I scribble on piles of paper, I vent in volumes of journals. I bang out stories, real and imagined. Once I have a draft on paper (sometimes in pixels), I start asking questions to crack open assumptions and beliefs:

  • How else could I see this?
  • How might (whoever) see this?
  • Could (that person) have actually meant (this)?
  • What would (advisor of my choice, real or imagined) tell me about this?
  • What if … (fill in the blank)?

One question, from The Work of Byron Katie is so powerful it’s in a class of its own:

  • Is this true?

Three other questions support that one. You can download more information on Byron Katie’s site: The Work.com. Whatever questions I use, I write the answers. I may write them several times.

I don’t always find answers and beauty right away. It may take years, but I know it’s there, and pictures like the one above help me remember that one day, in a blinding flash of the obvious, I’ll see what was always there, but hidden by the darkness of a storm. I’ll find my old story flipping upside down or turning inside out to form a new one. I’ll feel relieved and enormously grateful.

Write now: look around you and find some beauty that inspires gratitude. Write about this. Then think of a situation that’s harder to parse. Use tools like the ones above to write your way through to what may be a jolting conclusion and new way of looking at life.

Full size image link: http://t.co/JeokuYdSp6

February 09, 2014

Adventures of a Chilehead — Formal Debut

Chilihead Cover KindleToday is the official debut of Adventures of a Chilehead. It’s a quiet affair. No big party it’s too cold and icy right now. No champagne but I will celebrate and toast the book with a bowl of chile, complete with guacamole topping  and a beer.

Books are much like debutantes —  when they make their formal debut, the whole community has watched them grow up and mature. Likewise, regular followers of this blog have read a number of posts about this book's progress.

You know, for example, that it began as a simple story album and grew organically into a true memoir. You know that I learned many lessons along the way, and one that’s seldom discussed is the matter of length. People often ask how long a memoir should be. As with any story, a memoir should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story.

This book is short. You can read the stories in a couple of hours. And yet it does have all the components of a formal memoir:

  • It has a story thread or theme, my love of hot chile, that runs through and ties individual scenes together.
  • It remains tightly focused on that theme.
  • It has a story arc, progressing from my first public involvement with surprisingly hot chile to the present, demonstrating change of perspective along the way.
  • It is comprised of scenes, with a new adventure in each one.
  • It hits the highlights without becoming mired in the mundane.

The book is short because it does remain focused tightly on its topic. If I’d wanted to make it longer, I could have pulled in other stories, or broadened the topic to food or cooking in general. But that was not my purpose. This is a tribute to  my beloved chile, and to the goddess Capsacia, who revealed herself in the process of writing. I said all I had to say on that topic. Thus I coined the term, “mini-memoir.

I think of this term as the memoir equivalent of a novella, a written, fictional, prose narrative normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. Novellas have no specific word count. They are generally more highly characterized than a simple short story, but less layered and complex than a full-length novel.

Although I had not heard the term “mini-memoir” before, I found it a delight to work with. Like a novella, it’s long enough to sink your teeth into, but short enough to avoid becoming bogged down. Especially with the advent of eBooks, mimi-memoir offers great potential. I chose to do a print version of this one, primarily because several people asked for one. They want to have the recipes handy in the kitchen. But a series of short eBooks would work just fine.

If you have several minis, you may eventually want to bundle two or three into a single print volume. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. If you haven’t already read it, pop over to Amazon and order a copy. If you order print, the Kindle version is included for free.

Write now: look through your pile of finished stories and find a cluster of related ones. Consider ways of organizing them into a mini-memoir, using the “Story Album to Memoir” post as guidelines to help you organize your thoughts. If you don’t have more than a couple of finished stories, think of a theme, make a list of story ideas, and start writing, one story at a time. Don’t fret about weaving them together until you have them all finished.

February 01, 2014

Seasons of Our Lives

covers all HToday’s post features Seasons of Our Lives, an innovative series of anthologies that include writing tips with each story. These anthologies evolved from contests run on WomensMemoirs.com. by co-founders Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonet. Matilda and Kendra are excited to be launching the series today, February 1,, with a limited time special offer you won’t want to miss. Details are at the end of the post.

Matilda Butler introduces the series in the following interview. In keeping with the books’ structure, she includes a short writing tip at the end of each answer.

SL: Matilda, could you explain how the Seasons of Life series came about?

MB:  For several years, Kendra and I have run contests on WomensMemoirs.com covering all kinds of topics. Last year we decided to have four contests, each focusing on stories from one season.

We ended up with hundreds of truly wonderful and touching stories. Kendra and I found ourselves laughing sometimes and crying others. Many of the vignettes evoked memories of earlier times and experiences. We realized that collectively these stories spoke about all our lives, not just the lives of the authors. So with that in mind, we set to work to create four ebooks, one for each season, that would be available through Amazon.

TIP: Every year there are a number of contests you can enter. Make sure you understand the topic, the rules concerning length, deadlines, etc. Then do the best that you can...write, read, edit, read again. Read it out loud. You won't win every contest. But don't let that stop you from trying. Details for our contests are at http://womensmemoirs.com/contests/.

 SL: Did you have a target audience in mind for the volumes in this series?

MB: We always tell our students that the correct answer to such a question is not: "Oh, everyone." So we thought about your question when we put these four ebooks together. We believe they will appeal to women because these are stories of women's lives, stories that we think will resonate with other women. And although we have some young writers, most of our stories are written by Baby Boomers (plus or minus about five years) so that also puts a general age bracket around our readers.

TIP: No book (or ebook) will appeal to everyone, and the more focused you make it, the more readers will enjoy it. The point of view, the level of language, the types of details you include are all shaped by your intended audience. For example, if your stories are just for your daughter, then saying "Aunt Mary" may be sufficient. But if you want to share them more widely, or if you hope they will be passed on to future generations, then say something like, "Aunt Mary, my father's younger sister, ..." Keep your intended audience in mind when you write.

SL: Each of these stories is a delight in its own right, and you and Kendra have added a fresh and unique feature. At the end of each story you point out specific features and strengths that turn it into a writing lesson. What inspired this innovation?

MB: Because Kendra and I coach women who are writing their memoirs, we thought these stories could provide exemplars for other women who want to (or who can be urged to) write their own lifestories. Across the four volumes, there are 100 stories and 100 short lessons, one tied to each vignette, designed to motivate and inspire.

The mini-lessons cover a wide range of topics valuable in memoir writing such as: creating a memoir title, crafting a powerful opening, linking openings and closings, choosing point of view, incorporating sensory details, adding character descriptions, showing (not telling) emotions, using dialogue effectively, understanding how time and place can be used in tandem or as stand-alone elements, making word choice a priority, discerning the different impacts of present versus past tense on the reader, considering vignette topics to write about, choosing between letting the reader figure out the story behind the story or spelling out all the details, and much more.

TIP: When you read memoirs, make notes on both what you like about the way the story is written and what you don't like. For example, consider the openings of the next three memoirs you read. Do they equally engage you? Which one do you like the most and why? Making notes keeps the ideas fresh even if there is a period of several months between reading memoirs. The notes become a learning course you create for yourself.

SL: Do you plan further series such as this one?

MB: We have a second series already started that combines great personal stories with recipes. We're calling them Memories Sweet and Savory with one each for Breakfasts & Lunches, Dinners and Sides, and Desserts. We have so many yummy dessert stories and recipes (yes, we think a story can be yummy) that we may end up creating two for that category. We think of the memoir vignette as the core of these volumes and the recipes as the bonus.


As a special  introductory offer, today, February 1, beginning at 8 am PDT, all four volumes of the Seasons of Our Lives series are on sale on Amazon's Kindle Store countdown special for just $.99 each for the first 53 hours. The price will go up $1 each 53 hours until it reaches the final price of $3.99 per volume.

Seasons of Our Lives: Spring
Seasons of Our Lives: Summer
Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn
Seasons of Our Lives: Winter

Matilda Butler is the award-winning co-author of the collective memoir Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story, Second Edition, Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep and other books. A psychologist, online and in-person memoir coach and writing conference speaker, she writes and teaches in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii.

January 23, 2014

Not Just for Tweens

EHSIf a random person had handed me a copy of Shannon Hale’s novel, Ever After High: The Story Book of Legends, I might have flipped through the pages and admired the stunning design, skimmed a page or two and handed it back unread. I would not have known what I was missing.

Fortunately for me, the person who handed me the book was Sarah, the granddaughter mentioned in the two previous posts. This book moved into her life, luring her away into remote corners of the house and keeping her up half the night.

When Sarah finished reading the book, she began talking about it in fascinating depth and detail. She mentioned that the characters were the children of fairy tale people like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Prince Charming, and a long list of others. These charmed children all attended Ever After High the boarding school for all descendants of legendary characters. In a keystone event, second year students ceremonially claimed their legacy and pledged to relive their ancestral stories to keep those stories alive for the world. Should they refuse, the story and all characters in it would go POOF!

Sarah was intrigued by the fact that Raven Queen, the daughter of the Evil Queen (who poisoned Snow White), didn’t want to relive her mother’s life. She explained that the book was about Raven’s adventures as she made up her mind whether to sign the pledge. She loaned me the 300 page book to read, but reclaimed it when I was only 50 pages in so she could read it again herself. I was so intrigued that I downloaded the Kindle version.

I quickly discovered that this book is masterfully crafted, multilayered and rich, and definitely not just for kids. Raven’s struggles with self and with others are heroic, her insights profound. The issues she struggles with – personal identity, self-determination, and more – are epic and universal. Every page sizzles with action.

The part that gave me goose bumps was the insight about Story and its power to shape lives. Raven helped all the other characters, both royal and common (yes, they did have discrimination issues there), see that they are the masters of their own stories, something precious few adults in today’s world realize. They are not bound by the past – they can write new versions. They are free to write their own “Happily ever after” stories with an entirely new cast of characters if they wish. In fact, they write stories forward as well as recording the past.

That message fits perfectly with the noblest mission of memoir: process the past, pick your own path, and write a bright future.

There’s so much more to be said about this book, about finding and following Truth, about Story and differences, and many more things, but I’ll leave it to you to read and discover as you wish. I’m grateful this astute young lass convinced me to read it.

I was thrilled that Sarah was eager to discuss the book and already seemed to understand that she doesn’t have to live like anyone else, that she can invent her own life. She was excited that the book put this hunch into words and brought it to life for her. She has many years to map out and edit her “blueprint” story, and a lot more years to revise as she goes.

This book may shape her life in some small way. Isn’t that what we all hope for, that a book, a story, even a few words we write may shape someone’s life? That can happen, but only if we write!

Write now: take a cue from Ever After High. Spend some time considering how closely you are bound to the story lived by one of your parents or other relatives. Write a few stories about the similarities between you. Explore aspects of your story you’d like to change, then write a new story with the direction you prefer. Share that story if you like, or tuck it away and let it work its magic, leading you along the path you wrote of.

January 16, 2014

Discover by Doing

Medusa“I don’t really know how things will turn out until I start making them. They don’t always look like I thought they would, so sometimes I’m surprised.”

My eight-year-old granddaughter Sarah was talking about the clothespin doll she was wrapping in a scrap of cloth when she told me this, but she could have been talking about writing. She is also a budding writer, though most of her story-making remains in her head at this point.

I covered her doll making process in my previous post and explained how observing her expanded my creativity. Here are a few tips I gleaned that apply to any creative endeavor, especially writing.

Remain open to possibility. The doll pictured above became an Evil Queen, eventually  named Medusa. Sarah didn’t know who the doll would be when she began. Its identity emerged from the choice of spikey silver hair and black fabric and grew with the addition of lace and lamé.

Stories often work that way for me. Sometimes fanciful stories emerge from freewriting and their significance and meaning for my personal or life story become apparent only later. Other times I may know the bones and drift of a life story, but  my reflections often refract in new directions, adding unexpected elements. Based on my observations of Sarah, I’m ready for lots more freewriting!

Bounce back from mistakes. Sarah discarded several scraps that didn’t look “right”, didn’t quite fit, or didn’t please her. “Sometimes I have to try lots of things before I find what works.” Doesn’t this sound just like the editing process for writers?

Take a break when you need it. These dolls joined several she brought from home to become characters in a sequel she began writing to a book she dearly loves. I saw in silent awe as she made notes on a clipboard to set up the story , then began acting it out. “I’ll work on it more later,” she decided when she hit a snag.

Accept dead ends. “Or maybe I’ll just start over.” Sarah does finish projects, but she has no qualms about abandoning the ones that don’t please her, at least if they aren’t assigned projects for school. Aside from homework and chores, her equivalent of adult work tasks, everything she does is play. What a liberating way to view self-assigned writing projects.

Use organization tools. Sarah didn’t need tools to plan her dolls, but she is using them for writing projects. Her school begins teaching story organization tools in kindergarten, and I wish I’d had time to learn more about them. Her abbreviated notes looked like an outline of sorts, a cryptic sketch of plot. It reminds me of story idea lists, outlines, mind maps, and other planning tools covered in previous posts.

Play with your work. In my opinion, this is the key. Sarah asked various forms of the question, “I wonder what if …” constantly. “What if she had a silver cape? …” “What if” is said to be the most powerful tool a writer can use. It pushes us into the Land of Make Believe, perhaps better understood as the Land of Unlimited Possibility.

You can use “what if?” to explore writing techniques, and you can also use it as a way of examining alternate views of past experiences: “What if she really meant … ?” or “What if something else was going on that affected that situation?”

Realize that imperfections add character. This is a touchy tip, a tw0-edged sword. Sarah’s dolls are quirky and rough cut, exuding the power of primitive art. They are perfect for her purpose, capturing the heart of her vision, but they are imprecise, with blobs of glue peeking beyond hairlines, ragged edges, and more. Would they work as they are in the marketplace? Hard to say. Perhaps our biggest challenge as writers is retaining the freshness of a draft while editing out major flaws. Over-editing can sanitize the life out of a story or interject additional sparkle. Keeping the right balance between Heart and Craft is an ongoing challenge.

Another side to this tip is that imperfections in the people you write about (yourself included) add character to the people and the story.

My time with Sarah as we made these dolls and I watched her begin developing a story was a powerful reminder that life can be an ongoing writing workshop. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Write now: take a play break with your writing and indulge in fifteen or more minutes of freewriting. Explore the results and look for material you can polish into a memorable story.

January 03, 2014

The Value of Rethinking

Last week I learned the value of suspending judgment and listening with an open heart. “Hey,” you say. “You are within a few million breaths of completing seven decades of a passingly happy and successful life and you just figured this out?”

To that I can only say, “Yes and no.” Of course I’ve known this most of those nearly seventy years. But a few days ago my eight-year-old granddaughter inadvertently put new spin on the concept.

Let me back up. Compare this picture featured in a blog post on September 1, 2009


with this picture from last week.

Both pictures feature clothespin dolls. I made the dolls in the top picture four years ago for my daughter’s girls. Sarah, the oldest, was four at the time. When they came for a visit last week, Sarah, who is now eight, wanted to make clothespin dolls. My mind whirled at the thought of teaching her to sew the tiny seams along the sides of the dresses, but Sarah immediately took charge of the situation.

She selected a rust-colored pipe cleaner from a pile on my desk. “What can I cut this with?” “Why do you need to cut it?” “To make hair!” Huh, what? Hair made from pipe cleaner? Why not? I pulled out my stash of craft pliers, and Sarah snipped a couple of pieces and twisted them into hair that I hot-glued on. To my surprise, it looked great.

With barely a pause, she chose fabric for the dress, and before I realized what she was doing, she had snipped a ragged rectangle from one corner, wrapped it around the doll and taped it shut. “I want to use this ribbon for a belt.”

Heckuva deal, I thought. So much for me teaching Sarah how to make these things. “Do you want to learn to sew dresses like the ones I made?” I asked. “No! I know how to sew, but that’s not what I want them to look like.” Oh! KAY! New page, new doll story.

Sarah eagerly accepted a sparkly silver hair suggestion for her next doll (third from the left). A taped scrap of “silky” black lining fabric formed the perfect dress, adorned by a snip of lacy fabric and slinky silver spandex cape.

I quickly realized that my job was to provide resources and explain the advantages of hot (faster than white) glue over tape (doesn’t stick well to fabric). Based on her whims, I found strands of yarn for hair, and Sarah did the rest, cranking out dolls at warp speed, intuitively mixing snips of this with scraps of that. She never paused to cogitate, and in an hour or two she had exhausted my clothespin supply .

I admit I was stunned at the results. Her dolls have panache! They sizzle with character. When I made the initial batch, I was thinking inside the nostalgia box, making dolls recalled from the past. Dolls that look like real people. With no limiting beliefs, Sarah was drawing on unbridled imagination and fairy tales. My dolls are dressed to milk cows and bake gingerbread. Her dolls cast spells and eat poison apples. My dolls are for playing house. Hers are for populating fantasy stories.

My post four years ago was titled “Memories I Wish I’d Had.” If you read that post closely, you’ll notice that the memories I longed for would have been about making things, making dolls for playing house with classic roles. I wanted to capture the past.

Sarah took a version of this concept to a new level. Her focus was on making things, but she was future oriented. She wanted dolls, but not for playing house. Sarah was creating adventure stories. She selected, snipped and wrapped her emerging characters, creating her story bit by bit.

Did I remember to tell her these awesome glam scraps are left over from her great-grandmother’s doll-making days? Maybe not. But Sarah’s dolls capture the spirit of stuffed fairy and mermaid art dolls Mother made near the end of her life. Did Mother imagine stories as she stitched her dolls? I bet she did. Mother and I both made traditional dolls for playthings early in life. Mother got wild and crazy much later. She rethought what dolls were about.

Sarah is skipping the traditional phase. By suspending judgment and giving her free reign to follow her muse, I gave her space to follow her dreams, and in doing so, she unwittingly cracked open a limiting shell around my creativity that I had nor realized was there. That drawer of glimmer and glam has been patiently waiting in my physical work room for nearly twenty years. Sarah began pulling it into her stories. Now it’s time for me to follow her lead into that larger space, making new use of old materials, both manifest and remembered.

Write now: recall a time if you can when you showed someone how to do something (formally or otherwise) and learned something yourself in the process. If you can’t remember such a time, teach someone something soon and write about it. That something may be as simple as using a new seasoning in a favorite recipe or as complex as designing a web page. Teach, then write, including an account of how your thinking changed in the process.