A Delicious Way to Eat Your Words

Eat-Words

Thanks to the efforts of his creative wife Vivian, on May 9 this year, about thirty people helped Don Duncan eat his words.

We were all gathered at the Whitehall Public Library in Whitehall, Pennsylvania to celebrate the conclusion of The Power of Memoir, an eight-week series of classes  that I had the pleasure of leading. Each week a dozen eager students gathered for two hours to learn a few pointers from The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. During the class, they read stories based on their assignment for the week.

Each week we had a predictably wide spectrum of stories. Some, like the one about a woman’s first date with the undertaker who became her husband, had us howling with laughter. Stories about growing up in foster care touched our hearts. We shared memories of growing up around the South Hills region of metropolitan Pittsburgh, holidays, and other aspects of life.

At the conclusion of the class, students brought their favorite stories to a Saturday morning event at the library and read them to friends, family and library patrons. Mary Kay Moran, the librarian who arranged for the class, provided a magnificent continental breakfast, and the crown jewel of the occasion was the cake you see above.

Don Duncan had read a story, “Singing Brings Joy.” His wife, Vivian, surprised everyone with the cake you see above. She knew which story he planned to read. She took the story file to her favorite grocery store’s bakery and had them print the first and last pages on special edible rice paper with edible ink. She explained that this is the same process they use to print pictures and other messages not formed with the traditional piped icing.

“You put the icing on the cake and immediately put the printed rice paper on top. If you order a cake, they’ll do this for you. I bake my own. It’s important to put the paper on as soon as you finish spreading the icing so the oils in it ‘melt’ the rice paper right into the surface. If you wait too long, it won’t react correctly, and the paper just sits on top.” She told us they’ll print anything and just charge you for the printed page, as long as you assure them no copyright violation is involved.

We enjoyed each story we heard that morning, and then we enjoyed eating Don’s.

As predictably happens with such a class, the group wanted to keep meeting to write and read together. The library agreed to provide space and Mary Kay has taken the lead to facilitate the group. I look forward to stopping by for a visit once in awhile.

I was excited to hear last week that a similar group is underway at the Community Library of Allegheny Valley in Natrona Heights north of Pittsburgh, led by Caitlin Bauer, one of the librarians there. I was especially thrilled to learn that Caitlin is using a leaders manual I prepared a couple of years ago to help libraries around the county start these groups.

I published that manual under a Creative Commons license, making it available for free for anyone who wants to start a group. I put no restrictions on its use, though I hope all groups will be open to anyone who wants to participate without restriction based on gender, etc. I do realize that organizations like Senior Centers may have age restrictions, but beyond that, in my opinion, diversity is the key to the success of these groups. So far more than a dozen groups have validated that it works.

You don’t have to be a strong or experienced writer to lead a group. The manual includes an outline for a six week workshop to get people started. Beyond that, people learn from each other. The leader’s main role is making initial arrangements and keeping people focused on their written stories rather than reminiscing during meetings.

If you are interested in starting a group, send me an email and I’ll be happy to send you the pdf file and answer any questions you may have.

Write now:  1) Be adventurous. Send for the Leaders Manual and use the suggestions for finding a location and group members. This will be one of the most rewarding things you’ll do this year. Start planning now to start a group this fall.

2) Bake a cake and let somebody eat his or her words – or yours.

Clear the Haze from Pictures and Memory

clearing-the-pictureThe pictures above have deep meaning for me, and I think they are likely to strike a chord with most viewers, evoking memories of their own. I want my stories to have that effect. I want readers to see themselves in my words, finding new ways to see old situations and become more fully themselves.

I recently found this left-hand picture from 1973 in a pile I was sorting through. Something in it stirred me, though haziness dimmed my response. I decided to try restoring it.

I scanned it with my Epson V600 scanner using Professional mode on the scanner interface. I used the Color Restoration tool and the Unsharp Mask tool set to high. That produced over 90% of the result you see on the right, but I wanted more. I cloned out spots on the pillow and sharpened the picture a bit more. Then I added a warming yellowish tone to approximate the wall color I recall.

The crisp, haze-free result makes me feel like I’m “back in the picture,” especially when I view it full size and zoom in on details.

I used an ancient version of Photoshop for this, but Paint.net does almost as much as Photoshop and it’s free. Picasa, another popular free choice, is easy to use. Most scanners should have some semblance of the  Epson’s capability. My husband’s 12-year-old Epson can do this, just not as fast.

Once I got a clear view of the photo, I sat with it until I sank into the feeling of having those tots around full time, and gratitude I felt. I thought about how different they were from each other. I looked at our clothing and recalled the joy of sewing. George is on the left. I made his jeans. I made Susan’s to match one I made for myself. I made John’s trendy fake vest shirt. Sewing with knits was big in the seventies. I’m surprised to realize that my shirt and pants both came from stores. Nearly everything in my closet was my own creation.

I remembered the challenge of reupholstering the tattered Goodwill sectional my mom was tired of. Fake animal fur was affordable and trendy. It was a perfect fit for the shag rug in our brand-new home. When we bought new living room furniture, this old stuff went down to the family room. On the right side you see the crewel embroidery project I was working on. That huge picture perfectly matched the carpeting. I put it away years ago. I may rehang it yet.

Oh, the hair – where did it all go? This was my Involved Earth Mother phase: PTO, League of Women Voters, Republican Women, bridge club and more.  I also recalled feeling overwhelmed at times, and wondering just where I fit into the larger scheme of things. Mostly it was a time of settling into house and community and keeping those lively youngsters and their daddy fed, clothed and happy.

I made a list of memories I can use in stories spawned by that picture:

  • Shag rug: hard to live with! Vacuuming flattened it, and I used a garden rake to restore it to fluffiness. Needless to say, I did not do that on a daily basis.
  • Bare feet. I lived in bare feet in the house. I still do in the summer.
  • Making things. I loved crafting enhancements for our home. Repurposing “found objects” was my specialty. I hope to get back to that soon when we move into another new-to-us home.
  • Informality: Our life style was and still is informal. What you see there is no formal pose. It’s typical.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

My final thought is that stories are like that these pictures. I liken the left one to an early draft. A robust round of editing clears the haze, letting the story shine through. A few more tweaks enhance detail. The final version conveys the sense of the situation so well that readers feel “in the picture,” much as I do with the finished version on the right.

Write now: Find an old picture that’s hazy and indistinct. Play with settings on your scanner and use Paint.net or Picasa to touch it up. Zoom in on details in the finished result and look for stories everywhere.

Dreams Do Come True

DreamsDreams do come true – the day dream kind, the wish upon a star kind. I know this because many of mine have. I know they have because I wrote them down. Two examples stand out and show how writing dreams down can benefit life writers.

Moving to Pittsburgh
Around 1983 I began dreaming about moving away from what I considered to be the serious career limits of life in Washington’s Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco). That was during the hey day of the goal setting movement, at least for me. So I drafted a list of everything I wanted when we moved, even though no move was in sight. That list had over twenty items. Among other things it included

  • Major university.
  • Major corporate headquarters
  • A house with high ceilings
  • A stream in our backyard. (That was pure whimsy, nothing I expected to get.)

I stuck that list somewhere and forgot about it. 

In 1985 my husband accepted a job transfer from the Westinghouse Hanford Nuclear Project to the Westinghouse Nuclear Center in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. I was thrilled to be in a suburb of a real city. Fast forward about three years. I found that list. I was stunned. Every item on it had been fulfilled. True, the high ceiling is only a half-cathedral and the stream only runs after a serious rainstorm, but it is a stream, and it is in the woods in our backyard.

Moving again
in 1993 I wrote a future vision as part of another goal-setting/dream-building exercise. Over the past several years I’ve remembered that exercise often, and looked all over for it, primarily to show my daughter that a dozen years before she met their father, I knew she’d eventually have two daughters. My memory was of writing it by hand in one of the pile of notebooks I began as journals of one sort or another and then abandoned. I’ve found it perplexing that I’ve never been able to find it.

Yesterday I found it. While sorting through various artifacts in my office, thinning things out before packing to move (date as yet undetermined), I found some gorgeous 20-year-old overhead slides I used in workshops and programs on holding effective meetings. Hoping I could find the original file on my computer, I began digging through back-up folders uploaded from old floppies (remember those?). I never did find the slides, but I found something even better:

I found my dream building file, the one I’ve been looking for. Memory was wrong It was never on paper. It’s beautifully done in workbook format. I remember now that I had visions of publishing that workbook, without my personal content.

Reading over the elements of that dream, I buzzed with excitement. I’m living most of that dream right now. Other elements, like the office and house I describe, exactly match what I recently wrote about the house I hope to find in Austin. The dream document said Seattle, but at this point Austin is a better choice. My daughter has built the free-lance writing business I foresaw, and she does have two young daughters. Nearly 25 years after writing that, we will live near each other.

 So what?
Quite aside from any mystical, metaphysical “laws of attraction” aspects of goal-setting, these documents are jewels for lifewriters.

  • They document with laser precision just what we hoped and dreamed for at various points in time.
  • They provide a mirror for reflecting on subsequent events. If we were on target as I have been, we can follow the trail of events that led from then to now. If not, we can explore the insurmountable obstacles, how they affect us, and how they shaped our lives.
  • They provide a focus for stories and memoir.

Sowing and reaping
It’s never too late to start harnessing the power and fascination of dreams. I can’t guarantee they’ll all come true, but I do guarantee you’ll have a fascinating experience as you consider the possibilities. Although it does work to lose them and find them years later, I suggest you start a journal for this specific purpose and keep track of it. That  might be on paper, but a computer file serves well too. Just back it up and file it where you’ll be able to find it again.

Write now: write down a dream of life as you’d like it to be at some point in the future. Give your inner critic a sleeping pill and call in your muse to help you be creative. Be precise and specific about describing details that make it real. Include whimsical elements like that stream. Include emotions and feelings you expect to have. Don’t worry about editing or spelling. Just write it all down. It’s worked for me to file this stuff away and forget about it. Most gurus have you post it on your wall and keep it in sight to keep its power alive. Follow your instincts on this. Years from now, you’ll find it again and have something to remember, write about, and maybe share with your family and the world.

Image credit: Ruben Alexander

Check Your Rhythm

Sometimes you read a story and know something is “off,” but you can’t put your pencil on it. Chances are, the story’s rhythm or “music” is the problem. Most people are aware that rhythm is an inherent facet of poetry, especially classic, rhyming poetry. But if you went to the mall and asked random people if they thought stories have rhythm, the typical person would give you that lopsided, raised-eyebrow look that implies she thinks you’re nuts. 

“What do you mean, rhythm in a story? Like in a song? Foot-tapping rhythm with a beat?”

 “Any kind.” You shrug.

“Well . . . no. There’s poems and songs. That stuff has rhythm. Stories, not so much. No. Stories don’t have rhythm. They’re just plain old talking like people talk."

The fact is, plain old talking does have rhythm, at least when thoughts flow freely. Even the occasional “uhm” or stumble is rhythmic. For example, read aloud the following two sentence excerpt from a YouTube interview between Kathleen Pooler and Susan Weidner. As you read, tap your fingers rhythmically, like a ticking clock or a metronome.

Kathleen: How was writing this story, uh, how did it differ from writing your memoirs?

Susan: Well, it was quite different because I was allowed to use my imagination.

Read these lines aloud again and tap your fingers rhythmically, like a ticking clock or a metronome as you read. Broken into even beats, Kathleen’s sentence sounds like this:

|How was |writing this |story, |uh, |how did it |differ from |writing your |memoirs? 

Susan’s words have a similar flow:

|Well, |it was quite |different be|cause I was |allowed to |use my |imagi|nation. 

Not only are these sentences rhythmic, but they’re streamlined, with no extra words. Contrast this with a sentence from an early draft of written story.
Nobody could refute the certainty of the arrival of furious storms every winter that lashed at houses built out of solid rock that was hewn out of the very bedrock we all lived on . . . 
My head spins and my tongue tangles when I try to read that sentence aloud. I’m reminded of riding on an unpaved mountain road. If this sentence occurred on the first page, I would set this story aside immediately. My sense of things is that if this sentence were actually spoken, it would sound more like this:
Nobody could refute the certain arrival of furious storms every winter. They lashed out at our solid stone houses built from the bedrock we lived on. 
 That revision still isn’t going to gain fame. I’d consider the underlying thought and smooth it even more:
Everyone knew we had killer storms every winter that seemed like they’d wash our solid stone houses off the bedrock we lived on. 
Even that sentence may need more work within the context of the larger story.

Tips for giving your stories rhythm 
  • Trim extra words. 

  • Clear out the dead would

  • Question every use of “that.”

  •  Eliminate the word “very” and related intensifiers in favor of precise language.

  • Use scrap paper and a pen to write the simplest possible version of what you are trying to say in a complicated sentence or passage. Use that to simplify your draft.

  • Read sentence and stories aloud! Notice where your tongue stumbles and follow its lead as you edit.

  • Read them aloud to a group. You’ll notice where your tongue stumbles, but you may not notice that what your spoken words don’t match what’s on the page. Again, follow the lead of your spoken words. That’s what you really mean, and what sounds best.
Write now: read through the draft of a new story or an older one you haven't seen for awhile and find sentences with awkward rhythm. Use the tips above to smooth them out.

Monkeys, Jackasses and Wispy Mist

monkeyIn her blog post, “Jackasses & Monkeys – Inner demons of writing,” Carol Bodensteiner reveals that her inner writing demons take the form of monkeys. She expresses relief on learning that others, such as Kimberly  Brock, have similar problems. In my opinion, Kimberly’s challenge is worse. She is beset by Jackasses.

Carol invited readers to share their experiences. I also have demons, as I believe we all do. Like Carol, I battle monkeys, described by Zen masters as Monkey Mind. My monkeys are different from Carol’s. Mine swing through the trees at random, taking my thoughts along with them, rendering me incapable of staying focused. They dangle distractions, and they're a hindrance all the time, not just while writing.

Look this up NOW! Right NOW! one shouts while I'm unloading the dishwasher or chopping celery for salad. When the monkey shouts, I enter a state of paralyzing need to obey. I crave the closure of filling that gap. Sometimes I return to chopping celery, but laundry may remain unfolded for days, a blog post unfinished for ... maybe ever.

Jackasses? I’ve known a few of those, but they don’t live in my head. For me the voices Kimberly attributes to jackasses are more subtle and indirect. Much harder to quantify. Mine are formless entities. They whisper from wisps of mist. "It's not good enough. It's shallow," they whisper. But wait. I reread my work and it is shallow. It isn’t ready for print. Those critical voices protect me. They drive me to more research on craft, to yet another round of edits. My whispering wisps protect me. I cherish them.

Tips for silencing monkeys, jackasses and wispy mist

  1. Talk to them – ask them for their advice. If they tell you to work on your craft, they speak true. Heed them. If they tell you you’ll never succeed, you’ll never be good enough … tell them firmly to zip their lips and stuff them into their crates.
  2. Talk to others – like Carol Bodensteiner, you may find it a huge relief to compare notes with fellow writers and learn that they battle the same demons. Compare notes on coping strategies.
  3. Write stories about them – especially stories that poke fun at them. Write yourself as the shero of your own story (or hero, as the case may be). Have fun with these stories. Be silly, be bold, be outrageous. Smash and bash away.
  4. Feed them cookies and make friends – because they can be helpful, as mine have turned out to be. Just don’t eat the cookies yourself. It is not true that writing success is directly proportional to body mass.
  5. Call their bluffs – by succeeding in spite of them and yourself. Just write. And edit. And get lots of feedback. And then publish or share your work with legions of others. Those critters will get the message.

Write now: write a story about your inner demons. What form do they take? What do they sound like? How have you dealt with them? If you haven’t yet neutralized or harnessed their power, imagine that you have and write about that. Post your story in a comment or email me a copy. I’d love to read it.

“I Could Write About My Sex Life”

Gparents-love2Soon after I began teaching lifestory writing, I met with a man I knew only slightly, I’ll call him Sam. Sam wanted my advice on how to write his lifestory. I was several years short of sixty,  and this crumpling man in his late eighties. As usual, I suggested he start with a story idea list and asked him what he might want to write about. I sat patiently for what seemed like an hour while he sat silently, slumped in his chair and lost in thought.

Suddenly he seemed suffused with high noon sunshine as his head lifted. A huge smile spread across his pallid, wrinkled face. “I could write about my sex life!” he said, sounding like a child who just spotted the carnival’s cotton candy stand.

I’m embarrassed to admit this – I remember recoiling in shock. I hope that  reaction was confined to my mind and didn’t show on the surface. Age difference was definitely a factor. It’s true that I would have been stunned to hear anyone say this, male or female, but I would have pursued the topic with someone my age. Generational differences made it unthinkable to pursue it with Sam. I knew that I would absolutely not, under any circumstances, want to read about my parents’ sex life, and he was older than my father. I assumed his children would feel the same way. I’m sure a psychologist could have a ball with my reaction.

“You could …” I demurred. “It might be a little hard for your children to read ….” I swallowed and took another breath. “Is there anything else you might write about?” He visibly deflated. 

The meeting was short. I never saw or heard from Sam again.

I’d answer him differently today. I’d return his radiant smile, maybe wink, and encourage him to write about those lovely memories that obviously gave him great pleasure. He could celebrate the good times and perhaps grieve their decline. I would still alert him to the fact that his children may not want to read those accounts and remind him that he should discuss things with his wife before sharing with anyone else. But I would definitely encourage him to write for himself.

I have no idea how deeply Sam was thinking of delving into those memories or how much detail he might have included. Although I’ve never had a student or writing group member focus a story specifically on sex, some stories do call for at least a mention of the topic. In such cases, observing good taste and privacy while still providing enough detail to retain authenticity can be a challenge. I’ll save that discussion for another time.

For now, suffice it to say that writing about your sex life will bomb if you aren’t comfortable doing so. Freewriting and journaling are the best way to come to grips with your memories and feelings and the heart of your story and message, whatever the topic. Write for yourself first, then make decisions about what, if anything, to share with whom.

Write now: Not everyone has or had a delightful sex life. If you do or did, write about the joy it’s brought you. Tell how it made your life fuller and better. If you don’t or didn’t, write about that. In either case, write privately. In a journal. On scrap paper. On a keyboard. Write freely, bravely. Try lots of points of view. Write about love and lovers. Write about fantasies and spurned pursuits. Write about how and when you learned the facts of life and all you know now. Explore what turns you on and anything else that comes to mind. I guarantee you’ll learn something, and it may be downright pleasurable and fun.

If you wish your writing would spontaneously ignite when you’re done and it doesn’t, head for a fireplace or shredder. If a piece passes the blush test, consider sharing, with trusted friends or your writing group first, then openly.

Seven Secrets about Writing

IanMathieHeadshotIan Mathie, my Scottish/African writing buddy, recently tagged me on Facebook to share seven secrets about writing. I accept this challenge as great sport, and following Janet Givens’ example in her response to Ian, I’m  posting my reply here as the path to Facebook.

Secret #1: Writing is fun!
That is, it’s fun if you write about happy memories and ideas and send your inner critic to her room. Write with color. Write outside your usual boundaries. Write with attitude and guts. More guidelines here.

Secret #2: Writing can be painful.
Dark memories can be searing to write about when they cause you to relive past pain. You may wonder why anyone subjects themselves to this torture. They do it because …

Secret #3: Writing can be healing.
The simple process of dumping that cauldron of trauma onto the page lets you see things in new light and from new perspectives. Memory fragments coalesce into coherent story. Making sense of chaos settles your mind and paves the way for healing your heart. More about this here and here.

Secret #4: Writing builds bonds
in so many ways. Sharing stories around campfires built strong tribal bonds in ancient times. Today our campfire may be blogs and Facebook or email, but the well-written tale still builds bonds of friendship and support. Sharing your lifestory with friends and family builds bonds between generations. Participating in a writing group or class builds bonds of understanding and empathy among members. The more you share, the easier it gets and the more you want to continue.

Secret #5: Writing great imagery adds color and spice to your world.
"His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers. She reaches into space, and a cool bird-boned hand takes hers."

When I read that rich imagery in Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See, I quivered with delight. Doerr inspires me to stretch even further to find new ways to express what I experience and imagine. My experience of my world becomes a bit larger. My creativity is enhanced by his, and will hopefully inspire others in turn.

Secret #6: Writing is 90% editing.
It doesn’t have to be. Spontaneous outpourings serve a purpose, but even text messages might be more effective with another few seconds of thought. Witness the fun on DamnYouAutoCorrect.com. Writing like Anthony Doerr’s cited above takes years of practice and perceptual growth as well as hundreds of hours of editing. I find the time I spend editing and imagining new ways of expressing my thoughts a source of deep pleasure. 

Secret #7: Writing doesn’t always involve moving your fingers.
I practice writing much of the time. I search for metaphors for sunset. I look for imagery to describe the dinner table daffodil. I consider what I really want to say in a blog post while I’m raking leaves. Some of my best writing comes to me while I’m in the shower or driving down the road.

Write now: Take up this challenge yourself and jot down seven of your own discoveries or secrets about writing. Post one or more in a comment.

I Want My Grandchildren to Know I Wasn’t Always Old

Old-woman-sagI watched as an old woman entered the room, leaning heavily on her cane. Although each step seemed to be a huge effort, her sagging figure was elegantly dressed, and her face, a road map of wrinkles, tastefully made up. She sat heavily in a seat near the door, in the front row, not far from where I stood, waiting to present a book talk about The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.

I begin these programs by asking everyone why they are interested in writing their lifestories. I get a variety of predictable responses: “I have a few memories I want to write down for my kids” ... “I do genealogy and want to write about my family” ... “My children are on my case to write things down” ... “I’ve had some experiences I learned a lot from that may help other people.” These are all good reasons to write.

This woman had a new one, and it brought down the house. “I want my grandchildren to know I wasn’t always old!”

Her comment resonated with us all and led to an animated discussion of the way children think of anyone who isn’t free to roam around and play all day as old. How hard for them to imagine that we once saw shapes in clouds and marveled at bugs crawling across a dandelion bloom. Or that we played tag with our friends and told secrets on sleepovers or agonized over dropping the ball at second base. Or that we could ride our bikes across town when we were twelve or hang out in the woods with our friends with no adult around.

What can we do to remedy this?

WRITE ABOUT IT!

Write about those clouds and agonies and all the fun things we did. You don’t have to write long, involved stories. Write random memory paragraphs for now. Use these tips to get started:

  • Make a story idea list specifically for childhood memories. Include sensory elements like the feel of the wind on your face, the way your dark hair felt scorchingly hot to the touch on a sunny day, the scent of lilacs or pine sap on warm days, how your fingers went numb building snow forts.

    Or just start writing and let it all flow out as it will. Then go back and fill in the blanks. There is no “right” way to write this stuff.

  • List both friends and foes. All kids have both friends and people who irritate them. These people may be other kids or adults – teachers for example. Write short stories about these people.

  • Include elements of daily life. How did you get to school? Did you really walk three miles through three feet of snow, uphill both ways? Did you walk alone or with friends or siblings? Did you ride a bus for an hour?

  • What did you eat and wear? The average American diet has changed dramatically over the last fifty or seventy years. Do your grandchildren know about canned Spam? And wearing suspenders with flannel lined jeans that had matching flannel shirts?

  • Tell about your toys. Yoyos, jacks and jump ropes may seem exotic today. What about soapbox derby cars? Clamp-on roller skates with keys? Your favorite dolls or toy cars or cowboy guns?

  • Include a mix of triumphs and disappointments. It’s okay to brag, especially about childhood exploits. Especially if you balance this with remembering when you didn’t get the part in the play, that cute girl turned you down for prom, or your third-grade teacher unfairly kept you after school for passing notes when it was really someone else.

  • Take them to school with you. Don’t just tell about school. Show them the school. Use dialogue. Show them what the room looked like. Let them tag along to art class or assembly. And definitely take them along to recess!

  • Write about your own grandparents. Tell how you thought they were old and all the things you did with the.

This list could include at least 100 more items. I hope it gets your imagination flowing and your fingers moving. If you need help with details about toys, games, or anything else, Google is your friend.

It’s fine to make an anthology of random loose pieces. And, after you have a couple of hundred short-short flash memoir stories, you may find a way to string them together into a cohesive memoir. Either way, your descendants will love this legacy.

Write now: Get those fingers moving and let your grandchildren know you weren’t always old!

Ritergal’s Birthday

15-birthday-cakeHeavens to Betsy, today is Ritergal’s birthday, and  I just realized she is a teenager, In fact, she has been a teenager for a couple of years. That could explain a lot of things, but I won’t go into that. In honor of her birthday, she’s my guest today, sharing her flash memoir, previously unread and unedited by me:

That woman, the one whose fingers I’m using, thinks I’m only fifteen, and she thinks she calls the shots. Little does she know. I’m ageless. For several decades I lurked in a hidden closet of her soul, just beyond her awareness, waiting for the right moment to make my debut. In 2000, the time was finally right. The turn of the century signaled the coming of age of both the Internet and my lovely hostess’s relationship with it.

In 2000 She found the ThirdAge.com site and soon discovered that she could build her own website on it, for free. Back in that pre-Facebook era, people were leery of revealing their true identity online, and many adopted web names. She thought she made up the name Ritergal – sometimes she claims her muse Sarabelle gifted her with it. The truth is that I took that opportunity to step out of that closet and onto the Third Age stage she built for me.

The fun part of this story is that she thinks Sarabelle gifted her with an extra name, a costume of sorts. She wrote a post about that ages ago. I know Sarabelle well, and she was in fact in on this ruse. While it’s true that Sarabelle did introduce me, in a whisper as our hostess rightly proclaims, Sarabelle didn’t bestow the name on Her, she introduced me.

Sages that we are, Sarabelle and I have known the secret of Point of View for ages. We know what we know, and we know that it suits us to let Her believe her version of the story. I’m perfectly happy to let Her believe she is me or vice-versa. Let her enjoy this benign case of paramnesia. We all win.

But a teenager I am not, and that fact explains nothing about me. Considering the stage of our relationship, it might explain a lot about Her. But do understand, I am not complaining. She treats me well and we get along great. She’s a great sport when I decide to have fun – I think she’s secretly glad. I do what I can to help and support her. In fact, most of the time I enjoy acting like a responsible, mature (as long as that doesn’t mean stuffy!) human being. It’s a good cover.

She celebrates my birthday. I celebrate Liberation Day and my anniversary with Her. Hey, Sarabelle, party’s on!

Count me in on that party. Oh, wait … did anyone look at the calendar today?

Write now: in honor of April Fool’s Day, write a spoof of some aspect of your life. Make it an open-ended spoof so nobody’s quite sure at the end. Let them wonder. It’s not too late if you read this after April 1. Write it anyway and have fun doing it. Play is strong meat for anyone’s soul, and it’s essential for writers.

Respecting Your Writer’s Voice

Writer-Voice“It’s critically important to find an editor who will respect your writer’s voice and not try to change it into her own.”

Electric agreement surged through  the room during a Penn Writers self-publishing workshop offered last weekend by acclaimed Pittsburgh author Kathleen Shoop. Heads nodded, and a ripple of “Mmm hmm” rose and fell.

I exchanged nods with friends sitting on both sides. Then a memory tempered my thought. Ten years ago a group fondly referred to as “angel editors” banded together to help a mutual friend – I’ll call him Will – hammer a complex memoir into publishable shape..

Aside from structural concerns, as editors we faced a delicate challenge: Transforming Will’s voice from a stilted style with big words and convoluted, page-long sentences into something that flowed smoothly into readers’ eyes, ears and brains. Will finally agreed that we needed to streamline the language without compromising the message or completely losing his voice. The resulting book went into a third printing.

Will’s purpose for his book was to inform a wide, general readership. Thus his voice had to be changed for reader appeal.

Conversely, when compiling a vast array of drafts and notes my mother left behind, I changed only documented factual mistakes, a few flagrant grammatical errors, and typos. Since she was no longer around to discuss style and voice, I left things like her strings of dots and signature clichés so it sounded like a letter from Marje.

Marje’s purpose for writing was to leave a legacy of personal and family history for posterity. Leaving it in her words and phrasing was an additional way of documenting the writing style of her generation of women.

Where is the balance? These are two extreme examples. In general, when I edit a story, I find ways to smooth rough edges and make words flow more smoothly. My edits are only suggestions. My fix for a phrase that sounds awkward to me may grate on the author’s ear.

The extent to which I change things depends in large part on the author’s purpose. If I’m helping a friend finish a family project, I’m less inclined to tinker. In my opinion, a bit of colloquialism and cliché lends authenticity. If an author hopes to sell truckloads of books to the public, buckets of red ink may flow.

So, you see, how much an editor (that includes friends and critique groups) should mess with your voice depends on your purpose. If you plan to appear on stage, appropriate makeup will emphasize your message. Stage makeup is out of place on a mountain trail.

Experience and practice are additional factors. A polished writing voice is not necessarily the sign of an expensive editor. Writers follow a learning curve much like musicians. Beginning piano students do well to tap out Chopsticks. Ten years later, they may perform Beethoven sonatas with ease. In between lie thousands of hours of practice with gradual improvement.

Your writing voice will likewise gain tone and force as you seek constant feedback and work to improve. That does not make your voice less authentic. It reflects the years of practice you put in and becomes natural and authentic for you.

As you continue down your writing path, you’ll discover that each story has a unique voice. Some are humorous, some sassy, some sad or mournful. Let your stories whisper their way, and your voice will grow in range.

Write now: if you have some, read a few unchanged stories you wrote several years ago and consider how you might change them today. Even if you’re a beginner, start a practice of keeping versions of stories to help keep track of how much your writing has developed. If you change a story after more than a year has elapsed, rename it to preserve the old version so you can compare. Think of this as your growth chart and celebrate your continuing improvement!

How and Why to Write about JOY

Talking-about-problemsThis advice to talk about our joys struck home with me when I saw it the other day. Not surprisingly, I immediately thought how it applies to writing – specifically to life writing – and how happy stories spread joy.

In The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting, I discuss the way many people tend to shy away from discussing success and joy.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging,” some people say. “I don’t people to envy me,” or “I don’t want them to think I think I’m better than they are,” or “I don’t want to make people sad because they missed out.”

These are valid concerns. Compassion for the feelings of others is important. But let’s look at the flip side, at what is lost if you soft-peddle success and happiness:

You are only writing part of your truth. If you are writing for posterity, or for the world at large right now, your success is part of who you are. Surely it’s something you’re proud of. Let them know.

Happiness keeps your story authentic. People who know you’ve achieved something, financial or business success, a happy marriage, or some other positive state will know something’s missing if you downplay the sunshine in your story. It tends to come across as false humility and lack of trust. This is, of course, assuming you were happy. Not all stories are, though we do hope for a glimmer of happiness by the end. Add it where you can.

Reading about how you achieved success, happiness and joy inspires others. We hear and read about gloom, doom and suffering constantly in the media. We need to hear good news. It gives us hope!

People can learn from your example. Explaining in more detail or less how you managed to achieve your fortunate condition may provide a clue for others to follow your example.

Writing about happy things is good for YOU! A quick web search will verify that simple lists in gratitude journals help dispel or fend off depression (in at least some cases) and generally improve your state of mind. They help you stay positive and foster creativity. You don’t even have to share the contents or turn them into story to get these benefits.

Have I convinced you to write some joy? Hopefully into your story? Follow these guidelines:

Include shadows with the sunshine. Everything brilliant emerges from some sort of struggle or stretch. Tell of the tribulations and challenges you encountered along the way. Report feelings of fear, doubt, or dismay. Don’t leave out your concern about not wanting to brag.

Be honest about jubiliation. Who would believe you weren’t popping champagne corks, real or figurative, when you got that big promotion?

Give credit where credit is due. Nobody scales Mt. Everest without a team of Sherpas. Give your Sherpas credit.

Use humor. Poke fun at yourself. This doesn’t mean putting yourself down, but keep both heart and fingers light.

My latest book, Adventures of a  Chilehead, is the story of my life-long love affair with hot chile. It’s full of humor and joy, and I had a ball writing it. The capsaicin in chile releases endorphins. Writing about those happy memories released more. So remember some joy, write yourself happy, and share that good stuff with the world.

Write now: write about a happy experience you shared with at least one other person and write that story in an email or letter. Send it to that person. You’ll both feel happy you did.

Hidden Treasures

Sympathy-cardI just discovered a  hidden treasure trove. I’m glad I didn’t give into the urge to purge. I almost tossed old sympathy letters unread. What relevance, I wondered, could I possibly find in condolence letters written to my now-deceased mother-in-law nearly fifty years ago when her husband died? What a surprise to find that I’m learning so much from reading between the lines.

I hardly knew my father-in-law, Ezra Lippincott. We never lived near them and had only been married six years when he died. Quite likely he found his son’s young wife as baffling as I found him. We never connected. My mother-in-law Blanche often spoke of memories involving him, but they usually included other people and things they did, and I still had little sense of what Ezzie was like.

Now I’m reading these letters, beautiful tributes from friends, colleagues and customers. “A remarkable human being.” “He was always there when anyone needed help.” “We’ll miss him terribly.” Some shared memories that I’ve never heard before. From these word scraps my dim, fuzzy picture, formed mainly from pictures and bare-bones stories, is fleshing out just a bit. He’s becoming more real.

As I read and consider, I’m reminded of three things of relevance for all of us who write:

People are naturally curious.

They want to know details. When we record the past in story form, we try our best to cover the basics and give a complete account. We may not know all the facts. We may run out of time and not finish the story. If this happens, don’t fret. Do the best you can. Someday someone may read whatever you were able to write and connect the dots, as I’m doing now. Their picture will sharpen from clues you do give.

People read between the lines.

Right now I’m filling in blanks in my image of Ezzie. I’m also reading between the lines to imagine how Blanche may have felt as she read these shimmering tributes. I did not know her well either at that time, and neither of us was good at expressing emotion. I had only a foggy notion what she was really going through, and I was too busy chasing my toddlers to give it much thought. Suddenly her loss seems poignantly real, and I grieve for that loss as I read.

Treasure artifacts.

I’m sorting because we’re preparing to sell our house and move from Pittsburgh to Austin. My intention is to lighten the load. But now that I’ve read these notes, I see that they are pieces of heart. Not only do they give a clearer picture of Ezzie, but they document the way people communicated back then – with pen and ink. They wrote and mailed deeply heart-felt messages. Only a few sent cards. I may scan the the messages in, but I’ll still save the originals. Some later generation can decide whether to continue keeping or toss.

For now, I’ll just finger my newly found treasures. Maybe later I’ll use some of these scraps in a story or few.

Write now: if you have old letters or photos, look through them. See what dots connect or how you read between lines to notice things more clearly today than you did in earlier times. Write a story about what you fine.