April 01, 2015

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.

March 24, 2015

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!

March 16, 2015

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.

March 07, 2015

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.

February 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa Cather

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

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

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

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

Stories prime the pump of memory

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

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

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

My big takeaway that can be yours, too.

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

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

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

Questions to ask yourself as you start to write

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


~ who needs to hear your story?

~ whom do you need to share this story with?

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

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

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

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

Writing a memoir is important work. Do it!

Action Steps

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

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

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

February 18, 2015

To Finish or Bail?

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

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

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

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

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

So I ask myself,

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the bottom line:

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

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

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

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

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

February 09, 2015

Happy Blogiversary to Me

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

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

How persistent are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 29, 2015

Boring or Brilliant?

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

From My Private Italy, Steve McCurdy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Jose Izquierdo, Creative Commons license

January 22, 2015

Writing About Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 10, 2015

Jumpstart a Personal Timeline

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

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

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

H&C Timeline

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

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

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

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

January 01, 2015

New Years Resolutions


Happy New Year!

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

Some of my underlying thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign your name! to cement ownership and intention.

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

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

December 18, 2014

Pros and Cons of Disclosure

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

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

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

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

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

Words once read can never be erased.

Factors to consider include

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

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

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

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

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