Memoir Writing Lesson from Fiction

Fiction can offer powerful insights for memoir writers. I just began reading a classic historical novel, Divine Average, first published in 1952 by Elith Hamilton Kirkland. Like many novels, it’s written in memoir format, in this case an end-of-life memoir. It’s set in 1838-1858 in “that period of Texas history when ‘cow boy’ was a phrase with a controversial meaning and ‘Texians’ a nationality.

The second paragraph stopped me in my tracks:
I feel compelled at this time by the Spirit of the Holy Mother and the force of God to leave an account of the things that have happened to me and mine. It all lies on my heart like a confession that must be made before I can die in peace . . . a confession not only for myself, but for my husband, Range Templeton, who despises me now after loving me for twenty years, for my daughter Laska, lost to us and to herself, a companion to outlaws in the wilds of Mexico, and for my son, Luke Templeton, so bold of mind and pure in heart.
I know right away that Luvisa Templeton, “a consumptive, soon to die,” is confessing all for peaceful death, which she’s looking forward to “as deliverance.” This compelling reason to write creates a compelling reason to read. What juicy secrets is she about to divulge? What better way to hook my attention?

She immediately goes on to explain her time frame – the twenty years of her marriage to Rage Templeton – and her frustration at never being able to understand him. That sounds like a rich topic.

She then explains that she’s not penning this tome herself. She’s dictating it all to Mr. Bryson, a “very close friend to every member of the Templeton family,” which relationship she’ll explain in due course. Bryson is literate, articulate, better able than she to find the right words for her thoughts and feelings. Bryson has promised to place the completed manuscript “in the proper hands with instructions that it be preserved until such time as it might seem fitting to give it out for reading, in a book perhaps.” She continues:
Is it too much to hope that in some future generation these events may stir the minds and warm the hearts of men and women destined to know more and see further than those of us here now? Perhaps I attach too much importance to the life I have lived and the lives of which my living has played a part. But I yield completely to the compulsion that I must leave such a documentation. 
Like Luvisa, many of us write because we’re compelled to do so. In heeding that compulsion, we’ll do well to follow her fictitious example on several counts:

  • Be clear about why you are writing and
  • Who you are writing for.
  • Be clear about the frame for your story, in her case a twenty year marriage and
  • The story focus or theme, in her case what happened to her and hers. 
  • Have a strong, compelling opening. 
  • Get the tension/conflict going right away, in her case her husband who loved her for twenty years despises her now. Why? How did her daughter come to be in Mexico with outlaws?
  • Seek help when you need it. Luvisa used Mr. Bryson, a sort of ghost writer. You may choose to use an editor, beta readers, reading groups, friends, even family to help you on your way. 
  • Have a strong, compelling opening. 
  • Postpone distribution if you feel it unwise to disclose it all now. 

Points to Ponder: Do you have a story you’re compelled to tell? Can you identify the frame and focus? What help might you need to get it written? 

Unlikely Paths and Capsule Stories


Acclaimed memoirist Carol Bodensteiner discusses surprise paths that lead to unforeseen opportunity in her current blog post, You Just Never Know. Unable to find a full-time job as teacher after earning her teaching degree, she began working as a secretary, a move that surprised many then and now. She explains why she never regretted taking that path and issues a challenge to readers to share similar stories.

My life has been full of portentous by-roads, and I did choose to share one. Like the flash memoir embedded in Carol's post, the comment I wrote serves as a capsule story that could expand into an entire chapter in a memoir of connecting the dots of life. I share it with you here as an example of how to capture such memories in five minutes or less and store them for later use:

My surprise career road was a relatively short loop: I signed on as a Mary Kay Beauty Consultant. Why? I never wore much makeup, and olive oil was my go-to skin care. How could I ask people to spend money on products I didn’t value? My academic training was in counseling psychology, with a master’s degree earned after a ten year gap. But with school-age children, I could not easily commit to the minimal pay and floating schedules necessary to “pay my dues” and become a bona fide counselor. I turned to teaching instead, part-time, for low pay and unpredictable schedules, at the local community college.

Then fate introduced me to a Paid Professional Speaker, who became a mentor of sorts. He told me I had to learn sales to be able to do anything at all, and I had to commit to at least five years of active membership in Toastmasters. Toastmasters was a pond for this duck. Learning sales more like a desert. I signed on with Mary Kay, assuming this was something I could limit to school day hours.

Let’s just say I could only endure this sales training by focusing on my goal: earn several awards and boogie. This was the toughest class I ever took! But when I realized that the Mary Kay script worked better than anything I could invent myself and started going by the book, the awards, i.e. crystal wine glasses for meeting production goals, began to stack up on my shelf. I became shameless in telling people what I did and asking, “Have you (your wife) had a Mary Kay facial yet?”

I accosted a woman I knew only vaguely with this line when our paths crossed at an Art in the Park event. When she heard what I was doing, she asked, “Isn’t that something you can do with a high school degree?”

“Yes. Would you like to know more about becoming a Beauty Consultant?”

“But you have a master’s degree! Aren’t you wasting it?”

“Not at all. My master’s degree helped me become the person I am, and I like the person I am. How could it be wasted? When would you like to have a facial?”

I pulled that response out of thin air, but as I spoke, I realized its truth. I did like the person I’d become, although I did not like selling make-up. The woman did book a facial but bought nothing. Surprise? Not really. She was coerced. Manipulated. And my heart was not in this — I was near burnout. I soon realized I had met my goals, and got out. Class over.

I’ve never regretted the time I spent selling make-up. Together with Toastmasters, it opened doors to selling things more in tune with my passion, which I eventually discovered was writing and “selling” ideas.

Please note that my capsule story is somewhere between a Story Idea List entry and a more complete story with plenty of detail. Capsule stories are little more than a string of titles and not at all deep. More thought on how to expand capsule stories to follow.

Points to Ponder:
  • What decisions have you made that put you on unexpected paths?
  • What were the eventual benefits or costs? 
  • Do you regret the choice? 
  • It’s your turn to write and share such a story in a comment below!

Writing by Hand versus Keyboard




“Is it better to write by hand or on the keyboard?” 

This question comes up at the beginning of every class I teach.

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell them. Today I expand with a bit of advice. “Do whatever you’re most comfortable with. But even if you prefer a keyboard, writing by hand at least part of the time can prime your creative pump.” This advice comes from a combination of personal experience and science.

In my experience teaching, I’ve noticed that a few students routinely write terse, dry little stories that do little beyond stating a few facts. Unlike most in the class, their skill level does not seem to improve.

A woman I’ll call Alice is typical of these students. While most students are challenged to stick to one-and-a-half page limit for assigned stories, Alice’s stories were never longer than half a page. Although this was technically against the rules, she always spent longer explaining the story in class than reading it. In contrast to written versions, her oral stories were rich and intriguing and we encouraged her to include all those extra elements in the written story.

Alice was not discouraged. Though her stories never expanded, she did keep coming to class and plodding along with her writing. In that respect she was a fine example of my strong belief that any bit of personal history that you write and share will eventually be treasured by family members, though perhaps not right away.

One day as I looked at her typos and awkward formatting, I had an idea. “Alice, do you type easily and well?” I asked her privately after class. Sure enough, she was a hunt-and-peck typist. “Do you write your stories by hand first, or start them on the computer?”

“Oh, I start out right away on the computer. I don’t want to have to do all that extra work to type them later.”

I asked her to write her story by hand the next week. She could bring the hand-written copy to class, or type it in when she was finished. Sure enough, the next week her tantalizing story thrilled the class. Alice floated out of class that day on a cloud of praise for her new writing style, and her skills continued to progress from there.

My hunch had been that she was so focused on finding letters on the keyboard that she lost track of her story as she wrote, and most of it got lost until she came to class when it began flooding in again. She agreed that was the case. From then on, she wrote by hand first and typed the stories in later.

A couple of years later I learned the science that explains this difference, and it should give all of us an incentive to pick up pen and paper now and then. Generally speaking, you use different brain centers when sliding pen over paper compared to tapping away on the keyboard. Muscle control is different. Tactile sensations vary. Keyboards make sounds, and visual input is different.

As I recall, brain researchers have found that writing on paper uses a wider array of brain centers, engaging differently with memory and visions. Keyboard input may be more focused, coming from a single center, perhaps the frontal lobe.

Back to personal experience, I’ve found that I’m almost unable to make lists on a keyboard. I need pencil and paper for that. Likewise, if I’m having trouble starting a story, I can always start writing on paper. Soon enough the story concept starts to clear and I grow impatient with paper, so I switch to a keyboard. If I get stuck in the middle of a story, I stop, ask myself what am I trying to say and answer that question. Then the story flows again.

So which is better, writing by hand or keyboard? Both and neither.

Points to Ponder: How comfortable are you on the keyboard? If you still think of each letter as you type, definitely try writing by hand. Even if you do write well on the keyboard, try writing by hand. You may access different points of view or memories.

Triumph at the End of a Rocky Road


The note above shows one of a rapidly growing list that Carol B has received from family members after privately publishing a volume of family history laced together with relevant aspects of her personal story. She swells with happiness at each one. These notes are more than usually rewarding. The road to this outcome has been rocky. Her stories sizzle with intrigue. That eventually presented a problem.

Carol, her parents, and a family friend (I omit her full name at her request to protect her family’s privacy), spent decades gathering stories and documents from county records and other sources, documenting purchase and sale of property, births, deaths and marriages, police and jail records, newspaper articles and pictures. Piles and piles of pictures. She took careful notes as relatives chewed the fat at family events.  She even sought out help from her local historical society to gather added information.

Eventually she wove memories and facts into stories. Lifestory writing group members pointed out unclear areas, missing material and more. Her strong writing grew polished in both content and structure. Then forces of darkness emerged.

Her family’s history includes mayhem, madness and murder. It’s all a matter of public record, and mostly forgotten, though ripples remain in family attitudes and traits. Still, she was loathe to publish it all without warning the family. She told everyone whose names appeared in the book what she was up to and asked their permission to share stories relevant to their immediate family members. With the exception of one person within her family, she was offered nothing but support and encouragement.  She did not have anyone else read her book, as she was not willing to write a book by committee.  As it turned out, the faith that family members had in her was almost unanimous. Others showed their trust by giving full permission to use their names and their particular family stories.

However, there was one family member who, without even reading the book, objected on principle. “There is no reason to dig all that stuff up again.”  Said Person would not discuss it with Carol and did not respond to numerous requests to be named in the book, then cut off  direct communication.

Carol’s inner critic went nuts. What if I’m sued?  Maybe I’m too critical. Maybe my book is too negative.  Even if I do expose the people in my book to public scrutiny, these are the stories of my family. What should I do?

Her voice had the sound of defeat as she told me, “That person has gobs of money and can afford to sue me on a whim. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I should just drop it. Maybe I should just share the Word file with anyone who wants to read it.”

“You’ve told dozens of people you’re doing this, and they all want to see it finished. What about them? Will you be letting them down? You’ve set aside funds to see it through. How can we work around this?”

Note to readers: don’t try to handle this alone. Get plenty of perspectives. 

“Do you think I’ve been too critical?  Is my book too negative?”

“NO! But I’m not always the best judge of emotional tone. Let’s get one more opinion.” I recommended another writer I know who excels in this area. Her response was supportive. Carol regained her grip.

She decided she would proceed with the project with these caveats:

  • She omitted all references to Said Person beyond a couple of picture captions where she cites the relationship without a name.  She decides to include a vintage photo of Said Person, but includes only a first initial and maiden last name.  To do otherwise would have made her uncomfortable, since she did not want to purposefully leave anyone out of the family history.  She also decided to mail Said Person a copy of the family history book. To date, there has been no acknowledgement of receipt though communication on other subjects has been resumed. 


  • In the Acknowledgments she states: “I have remained faithful to the stories that were passed down through the family and relied on my own memories and those of other family members for additional tales. Throughout the process, I maintained my belief and intention to cause no harm.”


  • The back cover includes a disclaimer of sorts: “… For decades she has collected stories from relatives and public records. She compiles those stories with personal reflections to tell the family’s story with truth and honesty to the best of her understanding.” 

She also firmed up her decision to keep publication as private as possible.

This last step required thinking out of the box. Carol is facing serious health problems and wants to ensure that her extended family will be able to independently order additional copies for years to come.

In line with her decision to keep the book private, she vowed to avoid all promotion and publicity. She is eager, however, for others to know of her experience, even though they won’t be reading the book. Buoyed by the outpouring of gratitude from family members, such as the note above, she has asked me to share that story, hoping to inspire others who battled doubts about sensitive disclosure to persist and find their own way around obstacles.

I’m happy to oblige, emphasizing to readers that publishing privately with limited distribution can be a strong and rewarding option for those who shy away from telling all to the world at large.

As the fan letter notes, Carol is hard at work on a second volume, a personal memoir. Will this one also be kept under wraps? Who knows? If she opts for open publication, you’ll be among the first to know.

Points to Ponder: What tense material might slow down your writing project? What creative workarounds can you come up with? Who can you turn to for support and fresh ideas?

Points to Ponder: What tense material might slow down your writing project? What creative workarounds can you come up with? Who can you turn to for support and fresh ideas?

A Humble Story Lives On

Hettie Stein never dreamed hundreds or thousands of people would learn about her life when she hand-wrote her lifestory on forty pages of notebook paper sometime around 1975. She wrote separate, personalized copies for each of her three grandchildren, my husband being one. We have not seen either of the other two copies, but I scanned in ours, saving the images in a PDF file and also transcribing them into a Word document for easier reading by later generations.

Now the world can read about Hettie’s life on Amy Cohen’s blog, Brotmanblog: A Family Journey, beginning with Part 1 and share our delight in these accounts of a long-gone way of life in simpler times.I thank distant cousin Amy for finding our family and pulling so many resources together into a compelling story.

As you can see from the graphic below, excerpted from Hettie’s story (which I gratefully borrowed back from Amy’s blog), the writing is as primitive as a Grandma Moses canvas in both form and message. As Hettie explains in her story, she chose to leave school after eighth grade (in 1898). Her reasoning was that like other women of her day, her lot in life was to marry and raise a family, and no housewife needed more book learning than she already had, so why exert herself?


This lack of formal education shows in her writing, but that did not deter her for a moment. Thank goodness! This humble, unaffected story reflects her authentic heart, big as all outdoors, and the fact that she wrote it is the sign of a satisfying life. She never had material wealth, but what she had was enough. I have never met a kinder, more positive person. Hettie loved everyone with childlike enthusiasm, and was always up for an adventure. I feel blessed for having been part of her family.

Hettie decided one day to write these stories. She just sat down and did it, though it took her months to finish each one. She wrote each story in the form of a letter to that grandchild, warmly laced with references to memories of “your mother” and “the time you and I …”. We have not seen the volumes she wrote for her two granddaughters, but presumably they cover much of the same material, customized with slightly different words.

She wrote for my husband. She died in 1987, more than a decade before I preserved her work for the family and the world. Now it’s treasured by great- and great-great-grandchildren and will hopefully be passed down even further.

I often mention her amazing accomplishment when I’m encouraging people to write. “If Hettie could do that, anyone can. You don’t need to produce a literary masterpiece. Whatever you write is better than nothing and will be treasured by generations to come.”

Hettie wrote by hand, on the simple paper she had. She made a manila paper folder to hold the pages and fastened it all together with brads. Even without those manila covers, in only a few years, the acidic notebook paper had begun yellowing. Scanning put a halt to that process.

If by some amazing coincidence, you decide to write a legacy manuscript by hand, acid-free paper is easy to find today. More likely you’ll sit down at a keyboard and print acid-free copies. But even if you write on unfolded paper bags or the backs of envelopes, your descendants will treasure your work.

Points to ponder: If you’re trying to get traction, what obstacles prevent you from “just doing it”? Are you concerned that you writing won’t measure up and your family will laugh or sneer? How good is “good enough”? If you are well on your way toward finishing a story, ponder how satisfying that feels.

Continuous Creative Improvement


Creative people in any field share the goal of continuous skill development. Bear with me as I loop into photography to make a point about writing.

This photo of gulls perched on the southern shore of Lake Pukaki with Mt. Cook in the distance looks great to most people. It looked great to me when I took it in 2005 en route from Christchurch to Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island. It's got most of the elements of a great picture: item of interest in foreground, sweeping vistas afar, sharp focus, clear color, contrasting tones, life contrasting with barren expanse, level horizon.

When I look at this picture, I’m brought back to the moment of crystal-clear air, vast silence broken only by screeching gulls, whispering breeze, shoes on gravel, clicking shutters, and awed murmurs from tour group friends.

It looked good when I took it, and it serves the purpose of preserving and evoking memories. But something has always bothered me about this picture. It has never seemed quite right. It lacks a clear message. Which matters most, the birds or the mountain? I’ve learned quite a bit about photo composition since I snapped this shot. I now see how to frame it better. As much as I’d like to, I can’t loop back to New Zealand for a do-over today, so I’m faking it with Photoshop.


By virtually moving to my right a few feet, I  position that rock so its left slope and the lines of the gulls lead your eye up toward Mt. Cook. The rock echoes slope shapes, lending symmetry to the shot.

That's better, but I still don't feel finished.


Using magic again, I  kneel down, holding the camera at a lower angle, narrowing the gap between birds and slopes. My sense of the scene is wide. Cropping the image enhances that effect. Less is often more. I could keep playing with this shot, but for now I've made my point.

I sometimes open a file or pull out a paper with a story I wrote a dozen or twenty years ago. I read the story and recall the moment and realize I’ve learned better ways to tell it. My fingers twitch as I read, reaching for the keyboard. I may add detail, subtract focus blurring fluff, tighten wording or add dialogue. I turn simple narrative into sizzling scene.

Another lesson from photography comes into play here. Not only has my technique improved, technology keeps improving both cameras and editing tools. Photos I edited fifteen years ago may look garish and clumsy compared to what I’m able to do today. Even today I may over-edit, ending with gaudy results. Saving edits as a new file can save the day, allowing me to start over with the original material.

The same thing can happen with stories. More than once I’ve been called out for gaudy drama in stories. Starting fresh with that earlier draft calmed things down. Earlier drafts can help flesh out related stories, and reading them again reassures me that I am continously improving.

I continuously improve my photo skills by taking classes and hanging out with photographers who know more than I do. I study the work of experts and take thousands of pictures. I improve my writing skills by reading books and blogs about writing, by reading the work of acclaimed authors, by attending workshops and conferences, by reading voraciously, and by writing, over and over, until it works.

Would I take this photo right the first time if I did go back again? Maybe. If I had time I’d take it from many angles to increase the odds. And I often write stories several ways to find the one that suits me best.

Points to Ponder: Can you look back at early stories and see how your work has progressed? What steps do you take to ensure your writing continues to improve?

Rebooting My Blog

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven … 
Eccl. 4:1

The past few months have been my season to pack, unpack, explore, and settle into my new Texas home. Beyond email and sporadic journal entries, they have not been a time to write. That’s okay. Boxes are unpacked, guestroom warmed, new dining table christened, and I’m once more thinking beyond shopping for rugs and bedspreads.

For several weeks I hardly thought about writing at all. Then thoughts of writing bubbled up. I began gently pondering what I really want to write and how to best go about it. I’ve finally realized that I do enjoy sharing my thoughts about writing, online and in person. I’ve missed involvement with writing community. Now the write season is bursting forth. It’s time to reboot the blog and begin its eleventh year.

A metaphor just came to mind. Our ten knock-out rose bushes bloomed bravely through the entire Austin version of winter. Last week we pruned them, barely making the prescribed Valentine's Day deadline. Past blossoms are gone, and new growth gushes forth. Within weeks those bushes will be covered with  new blooms. My writing life has been pruned by the move. New growth is gushing forth — from the same roots and stems, snipped shorter for strength.

As I reboot, I’m pruning my process, returning to basics. I'm lopping off three Success Rules for Bloggers as mandated by highly paid experts.

1. You MUST blog at least once a week. Hogwash! How many of you readers schedule time on your calendar to read specific blog posts each (Tuesday) morning? If you’re like me, you read them when they appear in your inbox or feed reader, and you may skip right past them if you’re busy. I want to be a rare gem that gets your attention in the midst of that predictable mass.

2. You MUST reliably post on a predictable schedule. See above. I’ll post when I have something to say and time to say it. Although it’s unlikely, I might post four times in one week. It’s more likely I’ll post sporadically, a few times a month. I hope to delight you with inspiring posts, not bore you with content scrounged up to meet a deadline.

3. You MUST include graphics. Big, colorful, eye-catching graphics. For the past few years I’ve spent almost as much time searching for and creating these graphics as writing posts. That’s a discouraging drag, not how I want to spend my time. If a graphic serves a purpose, I’ll add one. Beyond that, well, I’m not writing children’s books.

My decisions are purpose driven: I write and blog to share insights, encourage and inspire other writers, especially beginners, and create community, not to “build a business.” I’m past the season in life where building and running a business is a priority, desire or interest. Since profit is not part of my purpose (though I’m not above welcoming some), cumbersome business building mandates induce creativity stifling guilt, self-doubt and procrastination. They are counter-productive for me. If some find this approach "unprofessional," so be it. I hear my drummer and it's time to march!

I shall find my best path, blaze a new trail, and whatever results is enough!

Stay tuned. This post covers rebooting my blog. I’ll have more to say soon about rebooting story flow.

Points to Ponder:  What aspects of your writing are you doing because “you should”? What doesn’t fit? How can you change that? Do you need a time out? 

HOOKED on eBOOKS

I'm totally hooked on ebooks. I know  many people prefer print, but when I read on my 11" tablet in landscape mode with two columns, it looks familiar, like print. But it’s better. I can changes text sizes on a whim and read in the dark when Other is sleeping. Best of all, I can highlight with abandon and view highlights apart from text, instantly search to keep track of who’s who, share passages without retyping, add volumes of notes ... so many things I never did or can’t do with print. This ability to find things in the book is a boon for writing reviews and preparing examples for classes.
Those are only a few of my reasons. More than thirty years ago, when I ran out of wall space for shelves, I made the decision  that my book collection had to enter no net gain status. If I bought one, I had to off-load one. The Friends of the Library love me for all the contributions I’ve made to the Used Book Sale. This book diet comes at a price. I've often wished I could check something in one of those old books. Most have also been weeded by the library. They exist now only as ghost prints in memory.
In spite of this limit, right now my house holds over fifty cartons of packed paper books (only a dozen, about 600 lb., are mine). My digital bookshelf would fill at least another dozen in print. When I think of the time saved by not packing and unpacking and all that involves, and the money saved on shipping from here to Austin, I love digital even more. I keep my digital volumes well backed-up.
There’s more to the story. I recently bought an absurdly large cell phone. I may come to regret that size decision with regard to the phone, but to my amazement, I love reading on it. My eyes barely move as I scan the entire page width. It's easier for me to read. It feels good.
When I look back now at some of my old books with wide pages, tiny type and tight line spacing, my eyes cross as I recoil. How did I ever READ this stuff? Small print on a phone screen is one thing. Small, tight print on a paper page five inches wide is impossible for my old eyes and brain. Besides, how can I find the passage I want? If I can't find a book in digital form, I'll still read paper, but I far prefer pixels to print. 
Yes indeed, I am HOOKED ON eBOOKS.
Write Now: Write an essay on your thoughts about ebooks. Share your thoughts in a comment.





I’m in Love with Volya Rinpoche


I never expected to fall in love with Volya Rinpoche, a bald, squarely-built Russian monk who dresses in gold-trimmed maroon robes and sandals, has skin the color of acorns, and is a world-renowned spiritual leader and author. Neither did Otto Ringling, the narrator of Breakfast with Buddha, Lunch with Buddha and Dinner with Buddha, a trilogy of mind-bending, possibly life-changing novels by Roland Merulo . But who could resist that heart-melting smile, that endless compassion and infectious laugh? His na├»ve observations and whiplash fast “wessons?”

But wait. Nothing kinky here.As the story begins, Otto’s whacko, forever hippie sister tricks him into taking a road trip alone with this monk, her latest love interest. As miles and days pass, their relationship grows and Otto decides the Rimpoche is “the real deal.” Between volumes, monk marries sister, plots thicken, and Otto evolves. The novels are poignant in places, hilarious in others, always thought-provoking, and sublimely well-written. Otto’s acute observations on history, geography, philosophy and food are meticulously detailed.

I’ve always encouraged students of lifestory or memoir writing to read widely, to read like a writer, to find authors whose style they admire and immerse themselves in their work. Roland Merullo is my new hero behind the page. These digital volumes are full of pink highlights for exquisite description and gold ones for powerful points.

Although these volumes are clearly fiction, drawn from Merullo’s fertile imagination, they read like memoir. They are among those remarkable titles I occasionally find that convey Truth in concentrated form, more potent than most actual life experience could support. I consider them a prime example of the power of the fiction alternative.

The Buddha books came into my life at the perfect time (who believes in coincidence?). Over the last few months our nearly completed move from Pittsburgh to Austin has become unexpectedly complex and stressful, full of fretting and fear and second-guessing. I was convinced I had neither time nor the concentration to read. In spite of these self-imposed barriers, a book with a Buddha title slipped through the cracks.

I didn’t have time to not read these books. They reminded me of wisdom I’ve accrued over at least forty years, much of which I’ve ignored for the last many. They reminded me that I’ve largely fallen away from soul-enriching practice. They reminded me we can choose our reactions, our thoughts. Along the way, they altered and added perspective. I feel better now, stronger, and ready to forge ahead! Thank you Roland Merullo!

This is not the first time books have restored or enriched my soul and nudged me around corners. Should I include any of these time periods in a memoir, for example this move, it could not be complete without mention of these three books and their influence. I could take things further. Pat Conroy, perhaps best known for his novel, The Great Santini, wrote My Reading Life, a themed memoir devoted to books that have molded and shaped him.

What better time to snuggle down and read than these days of early darkness, of golden leaves and frosty mornings? Find an author you love and read ‘til your eyeballs cave in. Make highlights in ebooks. Put sticky tags in print ones. Collect heart-stopping phrases and notable elements of structure.

Write on: start a list of books that have affected your life and thinking. Write about these in your journal and develop your thoughts into an essay. Add a few of your favorite titles to a comment, as a tribute to the author and a beacon to fellow writers.

In Defense of Surface Writing

Controversial-Content

In her new book, The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr repeatedly urges readers to dig deep to discover their true story. As a disclaimer, I’m not digging back into the volume to discuss it. This post is based on what I perceived, understood, and remember, not her specific words. My perception is my reality, my truth. If that varies from literal words in the book, that’s how memory works, and that’s part of my point.

Karr, along with countless others, myself included, have continually made the point that as you begin to edit and refine your initial story and reflect about what really did happen, how else you might look at the past, how else might you tell it, your story changes. In fact, you reconstruct history. Some give the impression that this reconstruction conveys our true essence and is truer than our initial understanding or viewpoint, no matter how long we held it.

As I read Karr’s thoughts on this reconstruction, I was overwhelmed with the certainty that these “deeper truths” are no truer than the ones we’ve lived with, perhaps for decades. Our lives may be richer for reaching them, but they NOT MORE TRUE.

What you remember on the surface is your story, the story that made you who you are. You may derive enormous personal benefit and change your life by digging, archeologist-style, into your past, but that does not diminish the personal validity of your original insights and belief, your original truth.

Early drafts of your story convey a sense of who you have been. When you begin crafting and editing that story, it remains true, but continues to develop. You continue to develop and grow. Deep reflection and insight can shape and reflect who you become. New information can change how we view the past, but it can’t change how we thought and felt before we turned that corner. We are, after all, works in progress, continually evolving as we travel life’s path, and stories change even for those who never write.

Memories do tend to morph over time. Read an old journal if you need examples. Just keep in mind that their initial form is as true and valid as whatever form they eventually take.

I bring this up in the hope that nobody will be deterred from writing or sharing stories for fear they have not dug deeply enough or their story may not be true enough on the first or second draft to be deemed “worthy” of writing or being read. I hope nobody will be deterred from writing at least a few stories from the certainty they’ll never have the time, skill or motivation to polish it to perfection.

Enough of that Inner Critic talk! All stories are worthy of writing and sharing. Furthermore, no matter how well-developed and polished, or how loudly your supporters cheer, not all will appeal to a million people. So whatever your level of skill, motivation and resources, don’t hesitate to write yours.

Do you find this concept startling, that truth can be defined on multiple levels? Do you agree? What are your thoughts and experiences? I welcome and encourage comments on all facets of this topic. Please join the discussion.

Shifting Rhythms

Music blue
It’s too soon to draft a  memoir about our move, but it’s not too soon to begin reflecting on my sense of things. As I sat is a glorious state of almost forgotten peace and relaxation earlier today, I realized that (speaking only for myself) we’ve entered a new phase, and not a minute too soon.

That corner was actually turned the day we were told that the photographer who would make our house look amazing on the web needed to arrive three days early. Before that I’d been in a total panicked frenzy, wondering how on earth we would ever possibly meet our self-imposed deadline for listing. But right on schedule, birds sang, bells rang, and angels descended. Only one room remained out of bounds for the photographer.

Tension drained.

Then, a few hours before we were scheduled to fly to Austin to find a house, that last room clicked into alignment, ready for showing. We flew off to Austin a few hours later. For three days we looked, well-prepared with seven months of web research. We did find a home, holding our breath until a previous negotiation fell through at exactly the right time. So we never needed our backup choices.
Once that contract was signed, life became large, calm and amazing. Pondering the shift, I noticed some similarity to a symphony. Each movement has a different rhythm and tone. So it has been with us. Our transition symphony seems to have :

Deciding to do it. This was the beginning. We’ve talked for years about relocating. Our three children are widely scattered. We can only be near one. Which one? Or maybe suit ourselves and go somewhere else? We lived in a state of paralysis by analysis for a few years. Slowly, a decision emerged from the fog.

Public announcement. We “came out” in Austin last winter at a huge party at our daughter's home. Through the course of the evening, “We’re thinking about moving here” morphed into “We’re planning to move here.” We called a real estate agent and began our search.

Big shift!

Delaying phase. We both had commitments in Pittsburgh that had to be completed. Although listing around the first of April would have been ideal, it did not work out that way. I stayed mellow and loose through this time. 

Big shift!

Pressure phase. When not much had happened around the first of May, I got nervous. I got tense, fretful, even bitchy. I lived in a state of chronic fear and anxiety, dreading the thought of yet another winter here, and even more, the loss of time to dig in down there. As much as I’ve loved the time we’ve spent here and all our friends, it’s time to go! My clock is ticking louder every day. Productive years could possibly be counted on fingers. No time to waste! Committing to a listing date amplified that pressure several fold. Then, Ta Dah! We were done.

Big shift.

Transition. From the time that final room was vacuumed through the time when we signed our offer, was an intense transition, packed into a very few days. As I said earlier, signing the contract was an enormous relief. Time to kick back for a day or two. Intense or not, it was different from the previous phase.

Packing up. That’s where we are right now. Things may not stay mellow. Pressure is sure to increase.

Projected big shift.

Moving. Driving two cars from here to there and getting all the loose ends in place at our new house is bound to be intense.

Projected big shift.

Settling in. I’m hoping that after the first few days,  settling in will be a relaxed affair. No need to rush. This will be the end of this story.

I can’t tell the story yet, but I can see the plot. I see tension arcs within each of these phases, or movements. I think I see the thread holding it all together, but that’s another post for another day.

Write now: Think of a period of time when you went through a transition. Jot down some thoughts about turning points or Big Shifts as the transition evolved. Can you map out a story along that path? It may be a large story or a shorter one. Give it a try.

Email As a Journaling Tool

Email-journal-BlazeAs I mentioned in my previous post, I’m journaling the heck out of this relocation experience. I may not be making as much sense of things right now as I’d like – that usually takes more time and distance. But I will have the details as I saw them when things were fresh, raw and new with all the roller coaster dips and climbs as they happen.

During this time when each moment is precious, I often face a choice: email a friend or write in my journal. As soon as I discovered email, I recognized its power as a personal history archive or journal. But who has time to sort through half a million emails to find those key 100? Especially when they’re scattered across half a dozen accounts and … you get the picture.

A couple of months ago, the lights went on. I saw a way to combine three main journaling streams – paper journal, a journal in Word, and email. I can write a long email detailing current stress and success, then copy the relevant part and paste in my Word Journal doc for the current year. That part is a no-brainer. The key to making it work for me right now is to pick up my paper journal and make a one line entry: “Aug. 30, Sunday, see Word Journal.”

I don't use my Word Journal nearly as often as my paper one. My Word one is lovely with virtual pink paper, a string of red hearts atop each page, and a handwriting font in blue ink. Realizing that layout is dependent on having that font installed and Microsoft’s history of changing document storage formats, I know better than to rely on Microsoft for long-term stability. I have 25-year-old Word Perfect files I can still access, but the layout and font info are out the window.

The simplest solution is to save each year's volume in PDF format, with the font embedded. Embedded fonts are the default if you create the PDF document with Word. PDF format is widely regarded as the most stable format for long-term accessibility. I'll also keep my word docs and revisit them every few years to keep them fresh.

Ultimately I may print them. Paper is still the most likely and accessible form for some descendant to find hidden away 85 years from now.

Returning briefly to that paper journal – sometimes I jot quick memory notes on random scraps of paper. I don't recopy those. I tear them out and stick in the relevant spot in my journal.

Write now: start adapting this system to fit your preferences. If you journal only on your computer, form the habit of pasting in relevant snips from email. If you don't have a digital journal, start one. It doesn't have to be fancy like mine. A plain old Word file will do. Just date each entry as you start and leave a couple of extra lines at the end. You can easily go to the end of the document via Ctrl+End. Hopefully a Mac user will leave a comment about how to do this in your version of Word. 

With this simple system you can have many of the benefits of journaling without ever specifically writing a journal entry!