Always Date Stories

FrustrationIf dates don’t fit in your story flow, anchor them at the end. Yesterday I had a frustrating reminder of how important this is. Read on to learn why and how to do this automatically.

Inspired by yesterday’s solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, I decided to polish up my account of viewing a total eclipse in Richland, Washington on February 26, 1979. I knew I’d written the story, but it took some digging to find the file. It was buried in a story I posted online, but I don’t know when I wrote or posted it. Ordinarily this wouldn’t matter, but today it did.

I know when the Richland eclipse occurred. That date is in the story, and I verified it online. I also refer in that document to an eclipse in Hawaii “about ten years later” that friends traveled to watch. Again, I was able to nail the date for that one online as occurring on July 1, 1991 – about twelve years later, not ten.

I have no clear idea when I wrote and posted that container story that begins with a mixed reference to celebrating Christmas and watching an eclipse in partial form in clear Pittsburgh skies while it was cloudy for some others. The original file date is 2010, but I know that’s wrong. That date signifies when I moved the file to a new hard disk. My best guess is 2003, but I’ve searched the web and can’t find anything about any USA eclipse during the early 2000s and my memory of that event has faded to the point I could doubt my own words in that story.

I’m kicking myself for not dating the story, at least in a signature line! A simple name and date would do, but there’s an easy way to ensure stories are dated with a bit more useful information. I generally begin with a story template that that includes these four lines at the end:Template-sig

I created this template using fields, a mysterious function few of us ever need to learn, though these particular ones are simple enough. The Created date is unchanging. The Edited date updates each time I resave the file. In each of these cases, you click on the Insert tab and select Date & Time. Select your preferred date format. The difference between the two is the Update Automatically option on the right of that menu. Check to see that it’s cleared for the Created date and selected for the Edited one.

The file name field is a little different. It’s also on the Insert tab, but in Word 2013 you’ll find it under Quick Parts > Field. Scroll down the list to FileName, then select your Famat option. You can, if you wish, add the full path to the filename. That used to be helpful, but today, search functions are strong enough that the filename is enough without the path. If you have a different version of Word, you can easily find out how to insert these fields using the Help function or a web search, specifying your version.

To create this template, add  your name, the filename filed, Created date field, and Edited date field to a blank document, leaving a couple of blank lines above. Format them as you wish. I like to reduce the font size a couple of points and italicize it, but that’s merely personal preference. You can add dingbats or anything you wish. You can align it to the left margin. Suit yourself.

Then save that blank document, but not as a .doc or .docx. After you name it, click the Save as type: field directly below the file name and select Word Template (*.dotx). This will place your new template in your Documents folder in a Custom Office Templates subfolder.

To use the template to begin a new story, in Word 2013 select New on the file tab, then select Personal from the line above the template icons. You’ll find your  new template there. Select it and write your story.

This all sounds way more complicated that it is. The five or ten minutes you may spend mucking around to create this template will ensure that you’ll know when you first wrote a story. It would have solved my dilemma today.

If you forget and begin a story in a standard file, no problem. Just copy it all: use Ctrl+a)to select all, then paste it into a new template page and resave.

Now that I think of it, I’m going to add this snippet to my default template so it will be on EVERY document I create. I can always delete it later. If this sounds like a good idea to you, do a YouTube search for “editing default template Word (your version).”

Here’s to anchoring dates!

Politics, Religion and Sex

Ike-&-Stephenson-buttons

Janet Givens published a powerful post about the importance of speaking out and writing about politics today. Janet is always articulate and her PhD studies in political science especially qualifies her in this regard. I urge you to read it, paying attention to her reminder that politics, religion, and sex were three topics most of us were taught to stay quiet about in polite company.

I leave it to Janet to cover the matter of speaking out and posting on Facebook about politics today. Now it’s time to give thought to all three taboo topics and the role they play in memoir and lifestory writing.

In one significant respect, individual lifestories are like Lego blocks in human history. History is built of individual lives. Most formal history is written by victors and shaped to fit their biases. We can do our part by sharing our own.

In my last post, I mentioned my granddaughter who wants to learn about history. She wants me to tell her what life was like “back then.” I’ll do her the greatest favor if I couch my experience in relation to what was going on in the world, at least the part of the world that most affected me.

In my case, growing up in Los Alamos had a profound effect on my world view. I firmly believed Los Alamos would have been one of the first targets if the Evil Russians started lobbing A-bombs at the USA.

I can attest that my understanding of world events in those years was shaky, based at least in part on one radio report I hear in about 1954 that the USSR would overtake the USA within a couple of years. My naïve ears heard overtake as overrun. That’s all my young mind could take in. I envisioned brutal combat soldiers running down our street with helmets and bayonets on their rifles. My blood ran cold, and I was too scared to discuss this report with my parents. Many years later I realized that the report was true. The USSR did overtake the USA in the space race within a couple of years. (Score one for perceptual inaccuracy.)

That scare only strengthened my awareness of The Bomb. I lived in the epicenter of Bomb research. I went to school with offspring of the men who developed better bombs. We gathered in the school gym to listen to tests in the Pacific. I was secretly relieved that my dad made sodium pumps for reactors, not bombs. Even so, bomb shelters were everywhere, complete with radiation symbols on doors.

My terror was the result of political decisions and the advance of scientific discovery. My salvation from that fear sprang from religion, watered down though it was. Early in my high school career I spotted a rainbow, a common sight in the Jemez mountains where Los Alamos lay. I recalled the promise, “I will never again destroy the earth.”

I stopped short of the conclusion to that verse, “by water.” I needed the comfort of totality. God will watch out for us! I moved on to fret about other things.

How can I write about my early life without mentioning those political and religious (maybe spiritual is a better word here) events? Or the pride I felt that my grandmother was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in both 1952 and 56? Or how my third grade class squared off into separate lines and chanted I LIKE IKE! rebutted by STEVENSON! STEVENSON! while we waited for the teacher to open the door. I can expand just a bit to give a small sense of the historical links.

Sex? Well, that’s a matter of personal taste. It may be more relevant to some than others. Personally the thought of reading or hearing intimate details of my forebears’ sex lives has creeped me out. But if sexual assault or abuse is part of your past, how can you not mention it? Or, you may recall days of wondering what it was all about. That’s something nearly everyone can relate to. A first kiss? Maybe.

My perspective on privacy is not shared with everyone. Suzanne White’s memoir, Unmitigated Gaul, goes into jaw-dropping detail about her obsession, beginning at an early age, with self-pleasuring. That’s not the central theme, but a continuing thread running through most of the book. To be fair, shocking though it was at first, she does, in my opinion, handle it tastefully, weaving it into an often hilarious account. She’s a great example of how to handle intimate topics with light-handed finesse.

You don’t need to make politics, religion (spirituality if you prefer), or sex a dominant focus, but you’ll give your story more substance if you weave in a few strands of each and place yourself in the greater world.

Collaboration: The Easiest Way to Write Your Lifestory

Questions

A few days ago I spent some quality time alone with my 11-year-old California granddaughter, a rare treat. We started looking at family photos, which led to stories and questions. Lots and lots of questions, the kind that belong on Story Idea Lists.

“What was life like during the 1900s?”

“That’s a big question, and lots of years. Life was much different in 1900 than in 1999. Which part are you interested in?”

“All of it.”

I began helping her break things down. I handed her the copy of The Albuquerque Years I’ve been keeping on a shelf for when she was old enough to read and appreciate it. That’s the mini-memoir I wrote of my preschool years, and it was the naïve, off-the-top-of-my-head project that lit my enduring passion for lifestory. You can download a copy from the Books tab above.

Next she began peppering me with questions such as “How did my mom and dad meet?” I wasn’t there, but I think they met in a lab.  You’ll have to ask him for more details. “How did you and Grandpa meet?” That one I could answer.

Now I realize that asking all my grandchildren, and also my children, to pose questions on a continuing basis can result in the most valuable, relevant, and interesting document possible. For now I’ll answer each question in the form of a letter or Flash Memoir (see Jane Hertenstein's Memoirous blog for more info about flash memoir). Most likely each one will result in more questions. But how hard can it be to answer questions? Uhm, some could get tricky. The questions are likely to get deeper over time and stray into territory I may find uncomfortable. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Ruth Pennebaker is taking a similar approach in her Love, Coco XO blog. This blog is a series of letters that began when her granddaughter Ellie was born way up in Seattle two years ago. Ruth is sharing her insights and passions about life, love. feminism, politics, and whatever she thinks Ellie should know as she grows old enough to read and understand.

The main difference between Ruth’s blog and what I’m setting out to do is that Ellie is too young to pose questions, so Ruth writes about her current passions and inspirations. That can work well too. Ruth has a string of published books. Perhaps we’ll see Letters to Ellie one of these years. Right now Ruth is posting on  a blog. I’ll probably stick to short documents I can attach to emails.

This collaborative approach could be your main memoir thrust, or it could supplement projects you may have underway.

Have you written anything yet in response to family questions? Tell us about it!

Three Cheers for Word’s Grammar Check

Grammar Check is not perfect, but it keeps improving, and I’ve come to rely on it as a polishing tool. The short video above gives you a bird’s eye view of how the combination of Spelling and Grammar Check work in tandem.

Until recently I ignored the Grammar Check function in Word, because only a small percentage of the items it flagged were relevant, and my writing style is, well, some might say quirky. That has changed largely changed. My writing is still quirky, but Grammar Check gets that better. The percentage of relevant flags has improved to the point they are all worth considering, though some will still be off-base.

Whether I’m working on my own document or someone else’s, I polish the piece as well as I can the traditional way. Then I click over to the Review tab and click Spelling & Grammar to check grammar. I leave it off while I’m writing for two reasons. It’s distracting, and it can stifle creativity. Grammar Check is rule bound. Spellbinding phrases may transcend rules. Give your Inner Artist free reign. Write with colorful creativity, then use Grammar Check to tweak the results rather than stifling them.

I keep Spell Check on all the time, but only run Grammar Check as a last pass tool. It picks up easily missed things like periods outside quotation marks or missing Oxford commas. It alerts me to passive sentences. Or not. You can set the factors you want it to check. You can select a specific one, or you can activate all 35. Depending on what I’m working on, I use about six.

This next video shows how to select which factors to activate. This is especially  helpful for rechecks where you only want to check one or two things.

These videos are based on Word 2013. You may find slight differences in older or newer versions. Never forget that any time you have tech questions about software, YouTube is an entire university at your fingertips. Some videos are more helpful than others, so if you don’t find an answer on your first try, watch another.

When you look at the list of options, or read explanations in the Review panel that opens on the right side of your screen, you may see things you don’t understand. Look them up. You will always find the answer online. Use a search engine, not the help button in Word.

You may decide you won’t bother with this step because you plan to pay an editor. Please understand that your editor may well be using these same tools, and you can save time and money by doing this yourself so your editor can focus on what really matters. A few times I’ve been baffled about what the heck a client was trying to say. That invoked an additional round of editing and extra charges. Grammar Check would have red-flagged those areas, saving that client lots of money and both of us frustration.

You can find other grammar checkers online. Grammerly.com may be the best known and gets high ratings. Teachers often use it to check student work for plagiarism, but that won’t be a problem for you.  It’s now available as a free Chrome extension. I have not used it, so can’t personally vouch for it. My documents are usually long, and pasting them into an online checker seems tedious, to say the least. But it may work well for you.

Rather than give you review links that may soon be out of date, I suggest you search for “online grammar checker reviews”.

Here’s to clear, flowing rivers of writing, thanks to the help of sophisticated digital editors.

Lessons from Old Acquaintances

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In a post on the Daily OM website, Madisyn Taylor sets the stage for a magnificent writing opportunity:

. . . when fate brings old friends back into our lives, there is always a reason. They may act as messengers, reminding us of a part of ourselves we have forgotten to nurture. They might appear to give us a chance to react in a new way to an old situation. They may even bring up unresolved issues so that we may complete them, giving us the chance to move forward on our life path.

Write on Madisyn! She attributes the reappearance of old friends to fate. But who cares how we explain it? You don’t have to subscribe to any particular belief system to see that however they reappear and whatever the reason, they can indeed offer learning opportunities. In fact, so can casual acquaintances and arch enemies.

I have good news. You do not have to have direct contact with these people to learn from them. They don’t even have to be alive. Memory is enough, perhaps even better, because it reflects only your reaction and reality, and that’s something you can work with. You can safely meet anyone on the page.

Give it a try. Think of a stimulating or challenging relationship from your past. Spend a few minutes replaying memories. Then get out pen and paper and reconnect on the page using questions like these:

  • How do I feel about this person and memory? Name the feeling(s)
  • What happened to cause me to feel that way? Was it something I did or someone else?
  • Would I feel the same way if it happened today?
  • What do I know now that I didn’t know then? How have my attitudes and beliefs changed?
  • How else can I look at the situation? About others involved, circumstances and/or self
  • What would I do differently if a genie gave me do-overs?

Use the list as suggestions. Each situation is different. Chose your questions to fit the occasion. I do recommend writing by hand at this early stage. Research has shown that writing by hand activates most of your brain while keyboarding engages mainly the frontal part. Hooking in those extra brain cells is likely to trigger richer memory and detail and flesh out the heart of your story. Keyboarding is fine for the craft.

When you feel finished with questions, you’re ready to turn your responses into story, incorporating insights you gained from the list. For example, nail the original memory with something like, Trixie called me a coward. I turned and walked away so nobody would see me cry.

Then add insight and proposed do-over: Eventually I realized that she was a bully, and I should have stood my ground. Today I’d ask, “Trixie, I’ve never seen you do that. Go ahead. Do it. Show me how brave YOU are.” Or something like that. I’d speak calmly, but firmly. When you write your version, flesh out the scene with  more context and detail to give readers a full experience.

At least two powerful things are likely to result from this exercise. First, the new power response will be embedded in that memory, probably forever. Each time you recall that event, you’re going to feel stronger, some would say healed.

Then, assuming you share your story with your writing group, family members or friends (and that’s strictly voluntary), they are likely to benefit from your insight. They may remember and re-view a similar circumstance to their benefit. Or they may learn from your example and be better prepared to deal with a situation that has yet to arise.

Come to think of it, I feel ready now to write about a dysfunctional company I worked for twenty years ago. If I had written about it then, I would have done so primarily from a victim perspective. Today, after years of sporadic journaling, I realize how naïve I was at the time and see many things I could have done to improve at least my corner of that messy world. Twenty years ago I thought of writing an exposé, but I was afraid I’d sued by that major corporation. Writing from today’s more informed perspective, I’m certain I could safely publish a compelling, beneficial account. But the moment has passed. My memory of that time has dimmed, and other stories seem more compelling. I’ve learned what I need to know and that’s enough.

Lessons Learned about Lifestory Writing, Part 2

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My previous post gave the background for lessons I’ve learned about lifestory writing since The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing was published ten years ago. This post continues the list.

5) Stories without shadows are flat — It’s not easy to share stories about embarrassing or hurtful memories. But these are precisely the stories that add heart and connect with readers. Shadows add the third dimension to stories.

6) When you change your perspective on life and the past, life changes – several years ago as I began writing about growing up in Los Alamos, I hesitated. How could I write about my chronic feelings of being outside the group, of not fitting in and being different? I did not want my classmates to know they had hurt me, and I didn’t want to make them feel bad or sound like a victim. Using tools I’ve described in previous posts and will include in my new book, I realized most of those feelings were in my head, based on my assumptions and perceptions. I felt like the door to a  prison cell opened and began discovering legions of others felt the same way.

7) Sharing our stories connects us with others – My term for daring to show emotional vulnerability in writing or daily life is “baring your belly” in the sense of exposing  a vulnerable body part. Baring your belly takes trust and guts. It is true that a few readers may sneer at perceived weakness or feel squeamish. Far more will relate and feel empowered to bare their own bellies in story.

8) Neuro-science based guidelines for connecting with readers – A growing body of research relevant to writers is rendered approachable by authors like Lisa Cron. In her book, Wired for Story she translates the technical into easily understood strategies. She provides clear, convincing strategies for grabbing readers by the eyeballs as mirror cells wake up in their brains. Active mirror cells create an effect much like total immersion in a holographic version of the author’s experience. Learning how this works and how to apply it is a work in progress.

9) Writing is good for your health — After The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing was published, I learned of the work of James Pennebaker, whose pioneering research on the healing power of expressive writing has been replicated hundreds of times. These studies uniformly show that writing about traumatic, troubling memories, even for a short period of time, helps resolve those memories and improves physical and mental health in countless ways. My archived blog, Writing for the Health of It, includes dozens of posts on this topic.

10) Lifestory writing can be transformational for writer and readers alike – Wouldn’t it be awful if we had to learn every life lesson first hand? Who wouldn’t prefer to learn lots of the tough stuff by reading about someone else’s experience? Quite possibly the plethora of survivor memoirs today is due in large part to brave pioneers who began the trend of what several have called “writing themselves naked.” If someone else overcame (addiction, abuse, incest, deaths of dear ones, etc.), readers may be inspired to do likewise.

Note that this list does not include additional mastery of topics like writing dialogue or description or piecing stories together along a story arc. I’ve made no mention of creating eBooks, selling books, or other technical skills. Those are craft topics. I’ve stuck to the heart of lifestory writing in this list.

I would not have learned any of these lessons if I hadn’t gotten my fingers moving all those years ago. Writing, especially life writing, is a lifelong journey. If you haven’t begun yet, pick up a pencil or head for your keyboard NOW!

Ten Years of Lessons about Lifestory Writing, Part 1

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As I consider lessons I’ve learned about the heart of lifestory writing, I think back to the first class I taught for the Carnegie Mellon University Osher Program ten years ago. I’d taught several classes on this topic before without qualms. But here . . . at Carnegie Mellon . . .  ropes of anxiety bound my chest. My Inner Critic exploded to life:

What do you really know? What are YOU doing in these hallowed halls? You might bluff your way through a Senior Center class, but this is CARNEGIE MELLON. They expect the best. They expect EXPERTISE!

In case that wasn’t enough, within minutes one woman in that first class boldly announced that she had just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh’s nationally renowned MFA program in creative non-fiction.

You’re screwed! She knows more than you do, and she’ll know you’re a fake. Quick! Run out of the room RIGHT NOW! Go home and don’t answer the phone for a year.

I’m not a quitter! I’ll give it my best shot, and we’ll see where it goes. Besides, with that one possible exception, I know more about lifestory writing than anyone in this room, and that’s something. 

Taking a deep breath, I plunged in. I was weeks away from the official release date for The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, published by Lighthouse Point Press. I knew quite a lot, but Inner Critics are hard to placate or silence. I took a deep breath and plunged in after explaining that although I knew a lot, I didn’t know everything, that I continued to learn more, and we’d all learn from each other.

The class went well. CMU Osher invited me to teach again. And again. Eventually I also taught for the University of Pittsburgh Osher LLI program, across Panther Hollow from CMU. Teaching for the Osher programs at CMU and Pitt are among my most treasured memories of the years I spent in Pittsburgh. I’d always dreamed of teaching at an esteemed university. That dream came true in an unexpected and welcome way. As classes progressed, some students were new, but many returned, time after time. “I don’t write when I’m not in a class, and I always learn something new in yours.”

Well, yes. They learned something new because I continue to learn something new and share what I learn. May that always be so! Much of what I learned came from reading their stories with them. I recently stopped to survey what I’ve learned over the past ten years. Some lessons come from experience and others from newly published research. It’s challenging to sort them into a linear list, because many are intertwined, but I’ve given it my best shot and you can read the first four of ten items on the list below:

1) You don’t learn this stuff all at once — I began with piles of short stories. I polished them as well as I knew how. And I kept reading and writing and revising. I learned about scenes and story arc and building stronger connection with readers. I discovered that the more I wrote, the more perspective I gained on life and myself. What a bonus! The adventure continues, and I hope I never quit learning.

2) You don’t learn this stuff alone – I’m more firmly convinced than ever that writing is best done as a collaborative, team sport. You can improve your writing by yourself, but you’ll learn more and learn faster in a class or a writing group. At the very least, find some trusted critique partners online.

3) One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read – Painters study works of the masters to learn technique. Writers can do the same thing. Find fiction or memoir writers you love and pay attention to how they structure stories and use words to pull you in. Read voraciously and constantly. Join a book group.

4) Importance of clear purpose and focus — I learned this more deeply from reading students’ stories than my own. Some stories seemed to ramble without any point. “What are you trying to tell us? What’s the most important thing you want readers to remember?” I ask. They get it.

To be continued in the next post.

By the way, that MFA grad? I quickly discovered that she had not covered this subject in her studies. Furthermore, I couldn’t tell from her stories that she’d ever had a class of any sort. Who knows? Moral of that story? Never make assumptions! Claim whatever power you have and forge ahead.

What writing life lessons have you learned? I invite you to share in a comment.

Lifestory Writers Need a Village

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Fellow blogger Linda Austin included a reminder in a post on MoonbridgeBooks that at least for stories about the larger family, the more family members you involve in the process, the more complete and vibrant the book will be.

Amen to that! Especially when you’re writing about multiple generations within your family. The principle still pertains when focus is solely on self, but in the latter case, you may be better advised to rely on a group of writing buddies rather than relatives. Writing buddies won’t try to hijack your story and feed your inner critic by reminding you “That’s not the way it was!” or “You sure do have a creative memory” or “Why would you write about that?

Whether writing about self or family, every lifestory writer needs a village of collaborators at various stages. These are people you can turn to for inspiration, encouragement, feedback and more. Your writing buddies, whether a formal group or scattered people, can help neutralize Inner Critic assaults. They can tell you when you’ve talked about people without saying who they are or jumbled your timeline. They can warm your heart with wows. They can jog your memory. They can throw logs on the fire and hold your feet to it to keep you writing when the coals run low.

I might quit writing without my village. Mine consists of students, former and present. Local writing groups. Losing my Pittsburgh groups was the biggest wrench in moving to Austin, but Austin is crawling with writers, so I was quickly at home. NAMW is an important part of my village. Most of my village lives in my computer. You are part of it, especially when you leave comments here or on Facebook.

You’ll notice I’ve been slow to post lately. Ditto on working on my book. Hey villagers, keep my feet to that fire. Let me hear it!

If you don’t already have one, find a village, online or in town. Write your heart out, then craft the draft. Persist with your writing. I invite you to share your experience with your writing village in a comment. Or leave a suggestion for others on how to find or build a village of their own. Or tell me to get off the dime and WRITE!

Don’t Wait Too Long

Ben-Melton-1998As I mentioned in my last post, my father died last month. The last few weeks I’ve become obsessed about writing family stories while digging through genealogy material and old pictures. I’m finding dozens of dots I never noticed before and discovering new insights with roots that reach beyond the Civil War.

One of the most touching things I’ve found is this emailed letter from my father that’s been lurking in my files for a couple of years. He must have memorized this piece. He recited it, almost verbatim, with a few new embellishments, the last time I talked to him, shortly before he died. I’ve been wishing I’d thought to turn on my phone recorder that day, but no matter. Turns out, I already had the transcript. I don’t think he’ll mind my sharing it as a tribute to him with a message for all of us.


Reflections on my life
Ben Melton, June 25, 2015

The most beautiful woman I ever met (1943):

Marjie in scarf

The most beautiful (the same one) woman I ever met, with me, 50 years later:

Ben & Marje, 50 years later

I’ve led a wonderful life. 

I married the prettiest girl. My children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren are good-looking, good-natured and brilliant.

I’ve had, and have some wonderful friends.

In a multi-faceted career, I’ve had some exciting, interesting and rewarding jobs.

I’ve shot the biggest deer I ever saw, caught the biggest salmon I ever saw, flown the hottest (in my day) bomber, and the biggest bomber, and done acrobatics in a fighter plane.

I’ve survived multiple encounters with the grim reaper in the air, on the highway and in the operating room.

Fortunately, I’ve had a few dull moments to round out the spectrum.

My life doesn’t owe me a thing.  It has already delivered more than I could possibly ask for.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because if I wait too long, I’ll lose the opportunity to express my awe and gratitude for a richly rewarding life!

Love,

Ben sigBen's Snoopy Plane

gDad


In that recent phone call he added, “I’ve done everything I was ever afraid to do except jump out of an airplane. I didn’t do that when I had the chance because I’d hurt my foot and was afraid I’d break my leg when I landed.” Reality-based fears like that are worth respecting!

At 187 words, this letter is a clear example of a mini or micro-memoir with a theme of gratitude. It’s also a love story and a celebration of life. It hints at obstacles overcome. It touches on triumphs with faint whispers of shadows, which he did not dwell on.

He wrote other stories too, but this is his capstone. It could have been his obituary if we’d remembered we had it. What a wonderful legacy he has left. I’m in tears all over again.

I hope this can serve as an example that less may be more. Pay special attention to his last words:

 Why am I telling you all this?  Because if I wait too long, I’ll lose the opportunity to express my awe and gratitude for a richly rewarding life!

It doesn’t need to take a lot of words. Now, get those fingers flying and write on!

Write Bites and Sight Bites: Memory Capture Tools


Especially during busy, turbulent times, tiny tidbits of micro-memoir in the form of write bites and sight bites can help preserve the essence of memories for future elaboration.

The past several weeks have been turbulent. The turbulence began in late March when I had a diagnostic heart catheterization procedure, then learned right after that I needed a pacemaker immediately to regulate increasingly frequent skipped heartbeats. The pacemaker is working fine, but complications from the cath procedure have taken a few weeks to resolve.

As all that began settling down, I had a strong sense that I needed to buy a ticket and fly up to Richland, Washington right that minute, to tell my 96-year-old father goodbye. Although I was on a plane three hours later, I did not make it in time. My brother caught me with the news just before I boarded a connecting flight in Dallas. But that was okay. We’d already said good-bye a few times. Perhaps that inner urge arose from the fact that I needed to be up there right then for an intense week of sorting things out.

Sooner or later, this period of time and related events will emerge in fleshed out story form connected with memories of my dad. In the meantime, raw impressions, random thoughts, and a timeline of recent events are scribbled in my journal in a form I’m calling Write Bites. The following few are typical.
I've never had such a clear sense of “before and after” as I’ve had the last four days since getting my pacemaker. Life has changed in some dramatic way I don’t yet fully fathom.
I've always felt secretive about health matters. How rewarding and liberating to receive tremendous support from disclosure. 
I never expected to be one of those people who talk about life and death drama on a cellphone in an airport boarding area. I tried to talk quietly, but I did stay in my seat and I know a few people heard. 
I've seldom been as relieved as I was when I saw George's text telling me he was waiting to pick me up at the airport. I would not have to spend half an hour driving a strange car through the, confusing maze of streets to his house in the middle of the rainy night. 
I just realized my father was only interested in the headlines of people's lives, not the details. He was a story teller par excellence, but not a listener.
I wrote a lot more than that, but I hope you can see that write bites like these are enough to take me back into the moment. They’re also enough to give those who know me some sense of what was going on. In fact, they are closely akin to Story Idea List entries, which also fall into the category of Write Bites.

Another tool I used a lot was my cell camera. I snapped the sight bite picture above from my seat on the plane. The thought Mother Nature is crying with me ran through my mind when I saw those raindrops on the window next to my seat, minutes after calling the family. The flag image in the background seemed a fitting symbol. My dad proudly retired as a Lt. Colonel from the USAF Reserves, and this picture evokes the military honors he received at his inurnment a few days later. It’s an odd photo without the story, but as a sight bite, it strongly brings back the reality of that moment.

So what do you do when life gets intense? Jot a few write bites. If your journal isn't handy, use your phone or whatever you can find to write on — and/or use the camera to snap a sight bite. Someday you may want to flesh out that micro-memoir at length.

Connecting Dots to Find Story

Connect-dotsMy cousins and I play an ongoing game of Connect the Dots as we try to piece together a fuller picture of our forebears’ lives. What we are learning opens choices about how to shape stories we leave behind.

The most intriguing set of dots right now involves my great-grandmother, Matilda Evelyn Grammer, who married Robert Milo Roberts, son of Governor Roberts of Texas when she was not quite 16 and he was 37. When she was widowed at 26, she was responsible for two nearly-grown step-children and four of her own, ranging from one to ten years old. Two years later, she married Paul Arthur Preuit, the (great)grandfather my cousins and I share. We know quite a bit about the Preuit part of her life, but her life with Roberts Roberts is largely a blank. We’re working on that.

Last year a cousin wanted to know if I could tell her anything about the possibility her mother (my aunt) lived for a short time with my father’s family – before my parents were married. That opened a  new package of dots about both our families and the enduring friendship between these aunts. 

Why does this matter? Why do we play Connect the Dots?

Our brains are wired to crave story, drilling down to details and closure. What is closure? Understanding WHY things happened and WHAT they mean. To some extent, we look to the past to explain how things are now, and imagine how they might be as we move forward. We explore examples of ancestors to make sense of ourselves and how we can handle the curves life may throw.

As my cousins and I continue to dig, we’ll find more information about where people lived and maybe glimpses of what they did, but for the most part, we’ll have to make up story to connect those dots. We’ll know, for example, that in 1888, Texas women did not have air-conditioned houses and we’ll speculate about what life must have been like as they toiled in gardens and doing laundry in the blazing Texas summers in long sleeves and long skirts. We’ll have to wonder if mid-wives helped deliver Grandmother Tilly’s children, or perhaps a doctor drove up in his buggy just in time.

We’ll conclude that we come from a line of tough women who knew how to survive. We’ll never know how Grandmother Tilly felt about the ups and downs of her life. What were her regrets? Did she wonder what life would have been like “if only”?

Implications for Life Writers

We can document our lives on two levels, detail and meaning. Details give the dots. Our descendants will know what happened when, in general terms. That leaves them to wonder and connect dots themselves, the best they can.

We can do them a favor and connect the dots for them, writing stories rich in reflection and insight. We can show the lessons we learn and what the bumps we roll over mean to us. These rich stories will satisfy our descendants, helping them quickly and easily understand us and our times.

The key to writing these rich stories is to take the time with each story we write to ask ourselves

  • Why did this happen?
  • What does it mean?
  • What did I learn?

Include the answers to these questions in your story and intrigue readers of any time and generation. They’ll thank you for making the effort.

If you don’t have time or inclination to dig so deeply, fret not. Keep writing anyway. Remember,

Anything you write is better than writing nothing.

At the very least, you’ll leave them dots to connect if they wish.

Three Tips to DemystifyTense

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Question: “Is it ever okay to switch tenses in a story?”

Answer: Since you included the word ever, the answer is yes. Sometimes switching up your tenses adds power and interest. But generally no. These tips should take the tension out of working with tense and help you decide.

#1 – In general, choose one and stick to either present or past.

Because we may switch back and forth naturally in conversation, tense changes can slip easily into writing. It may take a keen eye to notice it, but some people will. Pointless switches signal lax editing and may be confusing. Only switch when you have a clear reason.

Present tense can enhance the tension and make short stories with lots of drama even more compelling to read. It’s an especially good choice for stories written to stand on their own. Past tense may feel more natural and works well for anthologies, composite stories, and memoir.

#2 – You may need to mix tenses if you are writing in the present about someone who died.

For example:

My father loved to tell stories about the olden days, and every now and then he e-mailed stories about cowboys, hunting jack rabbits, raising chickens and other nostalgic topics to family and friends. He was a masterful storyteller, and his work is polished and entertaining. Although it barely scratches the surface of his life, it’s a cherished legacy. We looked forward to each story.

He DID love, and his (remaining) work (still) IS . . .  Mixing tenses is the only accurate way to state this and other cases where one thing is gone and a related one endures. This sort of shift is clear and easily understood.

#3 – Switching tense for flashbacks may be a powerful option and set them apart.

If your main story is written in the past tense and you reflect back to an especially dramatic scene, it can work well to write that scene in present tense, bringing the reader into the moment. Conversely, past tense makes sense for flashbacks inserted into stories written in present tense. Even if the reader does not specifically notice the shift in time, the change of tense signals it to the unconscious, preventing most confusion. Tips on writing successful flashbacks abound on line.

Think of tense as a two-lane highway with fast-moving traffic. In general it works best to stick with your lane. Look carefully for the right time and signal your intent when you have reason to change.