October 13, 2014

On Hiatus, Part 2

Break timeI’m touched by the outpouring of people who contacted me yesterday after reading that terse notice that I’m taking a break from blogging. Thank you for your concern, my friends! I’m deeply touched to realize the extent of the cyber community that has developed among those of us writing our lives.

But never fear. All is well. It’s just time to formalize the break that had already begun with  no plan. It’s time to reevaluate the purpose of this blog and what I want to achieve. A month or more offline will be digital detox to restore clear vision and balance.

A primary focus for me has always been to pay back the pot for all the golden information others shared with me, and to provide help and encouragement for those who lack the resources for high admission events. If people buy my books as a result, so much the better!

The blogosphere and memoir community have grown and evolved over the nearly nine years since I began this blog, and so have my interests, perspectives and skills. When I began, the few websites available were mostly bait to get people to sign up for expensive classes and services. Sites like that still flourish, but there’s plenty of free fodder to graze on – more than anyone can possibly keep up with.

A secondary aim has been to encourage those who write for personal growth and to create a legacy of family history. Publishing is great. Fame and fortune are great. The web is full of advice – good, bad and indifferent – on how to polish and promote your product to make that happen. I hope to keep people aware that unpolished, unpublished pebbles are also worthy of respect.

I admit that I’ve neared burnout on social media and my passion for posting has cooled. But embers till glow. I do expect to be back, refreshed, reconnected with passion, full of new ideas.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received is “You make me think!” I hear that enough often enough, from a broad enough base, to realize that may be my greatest skill and primary value. I feel on the threshold of Big Thoughts myself. Writing will help crack that shell. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, for poignant memoir writing tips similar to things I post, please visit Elizabeth-Anne Kim’s inspired and compassionate blog, Lives In Letters. Elizabeth is a local writing friend, a generation younger than I. I’m a huge fan of her fresh insights and amazed at the depth of her knowledge. She’s living proof to me that wisdom knows no boundaries of age, and she fuels my hope for the future.

I invite you to join me for in digital detox if you’re flaming out, and write on, as I shall always do.

September 11, 2014

Tips for Dealing with Details

eyeball-bulge

Several pages into a highly recommended memoir, a factual error popped my eyeballs nearly out of my head. Can you find the mistake?

In September 1963, the Cuban and Russian governments placed
          nuclear bombs in Cuba.
In October 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended….
In November 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In December 1963, I was born….

The Cuban Crisis was in 1962! Both that event and the JFK assassination are indelibly burned into my memory. The author can’t remember, I thought, but how could something this obvious slip by the editing involved in a traditionally published book? I checked Wikipedia to be absolutely sure, then kept reading. Along the way, I found half a dozen typos, and by the time I finished, I’d found several loose ends in the story along with an apparent contradiction.

But still, I do appreciate the book and its many strengths. The story is powerful and the author’s voice superb. I understand the book’s appeal. The mess saddens me on the author’s behalf.

In one sense I felt vindicated that such casual editing was released by an established publisher when self-published authors are widely slammed for flooding the market with slop. But the point is to write your personal best, not to meet standards.

Whether you are writing a few stories for family or a major opus for the world, these guidelines will help you smooth wrinkles in your stories.

Check your facts. Always validate times, dates or places, if you’re sure you know. Those erroneous dates for the Cuban crisis may be accepted as factual reality by younger readers. Your error about a birthplace or date could throw genealogists into a tizzy years down the road.

Look for loose ends. They may be subtle. For example, this author doesn’t mention how she generated income, but despite a divorce, she spent money like it grows on trees. She says she remarried. To the man she had the amazing relationship with?

Look for conflicts. She reports reflections of someone with her son’s name who met a celebrity she was about to meet. It makes no sense that her young son would have met this person before she did, or that he would relate such a mature impression. Ebooks make searching easy. No other person with that name was mentioned at any other time. Confusing!

Look for missing information. She cites results of certain studies with assurance. The topic is new to me and I’d like to read more. I don’t need footnotes, but I’d love to see an appendix with references and suggested reading.

Rely on beta readers. You aren’t likely to notice loose ends or missing information, because you fill in the blanks from memory as you read. Even family members may gloss over omissions like these. Discerning readers who aren’t privy to the backstory will pick them up in a flash.

Don’t rely too heavily on professional editors. I don’t know what shape this manuscript was in when it arrived on the editor’s desk. Perhaps she did as much as she was able in the time allotted to meet deadline or budget. Maybe loose ends fly under her radar. If you are paying for editing, remember that more time means more money, so have things in the best shape you can before you seek help. Professional or not, nobody is perfect, and any given reader will fail to notice something. Have two or three more people read for further edits and errors after the formal edit is done.

Be gentle with yourself. Readers love this book in spite of its flaws. Write great stories, give them your best shot, and then chill. If you pour your heart into them, readers view mistakes with compassion – if they notice them at all. Many won’t.

Write now: if you don’t already have a writing group or a list of trusted beta readers, find or start a group and begin a search among friends, local or online, who can read pre-release versions and give you reliable feedback.

September 01, 2014

Accentuate the Positive


Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-inate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mr. Inbetween.

Who doesn't recognize the value of this sage advice from the 1945 hit sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters? But you may not realize the power of this advice for your writing when applied at the micro-level of sentences. I'm not talking here about avoiding negative topics. I'm talking about the value of rephrasing sentences from negative statements to positive.

One of the most compelling examples of this is found in an online article, Kurdish Female Warriors On the Front Lines Fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The lead paragraph states:

A notoriously fierce segment of the Kurdish security forces are striking terror into the hearts of ISIS terrorists – female fighters. The Jihadists have no problem slaughtering defenseless women but they don't like facing armed female warriors in battle – because they don't believe they'll go to heaven if they're killed by one of them.

In actual fact, those Jihadists DO believe they WON’T go to heaven if…

These tips will help you avoid false negatives.

Tell what IS rather than what ISN'T

Instead of writing "It wasn't raining that day," tell the reader, "The rain finally stopped" or "Dry weather that day allowed us to ..." or "My heart soared when I looked out the window that morning and saw patches of blue in the sky."

Do you see what's happening here? That negative statement implies a lot of things, but swinging it around to a positive, affirmative statement avoids a slightly onerous or whiney tone and creates space for discussing advantages and opportunities. Let's look at a few more examples of reversal:

Edward was not tall.Edward was of average height, able to disappear in a crowd.
The meeting was not marred by any discord.Discord was averted and the meeting ran smoothly.
Every time I worked overtime it didn’t show up in my paycheck.None of the times I worked overtime showed up in my paycheck.

Use precision wording

The paragraph about Jihadists is a prime example of imprecise wording. So is “all men are not tall” as cited in an earlier post, Brain Thorns. Examine each negative statement to be sure that is exactly what you intend to say.

View negative statements as opportunities to enhance the message

Rewording the description of Edward gives a better sense of his appearance, and the paycheck statement is awkwardly stated in several regards. The revision shifts the negative aspect to the subject, using a positive verb. The revised sentence flows smoothly, and the meaning is more clear.

Use negative statements sparingly for emphasis

Strongly worded negative statements have tremendous impact. George Washington’s purported statement, “I cannot tell a lie,” would not made history books if he’d said, “I must tell the truth.” How else could you state “The eyes don’t lie” without changing the meaning?

The paycheck statement is inherently negative and must be so for precise meaning. The obvious intent is to emphasize the inequitable situation. Revising yet again to state “Not a single one of the times I worked overtime ever showed up in my paycheck” adds additional emphasis and impact.

So, you see, by paying to detail, you can convey an upbeat, finely tuned, high impact message without sounding like Pollyanna. Consider every sentence and explore ways to ensure precise meaning and smooth flow. Trust me, smoothing sentences gets easier with practice.

Write now: Search several old stories in your collection and look for negative statements that would benefit from flipping or rewording.

August 25, 2014

Five Powerhouse P's for Your Memoir Opening

Hot-ParagraphEveryone knows that the first paragraph of a story is the most important and often determines whether a reader will continue or set the story aside. Follow tips in this guest post from Matilda Butler to learn how to gain instant reader connection with a hot opening paragraph. Read the tips, then put them into practice by entering the “First Paragraph” Contest described below the tips.

Don’t dawdle about the contest. Entries are due by midnight PDT September 3. It’s only a few words, so you can do it! If you are already nodding your head, then here's the link to the contest rules http://bit.ly/URBTFh

Still Working on Your Opening and Want Suggestions?

In my previous life as president of a small high tech company, we regularly set our goals around the 4 P's of marketing (Product, Place, Price, Promotion). In my current life as writer and writing coach, I've spent an inordinate amount of energy focused on opening sentences and opening paragraphs. A few years ago, I even did a series called Opening Salvos and a second one called Memoir Moments with both delving into effective openings. This led me to develop 5 P's of openings (People, Place, Plot Problem, Persuasion, Prose).

What's the big deal? The opening paragraph is just a paragraph. Your book will have many paragraphs but it is the first one that will probably determine if a reader stays around long enough to see all those other paragraphs you've carefully constructed.

Let me share five P's that will move you toward a powerful opening:

#1. People: There are two groups of people to consider for your first paragraph --audience and characters in your story. Picture your audience, a reader or even a room full of readers. Who are they? Why would they be interested in your story? What needs do they have that your book meets? How can you engage them emotionally in your story?

Once you have thought through your audience, see if one or two characters in your story can be introduced in the opening paragraph in a way to engage that audience you've just spent time understanding. How will you introduce your character? With dialogue? With descriptive detail? Does your reader begin to ask himself or herself questions about your character, to interact with your story? If so, then you have a strong first paragraph and you've hooked your reader.

Remember, the first paragraph is when you begin the relationship between you, your story, and your audience.

#2. Place: People don't float around. They are anchored by place and time. Readers are willing to be lost in a fog, but not for long. They want to know the context around your story and two important elements are place and time. There are many ways to work place and its correlate time into your paragraph without blatantly stating them. You might mention:

"...glistening snow on the Grand Tetons..."

"The usually benign trade winds were bringing the Big Island trouble this time..."

"Three new airports had been built in Singapore since my previous visit in 1966. But it wasn't aviation concerns that brought me back."

Of course, sometimes it is fast and efficient to put place and perhaps time on the line before the first paragraph where it might serve as a foreshadowing or connection with history:

Dallas, November 22, 1963

Oklahoma City, September 11, 2001

or merely a locator so that the reader can fill in details that you won't have to write:

Summer, 1942

New Orleans

#3. Plot Problem: Your plot, the cause and effect events of your story, will be revealed over the length of your book. But the opening paragraph can begin to hint at the plot or more specifically the problem that drives your story. What is your story about? Try to foreshadow your plot in your opening.

#4. Persuasion: No potential reader has unlimited time and resources. Your readers, just like you, decide what to read and how many books to purchase. So it is up to you to be persuasive in your opening paragraph. Is your story worth reading? Of course, you can't just say something like, "Read this story as it will change your life." Instead, you need to intrigue your reader with the notion of a fascinating or important or humorous or... story that is worth his or her time and money. Even a book that is written for one's family and therefore has no out of pocket cost for the reader must be compelling enough for a family member to want to spend time with it.

You'll need to find a way to be persuasive through provocative dialogue, or fascinating sensory details, or rich character description, or exotic places/past times, or strong emotional connections. It is a case of show, don't tell.

#5. Prose: Polish your prose. From the start, your words need to be true to your style and voice. You definitely don't want to pull a bait and switch on your readers by changing the point of view or tone between your opening and your later chapters. The same tale could be told with humor, drama, mystery. However, only one approach is right for you.

And finally, just because you have written your first paragraph, it doesn't mean it is ready for prime time. Put it aside for a few days. Go back and read it again. Think about how the reader will react. Get a friend to read it or even better a member of your writing group. This takes us back to #1 People. Consider if you have begun your relationship with readers in the way that works for you and your story.

Enter Your First Paragraph (Fiction or NonFiction) in Our Contest

Pamela Jane Bell is a regular guest blogger on http://WomensMemoirs.com. She is the popular author of more books than I have fingers and is currently completing her memoir. Pamela came up with this fantastic idea for a First Paragraph contest and I couldn't resist. She has judged many contests and is excited about this one.

For full rules, please go to:

http://bit.ly/URBTFh

Just remember that all entries must be submitted by midnight September 3. Winners will be announced later in the month.

Write now: Polish an opening paragraph in an old story or write a new one, and enter the contest.

Matilda Butler is an award-winning co--author of the collective memoir Rosie's Daughters: The "First Woman To" Generation Tells Its Story and Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep and Co-Founder of Women’s Memoirs.com.

August 18, 2014

Mystery Solved

SmokeI couldn’t put words to the vision, perhaps because the vision itself wasn’t clear. Looking across the Godfrey’s living room while  babysitting, I vaguely sensed a phantom group of sophisticated people gathered in a dimly lit, smoke-filled living room much like this one. People lounged on sofa and chairs, some sitting on the floor. They sipped martinis or gin and tonic, discussed philosophy, and ascended to levels of vision inaccessible to mere mortals. These beings were in touch with another realm, larger than life. In touch with the gods? This vision stirred a nameless yearning for something mysterious and transcendent.

Though I seldom thought of it until several years ago when I began writing about those years, that vision has stuck with me for many decades, remaining clear and compelling, an enduring enigma. Over a few years, I’ve written about it from at least a dozen different slants, chipping away, bit by bit, seeking to discern what I was yearning for. Words like transcendence, intellectual and vision came to mind. Those people seemed privy to divine secrets that I wanted to know too.

I came to see this quest for understanding as my metaphor of what may well be mankind’s eternal quest, the force driving most religions. But the mystery remained locked. I continued to hold it gently in the back of my mind.

Last week I found a fascinating thought in Paul Watzlawick’s classic, How Real Is Real? Mankind craves universal unity. I felt a buzz of recognition when I read that thought, and I reread it several times over the next few days, seeking to fully understand its appeal. This seemed deeper than casual allusions to world peace or fear-mongering talk about sinister cabals.

Finally the dots connected: those phantom people in the smoky room were at one with at one with Source.

As I realized this, several related pieces fell into place. They saw order. Of course! I’ve mentioned before that Story is the operating system of the human brain. We crave unity. We also crave order, logic, understanding. We want to make sense of life.

But wait. I discovered another channel in this scene, one I’d been unaware of. At least to my young mind, these people had broken through the shackles of convention and societal expectations. They were free. They were bold. They were unafraid. They were happy with who they were, and for at least that moment, that was enough.

Bottom line, they were immersed in universal LOVE.

Well, what do you know – universal love is something I know a bit about, and it doesn’t take a cocktail party to find. After all the books, the rituals, the prayers, the seeking, it’s just … there. My mystery is solved, and through the magic of story and the magic of words – my words, Watzlawick’s words, and many others – the yearning has come full circle. How delightfully ironic that once I saw, I already knew.

Perhaps my life would be equally rich if I’d never unlocked this nagging mystery, but the fact that it stayed freshly in mind for well over fifty years, begging to be solved, says something. I’m convinced I would never have unraveled it if I had not discovered various forms of life writing. I’ve journaled about it, scribbled random thoughts,  written essays and stories. My writing process chipped away at the shell, thinning it to the point that Watzlawick’s words could rupture that final protective membrane.

What will I do with this insight now? Maybe nothing. Or maybe I’ll include it in another memoir or work it into a novel. For now it’s on my scrap pile awaiting further disposition. Or not. Perhaps solving it is enough.

Write now: write in whatever form you choose about a compelling vision, memory or thought that’s puzzled you for years. Keep writing about it off and on until its message becomes clear.

August 07, 2014

Author Interview: Kathleen Pooler

Pooler Final CoverToday I’m privileged to have Kathleen Pooler stop by to answer some questions about her newly published memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead. In any memoir, the author today tells the story of the author back then, and sorting through the jumble of memories and pain to find a meaningful story thread can be a daunting task. Kathy has done a terrific job of finding that thread and turning it into a story that should touch nearly everyone’s life. If you haven’t personally experienced the sort of trauma she did, odds are strong that you know others who have. Let’s hear some back story for this book that lets the wise Kathleen of today put her former confusion into perspective.

Leave a comment below to enter a drawing to receive a free eBook version of Ever Faithful to His Lead.

SL: Why did you write Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse?

KP: I started out writing a different story about a cancer diagnosis and watching a beloved son spiral downward into substance abuse. I didn’t find this story until I had written three years worth of vignettes while taking a memoir writing workshop. As I kept writing, the story that needed to be told revealed itself to me. When a developmental editor told me I had two memoirs, I realized I could not write the story of my simultaneous battle with a cancer diagnosis and a young son’s descent into substance abuse until I wrote about getting into and out of two abusive marriages. It took on a life of its own and I became connected to its purpose—to share hope with others. It is possible to climb out of the abyss of poor decisions and go on to live life on your own terms.

SL: How do you describe the theme of your memoir?

KP: I was driven by the question: “How does a young woman from a loving Catholic family make so many wise choices about career, yet so many poor choices about love that she ends up escaping in broad daylight with her two children from her second husband for fear of physical abuse?” It was time to answer the question that had been asked of me my entire life by those who loved me.

SL: In the book, you say “a loving family, a solid career and a strong faith cannot rescue her until she decides to rescue herself.” What lies behind that statement?

KP: One of the lessons I learned as I wrote this book is that I already had everything I needed within. I only needed to claim and honor my inner strength. . It sounds so simple, but it took a dozen years for me to realize I had to do this myself. If I can help one person connect with their own inner strength and leave an abusive relationship sooner rather than later — or better yet, not even get involved in one to begin with, then my mission in writing this book will be fulfilled.        

SL: What will readers will learn from Ever Faithful to His Lead?

KP: Three things come to mind:

  1. One does not have to sustain broken bones or bruises to be abused. Emotional abuse is harmful and the impact on the children of mothers who are in abusive relationships is far-reaching and damaging.
  2. Abuse impacts all socioeconomic groups. Despite having earned my master’s in nursing and growing up in a loving family, I was drawn to two emotionally abusive spouses.
  3. Denial and magical thinking can keep one from recognizing abusive behavior and taking action. Emotional abuse can lead to physical abuse. According to the National Coalition for Awareness of Domestic Violence, “One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to police.” These are staggering statistics of epidemic proportion.

Domestic violence results in physical injury, psychological trauma and sometimes death. The consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and truly last a lifetime.

10% of the proceeds of the sale of Ever Faithful to His Lead will go toward the National Coalition for the Awareness of Domestic Violence.

SL: People reading books like yours often struggle with guilt and shame. What's your best advice on how they can deal with that?

KP: First, be awareness and acknowledgement that you are indeed in an abusive situation—denial can play a big role, as it did for me—and need to get out. Then, develop a support system and an escape plan. Have your bags packed. This can only happen when you admit you’ve made a mistake and need to act on your fears. You need to love yourself enough to want something better for yourself. Listen to, honor and embrace your inner voice.

SL: Where can we buy the book?

KP: Print and Kindle versions are on Amazon and print on Barnes & Noble. Digital versions are available on Smashwords for any eBook reader.

SL: Thank you Kathy for an enlightening discussion of your process.

KathyPoolerBrighterKathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, and her work-in-progress sequel, Hope Matters: A Memoir are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend a long string of obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure. She emerged to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York, and  blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog: http://krpooler.com

Visit Kathleen online: (click site name for link)
Twitter: @kathypooler
LinkedIn: Kathleen Pooler
Google+: Kathleen Pooler
Goodreads
Facebook
          Personal page: Kathy Pooler
          Author page: Kathleen Pooler/Memoir Writer’s Journey
Pintrest

One of her stories “The Stone on the Shore” is published in the anthology: The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys From Toxic Relationships to Self-Empowerment by Pat LaPointe, 2012.

Another story: “Choices and Chances” is published in the My Gutsy Story Anthology by Sonia Marsh, September, 2013.

Write now: leave a comment to enter the drawing for a free eBook version of Ever Faithful to His Lead. The winner will be notified on August 14.

August 01, 2014

Avoiding Editorial Disasters

ScreamWhat I would have to say in the review is "Stop the press and finish the book!”

When I agree to review a book, there’s an unstated contract that my glowing review will help promote the book. If I can’t ethically do that, I won’t write the review. I tell the author “I don’t think you want me to review this book. Here’s why.”

I made the notes below a couple of years ago to clarify my thoughts before emailing the author of a book I did not review.

… focused too tightly on few weeks when marriage finally died. Lacks background information. No sense of bigger picture. Doesn’t quite make sense. Seemed like her family wanted to knock some sense into her. His behavior not acceptable, but not egregious.More back story needed for context and less space documenting her helplessness.

…NO mention of physical affection during trial reconciliation  beyond briefly holding tight to him at beach and a couple of peck-on-the-cheek kisses. “Holding hands” in bed? Bizarre! Story is about the relationship. If they had sex, she should say so and tell how it affected her. If not, say so. Details are irrelevant, but avoidance creates gaping hole.

… She mentions money several times but no details. There is some, apparently hers, but ? His mother knows things he doesn't. Readers know only that we don't know. Ditto for details of her moving out of their shared apartment. Lots and lots of loose ends. Irritating!

The real tragedy is that this book was professionally edited – or at least the author paid someone for that service. Can you imagine anything worse than spending a sizeable hunk of cash on editing that results in this sort of reaction from readers?

Use these guidelines to help you avoid this sort of tragedy:

Seek input from at least half a dozen astute readers. Instead of or before you find a professional editor. Remember that friends and relatives know your story, so they may not see holes that strangers notice right away.

Look beyond your circle of writing friends. Much of my most helpful input has come from people who hate to write. Many book club members have highly developed critical abilities. They can spot plot flaws, awkward wording, inconsistencies and other areas for improvement.

Learn about various types of editors.

  • Developmental or structural editors point out missing back story, loose ends and other flaws such as I mention in those notes above.
  • Line or copy editors revise awkward wording.
  • Proof-readers check for typos and similar errors.

Seek developmental editing help first. Don’t waste time polishing words in a story that needs major revision. I suspect the author I mentioned above used a line editor when she direly needed a developmental or structural one.

Check references. In .03 second, Google will find you tens of thousands of “professional editors”. A far better plan is to seek referrals from people you know or friends of friends. When you find a likely candidate, ask for contact information for authors they’ve worked with. Of course they will only give you names of happy clients. You should know that a startling number of authors are not satisfied with the first editor they work with and end up paying two or three.

Have others read the manuscript again after the professional edit is done. The author I mention above might have found out about those flaws before the book was in print if she’d sought more post-editing input.

YOU own the story. If anyone’s input, professional or otherwise, goes strongly against your grain, ask why they suggest what they do, then you decide. This is your story. Don’t be bullied. And don’t rashly reject input.

Consider your goals and budget. Who are you writing for? What are your sales goals? What can you afford to spend? If you are primarily writing for family and friends, input from people you know may be enough. If you dream larger, look for a qualified pro. But never spend more on book production than you can afford to write off. Don’t quit your day job and don’t spend your retirement fund.

Bottom line: In my opinion (and that’s all this is), a large team of astute readers can give you excellent results and are often enough for a superb story. If you have the money and inclination, professional editors can be worth their weight in gold, and working with one is an educational experience. Use due diligence in selecting one if you decide to go beyond what your circle of readers can help you with. And never rely on any one person’s opinion, no matter how qualified.

Write now: Make a list of people you know who might be willing to read draft copies and give you feedback. Keep this list growing, with the commitment that you will return the favor by reading for others.

July 25, 2014

Busting Buttons

We-Feed-Each-OtherIf there’s anything as satisfying as laying eyes and hands on the first print copy of a book I’ve written, it’s having the same experience with a friend’s book. Especially when I know how hard that friend struggled to make the book happen. Thus I whooped with joy last week when Ellen Dehouske handed me a copy of We Feed Each Other: Nourishment through Friendships, her “memoir of sorts.”

Joyful tears filled my heart as I beheld this substantial volume with the strikingly gorgeous cover and lovely layout. I had witnessed many of the labor pains preceding the birth of this book.

I first met Ellen about three years ago when she took an Osher Life Long Learning class I taught at the University of Pittsburgh on writing description. Subsequently she began attending the Life Writers group that meets at the Monroeville Public Library twice a month.

I’ve known for a couple of years that Ellen had resolved to write this book, but I did not fully comprehend what she had in mind. I only knew it was a tribute to the vast network of loyal friends who have stood by her through trials and triumphs. She brought dozens of component stories to the writing group, seeking and receiving input on how to make them better. I’d seen her writing transform from awkward to amazing in the process.

I’d also known that food was a theme and she was asking each friend to contribute a favorite recipe. To my astonished delight, she asked me for a picture and a recipe.

What I didn’t realized was how those isolated snippets would weave together to give such a comprehensive view of Ellen. This volume is a tightly focused memoir with dual threads of food and friendship highlighting her personal transcendence.

Gratitude for friendship shines through bright and clear, framed within roles friends played in her life. She grew up without a typical family. Her father died before her memory kicked in, and when Ellen was three, her mother began a thirteen year stay in a mental hospital. Ellen and her younger sister were raised by a succession of emotionally distant relatives.

Thanks to a scholarship, she graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, later earning a PhD in early childhood development. She retired as Professor Emerita from Carlow University. That was not a smooth path. Ellen was hospitalized four times with mental disorders. With the support of friends, she found legal counsel and retained her job when Carlow laid her off after she was hospitalized.

A combination of talk therapy and psychotropic drugs have kept her stable and productive for decades now, and she shares her story as witness that mental illness is just that – illness, much like heart disease or diabetes. It isn’t contagious or scary, nor is it a reason for avoiding contact with the afflicted. Her story is a beacon of hope to mental health patients and their families. Hopefully Ellen’s testimony will build bridges of understanding.

Her story is not a sermon. It’s a carefully crafted journey beginning with a bleak girlhood that nevertheless had rays of happiness penetrating its pallor. It continues through turbulent seas of four melt-downs, ending with profound professional and personal success.

Ellen did not accomplish the miracle of this book on her own. She honed writing skills in classes and groups. She learned to streamline sentences, substituting precision words for rambling phrasing and rearranging awkward sequencing to make them flow. She streamlined stories and used an ingenious menu content to shape her story arc.

She paid for editing and layout help and commissioned an artist to do that brilliant cover. Not only is it gorgeous and eye-grabbing, it’s powerfully symbolic. The significance of the spoon seems obvious at a glance, next to the title of the book: We Feed Each Other. The overlay of tiny icon photos makes sense: this is a book about a friendships. As soon as you begin reading, in the second paragraph of the preface (which you can find in the Amazon preview), she tells of a Jewish allegory of Heaven and Hell, using spoons as the determining element.

One of the most poignant features is that even with all the editors and feedback, Ellen’s unique voice shines through, ringing loud and authentically true.

Write now: click this link to Amazon and read the allegory in the Preface to Ellen’s book. Then ponder myths, legends and tales that might crystalize the essence of an element of your life in a similar way. Free write or journal to get clear on what that element is. Find a writing group, take a class, do something to firm up your resolve to write YOUR story.

July 18, 2014

Your Friend, the Comma

CommaFriendComma, common. Yes, commas are common, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect.

Strangely enough, this common little punctuation mark intimidates legions of writers. Others treat it in a cavalier fashion. I admit to being one of the latter. In 1984, I flippantly told Kay DuPont, a national speaker and author of a book on grammar and punctuation that “I punctuate intuitively and put commas where I think I need them.” Was that pity I saw in her glance?

When I saw buckets of red ink the Lighthouse Point Press editors sloshed all over my first book, Do’s, Don’ts and Donuts, I realized I needed to get serious about learning proper comma usage. To my surprise and delight, I discovered that commas are quite friendly.

The main thing to remember is that commas cue readers’ eyes to pause for just a whiff of breath to tide them over to the end of a sentence. They sort information inside the sentence, clustering words into meaningful chunks. The guidelines below cover the main areas of confusion:

Use a comma before conjunctions – words that join two sentences into one

The most common of these words are and, but and or. For example,

“I am starting a new story now, but Nancy is still editing hers.”

Only use the comma if the two parts can stand alone as whole sentences, as they can above. Do not use commas to set off compound subjects or predicates:

“The lawn was green and was freshly mown.”

Use a comma before an introductory group of words

Any time you have a phrase or clause preceding the subject, set it off with a comma.

If you want people to read your story, you’d better tell them you wrote one.”

When you fail to use commas well, readers may become confused.”

If your clause is very short, three words or under, and it is clear without the comma, you may omit it. Too many commas create clutter. However, words like “however” should be set off. Good judgment on your part in using commas and selecting proof readers should cover this base.

Use a comma between parts in a series.

Most people are familiar with this rule when simple words are involved. It also applies to phrases and clauses. For example:

“Both the Italian and Mexican flags are comprised of red, green and white stripes.”

“I must clean the kitchen, fold laundry and mow the lawn today.”

“Sally is vacationing in Arizona, Jan is visiting her family in Maine and Ellen is staying home this year.”

You may notice that the final element in each sentence lacks a comma. You may recall learning in English class once upon a time that this is the correct and modern way to punctuate. Yes and no. It is correct, especially for casual usage. More formal usage puts what’s referred to as “the Oxford comma” in that series, as my editors for The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing required me to do. Whichever convention you choose, use it consistently within a manuscript, whether that’s a story or a book.

Use pairs of commas to set off interjections

Any time you have a word, phrase or clause that interrupts the flow of a sentence, set it off with a pair of commas.

“Sarah will, of course, be delighted to hear we are having chocolate cake for dessert.”

“The content of a memoir should always, realizing that memory is sometimes fallible, be true.”

Help is at hand

Should you get jammed up and feel insecure about commas and other grammatical things, always remember Google is your friend. Or Yahoo. Or Bing. The web is brimming with helpful sites to guide you to punctuation perfection.

Another tool that may be more confusing than not is Word’s grammar check function. It is good at comma use, and I advise always working through its recommendations as a final proof-reading step. Just remember that it makes lots of miscalls, so use good sense and check other sources if you have any questions.

One more tool that’s helped thousands is the punctuation overview in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. Click on that title to order your copy now if you don’t already have one.

Write now: use the guidelines above to check comma usage in a couple of stories. Then check your comma skills with a short quiz at GrammarBook.com. Find a paragraph or two that you’re wondering about and paste them into “The World’s Best Grammar Checker” at Grammarly.com.

July 11, 2014

Make New Friends: Writing Layers of Meaning

Friends, silver and gold

Make new friends, but keep the old,
One is silver and the other gold.

This classic friendship song began endlessly looping on brain radio the other day. Inspired by Kathy Pooler’s blog post, A Tribute to My Girlfriends, I sat down to pen a post about friendship. What emerged is far from what I set out to write.

I began writing about the fact unlike Kathy, who has remained close with numerous friends for decades, my friends are more situational, coming and going as our respective interests change, and … that paragraph was never finished. Something about the thought didn’t quite ring true, and a recent memory displaced it. A memory of a brief encounter I recently had with four friends I’ve been out of contact with for over fifteen years. How do those friendships fit in the silver and gold category, I wondered.

They don’t! As I wrote, I realized those categories don’t work for me. I realized how limiting categories and labels are, how they inherently imply boundaries and barriers. Degrees of closeness? No barriers there. But what about gaps? Nobody can stay constantly connected with every friend.

The longer I wrote, the more confused I became. Finally I had a breakthrough. My thoughts compressed into something manageable that I could get my mind around:

Each of my friends, local, online or far away, is unique. Each brings a warm glow of general pleasure, and each fills a different niche in my heart. As time goes by, our mutual interests may wax and wane, perhaps remaining on hold for years or decades. But that bond remains like an unlit burner, waiting for a mere spark to rekindle its warmth.

Maybe Kathy and I aren’t so different after all. And maybe it’s time to rewrite that song: 

Make new friends, but keep the old,
One will warm you while the other’s cold.

Far or near, good friends will bring cheer,
All that’s needed is a phone to hear.

Skype or text, an email now and then,
Friends will be there, though we don’t know when.

Since writing that essay, I’m seeing friends in new ways. Some are soft and fuzzy, while others have organized edges, maybe with a sharp spots to make allowances for. The state of our relationship may vary from red hot to vacationing violet. Friends light up my life, though we may have spells of darkness between us now and then.

My hour of writing that essay was priceless. It exemplifies William Faulkner’s immortal quote: ''I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it.”

Write now: Pick a topic like friendship or love, or God, or something else big and grand. Start writing and see where the topic takes you. Polish the essay, or leave it raw. The purpose is self-discovery. Leave a comment or send me an email about your surprising discovery.

Photo credits: top: Arkansas Shutterbug. bottom: Francesco. Both altered and used under Creative Commons license.

July 03, 2014

Brain Thorns

Thorns“All sentences are not created equal.”

That sentence jams a cactus into my brain, triggering wild buzzing and a whirl of obsessive thoughts.

Even if the story I’m reading is sweet and beautiful as a cactus blossom, when I hear any variation of “All men are not tall”,  my brain revs up like an angry hornet. I know the intention: to contradict the clearly false idea that all men ARE tall. The literal meaning of that sentence is that no men are tall. Obviously that’s as false as the initial statement. The world is full of men of a wide range of heights.

The accurate meaning is “Not all men are tall.” Or, “Men are not all tall.” But hey – I know you could find a better way of stating that within the context of your story.

I saw that opening sentence in a review of  Jenny Davidson’s book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. The review quotes that inflammatory sentence from the first chapter of Tankard’s book.

How, you ask, would I edit that sentence?  That’s a fair question. The real message of that sentence is better stated in the second: “Some (sentences) are more interesting, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others.” I’d omit the first entirely.
But then I’d have to address the fact that neither sentence has anything to do with the rest of the lengthy paragraph. Oh my!

I would not write off a book based on a single sentence, no matter how annoying, but that sentence triggered my "the rest of this better be extraordinary to overcome that transgression” button, and I just showed you that further exploration did not stand the book in good stead. Had that brain thorn not been there, the awkward paragraph probably would have slipped by unseen.

Brain thorns tend to poison a reader’s outlook. Hopefully my rant will prevent you from planting this thorn in your stories, even though I may be the only person on earth vulnerable to its sting. Write what you really mean and your stories will sing.

This is only one example of a multitude of brain thorns. This one is personal and stabs deep. Awkward writing and sloppy checking, like typos, missing commas, or confusing I/me or its/it’s are less distracting to me, but thorns nevertheless.

Are you aware of brain thorns as you read? Join the conversation and tell us about yours in a comment.

Right now: Delight readers by using Grammar Check to remove brain thorns from your writing. Grammar Check is often wrong and can be a distraction if you leave it turned on, but do run it before your final save. Find its location on Word’s Review tab  ribbon and use it to check a few old stories. You may be surprised what you find. Ask trusted friends or your writing group to check for thorns that slip past your eyes and Word’s functions.

June 26, 2014

Daily Life Under a Microscope

image“My life is so ordinary! Nobody would be interested!”
This statement vies with the desire to keep secrets and protect privacy as the top reason people give for not writing their lifestories. Poppycock! I’m pretty sure a centipede’s knee would be fascinating if looked at under a microscope and described with flair. Besides, what we take for granted today will be exotic to our great-grandchildren in fifty years. Wouldn’t you like to know what daily life was like for your ancestors 100 years ago?
In today’s guest post, Pittsburgh resident Bea Carter put her plain vanilla morning routine under a microscope in this delightful essay. With deft strokes of her keyboard, she has transformed the ordinary into a uniquely creative essay that  I think you’ll agree is remarkable.

Flexing my Economic Muscle
RosieRiveter cropRosie the Riveter has nothing over me.
Now a U.S. icon, Rosie represents women who worked in factory jobs vacated by men conscripted to fight in World War II. Saying “We Can Do It!” while flexing her biceps, she became a symbol of feminism and of women’s economic power.
Following Rosie’s example, today I do my part for America—not in a factory manufacturing goods but at home consuming them. In doing so, I am flexing my economic muscle.
Some greet the dawn with a chant or a prayer. Me—I begin my days with rituals and routines that, in the end, are all about consumption—using goods and services for which marketers have created demand. Bombarded by messages to buy-buy-buy, I yield, participating in commerce that makes our nation’s economy go.
I wonder what people would think a hundred years from now if they found this snapshot of products I perfunctorily use just to get from my bed to my breakfast table…

  1. My hi-tech clock radio lulls me awake—its soft, far-away sounds getting louder and louder so I am not blasted into the day.
  2. I throw off my bedcovers—sheet, bedspread and comforter.
  3. I sleep-walk to the double-paned window to close it.
  4. I patter to the thermostat to turn up the heat
  5. …then on to the bathroom (equipped with sink, tub, commode). I let the electric company know I’m awake by turning on the bathroom lights.
  6. Next product: toilet paper
  7. Then water to flush everything away.
  8. I squint into the mirror. (Hel-lo Go-ah-jus.)
  9. I pick up my toothbrush
  10. …and squish some toothpaste onto its bristles.
  11. After brushing my mouth awake, I remove my nightgown
  12. ..hang it on the hook
  13. …on the back of the bathroom door.
  14. I turn on the shower.
  15. The water comes out brisk and hot, heated by our efficient hot water heater.
  16. I grope for the shampoo.
  17. It’s in the caddy that hangs from the shower.
  18. After I lather, rinse, repeat, I grab my bath puff.
  19. I squirt some liquid soap onto it and proceed to scrub.
  20. I eye my pumice stone, which I use to smooth the callouses on the bottoms of my feet. Not now, but next time.
  21. Pushing the shower curtain aside…
  22. I step out onto the bath mat.
  23. I reach for my towel—a nice, thick, thirsty, oversized one.
  24. I run my comb through my now towel-dried hair.
  25. Then I pick up a bottle of special facial serum that promises to defy aging skin, and I apply it even though I can’t see myself in the steamed-up mirror.
  26. Next I grab a tube of cream formulated just for the “delicate” skin around my eyes. I dab it on.
  27. On top of those potions I smear an ample dollop facial moisturizer with Sun Protective Factor.
  28. After that I grab a bottle of body lotion, also loaded with SPF, and apply it all over.
  29. Now I’m ready for the next barrage of goodies. For these I don my chenille bathrobe.
  30. Back in my bedroom, I sit down at my dressing table, a heavy, tall marble-topped Victorian piece that a childless Civil War surgeon left my grandfather. Since I inherited it, I am not counting it as something I purchased. But at one point in its life, someone bought it. And it traveled up and down the eastern seaboard before landing here.
  31. I turn on a tensor lamp that gives out just the right amount of light for applying makeup.
  32. I pick up my hair dryer and turn it on. In 10 seconds, my hair’s done.
  33. Then I peer into my magnifying mirror
  34. …surveying my face in general, but looking for stray whiskers that have begun to colonize on my chin. For them I am armed with surgeon-quality tweezers.
  35. I pick out some eye shadow (somehow I have three shades of nude) and apply it using the little sponge-tipped applicator that comes with it.
  36. Then I give my eyebrows some love with a brow pencil.
  37. I dab clear mascara over my brow hairs to keep them in place.
  38. I pick out eyeliner—brown usually, but sometimes blue-gray—and apply it.
  39. Brown mascara for my eyelashes is next. Got to have it, otherwise I look like Little Orphan Annie.
  40. I skip the blush, which I generally use only at night.
  41. I skip the lipstick, too, although I have at least 4 tubes of it. It’ll just wear off at breakfast.
  42. My hair gets a spritz of hair spray.
  43. Finally, I add a dab of perfume (not the real stuff).
  44. Now I dress—underwear, top, pants, sweater, shoes and socks.
  45. Opening my jewelry box, which I’ve had since high school, I don my watch and earrings. (When you have pierced ears, you have to wear earrings.)
  46. Down in the kitchen, I fill up the teakettle with tap water.
  47. I put it on the stove, which I turn on.
  48. While I’m waiting for the water to boil, I use a juice glass to take my vitamins and medicines using filtered water I keep in a pitcher.
  49. Then I flip on the little TV, conveniently perched on the counter, to hear the morning news show, which we can tune in thanks to our multi-tiered cable TV service.
  50. I open our apartment door and grab the newspaper—I like to read the news while eating breakfast.
  51. Back at the stove, I place a filter in the cone that goes with my drip coffee pot.
  52. I ladle in some coffee using a special measuring spoon. By now the water’s boiling, so I add the water to the grounds in the cone. Ahhh…the aroma of freshly brewed coffee…I fill my favorite coffee cup anticipating that satisfying first sip.
  53. But before that, I open the kitchen cabinet and retrieve a bowl, and open the drawer and pick up a spoon.
  54. Open the fridge
  55. Take out some fruit and put it in the bowl...
  56. …add some yogurt.
  57. Settle down in my chair at the table, food, coffee and paper before me.
  58. After half an hour or so of reading, I load my dishes into the dishwasher.
  59. Then I mop up the counter with the dish cloth.
At last, I am ready to get on with my day. The first item on my To Do list: shopping—for some of the products I used just to arrive at this point.
Write now: zoom in on one of your routines and write it down in this degree of detail. Draw on memory to record a typical day or season in the past. That day will be a composite because one ordinary act blurs with dozens of others into general memory over time. You may be surprised at the complexity of life. Your descendants will be amazed. Include enough detail about equipment and such that they’ll be able to understand what you are talking about.