December 18, 2014

Pros and Cons of Disclosure

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

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

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

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

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

Words once read can never be erased.

Factors to consider include

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2014

Kumi What?

Kumihimo is a Japanese form of braid-making. Cords and ribbons are made by interlacing strands. Kumi himo is Japanese for "gathered threads".Wikipedia.

I first learned of kumihimo when I stopped to visit a craft-klatch group that met each morning in a lounge on the ship while I was crossing the Atlantic last month. I had no idea at the time that those few minutes started me on a loop leading to deeper insight into writing and creativity in general.

One woman in that group held a circular foam disk with strings of beads hanging around it and a thick beaded cord emerging below from a hole in the center. As she methodically moved strands back and forth across the disk, the cord grew longer. I was fascinated. I want to do this! It looks so simple!

As soon as I got home, I plunged into a sea of YouTube tutorials and was instantly hooked. I made a disk from a stray scrap of foam board, snipped off eight lengths of red cord, and began braiding. Sure enough, basic kumihimo is simple. My first project was a cord to replace the tacky ribbon holding a beautiful glass pendant I bought from a street vendor in Rome. Then I returned to YouTube for further inspiration.

YouTube videos are mental popcorn. Sidebar suggestions are addictive, and so is creative action. One video led to another, from Kumihimo projects to soda straw weaving, to paper tube baskets, to paper beads, to hammered wire craft.... Oh my! So many beautiful things to make! That mental popcorn was exploding. Where should I start? Transform worn storage boxes with fake forged metal finish? Braid another necklace? Make paper beads? Dig out denim scraps for a jacket? Maybe stop and clean house? I was paralyzed by possibility.

After a good night’s sleep, I realized that I’d gotten more than project ideas from those hours on YouTube. I picked up new understanding and skills. They showed me how I could decorated those aging storage boxes more durably. I didn’t know to base coat the cardboard. I didn’t know about using old credit cards to spread glue smoothly or about sealers for the paper I used. When I do tackle those new projects, I’ll be better prepared.

In the dawn’s early light I realized that creativity knows no bounds, and changing channels can recharge energy all around. After switching from writing to creative channels with more physical involvement and nonverbal imagery, I see writing with fresh eyes. I see a connection between the tutorials I just binged on and all the writing-related blogs posts and books I’ve read, podcasts I’ve listened to and classes I’ve taken. Just as I discovered new ways to braid and make jewelry, use the tools I already have, durably decorate boxes and more crafty tips, over time I’ve accumulated piles of writing tools and learned to use them.

Now I see that my YouTube journey into crafting has been a perfect sidetrack, jolting me out of mental ruts, exposing me to new ideas, and showing me new skills and tools. Best of all, these videos reminded me of a part of The Story of Me I’ve neglected and miss. Last post I suggested we all make Happiness lists. I’d forgotten how happy I feel when I’m making things. Finally, it all circles back to writing. This post is a trip journal of sorts, adding more depth and meaning to my crafty discoveries.

Write now: If you are distracted this month with holiday preparations, relax into them. Savor them. Enjoy the season. Make a few notes and process it all on the page in a few weeks. Hopefully you too will find fresh perspectives and inspiration. If you have time, do something unusual and creative. Bake Christmas cookies. Make a couple of gifts or decorations. Let this creativity fuel your writing later.

November 22, 2014

What Makes YOU Happy?

happy-stick-girlThis question, “What makes you happy?” is so simple, but who ever stops to consider it? I hope you will, as I have been doing the last couple of days. It could change your life.

I found this question in the draft of a book I’m beta-reading for a friend. The book will soon be published, and you’ll learn more about it before long. Meanwhile, although answers to this happiness  question could easily fill a book, my initial list has helped me find a focus to reboot this blog.

Let’s take a look at my list. In addition to obvious things like laughing with family and friends, blowing dandelion fluff, piles of freshly washed and folded clothing, having someone else fix my breakfast and that sort of thing, I listed

  • meaningful connection with people who share my interests and values
  • discovering something wonderful
  • sharing wonderful discoveries with those who will appreciate them
  • the satisfaction of polishing a piece of writing – or doing any job well
  • reading masterful writing
  • playfulness in writing and life
  • writing true to myself and my voice

No real surprise here. Involvement in the global writing community makes ME happy! For over sixteen years I’ve been studying and practicing different aspects of life writing and sharing what I’ve learned with others in classes, writing groups and privately. I love that!

But as with other things, it’s easy to go along with the crowd, to be swept up in trends, to keep telling people what you think they want to hear. It’s easy to stick with the same old same old, the tried and true, to say and write what others are saying and writing.

That’s a recipe for burnout.

Recognizing that I was drifting into serious burnout with writing and teaching, I’ve taken an extended break. For a month I didn’t even write email. My husband and I flew to Rome for a few days before boarding the Celebrity Silhouette cruise ship to loop around the Mediterranean for two weeks. We visited Malta, the Greek island of Kephalos, Ashdod (nearest port to Jerusalem), Haifa, Ephesus in Turkey, Athens, Sicily and Naples before returning to Rome. We stayed on the ship for two more weeks, visiting Toulon in Provence, the Spanish island of Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Tenerife in the Canary Islands before heading across the Atlantic to Ft. Lauderdale.

We had a great time with without email and Internet for a month, opting for digital detox. I took this one step further and wrote nothing other than a few trip notes. I did read. Between constant Trivia games I read mysteries and memoir and most of a book about writing. But I didn’t write.

By the end of the month I felt alone in a crowd of 3500 people. I met dozens of interesting people, but no writers. Nobody I met gave a hoot about writing, and few even read. Only one was more than marginally digitally literate. I felt like I was on the wrong planet.

Compiling that list of things that make me happy has brought me home to my keyboard, refreshed and ready to write. In playful new ways. With new focus. I’ll fill you in more on that focus in future posts.

Write now: pull out a piece of paper – the back of an envelope or piece of junk mail will do. Make a list of things that make YOU happy. Aim for 100. Hang onto this list. We’ll work with it more later. When you finish, pick one simple thing from the list and do it. Then do a quick Happy Dance.

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


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

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 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:

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

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:

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

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 Find a paragraph or two that you’re wondering about and paste them into “The World’s Best Grammar Checker” at