Monkeys, Jackasses and Wispy Mist

monkeyIn her blog post, “Jackasses & Monkeys – Inner demons of writing,” Carol Bodensteiner reveals that her inner writing demons take the form of monkeys. She expresses relief on learning that others, such as Kimberly  Brock, have similar problems. In my opinion, Kimberly’s challenge is worse. She is beset by Jackasses.

Carol invited readers to share their experiences. I also have demons, as I believe we all do. Like Carol, I battle monkeys, described by Zen masters as Monkey Mind. My monkeys are different from Carol’s. Mine swing through the trees at random, taking my thoughts along with them, rendering me incapable of staying focused. They dangle distractions, and they're a hindrance all the time, not just while writing.

Look this up NOW! Right NOW! one shouts while I'm unloading the dishwasher or chopping celery for salad. When the monkey shouts, I enter a state of paralyzing need to obey. I crave the closure of filling that gap. Sometimes I return to chopping celery, but laundry may remain unfolded for days, a blog post unfinished for ... maybe ever.

Jackasses? I’ve known a few of those, but they don’t live in my head. For me the voices Kimberly attributes to jackasses are more subtle and indirect. Much harder to quantify. Mine are formless entities. They whisper from wisps of mist. "It's not good enough. It's shallow," they whisper. But wait. I reread my work and it is shallow. It isn’t ready for print. Those critical voices protect me. They drive me to more research on craft, to yet another round of edits. My whispering wisps protect me. I cherish them.

Tips for silencing monkeys, jackasses and wispy mist

  1. Talk to them – ask them for their advice. If they tell you to work on your craft, they speak true. Heed them. If they tell you you’ll never succeed, you’ll never be good enough … tell them firmly to zip their lips and stuff them into their crates.
  2. Talk to others – like Carol Bodensteiner, you may find it a huge relief to compare notes with fellow writers and learn that they battle the same demons. Compare notes on coping strategies.
  3. Write stories about them – especially stories that poke fun at them. Write yourself as the shero of your own story (or hero, as the case may be). Have fun with these stories. Be silly, be bold, be outrageous. Smash and bash away.
  4. Feed them cookies and make friends – because they can be helpful, as mine have turned out to be. Just don’t eat the cookies yourself. It is not true that writing success is directly proportional to body mass.
  5. Call their bluffs – by succeeding in spite of them and yourself. Just write. And edit. And get lots of feedback. And then publish or share your work with legions of others. Those critters will get the message.

Write now: write a story about your inner demons. What form do they take? What do they sound like? How have you dealt with them? If you haven’t yet neutralized or harnessed their power, imagine that you have and write about that. Post your story in a comment or email me a copy. I’d love to read it.

“I Could Write About My Sex Life”

Gparents-love2Soon after I began teaching lifestory writing, I met with a man I knew only slightly, I’ll call him Sam. Sam wanted my advice on how to write his lifestory. I was several years short of sixty,  and this crumpling man in his late eighties. As usual, I suggested he start with a story idea list and asked him what he might want to write about. I sat patiently for what seemed like an hour while he sat silently, slumped in his chair and lost in thought.

Suddenly he seemed suffused with high noon sunshine as his head lifted. A huge smile spread across his pallid, wrinkled face. “I could write about my sex life!” he said, sounding like a child who just spotted the carnival’s cotton candy stand.

I’m embarrassed to admit this – I remember recoiling in shock. I hope that  reaction was confined to my mind and didn’t show on the surface. Age difference was definitely a factor. It’s true that I would have been stunned to hear anyone say this, male or female, but I would have pursued the topic with someone my age. Generational differences made it unthinkable to pursue it with Sam. I knew that I would absolutely not, under any circumstances, want to read about my parents’ sex life, and he was older than my father. I assumed his children would feel the same way. I’m sure a psychologist could have a ball with my reaction.

“You could …” I demurred. “It might be a little hard for your children to read ….” I swallowed and took another breath. “Is there anything else you might write about?” He visibly deflated. 

The meeting was short. I never saw or heard from Sam again.

I’d answer him differently today. I’d return his radiant smile, maybe wink, and encourage him to write about those lovely memories that obviously gave him great pleasure. He could celebrate the good times and perhaps grieve their decline. I would still alert him to the fact that his children may not want to read those accounts and remind him that he should discuss things with his wife before sharing with anyone else. But I would definitely encourage him to write for himself.

I have no idea how deeply Sam was thinking of delving into those memories or how much detail he might have included. Although I’ve never had a student or writing group member focus a story specifically on sex, some stories do call for at least a mention of the topic. In such cases, observing good taste and privacy while still providing enough detail to retain authenticity can be a challenge. I’ll save that discussion for another time.

For now, suffice it to say that writing about your sex life will bomb if you aren’t comfortable doing so. Freewriting and journaling are the best way to come to grips with your memories and feelings and the heart of your story and message, whatever the topic. Write for yourself first, then make decisions about what, if anything, to share with whom.

Write now: Not everyone has or had a delightful sex life. If you do or did, write about the joy it’s brought you. Tell how it made your life fuller and better. If you don’t or didn’t, write about that. In either case, write privately. In a journal. On scrap paper. On a keyboard. Write freely, bravely. Try lots of points of view. Write about love and lovers. Write about fantasies and spurned pursuits. Write about how and when you learned the facts of life and all you know now. Explore what turns you on and anything else that comes to mind. I guarantee you’ll learn something, and it may be downright pleasurable and fun.

If you wish your writing would spontaneously ignite when you’re done and it doesn’t, head for a fireplace or shredder. If a piece passes the blush test, consider sharing, with trusted friends or your writing group first, then openly.

Seven Secrets about Writing

IanMathieHeadshotIan Mathie, my Scottish/African writing buddy, recently tagged me on Facebook to share seven secrets about writing. I accept this challenge as great sport, and following Janet Givens’ example in her response to Ian, I’m  posting my reply here as the path to Facebook.

Secret #1: Writing is fun!
That is, it’s fun if you write about happy memories and ideas and send your inner critic to her room. Write with color. Write outside your usual boundaries. Write with attitude and guts. More guidelines here.

Secret #2: Writing can be painful.
Dark memories can be searing to write about when they cause you to relive past pain. You may wonder why anyone subjects themselves to this torture. They do it because …

Secret #3: Writing can be healing.
The simple process of dumping that cauldron of trauma onto the page lets you see things in new light and from new perspectives. Memory fragments coalesce into coherent story. Making sense of chaos settles your mind and paves the way for healing your heart. More about this here and here.

Secret #4: Writing builds bonds
in so many ways. Sharing stories around campfires built strong tribal bonds in ancient times. Today our campfire may be blogs and Facebook or email, but the well-written tale still builds bonds of friendship and support. Sharing your lifestory with friends and family builds bonds between generations. Participating in a writing group or class builds bonds of understanding and empathy among members. The more you share, the easier it gets and the more you want to continue.

Secret #5: Writing great imagery adds color and spice to your world.
"His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers. She reaches into space, and a cool bird-boned hand takes hers."

When I read that rich imagery in Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See, I quivered with delight. Doerr inspires me to stretch even further to find new ways to express what I experience and imagine. My experience of my world becomes a bit larger. My creativity is enhanced by his, and will hopefully inspire others in turn.

Secret #6: Writing is 90% editing.
It doesn’t have to be. Spontaneous outpourings serve a purpose, but even text messages might be more effective with another few seconds of thought. Witness the fun on Writing like Anthony Doerr’s cited above takes years of practice and perceptual growth as well as hundreds of hours of editing. I find the time I spend editing and imagining new ways of expressing my thoughts a source of deep pleasure. 

Secret #7: Writing doesn’t always involve moving your fingers.
I practice writing much of the time. I search for metaphors for sunset. I look for imagery to describe the dinner table daffodil. I consider what I really want to say in a blog post while I’m raking leaves. Some of my best writing comes to me while I’m in the shower or driving down the road.

Write now: Take up this challenge yourself and jot down seven of your own discoveries or secrets about writing. Post one or more in a comment.

I Want My Grandchildren to Know I Wasn’t Always Old

Old-woman-sagI watched as an old woman entered the room, leaning heavily on her cane. Although each step seemed to be a huge effort, her sagging figure was elegantly dressed, and her face, a road map of wrinkles, tastefully made up. She sat heavily in a seat near the door, in the front row, not far from where I stood, waiting to present a book talk about The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.

I begin these programs by asking everyone why they are interested in writing their lifestories. I get a variety of predictable responses: “I have a few memories I want to write down for my kids” ... “I do genealogy and want to write about my family” ... “My children are on my case to write things down” ... “I’ve had some experiences I learned a lot from that may help other people.” These are all good reasons to write.

This woman had a new one, and it brought down the house. “I want my grandchildren to know I wasn’t always old!”

Her comment resonated with us all and led to an animated discussion of the way children think of anyone who isn’t free to roam around and play all day as old. How hard for them to imagine that we once saw shapes in clouds and marveled at bugs crawling across a dandelion bloom. Or that we played tag with our friends and told secrets on sleepovers or agonized over dropping the ball at second base. Or that we could ride our bikes across town when we were twelve or hang out in the woods with our friends with no adult around.

What can we do to remedy this?


Write about those clouds and agonies and all the fun things we did. You don’t have to write long, involved stories. Write random memory paragraphs for now. Use these tips to get started:

  • Make a story idea list specifically for childhood memories. Include sensory elements like the feel of the wind on your face, the way your dark hair felt scorchingly hot to the touch on a sunny day, the scent of lilacs or pine sap on warm days, how your fingers went numb building snow forts.

    Or just start writing and let it all flow out as it will. Then go back and fill in the blanks. There is no “right” way to write this stuff.

  • List both friends and foes. All kids have both friends and people who irritate them. These people may be other kids or adults – teachers for example. Write short stories about these people.

  • Include elements of daily life. How did you get to school? Did you really walk three miles through three feet of snow, uphill both ways? Did you walk alone or with friends or siblings? Did you ride a bus for an hour?

  • What did you eat and wear? The average American diet has changed dramatically over the last fifty or seventy years. Do your grandchildren know about canned Spam? And wearing suspenders with flannel lined jeans that had matching flannel shirts?

  • Tell about your toys. Yoyos, jacks and jump ropes may seem exotic today. What about soapbox derby cars? Clamp-on roller skates with keys? Your favorite dolls or toy cars or cowboy guns?

  • Include a mix of triumphs and disappointments. It’s okay to brag, especially about childhood exploits. Especially if you balance this with remembering when you didn’t get the part in the play, that cute girl turned you down for prom, or your third-grade teacher unfairly kept you after school for passing notes when it was really someone else.

  • Take them to school with you. Don’t just tell about school. Show them the school. Use dialogue. Show them what the room looked like. Let them tag along to art class or assembly. And definitely take them along to recess!

  • Write about your own grandparents. Tell how you thought they were old and all the things you did with the.

This list could include at least 100 more items. I hope it gets your imagination flowing and your fingers moving. If you need help with details about toys, games, or anything else, Google is your friend.

It’s fine to make an anthology of random loose pieces. And, after you have a couple of hundred short-short flash memoir stories, you may find a way to string them together into a cohesive memoir. Either way, your descendants will love this legacy.

Write now: Get those fingers moving and let your grandchildren know you weren’t always old!

Ritergal’s Birthday

15-birthday-cakeHeavens to Betsy, today is Ritergal’s birthday, and  I just realized she is a teenager, In fact, she has been a teenager for a couple of years. That could explain a lot of things, but I won’t go into that. In honor of her birthday, she’s my guest today, sharing her flash memoir, previously unread and unedited by me:

That woman, the one whose fingers I’m using, thinks I’m only fifteen, and she thinks she calls the shots. Little does she know. I’m ageless. For several decades I lurked in a hidden closet of her soul, just beyond her awareness, waiting for the right moment to make my debut. In 2000, the time was finally right. The turn of the century signaled the coming of age of both the Internet and my lovely hostess’s relationship with it.

In 2000 She found the site and soon discovered that she could build her own website on it, for free. Back in that pre-Facebook era, people were leery of revealing their true identity online, and many adopted web names. She thought she made up the name Ritergal – sometimes she claims her muse Sarabelle gifted her with it. The truth is that I took that opportunity to step out of that closet and onto the Third Age stage she built for me.

The fun part of this story is that she thinks Sarabelle gifted her with an extra name, a costume of sorts. She wrote a post about that ages ago. I know Sarabelle well, and she was in fact in on this ruse. While it’s true that Sarabelle did introduce me, in a whisper as our hostess rightly proclaims, Sarabelle didn’t bestow the name on Her, she introduced me.

Sages that we are, Sarabelle and I have known the secret of Point of View for ages. We know what we know, and we know that it suits us to let Her believe her version of the story. I’m perfectly happy to let Her believe she is me or vice-versa. Let her enjoy this benign case of paramnesia. We all win.

But a teenager I am not, and that fact explains nothing about me. Considering the stage of our relationship, it might explain a lot about Her. But do understand, I am not complaining. She treats me well and we get along great. She’s a great sport when I decide to have fun – I think she’s secretly glad. I do what I can to help and support her. In fact, most of the time I enjoy acting like a responsible, mature (as long as that doesn’t mean stuffy!) human being. It’s a good cover.

She celebrates my birthday. I celebrate Liberation Day and my anniversary with Her. Hey, Sarabelle, party’s on!

Count me in on that party. Oh, wait … did anyone look at the calendar today?

Write now: in honor of April Fool’s Day, write a spoof of some aspect of your life. Make it an open-ended spoof so nobody’s quite sure at the end. Let them wonder. It’s not too late if you read this after April 1. Write it anyway and have fun doing it. Play is strong meat for anyone’s soul, and it’s essential for writers.

Respecting Your Writer’s Voice

Writer-Voice“It’s critically important to find an editor who will respect your writer’s voice and not try to change it into her own.”

Electric agreement surged through  the room during a Penn Writers self-publishing workshop offered last weekend by acclaimed Pittsburgh author Kathleen Shoop. Heads nodded, and a ripple of “Mmm hmm” rose and fell.

I exchanged nods with friends sitting on both sides. Then a memory tempered my thought. Ten years ago a group fondly referred to as “angel editors” banded together to help a mutual friend – I’ll call him Will – hammer a complex memoir into publishable shape..

Aside from structural concerns, as editors we faced a delicate challenge: Transforming Will’s voice from a stilted style with big words and convoluted, page-long sentences into something that flowed smoothly into readers’ eyes, ears and brains. Will finally agreed that we needed to streamline the language without compromising the message or completely losing his voice. The resulting book went into a third printing.

Will’s purpose for his book was to inform a wide, general readership. Thus his voice had to be changed for reader appeal.

Conversely, when compiling a vast array of drafts and notes my mother left behind, I changed only documented factual mistakes, a few flagrant grammatical errors, and typos. Since she was no longer around to discuss style and voice, I left things like her strings of dots and signature clichés so it sounded like a letter from Marje.

Marje’s purpose for writing was to leave a legacy of personal and family history for posterity. Leaving it in her words and phrasing was an additional way of documenting the writing style of her generation of women.

Where is the balance? These are two extreme examples. In general, when I edit a story, I find ways to smooth rough edges and make words flow more smoothly. My edits are only suggestions. My fix for a phrase that sounds awkward to me may grate on the author’s ear.

The extent to which I change things depends in large part on the author’s purpose. If I’m helping a friend finish a family project, I’m less inclined to tinker. In my opinion, a bit of colloquialism and cliché lends authenticity. If an author hopes to sell truckloads of books to the public, buckets of red ink may flow.

So, you see, how much an editor (that includes friends and critique groups) should mess with your voice depends on your purpose. If you plan to appear on stage, appropriate makeup will emphasize your message. Stage makeup is out of place on a mountain trail.

Experience and practice are additional factors. A polished writing voice is not necessarily the sign of an expensive editor. Writers follow a learning curve much like musicians. Beginning piano students do well to tap out Chopsticks. Ten years later, they may perform Beethoven sonatas with ease. In between lie thousands of hours of practice with gradual improvement.

Your writing voice will likewise gain tone and force as you seek constant feedback and work to improve. That does not make your voice less authentic. It reflects the years of practice you put in and becomes natural and authentic for you.

As you continue down your writing path, you’ll discover that each story has a unique voice. Some are humorous, some sassy, some sad or mournful. Let your stories whisper their way, and your voice will grow in range.

Write now: if you have some, read a few unchanged stories you wrote several years ago and consider how you might change them today. Even if you’re a beginner, start a practice of keeping versions of stories to help keep track of how much your writing has developed. If you change a story after more than a year has elapsed, rename it to preserve the old version so you can compare. Think of this as your growth chart and celebrate your continuing improvement!

How and Why to Write about JOY

Talking-about-problemsThis advice to talk about our joys struck home with me when I saw it the other day. Not surprisingly, I immediately thought how it applies to writing – specifically to life writing – and how happy stories spread joy.

In The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting, I discuss the way many people tend to shy away from discussing success and joy.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging,” some people say. “I don’t people to envy me,” or “I don’t want them to think I think I’m better than they are,” or “I don’t want to make people sad because they missed out.”

These are valid concerns. Compassion for the feelings of others is important. But let’s look at the flip side, at what is lost if you soft-peddle success and happiness:

You are only writing part of your truth. If you are writing for posterity, or for the world at large right now, your success is part of who you are. Surely it’s something you’re proud of. Let them know.

Happiness keeps your story authentic. People who know you’ve achieved something, financial or business success, a happy marriage, or some other positive state will know something’s missing if you downplay the sunshine in your story. It tends to come across as false humility and lack of trust. This is, of course, assuming you were happy. Not all stories are, though we do hope for a glimmer of happiness by the end. Add it where you can.

Reading about how you achieved success, happiness and joy inspires others. We hear and read about gloom, doom and suffering constantly in the media. We need to hear good news. It gives us hope!

People can learn from your example. Explaining in more detail or less how you managed to achieve your fortunate condition may provide a clue for others to follow your example.

Writing about happy things is good for YOU! A quick web search will verify that simple lists in gratitude journals help dispel or fend off depression (in at least some cases) and generally improve your state of mind. They help you stay positive and foster creativity. You don’t even have to share the contents or turn them into story to get these benefits.

Have I convinced you to write some joy? Hopefully into your story? Follow these guidelines:

Include shadows with the sunshine. Everything brilliant emerges from some sort of struggle or stretch. Tell of the tribulations and challenges you encountered along the way. Report feelings of fear, doubt, or dismay. Don’t leave out your concern about not wanting to brag.

Be honest about jubiliation. Who would believe you weren’t popping champagne corks, real or figurative, when you got that big promotion?

Give credit where credit is due. Nobody scales Mt. Everest without a team of Sherpas. Give your Sherpas credit.

Use humor. Poke fun at yourself. This doesn’t mean putting yourself down, but keep both heart and fingers light.

My latest book, Adventures of a  Chilehead, is the story of my life-long love affair with hot chile. It’s full of humor and joy, and I had a ball writing it. The capsaicin in chile releases endorphins. Writing about those happy memories released more. So remember some joy, write yourself happy, and share that good stuff with the world.

Write now: write about a happy experience you shared with at least one other person and write that story in an email or letter. Send it to that person. You’ll both feel happy you did.

Hidden Treasures

Sympathy-cardI just discovered a  hidden treasure trove. I’m glad I didn’t give into the urge to purge. I almost tossed old sympathy letters unread. What relevance, I wondered, could I possibly find in condolence letters written to my now-deceased mother-in-law nearly fifty years ago when her husband died? What a surprise to find that I’m learning so much from reading between the lines.

I hardly knew my father-in-law, Ezra Lippincott. We never lived near them and had only been married six years when he died. Quite likely he found his son’s young wife as baffling as I found him. We never connected. My mother-in-law Blanche often spoke of memories involving him, but they usually included other people and things they did, and I still had little sense of what Ezzie was like.

Now I’m reading these letters, beautiful tributes from friends, colleagues and customers. “A remarkable human being.” “He was always there when anyone needed help.” “We’ll miss him terribly.” Some shared memories that I’ve never heard before. From these word scraps my dim, fuzzy picture, formed mainly from pictures and bare-bones stories, is fleshing out just a bit. He’s becoming more real.

As I read and consider, I’m reminded of three things of relevance for all of us who write:

People are naturally curious.

They want to know details. When we record the past in story form, we try our best to cover the basics and give a complete account. We may not know all the facts. We may run out of time and not finish the story. If this happens, don’t fret. Do the best you can. Someday someone may read whatever you were able to write and connect the dots, as I’m doing now. Their picture will sharpen from clues you do give.

People read between the lines.

Right now I’m filling in blanks in my image of Ezzie. I’m also reading between the lines to imagine how Blanche may have felt as she read these shimmering tributes. I did not know her well either at that time, and neither of us was good at expressing emotion. I had only a foggy notion what she was really going through, and I was too busy chasing my toddlers to give it much thought. Suddenly her loss seems poignantly real, and I grieve for that loss as I read.

Treasure artifacts.

I’m sorting because we’re preparing to sell our house and move from Pittsburgh to Austin. My intention is to lighten the load. But now that I’ve read these notes, I see that they are pieces of heart. Not only do they give a clearer picture of Ezzie, but they document the way people communicated back then – with pen and ink. They wrote and mailed deeply heart-felt messages. Only a few sent cards. I may scan the the messages in, but I’ll still save the originals. Some later generation can decide whether to continue keeping or toss.

For now, I’ll just finger my newly found treasures. Maybe later I’ll use some of these scraps in a story or few.

Write now: if you have old letters or photos, look through them. See what dots connect or how you read between lines to notice things more clearly today than you did in earlier times. Write a story about what you fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa Cather

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

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

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

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

Stories prime the pump of memory

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

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

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

My big takeaway that can be yours, too.

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

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

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

Questions to ask yourself as you start to write

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


~ who needs to hear your story?

~ whom do you need to share this story with?

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

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

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

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

Writing a memoir is important work. Do it!

Action Steps

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

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

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

To Finish or Bail?

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

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

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

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

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

So I ask myself,

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the bottom line:

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Blogiversary to Me

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

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

How persistent are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boring or Brilliant?

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

From My Private Italy, Steve McCurdy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Jose Izquierdo, Creative Commons license