Write Like Nobody Will Read

Polish DancersDance like nobody’s watching,
Write like nobody will read.

These words darted into my monkey mind as I gazed at Christmas lights, thinking back to high school days when folk dancing was a favorite activity. A motley mixture of adults and teenagers gathered each week at the Rec Hall for a medley of line and couples’ dances from many nations. College kids home for Christmas made holiday dances especially festive.

There were never any lessons – you just picked the dances up as you went, with occasional pointers from old-timers. Any athletic ability in our family went to my sister and brother. I was one of those kids always picked last for whatever team was forming in P.E., so, although I loved the music and the dancing, I was never a picture of grace. On some level I knew this, but put it out of  mind. I was having fun. At least until the night Kelly gave me some startling advice.

“Quit trying to make like a ballerina,” she said with a sneer. “Do you have any idea how ridiculous you look?”

Ouch! Where’s the nearest hole? I fled to the ladies’ room to do battle with my Inner Critic.

Kelly was a couple of years older than I and home on break from college. She had studied ballet practically all her life, and she was good enough to turn pro. Undoubtedly watching my awkward attempts was painful for her, and tact had never been her strong suit. Perhaps she meant well, but her words stung. Fortunately she disappeared back to school, and I soon got over the humiliation and enjoyed dancing as much as ever, perhaps more.

I didn’t discount her message. After thinking it through, I did begin to relax into the music more, and seemed to move a bit more fluidly. If I was still a little awkward, so what? It didn’t seem to bother anyone but Kelly. We were there for the joy of dancing, not to put on a performance, and in general we were an accepting group.

Today as I recalled that horrific moment, I made the obvious connection to writing. There was a time when my writing was almost as awkward as my dancing. I have drafts of two short stories I wrote in 1978. They are utterly dreadful! I keep them as benchmarks for measuring progress. When I went to college I fell away from folk dancing, so I’ve had little opportunity to refine those skills. But I have continued writing for over thirty years now, and with lots of feedback, study and practice, I’ve made progress.

Today I often dance at home alone. I dance because I love to dance. I dance like nobody is watching, which is easy, because they aren’t. I write the same way. I write thousands of words nobody will ever see for every hundred I share. Maybe if I took up folk dancing again, I’d do better at it for all the private practice.

My advice for you: Forget the Kelly’s in life. Dance like nobody’s watching and write like nobody will read. If a Kelly wanders in, look for what you can learn and forget the rest.

Write now: about a Kelly experience in your life. How did you react? Did you shut down or keep slogging away? What did you learn then? What can you learn now for revisiting the event?

Image credit: Brendan Lally

The Perfect Christmas Tree

A story of Christmas Past

christmasglitter1I stare with disappointment at the tree in our 1958 living room that we decorated two days ago. It looks utterly pitiful — like it’s made from Tinkertoys. The flat-needled branches are sparse, and it has no fragrance. I face the ugly truth: I do not like this tree. I fight growing disappointment with the whole season, wishing it would just be over.

Just then Mother comes home from work, wrestling a huge spruce through the door. It’s almost as wide as it is tall. “Nobody else at school wanted this, so I brought it home,” she explains. Its fragrance instantly fills the house. In meer minutes my sister and I strip the puny tree and the lush new one stands in its place. Santa’s crew of elves couldn’t decorate a tree better or faster than we do. When we finish, we catch our breath in awe. The tree glows with more than colored lights. It glows with Christmas Spirit. With joyful hearts, she and I load the record player and sing our hearts out.

The next day Daddy saws up the old tree and stuffs it in the fireplace. I’m torn at the seeming brutality of burning this poor tree because it wasn’t beautiful enough. I feel more than a little guilty at rejecting it for the sake of appearances. Then I look at the new one and relax —we didn’t deliberately go looking for it. It was a gift, a gift of abundance in this season of blessing. It was a gift of Christmas Spirit, something lacking in the first tree. This is the perfect Christmas tree, and I know it will never be matched in all my years.

“Thank you for yielding your place so gracefully,” I whisper into the flames, grateful that at least the meager tree can give us the gift of warmth to help us enjoy its replacement.

All these years later, I look at our dense, perfectly shaped artificial tree with vague disappointment, then realize it’s the best tree it can be. Not even a fresh tree could live up to the legendary Perfect Christmas Tree. “Thank you for giving us joy each year and being so dependable and easy to live with. And especially, thank you for not dropping needles all over the floor!”

Holly candles ani

This simple memoir story has become part of my Christmas Tradition, to be handed down through generations. Each year it seems to take on new meaning and become richer. Others read the story and find their own meaning. I’m glad of that, but primarily I wrote the story for myself. It’s a reminder of the day I realized something important as I sat in front of that fireplace. That day was a rite of passage. Each time I read the story, I learn the lessons of gratitude, compassion and purpose more deeply and fully, and the spirit of that lush, amazing replacement tree will always fill my heart.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.

Write now: Take a few minutes and write about some meaningful Christmas memory – or some other holiday memory if your tradition celebrates another time. Keep this story and reflect on it each year. Edit as your understanding grows. Over the years it will become rich and deep, full of meaning and inspiration, primarily for you, but also for others.

Stories, Stories, Everywhere

Yarn-StashOne passage near the end of Stephanie Pearl-McFee’s memoir, Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter, struck me as a poignant reminder that stories are in the very air we breathe. In this scene Stephanie and a friend are dividing up the yarn stash of a friend whose rheumatoid arthritis has made it impossible to continue knitting. Story itself  becomes an essential element:

… Lene tells us the story of each yarn as we take it, and slowly, we start to feel better. For the moment we are soothed, lost in the tale each yarn has to tell us.

We pay attention to Lene’s wishes. That blue mohair, the one the color of baby eyes, it was supposed to be a shawl for Lene’s friend Michelle. I take that one. I lay it in the bin and make a mental note: Shawl for Michelle. Ken gets the discounted Aran-weight tweed. Lene had planned an intricately cabled pullover for herself with that yarn. I watch Ken; he’s making the same note-to-self, recording carefully what Lene’s intentions were. The chocolate milk alpaca (a scarf for Lene’s mother, Bea) goes into my bin … .

Stephanie doesn’t mention writing these stories at the time, but telling them soothed Lene, and hearing them soothed the friends. Writing about it in the memoir surely soothed Stephanie again and surely most readers are moved by the touching account. She returns to the subject several pages later when she reports that she did, in fact, knit many items Lene had been unable to complete, and that each time she knit a gift from yarn she received from Lene, the gift tag said, “From Lene.”

This section was a tender counterpoint to most of the book, which was rollickingly funny and laced with evocative sensory imagery. I have dubbed Stephanie Pearl-McFee the “Erma Bombeck of the Knitting World,” and even though I am only a very occasional knitter, I look forward to reading her newly released book, All Wound Up: The Yarn Harlot Writes for a Spin

In a previous post I told about a friend’s tea pot collection and the advice I gave her on how to write the stories they held. Not long ago I saw her again and asked if she’d done any writing.

“Yes. I work on it every now and then, and it’s great fun. I make an extra copy of each and stick it in the pot to keep them together. That way whoever gets the pot next – not soon, I hope! – will know its story, adding value to the pots. I’ve taken pictures of each to put in the computer files. It makes quite an album. Stop by sometime and I’ll show it to you.”

Whether you need a writing prompt for practicing description skills or want to record the stories of your treasured possessions, you too can be soothed with memories as you write the stories of your stuff, and your family will appreciate having them later. You may find it useful to have those details at hand if you later write a more comprehensive memoir.

Write now: Look around the room where you sit. Find some object that’s meaningful to you and jot down a paragraph or few of memories about it. When and how did you get it? What has it meant to you? How have you used it? What memories does it hold? You might want to take a picture to put with the story and make it part of your legacy of family history.

Image credit: Katherine 

The Tree of Me

Tree-of-MeOn a whim inspired by matroyshka dolls and Growing Old: A Journey of Self-Discovery by Danielle Quinodoz, I decided to make a sketch of my “layers.” I found a tabloid-sized sheet of blank newsprint, picked up a pencil, and within about five minutes this graphic emerged showing my life from beginning to now. For the purposes of sharing and further embellishing, I redrew it with color for the boundaries. It’s still rough, as you can see by the orange blotch in the core that didn’t work out quite as hoped. But that’s okay. This is a source of inspiration and insight, not destined for the living room wall.

I was surprised as could be to see it. I’ve thought for ages about a chronological map of stages of my life. I like this one ever so much better. It’s organic and representative. As Quinodoz points out, I hold all those previous layers within me, but redefine them and cover them with new growth as I go.

When I began, I had no sense of direction. I thought I might be making a graph of roles I play. This emerged on its own. I will still work with the role idea later, as creativity further instructs.

I especially value this form, because within the layers I have space to write thoughts about that era. Here I’ve included rudimentary memories of threads of activity and my emotions and state of mind at the time. The layer boundaries are especially bold and jagged for times of great turmoil and upheaval. My world shifted on its axis at these points. The colors aren’t significant. Note that the boundaries are uneven – like the rings in an actual tree. They serve to organize memory clusters to clarify my sense of them and provide inspiration when I write.

Perhaps I’ll develop this further, but for now it’s a super-rich source of writing prompts, and it basically comprises a life-long memoir-at-a-glance, at least for me. Those cryptic notes won’t mean a lot to anyone else. 

It does show chronology, because the rings expand year-by-year. I didn’t put dates on the ring boundaries, but I could. I could do a lot of things. So can you, if you give this a try. I suggest using even larger paper so you have more room to take your time and make more notes.  I predict that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the patterns and insights.

Write now: Find a huge sheet of paper or piece of posterboard and make your own cross-section. You  might sketch it roughly in pencil first, then move to the full-size sheet. Add detail and make it rich. Then write about each layer.

Writers and Depression

Tessa McGovernGuest post by Tessa Smith McGovern

Tessa’s observations here may not apply to most simple life writers who write part time and very much for pleasure and self-exploration. But her points are well taken in any event, especially the one about choosing which content to write about. That fits with James Pennebaker’s admonition to mix plenty of bright memories with the darker ones to keep depression at bay. I thank Tessa for sharing these points. It’s always good to know the risks of “turning pro.” 

According to the website health.com, writing is one of the top 10 professions in which people are most likely to suffer from depression. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Hemingway…the list of writers who have fought depression is long. But what about people with no history of depression? How might writing affect them?

Well, let’s see. Take an otherwise healthy person, shut her up alone for hours at a time, day after day, month after month, year after year, watch her pack on the pounds (as physical exercise becomes a thing of the past), ask her to write, knowing that the end result can never be perfect and, to boot, tell her there’s no way of guaranteeing if she’ll be published, or paid.

Hmm, tricky question…

So what’s to be done? Well, one option is to choose, when we can, what we write about. Some stories cannot be manipulated. Some demand a sad ending. The bleak beauty of Alice Munro’s short stories, for example, would be lost if her endings were happy (or even bearable). But sometimes, when the first thoughts and images are just stirring, we do have a choice. We can mold content and/or conclusion.

I discovered this for myself by accident. A few years ago, I was reading my mum’s copy of the Daily Express, a newspaper designed to make English senior citizens rant and rave, when I came across an account of pensioners stealing free biscuits from their local cinema. It was so funny, and just happened to fit perfectly into the story I was writing. Each morning, I was amazed to find that I couldn’t wait to continue working on the story. This, after fifteen years of writing! Now I keep a file of strange or funny or awe-inspiring articles. Every now and then, one fits into a story, and makes the writing fun.

Award-winning author and founder of eChook Digital Publishing Tessa Smith McGovern will be chatting about what it takes to write and publish a short memoir, live on BookTrib.com Tuesday, December 7 at 3 p.m. ET. Tessa will be here ready to answer all of your questions and discuss her three essential memoir-writing tips.