Amy Cohen Discusses The Fountain at the Crossroads

Earlier this year I published A Humble Story Lives On, a post based on the work of Amy Cohen, a distant cousin of my husband’s. Amy has been busy over the last several months lovingly publishing a posthumous memoir written by Ernest Lion, another shirt-tail relative who survived the Holocaust at Auschwitz.

Amy asked for my guidance in preparing the manuscript for publication, and I became intrigued with her project as well as the story. In this post Amy explains how she came across the story and why she decided to publish it. I find it especially intriguing that a story written late in life with no known plans for publication could be found and brought to the world by a stranger. It just goes to show that you never know where your words may end up.

SL: Amy, how did you discover The Fountain at the Crossroads?

AC: I was researching the family of one of my Schoenthal cousins—Rosalie Schoenthal. She was one of only two siblings of my great-grandfather who did not immigrate to the US from Germany in the late 19th century. She married Willie Heymann. All but two of their many children left Germany and escaped the Holocaust. The two daughters who stayed in Germany were killed by the Nazis. In trying to learn more about the lives and deaths of these cousins, I found out that one of Rosalie’s granddaughters, Liesel Mosbach, had married Ernst (later Ernest) Lion. Although Liesel was killed at Auschwitz, her husband Ernest survived. One online source included a link to a memoir written by Ernest Lion.

I clicked on the link and printed out the 200+ page manuscript. I read it in one sitting over the course of a day, tears streaming down my face, unable to put it down until I reached the last page.

SL: What did finding the story mean to you?

AC: Although the fact that Ernest was a relative initially drew me to his book, I quickly realized that his story is the story of more than six million people. It’s the story of how the Germans tried to strip them of their humanity and lives. But Ernest, like countless survivors, refused to surrender his humanity or dignity. The narrative brings you into his experiences and also his mind, allowing the reader to understand the reality of life at Auschwitz and perhaps even more importantly what it was like to survive during and after that experience.

This book reveals both the darkest and best of human nature. Ernest’s ability to persist, to escape, to build a new life in a new country, to find love and purpose is inspiring and deeply moving.

SL: How did you decide to publish it?

AC: After reading the book, I felt strongly that it needed to be read by others. But aside from a few links to the rough manuscript, there was no way for people to find this 200 page manuscript. And with no chapters and crude formatting, it was difficult to read.

So I decided to see if I could get permission to edit and publish the manuscript to make it more readable and publicly accessible.

SL: What challenges did you face?

First, I had to find out who had the rights to the book. I knew Ernest was deceased and that he had a son, but I had no way to contact him. Ernest had acknowledged a number of people in the book, including Randall Wells and Suzanne Thompson, his writing instructors at Coastal Carolina University. Through the university, I got in touch with them and got contact information for Ernest’s son Tom. I soon learned that Tom was the sole heir to Ernest’s estate and thus owned the book’s copyright.

Tom liked the idea of making his father’s book more accessible, so I began editing the manuscript. Wanting to preserve Ernest’s voice and leave content intact, I did nothing but add chapter headings, fix typos here and there, and reorganize one section so the chronology flowed more smoothly.
The second greatest challenge was figuring out how to publish it. That’s where you came in, Sharon, with advice on how to create a professional looking format. Your important suggestion that I use CreateSpace made the process of getting the book on Amazon in both print and Kindle format relatively easy.

SL: What are your hopes for this volume? 

AC: I hope that a multitude will read the book. We set the price low to keep it affordable. Our hope is that readers will gain a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and human nature.
I am hoping that schools and libraries will put the books on their shelves. I am hoping that the book will be reviewed in places where it will draw the attention of history buffs. We need help spreading the word.

Fountain at the Crossroad is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions. You can find them here. Whatever small profits may accrue will be donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in memory of Ernest Lion.

For an extensive array of family history stories collected and written by Amy Cohen, visit her Brotmanblog: A Family Journey.

Write Away Election Stress, part 2

In my previous post I touched on Expressive Writing as a way of dealing with post-election stress. I need to expand on that. Writing for stress relief takes more than one form, and spontaneous writing in real time is best known as journaling.

I can attest from personal experience that journaling my heart out has been hugely helpful in coming to grips with anger, confusion, and other chaotic emotions. I highly recommend it, and if your topic is a tender one that could cause the chaos to spread of others near and dear to you happened to read it, write it into the fireplace, or the shredder, or delete the file.

As great and powerful as journaling is, I’m not aware of any studies showing that it has long-term health benefits. Nor is it reliably useful for calming currently chaotic emotion.
Expressive writing is especially powerful for resolving stressful memories after the fact. This research was pioneered by James Pennebaker and expanded upon in over 200 replications in situations ranging from prison populations to cancer patients and outplaced high tech industry personnel.

In Pennebaker’s original research, people were asked to write about “a trauma, emotional upheaval, or unsettling event that has been influencing your life, spinning obsessively in your mind, and maybe keeping you awake at night” for twenty minutes on each of four consecutive days.

Subsequent studies have found similar results by having people write for as little as five minutes. They have scaled the four days back to one or two. They’ve left it consecutive and spread it out. Research in other directions sheds even more light.

Almost without exception, results showed durable health benefits. In the case of the tech workers, the ones who wrote according to the experimental protocol found new jobs significantly sooner faster than the control group.

So in concert with what I posted last week, I urge you to journal about current fears and frustration. In a few months or more, if it’s still troubling you, switch to the Pennebaker Process. Meanwhile, if journaling current stuff triggers traumatic old memories, do the four day routine with them now.

In fact, most readers here are writing lifestories anyway. Part of the healing value of expressive writing is the way it turns endless rumination loops into coherent story with context and meaning. So take this process one step further and turn the results of those 20 minute sessions into a coherent, meaningful story worthy of passing along.

Write for the health of it!

Image credit: Prawny, posted on

Write Away Election Stress

FingerPointAs much as we’d like to forget it all, it’s hard. Who can forget the finger pointing, the name calling, the conversations you tried not to have before November 8? We hoped it would end the next day, but we knew, most of us knew anyway, that it wouldn’t.

Here we are now, stressed, burned out and perhaps more divided than ever. Half the country is rejoicing that they managed to Trump the so-called self-righteous, socialistic feminists represented by That Woman. “Change is finally possible,” they crow. “We can get back to true values, to democracy as it was intended to be.” And on it goes.

On the flip side are those who were either Hillary’s True Believers as well as many who may not have preferred That Woman, but they claim a trained seal would be better than that devious, inexperienced, misogynistic bully. The sudden triumph of Trump seemed unimaginable and that half of the country is in deep mourning, highly traumatized.

“How can they believe all that stuff?”

“How can they just throw out all the progress we’ve made?”

And on it goes.

We’ll see how things unfold in the future, but for the present, our collective national life stress index is off the map.

The medical community has been warning us about the negative health effects of stress for over fifty years. We know it leads to cardiovascular problems, lowered immunity, depression, and a host of other ills. So what's a person to do?Lists of stress management techniques abound. A search for "stress management" turned up 16 million links. WebMD has two pages of tips, and many more of links and articles.

Fortunately, one of the simplest ways to offset the stressful effects of trauma is to pick up pen and paper and write about your thoughts, feelings, fears and perceptions. Original research showed that writing for as little as twenty minutes about troubling topics may boost your immune system and lead to numerous health benefits reversing the ravages of stress. Research has repeatedly shown enhanced cardio-vascular function, lower blood pressure, reduced asthma and arthritis symptoms, decreased need for pain medication in many instances, and more. Emotional health benefits such as relief from depression, better sleep, and enhanced sense of well-being are also common.

More recent studies have shown measurable results from writing for five or ten minutes a day, or even writing once for a few minutes. It’s undeniably clear that expressive writing is good for your health! Expressive writing is not a panacea intended to replace medical care, but it often serves as an effective adjunct, enhancing effects of any treatment you may undergo. It's affordable for anyone, and can be done anywhere.

In our current situation, you can make it even more effective by expanding your writing to include attempts to understand the perspective of those on the other side of the electoral divide. Think and write as deeply about their fears, hopes and concerns as you do your own. You may find you have more in common than you imagined. You may discover deeper compassion for others as well as your self and begin to rebuild community that may have suffered over the last several months.

Please leave a comment about ways you are using writing to recover from election stress, along with any other tips you may have.

Composite Memory

I Like Ike!Madly for Adlai

I was in third grade when Ike ran against Adlai. I’ve formed a composite memory of that campaign, the only one I clearly remember. My composite image is set outside the door of my third grade classroom. The classroom windows faced northeast, and a thick row of ponderosa pines bordered the school yard about fifteen feet beyond the sidewalk and a strip of grass running along the side of the school. Class began at 8:30, and we were careful to be standing outside our room a few minutes early so we’d be ready to bolt in the door the minute Miss Hones opened it.

We usually lined up as we arrived, but as election day grew near, we began to form into two camps outside that door. I stood with the Republican kids to the right, next to the protruding partition separating our room from the next one. The Democrat kids clustered near the partition at the other end by the door.

“I like Ike!” we chanted at the top of our lungs. “Stevenson! Stevenson!” they chanted in return, each group pausing to make space for the other. This chanting went on for several minutes until Miss Hones opened the door.

I say it’s a composite memory because although I feel certain this group activity took place daily for … who knows? A week? Two weeks? A month? … I have only one mental image. That image is clear and complete. I feel the nip of late fall in the air and appreciate my warm wooly sweater. On this particular day in memory, the sky must be overcast, because the scene is drab and washed out, missing the brilliant sunshine that usually peeked through the trees. I feel the joy of shouting and feeling part of a group. I feel the joy of being part of something larger, something historic.

This election stands out for me because my grandmother had been a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1952, so of course my family supported Ike. Oddly enough, I remember nothing about the 1956 election, though once again she was a delegate. and once again Ike squared off against Adlai. How I wish now I’d thought to ask her in great detail what she had seen, heard and done at those conventions! How I wish she had written that story!

Most memories of place or repeating events are composite. Even specific memories are pasted into composite backgrounds. The day one shy classmate was about twenty minutes late arriving at school and hid in the coat closet until recess stands out, but only against a composite of an ordinary day. Recess is a composite with several variations including Boys Chase Girls (or vice-versa), jacks, jump rope, and so forth.

Composite memories are useful in many ways.

  • Yeast for more involved stories or essays. My impassioned-but-civilized election memory stands in stark contrast to what seems barbaric behavior in this year’s electoral scene. I could explore that contrast in an essay.
  • Food for thought in terms of exploring attitudes, values and relationships. During those chants I felt part of the Republican group. Much of the time I felt like a misfit at school.
  • Source material for writing descriptions. The setting was the same outside that classroom all year long. In fact, it was much the same for third grade through fifth when my classrooms were all on that side of that school.
  • Vignettes for inclusion in a larger story. This composite memory could easily become a scene in a tale of growing up in Los Alamos, or my involvement in politics or … who knows?

Standing on its own, this memory is much like a simple snapshot crammed into a shoebox. But like those piles of photos we have hidden away, who knows when one of those pictures will leap out to trigger a memory, seed a longer story, or just warm our hearts for a few minutes as we remember.

Honor those memories. Write them down, perhaps as I’ve done here, and treasure them. Skim back through them now and then, like you do with photos. You never know when they might spark a new thought, insight or story.

Secrets of Saving as PDF, How and Why

Free Ebook

You’ve seen links like the one above. You’ve probably clicked them and know they produce PDF files. Did you know you can save your own files in that form? Did you know when and why know you should? Here are three compelling reasons:

  1. If you share a Word document with someone else, they may not have the same version as you, and they may not have the fonts you use. Your document may not display right for them. By saving as a PDF, you can embed the fonts, and the file will look the same on a Mac, a PC, or an Android based device.
  2. If you share a Word document, others can copy from or edit it. PDF files are more secure. Few people know how to copy text from a PDF file. Fewer still have a clue how to edit them or the special software to do so.
  3. If you upload to an online printer, like CreateSpace or any POD publisher, they require PDF files, and they must have embedded fonts and be formatted with the right paper size for your project.
  4. For long-term storage, PDF is the archivist’s best bet. PDF files from twenty years ago still display just fine. That’s definitely not the case with word processing documents.

The good news is that this conversion is easy to do and if you don’t already have software to do it, it’s widely available for free.

So, you say, “I’m sold. How do I do this?”

The tutorial below will walk you through three different paths, starting with the simplest one first.

Save as a PDF with Word (or OpenOffice or most any word processing program)

  1. Whatever program you’re using, select Save As. They’ll all be pretty much the same as what you see here.
  2. Click the tiny arrow on the right of the Save as type field. Select PDF from the flyout menu.

    PDF 0 - Word file type
  3. Check the options. First check that your file is optimized for printing if you are uploading to CreateSpace or have other plans to print. If it’s primarily for onscreen viewing, select the Minimum size option.  Then click the Options menu to the right and make sure the box, Bitmap Text when fonts may not be embedded is checked.

    PDF 1 - Word save as options
    Word automatically adjusts page size (in case you are saving a file with pages some size other than 8.5” x 11”) and embeds fonts. Some commercial fonts can’t be embedded, at least not without a special license. This option ensures they’ll be readable on the other end.

LibreOffice, based on OpenOffice, has an Export as PDF function rather than Save As. For POD publishing, select 100% for JPEG compressions. Other tabs include lots of bells and whistles, but nothing important for our purposes here.

Print as a PDF

Aside from word processing programs and maybe a couple of others, you create PDF files by “printing” them to a digital page. To do this you use a printer driver much like the one for printers that use ink. This means that if you find an error and need to fix it, you go back to your source file, i.e. your Word document, make your change, then “print” the file again, just as you’d do with paper.

Many PDF printer apps are available for free download on the Internet. The ones I’ve looked at all use print setup interfaces similar to one of the two types I’ll show below. I’ll begin with Cute PDF, but first a caveat about downloading any free software:

It often comes bundled with add-on apps. You do not need these add-on apps. They probably aren’t malware, but why take the chance? Only download specific programs that you know you need, want and trust. The add-ons keep the software free, but you can avoid them by paying close attention. Reputable software publishers today offer you the opportunity to opt out of add-ons. If you see any window that asks you to click to install anything other than the app you selected, look for an opportunity to Decline, or a button that says Next. If you don’t see any option like this. kill the installation and find another app. If you accidentally download something you don’t want, on a Windows machine, use System Restore and go back to the a time before the download.

Now a second caveat: I’ve used both the apps in the examples below and they are both satisfactory. They are not necessarily the best or the latest. The field keeps changing. Do a search for PDF conversion software, then check reviews before selecting one. You may want to try two or three.  And don’t be fooled that you need to buy anything unless you want to edit PDFs. If you don’t know, you don’t need it. The conversion engine will be free.

Using the Cute PDF Interface

This interface has been around for years and is shared by many of the free apps.

  1. Find your way to the Print menu for your file. Click the arrow on the right and select Cute PDF (or another of your choice) as your printer.

    PDF A1 - Select Printer
  2. Click Printer Properties to open the printer setup dialog.

    PDF A - Open Setup Dialog, Cute
  3. Click Advanced on the Document Properties menu.

    PDF B - Options Cute
    From here you can change the page orientation, and select color or grayscale from the Paper/Quality tab. Advanced gives you more options, including embedding fonts.
  4. By default most PDF printers substitute device fonts to keep file size small. Play it safe over the long run. Embed your fonts by selecting Download as Softfont in the TrueType font line.

    PDF D - Font embedding - Cute
  5. Change paper size. This won’t matter if you’re sticking with standard letter-sized paper. For books and other special projects, you need the Paper Size option.

    PDF C - Advanced Options - Cute
  6. Monitor Print Quality. This app saves images at 600 dpi by default. CreateSpace asks for 300 dpi, which also works well on home printers. Nothing but file size is gained by saving them at higher resolution.

    PDF E - Print Quality - Cute
  7. In the fly out that opens when you click the Paper Size field, check to see if your page size is listed. If not, scroll down to PostScript Custom Page Size. A new menu will open.

    PDF F - Custom Page Size - Cute
  8. Enter your page dimensions. These should be identical to the paper size you designated in Word.  You will probably use inches, but millimeters and points are also options. Don’t concern yourself with the rest.

    PDF G - Set Page Size - Cute

That’s it. Click OK as many times as you need, then click Print. You’ll be asked to specify a file name and location the same as saving any other file. Remember, this is a digital page, so it’s stored as a digital file, just like your Word document.

Using the Foxit Phantom PDF Printer

This app uses a newer interface with fewer options. Don’t concern yourself with what you don’t see.

  1. Select Foxit Phantom PDF Printer and click on Printer Properties as above.
  2. On the General tab, select Quality and Color. For publishing, you want High Quality Print. For other purposes, standard works fine. Don’t concern yourself with the confusing options behind that Edit button.
    PDF 5 - Print Qualtiy
  3. Alter page size if needed on the Layout tab. Click the Custom Page Size button.
    PDF 3 - Custom Page Size 1
  4. Enter your page size. As above, this needs to be identical to your document paper size.
    PDF 4 - Add Custom Page Size
  5. That’s it. Click Okay and print as above. You can add document properties information as you wish. If you’re saving for widespread public distribution, this is a way to ensure you retain credit for your work.

You may find slight variations in software interfaces, but these three examples should be enough to guide you through any of them. Now, go forth and fill hard drives and cyberspace with your work!

Who Owns Which Memory?


I know three sisters who remember life differently, and sometimes things I hear from them drop my jaw, at least mentally. For simplicity here, I’ll call them Annie, Betsy and Connie, in order of age. All are in their mid-eighties.

One day I got an email from Connie with a scanned letter attached. The letter was from her aunt, confirming that this aunt had indeed taken Connie as an infant to her house to care for while Connie’s mother was sick.

“I can’t wait to show this to Annie! She has sworn for years that Aunt Laura never took me home with her, she just took me to a motel!”

Apparently, when Annie saw the letter, she humphed and changed the subject. Obviously this development did not square with her memory of things, and as the older sister, she was supposed to be the authority. 

During a recent visit with Annie and Connie, we got to talking about their grandfather. He let me drive his old car all over the place when I was only eleven. He even lied to the Department of Motor Vehicles so I could get my driver’s license when I was twelve. He told them I was fourteen,” said Annie.

“That’s interesting. He did the same thing for Connie,” I said.


“She told me the same story about him taking her to get a license when she was twelve and letting her drive thirty miles to Turkey Town by herself to get something he needed.”

Annie looked at Betsy. “That’s not possible. He didn’t live near us when she was that age.”

Betsy shrugged. She didn’t seem eager to get involved. I changed the subject.

Which sister owns that memory? Did Connie hear Annie tell the story often enough that she started thinking it had been her? Stranger things have happened.

As it turns out, I may be the one with the creative memory. Connie affirmed that it was Annie’s story. “I hardly ever spent time with him when I was young.” Well … whatever. In the overall scheme of things, who cares?

This all goes to show that much of family history is myth, and a changing one at that. One key thing we collectively agree to is that the old man was a scoundrel who bent rules when it suited him and ignored them much of the time.

From the larger perspective, that matters more than which granddaughter got to drive when or where. I’m semi-sorry I sought to clarify the source.

Writing tip: Do some freewriting or journaling about conflicting stories within your family. (This may be best left unshared.)

Start Your Story with a Hook

HookIf you spend time worrying about the best way to start a story, you may never write it. Your first challenge is to get it on the page in any form at all. But before you release it to readers, give your opening some thought so you sink a hook firmly into readers’ brains and guts.

I offer these Before and After opening excerpts of a story titled Missing Neighbor that’s based on a personal experience.


You would not believe the adventure I had with my friend Ellie. We were scheduled to take her to the airport at ten. I texted her around nine-thirty, and she didn't reply. I tried calling a few minutes later. She didn't answer, but I assumed she was on the phone with her daughter. Her voice mail was full. Hmm. Shall I go over there now just to check? No ... she's a big girl ... I muted my ESP.

At ten I rang the bell. No answer. I rang again. And again. I pounded on the door. She's expecting us now. What the heck? I decided to call her husband, who flew east four days ago. Maybe he’d heard something.

“Bring me my phone!” I hollered to Ed, who was standing by our car watching.

Suddenly it occurred to me to try the door. She does often leave it unlocked when she's expecting people. Huh! It opened! I went in. The house was dark. And silent. I saw no evidence of life. Very creepy!

“Ellie? Ellie!” I made my way toward the back of the long everything room, noticing the door on the sun porch was closed. At the end, I saw her bedroom door was closed. What will I find if I open it? Is she sick Or worse? What if she's ... dead? I feel like I’m living the opening chapter of a thriller novel! ….


Something is dreadfully wrong! This thought roils through my head after I punch the doorbell five more times and pound on the door and get no response. I see no light behind the frosted door glass. She has to be up. Her plane leaves in two hours. What am I going to do?

“Bring me my phone!” I holler across the yard to Ed, who stands waiting at our car. I’ll call Chuck. Maybe he’s heard from her. No matter that Chuck is already in Boston, her destination today.

My eye lands on the doorknob. Of course! She often leaves it unlocked when she’s expecting someone. I press the lever and the door swings open into their huge, dark, empty everything room. Aside from a fan whispering on the ceiling, I hear no sound except my pounding heart.

“Ellie? Ellie!” My skin crawls as I creep slowly toward the end of the room. “Ellie! Are you here?” I call out over and over, but hear no response. My heart beats even louder.

Ellie can be ditzy, but this is way out of character. She’s been planning this trip for months, and I’ve been booked for the airport run from the start. Yesterday she was excited about the weekend wedding she’s heading for. I should have followed my hunch and come over thirty minutes ago when she didn’t answer my text or her phone. But hey, she was probably talking to her daughter. She doesn’t interrupt those calls. She’s a big girl. I’m not her mommy. I’d muted my ESP.

The door to the sunroom is closed. I reach the hall to her room. It’s also closed. Maybe she’s in the shower. But what if she’s sick? What if she’s gone? What if she’s … dead? I feel like I’m living the opening chapter of a thriller novel!”

“Ellie? Are you up?”

I hold my breath as I approach the door, reaching for the knob ….

~ ~ ~

You may not be surprised to learn that the Before version began life as an email, which is a great way to discover and develop a story draft. In fact, it’s just fine to send it as an email. Whether you send it or not, you may want to copy it out and develop it further. I decided to hold onto mine before sending it off and exercise a little creativity.

I realized that the creepy, horrified feeling I had as I crept through her house was the perfect beginning for a compelling mystery novel. Taking all the advice I’ve read from both fiction authors and experts like Lisa Cron in Wired for Story, I cut right to the emotion-filled point where my stomach began churning and let it build from there, looping briefly back to tell who Ellie is.

Are you curious about what I found? Was Ellie hurt or … dead? Mission accomplished.

Writing tip: write a new story or pull out an old one and find the juicy part. Rewrite the story starting with that.

Tell a Story, Change the World

Carmen Murasan changes hearts, and perhaps someday the world, by telling stories. She changed my heart as she spun stories about Romanian history, lacing them strongly with perspective and personal insight.

I met Carmen at the conclusion of a Vantage river boat tour of the Rhine and Danube that ended in Romania. She lives in Brasov and served as our local guide during the time we spent in Transylvania. Our local guide in Bucharest had painted a slightly cynical picture of Romania’s past and present, presumably also its future. She left me wondering why she’d chosen to return after living elsewhere for years.

Carmen was the perfect antidote. She’s passionate about life and passionate about Romania. She had our Orange Bus group howling like werewolves at every opportunity, baffling the Blue Bus group the first few times they heard us, and she punctuated her points with hugs and kisses for everyone at frequent intervals. She added brilliance and focus to the seductive beauty of Transylvania. How could we not listen to her stories and absorb her passion?

For example, consider the way she developed the story of Count Dracula, also known as Vlad, the Impaler. “It’s not fair to judge Vlad in light of twenty-first century values. You must understand conditions back then and the way he was brought up....” By the time she was finished, I got it. Not that she turned him into a saint, but I did understand his logic and the protective effect it had on Transylvania’s history.

During the course of the cruise from Bonn to Bucharest, we stopped in so many cities, towns and villages that they’ve begun to blur together, but especially as we cruised down the Danube from Vienna into former Eastern Bloc countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, our local guides’ stories became intense. We heard tales of millennia of invasions and the violence of World War II. Accounts of more recent Balkan conflict horrified us. We heard personal accounts of genocide and ever-present anxiety over possible attempts to form a new Ottoman Empire.

My hair stood on end as our Croatian guide told of suddenly being sent alone to a children’s camp in Germany for what turned out to be six months while most of his extended family was shot in a mass execution of Croatians. Fortunately his parents survived. Every guide after Vienna told a personal story of life under Communist rule and later liberation. Each story left an imprint on my heart.

Not all stories were verbal. Buildings stood as silent testimony. Great progress has been made toward restoring the damage caused by bombing and decades of neglect, but most notably in Bucharest, far too many stand like rotting teeth in a brilliant smile, constant reminders of the past and work yet to be done. How starkly eastern Europe contrasts with western cities rebuilt by the Marshall Plan. Taken together, the two halves of Europe bear testimony to the ability of the United States to implement the Marshall Plan to rebuild our former enemies while thriving ourselves.

Story is the operating system our human brains use to make sense of life and the world we live in. We’re constantly creating and editing stories to incorporate new information and experience. I’ve encountered a river full of small stories that beg to be woven into a larger one. My former view of the world has burst open like the shell of a growing lobster. A new view will take time to become clearn and solid. This blog post is one small step in achieving that end.

I'm endlessly grateful that Carmen Murasan’s stories were the last ones I heard. Her optimism and joy for life form a pillar for anchoring and focusing others.

Carmen shares her stories with legions of visitors to Romania from around the world, and I feel certain she changes each of their hearts. Hopefully as we each share our take on her stories, and I share mine on others I’ve heard, the ripple effect will kick in, and the world will become a better place. Perhaps, just maybe, one day she’ll begin writing those stories and touch even more people.

How has hearing new stories from others changed your heart, life and stories? Write about it! 


If you're like most writers, you pay careful attention to the composition of your stories. That's a good thing. But something I saw the other day turned that concept on its head in the most elegant way. I ran across a reference to decomposition books. What a surprise I had when I checked Amazon and found a wide variety to choose from. I must be a late adopter.

So it would seem. The Amazon description for Michael Roger's Honeycomb Decomposition Book refers to it as “a new spin on an old concept.” This old concept is not one I've been familiar with.

Searching around, I found no further explanation or discussion, but it can't be that complex. Blank notebooks are perfectly suited for recording journals. Nothing new about that, but that decomposition term points to a new way of looking at journals as compost piles for memories.

Think about it. When you pile weeds, grass clippings, dead lettuce and such into a compost pile in your yard, it all decomposes into rich fertilizer to spur the growth of newer plants. Something similar takes place with memory. Look back through old journals, if you're fortunate enough to have some. Some old thoughts may sound silly to you now, some profound. Even more mundane ones are likely to spark new ones, to give you fresh perspectives on perplexing matters. Nearly all will have been transformed, one way or another, by time.

Garden matter does not decompose overnight. Months or years may pass before it's ready to use. In the meantime, matter in the pile has broken down, fermented and mixed around, generating considerable heat in the process. You won't notice from the outside, but this is not a calm process. Decomposing memories can also generate heat, painful heat at times, which may encourage you to keep journaling and adding to the pile.

This decomposition process is one of the reasons to wait for a time before writing a lifestory or memoir. Letting things stew around with other memories for several months or years mellows them, deepens their meaning and generally enriches them. Using your mental spading fork to churn things around now and then speeds the process and produces a nourishing memory stew, ready to hit the page.

What better reason to keep a journal, at least now and then? And what better reason to dig around in old ones from time to time?

Publish No Story Before Its Message Is Right

Color me perplexed. I’m having trouble getting a blog post right. I know what I want to say. I’ve said it a few different ways. A couple are eloquent, well-crafted. But I fear I’m in love with the sound of my own (writer’s) voice, and the message is still not quite right.

So what do I do? Post it anyway? You can tell by the gap between posts that has not happened.

No, I've come to a conclusion that applies to anything I might write — blog posts, emails, short stories or entire memoirs (not to mention novels, cookbooks, or any unpaid project that lacks an urgent deadline). This conclusion may also work for you:


How simple is that? Back off. Write something else. Edit something you’ve already written. If you’re still not clear, try
  • discussing the topic with friends.
  • journal or free write about it.
  • read up on the topic
  • asking yourself, “What am I trying to say?”
In general, Give your problem piece space and before long, it will pop into clear focus. And if you write something else in the meantime, you'll at least have something to show for your time.

Photo credit: Ron St. Amant, shared by Creative Commons License

Personal Essay: Pathway to Clarity, Persuasion and Power

What’s the best way to air your personal views? First get clear on what they are, then write a personal essay!

Write an essay? you ask. Me, write an essay? Surely you joke!

I get that. I’ve spent most of my life thinking the same thing. Like most people, I always thought of essays as noxious English class assignments that fed dry toast to brains. 

That was before personal essay and creative nonfiction came of age. Now I recognize essays as both a tool for getting my thoughts clear and orderly, and also a dimension of story — stories explaining what we think and believe and why. Stories exploring Truth. They interlace nicely with stories about experiences. Most stories are hybrids, with elements of both.

Well-written personal essays sizzle with energy and sometimes humor. They make you think. I know this, because I’ve read a pile of them lately. The ones that spurred this post are blog posts by Kristen Lamb.

Two in particular are so powerful I hope they go viral. Both are calls to action, inciting the nation to get a grip and reclaim our sense of balance and humor. While well-meaning and serving an initial purpose, the Political and Emotional Correctness Police have become Nazis, and who isn’t tired of walking on eggshells all the time? I urge you to read them for yourselves:

In her essays Kristen mixes observations on the current state of cultural values with personal reflections on how these values affect them and society at large. She begins her first post by citing an article, “Is America Starting To Target Thought Crime?” That article reports on how Michele Obama anointed graduating high schoolers as thought police for their families. Yikes!  Kristen went on to build on the ramifications of that.

Her second post continues the theme. I don't see how anyone who reads Kristen's posts can avoid personal reflection and become more clear on personal thoughts.

I haven’t queried Kristen about the process she used to compile these essay/posts, but I’d bet a dime to a dollar that she learned something along the way. That she was more clear after writing than before.

How does that work? How can you do that? 

A few years ago I invited Sheila Bender, noted personal essay writer and teacher, and author of highly acclaimed Writing and Publishing Personal Essays,  to write a series of three guest posts, “Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing.” That wheel still rolls smoothly down the road, so I invite you to take a few minutes to read through them.

Whether you plan to influence the world or not, do give personal essay writing a try. Take something you often ponder and write about your thoughts and feelings about it. That might be as seemingly simple as the challenges of being short, or something like the current Orlando tragedy. See where it goes. Who knows? You may write something as compelling as Kristen. Or you may just be more clear on your views and able to discuss them more effectively with friends and neighbors.

Points to Ponder: What do you want to be more clear about? What keeps you from sitting down to write? Would it help to write about the fears or reasons for reluctance? They may be the key to unlocking your power. 

Things Happen When It’s Time

Things happen when it’s time. The longer I live, the more strongly I believe that. I know this sounds like a cop-out to lots of people, and I don’t mean it in the sense that we shouldn’t set goals and target dates and all that good stuff. But sometimes life intervenes with the best-laid plans, and sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know until … suddenly we do.

My latest example is my car keys. I take them with me when I leave the house, even when I know my husband will be driving. Such was the case last Monday. Tuesday I reached for them to head for a meeting, and they were nowhere to be found. We both turned my purse inside out and searched every nook and cranny in the car. I checked pockets. I folded laundry and reorganized our closet. I cleaned my desk and the catch-all drawer. I retraced our steps the previous day. Those keys had disappeared.

I was stuck! I had nowhere else to look. I lived in limbo for days, dreading the cost of a replacement key.

Six days later, some spirit moved me to look in my purse again. Happy Dance time! The keys were in a side pocket I never use and we’d both overlooked. I found them when they were ready to be found. (Go ahead and laugh — or scoff. I'm not offended.)

In my last post, "Getting Traction," I wrote about being stuck. I was stuck because I was working with the wrong concept and didn’t know it yet. I was, as Ruth Pennebaker puts in her recent book title, a "woman on the edge of a nervous breakthrough." Last week, reading a guest post written by Janet Givens’ dog and riffing with Ian Mathie in the comments pushed me over the edge and that breakthrough occurred. A totally new concept struck me like a bolt of lightning. I’d been writing the wrong book! I was writing more of the same, and it’s time for a radical new approach. Of course!

This was not a fuzzy concept I had to wrestle to the ground. It was delivered complete in all detail. All I have to do is write. Which is what I’ve been doing for several days now. I’m out of the sand and have traction again.  It’s going well.

But it won’t be finished right away. Life is still intervening. As I knew it would, a large editing and manuscript preparation assignment arrived in my inbox today. That job has top priority. Even without the interruption, my project would take a few months. But that’s okay. It will be done when it’s time. If I try to hurry the writing, on this book or any project, I’m likely to miss something crucial, like finding out I’m on the wrong path.

I’m not the only one who’s been stuck on a wrong writing path. I know several others whose projects floundered until they realize they had some hidden issues about content that were unresolved. Once they realized this, things snapped into focus and their stories took a much better shape.They weren't ready to understand the needed shift in focus until it happened. It wasn't time.

By the way, I’m more than a little convinced that the playfulness of Janet’s post, combined with the banter with Ian, was a magic key that unlocked the new concept. We’re never too old to laugh and play.

I’m adding three new items to my checklist for things to do when I’m stuck.
  • Go back and read the map again to make sure I’m on the right path.
  • Take time out to play. Have fun. Get wild and crazy and laugh a lot.
  • Keep sight of the goal and have faith that I will get there. When it’s time.
Points to ponder: What do you do when you feel stuck? What is your favorite, most powerful form of play?