Mistakes Make a Story More Interesting

The statement in this title may be a stretch, but a well-informed one. In item #7 on 10 Surprising Facts About How Our Brains Work, Belle Beth Cooper reports that “We tend to like people who make mistakes more.” The article explains that people who do everything perfectly seem unapproachable and intimidating while messing up makes a person human.

It’s  a short step indeed to conclude that readers will relate more strongly and sympathetically to people who admit to doubts and mistakes in stories than to pure sunshine and roses reports. But of course! Who among us has not made a mistake, whether disclosed or not? Who hasn’t felt klutzy, embarrassed, or inappropriate at times? We may slap on a mask of invincibility, but inside we cringe.

Here’s an example of how this unfolds in story: A few years ago I read a soap opera superstar’s memoir. I had never watched the program, didn’t know the star, and don’t remember her name today, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. The book sounded like it had been written by her publicist and read like the Death Valley weather report: sunshine 24/7/365. If she had a single moment of doubt or discouragement, it was missing from the book. Anything resembling a setback or problem was immediately recognized as God closing a door and opening a window.

With all due respect, this left me cold. It didn’t sound honest. I can’t believe that woman is so close to sainthood. In my experience, life is not like that for me or anyone I know. In fact, such a well-oiled life sounds, well, boring.

Contrast this with Willie Nelson’s best-selling memoir, It’s a Long Story: My Life. Willie is a bigger superstar than the soap opera queen, but his story rings true. He has stepped in one mud puddle after another through his life, but his sense of humor and destiny come through loud and clear. He makes no attempt to disguise his many short-comings and shares lessons he’s learned from them. He sounds like someone you could walk up to on the street and he’d be happy to see you, whoever you are.

Which story would you rather read?

Take away tip

Temper your story’s sunshine with shadows to give depth and create reader connection.

Thanks for Reminding Me

BlushRemind: to cause a person to remember; to bring something to (someone else’s) mind.

Thank goodness we have people to bring to mind things we have virtually forgotten, even when they turn our faces beet red. I just found this 15-year-old story scrap in a log of posts to the Lifestory Yahoo Group. It illustrates both the power of collective memory and the value of keeping a scrap bag of story pieces.

The other day my honey told a story that totally cracked me up. When I finally quit laughing, I said, "Well, I guess nobody can accuse me of taking after my mother when it comes to having a sense of humor."

My mother is widely considered to have lacked a sense of humor until the last few years of her life when her brain began melting down. Then a childlike sense of humor emerged, and she laughed at the drop of a hat, even at the silliest things.

"Your grandmother had a sense of humor, why wouldn't your mother?"

"My grandmother had a sense of humor? You've GOT to be kidding!"

My grandmother was born ornery, and she was occasionally downright mean. Actually I do remember her giggling at things when we were alone. She had a cute tinkly laugh. But I don't recall ever hearing her laugh around other people. As the oldest grandchild, I enjoyed special status, and I saw a side of her others missed.

"What about the time before our wedding when you were showing off your honeymoon nightgown and negligee?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You don't remember how embarrassed you were when she laughed and told you how nice it would look pulled up over your head?"

I nearly fell on the floor. Until he mentioned it, I’d forgotten all about that, including telling him about it. I never ever would have recalled that story on my own. So much for not remembering that Grandmother did laugh in public. All the women in the family were gathered around, and I had to have been the color of a ripe tomato when she said that. Embarrassing as it was back then, today it seems hysterically funny. Impossible as it seems, I'm ten years older now than my grandmother was when she said it. Maternal generations in my family were short.

My honey is helpful that way, remembering things I forgot decades ago, and I help him out the same way. He remembers large chunks of what I've forgotten, and other relatives remember things beyond that. Lifestory writing is even better when it's a team sport! Unless your memories collide in a combative way, and that can get tricky. But that’s a subject for another post.

In a different vein, I recall half a dozen stories from that summer of our wedding: The Breakfast Fiasco, Can You Bring a Gun To My Wedding?, The Case of the Missing Room Reservation, Dashed Expectations, and a couple more yet to be written. Perhaps I shall polish these and piece them together as a sort of paper patchwork memory quilt, much like I’ve already done with Adventures of a Chilehead.

Finding that scrap was a good reminder of the value of saving bits and pieces of story, even if they lack the conflict or other elements of full-fledged stories. Short anecdotes can be thought-provoking or fun to review later, and often come in handy. You might want to finish them later as full-featured stories. Or you can tuck one into a larger story or an email or a blog post, or even post it on Facebook.

When I posted stories to that group, mostly a handful of paragraphs and fewer than 500 words, to post in that online group, I pasted each one into a Word document for safekeeping – which turned out to be an excellent idea because the group suddenly went poof! I have over 500 stories and anecdotes in those archive documents. Each was quick and easy to write, usually prompted by previous posts.

Follow my example. When you write a new story in an email, copy it and save it in an ongoing document as I did with this one. Those accounts form a sort of journal, and your scrap bag of stories will grow. Who knows? In five years you may find that you’ve written a book, one email at a time.

Do you have examples of long-buried memories someone else reminded you of? I’d love to hear about them in comments!

Tips for Scrubbing Stories to a Sparkle

Cleaning supplies

You’re ready for your final edit to streamline, scrub and polish your story to its finest shine. What should you look for? Among other things, extraneous and misused words. What should you do? Tidy and toss! I see you cringing, but take heart and be courageous. Look at this effort as an adventure. Four suggested events are listed below to comprise an editing quadrathalon or something like that with pointers to two more. Add additional events of your own choosing. With a little imagination, you might make it to decathalon status.

Dead Would Chopping

Have you used some variation of the phrase, “we would” as in “we would go on a picnic when” or “we would often have roast chicken …”? That’s a variation of passive voice. Streamlining these phrases to “we went on a picnic when …” or “we often had roast chicken …” perks up your story right away.

Only use would in a conditional situation, as in “If he gave me $50, I would do that” or “I would do that for $50.” If there is no uncertainty, you have dead would. Chop it. Burn it to heat up your story.

Which Hunting

Most English speaking people are massively confused about the difference between that and which and have no clue how to use them appropriately. They’re confused about whether to write “Songs which are sung by Willie Nelson give me goosebumps” or “Songs that are sung by Willie Nelson give me goosebumps.”

Here’s a simple tip that will clear up most of the confusion, at least if the term “phrase” doesn’t roll your eyeballs to the back of your head:

Use that in your sentence. Then eliminate that and words connected with it. Does it make the same sense to say “Songs give me goosebumps”? No. Songs in general do not give me goosebumps. Only those sung by Willie Nelson. This sentence calls for that.

If your phrase is expendable, use which and set the phrase off by commas. If it changes the meaning, use that

In case you’re one of the many who think which sounds more “right,” hunt down all whiches and switch them to that when that’s the write thing to do.

Another misuse of which designates place, as in “the party at which I met my friend. Oh, my goodness. What  tongue tangler. Switch at which to where, as in “the party where I met my friend.”

Weed Pulling

Some perfectly respectable words can be weeds when they don’t add value to your sentence. For example, the, that, then, your, an, somewhat, very, of the, quite, and more are words that do not add value to your sentence and slow your story down. It’s not wrong to leave these words in, but do an experiment. take one story and look at each word to see if the story is changed or enlivened by removing it. You’ll be surprised.

Words like very, quite and somewhat are lazy, nonspecific qualifiers that do not add value. Very pretty doesn’t tell anything more than prettier than pretty, but what does pretty mean? Our language overflows with specific adjectives that let readers know (I just revised from your reader) what very pretty means to you. In fact, you may want a simile or phrase to show what pretty means and how it affects you.

Clutter Clearing

Phrases like “she thought to herself” are redundant word clutter. Who else would she think to? “He stood up, then sat down.” I suppose you could stand down, then sit up, but that’s not what comes to a reader’s mind. “She nodded her head.” It’s worth mentioning if she nodded her fist. “Choose from among five choices.” “I don’t like opera, but nevertheless, I’ll go anyway.” In this sentence, nevertheless and anyway say the same thing. Pick one, toss the other.

As you pursue this adventure, look for additional ways to sharpen and focus your story. Refine descriptions, Check for extraneous details that don’t show up on weed word lists.

This is not an exhaustive list. For example, I’ve said nothing about using active verbs. but I wrote about them recently in this post. I also wrote earlier about the challenge of avoiding Ditching Dummy Subjects. Between this list and those two additional posts, you’ll be well on your way to a sparkling story that mesmerizes readers.

Which events are your favorites? Which are the toughest?

Preserve a Record of Life As It Was

News-collageBelieve it or not, this post is not about politics. It’s about change. Regardless of your political position or beliefs, you’d have to be living in a deep jungle to be  unaware how fast things are changing. It’s too soon to say if life will be better for Americans in general or if some form of Armageddon is at hand as current headlines seem to suggest. Heavens above, collecting those headlines today for the collage you see above was an anxiety-laden task!

For better or worse, I’m betting on the end of life as we’ve known it. It’s already drastically changed from what I knew as a child.

In any case, it’s time to preserve memories of the past. WRITE ABOUT LIFE AS YOU HAVE KNOWN IT. You can’t count on history books to tell it like it was for you. History is always written through filters, and those filters change over time, subject to prevailing culture. If lifestyles in the future are an improvement, let your progeny know how much better it is.

On the other hand, if, as some fear, tyranny is at hand, preserve a picture of freedom. Keep its memory alive.

I am convinced that it’s important for families to create personal archives, and to keep print copies as well as backups in pdf format on DVD disks or thumb drives. What if the internet came tumbling down? What if libraries full of books were burned? What if …?

No, I do not anticipate a Doomsday scenario, but … what if?

In addition to preserving your memories of the past and what life was like, share your reflections about it. I’m not writing about politics and my personal beliefs here, but I am writing piles of journal entries and essays that aren’t public, but will be available for family. I want my grandchildren to know what I believe, what I feel, what actions I’m taking.

Writing prompts for preserving a picture of life in the past

  • How much freedom did you have as a child? Did you freely roam the neighborhood? Ride your bike across town when you were 10 or 12? Play hide-and-seek with the neighborhood gang after dark in the summer?
  • What did you do to pass the time before computers and electronic games? Did your family play cards or other games together? Do crafts?
  • What was it like to cook real food from scratch without frozen entrees?
  • Did you go to church? What were/are your beliefs?
  • What political party did your parents support (if any)?
  • Were you ever involved in any protests or demonstrations? Which ones? How and what did you do?
  • Did you or your dad ever change the oil in the family car or fix a flat tire on t he road, or do other maintenance?
  • What was medical care like? Were you ever in the hospital? How much did it cost when your children were born?
  • How have your views changed over the years?
  • What are your views on the corner our country seems to be turning right now? What was your position on the 2016 election? Keep a log of your thoughts as things unfold.

This mini-list should get your wheels turning.

Don’t put this off another minutes. Write fast. Write off the top of your head. You may edit it later, but get it on paper, write now!

Finding Time to Write


“I’ve been so busy the last couple of weeks I just didn’t have time to write anything, but I promise I’ll have something next time.” I’ve attended hundreds of writing group sessions, and I almost always hear some version of this explanation. In fact, I admit that rather than writing something new, I’ve recycled old stories more than a couple of times myself.

Who doesn’t find it a challenge to carve out writing time, at least now and then?

If this is a chronic problem for you, here’s a time tested idea: keep a time log for a week. I know. How can you find more time by spending precious minutes a day doing an OCD thing like that? Here’s the deal. You can’t control an unknown quantity and this is a specialized instance of the concept that writing makes thinking visible. If you know how you typically spend your time, you can find ways to carve out an extra hour or two. If you really want to.

The chart below is a relic I recently found while sorting through files from my previous life in corporate training.  I used it in time management modules. It may not bear much resemblance to your life, but you’ll see how this works.

Time to writeIn this example, work takes 50 hours out of the person’s 168 hour week. Perhaps this includes commuting time, maybe not. It may include answering emails at home in the evening, or lunch hour with friends. 50 hours is 50 hours, leaving 118 hours for other activities. 

That 56 hours for sleep allows for 8 hours a night. A healthy choice. Maintenance stuff may be cooking and cleaning, paying bills, sorting laundry … whatever. Work and sleep together consume all but 62 hours.

TV/Internet time may be low. Maybe it includes email and Facebook. The Internet addition is new right now. I did not refer to that 25 years ago. Few people had access to the Internet at that point, and we watched a lot more TV. The old version had no mention of writing either.

You may notice no time is allotted for recreation, childcare, or anything fun. Who would want to live this person’s life?

A list like the one above may help you may find a way to carve a couple of hours a week out of work time by eating lunch at your desk while you write for half an hour a day or asking family members for more help with chores.

Chances are good that you find that while you’re at your computer intending to write, you drift off following whimsical links. If this is the case, help is at hand. Allow yourself one more web search for  “apps to disable the internet on a computer.” You’ll find all sorts of apps, from Plain Old Writing apps that fill your screen and block distractions to tips on configuring your firewall to block Facebook, Twitter, or whatever for several hours a day.

Or, you may confirm a hunch that the distractions are avoidance behavior. That’s another kettle of fish for another post.

Bottom line, you’ll never know where your time goes if you  don’t keep track. You’ll have only yourself to thank. Celebrate your success when you complete the week.

Something to try: find a small notebook you can keep in your pocket. Keep track of your time for a single day. Keep trying until you master this challenge. Then go for a week. Sort out your results in a table similar to what you see, and make decisions about possible changes. Have fun and write about your experience later.

It’s All About STORY

Story Story

I was stunned when conversation at my book club drifted into comments on memoir in general. I’d just mentioned that I’d been appalled at the proliferation of typos and other errors in a memoir I recently read that was, sure enough, self-published.  “I cringe when I read something like that because it casts all self-publishers in a bad light.” But even so, I’d been mesmerized by the story and seconded the recommendation of a previous reader.

I could never have anticipated the ensuing, spontaneous discussion. How I wish I’d had my phone’s recorder running. I did scribble a few notes, summarized below:

“I’m more forgiving about sloppy writing and errors in memoir … I’m more interested in hearing their story than how they tell it.”

“I can overlook a lot of structural stuff because the story is what counts.”

“Memoir is about real people, things that actually happened. Most of them are not professional writers and I don’t expect them to sound like one.”

“Flaws make memoir credible. If it’s too polished, I wonder how much truth got scrubbed out by editors.”

“You can’t critique a memoir because you haven’t walked in that person’s shoes. I’m just fascinated by other people’s stories.”

Wow! I recognized an opportunity to listen and learn rather than steering the discussion. I kept my astonished thoughts to myself to avoid biasing things.

Members of this group are voracious and discerning readers. Every Tuesday afternoon 12 – 20 women (men are welcome, but never attend) meet at the library. A high number have advanced degrees. Several are retired teachers or professors. A few of us also write. But most of all we read, widely and constantly. We each read whatever appeals to us and report back to the group, some in more detail than others. At least half the gals at any given meeting report on more than one book. Rarely does anyone pass.  A significant percentage of the reports include some form of the observation, “It didn’t work for me, but other people may like it.”

In general we collectively hold books to high standards, so, I have full respect and regard for their thoughts about memoir. I cannot imagine a better qualified focus group to address this issue, especially since it arose spontaneously. They don’t write, teach or promote memoir, so they have no reason to be anything but frank.

Perhaps today’s comments ring even more true, because in thinking back, I recall a couple of memoirs that got a thumbs down after comments like “It was too dry and didn’t have much to say.” Celebrity memoirs full of false humility that fails to mask self-promotion also get blasted. The story has to ring true.

Does this mean we should forget about editors and publish first drafts? Of course not! I take it to primarily mean that we should make sure our heart and soul stays in our story and that it retains our unique voice. We still need beta readers to find holes, inconsistencies, and parts that don’t make sense or ring true. And I don’t think these gals will mark you down for a tightly written manuscript with a compelling plot and story arc, strong tension and character development, rich scenes, and no typos. All those fiction devices work, but only if the story rings true.

The bottom line in their remarks is STORY. It’s all about the STORY. Those dry, flat memoirs that got ripped lacked STORY. Do what you need to do to make your story clear, focused and active, and don’t hide it under too much gloss and device. But take heart that if you do slip up a bit, or can’t afford thousands of dollars for a top-notch editor, or you’re just writing for family. Don’t despair. Write it true, write it real, and write from your passion and heart.

Start the New Year Write


What do you plan to write in 2017? Are you setting writing resolutions for the year?

I gave up setting formal New Year’s Resolutions decades ago, but I still do spend some time thinking about what the year may hold and what I’d like to get done. My intentions for 2016 were to get settled in a new home and new community. That included finding local writing community.

The year unfolded just as I’d intended. As 2017 rolls in, I do feel settled. I still have a few embellishments to complete, but my previously adobe-colored office is now a cheery pale lemon ice with yards of white shelves on the walls. It has become the comfortable, creativity enhancing “room of my own” that I’ve always dreamed of having, and I no longer share space with the laundry.

Sure enough, community roots are spreading. I found a wonderful book club at my local library branch. We’ve connected with several neighbors in our larger community. We’re enjoying family events.

Starting to teach again…
I was unsure whether I wanted to return to teaching after our move, but Olga Wise, a writer friend I made at the 2008 Story Circle conference, insisted I get involved with Austin’s Lifetime Learning Institute (LLI), the rough equivalent of the Osher programs I was involved with in Pittsburgh. I’m forever grateful to Olga. That energizing experience reminded me why I love teaching lifestory writing.

You know how sometimes things seem preordained? I began mentioning to people I met in random places that I was teaching a lifestory writing class. “When are you doing it again? I’ve been looking for something like that!” I told them about LLI and took their names. I already knew demand is high. LLI offered three classes on some aspect of life writing last fall, and all were filled to capacity. Mine had 19 sign up with a limit of 18, and nobody here knew who I was.

That obvious enthusiasm nudged me to contact the program manager for Austin Public Libraries to explore possibilities for setting up library sponsored lifestory writing groups in branches. We concurred that starting small makes sense. Valentine’s week I’ll begin leading free, six-week classes in two library locations, with the stated goal that they’ll transform into self-sufficient, self-sustaining, ongoing writing groups when the classes end. We’ll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, about half the fall LLI class decided to keep meeting and they have become an officially sanctioned library group in a third location.

New book project …
My biggest writing project for the year is a new book, yet to be titled, to take the place of the now out-of-print Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. This book will cover the basics of writing piles of short stories that can later be incorporated into anthologies, memoirs, autobiographies, or some form of informal lifestory. You’ll be hearing a lot more about that project.

So, my writing vision for 2017 is a finished book by the end of the year, and at least fifty people engaged with lifestory writing groups here in Austin. If anyone feels inclined to begin teaching or starting groups in your community, please send me an email. I’ll be happy to help, however I can.

What about you?
What writing projects do you envision starting and/or completing in 2017? If you leave a brief comment about your hopes or committed plans, you’ll strengthen the likelihood you’ll actually  get them done.

If you don’t already have a project in mind, I have a suggestion: Finish an anthology of two dozen stories and use CreateSpace to print copies for family holiday gifts next year.

What have you accomplished in 2016? Toot your horn in a comment!

Finding the Heart of My Story: From Vignettes to Memoir

KathyPoolerBrighterPooler Final Cover

In classes I teach and my current work-in-progress, the second edition of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing (or whatever name it finally bears), I emphasize the value of writing piles of short, free-standing stories, even if students or readers plan a longer project. Today it is my pleasure to feature a guest post by Kathleen Pooler, author of Ever Faithful to His Lead. In this post, Kathleen explains her writing process, including a long list of resource links.

“Your sacred place is where you find yourself again and again.”
Joseph Campbell

Writing a memoir goes beyond recording a series of life events. It’s about creating a larger story and in so doing developing meaning and connection; striking a universal chord through your unique story.

In order to get to that meaning and connection, a writer needs to find the heart of the story.

When I started writing my first memoir in 2009, I only knew that I was living a joyful life after spending twenty-five years finding freedom from two abusive marriages. I knew I had a story to tell, but I wasn’t sure of the real story—that glimpse of life truth that would have meaning and connection.

After three years of studying the art and craft of memoir writing and writing piles of vignettes, I was ready in 2012 to pull it together into a memoir. Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse was published in July,2014. I recently completed the first draft of my second memoir, The Edge of Hope: A Mother’s Journey Through her Son’s Addiction (working title) and am applying the same methods to shaping my story.

Basic Plan to Get Started

Here’s my basic plan on how I found the heart of my story over a two-year period in the pile of paper and words:

1. First and foremost, answer this question: What is my purpose in writing this story? For me, it was to share hope, that no matter how far down into the abyss you go, there’s always hope for a better life.

2. From this purpose, define your target audience and main message. A memoir can have several themes that I found revealed themselves through the writing.

3. Be able to state your main message in a 90-second elevator pitch.

4. Write a two-three page synopsis of your story, keeping the narrative arc in mind.

5. Plot your story on a storyboard or in a detailed outline. I used a story board.

Events leading up to using a storyboard:

Before I could even think of storyboarding, I had to write vignettes. After three years of collecting stories, I was ready to shape them into a narrative arc. A memoir needs to read like a novel and requires the tools of fiction to bring the story and the characters alive.

Opening Hook
Scenic details
Character Development
Point of View
Conflict, Suspense and Action

I also used creative exercises such as “The Tree of Me

Tree of Kathy

and drawing a mandala:


The following resources have provided a framework for my stories:

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey 
Linda Joy Myers’ Narrative Arc/Turning Points 
The 22 Rules of Storytelling by Pixar- Once Upon a Time

If you google “story board”, you’ll find many resources. Here are a few that helped me decide what process to use:

W-Method by Mary Carroll-Moore (You Tube)
Storyboarding by Teresa Reasor 
6 Writing Outline Templates by Duolit @selfpublishingteam.com
Three-scene Storyboarding pdf by The Career-leaning CAFÉ

I used a mixture of storyboarding, outlining turning points and The Hero’s Journey to define my story structure.

What is a Story Board?

A story board is a way of brainstorming your story line (plot) so you can visualize a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end. Within this arc will be scenes, turning points, forward movement of the story, plot points, climax, movement toward change and resolution.

How Did I Develop My Own Story Board?

Each person needs to find their own way through the process.

Since I’m a visual, hands-on person, I needed to see graphic images of what my story looked like. I started with a tri-folded cardboard poster, colored post-it notes and felt markers. I read through all my vignettes and wrote each chapter and the year on the yellow post-it stars. On the orange post-it stars, I wrote the purpose for each Act

and I rearranged it many times.

My story is divided into three acts (Pixar):

Act I: Opening Scene: The way things were…Once upon a time…
Act II Big Scene or Messy Middle…When things might change…then this happened…
Act III Following Scene…How things became different—until this happened and finally…


Of course, this is just the beginning. The real work begins with professional editing and rewriting until your story is polished and ready to launch.

Anything as important as your story is worth the effort it will take to write it right.

And the beauty of the writing process is that the heart of your story will begin to reveal itself in ever-deepening ways as you keep writing.

Starting with vignettes and fitting them into a story structure in a way that works for you will help you shape a story larger than you that will create meaning and connection.

And remember, your story matters. Keep writing and you’ll find the heart of your story.


How about you? What methods do you use to find the heart of your story? I’d love to hear what has worked for you and will be happy to answer any questions.

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, published on July 28, 2014 and work-in-progress sequel, The Edge of Hope (working title) are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

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

Twitter @kathypooler  https://twitter.com/KathyPooler 
LinkedIn: Kathleen Pooler: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/kathleen-pooler/16/a95/20a 
Google+:Kathleen Pooler: https://plus.google.com/109860737182349547026/posts 
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4812560-kathleen-pooler 
Personal page, Kathy Pooler : https://www.facebook.com/kathleen.pooler 
Author page: Kathleen Pooler/Memoir Writer’s Journey: https://www.facebook.com/memoirwritersjourney 
Pinterest (http://www.pinterest.com/krpooler/)

Sticky Notes Reinvented

Virtual sticky notes2

Ten years ago when I wrote The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, I suggested people use sticky notes for story idea lists. Right now I’m in the process of drafting a revised version of that book. After eight years the last print run sold out. I realized that my thinking on several topics has changed, along with my writing style. While the book is still valid, I realized it needed to be freshened up. Rather than slip it into Print-on-Demand status, the publisher and I decided to put it to bed with honors.

It’s taken me over a year to commit to making a second edition happen. I started to revise the existing manuscript, then concluded that it needed to be ripped back to the studs. After more wheel spinning, I’ve created a new vision, a new folder, and a new manuscript, starting from scratch. This is not the same book. I’m pondering new names.

When I realized I was spinning my wheels, I started listing key concepts on sticky notes. That wasn’t working well for me. Recalling how easy it is to rearrange PowerPoint slides, I started outlining that way. That was better, but still limited. Outlining in Word seemed to help, and I set back to work on my manuscript. But as I wrote, I kept thinking of things that weren’t on the outline, and I didn’t know where to put them.

I thought of sticky notes again, this time with a new twist. Instead of paper stickies on a printout, I tried digital stickies on my onscreen outline page. Eureka! They’re magic. You can see a few in the screen captured image above. I can move them around, put them over text, stack them up. I even color coded them. I love these stickies!

I hear you wondering, what’s the secret? How does this work?

I discovered a long time ago that you can enter text inside shapes, effectively turning them into text boxes. I drew a rectangle and typed in my note. The secret to putting them on top of text is defining Word Wrap. That’s on the ribbon’s Format tab. You only see the Format tab when you click on an image.  Click on that tiny arrow next to Text in Wrap Text and select In Front of Text.

I wanted my notes to look more like real stickies, so I did five things:

1) Clicked on Shape Fill on the format tab. A simple fill color would do, but I made a gradient with a slightly lighter color at the end and used a radial fill with the highlight down to the right. You might see it if you look hard. If this is beyond you, stick with solid colors. They’re fine.

2) Added a hint of shadow to make them stand out from the page. That’s on Shape Effects > Shadow.

3) Created a style for the text. I want them to look hand-written, so I used the Andy font (free to download). It’s easy to read and see. I set Andy at 12 pt. and made it black. If you need help with styles, search YouTube for “Create new style, Office 2010” or whatever you’re using. In five minutes or less, you’ll know everything you need to know.

4) Right-clicked on the edge of a box then selected Set as Default Shape. New boxes will have this same fill and shadow. I still have to set the text style for each.

5) Copied a box and pasted several around, then made new gradient fills for three. As you can see, I made extras. Now I can copy a blank the color I want to use for new notes.

I plan to stick hundreds of these everywhere. I like them better than Word’s comments. They have a hand-crafted feel. If I need a bigger one, or a smaller one, I can change the shape by clicking and dragging a corner circle to make it the size I need. As I finish with each, I can delete it, or stack them up in a corner somewhere.

By the way,  you see that blue one that’s rotated a bit? When you click on a note, you’ll see a round “handle” appear. Click on the empty circle and slide it in a circle to rotate the note. If you want precise control, find the

size tab on the Layout menu (click the tiny arrow next to Size on the format ribbon). You can rotate by single degrees.

One final thing – if you need to put a note on top of another and it wants to stay below, open the format tab and Bring Forward or Send Backward. The arrows beside those terms give you the option to Send to Front or Back.

Spend a few minutes to make yourself a stack of stickes and discover for yourself how they can unlock your creativity and unblock your project.

Meanwhile, expect to see more posts derived from new book content.

P.S. I experimented further and discovered you can do the same thing in LibreOffice, an offshoot of OpenOffice, though with slightly less finesse. Have fun!

Punch Up Your Stories with Active Verbs


How exciting is it to read a story full of “it was” or “there were” phrases? Yes, you’ve heard it before – phrases like these are a variation of passive voice, and they put readers to sleep. Let’s explore alternatives.

As an example of the difference it can make to switch out dull, boring verbs with punchier active ones, Randall McKee agreed to let me use part of a documentary type story he recently read to our newly formed lifestory writing group. Randall read the “after” version, but confirmed that his first draft was indeed full of the dull form. Since he continued to save improvements over his initial draft, I took the liberty of reverse engineering the passage, especially the verbs, back to what they might have been. The clip below was excerpted from his opening paragraph:

… Blake's Barber Shop was next to the Brownfield Hotel on North 6th Street just off Broadway. Outside the shop was a traditional red, white and blue banded barber pole. A hat tree was next to the door. It was full of silver-belly Stetsons, neatly creased fedoras and soiled blue-striped railroad engineer's caps, head coverings for gentlemen from all walks of life. There was dark paneling halfway up the wall from a white tiled floor. Behind the barbers was a long wooden breakfront. Its shelf was piled with clippers, shaving mugs, brushes, bottles of hair tonic, aftershave and jars of Barbacide with scissors, straight razors and combs soaking in it. The breakfront had a mirror along it that looked like it doubled the number of items on the shelf. …

Now compare with the final version he read to the group:

… Blake's Barber Shop was next to the Brownfield Hotel on North 6th Street, just off Broadway. Outside the shop a traditional red, white and blue banded barber pole beckoned menfolk to enter. A hat tree stood next to the door, a harbor for silver-belly Stetsons, neatly creased fedoras and soiled blue-striped railroad engineer's caps, head coverings for gentlemen from all walks of life. Dark paneling rose halfway up the wall from a white tiled floor. Behind the barbers stood a long wooden breakfront, its shelf piled with clippers, shaving mugs, brushes, bottles of hair tonic, aftershave and jars of Barbacide in which scissors, straight razors and combs soaked. A mirror stretched the breakfront length. Its reflection appeared to double the number of items on the shelf. …

Notice how the second version is laced with action verbs: beckoned, stood, rose up,  piled, soaked, stretched, appeared to double. Doesn’t that second version just jump off the page compared to the first?

You aren’t likely to get that second result on your first draft, at least not right away. Randall explained that he wrote the first draft quickly to get it down on the page. Then he worked on polishing that first pass. “I looked at each sentence to consider how I might make it better.” I think you’ll agree that he did.

Use these tips to find and replace your ho-hum verbs:

1) Read through a story with a highlighter in hand. Mark each instance you use any form of a pronoun together with a form of the verb to be. Some variations include “it is,” “there were,” and “they were.” Please note: not all forms of being verbs are banned – just clichéd phrases with pronouns.

2) Ponder each sentence to determine what’s happening in it. What’s the message?

3) Exercise your creativity to find a suitable action verb to replace the “being” verb.

You may find this a challenge at first, and I guarantee they’ll invade your first drafts. My first draft of the previous sentence, “This may be … ,” got tossed. This is a vague pronoun and “may be” is a conditional form of to be. As you gain experience, you’ll find these being phrases popping out at you everywhere. Alternate phrasings will come more easily to mind.

Who knows? You may form the habit of thinking in active phrases, punching up conversations and becoming a more compelling story teller.

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 https://morguefile.com/creative/Prawny