Finding Time to Write

Melting-time

“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

Happy-New-Year-20017

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.

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

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

Tree of Kathy

and drawing a mandala:

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…

Story-Board

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.

Write-your-own-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 
Facebook:
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

Kapow!

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

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?

Cousins

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.

“What?”

“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.)