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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publish No Story Before Its Message Is Right

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

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

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


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

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

Personal Essay: Pathway to Clarity, Persuasion and Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does that work? How can you do that? 

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

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

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

Things Happen When It’s Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Traction

Anyone can lose traction on a writing project. Anyone. Maybe a few ancient veterans of the writing world have developed immunity, but the other 99% of us, yes, that includes me, can lose our way (a version of that dreaded malady writer's block).

I’m surprised to find myself in this state right now. In mid-April I attended the Story Circle writing conference held here in Austin every two years and came home wired to write. Unavoidable distractions kept me away from my keyboard for several days and that flame began to wane.

My main, get-it-done-ASAP project was and is a rewrite of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, which sold out three print runs and has been left to rest in peace (you can still order used copies via Amazon). I did make a strong start on the new version for a couple of weeks.

Then a fantastic series of webinars on hosting online courses intervened. More than a dozen compelling videos were posted, but only for several days, so that soared to the top of my list. Each session or replay lasted nearly two hours not counting time for making notes and checking things out. More distraction. New ideas on courses (I hope you’ll be able to benefit from one of those late this year or early next) and additional ideas for the rewrite gushed forth as I watched. I felt highly creative. But ...

I was not writing!

So here I am today ...
  • Weeding my garden. 
  • Talking to neighbors.
  • Folding piles of laundry. 
  • Making salad for a family celebration. 
  • Answering email. 
  • Cleaning the shower.
  • Writing this long-overdue blog post.
  • Looking longingly at a tall stack of books to be read.
  • Stopping to wrap and freeze yesterday’s chicken parts.
  • Making fresh coffee.
  • Contemplating my mending pile. 
  • Rethinking shelf design for my office. 
  • Feeling lost and overwhelmed!

I can fix this. I can get out of this sand trap and regain traction. Here’s my thumbnail plan for getting my wheels moving down a solid road:
  • Spend ten minutes free writing about why I’m avoiding my project. Yes, I know the reasons, but writing makes thinking visible and seeing it on the page makes it real. Those obstacles become more manageable when I actually see them. (I just checked that off. You see the resulting list).
  • Keep my Work In Progress (WIP) document open when I leave my computer and make sure it’s the only window visible  to minimize distractions.
  • Create a prioritized ToDo list, including at least half an hour of writing every day! I can get a lot done in half an hour — if I know that’s enough.
  • Apply the Swiss Cheese technique to write manageable chunks in those 30 minute windows. I slid into that sand trap when I allowed a much larger project concept to overwhelm me.
  • Make and hang a small poster behind my computer to remind myself to write now, edit later. (Uhm, is this another distraction? More avoidance behavior? Perhaps ...)
  • Make a separate list of random thoughts about all phases of my WIP.
  • Keep a notepad handy for capturing thoughts while I fold laundry, weed, etc.
  • Keep selected people posted about my progress. They'll keep my feet to the fire and help me stay on track. 
None of these are new ideas. All are included in the original book, and I've blogged about each many times. You may know and use several yourself, but sometimes we all need a whack on the side of the head to get back to basics, use what we know, and

I must also mention that other things surfaced in that freewrite involving my Inner Critic and other dark things. But that's another story for another post. Points I included here are enough to hold the others at bay.

Now, I feel so much better for (a) having written this post and (b) having a plan. I’m inching ahead. This book revision has turned into a total rewrite, not just an edit, so it’s different only in content from a lifestory or memoir project. The process is the same. My tips will work for you. Give them a try and let me know how it goes. Send me an email or leave a comment. That will help you stay on track once you get those wheels moving.

Thoughts to ponder: What is keeping you from steaming strongly ahead on your WIP? Or from starting one? Which if the tips above might help you? 

My Brain on Story

Brain on Story
An ongoing, passionate, urge to write is upon me. Primarily I’m engrossed in creating a second edition of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. I began writing that book ten years ago. All print runs have sold out, and I told the publisher I did not want it to continue as a Print On Demand volume. I feel compelled to freshen it up with new insights rather than perpetuating what seems like a stale version. 

As I finally found the energy to rip into the guts, I found the courage to question everything I said, and I’m ripping it apart with abandon. I’d forgotten how energizing it can be to smash into things with a sledge hammer. Many years ago I literally hammered out tile and sawed out fiberglass in two bathroom renovations. What fun! This book may also be stripped to studs, and it may take way longer than the four to six weeks I’d intended. 

Or maybe not. Story has me by the brain. I’m dreaming about how to express things. Is that sleeping or writing? Mostly the latter. If I don’t get up and get it on the page, I’ll lie awake, afraid I’ll forget. Nothing will do but to hit the keyboard while it’s clear in mind. Keep a notepad by my bed? Great idea, but I don’t sleep alone, so I’d get up anyway to write the note. Then I’m awake. 

In the wee hours this morning my essay, Mayhem at Camp RYLA (download from the Free Stuff tab) came to mind. A couple of weeks ago my son-in-law and daughter and I got into a hammer and tongs discussion about the nature of Truth. I used the example from my essay of the water pistol being misinterpreted as a real gun. Sally Johnson had an extreme response to what she perceived as gun fire. The gun produced as evidence was a water pistol. Nobody knew until later that Sally worked as a bank teller and had been involved less than three months earlier in an armed robbery where a bystander was hit by a stray bullet. The mere glint of sunshine on a gun was enough to trigger a traumatic flashback. That young woman was suffering from PTSD. Nobody knew. Not even her. 

My point at dinner was that to Sally, that object in Mary’s hand was indisputably a pistol full of bullets. That was absolute truth to her, and from her point or view, absolute truth to me. 

“No. There is no way that is true. She may have thought it was true, but the fact is that gun was a water pistol and she was wrong!” Passions were running high, but I stood my ground, realizing that the best I could hope for was for us to agree to disagree. I was tired after three days attending a conference and not on my toes. I may pursue the matter again, because I feel strongly that it’s important for people, especially opinion leaders such as they are, to recognize that Truth comes in fifty shades of white, and I’m not sure that they do. The empirically documentable fact remains that Mary was carrying a water pistol.

But that doesn’t make Sally’s instant perception wrong or untrue. To her, that was a pistol loaded with bullets. Reconciling her instant perception with the reality of the water pistol was almost as traumatic for her as the original assault had been. I wish now I’d stayed in touch with her. Traumatic or not, it seems like a good thing that she recognized the effect of the trauma as soon as she did. 

But what if the junior staff had roared back out of camp and disposed of the evidence like they would have on television? Life is seldom so simple. In that case, we would not have had empirical truth. Sally’s perception would stand. Would that make it more true? I submit that it would. 

Furthermore, each camper saw and experienced the event in a unique way and left with different interpretations. It probably had the most dramatic and lasting impact on Sally and me. As noted in the essay, I was conducting workshops on communication skills at the time, with an emphasis on active listening and the filters involved. I’ve used this event as am example in classes and workshops countless times over the years. 

This morning I woke to see that event as worthy of much deeper exploration, and it may play a large role in the introductory material in the Second Edition. Now I can go back to sleep. Maybe. Stay tuned!

Points to Ponder: How often have you been in a situation where you were sure of something that turned out otherwise? How did this discovery affect you? How did it affect your “story” about what happened? Did you try looking at the situation from other eyes? How could shifting perspectives change a story you’re writing or thinking about writing? Considering alternate points of view can dramatically change a story, even your view of life. 

Memoir Writing Lesson from Fiction

Fiction can offer powerful insights for memoir writers. I just began reading a classic historical novel, Divine Average, first published in 1952 by Elith Hamilton Kirkland. Like many novels, it’s written in memoir format, in this case an end-of-life memoir. It’s set in 1838-1858 in “that period of Texas history when ‘cow boy’ was a phrase with a controversial meaning and ‘Texians’ a nationality.

The second paragraph stopped me in my tracks:
I feel compelled at this time by the Spirit of the Holy Mother and the force of God to leave an account of the things that have happened to me and mine. It all lies on my heart like a confession that must be made before I can die in peace . . . a confession not only for myself, but for my husband, Range Templeton, who despises me now after loving me for twenty years, for my daughter Laska, lost to us and to herself, a companion to outlaws in the wilds of Mexico, and for my son, Luke Templeton, so bold of mind and pure in heart.
I know right away that Luvisa Templeton, “a consumptive, soon to die,” is confessing all for peaceful death, which she’s looking forward to “as deliverance.” This compelling reason to write creates a compelling reason to read. What juicy secrets is she about to divulge? What better way to hook my attention?

She immediately goes on to explain her time frame – the twenty years of her marriage to Rage Templeton – and her frustration at never being able to understand him. That sounds like a rich topic.

She then explains that she’s not penning this tome herself. She’s dictating it all to Mr. Bryson, a “very close friend to every member of the Templeton family,” which relationship she’ll explain in due course. Bryson is literate, articulate, better able than she to find the right words for her thoughts and feelings. Bryson has promised to place the completed manuscript “in the proper hands with instructions that it be preserved until such time as it might seem fitting to give it out for reading, in a book perhaps.” She continues:
Is it too much to hope that in some future generation these events may stir the minds and warm the hearts of men and women destined to know more and see further than those of us here now? Perhaps I attach too much importance to the life I have lived and the lives of which my living has played a part. But I yield completely to the compulsion that I must leave such a documentation. 
Like Luvisa, many of us write because we’re compelled to do so. In heeding that compulsion, we’ll do well to follow her fictitious example on several counts:

  • Be clear about why you are writing and
  • Who you are writing for.
  • Be clear about the frame for your story, in her case a twenty year marriage and
  • The story focus or theme, in her case what happened to her and hers. 
  • Have a strong, compelling opening. 
  • Get the tension/conflict going right away, in her case her husband who loved her for twenty years despises her now. Why? How did her daughter come to be in Mexico with outlaws?
  • Seek help when you need it. Luvisa used Mr. Bryson, a sort of ghost writer. You may choose to use an editor, beta readers, reading groups, friends, even family to help you on your way. 
  • Have a strong, compelling opening. 
  • Postpone distribution if you feel it unwise to disclose it all now. 

Points to Ponder: Do you have a story you’re compelled to tell? Can you identify the frame and focus? What help might you need to get it written? 

Unlikely Paths and Capsule Stories

Acclaimed memoirist Carol Bodensteiner discusses surprise paths that lead to unforeseen opportunity in her current blog post, You Just Never Know. Unable to find a full-time job as teacher after earning her teaching degree, she began working as a secretary, a move that surprised many then and now. She explains why she never regretted taking that path and issues a challenge to readers to share similar stories.

My life has been full of portentous by-roads, and I did choose to share one. Like the flash memoir embedded in Carol's post, the comment I wrote serves as a capsule story that could expand into an entire chapter in a memoir of connecting the dots of life. I share it with you here as an example of how to capture such memories in five minutes or less and store them for later use:

My surprise career road was a relatively short loop: I signed on as a Mary Kay Beauty Consultant. Why? I never wore much makeup, and olive oil was my go-to skin care. How could I ask people to spend money on products I didn’t value? My academic training was in counseling psychology, with a master’s degree earned after a ten year gap. But with school-age children, I could not easily commit to the minimal pay and floating schedules necessary to “pay my dues” and become a bona fide counselor. I turned to teaching instead, part-time, for low pay and unpredictable schedules, at the local community college.

Then fate introduced me to a Paid Professional Speaker, who became a mentor of sorts. He told me I had to learn sales to be able to do anything at all, and I had to commit to at least five years of active membership in Toastmasters. Toastmasters was a pond for this duck. Learning sales more like a desert. I signed on with Mary Kay, assuming this was something I could limit to school day hours.

Let’s just say I could only endure this sales training by focusing on my goal: earn several awards and boogie. This was the toughest class I ever took! But when I realized that the Mary Kay script worked better than anything I could invent myself and started going by the book, the awards, i.e. crystal wine glasses for meeting production goals, began to stack up on my shelf. I became shameless in telling people what I did and asking, “Have you (your wife) had a Mary Kay facial yet?”

I accosted a woman I knew only vaguely with this line when our paths crossed at an Art in the Park event. When she heard what I was doing, she asked, “Isn’t that something you can do with a high school degree?”

“Yes. Would you like to know more about becoming a Beauty Consultant?”

“But you have a master’s degree! Aren’t you wasting it?”

“Not at all. My master’s degree helped me become the person I am, and I like the person I am. How could it be wasted? When would you like to have a facial?”

I pulled that response out of thin air, but as I spoke, I realized its truth. I did like the person I’d become, although I did not like selling make-up. The woman did book a facial but bought nothing. Surprise? Not really. She was coerced. Manipulated. And my heart was not in this — I was near burnout. I soon realized I had met my goals, and got out. Class over.

I’ve never regretted the time I spent selling make-up. Together with Toastmasters, it opened doors to selling things more in tune with my passion, which I eventually discovered was writing and “selling” ideas.

Please note that my capsule story is somewhere between a Story Idea List entry and a more complete story with plenty of detail. Capsule stories are little more than a string of titles and not at all deep. More thought on how to expand capsule stories to follow.

Points to Ponder:
  • What decisions have you made that put you on unexpected paths?
  • What were the eventual benefits or costs? 
  • Do you regret the choice? 
  • It’s your turn to write and share such a story in a comment below!

Writing by Hand versus Keyboard

“Is it better to write by hand or on the keyboard?” 

This question comes up at the beginning of every class I teach.

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell them. Today I expand with a bit of advice. “Do whatever you’re most comfortable with. But even if you prefer a keyboard, writing by hand at least part of the time can prime your creative pump.” This advice comes from a combination of personal experience and science.

In my experience teaching, I’ve noticed that a few students routinely write terse, dry little stories that do little beyond stating a few facts. Unlike most in the class, their skill level does not seem to improve.

A woman I’ll call Alice is typical of these students. While most students are challenged to stick to one-and-a-half page limit for assigned stories, Alice’s stories were never longer than half a page. Although this was technically against the rules, she always spent longer explaining the story in class than reading it. In contrast to written versions, her oral stories were rich and intriguing and we encouraged her to include all those extra elements in the written story.

Alice was not discouraged. Though her stories never expanded, she did keep coming to class and plodding along with her writing. In that respect she was a fine example of my strong belief that any bit of personal history that you write and share will eventually be treasured by family members, though perhaps not right away.

One day as I looked at her typos and awkward formatting, I had an idea. “Alice, do you type easily and well?” I asked her privately after class. Sure enough, she was a hunt-and-peck typist. “Do you write your stories by hand first, or start them on the computer?”

“Oh, I start out right away on the computer. I don’t want to have to do all that extra work to type them later.”

I asked her to write her story by hand the next week. She could bring the hand-written copy to class, or type it in when she was finished. Sure enough, the next week her tantalizing story thrilled the class. Alice floated out of class that day on a cloud of praise for her new writing style, and her skills continued to progress from there.

My hunch had been that she was so focused on finding letters on the keyboard that she lost track of her story as she wrote, and most of it got lost until she came to class when it began flooding in again. She agreed that was the case. From then on, she wrote by hand first and typed the stories in later.

A couple of years later I learned the science that explains this difference, and it should give all of us an incentive to pick up pen and paper now and then. Generally speaking, you use different brain centers when sliding pen over paper compared to tapping away on the keyboard. Muscle control is different. Tactile sensations vary. Keyboards make sounds, and visual input is different.

As I recall, brain researchers have found that writing on paper uses a wider array of brain centers, engaging differently with memory and visions. Keyboard input may be more focused, coming from a single center, perhaps the frontal lobe.

Back to personal experience, I’ve found that I’m almost unable to make lists on a keyboard. I need pencil and paper for that. Likewise, if I’m having trouble starting a story, I can always start writing on paper. Soon enough the story concept starts to clear and I grow impatient with paper, so I switch to a keyboard. If I get stuck in the middle of a story, I stop, ask myself what am I trying to say and answer that question. Then the story flows again.

So which is better, writing by hand or keyboard? Both and neither.

Points to Ponder: How comfortable are you on the keyboard? If you still think of each letter as you type, definitely try writing by hand. Even if you do write well on the keyboard, try writing by hand. You may access different points of view or memories.

Triumph at the End of a Rocky Road

The note above shows one of a rapidly growing list that Carol B has received from family members after privately publishing a volume of family history laced together with relevant aspects of her personal story. She swells with happiness at each one. These notes are more than usually rewarding. The road to this outcome has been rocky. Her stories sizzle with intrigue. That eventually presented a problem.

Carol, her parents, and a family friend (I omit her full name at her request to protect her family’s privacy), spent decades gathering stories and documents from county records and other sources, documenting purchase and sale of property, births, deaths and marriages, police and jail records, newspaper articles and pictures. Piles and piles of pictures. She took careful notes as relatives chewed the fat at family events.  She even sought out help from her local historical society to gather added information.

Eventually she wove memories and facts into stories. Lifestory writing group members pointed out unclear areas, missing material and more. Her strong writing grew polished in both content and structure. Then forces of darkness emerged.

Her family’s history includes mayhem, madness and murder. It’s all a matter of public record, and mostly forgotten, though ripples remain in family attitudes and traits. Still, she was loathe to publish it all without warning the family. She told everyone whose names appeared in the book what she was up to and asked their permission to share stories relevant to their immediate family members. With the exception of one person within her family, she was offered nothing but support and encouragement.  She did not have anyone else read her book, as she was not willing to write a book by committee.  As it turned out, the faith that family members had in her was almost unanimous. Others showed their trust by giving full permission to use their names and their particular family stories.

However, there was one family member who, without even reading the book, objected on principle. “There is no reason to dig all that stuff up again.”  Said Person would not discuss it with Carol and did not respond to numerous requests to be named in the book, then cut off  direct communication.

Carol’s inner critic went nuts. What if I’m sued?  Maybe I’m too critical. Maybe my book is too negative.  Even if I do expose the people in my book to public scrutiny, these are the stories of my family. What should I do?

Her voice had the sound of defeat as she told me, “That person has gobs of money and can afford to sue me on a whim. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I should just drop it. Maybe I should just share the Word file with anyone who wants to read it.”

“You’ve told dozens of people you’re doing this, and they all want to see it finished. What about them? Will you be letting them down? You’ve set aside funds to see it through. How can we work around this?”

Note to readers: don’t try to handle this alone. Get plenty of perspectives. 

“Do you think I’ve been too critical?  Is my book too negative?”

“NO! But I’m not always the best judge of emotional tone. Let’s get one more opinion.” I recommended another writer I know who excels in this area. Her response was supportive. Carol regained her grip.

She decided she would proceed with the project with these caveats:
  • She omitted all references to Said Person beyond a couple of picture captions where she cites the relationship without a name.  She decides to include a vintage photo of Said Person, but includes only a first initial and maiden last name.  To do otherwise would have made her uncomfortable, since she did not want to purposefully leave anyone out of the family history.  She also decided to mail Said Person a copy of the family history book. To date, there has been no acknowledgement of receipt though communication on other subjects has been resumed. 
  • In the Acknowledgments she states: “I have remained faithful to the stories that were passed down through the family and relied on my own memories and those of other family members for additional tales. Throughout the process, I maintained my belief and intention to cause no harm.”
  • The back cover includes a disclaimer of sorts: “… For decades she has collected stories from relatives and public records. She compiles those stories with personal reflections to tell the family’s story with truth and honesty to the best of her understanding.” 

She also firmed up her decision to keep publication as private as possible.

This last step required thinking out of the box. Carol is facing serious health problems and wants to ensure that her extended family will be able to independently order additional copies for years to come.

In line with her decision to keep the book private, she vowed to avoid all promotion and publicity. She is eager, however, for others to know of her experience, even though they won’t be reading the book. Buoyed by the outpouring of gratitude from family members, such as the note above, she has asked me to share that story, hoping to inspire others who battled doubts about sensitive disclosure to persist and find their own way around obstacles.

I’m happy to oblige, emphasizing to readers that publishing privately with limited distribution can be a strong and rewarding option for those who shy away from telling all to the world at large.

As the fan letter notes, Carol is hard at work on a second volume, a personal memoir. Will this one also be kept under wraps? Who knows? If she opts for open publication, you’ll be among the first to know.

Points to Ponder: What tense material might slow down your writing project? What creative workarounds can you come up with? Who can you turn to for support and fresh ideas?

Points to Ponder: What tense material might slow down your writing project? What creative workarounds can you come up with? Who can you turn to for support and fresh ideas?

A Humble Story Lives On

Hettie Stein never dreamed hundreds or thousands of people would learn about her life when she hand-wrote her lifestory on forty pages of notebook paper sometime around 1975. She wrote separate, personalized copies for each of her three grandchildren, my husband being one. We have not seen either of the other two copies, but I scanned in ours, saving the images in a PDF file and also transcribing them into a Word document for easier reading by later generations.

Now the world can read about Hettie’s life on Amy Cohen’s blog, Brotmanblog: A Family Journey, beginning with Part 1 and share our delight in these accounts of a long-gone way of life in simpler times.I thank distant cousin Amy for finding our family and pulling so many resources together into a compelling story.

As you can see from the graphic below, excerpted from Hettie’s story (which I gratefully borrowed back from Amy’s blog), the writing is as primitive as a Grandma Moses canvas in both form and message. As Hettie explains in her story, she chose to leave school after eighth grade (in 1898). Her reasoning was that like other women of her day, her lot in life was to marry and raise a family, and no housewife needed more book learning than she already had, so why exert herself?

This lack of formal education shows in her writing, but that did not deter her for a moment. Thank goodness! This humble, unaffected story reflects her authentic heart, big as all outdoors, and the fact that she wrote it is the sign of a satisfying life. She never had material wealth, but what she had was enough. I have never met a kinder, more positive person. Hettie loved everyone with childlike enthusiasm, and was always up for an adventure. I feel blessed for having been part of her family.

Hettie decided one day to write these stories. She just sat down and did it, though it took her months to finish each one. She wrote each story in the form of a letter to that grandchild, warmly laced with references to memories of “your mother” and “the time you and I …”. We have not seen the volumes she wrote for her two granddaughters, but presumably they cover much of the same material, customized with slightly different words.

She wrote for my husband. She died in 1987, more than a decade before I preserved her work for the family and the world. Now it’s treasured by great- and great-great-grandchildren and will hopefully be passed down even further.

I often mention her amazing accomplishment when I’m encouraging people to write. “If Hettie could do that, anyone can. You don’t need to produce a literary masterpiece. Whatever you write is better than nothing and will be treasured by generations to come.”

Hettie wrote by hand, on the simple paper she had. She made a manila paper folder to hold the pages and fastened it all together with brads. Even without those manila covers, in only a few years, the acidic notebook paper had begun yellowing. Scanning put a halt to that process.

If by some amazing coincidence, you decide to write a legacy manuscript by hand, acid-free paper is easy to find today. More likely you’ll sit down at a keyboard and print acid-free copies. But even if you write on unfolded paper bags or the backs of envelopes, your descendants will treasure your work.

Points to ponder: If you’re trying to get traction, what obstacles prevent you from “just doing it”? Are you concerned that you writing won’t measure up and your family will laugh or sneer? How good is “good enough”? If you are well on your way toward finishing a story, ponder how satisfying that feels.

Continuous Creative Improvement

Creative people in any field share the goal of continuous skill development. Bear with me as I loop into photography to make a point about writing.

This photo of gulls perched on the southern shore of Lake Pukaki with Mt. Cook in the distance looks great to most people. It looked great to me when I took it in 2005 en route from Christchurch to Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island. It's got most of the elements of a great picture: item of interest in foreground, sweeping vistas afar, sharp focus, clear color, contrasting tones, life contrasting with barren expanse, level horizon.

When I look at this picture, I’m brought back to the moment of crystal-clear air, vast silence broken only by screeching gulls, whispering breeze, shoes on gravel, clicking shutters, and awed murmurs from tour group friends.

It looked good when I took it, and it serves the purpose of preserving and evoking memories. But something has always bothered me about this picture. It has never seemed quite right. It lacks a clear message. Which matters most, the birds or the mountain? I’ve learned quite a bit about photo composition since I snapped this shot. I now see how to frame it better. As much as I’d like to, I can’t loop back to New Zealand for a do-over today, so I’m faking it with Photoshop.

By virtually moving to my right a few feet, I  position that rock so its left slope and the lines of the gulls lead your eye up toward Mt. Cook. The rock echoes slope shapes, lending symmetry to the shot.

That's better, but I still don't feel finished.

Using magic again, I  kneel down, holding the camera at a lower angle, narrowing the gap between birds and slopes. My sense of the scene is wide. Cropping the image enhances that effect. Less is often more. I could keep playing with this shot, but for now I've made my point.

I sometimes open a file or pull out a paper with a story I wrote a dozen or twenty years ago. I read the story and recall the moment and realize I’ve learned better ways to tell it. My fingers twitch as I read, reaching for the keyboard. I may add detail, subtract focus blurring fluff, tighten wording or add dialogue. I turn simple narrative into sizzling scene.

Another lesson from photography comes into play here. Not only has my technique improved, technology keeps improving both cameras and editing tools. Photos I edited fifteen years ago may look garish and clumsy compared to what I’m able to do today. Even today I may over-edit, ending with gaudy results. Saving edits as a new file can save the day, allowing me to start over with the original material.

The same thing can happen with stories. More than once I’ve been called out for gaudy drama in stories. Starting fresh with that earlier draft calmed things down. Earlier drafts can help flesh out related stories, and reading them again reassures me that I am continously improving.

I continuously improve my photo skills by taking classes and hanging out with photographers who know more than I do. I study the work of experts and take thousands of pictures. I improve my writing skills by reading books and blogs about writing, by reading the work of acclaimed authors, by attending workshops and conferences, by reading voraciously, and by writing, over and over, until it works.

Would I take this photo right the first time if I did go back again? Maybe. If I had time I’d take it from many angles to increase the odds. And I often write stories several ways to find the one that suits me best.

Points to Ponder: Can you look back at early stories and see how your work has progressed? What steps do you take to ensure your writing continues to improve?