Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Different Kinds of Pictures

In our last class, one of our group members said, "This writing paints a picture.  Lots of writers paint pictures, but there are different kinds of pictures."

Voila! I've never heard it said so clearly before!  Yes!

The best writing will make us feel like we're there, in the moment.  The details will be real.  Like it or not, we experience life through our senses, and to make us feel like we're there, you will need to use sensory detail.  I want to know which one, what kind, how many.  I want to know how, where, when, and why.  I want to taste, feel, hear, see, and smell the moment.

But the keys to detail don't make up the subject of the story any more than the type of paint determines the subject of the painting.

There are different kinds of pictures.  What kinds? Well, I suspect that these kinds follow the intelligences put forth by Howard Gardner.  Unlike Gardner, I don't see the intelligences as a tool for teaching, but I do see them as a tool for understanding how we understand.

These pictures might appeal to--or more accurately, help you organize information by--any of the following (alone or in combination):
  • your sense of beauty, ugliness, or placement (visual/spatial intelligence)
  • your sense of rhythm, tone, or sound (musical intelligence)
  • your sense of relationships (interpersonal intelligence)
  • your sense of self (intrapersonal intelligence)
  • your sense of movement/body capabilities (kinesthetic intelligence)
  • your sense of words/connections (linguistic intelligence)
  • your sense of analysis/logic (mathematical/logical intelligence)
  • your sense of belonging/groupings (naturalist intelligence)
While it's easy to list what they are, and I can tell you how to employ them, it's sometimes harder to know what they are and which one you need. So we're going to go through samples of what these pictures look like, why you use them, and how to use them.

The other issue that makes employing them harder is that, no matter which intelligence you choose to employ, you need to employ it in ways that are observable and measurable.  In other words, you need to be able to sense it, which means that no matter what type of picture you paint, you will use words for hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.

The difference between using these sensory words to paint a picture of an intelligence that relates to your story and painting a generic picture is the difference between a book that has you right there in the moment and one that has lost you in description.  It's not usually the amount of description that loses a reader but the relevance of the description to the story that loses him or her.  We will be exploring these ideas in depth over the next month or so.

Write about a recent moment that meant something to you.  As you write, think about why the moment meant something (look at the intelligences above if you need to).  Thinking about that why, use your senses to describe the action in that moment.  The action could be what people do and say, or it could be your own thoughts.  In this case, action is merely a change in the process of occurring.

Friday, December 13, 2013

We'll be back!

We are on hiatus for the holidays (after a brief break this fall).  We can't wait to see everyone back on January 3, 2014!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Masculinity vs. Femininity

I was completely going to skip this dimension, but it just keeps coming up in discussion, so here is the background on Hofstede's dimension of masculinity vs. femininity.  Please bear in mind that these associations are, at least in my mind, hopelessly conservative.  There may be differences between men and women, but the fact that entire cultures can subscribe to these ideals indicates, in my mind, that the ideals can be espoused by either gender.  In the end, what I disagree with is the naming of the dimension and also the tendency to associate moral values to cultural norms--a problem endemic in anthropology of all kinds.

According to Hofstede, masculine cultures tend to be competitive, valuing achievement,heroism, and the like.  Feminine cultures, on the other hand, tend to value social peace, rewarding behaviors that contribute to overall amity rather than individual distinction.  I have severely curtailed discussion of this dimension, but you can read more about it (officially) http://geert-hofstede.com/dimensions.html or http://geerthofstede.com/dimensions-of-national-cultures.  Importantly, Hofstede and other social psychologists claim that this dynamic is about emotional roles within a culture (high emotion by all=feminine tendency; low emotion by all=masculine tendency).  Further studies have taken the idea of a masculine/feminine societal tendency and expanded it to gender roles within the culture.  I'm not sure of the validity of such research unless all cultural tendencies are likewise split, but that's neither here nor there.

Several questions that inform our stories strike me when I review this dimension, and I will just pose a few of them here:

Points on gender:
  • How does the idea of labeling "masculine" and "feminine" affect our relationships with our same-gender and/or opposite-gender parents?
  • To what extent to identification with the opposite-gender parent cause you to doubt your (or his/her) status as masculine or feminine?
Points on consensus:
  • How difficult was it for you to show assertiveness and/or be competitive?  How were your efforts received by your family?
  • How difficult was it for you to maintain social peace?  How were your efforts received by your family?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Indulgence versus Restraint

The final dimension of Geert Hofstede's analysis of national culture is indulgence versus restraint.  Once again, as I do with so much anthropological work, I find all of these terms loaded and inherently judgmental, so if you notice that in my synopsis, I ask you to forgive me.  But I'm still going to go through this dimension because, once again, I think that it offers some big insights into our stories.

Cultures that favor indulgence choose not to judge basic human drives for enjoyment and fun while cultures that favor restraint shun these desires.  On the other hand, cultures which favor restraint often advocate advanced planning and saving while sometimes shunning the needs of others in the community in the process.  On the opposite side, those favoring indulgence are often generous to those around them but may not have any resources when they are needed at a later date.

In reality, most cultures are a mixture of the two extremes, and, in fairness, Hofstede recognizes that these impulses lie on a continuum, even if his terms to describe them tend toward the judgmental.  But when I say that cultures are a mix of these ideals, I mean more than that they are a continuum.  Many theorists (I think Bakhtin was one, but it's been a long time since I have reviewed the theories) maintain that periods of sanctioned indulgence in a society make it possible for the society to maintain periods of restraint.  Examples would include Mardi Gras and Lent and Ramadan and Eid.  In reality, however, to indulge in one area requires restraint in another.  For example, girls who like to party frequently spend most of their time dieting.  Men who like to watch big games in person often save for months for those season tickets.  These cycles of indulgence and restraint reveal a great deal about pleasures and priorities.

What is an indulgence that you or your family have?  In what ways did you or your family need to restrain yourself in order to indulge?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Long Term Orientation Versus Short Term Orientation

Hofstede's ideas about long term orientation versus short term orientation is opposite of our intuitive sense.

Long Term Orientation (LTO) refers to an orientation of benefit for an individual over a single life span.  What is long term is in terms of decades.  Often, people with an LTO look at problems and issues in terms of context, seeking to adapt life to best meet their circumstances.

Short Term Orientation (STO) refers to an orientation focuses on the problems of now, but many of these "problems" are not really "now" problems but ones of culture:  saving face, keeping tradition, keeping promises. People with an STO often look at the way culture informs their life, rather than vice versa.  People with an STO are more likely to seek absolute truth.

Hofstede sees LTO as adaptive and STO as normative.  He sees LTO as prudent and STO as avoident. 

I have a very hard time reading Hofstede and not feeling his approval of one orientation over the other, or even of his not really trying to understand the possible benefits of each orientation.

And so I am going to go with some pros and cons to both and show you how they might show up in a story.

  • Biggest pros:  People with an LTO are self-preserving.  Their actions help guarantee their long-term flourishing in this life.  People with an LTO have a plan, and they are practical in fitting everything else to meet their needs.
  • Biggest cons:  People with an LTO are often not looking at the benefits accorded by the culture itself.  Morale and other intangible aspects of community are sometimes lost to a sense of pragmatics which might actually benefit from an understanding of feelings.
  • LTO in a story:  Stories of "tightening one's belt," "skipping a holiday," or "making tough choices" often fall under the guise of a long term orientation.  Similarly, stories about long term planning and reaping the benefits would also fall under this category.
  • Biggest pros:  People with an STO often fit integrally into their community.  Their acts of face-saving and tradition upholding often win them favors that pay off with neighbors as well as a linkage that results in greater community safety and harmony.
  • Biggest cons:  People with an STO often look to others to bail them out.  They may not continue working when the going gets tough.  Similarly, they may carry an ideal too far, going overboard on budget and effort for something that ultimately ends up hurting them or their family.
  • STO in a story:  The big celebrations, weddings, Christmases, or vacations often fall under the category of STO.  Similarly, attempts at harmony over practicality would likewise exemplify this point of view.
Most often, in my experience, families, and even individuals, tend to show a little of both points of view, and examples of these throughout time or in certain years might make productive stories.

I can't wait to hear what you have to say!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Uncertainty Avoidance

Okay.  The next dimension Geert Hofstede when talking about national culture is masculinity vs. femininity.  If you would like to read about it, please feel free to do so here and click on "masculinity versus femininity". I, however, have so very many strong issues about that dimension, from the naming of the dimension and the obvious gender-stereotyping such naming includes to the way that the dichotomy ignores the fact that such measures are often applied to varying aspects of the culture and not everything all together, something that we will, in fact, discuss in today's post.  Therefore, you are free to explore how the masculinity versus femininity dimension can inform your stories, but I am going to skip it.

Today, I want to talk about uncertainty avoidance, which is the extent to which a culture is comfortable with having things undefined.  To be honest, I find this dimension to be troublesome as well because, in my work with people from other cultures, I find that every culture has certain areas in which they like very clear definition, and these areas are often highlighted in the dominant language's grammar and usage, and other areas that they are not as concerned about, which tend to be more ignored in grammar and usage.  For instance, in English, we always want to know which one and how many.  We have many, many words and grammatical accommodations to convey this information, from adjectives that tell number to plural and singular forms of both nouns and verbs.  Our articles ("a", "an", and "the") as well as many of our demonstrative adjectives ("this", "that", "these", "those", etc.) all point to our desire to know which one.  On the other hand, most Asian languages don't use plural forms at all--because how many has limited relevance to them in many cases.  What does matter to many Asian cultures is cultural position, and nouns and verbs both have endings indicating the relative cultural positions of the speaker and the addressee.  Such information is largely ignored in English--it is irrelevant to many Western cultures much of the time.

So uncertainty avoidance is, in my opinion, not so much an absolute measure of uncertainty as a whole as it is a question of which types of uncertainty do groups of people avoid, how do they differ, and why.

And I find that these types of questions can really amp up the conflict in our stories because the search for certainty on different issues often reveals motivation--and usually cross purposes.

For example:
  • The horribly sexist assumption that a woman asking a man to give her details about a birth will be tremendously disappointed because he won't get any of the pertinent details, such as, the length of labor, medication during delivery, type of delivery, the gestational age of the baby, the size of the baby, and sometimes even the name and sex of the baby.  And while I admit that it's sexist to assume that most men won't get that information and that the information is important to most women, I have to admit that I've never met a man who has had that information when I asked for it--including fathers who were in the delivery room during the entire birthing process (and I have to ask myself, What were they doing in there?).
  • The attempt to get information about the school day when your child wants to do something else (and may even be asking about something else).
  • Negotiations between a client wanting a timeline and a contractor wanting a payscale
Not all of these situations necessarily cause conflicts, but they do betray conflicting interests which make our stories more interesting and also help us give our readers insight into our characters.  I hope you find some help in this way of looking at situations as you write.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Addendum: Tuckman's Model of Group Development

On the day of our last meeting, as luck, serendipity, or forces of the universe would have it, my dear friend and fellow educator, Josette LeBlanc released the most recent post on her blog, which detailed Tuckman's Model of Group Development.  As soon as I read what she had to say and looked up Tuckman's model, I realized that it directly related to our topic this week.

In the 1960s, Bruce Tuckman proposed four stages of group development and added a fifth a decade later.  These stages can help those of you who want to discuss groups you have been part of.

Stage 1: Forming

In the first stage, group members are introduced to one another.  They introduce themselves, get to know one another, and establish boundaries primarily through testing.  Systems of dependence and hierarchy bud during this stage.

Stage 2: Storming

In the second stage, conflict intensifies as the group members polarize, generally over emotional and interpersonal issues.

Stage 3: Norming

In the third stage, barriers begin to crumble as group members develop working relationships.  Not only does hostility lessen at this stage, but members also develop roles that help them to achieve their goal or task.

Stage 4: Performing

By the fourth stage, the group's roles become more dynamic, changing organically in ways that allow the team to accomplish a variety of tasks.  At this level, group members devote less energy to personal dynamics and more to the attainment of the goal.

Stage 5: Adjourning

In the final stage, members of the group see the end of the group in its current form approaching.  Roles begin to dissolve, and dependence on one another lessens.  The members prepare to move on.

In terms of stories, I will let you take it where you want.  As I first read the list of stages, these stages seemed apparent in the following situations:
  • Parents and children from birth to the time they leave home
  • School classes or groups of school friends
  • Sports teams
  • Groups of parents gathering around children's activities
  • Teams at the office
I hope that these stages help inform your stories as much as I feel them informing mine!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Indvidiualism vs. Collectivism

Individualism vs. collectivism refers to the extent in which a society embraces the independence of the individual and also the responsibility of the community to take care of its own.

To be honest, hearing people talk about this dimension often troubles me because their discussion often assumes an all-or-nothing mentality, as if we are all either anarchists or conformists, when in reality we all lie on a spectrum, varying in degree of individuals and members of collectives at any given moment and/or any given situation.


The individualism vs. collectivism dimension opens whole facets to stories that lie relatively untouched. Rather than explain in generalities, here are simply some questions related to this dimension that might open up new avenues in your stories.

  • What is a family trait that belongs to a side of your family?  To what extant to you identify with it?  To what extant do you feel compelled to identify with it?
  • Name something you've done because you think it's what everybody else does.
  • Tell about a part of yourself that you've come to realize that is unique only to you.  To what extant have you developed that trait in yourself?
  • What kind of person are you as a parent or employee when no one is looking versus what kind of person are you when other parents/employers see you or when other kids/employees see you?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Power Distance

Last week I suggested that we consider one of those moments when we clearly saw something differently than someone else.  For the next four weeks, I'd like to consider the ways that we think about culture can open spaces for understanding in our stories.

For the last few decades, Geert Hofstede has studied cultural dimensions--different points of reference that all cultures value but to varying degrees on a continuum.  What sometimes doesn't come across in people who summarize his research is that these dimensions do not only correspond to the cultures of countries but to "organizations" as well--and the organizations take on six additional dimensions as well.  When Hofstede talks about organizations, he usually means companies (after all, that's how he made his money), but both sets of dimensions can reveal insight when applied to any grouping of people: towns, schools, classes, families, and even generations.  It is within these smaller confines that I think the dimensions can really add to our stories, and I'd like to spend the next few weeks discussion how the national dimensions can reveal aspects of our lives we hadn't realized.

Power Distance:

Power distance is the first of four dimensions and refers to level of separation between those in power and those under authority.  You can read more about it by clicking on "Power Distance" on Hofstede's website.  This separation gains its power by the extent to which the authority is accepted by those under authority (sounds a lot like John Locke, huh?).

But, of course, we have all met power distance in action in our lives.  Perhaps we felt that moment in our adolescence when we challenged our parents or perhaps when we became parents and learned that our parents didn't have all the answers.  Perhaps it happened when we met people from our childhood again in our adulthood and Mrs. Wilson become Mary.  Or perhaps it works in reverse, when we see our parent in an arena where they are accorded a status we had hitherto not been aware of.

In any case, considering the authority afforded or withheld to power figures in our stories can be very revealing to the situation and the relationships of those involved.  I would love to hear how this facet of life enlightens the moments of your stories.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Welcome Back!

For those of you who follow this blog and come to our meetings, we will begin meeting at the Plum Library again this coming Friday, September 6, from 10:30 AM until we finish (usually around 12:30 PM).

I assume that most of you already have a story that you want to write and share, but just in case you don't, I do have some thoughts that we can turn into story prompts.

As you all know, we've been in Korea for most of the summer, and I've now been home eleven days--eleven long, tiring days of reverse culture shock.

It always happens.  I expect the culture shock of going to Korea, but it's hard to remember that even though I am returning to my own country, not everyone thinks like me.  And so that is the topic of this week's prompt:  Tell about a time when someone you loved thought so differently than you that you thought they might be from another culture, if not another planet.

As you tell these stories, be sure to include the kinds of details that will show us your shock and their side of the story.  These details might include:
  • Your expectations of the day (try to visualize these or put concrete details to them)
  • Signs that you and the other person are not on the same page:  clueless expressions, non sequiturs, actions that run contrary to your expectations.
  • Signs of your own feelings/awareness.  These might take the form of comments like, "I didn't think about what it meant that..." or "It didn't register that..." if you are ignorant that the other person isn't on the same page as you are or "Maddeningly, she continued to..." or "For no good reason I could fathom, he...."
I look forward to hearing your stories!

Friday, July 26, 2013


We're almost done!  REMINDER:  Our next class will be Friday, September 6.

Secondly, if you are not interested in linking up your stories this week and if you don't have another idea to write on, feel free to pop on over to Share a Pair of Stories for a straight-up lifestory writing prompt.

Okay, if you are here to link up your stories, let's review our progress so far.
  1. We found the theme (or themes) that seems central or recurs often in our stories.
  2. We discovered which other genre's characteristics our story shares.
  3. We identified the places that our shorter stories should fill on a plot line of our larger story's genre.
  4. We identified the inner change that our character makes during the course of our stories and started to put specific events to the changes.
  5. We noted common components of the inner change narrative.
  6. We combined our two plot lines together.
  7. We beefed up our climax.
Today, we will pull the book together.  Once the climax has been finished, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Does my climax relate directly to the theme of my stories?
  2. Does everything before the climax clearly point to the approach of the climax?
  3. Do I explain how I got all of the skills I needed in the climax?
  4. Have I included all of the pertinent (not everything, mind you, only everything pertinent) background information necessary to understand the climax?
  5. Does all of the action afterward stem from the climax (of the inner or literal narrative)?
  6. Does my resolution happen because of the climax?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, go back and revise until you can answer yes.

I can't wait to see you in September!!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Allotting the Time

First, REMINDER:  Because of a summer reading event, next week's class will be on the patio.

Secondly, if you are not interested in linking up your stories this week and if you don't have another idea to write on, feel free to pop on over to Share a Pair of Stories for a straight-up lifestory writing prompt.

Okay, if you are here to link up your stories, let's review our progress so far.
  1. We found the theme (or themes) that seems central or recurs often in our stories.
  2. We discovered which other genre's characteristics our story shares.
  3. We identified the places that our shorter stories should fill on a plot line of our larger story's genre.
  4. We identified the inner change that our character makes during the course of our stories and started to put specific events to the changes.
  5. We noted common components of the inner change narrative.
  6. We combined our two plot lines together.
Today, we will face a cold, hard reality:  the climax of the book generally takes nearly half of the word count.

Find your climax and expand it.  Expand it in every way you can conceivably imagine.  Go back to the post on the senses and the intelligences and go over that scene to the best of your ability.  Add dialogue.  Get creative with your sentence structure (short and long).  Play with your paragraphs.  Rework.  Rework.  Rework.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Literal Story Meets Inner Change

First, if you are not interested in linking up your stories this week and if you don't have another idea to write on, feel free to pop on over to Share a Pair of Stories for a straight-up lifestory writing prompt.

Okay, if you are here to link up your stories, let's review our progress so far.
  1. We found the theme (or themes) that seems central or recurs often in our stories.
  2. We discovered which other genre's characteristics our story shares.
  3. We identified the places that our shorter stories should fill on a plot line of our larger story's genre.
  4. We identified the inner change that our character makes during the course of our stories and started to put specific events to the changes.
  5. We looked at the common components of inner change.
Today, we will correlate the plot points of our literal stories with the points and scenes of our inner changes.  I suggest putting each title on a note card so that you can move things around.  I suspect that you will be arranging things chronologically--in fact, I highly suggest it because this is the norm.

After you have arranged all of your cards, take a look at both of your story lines.  They should correlate well in three main ways:
  • The exposition (beginning) should happen at the same temporal moment for both story lines.
  • The climax should be the same or nearly the same.  If the climax of the literal story comes about as a result of the climax of your inner change, that's okay.  Likewise, if the climax of the literal story causes the climax of your inner change, that's okay too.
  • They should resolve (or end) at the same time.
If these three points don't line up, you need to rearrange your story.

Once you have done all of your rearranging, write down your list of stories interspersed so that you no longer have two distinct stories of literal action and inner change.

Friday, July 5, 2013


Some weeks ago, one of our life story writers asked, "What are the benefits?  What are the take-aways?"

One of our other life story writers quickly responded, "Well, writing out these thoughts and stories is very cathartic for me."

"I meant what are the benefits for the reader?" the other writer countered.

This exchange perfectly characterizes much f the talk around life story and memoir writing, and in trying to address the controversy, I want to engage in a little benefit/risk analysis.

Life story writing certainly rewards its writers in a number of ways that do not stop with the writing itself.  These rewards fall into all of the different aspects of the writing:  the initial writing, the fact-checking, the revising, the sharing with others in a critique group, the sharing with your family, the publishing, and the sharing with the world.  Not all writers will choose to take all steps, but that's okay.  We simply need to remember that no endeavor is entirely without risk and reward.  We all must make the decision of how much risk we are willing to take.  Let's look at the steps one by one.

The Initial Writing:

The initial writing is the first time you begin putting your thoughts on the page.  It includes coming up with the ideas, ruminating over them a bit, and transforming the images, feelings, and memories into words (contrary to popular belief, our thoughts are not pure language).

Benefits to you:
  • Forcing your memories into words helps you organize your thoughts and makes processing what happened more manageable.
  • If you focus on making meaning out of your story, then research shows that the writing can make you significantly happier.  Chapter 7 of Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis gives a terrific integration of the works of Beck, McAdams, and Pennebaker, who all studied this phenomenon to various extents.  If you are more interested in the relation between depression and life story (or self talk), you may find David Burns' Feeling Good, which is a portion of Beck's work, of great interest.  If you are more interested on the types of life writing that touch us, then you may want to consider reading Jamie Pennebaker's Opening Up.
  • Revisiting the events of the past can be painful, and you may end up reliving some of those past experiences in very present emotions.
  • If you don't try to make sense out of the stories, or if you can't, you may find yourself facing a bit of a crisis.

The Fact-Checking:

The fact-checking step can take several forms and is sometimes skipped altogether.  Sometimes, fact-checking is very academic.  You may research your story's background with books from home, with materials at the library, with newspapers you have access to, or with documentaries on the radio or TV.  Fact-checking may also be journalistic (although social) in nature.  You may find yourself interviewing friends and family or other people who lived through the time or experience you discuss in your story.  Alternatively, fact-checking can be very introspective.  You might spend the time rechecking your journals, old yearbooks, and scrapbooks of one type or another.

  • Sometimes looking at pictures, either your own or others, helps you remember more about the incident.
  • Speaking with others about the events may open your eyes to other points of view. 
  • Speaking with others about the events may open a connection that you will appreciate or that you didn't know was there.
  • Fact-checking can help you put the event in a different perspective.  What I mean by this different perspective is not a different point of view but a different valuing of the event itself.  In his book, Evil, Roy Baumeister contends that a major difference between victims and perpetrators is the weight that they give to certain events.  In the cases he was discussing, both the significant weight accorded by many victims and the light weight accorded by the perpetrators were skewed.  We can correct much of this skewing of events by checking the facts surrounding them and re-evaluating how much import we should actually give them (and it could be more or less).
  • Sometimes seeing events in a new light can really shake your grasp of the way things are or were.  Coming to grips wth a new perspective can be scary and make you feel ungrounded for a while.
  • Some people don't want to talk about the past, especially when or if it involves difficult events.  Remember that, although I'm sure that you care about these people and your relationship with them, sometimes you may need to explore something on your own.  If they don't want to talk about it, by all means, honor their decision.  But if you need to talk about it, work it through, etc., do not let their reluctance stop you from doing what you need to do.

The Revising:

The revising is any time that you revisit a story that you've already written for the purpose of making changes.

  • You will remember more than you did before.
  • Your writing will become more readable.
  • You may find yourself giving yourself more credit and appreciating the value of your story more.
  • There's always a moment when you look at your work and think, "What a piece of crap!"  Ignore that voice.  If you can't ignore it entirely, tell yourself, "There's a pearl inside this ugly oyster, and I can get there!"

The Sharing with a Critique Group:

There are several types of critique groups, and no one critique group is right for everyone.  Just because one group doesn't work for you doesn't mean you should give up on them all.  In the benefits and risks section, I will briefly touch on the different types of critique groups and their distinct benefits and risks.

  • Many times critique groups read their works aloud.  Hearing your written words spoken and acknowledged can have a profound effect on you.  Some people feel valued and justified when they hear their work read aloud.  Others may feel uneasy.  If you think you will feel uneasy, consider visiting a group first.  You may want to find a group that does more connecting and less critiquing.
  • When you hear your words spoken aloud, revising becomes easier.  New issues that don't work will jump out at you, and you will also be able to see what does work from your audience's reaction.
  • A critique group provides a buffer before you share with those closest to you.  If your critique group hates it, you may sting for a little, but it's much easier to bear than if your sister hates it.
  • A critique group is filled with others in the same boat.  Ideally, you want to find a critique group doing exactly what you are doing.  So if you're writing a science fiction novel for mainstream publication, you want a group of people writing science fiction novels for mainstream publication.
  • The most common risk is not finding the right kind of critique group for you.  If you are looking for the courage to write your story for your family, a critique group made up of authors writing young adult fiction for publication is probably not for you.  In fact, you may want to run for the hills after your first meeting.  Likewise, if you are looking to publish and find a critique group that only encourages and never offers any critique, you probably won't be sending successful queries.
  • The biggest emotional risk is finding a group which judges (rather than evaluates) the content of your writing and not its quality.  Now, bear in mind, evaluating content is also important in a critique group, but it is different than judging.  For example, perhaps a woman wrote a story about being too heavy to fit into her favorite dress. 
    • A judgmental comment might be: "Well, you should just have gone on a diet.  Obviously you were just too much of a pig."  This kind of judgment is obvious.
    • But this kind of judgment is less obvious: "Who wants to hear about that?  That's not important!"  It was obviously important to the woman who took the time to write it!
    • This comment, however, is evaluative although still critical:  "Who would the audience be for this piece?  I'm not sure who you're writing for?"
    • This comment is evaluative and encouraging:  "You're writing on an important topic here."  But you may need more than just encouragement.
    • This comment is evaluative and constructive:  "Wow.  This is an important topic, but I need more information to really feel it.  Can you show more of your emotion?  I also need to see the dress.  What did it look like on you before?  What did it look like when you tried it on at that moment?"
Remember that a truly helpful evaluative comment will not only talk about the content but also how that content is helped by the writing.

Benefits to others:  Now that you are finally sharing your writing with others, there are some reader take-aways as well!
  • Your writing can encourage others to continue or give them ideas to tell their own stories.  It's very hard to steal a memoir, so you don't need to worry quite as much about sharing.
  • Sharing with a group helps us build empathy for each other, for ourselves, and for those in our stories.  We all walk away enriched.
  • Brene Brown writes about the importance of courage, connection, and compassion in what she calls "wholehearted living."  Bringing your writing to a critique group takes courage.  When it is shared and when others talk about it meaningfully (evaluatively), you develop connection.  As your empathy increases. you grwo in compassion.  When we do this as a group, though, we are all enriched in ways we couldn't be alone.

The Sharing with Your Family:

There are many ways of sharing wth your family, and there are both many benefits--and many risks.  Many of these benefits and risks have to do with your own expectations and hopes as well as your own openness to hearing a different side of things and/or dealing with the emotions of those with whom you are sharing your story.  Before I even go into the benefist and risks of sharing with your family, I have two pieces of advice, which (as always) you are free to take or leave:
  1. Never share with your family until you have at least run over their possible responses in your mind and done your best to both prepare yourself and to be kind (within reason) to them. 

    By being kind, I mean that you should attempt to empathize with them and paint a balanced portrait if possible.  I do not mean that you should lie or make the truth a little brighter than it really was.
  2. Never share a story with the world until you have shared it with the people it most directly affects.  I know that it's emotionally tempting to skip sharing difficult stories with your family, and I know that the members of our Friday group know better than to skip this step, but to those of you who follow this blog who have not been to the group, please know that, as tempting as it is to just put it out there, it's often not a good idea to do so without running it by those most directly involved.

  • You may learn things that you never knew before.
  • You may feel valued and known in ways you hadn't been up to this point.
  • You may be able to give others in your family a stronger feeling of place and belonging.  The importance of this belonging has been documented in MARIAL program at Emory University. (FYI, the program has been mentioned in the New York Times, but the story itself is shortsighted on one count.  The stories that the program found that mattered were ones that involved the specific place of the individual in his or her family.  Additionally, I've read several articles that refer to this article, and they all neglect to mention that the stories were even more effective when they showed a family's fluctuating circumstances, i.e., that things don't stay bad all the time and they don't stay good either.)
  • We often come to our family with certain expectations (that we may not share), and when our experience doesn't meet our expectations, there can be some emotional discomfort.  Some of that discomfort may be fairly severe.
  • Our family may not see things the same way.
  • Our family may not want us to write our story.  Determining what is and isn't our story to tell is difficult and not something that I have completely figured out.  So far, the line I use is the potential harm or embarrassment.  I try to avoid both.  But that isn't always possible.  To some extent, when I told the stories of my children, it was about getting there first.  In other words, they had already been labelled, and I was determined to take and make that label minor and their personality and potential major.  But it's a line we all need to take seriously.  It's also one we need to decide personally.  If your family did something openly that affected you deeply, you don't necessarily need to hide that.

The Publishing:

Publishing can be a collaborative process in terms of traditional publishing, or it can be a more solitary process in terms of self-publishing.  In either case, however, there is an element of revision with an eye to the conventions of the business.  This process of seeing your work through the eyes of your genre, your publishing house, or simply the conventions of the physical book format can reveal aspects of your work that you never pondered before.

  • You see yourself as one of the others in your field--on a level with other professionals.
  • Going through the entire process really does make your book more professional, especially if you take the time to be hypercritical and thorough.
  • Putting your book in a format that others are used to seeing makes it more accessible to them.  
  • Sharing your experience with the world can help others in similar situations feel less along.
  • Sharing your experience with the world can help others who have never experienced what you have gain a little empathy or a priming for empathy with those who have had your experience.
  • You are open to more criticism on many more levels than you were before.
  • There will always be those who attack, and you will need to steel yourself or develop a plan for dealing with them.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Inner Change

First, REMINDER:  There is no class next week, Friday, July 5, due to the holiday weekend.

Secondly, if you are not interested in linking up your stories this week and if you don't have another idea to write on, feel free to pop on over to Share a Pair of Stories for a straight-up lifestory writing prompt.

Okay, if you are here to link up your stories, let's review our progress so far.
  1. We found the theme (or themes) that seems central or recurs often in our stories.
  2. We discovered which other genre's characteristics our story shares.
  3. We identified the places that our shorter stories should fill on a plot line of our larger story's genre.
  4. We identified the inner change that our character makes during the course of our stories and started to put specific events to the changes.
Today, we will more closely at our inner changes.  Although our inner changes don't have plot lines like the major genres or archetypes do, they do have some feelings, problems, and goals that we generally all share.

Somewhere in your journey, you likely felt:
  • Angry
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Driven
  • Afraid
  • Ashamed
  • At peace
Incorporate these feelings into your inner journey list.  Put each one beside a story that you have written or one you need to write.

Next, most of us need, on the inside, to feel secure in the following areas:
  • Trust 
  • Autonomy/Initiative (I'm able to do it myself without needing to ask.)
  • Identity, often through Industry or what you do (You need to be busy, and what you do often defines how you see yourself.)
  • Intimacy (You need to be connected, loved for who you are, and to make a difference on those around you.)
The turmoil of your story may revolve around trying to gain these or struggling with their opposites (distrust, shame, guilt, inferiority, confusion, and isolation).

Finally, most of us are seeking--and will change ourselves to obtain:
  • Physical security and satiation of basic bodily needs
  • Social belonging 
  • Self respect and respect from peers
  • Fulfillment
Identify as many of these aspects in your inner change story as possible.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Every Memoir Has at Least Two Story Lines: Part II

First, if you are not interested in linking up your stories this week and if you don't have another idea to write on, feel free to pop on over to Share a Pair of Stories for a straight-up lifestory writing prompt.

Okay, if you are here to link up your stories, let's review our progress so far.
  1. We found the theme (or themes) that seems central or recurs often in our stories.
  2. We discovered which other genre's characteristics our story shares.
  3. We identified the places that our shorter stories should fill on a plot line of our larger story's genre.
Today, we will at our story's inner story, which may be the most important.  The inner story of your memoir tells how you have changed.  It takes you from who you were to who you have become.  This process can be a bit confusing for three reasons:
  1. The change in your character is generally constrained by the timeline of the literal story, so who you become in your memoir may not be who you are now (although there are ways around this, so don't worry).
  2. The change in your character does not need to be monumental.  It may simply be the loss of naivete.
  3. The change in your character may merely be the loss and regaining of peace during and after a crisis.  It may be a passing, and not a permanent, change.
Take a moment now and try to pinpoint the change that your inner character goes through in your journey through your stories.

In my case, my change is one of becoming.  I was a non-mother.  Then I become a mother.  Then I become a better, but still not great, mother.  Then I give up becoming a great mother.  Then I become more of the mother I want to be.

These changes don't follow plotlines, so they are a little difficult to track.  Think hard about it for a while. Try to write it out in sentences as I did above.  Next, try to flesh out each of the sentences with details that hint at the scenes that each change might correlate to.

For example: 
  • I was a non-mother:  wanting children, getting pregnant, getting pregnant again.
  • Then I become a mother:  childbirth (surprise!), feelings of failure, learning about that child, childbirth again (surprise!), every child is different
  • Then I become a better, but still not great, mother:  what works, what doesn't, injuries, anger, swearing child at the shoes.
  • Then I give up becoming a great mother:  recognizing failure (oh, boy!  I will need work here!  These are hard to write--even hard to think about!), some things can't be fixed  
  • Then I become more of the mother I want to be:  becoming more authentic, really listening
Now you try.  This is all you need to write for this week.  This list is enough.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Every Memoir Has at Least Two Story Lines

First, if you are not interested in linking up your stories this week and if you don't have another idea to write on, feel free to pop on over to Share a Pair of Stories for a straight-up lifestory writing prompt.

Okay, if you are here to link up your stories, let's review our progress so far.
  1. We found the theme (or themes) that seems central or recurs often in our stories.
  2. We discovered which other genre's characteristics our story shares.
Today, we will be taking the combination of 1 and 2 and using them to discern the first of the two major story lines our stories follow.  It sounds confusing, but really it is simple.  Your story has:
  1. A literal story.
  2. An inner story.
 The literal story is what your character is physically doing throughout your stories.  Knowing what your genre is will help you define your literal story.  If your story is a(n):
  • Bildungsroman or Coming of Age story, then you will have:
    •  a period of childhood.  
    • markers moving you toward adulthood 
    • obstacles that stand in your way, all of which should arm you with skills you will need as an adult
    • a defining moment that marks you as an adult inside
    • a return to your family/home/other place where you are recognized as the adult you have now become
  • Adventure, then you will have:
    • A moment of decision in which you decide to take your adventure
    • A moment of setting out or definitively beginning.
    • A series of milestones which mark your progress
    • Obstacles which stand in your way
    • A defining moment or achievement that marks success or failure
    • A return to the beginning in which your accomplishment is acknowledged (This last step is sometimes skipped but is usually there.)
  • Mystery, then you will have:
    • Moments before the "crime"--a time when the balance has not been upset
    • A decision to begin investigating
    • A series of quandaries, some yielding good information, some not
    • At least one misleading piece of information
    • A clue that ties it all together
    • The solving of the mystery
    • Some semblance of a return to order
  • Romance, then you will have:
    • The moment of absence--when the main character recognizes a whole in his/her life
    • The entrance of the object of affection--this need not be a love interest, per se
    • A series of encounters or scenes in which the object of affection is considered
    • A moment when it becomes clear that you both care for one another
    • A series of obstacles that stand in the way of togetherness
    • The moment when these obstacles are resolved. 
  • Thriller/Horror, then you will have:
    • An average or weak hero who begins feeling average
    • A moment in which the hero is made (and feels very obviously vulnerable)
    • A series of surprising moments which may wound, but do not kill, our hero and all of which convince the reader that the danger is very real
    • A long rising action and a climax very close to the end
    • Very little resolution.  The thriller is about danger and the absence of danger and not much contemplation after the fact (there are some thrillers that involve lots of contemplation, but they are the classics and not the run of the mill thriller). 
  • Historical Fiction, then you will have:
    • A moment of beginning, grand exposition in which the stage is set
    • Your story will incorporate one of the other threads listed above but with this difference:  every action is correlated to the time period.  In other words, the individual does not function solely as an individual but as a function of an individual in time.
    •  As the story ends, it does not feel it is ending.  It should segue into the feeling that life goes on/history is still being written.
Your job now is to find the type of story your literal story is and match its plot points to the stories you already have written.  Find which stories you have and which ones you need to write.

Here's an example.  In my backwards devotional, I will essentially be telling a two-fold romance--one between myself and my children and one between me and God.  So I would take the plot points and fill them in:
  • The moment of absence--wanting children--wondering where God is
  • The entrance of the object of affection--childbirth--??  Maybe this needs to be written
  • A series of encounters or scenes in which the object of affection is considered
    • This will be a series of stories in which I discover God through parenting
  • A moment when it becomes clear that you both care for one another
    • Needs to be written--Good things verse?  
  • A series of obstacles that stand in the way of togetherness
    • Lots of these--learning issues (seeing and never perceiving), inability to obey (we all like sheep...)
  • The moment when these obstacles are resolved--big one resolving a fight (and a child shall lead them)
 Obviously, I haven't included everything, but I would guess that you want a list of twenty to thirty stories up there.  Once you have completed this step, identify your climax (the most exciting part or your turning point) and try to write it.  WARNING!!!  It can be very emotionally difficult to write a climax.  If it's too much, write as close to the scene as you can.  So if your climax is a car accident and you can't bring yourself to write about it, write about planning the trip or write about the ambulance ride afterward.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Summer and Your Stories

Here is a brief synopsis of the discussions/decisions that have taken place in class:
  1. Schedule:  The lifestory writers will continue to meet on Fridays at the Plum Library beginning at 10:30 AM during June and July (the July 5th meeting is cancelled due to the holiday weekend).  The class will take a break in August (along with the rest of the programming at the Plum Library), and will resume on September 6th.
  2. Assignments:  We recently had a very lively discussion on how to connect our stories, and I realized that we haven't spent a great deal of time learning how to take our many shorter stories and turn them into a longer narrative.  However, not everyone will want or need those lessons every week.  Working on the bigger picture is a task you attend to and then walk away from to do some detail work and then return to later when you have finished the other steps.  Therefore, you will need two types of assignments:  the first, a big picture, connecting assignment; the second, a small picture, story-writing-prompt assignment. To meet these needs, I will be posting two sets of assignments separately.
    1. On Lives in Letters, I will post help for linking your stories.
    2. On Share a Pair of Stories, I will post individual writing prompts to tie in with the Share a Pair of Stories theme.  Adult prompts will be posted twice a week, once on the Friday and once the coming Monday.  The Friday prompt corresponds to our class meetings.  After all, who doesn't leave fired up?  I want you to have information right away.  But the summer reading program goes on a Monday schedule, so I will post additional prompts for all writing ages on Mondays.
 Soooo.... back to our work in linking our stories.  I'm going to walk you through one of my projects while we work.

Last week, we looked at our over-arching theme.  The project I will be looking at is my reverse devotional.  As all of you in the class will remember, after I'd shared about ten stories overall--some with you and some with other writing groups--a few of you pressed me to really qualify what I was doing.  You asked me what my theme was and what my genre was.  That meeting was a couple of months ago, and I have only recently come back to it, so if you had (or are having) trouble finding your theme, don't worry.  I needed additional help, and you can feel free to ask for it too.

But I did find my theme (with the integral help of you ladies), and my theme is two-fold:
  1. You often don't understand the scripture/wisdom until you've gone through the school of hard knocks (even if you have been graciously lectured in it previously); and
  2. God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the strong, and the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.
Now comes the second part of linking your story together:  finding the genre.

Now, I think that my genre will be primarily a devotional with a memoir component.  You may also find that your stories will be hybrids--one genre with a memoir component.

So this post will help you isolate the type of story you are writing by quickly going over the memoir expectations and then moving on to the other major types of stories.

Here are the major components about mass-market memoir currently:
  1.  They range between 40,000 and 80,000+ words (I have heard that 70,000 is about right).  Some have approximately 10 longer chapters (The Journal of Best Practices, Lessons from the Monk I Married).  Others have as many as 30 shorter chapters (Carry On, Warrior; Road Swing).
  2. Their frame tale is told chronologically.
  3. Their frame tale has a beginning and an end.  Generally, that beginning is not birth, and the end is not death.
  4. Flashbacks and foreshadowing are used to reveal events which take place outside of the frame tale's timeline.
  5. A memoir generally tells two stories--one of inner change and one of outer change.  The type of outer change described generally corresponds with the other genre component of your story.
 Researchers keep "discovering" that we make meaning from our lives by fitting them into the frames of stories we already know.  The pilgrim's did it in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  Freud studied it in Dream Psychology.  Jung catalogued it in The Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes.  Hayden White applied it to history in The Content of the Form, and numerous current researchers are applying it to our daily lives in works ranging from the papers coming out of The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) to the Jonathan Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal

Below are a few genres of stories that often cross over into memoir:
  1. Bildungsroman or Coming of Age stories.  These stories feature a central character's increased awareness of his core values and abilities and his development of those values and abilities to overcome a significant obstacle and enter adulthood.  This genre is one of the most common in memoir-crossover.
  2. The Adventure.  Often, the adventure novel is a quest story, which covers many travel narratives and travel logs.  A quest story often begins with a challenge (the proposed journey), the taking up of the challenge (the character's decision to take it), a benediction to send out the character, a series of obstacles (each of which test the character's skill and ultimately prepare him for the final test), the achievement of the goal (what does the character learn), and his reintegration into his society (how has he changed?).  Several of you are writing adventure stories.
  3. Mystery.  This sometimes comes up in adoption stories.  Instead of an initiating crime or set up that way, there is often a hole.  The tale is the journey, complete with red herrings and failures to meet expectations in addition to twists in the story.  In the end, though, a mystery generally leaves one with a sense of justice, or, if not justice, a sense of order.  The solving of the mystery should bring a sense of closure.
  4. Romance.  A romance is the story of a relationship.  It need not be a romantic relationship.  In a sense, my devotional will cross over with romance.  A romance is preoccupied with the main character and their fascination with another character. The character needs to be introduced within the first chapter and needs to be, if not in every scene, mentioned in every scene.  There should be an early understanding that both like one another, but intervening obstacles make their peaceful union impossible until the end.  Many of you who are writing for your children will be writing a romance with your family.
  5. Thriller/Horror.  These are generally written to make your pulse race and are often hardship stories.  They tend to continually up the ante, not dwelling on feelings or resolution but propelling the reader through to the end.  Resolution is simply a ceasing of action and not an understanding of the implications of the events that occurred.  (Frankenstein would not be a good example.  Dracula would.)
  6. Historical Fiction.  This genre still tells a narrative, but the narrative never moves at the expense of the facts.  The author and reader of these stories is equally interested in telling about the time period as about telling about the action, and, very importantly, the author is invested in explaining how the environment and period helped determine what happened.  Several of you are also writing this genre crossover.
Based on these overarching genres, determine if you are looking at a book with a series of short chapters or longer ones.  Also, consider what your crossover genre might be.  In my case, my crossover genre will be romance (and devotional) and will have many (40ish) short chapters.

Writing/revision assignment:  If you have discovered what type of narrative you are writing, go back to one of your stories.  Identify the aspects of it which place it in its genre (the obstacles of the quest, the preoccupation with the person, the historical facts, etc.).  Emphasize them more.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Refining Your Story and Other Writing-Related Stuff

So, the week before the write off, we had quite a lively discussion on how to make your stories seem more like they belong to one-story or making your lifestory seem a bit more like a book instead of just a series of short stories.

Entire books have been written on much smaller points of this vast topic, and most of us in this group are not looking to write a dissertation on the topic or craft a bestseller (although we wouldn't mind if people really liked what we wrote!).  For most of us, the topic of refining our stories into a cohesive whole is one of pragmatics.  We intuitively know that even our families better understand stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, with conflicts and resolutions, and with overarching themes.  In the end, we want them to understand how we made meaning of our experiences, and choosing how to link our stories together helps us do that effectively.

But how do we do that without taking years to rewrite?

Well, it's not necessarily simple, but there are a few ways to link these stories, and, over the next 10 weeks or so, I will try to give you one straightforward way to do so.

Step 1:  Look back at your stories and think back over what's important to you.  Isolate a few themes.

But how can you do that?  Here are some ideas:
  • Ask some questions:
    • What shows up often in your stories?  Is it people?  Is it places?  Do you concentrate on events?  What types of events?
    • How do the things in your stories change?
    • Why are you writing?
  • Using the answers above, look for common ideas or images.
  • If you don't have a common image, look for a common metaphor.
  • From here, write a sentence or proverb that captures the common heart of your stories.
That's really hard to follow by itself, so let me give you an example.  I have a friend who is finishing up her memoir.  Most of her stories involve her remarkable friendships and the many things that she and her friends do.  In every story, though, no matter what she and her friends are doing, my friend always manages to mention the food (usually brownies!).  When she looks back at her collection of writings, she can say, "Friendship is as nourishing as food."  Once she realized that theme encompassed the work of most or most of her stories, she was able to link her stories and draw them together more.

But the first step is to find the common theme.

Step 2:  Revise a story to emphasize that theme or write a new story showing that theme at work in your life.

There's a difference in writing a story just for its own purpose and in writing a story to be part of something bigger.  Most of us intuitively will make the changes if we are aware of the overarching theme, but just in case that discernment doesn't come naturally to you, here are some of the ways that you can link your story to your central theme:
  • If you have a central image (like food), make sure that it enters into your story both literally (perhaps the characters are eating, they see food, or a stomach growls) and metaphorically (maybe you gaze hungrily out the window or the taste of success makes you hungry for more).
  • Make certain that even if the story is about something else (perhaps an argument in the parking lot), it somehow ties into the theme metaphorically (if friends are nourishing, then having a fight with one might give you metaphorical indigestion, a stomach ache, or make you feel malnourished).
  • When making your metaphors, try to focus on the verbs which can fit easily into your action without much segue (e.g., I chewed on that thought. I savored the moment).
 So with those ideas in mind, I leave you to your stories!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Next week: Write off

Next week:  Class will be a write off from 1:00-3:00 PM.  There will be no 10:30 AM session.

You do not need to do anything in preparation for the next class except bring yourself, a pen/pencil, and a hopeful spirit.  Hope to see you there!  :)

Friday, May 17, 2013


My brother is adopted, and I've spent much of my life around adoptees and adoptive families.  I have heard almost all of the excuses and explanations about adoption of children.  I have also lived and traveled overseas and spent much time around immigrants and expatriates.  I have heard equally as many excuses and explanations of adopting (or not adopting) new cultures.

But one thing about either type of adoption is fundamentally clear:  the taking up of someone or something that is not yours and making it your own changes you very bit as much as it changes the other person or thing.

The other extraordinarily clear aspect of adoption is that the taking up is a conscious choice.

This week's assignment is to take a tenet of life that you've adopted from somewhere.  Explain how you discovered, how you incorporated it into your life, and how it has changed you.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Path Less Traveled By

When I was in the eighth grade, I forgot about a book report until the teacher reminded us Friday that the report was due Monday, and it needed to be on a classic.  Problem was that I hadn't read any classics recently, so I did the only thing an eighth-grade girl could do.  I asked Daddy if we had any classics laying around the house.  He pulled out Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.  I objected.  It was a boy's book.  He told me that girls who had two days to finish a book report and not many options couldn't be too choosy about her reading materials.

So I opened the book and there, on the inside of the front cover, was my dad's address:
Ricky *****
**** Ashton Drive
Lima, Ohio 45801
Planet Earth
That "Planet Earth" and the reading material it was written on told me a whole lot about my dad's childhood headspace.

Most of the time, we write about things that we have done, but sometimes the things that we we've only imagined--like sword fights and space travel--tell a whole lot about us and the time we live in.  This week, I suggest that we take time to write out something we always imagined doing.  I don't mean a bucket list.  I mean the flights of fancy we use to bring both order and adventure to our lives.

I can't wait to hear what you have to say!

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Weak Become Strong

Most of us hate to talk about things we're not good at.  We hate to do them.  We hate to think about them.  And we often go great lengths to avoid them.  But they sure are fun to read about (and watch!  Didn't we love America's Funniest Home Videos?).

Very often, what we do when we are frustrated reveals the very core of our beliefs and temperament.  Think about the last time that you were frustrated.  What caused the frustration?  How did you deal with it?  What strengths did you use?  What weaknesses do you try to avoid?

This week, let's concentrate on our weaknesses--the hilarity that they can produce and the opportunities for improvement that they have provided!

Friday, April 26, 2013

New Week, New Voice

DISCLAIMER:  As always, the exercise suggested in this post is just that--a suggestion only.  If you have something you are working on, please keep going!  We're proud of you and your efforts and don't want to disrupt that!  But if you're stuck or bored, well, just consider the exercise and see if it helps you.

I've been talking about voice with people a lot this week--literally, figuratively, and in the Englishy writing-type way. 

Today, I am talking about voice as in "Who is telling me this story and how are they talking to me?"

Usually, when we write memoir, we write it from the first-person point of view, and most often our voice is the one we have now, at this moment, at this age of our lives.  This voice is all well and good, particularly since most of us have decided to tell this story from this point of view at this point in our lives.  But it can also be limiting.

Staying in our own voice sometimes closes our eyes and ears to the voices of others.

This week's assignment is to consider the voices of the others in your story.  You can do this many ways:
  • You can try telling a story from their point-of-view (being sure, of course, to throw in disclaimers that this is your perception and/or imagination of how they might have been feeling or thinking).
  • You can bring in aspects of their personality from other sources: excerpts of letters, pictures they took, songs they sang, routines they followed, food they ate, etc.
  • You can escape the pitfalls of entering another person's head by considering the point of view of a pet or an inanimate object (how did the desk feel when it knew you were chewing bubblegum?).
After all the work we have been doing in the past weeks, I hope this comes as a welcome relief!

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Ordinary

NOTE:  No class on Friday, March 29, 2013.  The next class will meet Friday, April 6, 2013.

Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying, "Drama is life with the boring bits cut out."

One of my sixth-grade teachers, Mr. Hellsley, often said, "There are no boring things, only boring people."

As a writer, I have come to the conclusion that (nearly) anything can be made to be either interesting (even watching paint dry!), especially when it's tied to something we know or can sense.

This week, our assignment is partially an incentive for us to use our new skills from Jamie's presentation on pictures in class and partially to get us used to including everyday details in our writing to reveal character.

Here are two quick examples/ideas:

1. Use a picture from a major event but use the discrepancy between the momentousness of the event and your own mundane actions to highlight your personality.


For example, this picture from our (3rd) wedding day (yes, same husband--long story) illustrates a milestone in life but also our day-to-day steps.  Even in his borrowed tuxedo, my husband needs to carry our (always) wailing second child while trying to find his parents, who had somehow (as often happens) gotten separated from us.  As usual I am smiling even though we're in the midst of mess like this--not sure where the family was, not certain where to go next, with one sick child and another bored out of his mind and properly bribed with a Power Rangers sword and candy, and talking.  I always smile and talk, no matter how I feel.  The occasion is what links us to many people--many people have been married or been to a wedding.  Our interactions--my talking, my husband's calling, my oldest son's sword play, and my youngest son's wailing--make us the people that we are and reveal our characters.

2.  Use a picture from something everyday but unfold your description in a story form.

For example, here's a picture of the living room after the kids have been into it.  There's so much I can say to let this story unfold.  I can tell the story from the point of view of the Play-Doh.  I could tell it as I'm cleaning up or as I watch it unfold.  I can tell it reminiscently as perhaps some of those messes are long gone.  Each item in this picture can be tied to the person that put it there and the way their action of putting rubs against someone else's (usually my) idea of order.

This week's assignment is to use photographs to tell one of these types of stories.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Okay, it's been so long since a post for this class that I'm ashamed to even apologize for it.  So I'm going to just skip the what's happening and get to the what can we be doing part.

And recently, we are looking at routine.

Looking at routine started because I'm thinking that we follow routines for two reasons:
  1. They are the default and we simply don't know another way (or don't care to know another way) of doing them; OR
  2. These are the things that have brought us joy in the past.  Doing things this way has made us happy before, and we are bargaining that it might do so again.  
When routine springs from hypothesis 2, then in some ways, it is the embodiment of hope.  And we could all use a little hope.

But even if routine springs from hypothesis 1, detailing a routine can show (not tell) you a whole lot about someone's personality, and that's what I'm hoping that you will find.

So this week's assignment (and maybe next week's too because I'm so behind), is to think about one of your routines and why or how you do it.  It may reveal something that comforted you and/or show us a glimpse of those who came before (for example, our tea drinking tradition in my family extends at least 3 generations back, and I suspect more.  I'm not drinking tea by myself; I'm drinking with great grandmothers).

To make the task more effective (harder), try doing some or all of the following:
  1. Avoid was/is and try more active verbs.
  2. See if you can avoid dialogue in just this piece and see if you can show us your thoughts/your characters thoughts through their actions.
  3. Consider using the senses and intelligences to get us into the scene.  See http://livesinletters.blogspot.com/2013_01_01_archive.html for a reminder on that if you need one.
Best wishes, and I can't wait to hear what you've written!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Practical and Impractical

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I just want to thank you for your patience.  The last two weeks have been long, and I was not productive--unless you call healing productive, which I guess is something.

Anyway, in the midst of my un-productivity, I watched a lot of shows, read a book or so, and came to a conclusion about something that I've been mulling over:  what hooks you on a book.

Now, I'm going to stop and say in no uncertain terms something that will seem completely sacrilegious to anyone who's been reading about writing in the last 50 years.


Not the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, or the first fifty pages.

Instead, I'm going to talk about something that seems to me much more fundamental.  And that is, for a book or story of any sort to really succeed, there must come a point in which the reader must know how it ends and puts it down only under duress.

 For me, at least, I am willing to give a book a little time to grow on me, and I think that most readers are the same.  The amount of time we give varies by reader.  I think most editors, possibly by virtue of the sheer number of submissions they get, put manuscripts and books down rather quickly.  Those who don't sincerely love books probably put them back after the first few pages (possibly less) unless they are hooked. Even those who adore books only persist so long.  I often give books 25-50 pages, noting last week that I didn't really get into the most recent book of one of my favorite authors until page 52.  But then something strange happened.  Somewhere around page 130, I couldn't put that book down.  When I did put it down, I was annoyed at whoever had come between my book and me. I just had to finish that book.  And I realized that that's how most of the books I read are.  To be honest, I have quit reading many books in the middle because they fail to pick up speed.  If I do finish, it's because the book starts to bolt forward.

And so, I'd like us just to think about why this is.  Do you have the same experience, or is it just me?  What would help us achieve this drive?  Should we start at the end?  Should we severely edit the end of the book in order to improve the rhythm?  I'm not really sure.

This week's assignment, then, will explore this concept.  I have two potential ideas:
  1. Write a story about your life beginning at the end and moving forwards (in other words, write your last sentence first and slowly build forward).
  2. Write a story about reading a book that was truly important to you.  Instead of writing an essay, write a story.  Don't tell me what the book's about, tell me about how you got hooked.  Tell me about why you kept reading.  Tell me why you read it a second or third time.
 Can't wait to see what we find out!   

Friday, February 8, 2013

When You're Too Tired

I know I've talked about this before, but I'm going to put the easy stories into a new perspective.

No one thinks it is a weakness to eat a meal.  No one considers it a weakness to sleep from time to time.  Runners take breaks and drink water.  Weight lifting routines require breaks for the muscles to recover.

Similarly, writers can't stare down the devil every moment of every day and expect to be okay.  There will come times that story writing with get you down, down, very, very down.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a time for staring down the devil, for taking all of those terrible emotions and committing them to the page, or for delving through those less-than-comforting memories of the past.  There absolutely is--just like there's a time for fasting, all-nighters, marathons, and weight-lifting regimes.  But you can't do it twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.

Simply put, you must take a break, or you will burn out.

More than that, you don't want to simply take a break from writing.  Instead, you want to associate writing with something positive, something fun, something refreshing to your soul.  Furthermore, even though you want to take a break, you want your break to stretch you.


Think of it like a vacation.  Many vacations are both fun and edifying (and by edifying, I mean stretching.  You don't need to go to the Smithsonian on your vacation to learn something).

So how do you take a writing vacation, particularly in memoir? (My examples are in the hollow bullets.)
  • First, think of joy or peace or any other good, refreshing feeling you have had.
    • refreshing, surprise, laughter
  • Locate one particular instance in which that feeling manifested itself.
    • My first date with my husband
  • Put that part on paper.
    • DH drove from Daegu to Cheongju.  I had gotten lost on the way home from church and so I was late meeting him.  He was sweating to beat the band because he'd agreed to wear a red sweatshirt so I would know who he was but it was about 85 degrees that day.  I saw him, waved, and immediately fell over a hole in the sidewalk.  The whole date went like that.
  • Next, think about some type of writing or expression you've always loved but have never dared to try (or one that you haven't tried in a while)--it could be poetry, song lyrics, visual poetry, emoticons, a short story, a fairy tale--any kind of genre you've always wanted to play with.
    • I'd love to try to write this date/marriage to the tune/structure of Harry Chapin's "Cat in the Cradle."  I've never been able to thread narrative, allusion, and dialogue together like that, and I love it.
  • Think carefully about what type of structure that genre has and what information you need about your instance to create one of those stories.
    • I need (1) the narrative for the verses; (2) the allusions; (3) the dialogue; and most importantly (4) THE POINT!
  • Collect that information.
    • You'll have to wait till next week for that.  But you get the picture.
  • Try to put it together.
Don't worry if it isn't perfect.  Perfect isn't the point.  Rest, stretching, and pulling out the positive emotions is the point. 

Facing down the stuff that shaped us, the stuff that bent us, and the stuff that made us who we are is important, healthy, and cathartic.  It is also exhausting.  We need emotional restoration as well. 

PS - If you say restoration stands in the way of finishing, I have only two arguments.  First, if you're too emotionally spent to finish, then you're not getting anywhere anyway.  Secondly, it's very hard for anyone to read a memoir of unrelenting hardship. Even the saddest stories have bright spots.  And those bright spots throw even more emphasis on the dark ones, creating greater interest and impact.  So go for it!  Take a break!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Earning It

Over the last month or so, we've been talking about projects--getting them done, making them unified, facing obstacles in our paths, and setting intermediate goals.

Today is going to be a more contemplative post about memoir, sharing, and the writing process.
"i ain't gonna tell you" she said and turned her head
"ain't gonna tell me what" i asked
"what you asking me you gotta live to be seventy-nine
fore you could understand anyhow"
"now you being uppity" i said
"yeah but i earned it" ...
                                ~ Nikki Giovanni, from "Conversation"
My verses have "touches of truth in them"  ~ James Laughlin, from "Death Lurches Toward Me"
"Your job is not to judge your characters, no matter how despicable or wonderful they may be.  Your job is to lay out what happens, as clearly and dispassionately as possible, show how it affects the protagonist, and then get the hell out of the way." ~ Lisa Cron, from Wired for Story
Memoir and fiction share many aspects:  story arc, vivid description, a reliance on characterization.  But they also differ in an important aspect:  Memoirs are true, and we want to hear the writer's opinion.  You do not need to be dispassionate, but, like Nikki Giovanni's old woman, you need to earn your wisdom in the eye of your reader.

Our goal this week is to recognize the point that we want to make at story's end and make sure that we have put in enough hints, action, and vivid evidence to justify the insight we choose to share (or maybe more appropriately, unveil) at the end.

How do you do that?
  1. Make sure the conflict of your story is directly related to your point.
  2. Show as much of all sides of the issue as possible.  Be sure to use your senses and the intelligences discussed in the last post.
  3. Order how (and when) you unveil that information.
  4. Make each step close.  Use dialogue, rhythm, and paragraphing to emphasize your point.
  5. Reveal your point of view with subtlety but finality.
I'm going to post this now just to get it up, but check back later in the week for expansion of the points above.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Small Projects as Practice

Okay, now I am in no way suggesting that you should put away your long memoir plans or anything like that, but skill-building and practice has been a theme that I've been pondering since November when Nicki Grimes talked about writing her book Bronx Masquerade.  In essence, she suggested that sometimes we're not ready to write our most important stories (haven't we just been talking about this very issue?) but that as we attack other stories, we become better equipped to write the ones we are most anxious to tell.

We've been talking about recognizing who we are and how we've changed and translating that into memoir, story arc, etc.  And we've also been talking about how hard that pivotal story is.

We also talked about setting intermediate goals and small projects to stay on track with our larger goals and bigger projects.  Selecting and executing these intermediate goals and smaller projects is what I want to talk about today.

  1. Select a change in yourself or an important realization/epiphany that you have made in your life that has (a) changed you; (b) changed the way someone important to you views you; or (c) changed the way you interact with the world.
  2. Elaborate:  Why is this change important to you?  How have you/others changed?  
  3. Establish a baseline.  How did things operate before this change?
  4. Pinpoint the change.  What was the exact moment that the change happened?  Ignore Howard Gardner's assertion that all change is gradual and consider Kathryn Schulz's idea that we never experience wrongness while we are wrong. 

    What I mean is this:  Every time there is a change, yes, subtle shifts occur beforehand that prepare us to question our beliefs and practices and lead us to believing and acting differently.  Truly, Howard Gardner is right.  All cognitive change is gradual.  However, Kathryn Schulz is also right, and her description of change is the one that most of us experience and that best translates to story.  Yes, all of those subtle shifts do happen, but most of us are only aware of them in retrospect.  In other words, we don't know that we are changing our minds until our minds have changed.  We may not come to a solid conclusion, but we begin actively distancing ourselves from what we were/did before.  This is the moment that we are looking for.  It will serve as the pivot of the story.
  5. Paint the picture. (More on this momentarily).
  6. Put it all together.
When you attack steps 5 and 6, you actually need to revisit steps 2-4 and lay out your evidence.  This time, I want you not to think of the evidence that we think of for essays.  I don't want you to think of historical fact, special dates, or famous quotes of others.  I want you to translate those to story items like this:
  • Historical facts → Vivid descriptions of the way things were ("Mama always baked a pie crust using lard instead of butter," etc.)
  • Special dates → Vivid descriptions of pivotal days (Think of the smell and lighting that you remember when your husband proposed.)
  •  Famous quotes of others →Your exact thoughts and words (or the best that you can approximate)
Once you have a list of evidence, you need to make it vivid.  We've talked about vividness before but essentially, these are the main points:
  • Incorporate the senses:  Mama always baked a pie crust using lard instead of butter.
    • sight:  Mama always baked a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter.
    • sound:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter.
    • touch:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of soft white lard instead of cold hard butter.
    • taste:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter, and my mouth would begin to water for the flaky pastry that I knew would surround an even more succulent filling.
    • scent:  I always knew from the first thunk of the rolling pin that Mama was baking a pie crust using copious globs of white lard instead of butter, and, as the tart fruit scent of baking fruit mingled with the aroma of golden wheat, my mouth would begin to water for the flaky pastry that I knew would surround an even more succulent filling.
  • Incorporate the intelligences.  Mama always baked a pie crust using lard instead of butter.
    • linguistic:  You're writing, so don't worry about this now.
    • visual/spatial:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.
    • inter/intra-personal:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad.
    • musical:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.
    • logical/mathematical:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.
    • bodily/kinesthetic:  When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with lard and not butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.
Now, you need to apply the emotion.  I am running out of time here, but very quickly, you would do this by including physical descriptions of your thoughts and feelings.  See the bolded sections below.

When I heard the thud in the bottom corner of the kitchen, I knew Mama was digging for the rolling pin and her pie crust, made with copious globs of soft white lard instead of cold hard butter, was sure to follow.  I knew to stay out of the kitchen.  Mama only rolled pie crusts when she was good and mad. Listening hard, I could gauge her anger by the tempo of the thud-whoosh noises as she brought the pin down on the near side of the dough and applied pressure across the surface.  I held my breath, debating first if I might have caused this anger (and what the best escape route to avoid meeting Mama was) and just how long she might stay mad.  The tension in my shoulders would slowly ease as the silence between thuds lengthened and the movement of the pie pan changed from sharp metallic clangs to slow heavy scrapings.  As the tart fruit scent of baking fruit mingled with the aroma of golden wheat, my mouth would begin to water for the flaky pastry that I knew would surround an even more succulent filling.  I poked my head around the corner to catch more sounds and wondered if it was safe to descend into the kitchen.  After all, I didn't want to miss my chance of catching the first slice of hot cherry pie.

I have not used precise words for my emotions (although I clearly labelled Mama's), but I think that the narrator's emotions--apprehension, hope, and anticipation--come through in the descriptions.

Your job is to complete a smaller story or series of stories using these strategies to prepare yourself for your bigger story/larger goal.