Sep 072016
 
Teachers who made a difference picture of teacher

Do you remember a few names of teachers who made a difference in your life?

Remember the excitement of back-to-school? Getting your teacher assignments, supplies, figuring out if your best buddies were in the same class as you? Wondering if you’d like the teacher? Years (decades) later, we remember a few of those teachers who made a difference. For good or for bad.

That’s a universal experience. It bonds us—just like the memory of the smell of mimeograph paper and the feel of the paper-bag book covers for those of us that went to school in the 60s and 70s. Continue reading »

Aug 252016
 

Culture Clashes and generation gaps through photos Culture Clashes. They happen among nations, ethnic groups, and generations. Sadly, culture clashes also occur among families. Heritages or upbringings collide. Differing values splinter relationships.

Personal memory collectors, memoirists, and family storytellers all struggle with whether or not to tell the unhappy, unflattering, or  embarrassing tales. Continue reading »

Jul 292016
 
Fears our Ancestors faced in the Dance of Death

The “Dance of Death” stained glass windows in the Bern, Switzerland Munster give a graphic illustration of the fears our ancestors faced.

Understanding the fears our ancestors faced can help us understand their lives. That, in turn, can help us tell their stories. Although it’s hard to know from the meager records we unearth whether an ancestor was an introvert or adventurer, we can form some theories based on historical context. We can also get a better grasp on their everyday lives. Continue reading »

Jul 212016
 
Reunions are stories of family

Relatives, In-laws, or friends, reunions are a great place to restore relationships and recover faded memories.

Until last weekend, I had forgotten how poignant reunions can be. Whether it’s family, school, or something else, reunions allow you to reconnect with the past. Not only are they great places to re-color some of those faded memories, they refresh the soul. Continue reading »

Jul 082016
 
Invisible illnesses and daily pills

Chronic and invisible illnesses can separate from family members that need to hear our stories

If you’re like me, chronic and invisible illnesses come towards the bottom of the list of things you’d like to write about yourself. It’s not just immersing yourself in the negativity. Although the term “invisible illness” applies “to any medical condition that is not outwardly visible to others,” according to Social Work Today, some illnesses (heart disease, cancer) seem to generate support from loved ones, while others leave sufferers socially isolated.

Many with invisible illnesses frequently encounter people who, although they’ve never had a license to practice medicine feel beholden to second guess other people’s health status or dispense dismissive medical advice. Continue reading »

Jun 162016
 
Truth and Accuracy scrabble tiles

How do you deal with the elusiveness of truth and accuracy in memories and family stories?

The fallibility of memory can make truth and accuracy hard to come by. Competing versions of the same stories—the same memories—dance and whorl around family tables every get together. One person remembers it was a Sunday in July. A sibling insists it was in October and a Sunday.

How do you decide which version is true? What details are accurate? Perhaps a better question is how do you decide if the details of the story are worth fighting about.

Often the answer lies in understanding the difference between truth and accuracy as well as your own role as storyteller.

Truth versus Accuracy Continue reading »

May 132016
 
Lost and found story- letters spelling out Lost

What’s your lost and found story. (Letter images by Leo Reynolds. https://is.gd/LU27zB)

“How could we have lost something so precious?” my friend lamented to her husband. Dusk approached. She, her husband, and various friends had searched throughout much of the previous night and all that day for their elderly little dog that had wandered off.  Their story is still unconcluded and it’s hard to watch it unfold.  But it made me think. We all have at least one major lost and found story.

Perhaps it’s a lost object that still sticks in your craw. Perhaps you’ve had an experience analogous to the finding the prodigal son.

Writing about things lost and found

Whether there’s a happy ending or not, stories of things lost or lost and found make compelling narratives.  In fact, such stories are easy to find all over the Internet.

Most of us have been there. For instance, there was the 10 minutes during which my then 5-year old was missing at the Salt Lake City airport. I can still remember the panic I felt and the way that I wanted to strangle the slow-to-take-it seriously airport security guard.

Elements of your lost and found story:

1. What went missing? (duh)
Object, person, pet, or other.  It may have simply disappeared or was stolen.  Wallet, military metal, vacation or wedding pictures all come to mind, but you can take a creative twist on this topic.  One example is Kannaki’s “My Mother’s Shoes.”

2. Why did it matter to you?
This could be obvious, such as in the case of a five year-old, but it isn’t always. Perhaps the crucifix that went missing had been passed down from your grandmother, a life-long devoted Catholic. Perhaps it had brought you comfort on numerous occasions.

3. How did you discover it (he or she) was missing?

4. How did you feel about it at the time? What was your state of mind?
In the case of my friend, her word choices are telling.  The rest of us consider her little dog as “gone missing.” We use a blameless phrase. Repeatedly, I’ve heard her say, “I lost my little dog.” She’s shouldering the responsibility, way more than she should.  What happened in your story? Did you feel responsible? Victimized?

5. What measures did you take? Posters? Letters? Flyers? A reward?

6. Who helped you search? Were they actually helpful?
I can’t help remembering that security guard blithely pointing out every young boy in plain sight.  “Is that him?”  “What about that child?”  Me nearly yelling, “Get on your radio!  None of these children are wearing a dark blue shirt with a rhino on it!”

7. How did the story turn out?
Of course you have to of the outcome. But that doesn’t have to be the way the story ends.  Instead, you can talk about silver linings, what you learned, any insight that might be applicable to the rest of your life.

8. How do you feel looking back?
We can often reconcile ourselves to events only after time has passed.  For instance, after my parents died, my sister and I were never able to locate my father’s wedding ring, which he kept on his key-chain.  It used to keep me up at night, wondering what clever hiding place he thought he’d found shortly before he took his trip. But over time, hope has diminished. After all, it was a material thing. I’ve made an uneasy peace with the loss.  What about you?

Your Turn:

What your lost and found story? How have you told it? How have you shared it?

 

May 042016
 

A time for change quote A time for change often hits us from behind. The change is either inevitable or beyond our control. I’ll confront such a time on Mother’s Day when I watch my eldest son walk across the stage at his college commencement ceremony. A lot of things will be commencing, including his job search and our wrapping our heads around the fact that he won’t be coming home to roost any longer.

Adjusting to change

Those times in which we adjust to a new normal are important to write about. Tell the story of what happened and whether or not you were prepared for the change.  Did you embrace your new role or did you grieve for the past?

Was it (or is it) a slow change that you saw coming from years away?  Aging, ravages of chronic disease, and kids growing up too fast all come to mine.  How did you try to prepare yourself? Did you put your head in the sand until you had no choice but face reality or did you obsessively research, read books, and consult friends?

Sometimes drastic life changes sneak up on us. We get a phone call and hear of the change—a fait accompli.  (I hope if this happened to you it was for winning a lottery.)

In Handbook of Stressful Transitions Across the Lifespan, T.W. Miller writes, “Life transitions can provide a productive time to introspectively understand ourselves.”  These transitions also bring an opportunity to explain ourselves to others.

Was life suddenly divided into a before and after as surely as if that date was tattooed upon your forehead?  How did you deal with the shock?  Looking back now, how do you feel about the before? What have you learned about moving forward?

Time for a change

Sometimes we come to a realization that it’s time to make a change. We’ve stagnated. Screwed up. We’re looking for a new beginning or have gathered up the gumption to pursue a dream.  Such changes don’t always come easily.  Pulling ourselves off of our current path and onto a new one can be excruciating. For instance, checking into rehab to begin a life of recovery often takes hitting rock bottom first. Other times, accepting change can mean voluntarily kissing a lot of things that you love goodbye, such as moving to a new place or starting a new career. Going back to being the new kid on the block.

Small Changes

A time for change doesn’t have to be huge to make a significant story. I love remembering how my Dad decided to stop smoking right after he met his grandson for the first time. Longevity suddenly mattered.

There are changes we all make for the better—learning to be more accepting of people, more forgiving. We mellow with age. That mellowing makes a great story.

Your Turn: A time for Change

When have you experienced a time for change in your life? Have you written about it?

Apr 222016
 
Make stories relevant show emotions

When you make your family stories relevant, they pull at the heart strings of your readers.

There’s a point to sharing ancestors’ stories—or at least there should be. Educate. Connect. Inspire.  That happens best when you’re able to make family stories relevant.

I could share a detailed tale about my grandmother, one that includes every bit of historical minutiae that I’ve been able to find. But why would you want to read that? She’s my grandmother, not yours. If I want you to read them—I need to make my family stories relevant to you, the reader. I need to make you care.

Making stories relevant has very little to do with spinning (or citing) an extraordinary tale. It has more to do with revealing the humanity within that narrative. Shauna Niequist writes:

I’m less and less interested in the ruminations of a scholar and more and more compelled by stories with grit and texture and blood and guts and humanity. I’m compelled by stories from everyday people whose lives sound a lot more like mine than the stories of superstars and high achievers…

How do you make your family stories relevant?

How do you make your characters pull at their descendants’(your readers) heart-strings?  How do you achieve that “there but for the grace of God, there go I” type of feeling?

The American Press Institute explains that we care most about those things that affect us. Just as we care more about the local forecast than the one across the country, our hearts are more likely to go out to a local family or a relative than a stranger several states away.

The article, Good Stories Prove their Relevance to the Audience, suggests making the ‘common ‘proximity’ of interests and emotions of the story clear. That works particularly well for those of us trying to make our family stories relevant.

The reader may identify with a range of life experiences, from the emotional shock of losing a job or worrying about a sick child to mundane tasks like the weekly trip to the grocery store or filling the car with gas…

How was your family member or ancestor relatable?  Was he in constant fear of not being able to provide for his children? Was she a mother that had buried children? Husbands? A reluctant matriarch?

Give your readers a passport into the past.

Help your readers understand why they would want visit the foreign soils of the past. Encourage them to use their imagination. What would it be like to live in that time period? What would family members be like if they lived in modern times? What would it have been like to have them as a friend? A grandparent? How would you have managed in their circumstances?

Write about decisions and circumstances.

Part of making a story relatable comes through promoting understanding through the setting. Not just that it was a sunny day in 1893, but by highlighting social context. What might the family dream for a little girl born that year? Today we dream that a daughter might be President. Back in 1893, many parents simply hoped that the child would survive past age five. Women didn’t have many rights. Perhaps they dreamed of a desirable spouse and a comfortable standard of living. Bring those universal human hopes into your story.

Often, we’re limit our stories to the dates of death and birth. What decisions did the person make? What choices did they have? What obstacles did they face? What resilience did they show throughout their lives?

Your connection matters

Let’s face it. If you have no personal connection to the person you’re writing about, you can’t really expect your readers to connect to him or her either. As you start your family story, think why did you like, love, or admire that person? Why did they matter to you? Why does their story matter?

Is there little something about them that makes them more relatable? More human?  (Read Sneaky Grandma.)

Your Turn

How have you made your family stories relevant to your readers?

Apr 072016
 
Time to take a stand with three people

There sometimes comes a time when keeping peace feels dishonest; it’s time to take a stand.

We want our memories and family stories to be warm and inviting. We want to welcome family into our lives—into our past—through our narratives.  Which is as it should be. But (you knew there was a but coming) that can mute us when it comes to issues that weigh heavily on our hearts and mind. Because not all our family members see things the same way, we self-censure, leaving out anything that is divisive. We don’t share the parts of ourselves that might alienate.

It’s like the old rule about not talking about religion and politics at the table. It keeps the peace, because it keeps anyone at the table from feeling marginalized.  We can focus on our commonalities, our friendship or familial love, without anyone feeling challenged.

Family Peace versus Honesty

Sometimes there comes a time when keeping your stance to yourself becomes—or feels—dishonest. You’re hiding something that you’re passionate about. You’re choking back hurt or offense on a regular basis.

Of course, only you can determine when it’s time to take a stand. You’re the only one in a position to determine if it’s worth crossing that line. You might choose deep breathing over a sparring match or negotiating a minefield of hurt feelings and estrangement.

When it’s Time to Take a Stand

My friend Bobby Ivory likes to say that meaningful discourse needs to “bring more light than heat.”  In other words, enlighten others without putting them on the defensive.  Not easy, I know, but worth the effort.

Writing allows you the luxury of ranting and raging to get your feeling onto paper, then editing those feelings into something you want to share with others. Something that will promote understanding. Insert your “I messages.”  Delete the accusations.

Using Stories to Take a Stand

Storytelling becomes the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitterest of medicine (or reality) go down. Not just in a metaphoric way. The cool people who study neuroscience have found that storytelling allows the listeners’ brain to process stories much differently than they do facts or debates. (Read The Science Behind Storytelling.)

Explain why you’re taking a stand

Please understand it's time to take a stand

Stories can promote understanding

Normally, when you tell your stories, you have the luxury of a friendly, captured audience. You’re ‘preaching to the choir.’ That’s not always the case when you take a stand.  Part of the art of persuasion is to invest your audience in your story. You can do that by explaining why you feel you have to take a stand.

You can even use a third person voice or example, if you don’t want to make the conversation a me-versus-you argument. For instance, if you’re opposed to North Carolina House Bill 2 (full disclosure, I am), you might tell the story of your good friend who is now uncomfortable traveling through the state and how you came to understand his or her situation. A simple rest stop becomes an anxiety attack. Perhaps he or she wonders why private decisions can’t simply remain private without having to suffer the humiliation of visiting an alternative restroom.

Touch hearts and imagination

Touch your readers’ hearts and imaginations by using sensory-rich examples that will help them envision your stance. For instance, when my sons asked why restrooms have to be gender specific in the first place, I tried to explain to them all the things that women do in bathrooms that are completely unrelated to relieving themselves. Since they claim I ruined dinner that day by talking about “adjusting the girls,” I figure I inspired their imaginations. (Apparently they think girls just do a super-thorough job of washing their hands and come out looking fabulous.)

Writing demeanor

When we speak, our body language helps us communicate. We can use open gestures, smiles, and friendly eye-contact to put listeners at ease. That’s harder in writing. As you write and edit, try to put yourself in your readers’ place. What turn of phrases would you use in speech to put them at ease?  How would you acknowledge and de-escalate their discomfiture? Incorporate those verbal tics into your writing.

Your Turn

When did you decide it was time to take a stand? How did that affect your story? How did you write (say) your piece?