May 192015
Laugh at yourself

Whether or not everyone else is laughing at you, “Laugh at yourself” makes for great writing.

That misquote from B.J. Neblett didn’t go over so well with my mom when my Dad said it to her in the mid-sixties. Mom had a great sense of humor, but she didn’t like being teased. I often wonder if it’s because my uncle Joe teased her so much when they were young. Or was it her reaction to teasing that made it so much fun for my uncle to tease her? I digress.

This not-so-gentle nudge to laugh at yourself is good life advice. But, it’s more than that. In my opinion, it borders on a memory writer’s and family historian’s imperative.

The story in question when my dad encouraged my mom to “lighten up” was about the only time (to my knowledge) that Mom received a “ticket,” or traffic citation.

Mom was cited for passing a stopped school bus.

This was, in her view, a case of mistaken identity or police hallucination. There was no way that she, a law abiding citizen, substitute elementary school teacher, and trained social worker would pass a stopped school bus. Righteously indignant, Mom and her passenger (her friend Nell) went to court to assert her innocence. She took it as a personal affront when the judge dismissed her appeal of the police officer’s charge.

“Lady, I don’t think you would have seen the bus if it were pink with purple polka dots!” he told her in front of the court.

Much to Mom and Nell’s chagrin, the rest of the world found the judge’s words—and delivery—hilarious. And, I admit, Daddy’s “Lighten up” was tinged with more than a little gloat and was probably badly timed.

 Laugh at yourself as you write.

“Laugh at yourself” is good advice. If you read this blog, you know I’m a big advocate of avoiding perfection—or appearances thereof. Though “Authentic” is a buzzword now, it’s true that authentic people are easier to relate to. You connect with your loved ones when you drop all pretenses. When you laugh at yourself, you engage your readers or listeners. We’ve all been there, we can imagine ourselves in your situation.

Mom wasn’t so comfortable hearing my dad tell stories on her that depicted her in a bad light. She’d much rather tell them herself. Which is also a valuable take-away.

 Tell Your Version.

Grab the reigns and tell the story yourself. If people are going to laugh at you, you might as well have them laugh with you, or at your storytelling. If you feel uncomfortable, imagine you’re explaining the situation to a trusted confidant.

And don’t shy away from a story that family members have heard before. Chances are, they’ve only heard a version of it, but not your version! As you tell your story, you can include the back story and important details.

In my mother’s case, perhaps folks heard that Ellen and Nell were driving down the highway, so engrossed in their gossiping that they didn’t even notice a stopped school bus. But, if Mom had a chance to tell the story, it might unfold differently.

I would love to have a chance to ask her how her testimony as well as the police officer’s testimony unfolded. Did she tell her story first? Was there a sinking realization that she was wrong even before the judge issued his “pink with purple polka dots” decree? Was the judge laughing with her and Nell or was he sarcastic?

If she were telling the story, I’d know these facts. (She probably did, but hearing it as a little girl, my memory only clung on to the purple polka dot part and how mad she was at Daddy for gloating.) Sadly, she never wrote it down!

Family Historians’ Takeway.

For family historians, the “laugh at yourself” adage has further implications. If at all possible, we want to tell the story from the embarassee’s viewpoint.

First, it appears kinder. We’re not gloating, at least not publicly. For instance, since my mom’s not around to tell her version, I have to throw in the part about her normally being a careful driver. And, I even toy with adding in the defense that her friend was an animated and engaging conversationalist. I spent many hours in the back seat as Mom and Nell drove here and there. I can still hear Nell’s voice in my memory, her soft southern accent rolling from emphatic to indignant to hilarity in the space of a few sentences.

Secondly, it’s a better, more engaging story. Adopting the embarassee’s viewpoint goes hand-in-hand with all sorts of great storytelling techniques. Setting. Characterization. Timing.

 Your Turn

Go ahead. Laugh at yourself. If everyone else isn’t already, it’s because you haven’t told the right stories.

What stories have you left untold? (Comments please! I’d love to hear them.)

May 112015
My mom birthday party genius

My mom the birthday party genius

Why Mom wanted to make my dreams come true and what that has to do with a birthday party.

A Mother’s Day Tribute: This mother’s day I decided to practice what I blog and write down one of my favorite memories of my mom.

The day of my Cinderella birthday party seems like a fairy-tale. That is if a story without separation of a family, drama, conflict, and drama can qualify as a fairy-tale.

I’m guessing it was my 7th birthday. Mom didn’t have a big budget, but she made up for it in enthusiasm. And she did it without Pinterest!

The cake was Cinderella’s coach turned back into a pumpkin—a Bundt cake iced orange with a green banana serving as the stem. Mom drew Cinderella on poster board, and, instead of the traditional birthday party “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” we played “Pin the Slipper on Cinderella’s Foot.” To my eyes, Mom’s Cinderella was just a beautiful—if not more so, than Disney’s Cinderella.

We girls wore “dress up” clothes, not to be confused with dress clothes. Whatever castaway slips, dresses, et cetera we could find or borrow from our mothers’ closets. Cinderella’s magic—or should I say Mom’s birthday party magic—turned us into princesses. Of course, our shoes didn’t fit. They didn’t have to. It was a Cinderella party.

Our banquet hall was the backyard. A paper table-cloth adorned the picnic table.

Years later, as I threw an over-the-top Harry Potter birthday party for my son, I realized that mom was not just indulging her daughter. She was celebrating her own dreams coming true. Growing up, she didn’t always have enough to eat, much less her own pair of shoes. Her childhood household was filled with love, but short on material things.

As a mother, she endeavored to do all the things her mother did, like stretching resources and filling the day with laughter. But she also tried to do the things that were beyond her own mother’s means, like throw an “extravagant” party with a Bundt cake, poster board Cinderella and paper table-cloth.

Her own glass slipper finally fit.

Your Turn: Write about a birthday party

Did you have a special birthday celebration as a child? Have you written about it? What are you waiting for?

May 062015
Emotional furniture of your memories of your first home

As you write about memories of your first home (or any other place), include some emotional furniture.

When I first heard the prompt “Write about your memories of your first home,” my first reaction was, “Oh yeah, write about the place I can’t remember.” I wasn’t alone. The woman next to me offered aloud, “My first home after I got married?” She grew up as a military brat. She couldn’t even remember the number of home she had lived in, much less any details about the first one.

Of course, she was right. There’s several ways to adapt this prompt into something that will resonate with you and your readers. The point is to get your memories to paper and to connect with others through your stories. For instance, in addition to writing about your actual first home, Continue reading »

Apr 162015
Author Judith Fein emotional genealogy

Author Judith Fein writes about emotional genealogy

Today, I’m particularly pleased to present a guest post by Judith Fein and her concept of emotional genealogy.

When I gave my first talk about the power of Emotional Genealogy, I wondered if anyone would be able to connect to what I was speaking about. To my surprise, audience members asked questions for over an hour, and then they continued with personal questions for another half an hour.

You may be wondering what Emotional Genealogy is. Briefly, it involves examining how the behaviors of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents influenced who we are and how we are in the world. And it doesn’t matter if we knew them or not. Continue reading »

Apr 102015
Write about average and it comes alive

When you write about average, others look at the details and see something a lot more compelling than simply “average”.

Average gets a bad rap. Well, not so much a bad rap as not enough rap. We seldom hear about him or her.

For instance, you never see Average’s mom post about his achievements on Facebook. “Congratulations to my son Average who achieved something that most kids achieve.” Instead, we see the parents of Average’s friends posting about their kids achieving all the things Average tried to achieve, but fell just a tad short. “Congratulations to my child Superior who achieved something momentous. My kid is wonderful beyond belief and worked so hard. #mykidisintheroomwithme #Imjustanattentionwhore.”

Okay, the hashtags are imagined, put in my head by a hilarious teenager. (I’m withholding her name to protect the snarky.) But the post isn’t imagined. Its equivalent passes through our news feeds on a regular basis. Continue reading »

Apr 032015
Are you a cousin? Are you related to AJ Jacobs

At RootsTech, we all held up “I am a cousin” signs. We’re all related to AJ–and to each other! (Photo credit RootsTech)

Because it’s not really about AJ and me. It’s about the fact that we’re all related—by blood, adoption, and marriage. Well, in a way it’s about AJ, since he’s the one organizing the Global Family Reunion. Continue reading »

Mar 312015
Going back in a Holodeck

Going back via a mental Holodeck

We all know that going back home isn’t an option. But a girl can dream.

Last week, as the plane approached Greenville-Spartanburg (South Carolina) International Airport, the sight of red clay gave me a twinge. Home beckoned like a taunt. “Come back… Oh yeah. I forgot… You can’t.”

In my defense, I’m not trying to go back. I’m here to live in the present. To spend time with the people I love now. But, however much my intellect knows that going back isn’t possible, it can’t control my heart. The past, unbidden, beckons in my psyche. Continue reading »

Mar 122015
Writing with you heart on your sleeve

Writing with your heart on your sleeve helps your readers to connect with you. And that’s what it’s all about, right?

One of the most rewarding parts of sharing your memories and stories is those moments when the big picture comes alive. When you see in someone’s reaction that you connected. Writing with your heart on your sleeve increases the likelihood of that happening.

The memory collector has a different role than the average narrator. You’re part of the story. You add context. When you expose your more vulnerable side, you allow readers to see the world through your glasses.

It comes down to building trust with your readers—your loved ones. The better they know you, the more they will trust your vision—your filter—of the stories you’re telling. More importantly, writing with your heart on your sleeve helps form that palpable the connection with your readers. Continue reading »

Feb 052015

Old cousins welcome new ones A new cousin discovered me recently–through  We share the same great-great-grandfather. “Sounds like we’re cousins,” he wrote. “How cool is that?”

Very cool, in fact. Finding new cousins through family history research is an undeniable rush.

His contact once again brought home the value of a family “treasure chest.” Once again, the beauty of my grandmother’s “Treasure Chest of Memories” washed over me and amazed me. Continue reading »

Jan 192015
The rest of the story is missing

Stories are not meant to start or end in the middle.

Readers complain when they finish a book and the author hasn’t provided them with a series. They want to know how life continues for the characters. But that’s not the only time we’re missing the rest of the story. We miss it every time a stranger waltzes into our lives and touches us in some way, then quickly exits.

I used to love listening to Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story radio vignettes. His ability to take a fact that we all knew—took for granted even—and present it with renewed and fresh meaning captured my imagination. It even altered my teenage know-it-all Weltanschau a little too. Continue reading »