Jul 292015
Selective reading of history -- words crossed out

Is there a selective reading of history in your family? How do you deal with it?

As southerners have debated whether the Confederate flag represents hate or heritage, several articles have addressed the idea of a “selective reading of history.” Which is, when you think about it, something families are really good at doing.

A selective reading of history isn’t quite a revision of what happened. It’s an intentional focus on some facts and a brushing-under-the-rug of other events. As storytellers, we play a role in selecting what’s told and what’s kept mum. Admittedly, sometimes the selective reading of history is appropriate. There’s a “truth” of the story that needs to come through loud and clear, unobscured by complicating details and the noise of side stories

However, other times, those of us recounting the family’s history slowly become aware of the crumbs lurking under the carpet. We feel uncomfortable as we sense them crunching under the family footfalls. Continue reading »

Jul 022015
Hometown context - a graphic of houses along a river

Adding hometown context can help your stories come to life

Your hometown comes to represent much more than the place you grew up. It’s your version of your state and country.

When we write about family members, ancestors, or ourselves, it’s important to give readers a glimpse of that hometown context. It helps explain worldview, values, and traditions. It helps them understand the personalities involved in our stories.

For instance, my hometown still colors my perception and understanding of events, even though I’ve now lived away from South Carolina as long as I lived there. It’s part of me. Though I’ve lived in the mid-west for over twenty years, I still consider myself a southerner. Continue reading »

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! Continue reading »

Feb 242015
Lighthouse moments of clarity

Like a lighthouse guiding ships, friends can help us find moments of clarity.

Life lessons are theoretically wisdom we’ve gleaned by doing things the hard way. At some point along our journey of colliding with reality, we arrive at an “ah-ha” moment. Explaining how you gained moments of clarity is a great way to connect with loved ones. (See also my book, Lessons Learned and Are You Older and Wiser?).

However you received your moments of clarity, the circumstances come back to you whenever you’re confronted with a similar situation. If you’re like me (and in this instance for your sake, I kind of hope you’re not), sometimes you come out of an experience with a lot more sleepless hours of fog, bewilderment, and what-iffing, than moments of clarity. Sometimes it takes a good friend, confidant, spouse, or therapist to help us deconstruct. Continue reading »

Jul 312014
How much detail brush strokes

Just like paint brush selection effects artwork, how much detail you include in your story changes how readers digest it.

Writing with Detail versus Boring Your Audience

How do you find the balance of writing with detail versus boring your audience? How do you know how much detail is too much? Think about the following:

How Much Detail Works for Your Purpose

You can really answer the question of how much detail is too much unless you define your purpose. Education, for instance, has a different bar than entertainment. Memoir writers often see advice like this (from Anne R. Allen in How to Write a Publishable Memoir: 12 Do’s and Don’ts): “…Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, you lost your virginity, and/or somebody stole the parson’s pants.”

The bar is much lower if

  • You’re not trying to pen a bestseller (Coming soon: What to do if you are!)
  • You’re not trying to pitch an agent to represent you
  • You’re writing for people who love you

Most of us wouldn’t be bored reading that our grandmother enjoyed Sunday school picnics. We’d enjoy imagining her proudly contributing her baked beans or fried chicken. (There’s much more about this in my book. Also see Why Writing for Your Family Is Like ….)

Who are you writing for? If you have the dual purpose of writing for yourself and others, you might want to include details that might be less than riveting reading for others. For instance, in her travel journals, my mother wrote about things that I skim over, such as what she had for breakfast each day. I still enjoy reading about her travels.

Why Details Matter

Leo Widrich’s What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains has some great insight. Details can stimulate readers’ imaginations or connect them to stories of their own. A great story stimulates various areas of the brain. (Boring details only stimulate the centers for understanding language.)

How You Present Details Matters

How much detail? Too Much!

How much detail? If you’re presenting facts–not telling a story–it’s too much!

Word choice can change the mundane to enchanting or scrumptious. Was the coffee strong or was it so strong that it got up and walked over to you itself, no wait-staff needed? When you infuse your personality into details, it enhances the story.

Connecting details to the story prevents them from seeming extraneous. Perhaps their incongruence itself is poignant. Perhaps your attention to superfluous details was how you coped. For instance, during an assault, I remember thinking that I hoped the necklace my mother gave me wouldn’t get broken. That detail illustrates my mental state.

Which is better: Too much detail or not enough

Are your details bringing the story to life or putting the reader to sleep? Are your details complicating the story, making it hard to understand the point? Widrich’s article spells that out in terms of cognition:

“ Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think.”

In other words, whenever your details are making the story clearer, include them.

Matching Your Writing to Your Personality

In my opinion, you have to be true to yourself. If you normally throw a ton of asides in your verbal narratives, be careful of over-editing yourself. Nevertheless, do edit.

When Details are Disturbing

That’s another post! Stay tuned.

Your Turn:

How did you determine how much detail to include in your story? When have you struggled with this?

Apr 172014
Simply writing about memories --preserving your stories--is easier than writing a memoir.

Simply writing about memories–preserving your stories–is easier than writing a memoir.

Memoir writing and writing about memories have a lot in common. Both are introspective, healing projects. Here’s how writing about memories is an easier project.

It’s Easier to Get Started

It’s easier to start writing about your memories. The process of memory collection is much less formal than memoir writing. Though the quality of the memories and stories may be the same, but the framework is looser.

Memoirists look to convey a theme or story about their life. Many struggle with wondering if their story is important enough. Further, memoir writing requires greater technical writing skills. Ideally, your personal story will read like a novel. It will have a beginning that grabs the reader, pacing, climax, and character development. Writing about memories—simply collecting your stories, allows you to share with loved ones without worrying about the NY Times bestseller list. Continue reading »

Mar 182014
writing good enough when no one is the master

Apparently, even Hemingway had his “Is my writing good enough? ” moments.

Whether or not we voice it, it’s something we all wonder. We ask ourselves “Is my writing good enough?” before we pick up a pen (or digital age equivalent), as we write, and before we hit the save button.

The question—the self-doubt—taunts us.

For who?

Here’s where I pull out my soap-box, especially if that nagging doubt is keeping you from telling your own stories. For whom are you writing? If you’re hoping to pen a best-seller or win a literary prize, there may be some merit to the question. If you’re writing down your memories to share with loved ones, there probably isn’t. Continue reading »

Feb 102014
Writing is therapeutic for the reader and the writer

Writing is therapeutic for the reader as well as the writer

We know writing is therapeutic for the writer. (If you don’t, refer back to Write about Memories: It’s Therapeutic! and Ovarian Cancer: Journaling and Healing). But that’s not the full extent of it. Here are a few of the ways that your writing is therapeutic for your readers.

Your Story is Their Story

Very few stories have only one character. Your stories include other people— Continue reading »