Wednesday, November 30, 2011

You’re invited: An Advent group-writing project with The High Calling

Monday the good folks at The High Calling* posted this:

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, and so we begin a season of waiting and expectation. For most of us, December can easily slip into one big blur of holiday parties and gift exchanges, of decking the halls and maxing out credit cards.
Or, maybe it’s not too late to make something different of this season. We would like to invite you to consider what Advent means to you, its old traditions, its new lessons, and join us for a community writing project.

At that point, Charity Singleton* stepped in to explain:
I have the privilege of hosting a group-writing project for The High Calling.… And you, my friends, are invited to participate. Here’s how:

1 —Think of an Advent tradition that you continue to reinvent year after year. It could be something old you do for Advent year after year or something new you are doing for Advent just this year. Or consider an old Advent truth they are reminded of again this year or a new truth you have been learning for the first time.

2 — Write about those Advent traditions or lessons on your blog, using rich description and story.

3 — Return [to Charity’s blog at] any time before Wednesday, December 7—and link your story in the space below so we can find you. Be sure to link back to this specific post from your blog.

4 — On December 12, I will feature some of your posts here. And my fellow High Calling editor (Laura Boggess) and I may also feature some of your stories over at The High Calling!

Thanks, Charity. This project promises rich blessings for both writers and readers.

(I feel honored to be associated with The High Calling. See their logo and link in the right column.)

*Links and resources:

Charity Singleton’s Advent Writing Project,

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving memories: Which hold the most significance?

Have you written a story about Christmas for your memoir?
If so, send me your vignette
between now and December 10
and I’ll select one to publish here
the week before Christmas.
See all the details in my November 12 post at this link:

I smile when I think back on the first Thanksgiving dinner I prepared as a newlywed on Alaska Avenue NW, in Washington, D.C.

I tried so hard to recall how my mother readied the turkey—she always got up early in the morning, slathered the bird with butter, and wrapped it in foil—so that’s what I did, too.

But then I stood in the kitchen asking myself, What is the right oven temperature?

And how, exactly, did Mom make her stuffing? And her gravy? I wanted to make them just like hers because they were perfect.

I had watched her for years but that day I was 3,000 miles from home and my husband, Dave, was more clueless than I was, so I was on my own.

I’ll say just two things: (a) I turned the lights way down so Dave and our guest couldn’t see what was on their plates, and (b) no one died, or even threw up.

Two Thanksgivings and two days later, Dave drove me to the hospital—at a crawl because dense Seattle fog enveloped us—for the birth of our first child.

Five Thanksgivings later, police cars rushed into our quiet, safe neighborhood. They halted in front of the house across the street and armed officers hurried inside. Alcohol and a gun spoiled that family’s Thanksgiving.

Now, in my old age, Thanksgiving brings to mind windstorms. They always seem to wallop the Pacific Northwest at Thanksgiving—and right on schedule, this year’s weather included a high-wind watch with sustained speeds of 50 mph, gusts up to 60 mph, and lots of rain.

I recall waiting on the Kingston ferry dock on many a Thanksgiving morning, marveling at soaring wind-whipped waves crashing onto the dock and waiting cars. They promised a wild, lurching ferry ride across Puget Sound.*

I remember crossings when the ferry pitched so low that, through windows on the starboard side, we could see only saltwater and, on the port side, only leaden skies. A few seconds later, the ferry listed in the opposite direction and we could see only murky skies to the right and angry, churning sea to the left.

Pacific Northwest Thanksgivings conjure more memories: gale-toppled evergreens causing widespread power outages, and good-natured cooks coming up with alternate ways to finish roasting the turkey. Inevitably we gathered around the table later than expected, by candlelight, and every bite was delicious.

Those recollections bring a smile, or a tear, but I want to use them in a memoir, so I needed to go beyond “a report to a reflection which gives meaning to the events which might not have been evident” as I lived them. (Biff Barnes, The Author’s Dual Role in a Memoir*)

I had to dig deeper, search for lessons, and discover how such events shaped me into the person I am today.

I needed to explore what God was doing through the incidents: teaching, humbling, loving, preparing me for future Thanksgivings—and certainly heaping blessings upon me and my family.

Can you guess which Thanksgiving memory in my list holds the most poignant lesson for me?

It’s not the memory I expected.

I wouldn’t have discovered it if I hadn’t spent the past few days pondering those incidents.

In reflecting on our neighbor whose Thanksgiving was ruined by too much alcohol and a guest’s gun, I find, in Biff Barnes’ words, meaning in the event that was not evident to me at the time.

That incident happened nearly forty years ago but because I deliberately took time to think about it this week, here’s the deeper significance I discovered:

God gave my mother gumption to take a brave stand when I was a toddler, an action that, over the years, kept our family home from resembling our neighbor’s that Thanksgiving Day.

You see, my father’s extended family had trouble with alcohol and that caused grief when they came to our house.

Eventually my young little mother made a decision, gathered her courage, and made an announcement: People that had been drinking were not welcome in our home. Sober relatives were always welcome.

I now realize that God gave Mom wisdom to foresee that alcohol could ruin our family. God helped her make deliberate choices to protect the wellbeing of her children and the family’s home, a decision that has conveyed far-reaching, multi-generational blessings.

A few days ago when I recognized the significance of what my mother had done, my heart soared with gratitude and admiration for her. Our family had numerous heartaches and hardships during my childhood, but our home was always a happy, safe, loving haven.

Thanks, Mom. A million thanks—though a million is not nearly enough.

What about your Thanksgiving memories? Give yourself a few days to reflect on which ones hold significance—meaning—which might not have been evident to you as you lived them.

Write your stories!

*Links and references:

Here’s a 26-second video of the Kingston ferry docking in Edmonds (and a peek at a gray whale),

Here’s a 1-minute video of the Kingston ferry on the way to Edmonds in a little wind storm; believe me, it gets worse! 

The Author’s Dual Role in a Memoir, by Biff Barnes in About Memoirs and Personal History Books, The Author’s Craft,

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Discover treasures within your Thanksgiving memories

Have you written a story about Christmas for your memoir?
If so, send me your vignette
between now and December 10
and I’ll select one to publish here
the week before Christmas.
See all the details in my November 12 post at this link:

This Thanksgiving, take a fresh look at your traditions and ask yourself why they are special.

Have your family traditions evolved since you were a child? What old traditions have you let go? What new traditions have you established? Why? How has it changed your family dynamic?

Note the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels of Thanksgiving and find descriptive, fresh words for them.

Which Thanksgiving memories stand out? Do you know why?

Which people played the biggest roles in your past Thanksgivings? Why? How?

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories.”
(Eudora Welty, American writer)

In coming days—while you unload the dishwasher, rake leaves, build a fire in the fireplace, or sit around your Thanksgiving table—listen for stories: Notice what comes to mind about Thanksgivings past. Spend five minutes jotting down a few notes.

Come back to your notes after Christmas, when your schedule calms down, and start your rough draft. Take time to explore what God was doing in and for and through you in past Thanksgivings. Was He changing you? Teaching you? Preparing you for something down the road? What did He teach you about Himself and His blessings?

Search for deeper lessons that might be hiding within your memories. Retrospection, reflection, examining—these are all part of memoir.

What stories would bless your kids, grandkids, family, and friends? Write those stories!

Next time I’ll share a few of my Thanksgiving memories with you, including one blessing I didn’t recognize until this weekbecause I took time to listen and reflect on it.

Have a happy, blessed Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The beginning of your collection of stories

If you’ve written only a few vignettes for your memoir and want to give away an early edition for Christmas, (see Wednesday’s post, Your memoir: a matchless Christmas gift*), consider one of these two easy options for compiling your stories—just for now.

Option 1: Assemble your vignettes in a chapbook. I’ve made several and they are fun. If you’re artsy and have time, use homemade paper (your own or someone else’s) for your cover. Add ribbons, yarn, beads, artwork—let your ideas run wild. I found step-by-step instructions for chapbooks at the link below.* 

Option 2: Put your vignettes in a three-ring binder. I use the kind with a clear plastic cover with a slit at the top because it allows you to design your own cover. (This format will work fine if you’re putting together an early, partial edition* for a Christmas gift, regardless of how you envision your finished memoir. My published memoir started out as a three-ring binder.)

Here’s a photo of Terri’s cover (she attended a couple of my in-person classes):

Here are a couple of my own binders’ covers:

If you have time before Christmas, include a few photos or other mementos with your vignettes. (If you scrapbook, here’s a timesaver: Make color copies of pages you’ve already created.)

Place the following documents at the beginning of your collection of stories:

  • Title Page—the first page your readers will see. Your title will appear on the front cover of your memoir and on your title page. Give yourself a by-line. Your title page might look something like this:

From Valley to Mountaintop
by Elaine Alexander

  • Dedication—name those for whom you are writing your stories
  • Introduction—state why you’ve written these stories (for ideas, see Deuteronomy 4:9 and Psalm 66:16), and maybe even tell how you chose your title. Explain that your memoir is not an autobiography or genealogy, but rather a slice of your life (some highlights within a certain theme). Include, briefly, what you hope your readers will take away from your stories. At the end of your introduction, sign your name and write the date and place you lived when you wrote it.
  • Timeline—optional, if you have one ready; see Sharon Lippincott’s timeline suggestions at the link below.*

In the future, we’ll go over additional components for your finished memoir, but if you’re rushing to arrange an early, partial edition for a Christmas gift, the above will work just fine.

*Links and resources

Your memoir: a matchless Christmas gift,

How to make a chapbook, 

Your personal timeline will help your memoir’s readers,

Have you written a story about Christmas for your memoir?
If so, send me your vignette
between now and December 10
and I’ll select one to publish here
the week before Christmas.
See all the details in my November 12 post at this link:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Your memoir: a matchless Christmas gift

Are you in a tizzy trying to think up Christmas gift ideas for everyone on your list?

If you’re like me, you worry—Is this in style? What size does he wear? Would this color match her decor?

Today, people own more trinkets and gadgets and junk than they need, or can use, or even want, yet when Christmas comes around, we pace shopping malls ad nauseum searching for new kinds of trinkets, gadgets, and junk to give family and friends.

Let me suggest an alternative, something much better:

Give your family members a copy of your memoir—a gift of yourself and of their unique place in your family, God’s family, and the world.

If you haven’t finished your memoir—even if you’ve written only a few vignettesno problem. Give what you have completed.

Tell recipients this is an early draft, just the beginning, and that you’ll add more stories later.

You still have five weeks to edit and revise your vignettes.

To help with your editing task, ask a “reader” for feedback on your vignettes. Frank P. Thomas advises:

“… Choose that person carefully. Remember that friends or relatives tend to overpraise, and others may criticize merely to impress you with their knowledge.

“What you are looking for is impartial, objective criticism. Pick someone who cares about writing besides caring about you, such as an English teacher, a teacher of writing courses, or someone in your local writers’ club. As you hand your edited manuscript to your reader (never show a first draft) ask specific questions. Are there any passages that will not be clearly understood? Are there any omissions or inaccuracies. Are any parts of the manuscript repetitious? What parts did you like best? Least? Are there any glaring errors of grammar or spelling?

“You may want two people to read your memoir copy. However, bear in mind: They are not passing final judgment on what you have written. You are.… Pick and choose from the comments made only what you believe will strengthen the memoir—then discard the rest.” (Frank P. Thomas, How to Write the Story of Your Life)

Revise your vignettes as needed, polish, and print them.

In coming days I’ll share a couple of practical ways to put your stories together, and I'll suggest items you’ll want to include in your gift, but for now, make a commitment to give what you’ve written—however long or short—as a down payment, a pledge of more to come. Promise your recipients a finished copy later. How about next Christmas?

Wrap your stories in Christmas paper and tie them in bows. Your stories—and your friends’ and family’s part in them—will never go out of style, and you don’t need to worry about buying the right color or size.

Your memoir: a gift that will live long beyond your lifetime.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Send me your Christmas vignettes

Have you written a story about Christmas for your memoir? 

If so, Gentle Readers, send me your Christmas vignettes between now and December 10 and I’ll select one to publish here the week before Christmas.

Spiff up your rough draft (or start writing it), keeping in mind the definition of memoir from earlier posts here.*

In Spiritual Memoirs 101, we go beyond digging up memories. Within our memories, we search for greater treasures: what God was doing in and for and through us at the time.

“Rather than simply telling a story from her life,
the memoirist both tells the story
and muses upon it,
trying to unravel what it means
in the light of her current knowledge.…
The contemporary memoir includes retrospection
as an essential part of the story.
Your reader [is] interested in how you now,
looking back on it,
understand it.
(Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir)

“As memoir writers
we are trying to find a perspective,
even forgiveness and compassion,
for ourselves and others as we write our stories.”
(Linda Joy Myers*)

“… The author must impose a coherence
on events he chooses to include
that may not have been present as he lived them.…
It’s that selectivity that transforms a memoir
from a report to a reflection
which gives meaning to the events
which might not have been evident to the author
as she lived them.”
(The Author’s Dual Role in a Memoir, by Biff Barnes*)

Include emotions and sensory details. You’ll find tips from Method Writing* and from Kathleen Pooler’s recent blog post, Evoking Emotions: The power of Sensory Detail in Storytelling.*

Let your readers inside your heart and mind.

Include your thoughts—even your struggles—to understand what was going on. Write out your delights as well as your doubts. Ask questions even if you have no answers.

Mull over, sift through, analyze, explore, untangle, sort out.

Above all, examine what God was doing as you see it now, in retrospect.

What did you learn about God and about yourself?

What deeper lessons did He have for you in the events?

How did you change as a result?

Dig deep. Tunnel down below the surface. Maybe coincidences and chance encounters were much more—they were God in action: orchestrating, arranging, and shaping your life’s direction.

When you’ve polished up your Christmas story, submit it for consideration. I'll be happy to edit it if you wish.

Your vignette should be 700 words or less in a Word document, sent as an attachment to grandmaletters [at] aol [dot] com (replace [at] with @ and replace [dot] with a period, scrunch it all together, and that should reach me). Please writeChristmas Vignette for SM 101” in the subject line so I’ll know it’s not spam. Thanks.

I’ll choose one story to publish here the week before Christmas. Happy writing!

*Links and resources:

What is a memoir

The Author’s Dual Role in a Memoir, by Biff Barnes in About Memoirs and Personal History Books, The Author’s Craft,

Kathleen Pooler’s Evoking Emotions: The power of Sensory Detail in Storytelling,