Saturday, January 28, 2012

“Like a sneak attack”

Every once in a while, I run across a blog post that sticks with me. Does that happen to you, too?

October 10, 2010—that was 15 months ago—I read a Johnny B. Truant post* that reveals a brilliant technique memoir-writers can use.

He says that one afternoon in high school, all 1200 students gathered for an assembly—but no one knew why.

Two men took the stage and instead of explaining why they were there, they just started talking.

They told jokes and funny stories. They commiserated with the students about how awful high school is. They poked fun at teachers and administrators.

“We liked these guys,” he said. “They thought like we did. Their stories were interesting and fun. We settled in and relaxed.

“We stopped caring why we’d been called to the assembly. Someone had made a mistake and had booked pure entertainment, but we weren’t about to complain.”

But halfway through, things changed. “It was like a sneak attack: it was on us before we knew it was coming.”

The guest speakers started talking about AIDS, abstinence, teenage drinking, and drug use.  

“It was all the stuff that adults usually try to talk to teenagers about—the stuff teenagers usually roll their eyes at.

“But we weren’t rolling our eyes. We were listening. We’d been transfixed.

“Instead of saying AIDS was bad, they’d tell us about the girl who we’d met in one of those funny stories … and how she got sick after contracting HIV and died.

“Instead of telling us not to drink and drive, they told us about the kid we’d heard about earlier, but now the tale turned to him being in a wheelchair for the rest of his life after being hit by a drunk driver.”

Afterward, when those 1200 kids filed out of the auditorium, Johnny says, “Most of the kids who streamed past me were silent or crying.”

“Those presenters came to our school to sell us on the idea of being careful, and making smart choices, and staying safe—all the ideas that teenagers usually aren’t even a little bit interested in buying from well-meaning adults and parents.

“But because they did their selling through stories, we’d bought it all.”

Now, wasn’t that a winning technique?

And it’s a technique you can use in writing your memoir.

Why might you need to use it?

Well, you don’t know who your readers might be—you’re writing this for people who come after you, perhaps generations not yet born. You can’t know their ages or their situations.

But you do know every life has challenges and heartaches and important decisions, and you have messages for your readers, important messages that could help them find their way through those challenges and heartaches and important decisions.

Think about it:  God has used other people’s stories to:

show you courage
show you how to live an honorable life
keep your faith strong
help you not give up hope
inspire you
pass on wisdom to you
point you to God
show you God’s love
extend God’s grace to you

Now it’s your turn. In the same way other people’s stories helped you, you can now pass on your stories to help others.

Your stories are important. If you don’t want readers to roll their eyes and let your memoir sit on a shelf gathering dust, try the techniques those guest speakers used.

When you introduce your main characters, help readers relate to them and feel they know them like you did.

Write accounts that are interesting and entertaining. Draw your readers in.

Develop your characters so readers bond with them the way you did and care about them the way you did.

Create your main characters so readers engage emotionally, like the kids in that school assembly.

And then, carry out your sneak attack: Bring out the deeper lessons of your stories.

In Johnny’s case, the lessons were about AIDS, abstinence, teenage drinking, and drug use. What did key people in your past teach you?

Who impressed upon you the importance of safe driving, or resisting peer pressure, or consequences of cheating?

Who taught you the merits of keeping a promise, or arriving at work on time, or being loyal?

Looking back, what life lessons mean the most to you? Who played a role in them? Write your stories!

If you want to keep your readers reading, if you want to pass important lessons on to future generations, you’ll need to write engaging stories with winsome characters.

*Resources and links:
Johnny B. Truant’s guest post at ProBlogger,

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Let no cardboard characters creep around in your memoir

I can’t remember the book’s title or author but, all these years later, I still recall the story’s main character—but not in a positive way. I knew nothing of her physical appearance, and almost nothing of her inner qualities. The author had created a stick figure.

So, when you write your memoir, write life and personality into your main characters because “No one wants to be known for writing flat, boring, cardboard characters,” says Carly Sandifer, * (emphasis mine).

Capture unique details about your main characters—physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.

Reveal personality, idiosyncrasies, and heart.

Create characters your readers can experience in the important ways you experienced them.

You want multi-dimensional characters, memorable characters, compelling characters.

“ … Characters come alive when you pick the particularly telling details that can make the difference between a cardboard character and a real, live person. This is not a matter of throwing an abundance of details—say, of a person’s visual appearance—at the reader, but of selecting those few that capture the essence of that person … a quirk of speech, a mannerism, the way his hair falls across his face, an item of clothing, the smell or her, or how she walks.” (Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir)*

Remember, you want to show, not tell.* Instead of saying a lady was beautiful, describe her in such a way that your reader will conclude for himself, “She was beautiful!”

If one of your characters is smarmy, find words to show readers he’s creepy. Sinister.

If she’s weird, use words to show she’s strange. Bizarre. Eccentric.

If he’s intellectual, find words to show he’s cerebral. Scholarly.

Use words to show the following details about important people in your stories:

Generous or selfish.

Dull or quick-witted.

Charming or dreary.

Stand-offish or welcoming.

Gentle or gruff.

Tall or short.

Plump or skinny.

Composed or nervous.

Gloomy or merry.

Young or old.

Foolish or wise.

Erratic or steady.

Polished or frumpy.

Uncouth or refined.

Agile or awkward.

Hilarious or humorless.

“This is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details  that might exist.…”

When you describe your stories’ main characters, use all five senses: Let readers see, smell, hear, feel, and taste what you experienced.

Then go the next step: Show, don’t tell, how you felt about that person. Why did you know you could call her, day or night, and she’d always be there for you? Why did he make you want to stay as far away as possible?

Then dig deeper still: What was God doing in or through this person that impacted your life? Maybe God used him or her in small ways, but, on the other hand, maybe He used that person to determine your life’s direction.

Answering that question—What was God doing?—might take a long time, but work hard on finding the answer(s) because that’s where you’ll find the blessings.

That’s where you’ll realize, more than ever before, that God, in His goodness, has been guiding you all along. 

*References and links

Carly Sandifer,

Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir,

Roy Peter Clark quoting Tom Wolfe,

My "Show don't tell" blog post,

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lessons for you from Michele Norris’s “The Grace of Silence”

Whether you know it—or like it—your family and its history played a role in making you who you are today.

Even family secrets—secrets you could hardly imagine—shaped you into the person you are today.  

Imagine Michele Norris’s shock when she set out to write a book about racism in America and, in the process, stumbled upon layers of family secrets that, in their keeping, had a profound influence on her childhood, the person she became and, now, on the way she’s raising her children.  

Nationally recognized Norris, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke this week at our university at a dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy.

She spoke of learning from her uncle, in 2008—years after her father’s death—that police officers shot her father during the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil Rights Act. Her father had never told her.

After her uncle’s surprising disclosure, other relatives told more stories from that era, stories Norris had never heard.

That inspired Norris to research roles her family played, as a “non-confrontational family,” in America’s painful race-related issues. That investigation led to what she calls her “accidental family memoir,” The Grace of Silence.

She learned that the shooting occurred when her father, Belvin Norris, had just returned to Birmingham, Alabama, from World War II.

“He’d served in the Navy and he returned to a city full of black veterans who had fought for democracy overseas and were eager to get a taste of it on their home turf. What they faced, instead, was a wall of white resistance.… They still faced old rules about segregation and carefully defined roles.”

In that era, too many blacks were beaten, murdered, and denied voting rights.

Norris’s research revealed that only six days before her father’s shooting, another black veteran, Isaac Woodard, still in uniform, was beaten and blinded by Batesburg, S.C., police.

“The story, subsequent trial, and swift acquittal of the officers caused a national sensation,” writes Norris in an NPR article.”*

“The Woodard case had a direct impact on President Harry Truman’s decision to integrate the military.”

The events of that period led Belvin Norris to turn his back on his past, move north, raise his children in a white neighborhood, and keep earlier racial incidents a secret—even from his wife.

“Why would he hide it from his children?” asks Michele.

And why did her many relatives, all of whom knew the stories, keep them secret?

The questions haunted her.

“I’m pretty sure … that I would have ordered my steps in life differently had I known this,” Michele says in a radio interview.* “I might have been a different adult. I certainly would have been a different child.”

Over time, she came to understand that her father kept the secret “not with anger, but with hope.”

Her parents “wanted their children to soar, so they chose not to weigh down their pockets with personal tales of woe.”  

“Our parents tell us what they think we need to know,” she continues, “and my father didn’t think I needed to know that. He wanted to make sure that my path forward was uncluttered by his pain, so he chose not to tell me about this. And that explains the title of the book … The Grace of Silence. That is an incredibly graceful act.”*

Do you know your parents’ stories? Your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories? Probably some of your ancestors, like Michele’s, made hard decisions and sacrifices to ensure that their pasts didn’t hold you back.

Their stories, their choices, their secrets, have profoundly shaped who you are today.

Michele concludes with something for all of us—especially memoirists—to think about:

“History is made in all kinds of little ways, a hiring decision, a school bus ride.… I bet that some of the elders who sit at your family table might be sitting on stories of their own.

“Those stories, those individual stories are so easily lost if we are not willing to … listen to those who might be willing to share their legacy if only someone is willing to take the time to ask.” *

*Resources and links:

NPR article, “Michele Norris’ Search for Her Family’s Hidden Past,”

NPR article, “Michele Norris on Race, and ‘The Grace of Silence,’

NPR radio interview, “Michele Norris on Race, and ‘The Grace of Silence,’

NPR radio interview, “Michele Norris’ Search for Her Family’s Hidden Past,”

God used your family’s influence, culture, and DNA to mold you into the person you are today,

Your family and D-Day,

“All the folks who came ahead of us are like the brown roots of a big old vine….”

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The power of your place

“To understand my family,” writes Sarah White, “you just have to understand Winona Lake.…”*

Sarah’s referring to the power of place.

The places of our lives mysteriously shaped us and now define us and still anchor us and live in us. The places of our lives nurtured our souls and spirits.

Because of that, place plays an important role in memoirs.

In an interview over at Tales from The Reading Room,* Dinah Roe, London-based author of Rosettis in Wonderland, said,

“Good biographies are as much about time and place as they are about individuals. I love biographies which evoke a sense of place.… Hilary Spurling’s Burying the Bones: Pearl S. Buck in China does this brilliantly. She really makes the case for how important China was to Buck’s writing and to her identity. I had thought of Buck simply as an American writer until I read this book, and then suddenly I realized how wrong-headed this had been. Spurling evoked the place so beautifully that I felt I was right there with the missionary community in China.” (emphasis mine)

I still remember the sense of place David Guterson created in Snow Falling on Cedars—even though I read it over 13 years ago—because of his mastery of writing place into his novel. (Here at SM 101 we’re not writing novels, but, whether fiction or nonfiction, compelling writing is compelling writing.)

Part of his success came because, behind the scenes, all unseen to the rest of us, Guterson practiced what Priscilla Long* recommends: he gathered words.

He collected words about places that, coincidentally, mysteriously shaped me and now define me and still anchor me and live in me, places that nurtured my soul and spirit.

Guterson collected words that describe his place and my place, words like: 

creosoted pilings
ferry terminal
sea cucumbers
tube worms
alder sticks
steamer clams
the odor of salmon bones
purse seiners
one-man gill-netting boats

Guterson writes, “They had passed autumn afternoons when they were nine years old in the hollowed-out base of a cedar tree, where they sprawled on the ground looking out at the rain as it pummeled the sword ferns and ivy.… They already had a history together that included this beach, these waters, the very stones, and the forest at their backs, too. It was all theirs and always would be.… She knew where to find matsutake mushrooms, elderberries, and fern tendrils.”

He also writes: “The path looped around the head of the bay, then down into a swale … ground fog shrouded its thimbleberry and devil’s club, such was the clammy, low wetness of the place—then climbed among cedars and the shadows of spruces before descending….” and “… there was a wall of honeysuckle just past blossom, salmonberries hanging in among it and a few last wild roses blooming—Hatsue cut into the cedar woods.… through a dell of ferns where white morning glory blossoms dotted the forest floor. A fallen cedar log hung with ivy.…” and “green-tinted light entered from the cedar forest. The rain echoed in the canopy of leaves above and beat against the sword ferns, which twitched under each drop.”

I encourage you to invest a little time in what Priscilla Long calls The Lexicon Practice—a “deliberate, ongoing gathering of words and phrases.”* (from The Writer's Portable Mentor)

Last Saturday we discussed collecting words that describe a particular era in your memoir’s stories. Today, begin a lexicon (word book) with words that describe important places in your memoir—places that mysteriously shaped you and now define you and still anchor you and live in you.

Remember, you’re looking for “neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words,” says Priscilla, “but mainly words [you] like.” Words that don’t require a dictionary. Words that will help your readers smell, feel, hear, see, and even taste your places, those important places that nurtured your soul and spirit.

P.S. Hop on over to Rhonda’s blog post, Giving thanks for heritage, roots centered on the prairie,* to see how she crafted a sense of place

Note, too, that Rhonda created not only a physical, geographical place, but also an emotional place in her Aunt Esther's home.

Get out your WIPs (works in progress) and add words and phrases that will enhance your stories' sense of place.

*Links and references:

Sarah White,

Dinah Roe’s interview at Tales from the Reading Room,  

Priscilla Long, and my blog post, Gather “crackly” words for your memoir,

Priscilla Long, and my blog post, How long will your memoir’s readers stay engaged, charmed, and beguiled? 

Priscilla Long’s book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor,

Rhonda’s Giving thanks for heritage, roots centered on the prairie,

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How long will your memoir’s readers stay engaged, charmed, and beguiled?

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

Pop beads. Pedal pushers. Poodle skirts.

Full skirts, straight skirts, pleated skirts.

Car coats and cat-eye glasses.

Bobby socks and saddle shoes.

Girdles. Nylon hose with seams up the back, held up with garter belts.

Sputnik. Transistor radios. Rock 'n' Roll.

Friendship rings. Going steady.

(Pssssst. You're reading one of my lexicons.)

Remember lexicons? Last Wednesday I said I've been working on a second type of lexicon Priscilla Long recommends,* a word book for an era. I've listed those words in my 1955 - 1962 lexicon.

My lexicon from another era, 1950 - 1955, lists air-raid drills, pocketbooks, halter tops, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the GI Bill, trikes, two-wheelers, and penny candy. Unicume's Variety Center at North 4609 Nevada. Woolworths. Tea towels made from cotton flour sacks. Barrettes. Bobby pins. Spit curls.

Collecting them is so much fun! I'll enjoy working some of them into my WIPs (Works In Progressrough drafts).

But such words serve a function beyond fun.

They have to do with keeping readers "engaged," according to Priscilla in The Writer's Portable Mentor, and keeping them "charmed, seduced, and beguiled." 

Here's the issue: Your memoir's potential readers have many distractions.

Consider the lure of the Internet, texting, tweeting, and TV.

And hobbies.

And how many of us have a stack of books on our bedside tables just waiting to be read?

So what can you do to entice people to read your memoir?

You can write stories readers want to read more than—or at least as much as—they want to play with Facebook, iPods, and Smartphones.

You can enhance people’s reading experiences by doing away with ho-hum words and, instead, choosing descriptive words, specific words that create images in readers’ minds and help them step into your world alongside you. You can immerse them in your story.

Every childhood has a lexicon,” Priscilla says. Such words capture a specific time and place.

“Place names, certain trees and buildings, the toys of 1934 …,” Priscilla says, “they all make vivid a particular place, a particular era, a particular person, a particular experience.”

Here are words from Priscilla’s childhood lexicon: “greenbriar, dirt road…, 4-H Club, teats, stanchions, silage, milkers, mastitis, calf barn, gutter, manure pile, manure spreader, marsh grass.…”

You have to admit those are good words: they capture a specific place, images, and even smells. 

Now it’s your turn! Compile your own childhood lexicon. Choose words that will engage, charm, seduce, and beguile. Choose words the describe "a particular place, a particular era, a particular person, a particular experience.

Look over your WIPs and find places to include words from your childhood lexicon because they will enrich your memoir and keep your readers reading.

You’ll find fun resources and memory-awakeners at the following:

Melissa Marsh’s blog, The Best of World War II, at

Reminisce magazine online (1930s through early 1970s) at

I Remember JFK includes photos, most of which you are free to download, at

“The Libraries of Our Childhoods,” from I Remember JFK,

Touching reflections on family life in the 1960s, from the Winston-Salem Journal,

The Graphics Fairy has 2500 free images and vintage printables that will (a) help your old memories to surface (b) provide fun illustrations for your memoir. Here’s the link:

Share some of your lexicon’s words with us: leave a comment below.

And if you know of additional resources that will help others create their childhood lexicons, leave a comment below.

*Resources and links:

Priscilla Long, and my blog post, Gather “crackly” words for your memoir,

“Your story is important, but will anyone read it?”