Saturday, June 30, 2012

Those things that threaten to undo us

“Life’s greatest trials often come without a moment’s notice. There is no prep time or convenient moment to book them on our daily calendars,” says Sheila Walsh in her Bible study, The Shelter of God’s Promises.

“They brutishly make their way into our lives and threaten to undo us.”

You know what she means. So do I.

“But,” she continues, “suffering is often the very thing that allows our lives to be resurrected. When we look back, those moments can become milestones and strong pillars … because we survived by [God’s] strength alone.”

Romans 8:28 tells us “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” (NIRV)

Sheila calls that verse “God’s promise to work out all the twists and turns of our lives.”

She writes, “It’s almost impossible to believe that God can use all things, even the terrible and shameful moments from our past (or present!) to work for good for His glory.”

Yes, for humans that can seem impossible, but somehow He does it! “With God, all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).

In order to see how God has done that in our lives, Sheila suggests we make a two-column chart, and “write down hardships you’ve faced on the left side, and across from those write the blessings that came from those experiences.”

This is a perfect exercise for those writing memoirs. Like Sheila pointed out, looking back can yield rich treasures.

Filling out your chart might take a few days or weeks but, as you work on it, look for ways God turned your hardships into milestones.

How did He turn your suffering into strong pillars for your faith?

How God turn your greatest trials into your greatest blessings?

Did God use those hardships and blessings to bring you new opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise received?

What did God teach you about Himself in the midst of your hardships and blessings? What did you learn about yourself?

The next time a trauma or heartache entered your life, how did God’s help in the past give you hope for the future?

Write your stories—because you survived by God’s strength alone.

Write your stories—because of the miracle of God’s grace.

Write your stories—not because of who you are, but because of who God is.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When even God says you’re old

Today I am celebrating a … um … I am observing a significant birthday.

Getting old humbles a woman.

The other day I looked over my body, wondering if I could find one square inch without wrinkles. I found a place—depending on how I hold my arm—but I tell ya, it’s not easy to show off the underside of my forearm in public.

As if that’s not humbling enough, even God seems to be reminding me I’m old.

While thumbing through my Bible I ran across this—highlighted! Who highlighted it?!? Not me!—so I took it as a sign to apply it personally:

In Joshua 13, God looked at Joshua and said, “You are getting very old.”

Sheesh! I suppose He’s looking at me today and saying the same thing.

I’ve wanted to hear God say many things, but never that. Never, “Linda, you are getting very old.”

Joshua must have squirmed at what God said next: He pointed out Joshua still had big tasks to carry out before it was too late—duties only Joshua could complete.

God listed specifics and then said, “You’ve gotta do this, Joshua, as an inheritance. Leave this legacy for your tribes—your family. Do it. Do it now.”

Well, that got me to thinking. And squirming. God has tasks for me to accomplish while I’m still walking this earth, things He wants me to leave for my family.

It’s like God is saying, “You’ve gotta do this, Linda, as an inheritance. Leave this legacy for your tribes—your family. Do it. Do it now.”

I can’t know how many days or weeks or years I have in which to prepare and complete that legacy, so I’ve been asking myself, What should be my priorities? What am I doing with the time I have left? Am I wasting it with pursuits that have little or no significance? What activities do I need to set aside so I can spend my time wisely? What legacy do I need to be working on?

One of my priorities is carrying out Deuteronomy 4:9, “Always remember what you’ve seen God do for you and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!”

I want to tell our family’s stories—not because our family is special but because God is special.

It’s not about us. It’s all about God.

I want my stories to celebrate Him

Perhaps you, too, suspect it’s time to rearrange your priorities. What legacy should you be preparing?

Since inheritances come in assorted forms and shapes and sizes, which inheritances are the most important to leave your kids and grandkids?

Do you hear God’s voice today? In one way or another, He’s whispering in your ear, “You’ve gotta do this, (fill in your name), as an inheritance. Leave this legacy for your tribes—your family. Do it. Do it now.”

Focus on finishing well and leaving God-and-you stories for your kids and grandkids. God can use them to bless, teach, entertain, challenge, and shape those who come after you—for His glory. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Writer’s block? No problem. You can still make progress on your memoir.

Everybody gets stuck from time to time.  

Writer’s block: You want to write. You know how to write. For some reason, however, you can’t write.

Take heart. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Schultz, and Mark Twain struggled with writer’s block, too.

Does “writer’s block” describe you today?

If so, don’t despair. For one thing, writer’s block is temporary.

And here’s more good news: You can still make progress—valuable progress—on your memoir.

This is your opportunity to spiff up your already-written rough drafts, those vignettes that will someday—soon, we hope!—be stories in your memoir.

I’m talking about editing, tinkering, rearranging—revising.

Revision is not punishment,

says veteran writer Donald M. Murray in The Craft of Revision. 

“Writing evolves from a sequence of drafts,” he says. “Scientists … experiment.… Actors and musicians rehearse. Retailers test markets, politicians take polls, manufacturers try pilot runs. They all revise, and so do writers. Writing is rewriting.”

Even professional writers know the benefits of revision.

If you’re stuck with writer’s block, or just need a summer break, use this time to revise vignettes you’ve already written.

Revision, Murray says, is “re-seeing the entire piece of writing.” So important.

Revision involves checking punctuation, grammar, spelling, diction (word choice), sentence length, focus (meaning), rhythm, cutting (writing tight), organization, and so on.

I suggest you consider each separately as you evaluate a rough draft.

For now, concentrate on clarity.

Start by reading a vignette you haven’t read for a while because distance and time are your friends: They do wonders for objectivity. The fresher the story is in your memory, the harder it will be to catch things you want and need to change.

Clarity depends … on your ability to put information together so that readers know at every point where they are, where they’ve been, and where they seem to be going,” writes Peter P. Jacobi

“When we read, our minds work in linear fashion. We cannot grasp jumps and jerks or even the sudden shifts of scene.…” Jacobi continues. “We have to be moved carefully, smoothly, through the [story].”

Donald Murray encourages a writer to read a rough draft the first time as the maker of that piece, and then read it again as a stranger.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Does your vignette make sense, or does it cause confusion?

Look for gaps: Did you leave out information your readers need to know? Will they grasp your story’s message?

Remember, it’s not in your story until it’s in black and white on your page.

Do another clarity check on lingo and vocabulary. Search for words readers might not understand—abstract words, academic, foreign, technical, or old fashioned words. If you spot any, change them because your reader probably won’t finish reading if he doesn’t understand your words.  

In future posts we’ll look at other aspects of revision but for today, eschew obfuscation. Strive for clarity.

Always remember Donald Murray’s words: Revision is not punishment.

Revision is your opportunity to polish your manuscript and make it shine.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is there an easy way to turn non-memoir into memoir?

I’ve been telling you of new discoveries I made while reflecting on an old photo from my family’s years in South America.

In a thousand ways, that time was a most wonderful adventure—even though I confessed last week that I refused to unpack and plotted ways to run away. By Christmas, I was begging my husband to agree to stay another year. And we did. And another year after that.

The mission center was a paradise for kids: collecting butterflies and insects, chasing bulls, hunting alligators, mud sliding, fishing for piranhas that could rip out an apple-size piece of flesh in a split second, eating grubs, swimming with stingrays—what’s not for a kid to love?

And the tropical vegetation! This Seattle gal lived surrounded by plants I knew from only florist shops back home: hibiscus, orchids, gardenias. Before moving to South America, a gardenia, to me, was a very special corsage for a very special date, but down there, I had a gardenia hedge! An entire hedge of gardenias—gardenias by the hundreds, gardenias by the thousands! Heavenly.

And the people we worked alongside—courageous, funny, tenacious, brilliant, friendly, creative, fun-loving, and the most dedicated you could ever find. We made life-long friends there.

For my kids, I’ve already assembled, in three-ring binders, a couple hundred pages of letters I wrote home—but that photo I ran across recently.…

That old photo of Matt, Karen, Glenny, and Ray made me lurch. It shook the earth under my feet.

That snapshot is begging me not to be content with just the historical facts. It’s urging me to tell a bigger, broader story, one I had previously overlooked like an elephant in the room

That photo pointed out a theme (an important part of memoir) that was there all along—it was a given in the back of my mind all these years—but I had not put it in writing.

Remember the definition of memoir—it includes reflection and inspection and digging for deeper meaning: What was the big picture? What was happening on a larger scale, and on a smaller scale? What was God doing? How did it make us who we are today?

Now I need—and want—to turn those pages of non-memoir into memoir.

But how much time and effort do I want to put into the project? That question has been nagging me for the past couple of weeks.

Do I want to start again from scratch?

No. No I don’t.

So I’ve been asking myself: Is there an easy way to turn non-memoir into memoir?

Yes, perhaps.

What if I included that new info in an Introduction and an Epilogue?

In the Intro, I could foreshadow our family’s and colleagues’ theme (guerrilla threats and attacks). I could write about receiving a telex, just as we were ready to fly out of the States, telling us to delay our arrival by ten days because our facility had been bombed. And I could tell about the next bomb threat a few days later, and additional threats—bombings and more—received after that. 

The Epilogue could include Chet’s, Ray’s, and Norm’s stories and the closure of the mission center (since they all occurred after we returned to the States). (If you missed earlier blog posts, click on Sometimes you think a story is completed and all wrapped up. But then.… and Sometimes you think a story is completed, Part 2.)  

The Epilogue, however, could do more. I want it to do more.

The Epilogue could emphasize the bigger victory: that the guerrillas did not win even though they took Chet’s life.

The guerrillas had intended to oust the [Bible] translators; instead they entrenched them. Almost a decade of negative press gave way to supportive editorials,” wrote author Steve Estes in Called to Die. After Chet’s death, Estes said, the Bible translators “basked in the effusive support that followed from President Turbay on down.”

The work of Bible translation flourished in jaw-dropping ways no one could have anticipated. Across the U.S., people signed up to fill the gap created by Chet’s death: Wycliffe Bible Translators saw applications double for overseas work.

I want my kids to know about the uncommon faith of their neighbors and their classmates’ parents and about the God they served. I want my grandkids to know, too.

I want both the Intro and the Epilogue, and everything between, to be celebrations of God

So, what do you think? Could I accomplish all that by adding an Introduction and Epilogue?

And what about you? Look over your photos. Re-read your vignettes and your chapters. Don’t settle for mere historical facts.

Maybe you, too, “think a story is completed and all wrapped up. But then, decades later, something happens and you realize that it’s not done yet, it’s still in process” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner).  

If so, I have a message for you from Sharon Lippincott: “You don’t have to write an entire memoir. Vignettes and essays are enough to answer questions in years to come.” 

Give it a try. See if it works.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

“Sometimes you think a story is completed and all wrapped up. But then.…” Part 2

Wednesday I told you:

(1) I made a surprising observation while looking at a decades-old photo from our family’s three years on the mission field in South America,

(2) a couple days later I stumbled upon these words by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner:

“Sometimes you think a story is completed
and all wrapped up.
But then, decades later, something happens
and you realize that it’s not done yet,
it’s still in process.”
(Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary)

and (3) I realized that the photo and Rabbi Kushner are begging me to tell additional stories, bigger stories than the ones I’ve already compiled in three-ring binders for my kids—old letters to folks back home and a few added stories.

While it’s good that I compiled them, they are just the facts, not memoir. (What is a memoir? Click on that link, and on this one.) 

Currently my stories dawdle on the surface. They lack memoir’s introspection, pondering, and unraveling.

They lack an examination of what God was doing in and for and through it all.

But now that snapshot has changed everything. That snapshot represents a theme (which is an important aspect of memoir), an ever-present undercurrent that impacted everything during our years there.

The picture foreshadows stories that made ongoing international news—events that touched our family and friends. Events that changed many lives. Forever.

What am I talking about?

Let’s look another look at the picture:

That’s my Karen (her haircut is a story for another day),
Glenny, my Matt, and Ray Rising, Jr.,
who had also come over to play that first day.

Only days ago I looked at that picture and realized that when we moved to the mission field, the first two kids my kids met, Glenny and Ray, became victims of leftist guerrillas.

Less than five years after that snapshot, guerrillas kidnapped Glenny’s brother-in-law, Chet Bitterman, and murdered him 42 days later. His story was all over the news. Steve Estes captured the story in Called to Die. (I know almost everyone in the book.)  

The day I took that picture, no one could have guessed guerrillas would kidnap and murder our neighbor and coworker, Chet.

In 1994, guerrillas kidnapped Ray’s dad, Ray Rising, Sr., and international news agencies covered this event, too. Unlike Chet’s case, guerrillas released Ray after 810 days. Denise Marie Siino penned that grueling episode in Guerrilla Hostage

The day I snapped that picture, no one could have guessed guerrillas would kidnap Ray’s dad.

Shortly after the Glenny-and-the-snake incident, the next two friends my kids met were Mark and Tracey Tattersall. Several years later, guerrillas gunned down their father and our friend, Norm.

No one could have guessed those precious children would experience the guerrillas’ radical violence so personally. No one could have foreseen the high price they’d pay.

But there’s more. It occurred to me that our stories' overall theme would be carried out, literally, in the lives of the first four kids my kids befriended.

And I could tell you more stories of more kidnappings and more murders at the hands of leftist guerrillas.

Those photo discoveries make me marvel yet again at the richness of memoir—the tunneling beneath the surface to find deeper meaning, to discover what God was doing.

Memoir involves piecing together small pictures that, like a collage, compose and reflect the bigger picture.

That bigger picture for three years for our young family, that bigger picture for colleagues who worked there thirty years, and for missionaries with other organizations, and for Peace Corps volunteers—that bigger picture included guerrillas, always lurking, sometimes face to face, sometimes in the shadows, but always stalking—always—from before our family’s arrival and for years to come.

All these years I’ve treated the bigger story like an elephant in the room.

Why? A couple of reasons.

The bulk of my materials consist of letters I sent home and, when I wrote them, I didn’t want to alarm our parents. Yes, they knew of guerrilla activities while we were there, but I deliberately downplayed them.

Second, I’m sure we were at least partially in denial about our day-to-day dangers. (And maybe that wasn’t so bad. Living in denial was much more fun than living in wild-eyed, paralyzing terror.)

Now, however, years later, I have no reason to hide the realities.

The time has come to deal with the elephant in the room because, as a family, we can embrace deeper lessons.

I want my kids, and someday their kids, to celebrate God’s faithfulness, power, and protection for our family and friends.

I want my kids, and someday their kids, to marvel at how God can use everyday people to accomplish SuperHuman heroic feats.

I want my kids, and someday their kids, to see God’s sovereignty: To us, at the time, it looked like God had to scramble to patch together a Plan B, when it was his Plan A all along.

So, now I must decide: What’s the best way to incorporate that bigger, broader message—that theme—into my already-existing stories?

Do I want to revise the letters and stories and turn them into a memoir?

I groan when I think of the time and effort that would take.

Come back Wednesday and I’ll tell you what I might do.…