Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Agony and Ecstasy of Memoir Writing: Digging Deep

If you’re writing about—or trying to write about—an excruciating experience, you’ll identify with Kathy Pooler.  

She’s a dear lady and fellow memoirist who today shares with us—in a transparent, sometimes painful way—the agony as well as the ecstasy she’s faced while writing her second memoir.

So, we welcome you, Kathy, and look forward to the insights, advice, and encouragement you have for us, your fellow memoirists.

As I work on my second memoir, Daring to Hope: A Mother’s Story of Healing from Cancer and Her Son’s Alcohol Addiction, I find myself knee-deep in the swamp of memories that pop up at the strangest times—when I’m standing in line at the grocery store or trying to fall asleep at night.

I call them “scene pops” and have learned that anything that keeps me up at night is worth writing down.

When you write a memoir, the story is always with you. The challenge is to capture the moments that will invite and keep your reader in the story. The moments that matter.

But just when I think the manuscript is finished enough for a professional editor, I think of another scene or detail that I need to include. It feels like a faucet has been turned on and keeps flowing. The story is not quite ready, much like baking a cake requires all the right ingredients before you put it in the oven. My story needs a few more ingredients before I ship it.

Like most things in life, timing is everything.

How much deeper do I need to go?

My writing group tells me that I need to show more about why seeing my fourteen-year-old son drunk for the first time was so horrifying to me. They have challenged me to keep digging deeper so that the reader will feel and understand my responses.

This is the agony part . . . the part where revisiting painful memories stirs up deep-seated emotions.

A litany of questions bombard me:

Why didn’t this young mother take action sooner?

What could she have done that would have made a difference?

How could she stand to look into her son’s hollow eyes and not want to rescue him from his self-destructive tendencies?

How can she not blame herself for her son’s addiction?

How does a mother handle an addicted child while fighting her own cancer?

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg notes:

“Caress the divine details, touch them tenderly. Let your whole body touch the river you are writing about, so if you call it yellow or stupid or slow, all of you is feeling it” (page 50).

I’m listening and caressing those divine details in what I call “manageable doses,” meaning I work on it for brief periods of time, then put it aside. Sometimes I need a few days before I revisit it. As time goes by, the amount of time I need to stay away has decreased. There were times when I shelved this project for months as I worked through the sensitivities of writing about my children.

Too. Darn. Painful.

I want to honor the story and do it justice. Giving myself time to process it is part of taking care of myself so the story can take care of itself.

The only way to the other side of the swamp is through and, as long as I keep writing, I can begin to see the shoreline in sight.

Memoir writing is a journey of self-discovery that slowly reveals itself layer by layer.

There are surprises, detours, and potholes along the way. But if I keep persisting on the path, I trust it will make sense.

Here’s the ecstasy part . . . treasures that are unearthed as I keep digging past the guilt and shame and terror of loving an addicted child.

We all have a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Writing about it, though fraught with challenges, gives me the opportunity to make sense of it and even reframe the story. In my case, the mother who unwittingly enabled her son turned out to be the mother who never gave up hope. Reflecting on the struggles, losses and regrets—so the reader sees, feels, hears, smells in the moments I describe—brings that reader into my experience.

If I can make sense of the jumble of memories, my life review, I can reflect on who I am, the meaning and purpose of my life and where my pain has taken me. In doing so, someone else can relate my story to their story and perhaps gain some perspective that may help them travel their own path.

And isn’t that why we write memoir, to make sense of our lives and share the message that will inspire and enlighten others as well as ourselves?

Writing my memoirs has helped me 
lift the burdens of my past 
and share the lessons of that pain. 
The agony of reliving the pain 
is rewarded by the ecstasy of self-discovery 
and sharing a story 
that will touch others in meaningful ways.

When readers reach out to me to let me know 
that my story was meaningful to them, 
I know it was worth all the agony.

And what better time than now 
to tell the story only I can tell? 

If not now, when? 

And if I don’t write it, who will?

Kathy Pooler, a retired family nurse practitioner and a cancer survivor, authored Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away from Emotional Abuse and will soon publish her second memoir. Check out Kathy’s blog, Memoir Writer’s Journey, and follow her on Facebook.

This post was originally published on Kathy’s blog, 

Kathy and I got together for lunch a few years ago.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: Sometimes stories can keep us alive

“Many a child from a chaotic or unpredictable household
has coped by escaping into
the more orderly world of a good book.
Many an adult has used books to cope
with a life that’s not going the way they planned.

Sometimes, good stories do nothing short of keep us alive.

We read when we feel good, to be sure, but we also read
when we can’t or don’t want to deal with the world around us
or the world inside our own head.
But… perhaps it’s not just the escape that we like,
but the person we are when we finish that last page and close the book.

Good stories not only engage us, move us, and connect us,
but help us re-emerge into reality stronger, calmer,
and more prepared to tackle the world.

God used other people’s stories to help make you who you are. Their stories rubbed off on you. Their stories were infectious, contagious.

Now it’s your turn to tell your stories. Someone needs them.

Writing your memoir is
a sacred work,
a high calling,
a divine project.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Share your memoir’s first seven sentences with us

Memoirist Kathy Pooler tagged me and several others on Facebook recently, inviting us to share the first seven sentences of our WIP (work in progress). That was fun!

Today we invite you to share your openings, as well.

But first, for inspiration, read four brief sample openings, below:  

Here’s an excerpt from the Prologue of Kathleen Pooler’s second memoir, Daring to Hope: A Mother’s Story of Healing from Cancer and Her Son’s Alcohol Addiction:

For as long as I can remember, it has always been my role to mother my children whether that meant jumping in to fix every little mishap or showing love for their hurts and boo-boos. Eventually as they grew up, I would need to learn to let go and let my children navigate their lives on their own.  
This has been by far, the hardest lesson for me as a parent to learn. As a mother of an addicted son, my understanding of mothering was fearfully tested. 
I always loved my son but hated what he was doing to himself with his drinking which time after time left him foundering and me wringing my hands in angst in an endless series of self-defeating activities.
When he was a toddler, I could just pick him up and remove him from a dangerous situation. I could protect him. But as he grew, he tested my limits. I could not have known that the seven-year-old who screamed, “Look Ma, no hands” at the top of the pine tree would one day as a young adult find himself stranded, homeless, jobless and utterly alone.

Below are the first few sentences of my soon-to-be-published memoir, working title Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go!

I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Roland, a seasoned bush aviator, as he piloted the custom twin-engine toward a Colombian airfield. I’d flown in our planes several times, but this was a first—watching the landing from the copilot’s seat. 
Dipping low, three or four seconds from touchdown, the wing on my side catapulted into the air and the plane veered to the left, lopsided and convulsing. Red lights flashed in the cockpit. A buzzer blared. Roland jerked levers and slapped switches and punched buttons.  
Please, God! I prayed, but I couldn’t say more—I couldn’t breathe. Of all the potential dangers I’d worried about for that trip—kidnapping, murder, and guerrilla activity aimed toward U.S. citizens—I’d never imagined a plane crash.

The next excerpt is from the beginning of Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life: A Memoir:

This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes. A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t. My children are close then one drifts away. I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again. The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent. He grounds me. Rich is where I shine. I can count on myself with him.

And his is from the Prologue of Richard Gilbert’s Shepherd: A Memoir:

Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life. As if the strong feelings they stir prove their validity, dreams propel the dreamer through an indifferent world. Which explains how I, a guy who grew up in a Florida beach town, find myself crouched beside a suffering sheep in an Appalachian pasture. 
“Richard, I think you should call the vent,” says my wife. Kathy and I flank the ewe’s prostrate body. 
Our third lambing has just begun this spring of 2001, and Red is in trouble. I’d found the little ewe in distress and had urged her up and nudged her inside an old shed, where she’d collapsed and resumed straining, panting as if in labor. But nothing happens; no lambs, hour after hour.

Okay, now it’s your turn! Post your first few sentences (up to ten sentences) below in the comments, or as a comment on SM 101’s Facebook Page, or in a private message.

The following posts will help you craft your memoir’s opening:

First lines    

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A must-read: Bill Sanders’ life-changing 30 seconds at the ballfield

You’re in for a treat today.

Remember Bill Sanders? That young man whose memoir changed me? He’s the guy who worked for twenty years as an award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and editor for several daily newspapers. The man who wrote Staying, A Multi-Generational Memoir of Rescue and Restoration. (If you missed Thursday’s post, click on Let me introduce you to The Great Stayer.) 

Today we get to enjoy a short essay Bill wrote, one of his personal favorites. “Author Anne Lamott is one of our time’s best writing teachers,” Bill says, “brilliant at telling individual anecdotes and making you think you’ve read a cohesive life lesson. And you have.”

Bill has done just that in his story below—he has written an anecdote with a gift inside—a cohesive life lesson for you and for me and for all readers.

If you’ve read his memoir, you know one of his joys was coaching girls’ softball for 12 years. He says, “If I could make a living coaching rec-league girls softball, I would.”

So, settle in and enjoy this gentle man’s conversational, warm anecdote about his love of coaching and a life-changing 30 seconds at one of his favorite places, the local ballfield.


When little Marissa saw me at the ballpark one night several years ago, her face lit up with that big toothy smile of hers. She took off from 30 feet away for a full frontal, torpedo-action hug.

If she weighed more than a bag of feathers, I might have had to brace myself. Thankfully, she is a bag of feathers, because had I braced myself, or guarded myself—had I done anything other than take the full force of her enthusiasm—I would have missed out.
It wasn’t until the day after that I fully processed what this 30 seconds of life had meant to me. And now three years later, I’m beginning to doubt I'll ever forget it.

I saw lots of friendly faces and was on the receiving end of a handful of hugs and handshakes and “we-miss-you” sentiments. I had coached softball at this park for 12 years, and a couple of months earlier, I had finished my career in a less-than-ideal manner.

That didn't matter to 11-year-old Marissa, though. She greeted me like the Father greets me, like his prodigal son. She celebrated seeing me with a totally unexpected and wild abandon.

For all she knew, I had quit on her and her teammates in the middle of a difficult all-star summer season. I think she probably was old enough and savvy enough to know there was something more to it, but after talking to her mom that night, I also knew that her parents had shielded her from the specifics of what had been a particularly ugly case of ballpark politics, one in which I was not completely blameless.

Marissa would have been just if she’d looked at me and said, “Hey, where’d you go; where’ve you been?” She’d have had every right to withhold her love until I’d satisfied her sense of right and wrong and offered up an explanation. If that even occurred to her, she didn’t show it. She simply hugged me, smiled and asked me if I’d coach her again next summer.

Holy cow, God. Thank you for sending Marissa my way on this night. 

I knew when I walked back into the ballpark where I’d coached some 25 teams over the years that I’d probably run into people that didn’t like me.
Most of those years, the fields had been my primary place of ministry as well as the primary place where I’d come under assault from the enemy of my soul. On a spiritual plane, I was convinced that something was at stake every time I walked onto those fields.
Battles for teenage girls’ hearts were raging, I’d reminded myself. True, but as importantly, a battle for my own heart was raging.

Spiritually speaking, I’d lost a lot of blood on that battlefield. I had taken direct hits, been blindsided and ambushed for the sake of the ministry, for the sake of girls’ wounded hearts, for the sake of Christ. I had been abandoned by many of my trusted allies. If I'm counting the cost, then that's the tally, pure and simple.
But along the way, I—this prodigal son who has seen the light but is still prone to wander—created some of the collateral damage of my own. When the assaults got intense, I spent too much time preparing my defense and lining up witnesses to testify on my behalf in the invisible, but real, court of public perception. I was self-protecting, making sure my account of how others had acted was discreetly spread throughout the park.
I am always at my worst when I’m in self-protection mode. Don’t get me wrong; I’m pretty adept at it. But wouldn’t I be better off fighting the fight, which in this case, and in most cases, means loving with more of my heart, and letting God take care of protecting me?
Instead, I do the things I don’t want to do and don’t do the things I want to do.
So, I walked back on the fields that night as a spectator and a visitor. I wasn't coaching a team and I knew my time doing that had reached its end. But no win in a softball game meant as much as the time when the Father, in the form of that 11-year-old freckled-face sack of feathers, met me with open arms, and said, “Welcome home.” 


What a moving story—light-hearted yet multilayered and weighty.

Did you notice how Bill took time to reflect? Reflection is that all-important aspect of memoir.

Most of us need to work hard to reflect well because,
as Richard Foster observes,
The sad truth is that many authors
simply have never learned to reflect substantively on anything.’”

Bill made time to reflect, to look below the surface and discover the deeper, richer story. He then tells us how his pondering paid off—it changed his life. He realized he could have missed that special gift from God and Marissa. That, in turn, led to his thankfulness that he hadn’t overlooked it.

Look at how Bill writes tight. Each word counts. He gives us details, but not too many—just enough so we get the picture and grasp his message.

And rather than going down rabbit trails, he stays on track, giving us only enough background to provide clarity and perspective

Note how skillfully he carries out the “Show, don’t tell” maxim: Instead of telling us Marissa was a skinny little girl, he shows us: He describes her so that we, the readers, conclude for ourselves that she’s a lightweight.

Bill doesn’t preach. Instead, his humility mentors us. He admits his own role in the discord, but he also rises above past controversies. He chooses to take the high road, a good lesson for all of us.

And note how, throughout, he tells the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). We don’t see a guy in a long robe living in the desert during Bible times. Rather, we see a prodigal son wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, or, since he lives in Georgia, probably wearing shorts and a T-shirt. And a baseball cap.

Through Bill’s story, we experience with him the joy of seeing God open His arms wide to all of us prodigals and hearing Him say, “Welcome home.”

Remember Bill’s praise of Anne Lamott: He said she is “brilliant at telling individual anecdotes and making you think you’ve read a cohesive life lesson.”

I’m sure you agree, Bill too, is brilliant at offering us a cohesive life lesson. He blessed us with a teaching moment all wrapped up in an enjoyable read.

What about you? Read beyond the lines: Think about your own prodigal son moment.

Can’t remember it?

Well, Bill almost overlooked his prodigal son moment. Maybe you failed to spot yours.

Spend time searching through your past for that event. Your search might take a long time, but the results will be worth your effort.

When you find your prodigal son moment, be like Bill: Package your life lesson within one of your memoir’s vignettes, all wrapped up in an enjoyable read.

Buy Bill's memoir on Amazon or through his website, Follow him on Facebook at William Sanders, Author.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Let me introduce you to William Sanders, The Great Stayer

You’ll like Bill Sanders. If you read his memoir, you can’t help but like him. And admire him. And respect him. His book will make you wish you could sit down with him over a cup of coffee so his goodness might rub off on you.

But his memoir, Staying: A Multi-Generational Memoir of Rescue and Restoration, is not an easy read. You’ll read stuff you don’t want to read. It’ll rip into your heart. But his story will also stitch your heart back together.

The best way to introduce you to the story and to Bill is to let him introduce himself. He writes on his website about what his parents did right. Notice his references to staying:

“When I was five years old, my birth mother abandoned my sister and me…. She returned nine months later—this time, to kidnap us….

“[Dad] fought for three days to get me back. He fought for 18 months to get my sister back….

“The greatest ‘right’ thing my dad did was to stay. Staying is taken for granted until you become intimately tied to being left. Subtly, without ever talking about his decision to stay in my life and the life of my sister, he modeled a trait for me that now is my most cherished quality as a father.

“In the weeks and months following our abduction, Dad could have caved. It was 1971. Dads didn’t get custody over moms, even ones prone to leave and then steal from their children what little sense of security they’d found since being abandoned. For Dad to stay in this particular arena, to not settle for anything less than total and complete custody of his children, cost him in every way. He was bled dry financially and was even bleeding on the inside from an ulcer that had taken root in his gut….

“A few years later, he met a woman who eventually became the mother I never had. She, too, stayed….

“They modeled love for each other that I learned from and now have with my wife. They told me they loved me every day, particularly my dad, but my stepmom, too [Bill has called her Mom for 40 years and counting]. I never wondered if their love for me was based on my performance. Eventually, that led me to believe that God’s love for me was not performance-based, either. Not too many of us get to that place, where we really believe that, as author Brennan Manning said so often, God loves us just as we are, not as we should be….

“The laundry list of things my parents did right, though, all came back to this. They stayed. In every sense of the word, they stayed. Never underestimate the power of staying.”

The memoir covers three generations. From the back of the book:

Staying: A Multi-Generational Memoir of Rescue and Restoration chronicles the events of William’s childhood and adolescence, and the effects those experiences had on him as a father to a little girl who suffered from debilitating anxiety and panic disorder. She needed a father who understood deep hurt and fear. She got one.”

When Bill was 38 years old, during an especially rough stretch “when the emotional pain of watching [daughter] Rachel tremble, cower and physically hurt from fear, was draining me . . . dry,”  God caught his attention late one night. 

He was “lying on Rachel's floor seeking some hope to cling to” when it happened. He sensed God was giving him a new name: You are The Great Stayer.”

Staying: “To stick or remain with, as in a race, or a trial of endurance. To remain the whole time. To fix on something as a foundation. To provide physical or moral support as in, to sustain.” That’s what Bill’s dad and stepmom had done for him, and that’s what God called Bill to do for his daughter and others.

Staying has meant staying in the arena of my kids’ lives. It has meant staying with [wife] Jane, through thick and thin. It’s meant staying in the battle for the hearts of friends when cancer takes their spouses, or when divorce comes to my best friend…. or when a friend’s teenager dies out of the blue. It meant not checking out emotionally or mentally….”

Bill’s story changed me, changed the way I see life and families and faith. His story impacted me in three ways. 

First, he gave me a glimpse into a hurting child’s mind and heart: 

I never knew how impossible it was for a wounded child to sleep at night. 

Bill let me hear the words he silently cried out. 

He let me experience his dread over what might happen to him in the next hour or day or week. 

His story changed the way I pray, especially for kids.

Second, I witnessed God working alongside this tenacious, courageous victim to shine light on darkness, bring beauty out of ashes, joy out of mourning, and praise out of despair (Isaiah 61:3).

And third, Bill’s relationship with God—intimate, comfortable, grace-filled—moved me to tears.

All these make Bill one of my heroes.

You must read his book. You’ll get to know a boy who could have grown up a bitter and dysfunctional man, angry at God—but he chose gentleness and hope and wholeness. His story is heart-rending, heartwarming, and profound.

But before I sign off for today, you need to know: For twenty years, Bill worked as an award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and editor for several daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was cited for writing best feature stories, best sports stories and best stories in Georgia and regionally.

That means he’s a pro at writing. You’ll notice that right away when you read his memoir. As a memoirist yourself, you can learn from his writing.

Come back Tuesday for a real treat—Bill’s guest post. Don’t miss it.

In the meantime, you can buy Bill’s memoir on Amazon or through his website, Follow him on Facebook at William Sanders, Author.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Tuesday Tidbit: The riches of looking back on life

"The sad truth," writes Richard Foster, "is that many authors simply have never learned to reflect substantively on anything." 

Ouch! That's a problem for those who write memoir because personal reflection is a key ingredient. 

That means if you want to write a memoir, you must learn to reflect in a meaningful, deliberate way.

Your job is to
mull over,
chew on,
wonder about,
think about,
chew over,
and study
your experiences and relationships and decisions you made.

You need to make sense of them.

Spend as much time as you need to read between the lines and peel away layers and notice what you might have overlooked before.

A.W. Tozer’s quote reminds me of what Jacob said in Genesis 28:16, “God was in this place and I wasn’t even aware of it.”

Uncover your richer, higher, wider, deeper, broader story,
especially relating to what God was doing.

Discovering that will change your heart and life
in ways you can’t imagine!

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

This is a big deal: “The world’s greatest wisdom passes through stories”

Do you worry about influences on your kids, grandkids, and great-grands?—influences that lure them away from your best hopes and dreams and prayers for them?

Less-than-stellar influencers bombard today’s young people, enticing them to live and believe in ways that could diminish them morally, spiritually, personally, mentally, and relationally.

Today’s kids are listening to the stories of movie stars, singers, comedians, the press, educators, athletes, politicians, authors, friends, and paranormal characters in books and movies.

If you worry about the stories your kids, grandkids, and great-grands listen to, how about telling them your stories?

There’s a good reason the Bible is full of stories. There’s a good reason Jesus told parables.

Never doubt the power of stories! Kathy Edens writes, “Research proves that stories and anecdotes help people retain information better. Forbes reported most people only remember about 5-10% of statistics you cite. But when you accompany your stats with a story, the retention rate bounces up to 65-70%.”

Wow! Did you know that? That’s impressive.

If you want to teach your grandkids the importance of telling the truth, for example, you can say to them, “It’s important to always tell the truth, and you can get yourself into tons of trouble if you lie,” but your words will probably go in one ear and out the other.

OR, you can tell them a story—a story of how you, or someone you know, learned the importance of honesty, and the consequences of dishonesty.

Your stories can teach your kids, grandkids, and great-grands so many important things—about keeping a commitment, being faithful, working hard, being kind.

Your stories can teach them to handle tragedies with tenacity and faith.

Your stories can help them choose courage over fear, generosity over stinginess, compassion over meanness, thankfulness over ingratitude, and so much more.   

 “The world’s greatest wisdom passes through stories,” writes Kathy Edens.

Think about this:

The world’s greatest wisdom
can flow through your stories!

If you’re still not convinced of your stories’ importance, here’s something else for you. It’s staggering, really.

In fact, this is a big deal.

In his New York Times article, “The Stories that Bind Us,” Bruce Feiler explores, from a secular perspective, what makes families healthy, resilient, happy, and functional.

He writes that Dr. Sara Duke, a psychologist working with children, discovered that while all families have struggles, “The [kids] who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she says.

Fascinated with Dr. Sara’s findings, her husband, Marshall, also a psychologist, and his colleague, Robyn Fuvish, did their own research on how much individual kids knew stories of their family’s history and its members—parents and grandparents, for example—and how much they knew of their family’s struggles as well as its triumphs.

They came to what Feiler calls “an overwhelming conclusion: The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their own lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

Shortly after that research, the United States experienced the attack on September 11, 2001, and Dr. Duke and his team checked again on the children they’d studied. None was directly impacted by the terrorist attack yet each one, like the rest of us, still suffered trauma. Nevertheless, “Once again…,” Dr. Duke found, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Don’t miss the rest of Feiler’s article, “The Stories that Bind Us.” You’ll find that youngsters who felt the most connected to their families—through stories of both ups and downs, and of their determination to survive and thrive—were the kids who could handle challenges and overcome obstacles in healthy ways.

There’s a good reason Jesus said,
“Go tell your family everything God has done for you”
(Luke 8:39).

That means you need to tell your stories!

And this is important: Avoid writing stories that are dry. Or dreary. Or preachy—avoid a “holier-than-thou” attitude.

DO write stories that include humor, adventure, mystery, romance, pets, childhood escapades, teenage pranks, athletic competitions—the list could go on and on.

We are storytellers,” writes Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros. “With the help of God, it is up to us to steward our calling and steward it well.

Think about this:

What stories have been entrusted to you? 

And perhaps even more important: Who has God entrusted to you?

And are you stewarding them—caring for them—to the very best of your ability?

“…Everyone needs writers
every child, every woman, every man—
to bring out these hidden truths
that lie dormant in us and help them
live what truly matters in life.
Writers have all got to work hard
at this occupation—
for the glory of people
and our most cherished beliefs and ideas.
To fight to ignore all the distractions
and take the time to share our stories
and unpack their meaning and messages….

It’s the most important job in the world.”

Be good stewards of your experiences and stories.

Do what Jesus said: Go tell your family all God has done for you.

Your stories could be life-changing for those who read them.