Tuesday, November 24, 2020

How and when to write the seared, charred, blistered parts


I’ve seen this happen too often and saw it again when my friend began writing his memoir—by writing about the most traumatic year of his life. Yikes!


When memoirists start by writing the super-painful stuff, too often they become overwhelmed all over again with the devastation they endured—and soon they give up writing altogether. Don’t let that happen to you.


Please hear this: Begin your memoir by writing your easy stories—the happy stories, the funny incidents, the fascinating experiences. That way you can ease your way into both writing and doing the reflecting that memoir is.


You don’t have to write your chapters/vignettes in the same order they’ll appear in your completed memoir. Write them in any order that’s easiest for you. Later you can organize them in the best way.


My heart wants you to fall in love with:

  • remembering,
  • and pondering,
  • and discovering the good stuff you overlooked in the past,
  • and making sense of what used to mystify you,
  • and with writing,
  • and with choosing just the right words,
  • and with fashioning your story as a gift for others.


For now, give yourself permission to begin with easy stories. Tackle your hard stories later.


Even if you’re not physically putting your aching, tender, throbbing accounts into words (with pen and ink or on a computer screen), you are working on the story. I can’t explain how that works but, behind the scenes, your heart and brain are working on how to write the troubling stuff.


Let your heartache marinate for a few weeks or months—or however long it takes. Pour out your heart to God. Wait patiently before Him, putting your hope in Him (Psalm 62:5-6).


He bends down and listens to you, He hears and answers (Psalm 116:1-2).


Stay alert. One day you’ll be vacuuming the car, or playing catch with your grandson, or folding laundry, and you’ll have one of those A-HA! moments.


Or maybe you’ll hear a song, or someone else’s story, or a Bible verse, or a poem and, out of the blue, God speaks, or maybe nudges, offering you insight and clarity about your hurtful experiences.


When that happens, listen. Jot down notes to yourself. You’ll be mining treasures. Later you can use your notes to compose your rough draft.


Speaking of your rough draft: It is for your eyes only.


Because of that, you can write it all—the seared, charred, blistered parts, the questions you never had the courage to ask aloud, the doubts you kept secret, the anger you kept bottled up. You will revise your memoir numerous times before you publish it so keep this in mind: You can always delete, or revise, the bleeding and raw portions of your first draft. For now, just wrestle them into writing, for your own sake.


Invite God to sit close beside you as you write. He wants to help you remember, maybe to see things differently, to notice the ways He helped in the past and continues to help you day by day, year by year. He wants you to see there’s a good place for you on this side of your pain.


Memoirist Kathleen Pooler said this of writing her two memoirs: “When I first started writing out my stories, facing painful memories was difficult. As I kept writing, new insights revealed themselves to me . . . just through the process of facing them and writing about them. I experienced healing through reading my own words and began to feel I was on the other side of pain.”  (Kathleen Pooler, Ever Faithful to His Lead and Just the Way He Walked)


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Make ‘em cry along with you as you cry


For the past few weeks, we’ve considered Wilkie Collins’s advice to writers: “Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.” (If you missed earlier posts about “make ‘em laugh,” see list and links below.)


If you can make ‘em cry, you’ll pull readers into your story.


And you do want them to read your story, all the way to the end.




Because whether readers realize it or not, they’re looking to you for answers and direction. They want to know how you coped with life—sorrows and joys, victories and defeats, despair and hope.


They’re looking for a takeawaythat part of your story they will always hold close because it changed their lives.


Be sure your memoir has takeaways: your insights that they can apply to their own lives, lessons you learned that will guide them in the future, a resource for living life well, a reason to hope, a reason to trust God, a better understanding of themselves.


So let’s get back to making ‘em cry. That’s one way to leave readers with the blessings of your takeaways but, to receive them all, readers have to keep reading, and you can keep them reading if you make ‘em cry along with you as you cry.


Oh, but it’s hard to write about our life’s most painful parts!


The ache. Heartbreak. Grief. Anguish.


So many of us avoid writing the painful stuff.


Am I describing you? Have you been unable to write about the stuff that opens up old wounds?


How many of your stories remain untold?


Mick Silva says writers must be willing to take a chance—to risk examining our hard bits and pieces—and then to risk writing about them.


“That necessity to risk is why writing takes courage above all else,” he says.


Risking pain to seek the deeper truths about yourself and life, risking sharing what you know.


“Risking paying close attention when you experience pain or fear, knowing it means you’ve been chosen to understand, express and explain this particular view of it best. . . .” (Mick Silva)


Writing about our sorrows can bring us healing (more on that in coming weeks), but there’s morethere’s another layer to your storytelling: God can use our stories.


God even planned for us to share our stories:


2 Corinthians 1:3-4 tells us that the God of all comfort reaches out to comfort us in our troubles so that we can comfort others with the comfort we have received from Him.


That means writing about how God helped you through painful experiences is a sacred calling, a ministry.


Take, for example, Dana Goodman’s experience:


During my intense grieving moments, other people’s stories gave me words to describe the ache that was indescribable. They gave me hope that a new day would dawn, and I would not be stuck in the black forever.” (Dana Goodman, author, In the Cleft: Joy Comes in the Mourning)


And so, we write.


“In a world that groans of brokenness

and screams of injustice,

it matters that we hold our creative candles

right up next to the pain.”

Settle Monroe


A word of caution:


Writing about heartaches and wounds can be excruciating—because to write them requires us to relive them. If we haven’t healed enough to write those stories, we must wait until we can relive them and write them.


Next week we’ll look at one technique to help us write—but only when we are ready.


In the meantime, pray and ask God to help you write the painful stuff. Doing so can help your healing and can help readers, too—maybe in ways you could never have imagined.


Related posts:

Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait

Humor in your memoir: “like a sneak attack”

Using humor the right way in memoir

Make ‘em laugh: an instant connection



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Make ‘em cry


“Our best stories evoke an emotional response, touch a deep cord, and motivate action and change,” writes Peter Guber, famous storyteller.


Think about a time when a story—a book, a movie, a speech, a personal conversation—brought you to tears. That’s what Peter Guber is talking about: That deep emotional response.


Ask yourself how that changed you, that story that made you cry. If you set aside time to ponder that, you’ll probably come up with the answer.


Similarly, if a reader makes an emotional connection with you by reading your memoir, he will do more than keep reading. He will also become a different, better person for having read it.


Your job, then, as a memoirist, is to tell your story in such a way that readers get stirred up inside and respond emotionally. Your job is to make your story so impactful that it inspires action and change.


One way to do that is to follow Wilkie Collins’ advice: “make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”


For the past few weeks, we’ve considered how to make readers laugh. (If you missed those posts, click here.)


Now we’re going to look at how to “make ‘em cry” because that, too, is important in creating a relationship between you and your readers.


But first, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Sometimes people wonder—mainly men, I suspect—why we should include sorrows and struggles and tears in our memoirs.


The reasons are many: “Our sufferings and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives,” writes Henri Nouwen.


If Nouwen is right, then what are our suffering and pains?


Let’s look back. If we look back and reflect and examine, we’ll recognize that often during our hardest times, we learned our most important lessons.


Difficulties can get our attention when we’ve been in denial.


They can make us cling to God.


They can give us a holy discontent over things that are not right in our lives—and inspire us to change.


Sorrows can be the stuff of turning points and second chances.


They can lead to personal victories.


And then sharing those stories can benefit readers. When we make ourselves vulnerable and write about our hurts, readers recognize they have something in common with us.


That, in turn, invites them to enter into our stories and learn lessons for themselves through our experiences because:


Stories can be a stand-in for life, allowing us [readers] to expand our knowledge beyond what we could reasonably squeeze into a lifetime of direct experience . . . . We can take in the stories of others . . . [and have] opportunity to try out solutions.” (Peter Guber)


Always remember this: God can use your story. That’s why the Bible teaches us to tell our stories:

  • Go tell your family everything God has done for you (Luke 8:39).
  • O God, let each generation tell its children of Your mighty acts; let them retell stories of your power (Psalm 145:4).
  • Always remember what you’ve seen God do and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren (Deuteronomy 4:9).


Next week we’ll take a deeper look about how to “make ‘em cry,” but for now, experiment.


Go back in time, re-live one or more sad parts of your story and jot down thoughts and reactions and questions and fears and prayers.


Reconstruct your experience for readers.


Keep in mind you’re working on a rough draft. You can revise it later but for now, get something in writing.


You can do this!


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Make ‘em laugh: “an instant connection”


I hope you’ve enjoyed our recent posts on Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”


You’ll remember that Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) gets credit for that advice, though he said he borrowed the idea from the music hall; some speculate he borrowed it from Dickens.


Whatever its origin, speakers and writers follow that advice for obvious reasons: it keeps audiences engaged.


In writing your memoir, then, “Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.” I prefer to change Collins’ orderin many cases, I like to make ‘em laugh before I make ‘em cry.


Next week we’ll look at making ‘em cry, but today, we’ll finish with “make ‘em laugh.”


Remember: humor helps draw readers to you. It encourages bonding and allows readers to be involved with you in your story.


Humor makes you seem real. You are no longer a vague author lurking in shadows. Instead, your reader has spent a happy time with you and, as a result, she likes you. She wants to know you better.

And there’s a lot to be said about combining vulnerability with humor:


“The blend of vulnerability and humor,” writes pastor Chuck Swindoll, “established an instant connection that allowed what I had to say to slip past their defenses and find a warm welcome in their hearts.”


Chuck’s advice works for memoirists. He goes on to say:


Humor will help you ‘say it well.’ When handled with care, humor will also endear you to your audiences, who will then give you greater access to their hearts.” (Touching Others With Your Words)


If you missed recent posts on making ‘em laugh

in your memoir, click on the links below.


And be sure to come back next week for “make ‘em cry.”


Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”

Humor in your memoir: “like a sneak attack”

Use humor the right way in your memoir


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Use humor the right way in your memoir

Have you looked for ways to include humor in your memoir? I hope so, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the process—especially the end result.  (If you missed our last two posts, click on “Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait” and Humor in your memoir: “like a sneak attack”.)


Humor can work wonders in human hearts and lives. Take, for example, what happened one day to Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers (The Writing Sisters).


Feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities and tight schedules, they took a break and watched something on TV: Lucy and Ethel wearing bakery hats.


“As I watch them desperately wrapping candies unable to keep up with the speed of the conveyor belt, I totally relate to the feeling. I’m already behind today. Now I’m laughing and feeling connected, not alone in my frailty and human condition. It’s a relief to be reminded that I am human, made of dust. My own busy day pulls into perspective” (emphasis mine).


That’s the value of humor and its capacity to bond. In the same way Lucy and Ethel’s episode impacted The Writing Sisters, your humor can help readers bond with you and your storyand keep reading.


Readers like to be entertained. If you entertain them, you engage them, and you’ve begun to win them over.

“…We like to read other people’s

embarrassing stories.

They give us a laugh—

and often lift our mood

(‘at least I didn’t do that!’).

They can even provide

valuable learning experiences.

You don’t want to overdo it

and come across as a bumbling idiot—

but occasionally admitting to

something embarrassing

or talking about a failure

can make you more human

in your readers’ eyes.”

Ali Luke


Stand back and search for what’s comical or quirky in your situation. Look for ways to use subtle humor. Or maybe exaggerate just a wee bit. Experiment. Give yourself time. It might just work.


But here’s a caution: Avoid offending. Poke fun at yourself, not others. If we want readers to respect us, we must respect others.


The Writing Sisters caught my attention with this: “Worldly humor comes from a platform of superiority over others, Godly humor from a platform of humility.


The Sisters shared Liz Curtis Higgs’ list comparing worldly humor with God-honoring humor:


“Worldly Humor

  • Glorifies sin
  • Puts down others
  • Ridicules righteousness
  • Hurts the spirit


Godly Humor

  • Avoids offense
  • Builds up others
  • Honors the Lord
  • Heals the Spirit” 


Laughter is

a universal language,

a common connector

a shared experience.


Use it

in your memoir.


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Humor in your memoir: “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—ten years ago!—I read a Johnny B. Truant post about a brilliant technique we can apply to writing memoir.


Johnny told a story from his high school years when one afternoon, 1200 students gathered for an assembly—but no one knew why.


Two men took the stage and, instead of telling why they were there, they told jokes and funny stories, commiserated with students about how bad high school is, and poked fun at teachers and administrators.


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


But everything changed about halfway through the talk. “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 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.”


The speakers didn’t preach that AIDS is something to avoid. Instead, they brought the crowd back to a girl they’d talked about in their funny stories—and told them she died of HIV.


They didn’t tell the students not to drink and drive. Instead, they brought the crowd back to a boy they’d heard about earlier in the funny stories—and told them he was hit by a drunk driver and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.


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 guest speakers had come to urge the teens to avoid dumb choices and reckless living and peer pressure and, instead, to think, to be smart, to make right choices. Usually high schoolers thumb their noses at adults who try to tell them such things, “But because they did their selling through stories, we’d bought it all,” remembers Johnny.


What do you think? Wasn’t that a brilliant technique?


Using humor in the beginning of their talk was a factor in their story’s success—which brings us back to last week’s post and the importance of making ‘em laugh in your memoir.


Humor establishes a bond between you and your readers. It engages your readers and makes you seem real. Humor endears you to your readers. Humor makes your readers enjoy you. (Read more at “Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”)


If you don’t establish a bond with your readers toward the beginning of your memoir, they’re likely to toss your memoir aside and let it get dusty. Or maybe throw it in the trash. Or donate it to the local thrift store.


If you want people to read your memoir, you’ve gotta hook your readers. Including at least a little humor someplace early in your memoir can do that. (Your memoir might not lend itself to humor—we’ll look at other options in the future—but everyone else should consider using it.)


Think of this: You don’t know who your readers might be. You’re writing your memoir for people who come after you, perhaps generations not yet born. You can’t look into the future to know what their situations and challenges might be.


But you do know everyone has challenges and heartaches. Everyone needs wisdom to make important decisions and live their lives well, and your memoir’s stories could help readers find their way through the bumps and potholes in the road.


Remember: God used other people’s stories to help make you who you are. Their stories rubbed off on you. It’s as if other people’s stories are infectious. Contagious.

Someone’s story helped:

  • show you courage
  • show you how to live an honorable life
  • keep your faith strong
  • help you not give up hope
  • keep you on the right track
  • inspire you
  • pass on wisdom to you
  • point you to God.


Now it’s your turn. In the same way, other people helped you by sharing their stories, you can help others by sharing your stories.


Your stories are important. If you don’t want readers to roll their eyes and toss your memoir aside, try the techniques those guest speakers did:


Introduce your main characters (that includes you)

in ways that entertain and interest your readers.

Draw them in.

Develop your characters so readers can

bond with them,

so they’ll care about them.

Create main characters readers can engage with,

like the kids in the school assembly engaged with the speakers that day.


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


To help you get started:


Who impressed upon you the importance of safe driving, or standing up to peer pressure, or the consequences of cheating or lying? What are your stories? Write them.


Who taught you the merits of keeping a promise, or arriving at work on time, or being loyal? What are your stories? Write them.


What did key people in your past teach you? And how? What are your stories? Write them.


If you want to pass on

important lessons

to future generations,

write engaging stories

with well-developed characters.

And consider using humor

toward the beginning

to draw them in.


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

“Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”

“Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.” 

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) gets credit for that advice, though he said he borrowed the idea from the music hall; some speculate he borrowed it from Dickens. 

Whatever its origin, speakers and writers follow that advice for obvious reasons: it keeps audiences engaged. 

In writing your memoir, then, “make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.” 

I prefer to change Collins’ order—I like to make ‘em laugh before I make ‘em cry. 

Humor endears you to your reader. 

Humor makes you seem real. You are no longer a vague author lurking in shadows. Instead, your reader has spent a happy time with you and, as a result, she likes you. She wants to know you better. 

If you doubt that, think back to a time when a stranger charmed you because he made you laugh. The two of you might never have met—perhaps he was a performer or athlete, or maybe a conference speaker—but after laughing together you felt admiration and probably even a bond. His personality shined through and you enjoyed him. You liked him. You’d like to spend time together. 

Laughter is

a universal language,

a common connector,

a shared experience. 

I once read an article about a boring subject—a winter squash soup recipe—but the article was no yawner. See for yourself in this excerpt: 

“I found myself under a misty night sky, the brick patio glistening with rain under the light of the crescent moon. I raised a giant Kabocha [squash] over my head, gave out a shriek for good measure and hurled it onto the brick. It was primal.… The husk broke loose, and I gathered the sweet orange chunks and returned to my warm kitchen.… There was something exhilarating about starting a pot of autumn soup by howling in the moonlight.” (Betsy Wharton, The Peninsula Daily News; emphasis mine) 

You smiled. I know you did. Some of you even chuckled. You feel you know Betsy, at least a little, after catching a glimpse of her shrieking and howling on her patio. 

Humor can also lighten the mood during stressful segments of your memoir. When writing about heartbreak, tragedy, and other heavy topics, inject humor occasionally. Something light gives readers a break. Laughter lets readers catch their breath and regroup. Humor can provide much-needed perspective and balance. 

In my first memoir, Grandma’s Letters from Africa, after writing about witnessing (from a distance) inconceivable atrocities that raged for months in neighboring nations in Africa, I poked fun at myself in a light-hearted vignette about my midnight fights with mosquitoes. 

I’d been writing about colleagues who eventually evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya, where my husband and I lived. For months we had prayed for them, housed one of them, and invited a couple of them to join us for Christmas. We welcomed their children into our school. We listened to their stories, wept with them, and prayed for them. 

Even though our colleagues were safe, we agonized over continuing massacres and mutilations Africans were inflicting upon each other. The daily relentlessness left all of us numb. 

Then things got worse: A segment of Nairobi’s population started violent protests near our office and home. It seemed like our world was spinning out of control. 

And right there in the middle of it, I held my own mock-violent protest about mosquitoes in our apartment. My silly little drama didn’t seem out of place in my memoir because that was how real life was happening at the time: In the midst of heightened tensions, worries, and heartaches, funny incidents popped up. (And I was thankful to laugh about something. Ya can’t cry all the time.) The mosquito vignette offered a breather to both my readers and me. 

In the future, we’ll look at making ‘em cry but, for now, search for ways to include a little humor in your memoir. 

Humor can enliven your memoir,

shine light on your personality,

and help readers feel acquainted with you.


Humor can also offer respite

from intense chapters in your story. 


Below you’ll find links about humor in your writing: 

Emily Drevet’s How to Be Funny With Well-Chosen Words 

Jeff Goins says humor is “…the difference between flat writing and dynamic communication.” Read more at Humor Writing for People Who Aren’tFunny 

Mark Nichols’ 20 Types and Forms of Humor [http://www.dailywritingtips.com/20-types-and-forms-of-humor/?utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=twitterfeed