Saturday, July 28, 2012

“Life is a steep climb … and we must help one another”

“Life is a steep climb,” she wrote almost a century ago, “and it does the heart good to have somebody ‘call back’ and cheerily beckon us up the high hill.”

In the past hundred years, tens of thousands of us have received blessing upon blessing because Mrs. Charles E. Cowman called back—in writing.

We are all climbers together,” she continued in Streams in the Desert, “and we must help one another. This mountain climbing is serious business, but glorious. It takes strength and a steady step to find the summits.… If anyone among us has found anything worthwhile, we ought to ‘call back.’”

How long ago did I first read those words? Over 30 years ago. And they became an important theme in my life—a goal, a focus.

Below is a poem she wrote and, despite sounding old-fashioned, it contains precious gems of wisdom and inspiration for even the youngest among us:

If you have gone a little way ahead of me, call back
‘Twill cheer my heart and help my feet along the stony track;
And if, perchance, Faith’s light is dim, because the oil is low,
Your call will guide my lagging course as wearily I go.

Call back, and tell me that He went with you into the storm;
Call back, and say He kept you when the forest’s roots were torn;
That, when the heavens thunder and the earthquake shook the hill,
He bore you up and held you where the very air was still.

Oh, friend, call back, and tell me for I cannot see your face;
They say it glows with triumph, and your feet bound in the race;
But there are mists between us and my spirit eyes are dim,
And I cannot see the glory, though I long for word of Him.

But if you’ll say He heard you when your prayer was but a cry,
And if you’ll say He saw you through the night’s sin-darkened sky—
If you have gone a little way ahead, oh, friend, call back
‘Twill cheer my heart and help my feet along the stony track.

(from Mrs. Charles E. Cowman’s Streams in the Desert; emphasis mine)

Little did I know that Mrs. Cowman’s message would live so long in my heart and lead me to the word “memoir” and it all means, and the ways memoirs can bless others.

The point of her post echoes in this:

“ … The God of all comfort … comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

“Any grief we have gone through ourselves
and given over to the Lord’s healing
is preparation for comforting others.…
As one who has received comfort from Christ,
I will think of myself as a communicator of comfort.”
(Lloyd John Ogilvie, Silent Strength for My Life; emphasis mine)

Was there a time when your world fell apart, when your faith was at a low point, when you longed for God to heal your broken heart?

If so, it was “preparation for comforting others.” You “have gone a little way ahead” of others. Let God use your experience and your words to comfort others.

If you have experienced the death of a dream, or if you have endured devastating illness, write for those just beginning their own long, discouraging battle: “Call back, and tell [readers] that He went with you into the storm.”

If you’ve faced financial ruin, or if you’ve survived abuse or infidelity or betrayal, “call back” to encourage readers in the midst of their own heartache—those dear ones reeling while “the heavens thunder and the earthquake shakes.” Tell them the ways God “bore you up and held you.”

You cannot know who will read your words, but your stories are important. No one else can write them the way you can, and God can and will use them

Someone needs to read your God-and-you stories.

Say He heard you!”

“Say He saw you!”

“God gave us the gift of language to express something extraordinary. Well chosen words launched intentionally from one heart to another … soothe, heal, edify, build, and bring comfort.” (Birdie Courtright)  

Write stories for your memoir that will call back:
Be a communicator of comfort.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In light of recent tragedies, how can memoirists inspire hope?

In light of recent tragedies—our nation’s unrelenting drought, excessive heat, and crop failures, for example, and the massacre in Aurora, Colorado—the following well-known tale takes on new relevance:

A shipwreck survivor, alone on a desert island, prayed for God to rescue him.

He built a hut and waited for God to answer.

Day after day, he prayed.

Then one day his hut burned to the ground.

He was devastated. Not only had God failed to rescue him, now He also let the hut burn down! Why? Why?

The next day a ship arrived and rescued the man.

“How did you know I was here?” he asked the captain.

“We saw your smoke signal.”

Cavin Harper told that story Saturday on his blog at Christian Grandparenting Network. His perspective was spot on for memoirists, whether writing for children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or a broader audience.

Cavin wrote,

“Our grandchildren need to know 
that no matter what may come, 
God knows how to make smoke signals 
and rescue us in our troubles. 
How do you communicate words of hope 
to your grandchildren in the face of tragedy 
and senseless violence?

As much as we long to live happily ever after, bad stuff happens to good people. Like Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.”

You’ve experienced trouble and sorrows—maybe even violence, crime, abuse. I’ve experienced trouble. Your readers will experience trouble. What stories can you write to help people survive their shipwrecks and burned huts?

One of my all-time favorite Bible passages is Psalm 77 in which Asaph spoke of crying out to God. “When I cried out in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.”  

Asaph said he was too troubled even to speak.

You’ve been there, I’m sure. I’ve been there, too.

Perhaps you recall torturous weeks or months or years when you, like Asaph, wondered: “Will the Lord … never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful?”

Next is the part I like best:

Asaph says, “This is my anguish; But I will remember …” (v. 10, NKJV). “I will remember,” he stated, “the works of the Lord.”

The NIV Study Bible footnote points out that this was Asaph’s “Faith’s decision to look beyond the present troubles—and God’s bewildering inactivity—to draw help anew from God’s saving acts of old.”

That’s it! We cope by remembering what God did in the past!

And, like Asaph, we make a deliberate decision to trust in God’s previous faithfulness to us. We make a deliberate decision to believe that even if God seems mysteriously absent, He is working it all out.

Think back to a trying situation in your life. Perhaps God seemed absent, but later you discovered He had been working everything out. You survived. You learned new things about yourself and about God. You went on with your life, and it was good.

Asaph, in the very next chapter of Psalms, writes this:

“We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.… which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God…” (Psalm 78:4-7).

Isn’t that what our memoirs are all about?

Remember what Cavin Harper wrote in his Saturday blog post: “Our grandchildren need to know that no matter what may come, God knows how to make smoke signals and rescue us in our troubles. How do you communicate words of hope to your grandchildren in the face of tragedy and senseless violence?

Write your stories.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Trust in circumstances or in God?

Though the fig tree does not bud
 and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights.
(Habakkuk 3:17-19, NIV)

“… There’s a great difference between happiness and joy,” writes John Ogilvie.

“Happiness is dependent on having no problems or concerns; joy is having faith in God in spite of anything.

“Habakkuk had been through a profound experience with God. He dared to question honestly what God was doing with His people and why He was allowing the growing strength of the Chaldean enemy. Then the prophet was silent. The Lord gave him the benchmark truth that the just shall live by faith in Him alone. There would be trouble ahead as God judged the apostasy of His people with an enemy invasion, but Habakkuk would trust in Him.

The prophet of faith heaps up all that will happen and in spite of it all, leaps for joy. Habakkuk shifts his faith from trust in circumstances to trust in God. It is then that he can say the Lord is his strength. His heart not only pirouettes in joy, but is also given strength in weakness, light-footed security like the deer, and elevated vision for the future.” (Lloyd John Ogilvie, Silent Strength for My Life)

Beside this passage in my Bible, I’ve written, “A joyous commitment of faith” and “a song of confident joy.”

Look back on your life. Write a story about a time trouble loomed in a messy situation while God took care of ugliness and ungodliness—a time when, like Habakkuk, you faced it, knowing you could trust God.

How did God teach you the difference between happiness and joy?

Explain how God taught you His “benchmark truth that the just shall live by faith in Him alone.”

Paraphrase Habakkuk 3:17-19 for your own story. Like Habakkuk, heap up all that could have happened. List all the reasons you—or any human—could have despaired, phrase by phrase: “Though the _____ does not  ___ and there are no _______, though the _______ fails and the _____ produce no _______, though there are no ________ and no _______.…"

Then write your own song of confident joy. Declare, “And yet, I chose to rejoice in the Lord and be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord was my strength; he made my feet like the feet of a deer, he enabled me to go on the heights” (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NIV).

Write about trusting not in your circumstances but in God.

Write about discovering, in the words of Ogilvie, the strength God gave in the midst of your weakness, a light-footed security, and an elevated vision for the future.

Write your story. You probably can’t imagine how it will help others.

“When I read a story that changed the author’s life,” she writes, “by the time I close the covers, I’ve experienced some changes myself. I learn and grow right along with that author.”

Yes! That’s it! That’s why we write our stories! 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Your sock drawer can enhance the joy (yes, joy) of rewriting

“When you say something,
make sure you have said it,”
says  E. B. White.
“The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

He’s right. Rarely can we write a clear message the first time, or even the second or third time.

That means we communicate accurately only 20 percent of the time.

That’s scary.

Several of us are using these summer months to rework our memoirs’ rough drafts because (1) our stories are important and (2) we want to be sure we’ve said what we meant to say.

We want our stories to be clear to other people.

“You write to discover what you want to say.
You rewrite to discover what you have said
and then rewrite to make it clear to other people.”
Donald Murray

Let’s pin down a definition of rewriting.

Scott Edelstein says, “Rewriting, revising, and revision all mean the same thing: looking at a piece again and writing it over, using a fresh approach or perspective. The result of each rewrite is a new draft of your piece.” (1,818 Ways to Write Better & Get Published)

“… There are many different ways to rewrite, and many different legitimate approaches to it,” he points out. “Feel free to do whatever seems best for your piece.”

How many times must a writer rewrite? Edelstein’s answer: “There is no ‘right’ number of rewrites.… Do however many revisions are necessary to get your piece into finished shape.”

Get used to rewrites,” advises Dr. John Yeoman. “Make [your stories] as good as you can, and then drop them in your sock drawer for a month. They’ll develop errors, dull interludes, and patches of downright ugliness all by themselves. That’s the time to fix them. Then drop them back in the drawer for another month and do it all over again.” (Five Winning Habits of Successful Writers

Donald Murray acknowledges the joys of rewriting. “… The act of revision is central to the pleasure of making. When we build a house, bake a batch of Christmas cookies…, write an essay, we add to the world. And in the making we lose ourselves.…

“Before I sit down to write I put on [music] and turn up the volume, but when I become lost in the writing and rewriting I no longer hear the music or know if it stops; I forget the time, the place, who I am going to meet for lunch.…

The joy—yes, joy—of crafting a text under my hand and with my ear is a daily satisfaction to me.” (The Craft of Revision)

May, you, too, find joy and satisfaction in revising your stories!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Whether you’re building a castle or a memoir, the scaffolding must come down

During these busy days of summer, some of us have changed our pace a wee bit: We’re cutting back on writing so we can hone our already-written vignettes.

Today, look over your rough drafts and identify scaffolding you used to build your vignette.

What’s scaffolding?

At Poynter’s blog, Chip Scanlan explains how scaffolding in writing resembles scaffolding in construction:

“Scaffolding is the ‘temporary framework of platforms and poles constructed to provide accommodation for workmen and their materials during the erection, repairing, or decoration of a building,’ as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term.

“In the writing trade,” Scanlan says, “the poles and planks of scaffolding are words, phrases, and sentences that help the writer build.”  

Writers need to start somewhere—to write something, anything—to get warmed up. That’s a writer’s scaffolding: initial attempts at writing a story.

“Scaffolding is usually what we produce when we’re trying to get our fingers and brains moving,” says Scanlan. “It’s part of the process of transforming ideas into language.”

In that way, scaffolding is a good thing. It gets us going and helps us discover what we want to say.

But once the scaffolding has served its purpose, whether we’re building a castle or a memoir, the scaffolding must come down.

Scanlan says, “The difference between the folks in hard hats and those of us who bang on computer keys it that they dismantle their scaffolding while, all too often, we leave ours standing.

“Writers—and our readers—would benefit if we took ours down, too.”

Here’s why. It can take a while for us writers to recognize the all-important focus of a piece. After writing a page or two, we usually gain clarity on where the story needs to go.

At that point, we can return to our opening sentences and paragraphs and see that we had been making our way through a maze of thoughts—background info, tangential info, irrelevant info. We had probably been skittering down rabbit trails until, a few paragraphs down, we found our way out of the maze and started down the path we really want to go down (the story’s main point, the focus).

Our goal: Get rid of the peripheral stuff and begin where the story really begins.

If you missed my earlier post on scaffolding, click on Have you removed your scaffolding? and then practice recognizing scaffolding from the real-life example below.

My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Thom Votaw, gave me permission to share this piece he asked me to edit. (He is a professor and scientist, not a writer, so he was brave to let me share this with you.) While you read this excerpt from Thom’s original, look for the scaffolding:

Initial blog for Teachers In Service, Inc.
December 20, 2010

This is the initial blog of Teachers In Service, Inc. A variety of people will be writing for this blog and there will be a variety of topics. Please interact as you see fit.

I will begin with a bit of history of Teachers In Service, Inc. Beginnings have a way of setting the scene for what will follow and the beginning of TIS sets the scene that continues to this day.

I had been on the faculty of New Mexico State University for a number of years doing a variety of things in the College of Education. In 1995 my wife and I packed our bags and moved to Idaho where she became a school administrator with a school district. I became associated with the University of Idaho and initiated a search for funding for international environmental education projects.

We had kept our property in New Mexico and our son lived there while attending college. I would periodically return to New Mexico to tend to the house and property and to see our son. In April 1997 on one of my trips from New Mexico back to Idaho I went by way of Huntington Beach, California to see Brian and Kathy Moyer, friends who had also graduated from John Brown University many years before. They were missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. During the course of a discussion about schools and our children the topic came up about professional development with schools for children of missionaries (MKs). I mentioned that while I was at NMSU professional development was something that I had done with secular schools, along with my regular teaching of classes on campus. I commented that some day I would like to do some professional development with MK schools. My friends were not educators so they suggested I talk with Dorcas Winfry, an individual who was on Wycliffe's staff and who was knowledgeable about this sort of thing.

I returned to Huntington Beach for an appointment with Dorcas on September 30, 1997 on my next trip to New Mexico. I stayed with Brian and Kathy again. I knocked on Dorcas' office door, was invited in, and met her. There was a third person in the room who introduced himself as Bob Pittman, some kind of director of Wycliffe Bible Translators' schools around the world. I had not expected anyone except Dorcas and I had planned on discussing with her the possibility of my doing some professional development with elementary teachers in science teaching methods in MK schools. 

I asked Bob what brought him to Huntington Beach. He responded with, "You." I was surprised at his comment but responded with, "I came to see Dorcas in order to explore the possibility of joining the team of professional developers when they go to MK schools. I would work in elementary science." Bob responded with, "Thom, there is no team."

My mind flashed with the idea that there just had to be a team of professional developers. I mean, there are hundreds of MK teachers out there and thousands of children of missionaries. There just had to be a team of professional developers so I repeated my desire to be part of the team.…

If you were editing Thom’s post, what scaffolding would you recommend he remove? Where and how should his piece begin?

Now look over your vignettes for scaffolding and remove it for the benefit of your readers.

“Scaffolding is an essential part of the writing process,” says Scanlan. “But as my editor, Julie Moos, pointed out recently, ‘Just because it’s part of your writing process doesn’t mean it should be part of my reading process.’”  (from Dismantling Your Story’s Scaffolding, by Chip Scanlan)