Thursday, April 25, 2013

The “secret sauce”

If you’re struggling to keep writing your memoir, 
this is just what you need.

“What is the secret sauce that holds a family together?” asks Bruce Feiler. “What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?”

Feiler spent several years researching those questions and “a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” (“The Stories That Bind Us,” New York Times)

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know when I read those words I hollered, “Yessss! That’s why we write memoirs!

Feiler applauds the work of psychologist Marshall Duke, Duke’s wife Sara, a psychologist working with children, colleague Robyn Fivush, and their “Do You Know?” measure. For example:

“Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”

Their research showed that the more children know of their family’s stories, the more they demonstrate emotional health and happiness and the more resilient they are when faced with challenges.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Through their research, these scientists discovered God was on the right track when He told us to tell our kids and grandkids what we’ve seen Him do for us! (Deuteronomy 4:9; 6:5-9; 6:20-25) Their research verifies Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “Go tell your family what the Lord has done for you” (Mark 5:19).

Children who know their family’s stories—successes and failures, triumphs and setbacks—know they are part of what Dr. Fivush calls an “intergenerational self,” that is, “they know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”

Belonging to something bigger than themselves. That, too, echoes what we know of God: He created humans with a yearning for fellowship, community, and of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.

First, He wants us to enjoy belonging to Him. God told His children, “I have called you by name; you are Mine!” (Isaiah 43:1 NAS) He promised He would never forget His children: “See, I have written your name on my hand” (Isaiah 49:15-16). His love is an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). God delights to have us belong to Him as part of His something bigger than ourselves.

Second, like so many other ways in life on this earth, God places us in families—community, something bigger than ourselves—as a foretaste of the ultimate belonging we’ll enjoy with Him for eternity.

Bruce Feiler concludes,

“Bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine, and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and the ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

Believe it: Your story is important! It’s the “secret sauce.”

The following Bible passage captures my vision—my prayer, my heart’s desire—for the memoir classes I teach and for this blog:

“Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation will commend your works to another;
they will tell of your mighty acts.
They will speak of
the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They will tell of the power of your awesome works,
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They will celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness.”

Psalm 145:3-7, NIV 

So stir up that “secret sauce that holds a family together” and write your stories! Help your children, grandchildren, and great-grands find their identity in your family and God’s family.

New York Times bestseller, Bruce Feiler, is one of the country’s most popular spokesmen on family and faith. He writes a column, “This Life,” for the Sunday New York Times. Much of his NY Times article, The Stories That Bind Us, is adapted from his new book, The Secrets of Happy Families.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Make ‘em wait

Part 3 of
Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”
Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Why should you avoid opening a story in the following way?  

“We eventually found Old John, alive, buried under four feet of tree limbs—the elephant had buried him the way elephants bury their own—but for six hours we didn’t know if we’d ever find him, dead or alive.”

If you begin your story this way, you have given away your ending. That weakens the power of your story. It diminishes readers’ involvement.

Giving away the ending spoils essential elements in good stories: tension and suspense.

A quality story “will consist of a real person who is confronted with a significant problem, who struggles diligently to solve that problem, and who ultimately succeeds—and in doing so becomes a different character” (Jon Franklin,* Writing for Story). Note the tension: (1) a significant problem (2) the character struggles diligently to solve.

In other words, “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (Jon Franklin,* Writing for Story) Note the tension: (1) a complicating situation (2) the character confronts.

(Writers develop what Franklin calls “a sympathetic character” and “a real person” when they “make‘em laugh” and “make ‘em cry,” which we covered in our two previous blog posts. Click on links if you missed them.)

Today we’ll look at tension and suspense, and Wilkie Collins’ advice to “make ‘em wait” for resolution.

After all, as you lived the stories in your memoir, you endured a time lag—maybe months, maybe years—before you found resolution for your problem. You didn’t know how the incident would end.

You had to wait. Make your readers wait, too.

Here’s why: Readers open the pages of your book because they want to learn from you. They know you weren’t handed an easy fix—that’s not the way life, or God, works—so they don’t want you to offer them a trite, instant, easy fix.

“We desperately want our situation solved. We want resolution. But God unfolds the plot in his own time. It is in our months or years of waiting that our story comes to maturity.” (Dan Allender, To Be Told, emphasis mine)

James wrote about coming to maturity when he wrote, “the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its good work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).

Readers know you came to the maturity that James and Allender highlight—they just don’t know how—and they want to discover it. They want to mine the gems that formed during your coming to maturity. Pat answers or platitudes won’t do.

They want the real thing: They want to tag along with you to see how, step by step, you dealt with your problem so they can deal with theirs. 

Step by step means you let readers experience the suspense you experienced. “Make ‘em wait.”

Perhaps your calamity, your unwelcome surprise, your tragedy arose from cancer, or an addiction—yours or someone else’s.

Or maybe you said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” (Joshua 24:15) and that led to being misunderstood and scorned, and it required sacrifice and courage beyond your expectation.

Perhaps your child got into trouble with the law or your spouse betrayed you. Or you lost your job and health insurance, and then you lost your house.

Whatever your tension-inducing incident, spell it out for your readers. Keep in mind that making ‘em cry will be a companion in making ‘em wait; they will be intertwined. Specify, in sufficient depth, why your crisis made you “cry” and invite readers to “cry” with you.

Hold readers captive.

Explain what was at stake. What were the possible outcomes? Which did you hope for? Why? Which outcome did you fear most? Why?

Spell out complications and disappointments and setbacks.

Share your doubts.

Unravel the story as you lived it—unable to see into the future—and let readers unravel it with you.

Pull readers in. If you gave in to despair, write in such a way that readers experience your despair with you.

Admit to weeks or years of faltering faith.

Tell about your tears, sleepless nights, and prayers.

Describe the times God seemed silent.

Keep your frustrated goals before your readers. Leave them hanging.

Make them curious: Leave readers wondering about the outcome.

When they finish a chapter of your memoir, make ‘em worry for you. Make ‘em wonder what will happen in the next chapter.

Keep up the suspense.

Just don’t tell them the end until the end!

Save the resolution for the conclusion. When that time comes, tie everything together. Make sense of your crisis. Tell, specifically, how you and God succeeded in reaching a good conclusion.

In good memoir form, tell how you changed and matured, how you knew God better than before, how you came to understand His ways and His love. What did you learn from the times God was silent? How did the experience strengthen your faith for future situations?

What new person did you became as a result of the experience?

Let readers feel the same surprise and joy and hope you did.

*Jon Franklin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a well-known pioneer in creative nonfiction.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Make ‘em cry

You want your memoir to bless others, right? You want it to comfort, encourage, and change readers for the better.

But your memoir will not impact others unless they read it.

After all your effort to write your memoir, how do you get people to read it?

You must make a way for readers to get into your story—
to join you in your story—
to make them care—
to make them want to keep reading.

How do you do that? By including emotions.

“The heart is always 
the first target 
in telling purposeful stories. 
Stories must give listeners 
an emotional experience 
if they are to ignite a call to action.” 

You bring emotion into your story by following Wilkie Collins’ advice, “Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”

Last week we covered “make ‘em laugh,” and I hope you’ve had fun writing humor into your rough drafts. Humor is important—readers will give you only so long before they decide whether they like you and your story—so if you missed last week’s post, check it out.

This week we’ll look at “make ‘em cry.”

Sometimes people wonder—mainly men, I suspect—why we should include sorrows and struggles and angst in our memoirs.

The reasons to include the hard things are many:

“Our sufferings and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives.” (Henri Nouwen)

Often during the hardest times, we learned our most important lessons.

Difficulties can get our attention.

They can make us cling to God.

They can give us a holy discontent over things that are not right in our lives.

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

They can lead to personal victories.

Furthermore, sharing our struggle benefits readers. When we make ourselves vulnerable and write about our hurts, readers recognize they have something in common with us.

That, in turn, serves as an invitation 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 beyond what we could reasonably squeeze into a lifetime of direct experience.… We can take in the stories of others who escaped life-threatening situations without taking on the risk … [and we have] an opportunity to try out solutions.” (Peter Guber)

So there you have yet another reason to share painful parts of our lives:  We offer readers experience, wisdom, and choices. We can point them to God.

“Your story should incorporate some joy. But pain is the Great Teacher,” says Donald Miller. “By bringing meaning to the pain, you bring meaning to the pain of the world.  This is why people need story. They want to know they’re not alone. Others suffer just like them. They want to know their suffering has a purpose, that there is hope, redemption.… You think you’re just telling a story. But the truth is you’re bringing life.” (emphasis mine; from Joe Bunting's blog post, The Meaning of Pain)

Things that made you cry shaped you. They gave you a story to tell for the benefit of others.

If you want readers to see how God brought beauty from your ashes, they have to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel the ashes with you. You have to make ‘em cry with you.

If you write your memoir well, you will bring the story to a hope-filled, satisfying resolution. You will accomplish what Donald Miller calls “bringing life.”

So how do you make ‘em cry? It can be a tough assignment.

First, be honest. Avoid exaggeration. Your reader needs to be able to trust you.

Second, practice what Bill Roorbach calls Method Writing, a spin-off of method acting (from his Writing Life Stories)

Here’s how method acting works: Before the curtain rises, the actor remembers a time in which he experienced the emotion he needs to act out. He spends time reliving that emotion so that when he steps on stage, he is gripped in that emotion and succeeds in playing his part.

Method writing, then, requires you to step out of the present and into the past. If you’re writing about a tragic event, take time (make time) to remember the event and rediscover the emotions you felt.

In the midst of reliving that situation and emotion, ask yourself:

What was at stake? What did I have to lose or gain?

At the time, how did I envision that this situation could change my life?

What were my fears, my hopes, my prayers?

When you are caught up again in that event and emotion, get it onto paper.

Your “emotion should be so realistic and gripping that the reader can’t help but feel it too.…” (Becca Puglisi)

To paraphrase Larry Brooks, make your readers happy they are not there, yet grateful to feel what it was like to be you.

Emotion: That’s how you make a way for readers to join you in your story, to make them care, to keep them reading.

"Our best stories 
evoke an emotional response, 
touch a deep cord, 
and motivate action and change." 

OK, are you ready? Go make ‘em cry!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cry, laugh, wait

If you’re serious about writing a memoir, 
don’t miss Kathy Pooler’s analysis of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild 
and why her memoir works so well.

 “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.”


Because 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. He’s 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, maybe she was 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 felt you knew your conference speaker, you approved of her and would like to spend time together.

Laughter is a universal language, a common connector, a shared experience.

Last fall I read an article about what could have been 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)

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. Like comedian Milton Berle said, laughter is an instant vacation. Laughter lets readers catch their breath and regroup. Humor can provide much-needed perspective and balance.

“I have seen what a laugh can do,” said entertainer Bob Hope. “It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.”

In Grandma’s Letters from Africa, after witnessing (from a distance) inconceivable atrocities that raged for months in neighboring nations in Africa, I wrote 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 welcomed a couple of them to join us for Christmas. We listened to their stories, wept with them, and prayed for them. We welcomed their children into our school. Even though our colleagues evacuated, we agonized over continuing massacres and mutilations Africans were inflicting upon each other.

The daily relentlessness left me 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, wacky 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.

Next week, we’ll look at makin’ ‘em cry but, for now, search for ways to include a little humor in your memoir. It can enliven, shine light on your personality, and help readers feel acquainted with you. It can also offer respite from intense chapters in your story.

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

Jeff Goins says humor is “…the difference between flat writing and dynamic communication.” Read more at Humor Writing for People Who Aren’t Funny

Do you dream of publishing your memoir?
 If so, be sure to read Cec Murphey’s blog post 
about the kind of autobiography or memoir that sells.