Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Gather “crackly” words for your memoir

I started teaching another memoir class a few weeks ago and every time we’ve met, I’ve encouraged class members to buy and study Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor.

Oh, how I’d love to sit at her feet and learn from her. But second best is learning from her book, a treasure chest overflowing with jewels.

Among other gems, Priscilla praises writers who “collect words the way some numismatists collect coins.”

But she withholds praise for writers who,
on the other hand, approach “language passively . . .
using only words that come to mind,
or words he grew up with,
or words she stumbles upon
while reading The New York Times. . . .
He strives for expression with rather general,
conventional diction [word choice] that has little to offer
in the way of echo, color, or texture.”

Priscilla continues, “The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words. They learn the names of weeds and tools and types of roof. They make lists of color words (ruby, scarlet, cranberry, brick). They are hunting neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words. . . . They are not trying to be fancy or decorative.”

Did you get that? Not big, pompous, fancy, or decorative.

Words that don’t make readers reach for the dictionary.

Also avoid words that draw attention to yourself, words that might cause readers to say, “Oh, what a clever writer he is!” That interrupts readers. It lures them out of your story.

Instead, use words that keep readers involved in your memoir, words that make your places, characters, and experiences come to life.

Priscilla quotes award-winning author Annie Proulx who admits to collecting and reading dictionaries (!) and to gathering words:

“I have big notebooks, page after page of words that I like or find interesting or crackly. . . . From time to time I will, if I feel a section [of writing] is a bit limp, take a couple of days and just do dictionary work and recast the sentences so that they have more power because their words are not overused.” *

That’s important: Avoid overused words.

Priscilla encourages The Lexicon Practice: a deliberate, ongoing gathering of words and phrases. She explains:

“There are two parts to the practice. One is to make your own Lexicon (word book) and the other is to collect words and phrases in a list that pertains to the piece you are currently working on. . . .

“Writers who do the Lexicon Practice 
have left in the dust [those who don’t]. 

Writers who don’t do it . . . 
are pretty much stuck with television words, 
newspaper words, cereal-box words.”

Now, I must confess: I thought I was the only one who collected words! I was giddy upon learning from Priscilla that I was not a freak. A nerd, yes. A geek, yes. But a freak—no! Whew!

So, now that I feel okay about being a word nerd, I’ll share a few words I’ve gathered, words that would meet with Priscilla’s approval:

thrumming, thrum
mirth, glee, merrymaking
kafuffle, kerfuffle

I have also worked on another type of lexicon Priscilla recommends, a word book for an era in which several of my vignettes are set, 1950-1965—and oh! What fun! What memories!

So, be honest: Are you a word nerd?
If so, leave some of your favorite words
in the comments below so we can all enjoy them.

If you’re not a word nerd,
give Priscilla’s Lexicon Practice a try.

Creating your own word book
could open for you a new world of writing.

*Annie Proulx interviewed by Michael Upchurch, The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction, 248. Quoted by Priscilla Long, The Writer’s Portable Mentor, 23.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

On authoring change: Break the silence with your memoir

This week, as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and take inspiration from him, we must ask ourselves: How can we—how must we—use our voices to make a difference?

Our memoirs could spark changes that impact others—not just today but long after our days on earth are no more.

What is God calling you to write in your memoir? What needs to change in your life? your family? your workplace? your community? your church? your city? your nation? your world?

When you think about taking a stand, sticking your neck out, and speaking up, it's easy to come up with a long list of reasons to remain silent.

But Dr. King, who lived out and spoke up about principles the Bible teaches, didn’t choose the easy, safe, comfortable, convenient path. My friend Brian Carroll said this yesterday of Dr. King: “He was a statesman, a leader, a servant of the people, precisely because he radically spoke the whole truth.”

“The ultimate measure of a man,” Dr. King said, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at moments of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”

Chuck Swindoll writes about a few people who took a stand and changed history: “Only one missionary invests his whole life in a remote area, and an entire tribe is ultimately evangelized. Only one statesman stands for right, and a country is saved. Only one strong-willed and determined citizen says, 'I stand against this evil,' and a community ramps up morally and changes its direction.”

And then Swindoll writes of another who perhaps served as a role model for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a woman who knew that doing the right thing might result in her death:

“And only one woman decided it was worth the risk to break with protocol and speak her mind, and a nation was preserved . . . [from] the worst kind of holocaust. . . . In [God's] sovereign plan, He determined that one person could make the difference. One individual would stand in the gap. Her name is Esther [in the Old Testament].” (Great Days with the Great Lives, Chuck Swindoll) 

Sabina Nawaz, in her post, “Rethink Courageous Leadership,” writes this about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “For me, King is synonymous with courage. Which got me to thinking: yes, it takes courage to inspire others, but we often misunderstand the kind of courage it takes to lead. The courage to lead does not just involve a bold, public-facing bravery, but also a quieter, more introspective kind of courage.”

Nawaz writes of “a thousand smaller acts of bravery” Dr. King took which enabled him to later carry out his huge, history-making acts of courage.

You and I will not go down in history as exceptional leaders, but that’s no reason to remain silent. We can stand up to what’s wrong by carrying out our own small acts of braveryin our memoirs, for example.

Nawaz suggests that as we gain inspiration from people like MLK, we should look at them “from a fresh perspective and think not about the grand, daring acts but about the small heroic moments” of those courageous leaders. When we do, we can gain courage to carry out our own small, heroic acts of courage.

You’ll enjoy this example of just such a small, heroic moment:

It was See You at the Pole day, an annual student-led event, a gathering around the flag before school when students pray for their families, friends, schools, teachers, and country.

Hayden was the first to arrive, but he knew other students would soon arrive, so he stood there alone. Praying.

Before long, he realized no one else was coming. But he stayed there anyway and prayed, asking God to use his aloneness to reach those passing by.

And the community noticed. The kid’s story went viral on Facebook. People who didn’t know Hayden or his family, even people who professed no faith, praised the young man for standing there alone.

At home after school, Hayden and his mom scrolled through hundreds of comments people left, evidence that God had answered his prayers that morning. “It’s crazy,” Hayden said, laughing, “because it’s like he answered in this big way!”

In “The Boy Who Stood at the Flag Pole Alone,” Hayden’s mom, Stacey Philpot, wrote these bracing words to people like you and me:

“So to you, wherever it is in your life you stand alone, be it a flag pole or a marriage, a place of work or a seemingly impossible situation, I believe my son would like to remind you God can do big things with your standing alone. Perhaps, for now, you are praying until someone else shows up or takes notice. God sees, he knows, and he can do big things.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said:

Our lives begin to end the day
we become silent about things that matter.”

He also said:

The time is always right to do what is right.”

As a change agent, how do you
turn your dream of making a positive
and meaningful difference in the world into a reality?

You author change.

You write and publish a book
that inspires positive action or change
in individuals, communities,
organizations, or the world at large.

The world needs change agents.
It’s your time to make a positive and meaningful impact
with your words.

Perhaps you’ve cracked open an issue and sorted through it
and have come to a clarity others haven’t yet.

Take action. Speak up. WRITE.

Make a difference.
Invite others to re-think
their assumptions and conclusions.

Your memoir could help right a wrong.
It could trigger much-needed change and healing.

God could use your story
to give hope and courage to others—
perhaps it could even
make all the difference in one person’s life.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

“Look where you have not had the heart to look before”

“Every once in a while, life can be very eloquent.
You go along from day to day
not noticing very much,
not seeing or hearing very much,
and then all of a sudden, something speaks to you
with such power
that it catches you off guard,
makes you listen whether you want to or not.
Something speaks to you out of your own life
with such directness
that it is as if it calls you by name and forces you to look
where you have not had the heart to look before,
to hear something that maybe for years
you have not had the wit or the courage to hear.”
(Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark; emphasis mine)

Writing your memoir can be like that: Within the reflecting and pondering and excavating and decoding, something pops up, something  breaks you right open and “forces you to look where you have not had the heart to look before.”

You can no longer ignore it, hoping it will disappear. You know in your heart of hearts that you can’t turn away.

You’ve arrived at a defining moment.

If, in writing your memoir, you unexpectedly “hear something that maybe for years you have not had the wit or the courage to hear,” recognize that God is doing something profound.

Set aside time and make a serious effort to listen for God’s still small voice. Be willing to search your soul. God can help you make sense of what you're hearing and make peace with it.

Initially, you might not welcome that process, but it can be good and valuableif you give God your undivided attention for as long as it takes.

By breaking you open, God can help you break through to a higher, wider, deeper place of faith and joy in Him.

God can open your eyes to see events and relationships in new ways. He can give you a more accurate understanding of His love for you: You are beloved and secure in Him (Deuteronomy 33:12), He takes great delight in you, quiets you in His love, and rejoices over you with singing (Zephaniah 3:17).

Getting there can be a long and painful process, but if you stick with God and search the Bible and listen and pray, He can shine light on your darkness. He can give you a new song to sing.

Take in these words of dear David, the psalmist:

I waited patiently for the Lord to help me,
and He turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
a hymn of praise to our God
(Psalm 40:1-2, NLT)

When that happens—when God brings you to that good, new place—resume writing. Consider your memoir your new song of praise.

“It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years, God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing, which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can . . . be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.” (Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets; emphasis mine)

So, marvel at God’s goodness. Cherish His grace.

Use your memoir to:

Sing a new song to the Lord! . . .
Publish His glorious deeds. . . .
Tell everyone about the amazing things He does.
(Psalm 96:1-3, NLT)

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

What do memoirists have in common with angels?

Last week we compared memoirists to Christmas shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. (If you missed it, click on What do memoirists have in common with shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night?)

Today let’s see how memoirists are like the Christmas angel who spoke to those shepherds in their fields.

Angels: Even though I’ve read about them in the Bible and sing Christmas songs about them, I admit I haven’t given them a lot of thought. But here’s what I’m learning:

The Hebrew word for “angel” means “messenger.” In the Bible, we see angels as messengers sent by God, agents of God.

“God has a limitless host of heavenly messengers who watch out for us, help us, and inspire us,” writes Lloyd Ogilvie in Silent Strength for My Life.

“The New Testament is filled with references to angels. They announced Jesus’ birth, ministered to Him after the temptation . . . and were present at the tomb on Easter morning.

“Angels mediated strength and hope to the apostles and played an active part in the growth of the early church.”

And then Ogilvie points out this: “And they are active in our lives today.”

Have you ever thought about angels being active in your life?

Maybe, like me, you’ve assumed angels were ancient beings from Bible times, but no, God still sends His angels to minister to you and me and our loved ones.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the time when someone looked you in the eye and spoke words to sustain you. Did it occur to you that he might be an angel, a messenger of God?

Maybe when you were scared out of your wits, someone encouraged you to be brave instead of afraid. Had God sent you an angel?

Perhaps a friend sent you a card when you were sick and promised to pray for you. An angel?

Maybe someone called and prayed with you. An angel?

But there’s another aspect of angels, messengers of the Lord.

You and I are meant to be angels,” Lloyd Ogilvie continues. “We are to be messengers of the Good News, hope, and encouragement. . . . We know how much people need love, affirmation, and practical help.”

When I read that, it occurred to me that memoirists and angels have that purpose in common: to be messengers of all kinds of good news, hope, and encouragement.

Let’s look at that Bible passage about the Christmas angel:

“An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds],
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were terrified. But the angel said to them,
‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you;
he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you:
You will find a baby wrapped in cloths
and lying in a manger.’”
(Luke 2:9-12)

First, try to imagine how startled those shepherds must have been
when, on that silent night,
out of the vast, black, hushed heavens,
“God’s angel stood among them
and God’s glory blazed around them.
They were terrified” (Luke 2:9, The Message).

“The darkness was replaced by a glorious light—
the shining light of God’s glory” (The Voice).

“Suddenly . . . the radiance of the Lord’s glory
surrounded them” (NLT).

Those shepherds were frightened! Terrified! Wouldn’t you be, too?

But the angel hurried to reassure them: Don’t be scared. Just listen: I have good news for you.

Think about a memoir you could write—a memoir you need to write before it’s too late. Writing a book can be a daunting, rugged task, but if you finish it and hand it to others, you, a messenger of God, could encourage readers not to be afraid (verse 10).

If you finish your memoir, because of you, as an angel, a messenger of God, others might: 
  • learn about the Savior (Luke 2:11)
  • choose to be an overcomer
  • change their parenting style
  • love their spouse in a better way
  • eat healthier food
  • choose joy instead of bitterness
  • make God the top priority (see Mark 12:30)
  • learn how to avoid mistakes and make good decisions
  • live a life of integrity rather than compromise
  • choose generosity over selfishness
  • forgive others
  • realize they aren’t alone in fighting addictions
  • cling to hope despite illness and repeated years of disappointments (see Kathleen Pooler’s new memoir, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother’s Story of Healing and Hope)
  • open their eyes to new possibilities and change the course of their lives
  • and so much more!

Writing books, speaking words, sending handwritten notes—all are ministries carried out by the Lord’s angels.

Believe it—
God can use you as one of His angels,
one of His messengers
of all things good.

What an honor. What a privilege.