Life in the Slow Lane

Contemplating life, faith, words, and memories

Tips for Self-Editing Narrative Nonfiction — March 31, 2014

Tips for Self-Editing Narrative Nonfiction

OWC header
OWC header

A few weekends ago I attended a workshop on “Creating a Movie in the Reader’s Mind: Self-editing for Narrative Nonfiction Writers.” The workshop was sponsored by Oregon Writers Colony with C. Lill Ahrens serving as workshop leader.

Initially the title for the workshop left me wondering what I would hear, see, learn in this single day. When I left after seven hours, I carried away a more information than I imagined possible.

Ahrens came ready to teach, and we came to learn.

I’ve impatiently waited to share some of the tips I learned. These may seem obvious to some readers, but often they slip my mind while writing.

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  • Attention to chronology. While your plot in narrative nonfiction may leap back and forth in time, a scene should roll in linear fashion like a movie from beginning to end. The use of chronology lends itself to the continual construction of tension. Something like a large rock gathering moss as it rolls downhill, or a skyscraper reaching into the sky.Once completed, your finished work provides effortless reading for the reader. Don’t make the reader continually back up to make a sense of your story.
  • Attention to Story Information. The writer’s goal is to keep the reader engaged in your movie (turning the pages) until the credits begin to roll. Misplaced or missing information important to the story confuses and distracts readers, and they may wander off to see what’s in the fridge or pick up another book.

Important components to check:

Transition Back story Back fill Inner monologue/running thoughts Setting/visual imagery Mood

Emotional truth: This component is so important, especially to those of us writing memoir, it needs to receive special attention. First of all, don’t confuse emotional truth with “emotional.” In a movie, emotional truth travels through the methods of the actors. In the written word, everything can have emotional truth–weather, setting, animals, inanimate objects, everything. The POV character’s thoughts and actions will be the most psychologically complex of all emotional truths shared.

Bottom line: Emotional truth gets stories and books published.

  • Attention to Theme. Have you ever walked out of a movie theater feeling, “Huh?” Do you ever wonder why? Likely, because that movie didn’t end on theme. Unfortunately, “theme” can be a problematic word with many definitions. In writing narrative nonfiction, theme is not the motif, not the moral, not the message. The theme in this case is the major emotional issue of the story.

Caution: Theme is not to be confused with genre. Any love story can be classified true story, memoir, fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction, etc.

Using narrative nonfiction, your true story can explore different aspects of theme, most importantly its opposite. Think of your theme paired with its opposite. Using my memoir as an example, my theme is forgiveness; therefore, I pair my theme of forgiveness with childhood cruelty inflicted by my mother.

Theme in any writing is with you in the beginning of your story, then is sprinkled throughout, and your story closes with your theme.

Of all the writing tools we have at our disposal, theme is likely the most important. Theme adds depth to our stories. Theme is the connector in our stories, tying all the parts together. In this way, our readers come away from turning that last page feeling satisfied.

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Represented here are just a few of the most important ideas covered during this daylong workshop. I hope that something here has resonated with you in respect to whatever project you are working on currently.

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Biography for C. Lill Ahrens:

C. Lill Ahrens is the contest director for Oregon Writers Colony, an editor for Calyx Journala creative writing instructor for Linn-Benton Community College in Linn and Benton Counties, Oregon, and a freelance editorial consultant and writing coach with award-winning, published clients and students. Her own award-winning stories are published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Best Women’s Travel Writing(Travelers Tales).

Ahrens’ website is brand new and still a work in progress, but you can still visit at C. Lill Ahrens.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Writing Memoir — March 13, 2014

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Writing Memoir

On Tuesday evening, my husband and I attended a simulcast of a talk presented by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The event, sponsored by Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, was held as part of the library’s Everybody Reads 2014 program. Justice Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, was the choice for this year (my review here).

Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to the live event (total of 2,776 tickets), but thanks to Literary Arts and the Portland Art Museum the simulcast was arranged to accommodate an overflow of 1,000 attendees.

Justice Sotomayor’s talk on Tuesday was the culminating event of this year’s Everybody Reads project. Although the thrust of the project is “c]elebrate the power of books in creating a stronger community,” Justice Sotomayor’s topic was not announced.

Imagine my thrill when she began with a discussion of the power of words. Her words still resonate in my ears: “Words have power to paint pictures.” She then went on to share why she wrote her memoir. I want to share those reasons with you here, although they may sound somewhat familiar to you:

  • To not forget self. Justice Sotomayor shared that she never wants to forget her own experiences growing up in the most negative of environments, the self she was at that time or in that place. Nor does she want to lose the ability to picture the place and circumstances where she came from. Her goal in writing My Beloved World was to write a narrative preserving her family’s story as well as her own experiences.
  • To document the community. In her community in the Bronx, Justice Sotomayor explains that living in that most negative of environments, first and foremost there were people with aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes. People with simple values and yet these aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes like everyone else.
  • To value the aging. Justice Sotomayor confesses she became afraid to wait too long to write her story of her family and herself. “I was afraid I would not have them around to help recap my family history.” She interviewed family members and in so doing learned from an uncle of the romantic relationship her mother and father shared and how her father had loved her mother. As a child, Justice Sotomayor did not think they were a happy couple; there was so much arguing and fighting. A few days later her uncle died. Her advice? Encourage family members to share stories with you every opportunity you have.
  • To have the chance to tell my story candidly and honestly. According to Justice Sotomayor, and I think we all realize this if we’re writing memoir, readers cannot be fooled. She drove home that telling your own story is far better than having someone else tell it. But above all, in telling your story she urges honesty and genuineness. Be who you are and have been.

As I said, most of these comments we have all heard before. However, to hear them from someone who has lived through a poverty-stricken childhood, struggled to receive the education needed to become who she wanted to be, fought stereotypes and sexism, and now sits on the highest court in our land was inspiring and motivating.

I enjoyed the Q&A, especially because some of the questions came from among many high school students in attendance. One of them asked the Justice for an explanation of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Roughly quoting from my shorthand notes, Justice Sotomayor explained that “a memoir is a description, with emotions, cataloging your life from within, not without,” and “an autobiography is told based on fact cataloging your life from without.”

At the end of a long day speaking to high school assemblies and various civic groups, Justice Sotomayor presented her talk with ease and without notes–you felt you were chatting with a friend. Her wit is contagious and spontaneous. Her command of the language is awe-inspiring. Her generosity with people humbling–over 100 students wrote her letters before she left Washington and she told them last evening each of them will receive a personal reply.

I came away feeling I had sat at the feet of a woman who has great things yet to do, and she will without fail.

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One last quote from the Justice:

“Until we have equality in education, we cannot have equality in society.”

Sharing Big News from Women’s Memoirs | Book Launch — January 30, 2014

Sharing Big News from Women’s Memoirs | Book Launch

Today’s post is part of a book launch which is near and dear to my heart. Women’s Memoirs hosted seasonal writing contests–Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter–and the winners of these contests are celebrated in the launch of four volumes featuring each Season. It is an honor to be included as a winner in both the Autumn and Winter volumes. I hope you will share this news with writers and readers alike. We believe we have something very special to offer.
masthead from Women's Memoirs website

Please join me as I celebrate with Women’s Memoirs and the other winners of the various writing contests the launch of four ebooks filled with the best, the most inspiring of hundreds of entries. Knowledge Access Books is the publisher.

Read a review that has already come in:

It is true that each woman is a story waiting to be told–and in this outstanding collection of memoirs you’ll find many wonderful women’s stories. It is also true that each woman’s story is every woman’s story, for we share so many of the same experiences. As I read these stories [in Seasons of Our Lives], I am reading bits and pieces from my own life, and I am inspired to write my own with a more passionate and compassionate heart. I hope you are, too” ~ Susan Wittig Albert, NYT bestselling author of China Bayles mysteries, Writing from Life, Together, Alone: Memoir, and other books

Will you help congratulate these talented women by getting the word out about their stories and the special Amazon savings available for a limited time (see below)? We think the readers of your website or blog will find these 100 stories inspiring and we hope you will consider mentioning their publication on February 1st. Why that date?

For 53 hours, beginning February 1 at 8 am PST, all four volumes will be available for just $.99 each through Amazon’s Kindle Store–that’s 76% off. The price will increase by $1 each 53 hours until it reaches the regular price of $3.99 each.

Memories, Memoirs. Stories of our lives. Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett, award-winning authors themselves and co-founders of Women’s Memoirs, invited women to submit personal vignettes about the seasons of their lives. Sweet stories. Sad stories. Joyful stories. Poignant stories. The small stories that make up our days, our lives. Hundreds of stories were read and evaluated. The best of these, the award-winning stories, are included in the four volumes of Seasons of Our Lives: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring (see links below to these four volumes).

Seasons of Our Lives: Summer

Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn

Seasons of Our Lives: Winter

Seasons of Our Lives: Spring

BONUS: Each real life story concludes with a takeaway from the editors–takeaways that will help readers reflect on the seasons of their own lives. And if your readers are interested in creating a legacy of their family or personal stories, these takeaways are designed to help write more dynamically and powerfully so that they can proudly share their own life seasons with family, friends and even more widely.

Thanks for reading and spreading
the word any way you can,


Christmas Memories — December 19, 2013

Christmas Memories

As we draw closer to Christmas day, I find a flood of memories filling my mind. Some are good memories, some are funny, some are sad. But such are the ingredients of life. Capturing these memories felt important, necessary, desired. As I sat down to write them out, I decided some were worthy of the blog where I share my life stories.Nativity Scene at Centennial Park in Nashville, TN (1954-1967) via Nashville Archives

Not too long ago I posted on memory triggers. In the last few days, a high school classmate posted an image on our graduating class’s Facebook page. (Image: Nativity Scene at Centennial Park in Nashville, TN (1954-1967) via Nashville Archives)

That image triggered a rush of memories.

Suddenly I could feel the biting cold of the night air as we stood under the stars and gazed upon the largest nativity I had ever seen. Every year we piled in the car, bundled from head to toe, to join with hundreds, maybe thousands, of other citizens in and around Nashville to view the Nativity donated by a local businessman.

And then it was a quick drive home to warm up and crawl into bed but not until Dad had read the nativity passage from the Bible. Mom, Dad, and I — and years later my younger brother — gathered on the living room sofa with the lights twinkling on the tree and our now somewhat very small nativity lit on top of the radio/phonograph console.

Memories by now were marching on and I’m thinking back to one Christmas night when I was about seven, almost eight. As all children experience, I went to bed when told but could not sleep. Waiting and listening for any sound that evidenced the arrival of Old St. Nick.

There it was. Sounds of activity in the living room. Voices even. Could it be?

Only one way to find out. I quietly climbed from my bed, opened my door, and peeked into the hall. Someone was in the living room!

Tiptoeing as quietly as possible I made my way down the hall. He was in the living room. Putting together a blue bicycle! Oh, how I had dreamed of this moment. My very own blue bicycle. And Santa, right there before my eyes!

1955 Hanes Ad via Google 1955 Hanes Ad via Google

Strange — Santa wasn’t wearing the familiar red suit. Instead he was wearing jockey shorts and the standard male undershirt of the day. A toolbox sat by his side and an instruction sheet laid out to follow along. Didn’t his elves put everything together for Santa to deliver?

And there was Mom, her hair in curlers and her in her robe in the middle of the night. What was she doing up with Santa in his underwear?

This was definitely not what I expected. I gasped and gulped back my tears.

Santa was evidently my mom and dad. All this time I believed in a man in a red suit with a snow-white beard who drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivered toys all over the world. The truth sat in my living room, right before my eyes!

Mom and Dad looked up at my gasp, and they knew then that the secret of Santa was no more. Their little girl discovered the truth on this very night called Christmas Eve.

I sat in Mom’s lap while Dad finished putting the bike together. He sat me on it and promised the next morning he would take me out to go for a spin.

Santa or no Santa, I gave Dad a big smile!

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These are only a couple of my Christmas memories that came back to me this last week. Have you experienced any cherished memories in the past few days or weeks? Perhaps you’ll share them in the comments below.

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Healing by Writing will be quiet until the first of the year. It’s a time to be spent with family and cherishing the new memories being made. I hope you’ll be doing the same.

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Empathizing with Trayvon Martin’s Parents — July 19, 2013

Empathizing with Trayvon Martin’s Parents

Everyone has probably heard everything they want to hear about the George Zimmerman trial — the jury’s verdict, the devastation of Trayvon Martin’s parents, the protests.

Who among us will ever know the truth of what really happened?

Only two people know the truth, and one of them is dead.

So many unknowns.  Here is where I empathize with Trayvon’s parents on a very personal level.

In September 1994, my firstborn nephew was 42 years old. He was a husband, father, son, brother, nurse, farmer and all-around good person. He was going about his day doing chores at the farm he shared with my brother, his father. His folks were out-of-town on vacation, and he had gone to feed the livestock and check the barn and house. Ordinarily, he would have taken his 11-year-old son with him but it was the first day of school and well, we do have our priorities.

There had been hints to his brother that someone was stalking him. He even indicated that his brother should not be surprised if the police called one day to say he’d been murdered.

That Labor Day weekend all he had suspected came true. It is still hard to think about. A mob-style murder with too many bullet wounds to count. Hopefully, instantaneous death. Gone from us forever — all the roles he filled now void of his contributions.

It took months to extradite the suspected murderer back to Tennessee from Louisiana where he had been in hiding, and then ensuing months of trial preparation. Finally, a trial date was scheduled. A jury was selected. Opening statements, testimony of witnesses, rebuttals, closing arguments. Finished.

The jury returned a not guilty verdict.

This even after the defendant shared with his wife and two teen-aged sons his plans to kill my nephew. The law said his wife could not testify against him. His wife did not want their sons involved in the trial. Likely, any testimony by these three persons would be refuted as hearsay anyway.

Much like Martin and Zimmerman, there were only two people who knew the truth. And one of them was dead. No evidence at the scene pointed directly to the defendant — no evidence of tire tracks other than my nephew’s, no fingerprints, no footprints, no gun was ever found, without a gun the ballistics at the scene were worthless.

I still find it difficult to put into words how it feels to lose a family member in this way, and then live with the knowledge no one is paying the price for that life evaporated by violence.

Yes, my heart goes out to Trayvon’s parents. I know something of how they must feel. However, our judicial system was designed to work the way it does. When the jury has spoken, the trial is over. But the pain of loss never stops. It lives on in our hearts and memories for a very long time.

These are our stories, our memories.

Q4U: Do you have a story to share today? Feel free to share it in the comments. I love hearing your stories.

Remembering Dad — June 16, 2013

Remembering Dad

Clockwise L-R: Dad sitting at a linotype machine, Dad at 16, and Dad showing me how to use my new tricycle
Clockwise L-R: Dad sitting at a linotype machine, Dad at 16, and Dad showing me how to use my new tricycle

Dad was and still is my hero.  Life was never easy for him growing up. The story I’ve been told, not by Dad but by other family members, is that when he was four Dad and his siblings, a brother seven and a sister nine, their mother took them to an orphanage after the death of their father at age 36.  With no means of income and in the early 1900s, my grandmother had no other choice. Skipping ahead a few years, Dad found himself left behind as his siblings reached the discharge age. Dad stayed at the orphanage until he was 16 and had lost track of his siblings.

At this time, he moved to Winchester, TN where he began work as an apprentice at the newspaper in this small town.  The work was hard and when not at the newspaper, he helped the owner of the paper with his peanut crop.  Fortunately, the owner also provided him with housing.  According to Dad, the best part of the job was meeting Dinah Shore before she was famous.  Her father owned the local mercantile where Dad shopped on occasion.

The hard work didn’t end there.  When he became proficient in typesetting, he moved to Nashville and began working at a variety of places.  But he always worked hard.  Hard at work and hard at home.  He never seemed to want to be idle, except when his poor health got in the way.  You see Dad was a recovering alcoholic.  And the alcoholism had taken a toll on his pancreas, liver and stomach.  He almost died in 1948 when I was just two years old.  After that, his health kept Dad from doing a lot of things other dads did with their families.  But one thing was sure — Dad always showed up for work and he worked hard.

At home he worked hard maintaining our house and yard, and each year there was a little garden back in the corner of our back yard.  He treasured the vegetables and fruits he planted, and Dad’s love of blooming flowers grew larger each year. One of my favorite memories is the year he planted close to 100 tulip and daffodil bulbs in a bed along the side of our garage. One by one, the squirrels dug up the bulbs and “planted” nuts!  It was one of the few times I ever saw Dad lose his cool.

Dad reached hero status with me by loving me quietly, gently and warmly.  Unlike our mother, Dad’s voice was never raised.  If something was wrong or if we were in trouble, it was a quiet talk with Dad about understanding what was wrong and asking us to explain how it would not happen again.  If you asked him for advice, Dad was slowly explain what he would do in the particular situation but ended with a reminder that this is your situation, your decision, and your consequences.  It was part of growing up, he always reminded.

I think Dad always knew how I cherished our relationship, and to this day I find myself talking to him when times get a little tough.  I’m always thinking about him wondering what life would have been like if he’d been healthier, if he and Mom had married a little younger (Dad was 45 when I was born), and if he’d lived longer (he died at age 72).  I was only 27.

I have a long list of things I credit my Dad with infusing into my life:

  • love of reading and words
  • love of music
  • gentleness and compassion
  • good work ethic
  • standing for what you believe in
  • a quiet Christian faith

On this Father’s Day and every one since his death, I sit and wish he were next to me so I could tell him again how much I love him.  But, he’s not here, and I tell him anyway.  I believe in heroes, and I believe they can hear us.

Dad, I love you!