For years, we’ve heard the adage that teaching is the best way to learn. Nothing brought this truth home so clearly for me as our recent Writers Weekend held on Petit Jean Mountain in Arkansas. Sharing two days on a beautiful mountain with a small, intimate group of women writers on their way to becoming authors, reminded me of this one truth: Writing is as much for ourselves as it is for others. We write to find ourselves, redeem ourselves, explain our lives, and…yes, to share out lives with others.

What I’ve known for some years, now, is that the only way we get through this life without experiencing joy and pain is to fail to experience life at all. There are no alternatives.  Writers who understand and embrace this truth also learn to work through life’s ups and downs. More importantly, they learn to successfully balance them, learn from them, and help change others’ lives by sharing their “teachable moments” with others.

Writing our whole lives allow us to scale life’s mountain, forge its valleys…and, come out on the other side better human beings. It is only through these often painful exercises that we become adept at life’s balancing act. Only then can we create wholistic stories that are also invaluable blueprints for life.

I posted a blog in 2015 entitled “Writing our Pain,” an effort to help workshop participants visualize the value of writing stories about both the positives and the  pain that inevitably colors our lives.  The perennial victims of life’s unfair experiences, as well as those who only see blue skies – even when it’s storming outside – can each offer life stories that teach valuable lessons.

It is only through experiencing all of life that we can clearly see the learning opportunities in both our brightest and darkest of days.  Our happiness helps us rise each morning with a sense of hope and positive expectations. yet, it is often our hurts, disappointments and losses that become our most prophetic teachers.

Remember that younger, and oh-so much more innocent you, who at 12 or 13 years old fell madly in love?  With that came the innocent, i.e., naive expectations of never finding a soul-mate quite like that one again. You must also remember the sense of loss when that love ended. Do you recall which of these experiences–discovering the power of love, or the traumatic loss of love – taught you the most lasting lesson?  Both experiences, I would venture to guess, resonated deeply, and impacted your take on love for evermore.

These experiences become life lessons, and are most powerful when they are shared. Our life stories help inform readers that life is a potpourri of wins and losses; ups and downs; happiness and pain.  In the end, it is  our responses to our experiences that shape who we are, and offer the opportunity to bear gifts of experience and wisdom through our story-telling.

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Janis F. Kearney, author, book publisher, writing instructor

 

 

 

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Writing: Untying Life’s Bow, Sharing the Gift

Sharing our Stories with the World Requires`Tooting our Own Horn’

What memories do the phrase, “It’s time to toot your own horn,” replay in your mind? For me, it is that little six-year old with pigtails and saucer-sized eyes sitting petrified on the front row of her class.  I’m remembering how afraid she was the teacher would call her name, knowing she wouldn’t be able to answer…not because she didn’t know the answer, but because her voice would draw attention from the the other children in her class. That little girl was me, and I was the shy one, in a houseful of siblings who were so much braver, more courageous, and more confident than I could ever be. They were who I always dreamed I could be, but never in a million years expected to be.

As a child, I was a serious introvert, and like most people who shun the spotlight, I rarely did anything to bring attention to myself. I made myself as small as I could, made my voice soft and hardly audible.  What I didn’t know, was that there were so many other little girls out there just like me…most of them having lots to say, but hardly the courage to say it.

Becoming an author changed that little girl’s life. What I learned very quickly, after writing and publishing my first book, was that I had to overcome my natural introversion if I was serious about being not only a published author, but one who sells books.  After taking on the role as a publisher, I realized I was not only responsible for every  aspect of producing a quality book, but for promoting myself and my book if I wanted success!   No longer could I sit in the background and let others speak for me because I was afraid to speak for myself.

If you ask most writers, they will tell you they absolutely love the `alone time’ that comes with being an author. But, career authors also understand that once their books are complete, they must transform themselves, move outside their introverted shells to ensure their books end up on the minds, and in the hands of readers. We have no choice, unless we write for the sheer enjoyment – with no desire or expectations of selling our work.

Learning this basic truth was not easy for me.  Though I am far from being a master at self-promotion these days, the truth is, with practice I have greatly improved. No, tooting my own horn still doesn’t come natural to me; I understand its importance, and I don’t feel half the guilt I once felt shining a light on myself. Besides, its for the sake of my books...not me.   I’m proud to say that, these days, I can easily talk about myself, and confidently tell readers why they will enjoy my books.  In fact, I find real joy in sharing my books with the world.

I meet writers quite often who struggle with the burdens of introversion, shyness and a deficit of self-confidence. I feel their pain because I experienced it for most of my young life. But, it doesn’t have to be a burden forever. There is a way to the other side. If I can get there, any writer can. While tooting my own horn wasn’t something I was taught as a child, I began practicing it, as an adult, out of necessity. And, as a shy girl who was scared of her own shadow for years, tooting my own horn these days, feels pretty good…and, has served me very well.

For new authors grappling with the problem of transforming yourself into a promoter, always remember the bigger picture – success. Below are a few hard-earned promotion tips I’ve gathered and shared over the years:

  • The key is a quality product  Ensuring that your book is indeed a quality product is a must. All the good marketing in the world can’t take the place of a good product – in our case, a good story, well written, well-edited and well-packaged. When you feel confident about the look, feel and content of your book, you are much more willing to tout it to the world.
  • Establish your unique platform. What is a platform? it is a position from which you introduce who you are to the world. Why is your story important, and how is it unique?  Yes, it would be great if we could say, “My story matters because I was President of the United States.”  Sadly, there are only a handful of people in the world who can claim such a lofty platform.  Yet,  most of us have a platform, and whatever it is…it will increase the likelihood that people will be interested in you, and the number of readers who relate to your story.   While most new authors don’t have national or global affiliations, we all have experiences. Most of us have accomplishments, achievements or notoriety in one area or another. Many of us have been recognized for our good work, and maybe even spoken to groups about our work. These are all platforms that we can use as we begin to market who we are, and why our stories matters.
  • Know your book like the back of your hand: Knowledge breeds confidence. Truly knowing your book allows you to share the most important themes within a five-minute time span to any audience; to answer any question readers may have about the plot, the story or the characters. If you don’t know your book, you can’t convince readers of its worth.
  • Know your readership:  This is a bit tricky, for…to know your readers requires both knowing your book, and doing the research on what other books in your genre, readers are choosing. Is your book likely to attract southern readers, Christians, college educated, women, men, youth? Why? Getting a good sense of who your likely readers are helps in planning  and targeting your marketing plan, and scheduling your appearances.
  • Be brave – expand your circle:  This might be construed as contrary to `knowing your readership,’ but in actuality, it is an opportunity for writers to learn and cultivate readers who don’t so easily fall into their perceived circle of readers.  One example of a serendipitous expansion of my readership happened after publishing my first memoir, Cotton Field of Dreams. I was pretty sure by the time I completed my book that I knew my likely readership, it turned out I was wrong on several accounts. While Cotton Field of Dreams chronicles the lives of a black, southern sharecropping family, that hardly fit my readership. It turned out that my readership spanned not only across the U.S., but well outside this country.  Book talk requests reached well beyond African American or southern communities. Many of my requests came from religion, education and healthcare organizations around the country wanting to discuss the subjects of childhood education, suicide and mental health – all subjects featured in my book.  I failed to take in account the various themes my story dealt with. A diverse readership is what every writer wants, but we need to `know’ our book, to be better prepared to target and take advantage of this interest in our books.

In the end, authors must often do the things that are least comfortable for them, but best exposes them and their books to the world. Often times, we will want to close our books, and crawl back into our comforting shells. Before you do, ask yourself one question: Who will tell your story?  Tooting your own horn is a small price to pay to ensure your story remains alive, educating and elucidating readers through your experiences, your memories, your words.

Writing and Sharing our Pain

There is, throughout our lifetimes, endless joy – but, just as much pain. Nothing reflects these facts more than the recent onset of racial and cultural conflicts, economic hardships, ongoing religious and ethnic wars and catastrophic loss of life and home around the world.  And, then, there are the ongoing, day to day personal pains and joys …the loss of a child, the estrangement between a mother and child, the loss of parents – in sickness or in death; the loss of a marriage…endless, endless pain.

These experiences allow us to appreciate life in full.  How would we know to avoid the hurt the next time around, before it destroys our chances at happiness?  How could we possibly feel the fullness of joys that come to us, without knowing what the opposite feels like? It is not just the pains and joys in our lives that make us who we are; it is also how we deal with each of them.

New writers ask: How can I comfortably share my life story without delving into the most painful parts of it? Of course, we can, and many do. The bravest of us embrace the wholeness of life, and see the value in baring the most painful part of our journeys…our bruises, our shortcomings, those mistakes we make over and over, again. It is a personal choice, but your decision should be made with the knowledge that: Writing the wholistic version of our life stories makes all the difference between the reader knowing you…and, their getting a one-sided view of you, only the best part of you.

Writers who choose to write their pain do so for a number of reasons:

  • To lessen our load. Sharing our stories lightens the weight of carrying them around – with only us knowing our pain.
  • To learn ourselves better. Magically, when we lay our lives out there, and pick our journey apart through our storytelling; we learn new lessons and see ourselves more clearly.
  • To offer warnings for others. There is no question. Others will travel the same roads we traveled, and will likely encounter the same forks in the road we encountered. Our stories may, however, prevent others from making the same mistakes we did.
  • Arm others with the wisdom we gained. Sharing our life journeys offers wise options for those who follow us. While there are no guarantees they will make the best choices, our stories offer them the benefit of our experiences, and their outcomes. In the end, each of us has our own lessons to learn, our own pains to bare…it is a part of the inevitable life journey.
  • To Grow. Writing our pain makes us stronger, better, more understanding of the reason behind the pain; and tolerant of others’ often painful journeys.

What pain do we choose to expose in our writing? Sometimes the pain we encounter is up close and personal…more personal than any of us willingly admit.  Other times, however, it is external, oftentimes in other states, or even in other parts of the world.  Even writers, though, are human, first. Whether the ugliness is happening directly to us, to a loved ones, or to someone we don’t personally know, that pain impacts us, fills us with despair and sadness. Do we dare include these emotions in our stories about our lives?  It is, of course a personal decision.  It is, in the end, your story, but our whole stories make for memorable stories!

None of us, no matter how brilliant, can foresee our tomorrows. What we call the ‘light of day,’ is, at best, our struggling towards the light. We can’t know what the world holds in store for us even when we prepare to the best of our abilities. What we know with absolute certainty is that that unknown will include some joy, and most assuredly, some pain. In the end, fellow writers, that joy, and most certainly, the pain, gives us an endless reservoir of stories to share with others!

Creative Research = Memorable Memoirs

STOP!!

Before you place “The End” at the bottom of that last paragraph, on the last page of your memoir, take five minutes to ask yourself five crucial questions.  I know, I know…you’re asking yourself: How in the world could I possibly devote another minute of energy toward completing this book?  The fact is, we all begin dreaming about “The End,” as soon as we set out on our long, exhausting literary journey.  It takes an awful lot, emotionally and physically, to transfer our lives from our private memories and our heart, onto the pages that bare our souls. We offer up our joys and successes, as well as our mistakes and errors in judgment to anyone who chooses to read it.

But, that’s what writers of memoir choose to do. And, when we come to the end, we exhale and take a deep sigh of relief as we put our past-due “baby” to bed, swaddle it with loving care…and blissfully move on to our next book project.  But, wait…you wouldn’t pull a cake out of the oven before it’s fully baked through and through, now would you? Give your heartfelt literary work at least that much consideration. Swallow your pride, and ask yourself these questions before placing that permanent stamp of “Complete,” on your project:

  1.  Did I ask myself throughout my process if I am doing all I can to ensure my story is as memorable as it can possibly be?
  2. Have I included all of the people, places, and events in my past that are certain to enhance my story?
  3. Did I devote ample time and effort in archival research to include stories and information that enhances my story?
  4. Did I increase my odds of expanding my readership by including a diversity of cultures, ethnicities and histories that were a part of my past?
  5. Did I clarify the “snapshot” moment in my life that is the theme of my memoir? Will readers arrive at “The End,” with a clear understanding of who I am, and how my past impacted my present?

Readers of memoir sing the praises of books that offer them just a bit more than the author’s personal memories – no matter how exotic those memories may be.  Good and thoughtful research offers memoirists that something extra to pass on to readers.  Historical facts enrich our stories, and almost ensures that readers will view our personal stories with more understanding, more empathy and certainly in a less narrow context.  We are able not only to entertain with our stories, but to educate with the solid history.

While the writer’s vivid memory is crucial to creating good memoir, historical facts and truth greatly supplement those memories.  The simple part is sharing our personal resume, our birthplace, who our parents were, our best friends and neighbors.  What can richly add to our memoirs, is the history that we can’t personally attest to – but, is available to us through interviews, oral histories, and digging into archives and written documents.  

Memoirists enrich and elevate our stories by putting on our sleuth hats and investing the time in research…not just for the sheer joy of research (which is fine, too), but to make our stories whole; to expand our audiences by offering just one or two facts of history that may touch their own lives, strike a chord in their own memories and experiences.

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach points out that, “Research is a creative process. And just like other creative processes, research gets hampered when we close down its possibilities, narrow too much our definitions. Facts give us authority and accuracy, clarity and (believe it or not), heart.”

As we begin research we quickly see the holes that need filling in our stories, and the value of using key information from archived history and facts. Research helps us paint a clearer picture of our ancestors who lived a century ago, the cultures of that time period, as well as the geographical landscape in which they lived.

Creative research is, indeed, a valuable tool and an invaluable investment in the success of our memoirs. Serious writers will eagerly make that investment – take the time to hear the oral histories, mine the archival documents, and pore over the personal documents. In the end, our stories are strengthened, our readers are gratified…and, that half-baked cake is finally done through and through!

Write Bravely: Stop Cherry Picking your Memories

Are you one of those writers who travel back through your memories with blinders on, picking and choosing the life experiences you deem `presentable’ to the world? Of course, we all are to some extent, and there are rational reasons why – including the fact that our memories can sometimes be an emotional minefield, requiring our utmost care as we pick our way through them.  In fact, quite often our memories are emotionally painful and debilitating – forcing us to relive not-so pleasant experiences of our past.

While, for most of us, these negative memories represent just a small part of our past, our lives and our stories benefit when we find ways to confront them bravely, and in time utilize our memories to enhance our stories. Allow me to offer a a few key ways to do just that:

  • Remove yourself as much as possible from the memories, and review them with an objective eye.  
  • Create a list of the most worrisome memories, without emotion – anger, happiness, sadness or resentment.
  • Review your list as an outsider, as if seeing it for the first time, without self-condemnation or judgment.
  • Create “another side to the story” for each bothersome memory, both from an “outsiders’ vantage point,” and now, from an adult’s vantage point.
  • Write a letter to that child that was you, about the negative experiences. Share the lessons learned, the growth and transition that took place in your life because of those experiences
  • Make a list of ways your experiences can help ensure that others might learn from them.

We are all human, and unfortunately, we become self-critical and allow emotions to blind us to the worth of our memories.  And, there is worth there…even those memories that leave you ashamed or baffled, hardly able to  believe the experiences are truly yours.  The miracle of time and life is that we not only live through our past, but we often thrive because of, or in spite of those pasts.  As writers, if we dare, our memories can become lessons that help us learn ourselves better, and points of light to help guide others.  it takes our sharing the whole, unedited story to illustrate our growth, and our transition.

“If you never tell anyone the truth about yourself, eventually you start to forget. The love, the heartbreak , the joy, the despair, the things I did that were good, the things I did that were shameful–if I kept them all inside, my memories of them would start to disappear. And then I would disappear.”

                                                                                                      ― Cassandra Clare, City of Heavenly Fire

All of our experiences make us who we are, and strengthens our stories. No, we can’t tell it all; we’ll have to – to some extent – pick and choose.  But, we must pick and choose for the right reasons…not because we don’t dare share our worst sides to the world.  Remember this: every reader who picks up your book or reads your story are first and foremost, human – we all have a `worst’ side. Readers will relate to your humanity, feel a kinship to your fraiities and imperfections.

No, I  am not suggesting that you share those deepest, darkest secrets that you’ve never told anyone.  Only that you don’t cherry pick the good stuff. We’re all made of good and bad. brave and weak. courageous and…yes, some cowardice.   Your stories, like life, are made richer by a diversity of experiences…the good, the bad, and the bitter-sweet lessons!

Journaling for Art and Empowerment

Oh, to have a perfect memory…to remember our life experiences as they really happened, when they actually happened, or even who we were with when they took place!  It’s a shame we no longer exist in that long-ago culture when Griots documented history by speaking it aloud to the masses, with full confidence that their stories would be passed on, down through the generations.  On second thought…while that’s a very romantic thought,  I must question the efficiency and efficacy of that documentation process. Imagine the details and nuances  lost in translation – especially the further down the generations the story traveled: Did the King really behead his own daughter…or, was it his daughter’s lover’s daughter?

No, I don’t imagine there is any better way of documenting our stories, than journaling – that simple act of writing down our moment to moment, or day to day experiences.  Journaling is our way of taking responsibility for the keeping of our own stories, including the details and nuances that make our stories unique. More than that, there is a power in journaling beyond the mere act of supplementing our imperfect memory or sharing our everyday stories with others. The value in journaling has much to do with empowerment.

One of the most awe-inspiring moments for me is when a young student chooses to share an excerpt from his journal during my “Journaling to be Me,” Workshop for Teens. It is near magical to see that child stand taller, smile more brilliantly, and speak with a voice of authority as they share “their” story. Each of us – young and old alike – are empowered when others listen to our stories. It is within that moment, that we realize we are not only being heard…but, we are being seen for the unique individuals we all are.

Journaling is not only a way to create a diary of the lives we live and the world we inhabit… but, there is an undeniable spiritual phenomenon that takes place as we document our lives.  This simple writing exercise allows us to transport our words, our thoughts, our feelings and observations, directly from our psyches, through our hands and onto paper or even computers. Many scientists believe this exercise to be cathartic, re-affirming, and…yes, empowering.  During this exercise, we create a unique connection between who we are in our own eyes, and how others in the near and far future, will “see” us.  We are also creating our personal historical archives, establishing our place in the world, our reason for existing within this great cosmos called Earth. Our stories  are suddenly equal in importance to the trillions of other stories documented, spoken or written, since the beginning of time.

For writers of memoir, a more basic benefit of journaling is to arrange and structure our thoughts and memories. If you’re like me, I don’t remember chronologically. My memories meander from one period of my life to another. Journaling helps me order my memories. If I am to write about my life for others to read, then a journal is invaluable for documenting my life as it happens, and telling it in a way that others can follow. And, yes, there is something empowering about writing our lives…one moment, one day, one year at a time. And, the bonus for us: We write better memoirs because we capture more memories!

Have you ever shaken your head in exasperation as you tried to fill the many empty holes in your memory ? In our next session, we will learn ways to rediscover those `lost memories,’ and in doing so…rediscover large chunks of our pasts.   Many a prolific speaker has said that “Our past defines our present.” Of course, it’s true. What happened in our earliest lives helps shape who and what we become in our later years whether we want it to, or not. And, even, whether we can remember the specifics of it, or not.

Nothing reminds me of that truth more than the realization that there is a reason that I instinctively hum or sing when I cook.  Yes, I had done it for years before a very special memory re-appeared to me as I wrote about my early life. It was as if the memory wrote itself. Suddenly, I was remembering with great detail, how, as a child I’d spent my first minutes out of bed, in the kitchen with my mother as she prepared our breakfast. I’d sit quietly watching and listening to my mother’s pleasant humming or singing as she moved through the kitchen with such confidence and contentedness.  Spending those few moments each morning with my mother became, in time, a ritual – how I’d start each school day.  Somehow, that special moment only reappeared – 35 years later – as I sat writing my own memoir, Cotton Field of Dreams.

As Memoir Writers, rediscovering our pasts is invaluable, in: 1) understanding ourselves better, and 2)  Sharing our true stories with others. In efforts to recall our earliest experiences, we are oftentimes anxious when every moment of our past isn’t readily within our grasp. But, like all anxiety, the most productive thing to do is to breathe, and for us writers, the second thing is…to write. Remember, a lot of water has passed beneath our bridges since those childhood days. Think of the millions of memories we have logged into our brains; good memories and bad memories that we have to wade through to get to those precious moments during our childhood! With patience, and writing, we can re-discover many of them.

Just as a writer writes by sitting down and just doing it; we can re-discover our memories by sitting down and writing as well. Making lists is an excellent way to re-discover our pasts. You can start with themes such as these, then add some of your own:

1.)  10 memories of my teenage years

2)  Five memories of days at my high school

3)  Three memories of the worst days in my early life

4) Two memories of attending church during childhood

5) One memory of a conversation with my father/parent/guardian

This exercise should be fun, cathartic, and guaranteed to give you one or more AHA! moments. Most importantly, the more lost memories you re-discover, the more “Memorable” stories you will share with your readers!

 


 

Re-Discovering our Memories