Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sunflowers and Smiles

Whenever I see sunflowers growing with their cheerful faces following the path of the sun across the summer sky, I have to smile and recall wonderful memories of my Father. He always enjoyed watching the plants grow from seeds until the thick stalks were twelve feet tall or better, reminiscent of Jack and the beanstalk.

As the huge bright blossoms emerged at the very peak of the stalk and developed into mature heads, Dad kept a neighborly eye out for visiting critters. He took pleasure in seeing the birds, squirrels and raccoons appreciate scrumptious meals of sunflower seeds. At the end of summer, he harvested any seeds that remained. He knew they made tasty additions to his weathered old bird feeders as the days turned shorter.

Recently, I spotted some sunflowers growing wild at the edge of a farmer’s field. I thought how tickled Dad would have been to see them as they reached up into the sky. When I saw a few birds land on the seed head, I felt like Dad was enjoying the view from his perch in Heaven.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ezine Articles Published

FYI, I just got 2 articles published on Ezine I do hope to get my stories spread to more sources by using their website. I'd also love to get your feedback!

"My French Faux Pas in Quebec" -
This is a light-hearted look at the perils of ineptly translating into another language.

"Dying Wish For a Bittersweet Memory" -
This article is a heartfelt commentary about writing a difficult biography for a friend who was dying.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Stories for FUN - One Bite at a Time - Part 3

• Look at the funny side

Humor is another way to spice up your writing. Think about ways to look at the funny side of things. Sometimes you can throw in a surprise ending to amuse your reader. Listen carefully when you hear someone tell a story that you like. What made it interesting or fun? Try to capture that piece when you write about it.

Do you ever read the comics in the newspaper? Look at how the writer quickly builds up a story using just a few words. He has a beginning to set the scene. He has a middle to give more details. He has an ending to wrap it up with a twist of humor. Try looking at the funnies to see how other writers make it fun. You can do something the same in your writing.

Sample Stories

Dull: One day at school, the little kids were going outside. It was winter. They needed to put on their boots. One little boy had trouble pulling on his boots. The teacher helped him put them on. He went out to play.

Juicy with humor: One wet wintry day, the little kids at school were going outside at lunchtime. One dark-haired little boy named Ralphie was upset when he couldn’t pull on his boots. Finally, the teacher helped him. She pulled and pulled until at last she got them onto his feet. But then the boy looked down at his boots and said, “These aren’t my boots.”

The teacher groaned out loud and took off his boots. “Okay,” she said. “Now, where are your boots?” Ralphie looked up at her and said, “Mine had a hole in them. I had to wear my brother’s boots today.”

Friday, August 8, 2008

Stories for FUN - One Bite at a Time - Part 2

• Make it juicy – grab your reader

Use juicy(!) words to make the story come alive! Describe things in detail to make them more interesting. Make your story pop for your readers. Think about the difference between a dull sentence and a juicy sentence. Which would you rather read?

Snappy Snippets:
Dull: It rained hard today with lightning.
Juicy: We had an enormous thunderstorm today with bright jagged streaks of lightning.

Dull: My neighbor is an old man.
Juicy: My old white-haired neighbor has a wrinkled, sunburned face.

Dull: My favorite pet is my dog Spot. He makes me laugh.
Juicy: My favorite dog Spot makes me laugh. He licks my face all over with his cold wet tongue.

Dull: I like pizza.
Juicy: Pepperoni pizza is delicious when the cheese is all warm and gooey.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Stories for Fun – One Bite at a Time

• How do you eat an elephant?

Did you ever hear the riddle about how do you eat an elephant? Simple. You eat it one bite at a time! Pretty much like you’d eat a slice of pepperoni pizza, right? Writing a biography or a story is the same way – you just start with one question and one answer at a time. Don’t worry about how everything is going to get pulled together at the end. Take one piece at a time and build it up bite by bite.

Think about the story you want to tell. You need to organize it to make sense. Here is a common way to do it. The beginning paragraph is the introduction to the story. Use it to grab your reader’s attention. Make readers want to read more. Use at least 2 to 3 sentences or more if needed.

The middle paragraphs hold the details of the story. They can describe the person and what they did in their life. Write 4 to 5 sentences for each paragraph and add at least one other middle paragraph to show what happened. Remember to keep things in sequence. Biographies work well starting with when the person was born. You can add lots of information in each paragraph. Use it to help your reader know more about your subject.

The ending paragraph wraps up the story. Use it to sum up why the person in story is important to you. Tell what you learned from this person. What did you enjoy most about interviewing this person? Use at least 2 to 3 sentences to wrap up the story.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Starting your family stories

• Why write down your family stories

Sometimes we hear a story from someone like a grandparent. We think we will always remember it. Too bad it doesn’t work out that way. If we don’t have a way to hear or read the story once in a while, we will most likely forget the details of it. When you write down a story from your life, you capture it for people to read later. Just imagine how great it will feel for you years down the road when one of your own kids reads a story you wrote! You can give future generations a piece of yourself.

The other big deal about writing down stories is that somebody you know now may have a special story that lots of other people want to know. You know that most American families originated in another country some time ago. It might have been a very long time ago, or you might even remember it yourself. Either way, coming to America is a giant piece of the story about your family’s life.

• Getting started

Okay, so how do you get started writing stories about your Friends and Family (FAF)? The neat thing is that you can look at all the FAF people in your life. Then start with one special person. When you ask someone a bunch of questions and write down their answers, that is called an interview.

You can interview anyone - a friend, a family member, a neighbor or a teacher. It can be the Mayor, a shop keeper or a construction worker. It can be a police officer, a fireman, a minister or anyone else in your life. Just look at all the people around you and pick one to start with. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn about somebody by asking a few questions.

• Develop your detective skills

Every person has a story to tell. All you have to do is ask the right questions to find it. Think about how a detective or a newspaper reporter gets the real story. They ask lots and lots of questions. You can do it, too!

There is a whole list of sample questions at the end of this book. They will get you started when you are ready to interview your FAF subject. As you feel more at ease interviewing the person, you will think of even more question to ask. That is great! Dig in to get the best story from your subject.

• Looking at the funny side of the street

It’s fun when we look at the funny side of a story. See if you can tell the story so you have a funny ending to surprise people. Just be careful not to make fun of someone. You want to share something that made everyone laugh, or use a twist on words.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Life Stories 101 - Getting Started

Some basic ideas:

1. For your own stories

a. Start writing one story at a time.
b. When you recall an event, jot it down to expand later.
c. Write a letter to someone telling them about your day 30 or 40 years ago.
d. Look at old photos or objects and reminisce about them.

2. For family stories

a. Gather family & friends together
b. Serve a simple snack like Grandma's Strawberry Pie to start a discussion
c. Use a voice recorder to capture conversations
d. Ask prompting questions
- What was your proudest or happiest moment?
- What games did you play as a child?

Have fun listeneing, learning & reminiscing.

Bittersweet Blessings

Today I closed a bittersweet chapter on an old friendship. Three weeks ago, a friend of mine called and asked if I had time to write her life story. Being a Personal Historian who writes individual stories for people, I welcomed the opportunity. Little did I know what a blessing this one would be.

Let’s call my friend Melissa, to protect her privacy. We had gone to High School together, but we had lost touch after graduation. I happened to run into Melissa’s sister Karen last winter and mentioned my writing business. She shared with me that Melissa had cancer and that she was moving back to our area for treatments.

Over the next few months, I seemed to meet Karen by chance on a semi-regular basis and always asked about Melissa, who was responding to treatments. I planned to go visit her when she was stronger, but that never came to pass.

In response to her call, I told Melissa I could stop by to see her the next week, but she wanted to know if I had time that day. Hearing the soft urgency in her voice, I decided to change my schedule to see her that afternoon, and I was glad I did. She was adamant that she wanted her story written for her daughter, with whom she sometimes had difficulty communicating, and for her family, who were always there for her.

When Melissa answered the door, I was appalled by how unwell she appeared. I would never have recognized her if we passed on the street, based on the ravages of her illness and treatments. However, once we started talking, we quickly reconnected as she reminisced in response to my queries about her life. In spite of the serious nature of our visits, we shared a few good laughs and some delightful memories.

I left her home that first day feeling pleased that we were already making progress on her life story, but wondering how much time she had left in her brave battle. We scheduled interview sessions to meet on alternate days, which gave me time to transcribe my notes and listen to the recordings to capture the finer points of our conversations. On each return visit, I brought along my roughly drafted chapters for Melissa to read and clarify as needed.

It was wonderful to catch up on all the things that Melissa had done over the last forty-some years, which included growing up on a small farm in central Illinois, very much as I had. I never realized just how similar our early lives had been, but the nostalgia from reminiscing was extraordinary.

Each time I went to interview Melissa, it was apparent that her condition slowly and inexorably declined. In the span of barely more than a week, she regressed from answering the door herself, to remaining in her chair, to lying in bed and finally to calling in Hospice.

From previous experience interviewing people, I knew how difficult it can be to relate some portions of their lives. Strategically sequencing questions allowed us to cover a difficult time, such as her illness, followed shortly by a joyful time, such as adopting her daughter. I was careful to limit the time for each session and always ended on a positive note to minimize wearing her out.

When I first heard that Melissa was meeting with Hospice, I was almost overwhelmed to know that she was nearing the end of her struggle and that our time was very limited. This was a bittersweet experience. It was great to get to know her again, but terribly sad that she was dying at such a young age.

As we continued to meet and Melissa’s story unfolded, I began to feel an intense compulsion to complete her story this week on Wednesday. Working late the night before and all that day, I finally had a first draft ready to print. I carried the story on a portable drive to a local office supply store and waited impatiently while they printed and bound just a few copies.

When I arrived at Melissa’s home that evening and saw almost a dozen cars parked in front, I was afraid it was too late. In fact, her house was filled with relatives, and she was barely hanging on.

I quietly walked into her bedroom, where she was lying in a hospital bed and holding her grown daughter Alexandra’s hand. She smiled when she saw the picture of her and Alex on the front cover, ran her hand over it and said, “That’s good.” Then Alex read a few vignettes from the book and added some comments of her own. Melissa was too weak to speak more than a few words, but she smiled and nodded her head in response. I went home that night feeling I had accomplished my task.

Melissa passed away the next morning. In my heart, I believe she was waiting for me to deliver her story so she could rest knowing that her daughter would understand how she felt. I am grateful that I could help fulfill one of her dying wishes. It has also reinforced for me the absolute importance of preserving family stories before it is too late.

Everyone has a story to tell and they are all precious memories. In this case, I shed many tears in the process of writing, but it was truly a bittersweet blessing to comfort my friend at the end. Now she can rest in peace.