Monday, November 23, 2015

How Our Story Encourages Others To Tell Theirs

With the coming of Advent, I’ve been asked to give a presentation on the power of story at my church, St. Mark in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania.

Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas. In Latin 'advent' means “coming” or the arrival of a notable event or person. In the Christian tradition, it marks the anticipation and arrival of Jesus, as well as anticipation of his second coming as the Messiah. No words are needed to express the power of this story.

What about our own stories? Does sharing our story encourage others to share theirs?

Studies have often shown that we are wired to remember stories more than data, facts or figures. In this country, the media capitalizes on that – on sensational narratives that have no basis in reality, yet capture the attention of their audience on any given day and take precedence over facts and accurate reporting.

Story gives us an opening to teach or persuade – but, mostly, learn more about ourselves and others. If done with goodwill and intent, this is a gift.

In a world where forbearance has become a necessity of survival, sharing our stories offers renewal and reasons to be grateful.

I was recently approached by a woman in my exercise class. She had heard I was an author and had taken my memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, out of the library. She told me she liked it because it was “the kind of book you can read” meaning she was able to pick it up and finish it without a lot of effort. Then she asked: “Did your sons read it? And, if so, what did they think? Were they upset with some of it?”

I’d been asked this question before, but truth be told it wasn’t until last year – almost four years after the book’s publication – that my sons read it. Fortunately, they enjoyed it and seemed to have a “greater appreciation” as my younger son put it for what I went through watching their father die and then having to tackle the job of single mother. 

This got me thinking again how grateful I am each time someone approaches me on a personal level and asks a meaningful question. But I suspect this is not just because they are interested in my story, but, rather because they wonder how their own children or family might react to their story – their “truth” to quote a popular memoir phrase.

The answer is that it probably doesn't matter.  The “power” of a story resides in a narrative that brings both the storyteller and her audience together, sometimes in a transformational way.

As a bit of a shameless plug, I am offering a two-hour session on how to get started writing your story, something I do either in person or on the phone. Both myself and the person I'm working with are almost always surprised by what we find – that the story they thought they were going to write bears little or no resemblance to the story they actually long to write.

During this Advent season, which begins Nov. 29, I’m looking forward to talking about how powerful our stories can be.

If you’re in the area, please join me and the good folks at St. Mark Episcopal Church at 6 p.m. on Dec. 2 for a light supper, followed by my talk. 

And maybe, if we're lucky, someone will tell his or her story – and, for that, we are all richer.

Your thoughts, comments and reflections are most welcomed.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Woman Draws 'Strength and Inspiration' From the Circle

Writing groups attract storytellers. They provide the community that fosters the fortitude to write and read our stories.

This month we celebrate the 6th anniversary of our Women’s Writing Circle. With all that is happening in the world, writing and sharing our stories becomes ever more enriching and powerful. Since I began this blog in 2009, a multitude of posts, written by myself and other writers, speak to the premise that we can make a difference through the legacy of story.

With the permission of Flo Shore, who has been attending the Circle from the start and who contributed to our anthology, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems From the Women’s Writing Circle, I am sharing her special tribute to the Women's Writing Circle. Needless to say, it speaks to all of us and boosts my spirits and, I hope, yours as well. ~ Susan

"Becoming part of the Women’s Writing Circle has been one of the most significant and freeing experiences of my adult life. First and foremost, I’m so incredibly grateful for the camaraderie with such great women who also happen to be great women writers. I am also thankful for having had the experience of self- publishing. Although the editing process was harrowing and at times overwhelming, I learned firsthand how the smallest kernel of an idea can take shape and evolve into a beautiful story.

In my case, it was the story of a young girl befriended by a butterfly. Thanks to this nurturing yet challenging environment that young girl had a little something about the real her immortalized on paper.

Memoir not only keeps our individual stories alive for those who come after us; memoir serves as an adhesive that keeps pieces of social history intact. Like a great montage these essential snippets can also illustrate who we are in relation to the times in which we live.

As waves of ideology sweep across an era, those who view that period at a later date or from a very different vantage point can often fall prey to generalized conclusions. The vehicle of memoir can frequently serve to dispel myths and expose varying perspectives.

Flo on far right with the women of the Circle.
As memoirists, we have the opportunity to drive attitude change.

In my current stage of life I liken myself to a person who comes home one day to find that my home has been demolished by a fire or flood. As I survey all that that once represented a vibrant life and career, I feel as though I am starting from scratch. So, as I pull a few charred photographs and bric-a-brac from the rubble I pray that I can be up to the challenge of a rebuild. Can I reverse engineer the core of my being? Who or what do I actually hope to become? I remind myself that I am not spiritually destitute.

Taking part in the Women’s Writing Circle has provided me with an opportunity to belong to a very special community. Although my work schedule is somewhat unforgiving, I have been able to find time for putting my thoughts on paper here and there. The strength and inspiration I have drawn from this circle provides me with the fortitude to write when I can and to give myself permission to call myself a writer."

Your thoughts, comments and reflections are most welcomed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Memoir Class Concludes: Reaching An Audience

Our four-week memoir class at Lower Providence Community Library ended last night with read around. We read a scene from our memoirs-in-progress and in the reading found that our stories resonated and the power of the written word – and finding an audience – connects us in a way like no other.

A life that may not be viewed as “extraordinary,” nevertheless, always proves interesting and elucidating, if told with care and skill . . . humor behind the grim confrontation with death; the realization that ‘friends’ aren’t always who we thought they were; power and corruption destroy the lives of innocent children; it’s never too late to take a risk and get back ‘on stage’ and pursue our dreams and passions . . . a sampling of stories and themes brought to our read around on a warm November night in a library tucked away in a wooded enclave.

The vibrant interest in memoir and the memoir 'movement' represents a collaborative community in a very isolating world. For me, it’s about sharing talents, expertise and teaching strategies to help others write their stories; not about egos and making money.
As a teacher I’ve drawn on many resources, as well as my own experiences and lesson plans. One of the reasons I’m blogging my memoir curriculum is so others can use it if they want in their own classes and writing groups.

This group of men and women reflected on the writing process last night; a process, they agreed, was often fraught with hesitation because some memories may be too painful to pursue . . . while others represent a pathway back to the past, an insight into what made that moment so compelling and a turning point.

It’s easy to put off the writing, to procrastinate. As our class writing ‘deadline’ approached, several writers found themselves penning a piece just a day or even a couple hours before the class. The ‘takeaway’ – writing takes discipline and means picking up pen, opening the laptop and confronting the blank page.

Among the many things we discovered about the craft of writing:
  • Reflection is the memoirist’s ‘job’.
  • Voice is unique to the narrator.
  • Details – names, ages, colors, sights, sounds and smells - enhance the writing and invite the reader into our story.
  • Lively and true dialogue is a must in making a scene/relationship come alive.
  • Show, don't tell. Create a portrait of one person and it helps us see through the crowd of faces.
  • Vignettes work as long as presented throughout the memoir with a unifying theme or thread.
  • The takeaway at the end of a scene or vignette ties the piece together. It's the lesson we proffer to our reader.
  • As a way to avoid ‘sidetrips’and lack of focus, the writer must keep referring back to that all-important question: What is my story about?
Writing requires discipline. Even if we only set aside 15 or 30 minutes a day and write two or three paragraphs, we have something after a week, a month . . . and so much more.

We also discussed the importance of a quiet and sacred writing space. It’s okay to say ‘no’ to others who otherwise demand our time and attention even if we need to hang a sign on our door that says, do not enter, do not disturb.

Although time did not permit me to go into a discussion on publishing, I did provide a handout on the merits of independent publishing vs. traditional publishing. The question of timeliness arose and, yes, some memoirs are poised to “take off” with an eye toward current political and social situations of the day.

I concluded our class by reading from Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir: “Just picking up pen makes you part of a tradition of writers that dates thousands of years back and includes Homer and Toni Morrison and cave artists sketching buffalo.”

None of us can ever know how our writing, our scribbling, might touch or change another. As writers we are  making this world – one person, one page at a time – a better place. I thank each of you for that gift.

Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Takeaway - Memoir Offers Provocative Insight

For the new memoir writer – indeed, many writers – finding the confidence to write your story as it needs to be written is key to moving forward. This means letting go of perfection and moving on to the next scene and the next . . . and the next.
I like to quote Neil Gaiman, the English author of short fiction:

"Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving."
And this: "The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it – honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter."
Just as important as confidence and rule-breaking is the willingness to have an open heart and mind and let your story lead the way. This takes the form – especially in memoir – of reflection.

How can the reader feel my pain, my joy, my triumphs and challenges? From there, the writer pursues the ultimate conclusion or realization – known as the takeaway – the takeaway allows the reader to understand the narrator’s lesson learned and, hopefully, apply that to a greater understanding of the human condition or their own lives.

It's well known that readers want a book offering instruction. What can they learn from this story, this character, this conflict? If the answer is little to nothing, then it's not a worthy read.
This was the core of our third class last night at Lower Providence Community Library where I have been teaching a four-week class on memoir writing.  Offer your readers something of value, and when you do, you - and they - are richer for it. 
I read a scene from my memoir, Morning at Wellington Square, to illuminate the importance of takeaway and reflection.
As my brother and I stand at the gravesites’ of our parents, I reflect on how differently they treated him – their only son and a self-made millionaire in our family of academics – and me, their only daughter, who lived close to them their entire lives and served as sole caretaker and as power-of-attorney. My brother and I had drifted apart over the years. As Andy and I stand at the graves sharing our thoughts about our parents, my reflections end with this takeaway:
“After a lifetime of raising children, divorce for him, the death of my husband and now the death of our parents, I felt like my brother and I were finally becoming friends.”

My hope is that when the class worked on reflections and takeaways in a group writing session last night, they would find themselves attuned to relationships, families, and life journeys.  And here’s the best part. After writing a short scene, they did.
The week before, the class had crafted a three or four sentence synopsis “What is my story about?” This proved helpful because they came back with either a specific year or years that represented the turning point they wanted to shape into memoir.
This is not easy work; indeed, it is deep and soul-searching and the faces in the class reflected that. Yes, being a writer of memoir requires us to be amateur psychologists. It's also like dipping your hands into mayonnaise. It might be good for your skin, but it feels slippery and a bit strange.
The time change from Daylight Saving didn’t help as now it gets dark by 5:30. We were all tired, but we found our way from pen to the blank page where our reflections leading to takeaway offered provocative insight into ourselves and others.
That's the allure of memoir - maybe even the ultimate takeaway.

Here's an article in Writer's Digest by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers on takeaway and reflection in memoir writing.

 Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Blank Page to Story: More Memoir Writing Tips

As we discovered in last night’s memoir writing class, the blank page yields many interesting and wonderful surprises. What is in our heads is not always - or maybe hardly ever - what appears on the written page. Our stories take on a shape and life of their own.
Our assignment last week - list ten or twelve transformational or meaningful events in your life. We shared why some were selected and then in a 10-minute write, developed one of those events into a short scene or narrative.
What the writing revealed: the event offered insight into a turning point; for example, leaving home for college; a parent’s death; a child's moment of realization that someday we all die. The takeaway (lesson/realization) becomes the next quest.
This exercise gives the writer a starting point on a roadmap of where the memoir may take us and helps us hone in on that ‘compressed’ period of time in our lives that is the bigger story known as memoir.
"I didn’t mean to write this, but it’s just what came out on the page," a couple people said last night.
What we often believe to be the “truth” is not the whole truth. Writing about a meaningful or transformational event leads to magic . . . the “alchemy of writing”.
While we can’t change the past, we can go back to that moment and observe ourselves and others. It's a powerful elixir - memory and hindsight/insight.
When we talk about writing our life stories, we’re taking an important journey of self-discovery. We are ceding over restraints, inhibitions and “public face” as we sort through the “rubble” for our authentic and true story. What follows, hopefully, (and only when the time is right), is digging deep, being honest. This way, we ultimately free ourselves from judgment, shame and guilt. Although this information is not revelatory to experienced writers of memoir, it is to those just discovering the genre . . . they are filled with awe and wonder at the aha! moment that appears as if out of nowhere from pen to page.
We also learned last night that the elements of a good memoir are similar to, if not the same, as those found in any short story or other work of fiction. It is important to understand these elements:
  • Setting
  • Conflict
  • Point of View
  • Plot
  • Character
  • Theme
And a narrative arc has a beginning, middle and end. As I explained, in my own memoir Again in a Heartbeat this took the form of one woman’s journey . . . from na├»ve illusions and expectations to disillusionment and anguish that nothing was going as planned, to acceptance and realization that her husband was irreplaceable . . . and despite great pain and loss she would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Other questions last night: How do I arrange my story? Does it need to be chronological? My answer; start at the beginning, or start at the end and work back to the beginning . . . allow the story to guide you.
  • Believe in your creative muse. 
  • Take a risk, don’t be bound by any rules.
  • Create a compelling narrative in your “voice” that inspires your readers.
  • Tell your story with passion and conviction and honesty.
As much as they surprise each other, the men and women last night surprised themselves with what their writing revealed.
Listening to their stories, I am honored and deeply touched by their trust in sharing not only with me, but each other, their innermost thoughts and feelings – and somehow feeling more connected at the end of the evening.
Next week’s assignment: the BIG ONE that has stymied many a memoirist. In three or four sentences answer: What is my story about?
 Your thoughts, comments and questions are most welcomed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Memoir Writing Tips For Students of the Genre

One of the first questions people ask when I teach memoir is an explanation of the difference between autobiography and memoir. After providing them with the definition - that memoir offers a look into a compressed time period and reads like a novel, you can see the faces light up.

That’s because everyone has a particular story they long to write; a frame of reference, a "snapshot" in time that resonates with the larger life journey  . . . a story that might help others.

That was the case last night at a library here in suburban Philadelphia where I began teaching a four-week class in memoir. Of the 15 men and women assembled, only one or two knew anything about memoir, yet all left the class intrigued with the exciting possibility that they had something of value to share through the power of story.

As I promised weeks ago when I first announced I was teaching this class, I will share on this blog what we learned.

In my class,  I emphasize several things:

  1. You have to be passionate about your story.
  2. Memoir is not for the faint of heart. It can feel like diving naked off a cliff.
  3. Memoirs have many themes: transformation and healing; humor, travel and family legacy.
  4. Memoir is a journey of self-discovery both enlightening and empowering for the writer. 
  5. Everyone has a story to tell; if we search deep within the ordinary life, we find the extraordinary. 
  6. The genre has increasingly become respected as a work of literature.
  7. People love true stories.

One person asked if memoirs were ever turned into movies. We began listing them and the surprise was evident, Wild; Eat, Pray, Love; Running with Scissors, just to name a few.

Other questions:

Should I write with the idea of publishing? My answer: only you can decide that. Either way you go, the effort is worth it.

I tried to stress the merits of writing with an uncensored pen and putting the inner critic aside. This met with a lot of smiles and nods of approval.

Is my voice something I manufacture?  No, A voice is your fingerprint on the book, your unique and original imprint. It can’t be manufactured; it can be developed and honed. Authenticity is  key.

Thus, our writing prompt: write 12 words describing who you are. In reading back those words, the class began to realize how they – as narrator – could capture and present to readers their own idiosyncratic or distinct voice.

Next week we’ll talk about all the creative props that come with developing story: dialogue, scene, narration and more. And, they'll write and share.

This week's assignment: List 10 of the most meaningful, important or transformational events in your life. Come back next week and we'll see what "story" emerged.

Finally, what struck me most is that 15 people signed up for a class - some after a busy day of work - because all are curious about memoir. They appear to have a desire to tackle their own story. And most admit that a class helps motivate and keep them on track to write. It doesn’t get much better than that.

And one final note: the Lower Providence Library where I teach this class offered me my own "memoir moment". I didn't realize it, but this was the very same library where I used to come and read at night when my sons took aikido lessons at a nearby dojo. As a single, working mom, it offered me a place of quiet and reflection. I always loved it, set back in a bucolic enclave off the main highway. How strange . . . I hadn't entered the library for over 12 years . . . now here I was, back again - teaching what I love.

Your thoughts, questions and comments are most appreciated.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Memoir Author Contemplates The Meaning of Loss

Memoir writing is often referred to as "a healing journey." But is that an accurate way to describe coming to terms with grief? In this thought-provoking essay Daisy A. Hickman shares her views on life after loss.

Daisy's memoir, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, is due out next month. Please welcome Daisy to the Women's Writing Circle.


By Daisy A. Hickman

"Life begins on the other side of despair."
-- Jean Paul Sartre

When I waded into the deep waters of grief, and thorny, but related, societal and cultural issues, it seemed so many thought my book—the work of memoir writing—was all about “healing.” A rather self-absorbed devotion to getting over something, feeling better, or carving out a peaceful perspective against the harsh landscape of loss.

But during seven years of intense work, I was often tempted to say: “I don’t relate to healing in this context.” I rarely even used the word in a 350-page memoir, forthcoming, November 2015.

I know … it’s an extremely common theme in the grief literature, in conversations among those of us who compare notes about deeply challenging, traumatic experiences. Healing has its place, as a topic, as a goal. It sounds logical, realistic, and appropriate given the dark terrain of absence.

For me, though, the concept—maybe the word itself—didn’t resonate. When I think of “healing” … I imagine a broken arm, surgery, or a trip to ER for stitches after a nasty fall.

The physical connotation, in other words, is what “healing” brings to mind … not a timeless spiritual journey without boundaries or precise definition.

There are other reasons I have been reluctant to adopt this term, this process, as something I find meaningful when it comes to the complexities (and mysteries) of loss.

For one thing, the obvious insinuation is that an individual (a group, community, or nation) has been damaged, hurt, or possibly taken ill and is therefore suffering from a condition or disorder that is viewed as alarming or extremely worrisome. And I can see how this perspective, in some ways, might apply to the dynamics of significant grief.

Pain, yes, of course. And feeling “ill” wouldn’t be totally inaccurate, especially at various points along the journey. The very early months, for instance, or perhaps when certain milestones come into view. Maybe something triggers a powerful, but unexpected memory – one touching a deep emotional current within. Grief, undoubtedly, does produce visceral symptoms.

But it seems that an important distinction should be made in regard to context.

After someone we love departs from the world as we know it, an unfathomable void remains – one that exists on many levels: physic, spiritual, emotional, historical, or familial (whatever words you prefer). That massive void is the key to everything that happens on the road ahead.

Should we ignore it, embrace it, gloss over it, medicate ourselves, or one day, try to “heal” it?

Each person grapples with loss differently; whatever has worked for you is what counts. But, for me, the objective of healing an inexplicable void felt misleading and not very helpful … when, most of all, I yearned to understand that void.

What, exactly, is a void?

For me it was the sudden presence of an empty space (within, without) of unknown dimensions – something to experience and learn from, instead of healing from. It didn’t feel optional, either. I would have to explore, slowly, deliberately, its frightening depth: its darkness and purpose, size and shape, its vague edges, and curious intensity.

Clearly, and this was a key insight, this “void” was also an inescapable part of life … especially in the spiritual sense. “What wasn’t,” yes, but also “what is.” Something, ultimately, not to reject or deny, but to acknowledge, and eventually, embrace through surrender and understanding.

So if “healing” is the right word at all, it may be in the sense that, finally, the unknown becomes the known … assuming our lack of awareness is something to be “healed” from or rescued from. But this is really not my idea of healing, either. This, if we must pin it down, is what many refer to as awakening, or growing closer to enlightenment.

I think of this demanding and delicate process as spiritual growth.

And “spiritual” doesn’t necessarily need a “religious” component. It’s actually about discovering our inner core, then figuring out how to live from a deeper, more expansive perspective, one that includes our acceptance of the limitations (and hidden possibilities) of mortality.

No doubt, profound loss is a catalyst for many things: for personal growth of various kinds. Yet, a catalyst has the obvious potential to propel us forward with “new eyes,” especially when we are honest and diligent about honoring its sometimes challenging guidance.

I wrote in my memoir, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, that grief is about life integration, not about moving on or getting over something … it is a deep (and abiding) kind of love. My son was gone at 27, but not in the spiritual sense. My journey, and his, somehow intertwined. And, yes, figuring this all out took a very long time.

But I never thought of my journey as “healing” (a word that felt curiously simplistic, laden with the heavy, misdirected expectations of a time-based world). Death, like the void loss creates, is intrinsic to life. Not a disease, a mental problem, or a surgical procedure. And while it produces despair, anguish, and uncertainty, experiencing the death of a loved one is a valuable entry point into the mystery of unseen forces that offer liberation from our suffering.

Granted, this may be mostly semantics, but why not choose empowerment over victimization … why not listen for the deeper message of loss, the eternal heartbeat of the universe? ~

Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.

D.A. (Daisy) Hickman is a poet, an author, and the 2010 founder of SunnyRoomStudio—a creative, sunny space for kindred spirits. Hickman holds a master’s degree in sociology from Iowa State University, and earned her bach­elor’s degree at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. A member of the Academy of American Poets and the South Dakota State Poetry Society, Hickman is at work on her first poetry collection, and her memoir is forthcoming. Hickman’s first book was published in 1999 by William Morrow (Eagle Brook imprint) as Where the Heart Resides: Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie. Second edition, Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, 2014 (Capturing Morning Press).  
For author updates or to subscribe to her blog, please visit or find her blog page on Facebook Hickman is on Twitter @dhsunwriter and @mysunnystudio. Email her