Wanting Your Story Told

I’m ordering a smoothie (raspberry and peach), and the young woman making it asks me what I’m doing for the rest of my day.

“I’m writing,” I tell her.  “I have this idea for a novel, and I want to start it today.”

She leans over the counter top and looks to her left and then her right.  “Do you have ten minutes?”

“Yes.”

“I have a good story for you.  You’ll never believe it, but it’s true.  It’s my life.  Maybe afterwards you will write my story.”

I sit there drinking my smoothie while she recounts her childhood in Venezuela, her failed marriage at just eighteen years old, her dreams to become an artist, and what she’s learning in therapy.

“I tend to become everybody’s mother,” she says.  “I’m not doing that anymore.”

I thank her for her story, and she adds, “You can use all of this in your novel.  That’s how it works, right?  You meet someone and they inspire a great story.  But I want to look good in it, you know.  Not like a crazy woman or anything.”

I tell her I’ll return for another smoothie on another day.  Maybe I will write down her story.  I’d like to know more about this Venezuelan young woman, wouldn’t you?  

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Journal:   Who needs to tell you their story?  Do you have a life story that people might not believe?

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A Turning Point Statement

During the summer of 1994, a friend told me she thought I had the spiritual gift of encouragement.  She posted a little note by my bed.  It said, “You are an encourager.”  I remember exactly what it looked like–the handwriting, the color–and how it felt to have someone name something like that about me.  My friend saw what I couldn’t see. 

That single comment shaped the next 15 years of my life.  I wasn’t just an average girl; I was a hope giver, a courage finder, and an inspiration provider.  I wasn’t just a nobody.  God wanted to use me to point others towards a beautiful future. 

It took someone naming it to help me see it. 

I had a student who told me that of all my weeks and weeks of teaching, the most memorable thing from my class was a single comment I wrote on one of his many essays.

In the margin of his paper, I wrote:  “You sound like a great teacher right here.”   He was overwhelmed that I named that in him, and he later wrote about his dreams for graduate school to become a teacher.  As my husband and I discussed these turning point comments, he told me he remembered the exact words of a Scout leader who pointed out some unique gifts he saw in my husband.   Those were turning point words. 

Today, as I guide students through their memoir drafts, I realize that I’m not naming what I see enough.  I wonder what I need to name in my children, in my friends, and in my students.  I see this in you.  Maybe God will use it to shape a life.  Maybe those words will be a turning point for someone today.

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Journal:  Did someone speak “turning point words” to you when you were younger?  Can you speak a “turning point word” to someone in your life today? 

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The Detail that Changes Everything

In class today, we read the description of the town of Maycomb in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  As we imagine that beautiful Southern drawl, we hear how “ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” 

That one detail comparing ladies to teacakes sets a mood for this little town.  It’s a comparison worth making. 

The ladies like soft teacakes seem out of place.  It’s a tiny detail, amid the “red slop” of rainy streets and “bony mules” that flick flies away.  There’s even a dog suffering in the background.   I don’t want to live in a town like this. 

But then, the writer introduces the lovely and delicate and transforms sweat to frosting and talcum.  Already, I know something marvelous will happen in the mind of this narrator. 

She’s going to reconstruct a new reality for me. 

As we work on our own personal memoir settings, we think deeply about tiny details that change how we understand our pasts. We are the characters, looking back over our lifetimes, and weaving threads of meaning into our experiences.  Was there a detail that I couldn’t see until this moment that offers a new reality?   Is there a truth I might apply that I only see now?  Back then, I only felt the heat and slop.  But now? 

Can I notice something different–one detail–that might turn sweat to frosting? 

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Your Beautiful Moments

I introduce Memoir Writing to my students today, and I ask them to write down one or two examples of beautiful moments they’ve experienced. 

I’m always amazed, year after year, with the types of things we remember from our childhoods.  Without fail, a student’s beautiful moment has something to do with nature, friendship, God, travel, or overcoming a trial.  Not once, in all my years of teaching, has a beautiful moment emerged from memories of television or video games.  But the time they spend with technology (hours upon hours) would suggest that at least some tiny memory might emerge–some tangible image–that elevates the soul and provides a moment of self-discovery.  

But they don’t have memories like that with technology. 

Yesterday, I went to a parent / teacher conference for my kindergartner.  In her journal, she was supposed to draw her “favorite moments.”  She drew the swing in our front yard, the pumpkin patch, and jumping on the bed with her sister.

No favorite movies; no favorite computer games; no favorite technology experiences.  I needed to see that. 

My Sea Glass Bracelet

Just now, I visit my dear friend down the street.  Her son has a collection of sea glass, rocks, and shells from a summer beach trip.

He’s teaching himself the art of jewelry making.  He presents me with a handmade bracelet, woven together with wire.

I will treasure this bracelet.  He tells me about the beach, about finding these shells and sea glass.  It’s a beautiful moment.  And he’s made this memory into a bracelet I can wear.  It’s tangible; it’s real.  It’s the stuff of memoir.

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