Monthly Archives: January 2017

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 2 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Write about the three most significant jobs (include volunteer work) you ever had. Later, choose one job and write about it. Be sure to tell how you grew from the experience. How did the work enrich your life?
  • List the three most memorable events in your life. Later, choose one and write down everything you can remember about it.
  • What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you? Later, see if you can remember two or three other funny things.
  • List four things you would do differently if you had a choice. Later, write in detail about one of these. Why would you choose differently? What choice would you make instead? What difference do you think it would have made in your life?
  • Write down five things that please and delight you the most. Later, choose one and do it. Write about the enjoyment and pleasure you feel.)

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 1 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Make a list of the ten most important things that have ever happened to you. Later, write a page about each one. What happened? Who was involved? Why did it happen? Why was it important to you? What were the consequences?
  • Write down the three most important lessons you have ever learned. Later, write about what you did with the knowledge. Why were these lessons valuable to you?
  • In chronological order, jot down all the houses you’ve ever lived in. Later, choose the 3 most important and describe them. What made them important?
  • Write down the names of the people you have loved longest and most dearly. Later, choose 3 to write about. Why did you love these people? What did they add to your life?
  • Describe the three most imporant choices you’ve ever made. Later, write about what happened after you made each of these choices. What did they lead to?

Seeing Double: Writing from Photos

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


For most of us, a photograph is a way of holding the past in our hands—seeing what happened, when, with whom. Photos are a testimony to a time now gone, and to our intimate connection with people who may no longer be alive. They are a way of “seeing double”—recalling past events and reliving them in the present. For those of us who want to write about our lives, photographs can be a fine resource.

Using Photos to Remember

Here today, gone tomorrow—the past is as slippery and hard to hold as a wet fish. But when we have a photo to write from, our memory of the past may become much clearer—or we may find something new to notice, some new discovery about the past that has eluded us.Try this: find a favorite photo of yourself with someone who has influenced you—your mother, your father, a much-loved aunt, a husband or lover. Look at it for a moment, thinking about your relationship with the person and putting yourself back into the perspective of the girl or woman you were at that time. Then write. Who were you, back then? Who was this person? Why was he or she important to you then? What lessons did you learn, at that time, from him or her?

A Later Perspective

As you wrote the passage above, you were seeing the photograph from the point of view of the person you were at the time it was taken. Now, let’s try a different perspective, take a later point of view. We know that nfluential relationships are often double-edged: that is, we may be influenced to change in ways that might not be altogether right for us. Look at the photo again, but this time from the point of view of the woman you are now. How might your life have been different if the person in the photo had not been there? What did you learn from this person that you now wish you hadn’t? Is there something in the photo that gives you a clue to this more problematic aspect of the relationship? Perhaps there is something in the posture, in the facial expression, in the setting, that helps you see something different. Viewing the past from your present perspective may help you to uncover a different understanding of the events and relationships you have experienced.

Seeing Double: Finding the Truth

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Photographs don’t lie.” But this isn’t always true. In a workshop a few years ago, an older woman named Pearl brought a photo of herself as a small child, sitting on her mother’s lap. Both were smiling, both looked happy. “But those smiles were lies,” Pearl wrote. “My father had abandoned both of us. We had no money and we were afraid. But Mother didn’t want her parents to know how bad it was, so she sent them the photo to show that we were doing fine. ‘Just keep smiling,’ she would say, ‘and nobody will know the difference.’ Deception was the first lesson I had to unlearn,” Pearl adds, “when I began to search for my real self.” If you look through your photograph collection, you may find one that you can “see double”—that is, one you can see with the eyes of the person you were then, and with the eyes of the person you are now. What truth can you find in this photo? What new thing does it show you about the past through which you have lived?

Memoir Albums

If you have lots of photos, you might consider assembling a memoir album: a book of photos and your interpretations of the people and the events depicted—together with your own history, of course. You may be surprised by what you learn from this. Photographs can be a key to the treasures, and the traumas, of the deeply buried past. —Susan Albert

The Past in Pictures

You can learn a great deal about your past by studying the photos you have collected, particularly those of the family you grew up in. Use these questions to help you get started writing.Who?
Who are the people in the photographs? If you know them, write a paragraph or two about them: who they are, where they lived, how they were connected to you. If you don’t know them, ask family members to help with identification. Pay attention to the details of dress, posture, facial expression: these silent messages often speak very loudly.

Where and When?
Where were these photographs taken? What scenes are depicted? What do these tell you about the people? What years were the photos made? How old were you? What details of the period are evident in dress, vehicles, furniture, etc.? What can you write about the time and the place?

What?
Photographs often commenorate important family occasions: weddings, funerals, reunions, holidays. What are the occasions of the photos you have collected? What family rituals are being celebrated? What does this tell you about your family’s ethnic background, religious beliefs, economic and social class? How do you feel about these occasions now, as you look back on them? Write about the events, including not just the details of the event, but your feelings, as well.

Photos and Poems and Quotes, Oh My!: How Other Creative Works Can Add to Your Writing

One of the first reviewers of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, said, “….The poetry and photographs add an extra dimension that is missing from most memoirs like this since as a reader you get much closer to the reality of what is being described on the page….” (Mark Shelmerdine, CEO, Jeffers Press). Another reviewer said my book is “poetically visceral.” Those statements helped validate any misgivings I had in adding other creative works into my manuscript.

I really hadn’t thought of putting photos in my book until my publisher suggested it. And of course I was delighted. At first she suggested photos interspersed within the chapters, but my book didn’t lend itself to that. So I picked out photos in groups: of my son Paul – the main subject of the book, of him and his brother, family photos, views of my office, garden, and one of the memorials to Paul – a bench dedicated to him on the greenbelt outside our home. At the time I had no idea what an impact these photos would have on the message of the book. However, I am currently reading Keith Richard’s memoir, Life. It has two photo sections. And I keep going back to these photos as I get to know more about the characters in his book.

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Inserting my poems was another story. I never even considered leaving them out. They were instrumental in my book’s organization. I had journal entries and other writings to draw from and a poetry manuscript, and I arranged my book’s chapters according the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript. However, I still worried about what others would think. So many agents state that they don’t look at poetry. A memoir workshop instructor wasn’t keen on the idea. However, one of the people who had read my poems several years ago now says he can relate to them better because of their context in the story. The bottom line is: I was fortunate to find a publisher who not only liked the poems I initially had in the book, but asked for more.

Because I collect quotes – I usually note them down when I read, and I continually post them on my Facebook author page – I decided to insert three quotes in my book– two from books and one from a song. And that turned out to be the biggest problem in finally getting my book to print. Since I felt they were integral to my story I was adamant, but it took months to get the necessary permissions. The main lesson is: if you want to include other authors’ words in your book, start getting permission early.

All in all I felt it was well worth the extra time it took to include other works in my memoir. My writing is very personal and I feel the photos, poems, and quotes helped deepen the personal message of my words.