You Have a Story and the Story is You

I’ve been following a very interesting on-going dialogue within a writer’s group on Linkedin,  a social media website.  The question was asked by one of the participants if we writers felt that we should bring any of our childhood memories  into our writing.   My immediate reaction was, how is it possible not to?  We are our memories.  We are what we’ve lived through –  every person we’ve met, every decision we’ve made, every experience we’ve had, every good, bad and ugly act we’ve committed.  To try to keep all of that past, all of those memories, out of our writing would, I think, be impossible.   And why would we want to?  Each of us is a unique human being,  and yet we are Everyman.  We have our own special stories about our unique experiences, and yet our fears, hopes, dreams and needs are not unique.  It seems to me that authors  touch the hearts and minds of a lot more readers when we offer up part of ourselves through our characters.

That thought brings me to my real message here, which I try to incorporate into the conclusion of every presentation I give about my books.

The first part of that  message to my audiences is the importance  of  journaling on a fairly regular basis.  There’s  an easy seguey into that for me because the protagonists journal in both of my novels.  Why?  Because it helps them get in touch with their feelings, and that’s a healthy, positive thing for all of us to do.  Through journaling, my characters help resolve their conflicts.  In fact, in a recent study about that very point,  researchers found that not only does journaling help us resolve problems, work through our disappointments and fears and increase happiness when we write about good experiences, it also delays dementia.  Now how good is that?

So, journaling is important for our mental health.  If you don’t journal, try it now.  Simply write what’s on your mind.  And do it thoughtlessly.  Just get down what you’re feeling.  Let it all out.  Bask in the joy or fear or sorrow and then set it aside.  In a day or two or three, maybe, go back to what you wrote and see how you feel about that entry.  How far have you come in those days or that week? Do you feel better, worse, the same?  Have you progressed?  Has it awakened anything inside you?

The second part of the message is that there is no greater legacy you can leave behind with the people you love the most than your own personal story.  Each of our lives is unique.  Each of us is a special gift.  And your own very special story is a part of history and something that needs to be recorded and passed on.  Journaling now will help you create that story when you’re ready.  Just make sure that you begin it before it’s too late.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard friends say that they are so sorry that their parents’ or grandparents’ stories are lost forever because no one took the time to help write the memories. Or they had the time but just couldn’t get started.   I’ve also had older friends tell me that they would like to tell their stories to their families now, but their memories and facts about their lives have faded away.  It’s too late for them.  How sad.   I had the great privilege of helping my mother record her memories of her unique life for the rest of our family.  It was an incredible, eye-opening, cleansing  journey that we took together.  And it was one that would have been such a shame to have missed.

So get going.  Start today.  Record those emotions in a book that will become your Journal.  Acknowledge and accept what you are feeling.  It will be healthy for you.  Then once you have the hang of it, begin writing that story of yours that will begin coming together through your Journal.   You’ll be so glad, once you’ve started the process, and so will your children and grandchildren and their families.  Remember:  you are unique; you have a story to tell, and the story is you.

Let me know how you do: www.pennyslauer.com;  About.Me/pennySlauer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Merrily Rowing Downstream?

I’m sure you all remember this song we learned as children: “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.  Life is but a dream.”  It was fun to sing, particularly if you had people around to begin singing it along with you at various intervals.  It sort of went on and on and on, and I remember being practically delirious all those years ago with the delight of multiple children’s voices mindlessly making music together.  And the words were so simple.  

Two weeks ago, my minister asked his congregation to take a closer look.

What do the words mean?  Really?  Row your boat merrily gently downstream.   If you go “gently” downstream and row as if rowing mattered, life is but a dream.  Do you think the writer of the ditty meant something more than we as children interpreted it?  Or is it  another case of someone interpreting too deeply and spoiling all the fun?

In my book, Skipping Stones, my character Sam writes a note of encouragement to Jess, who has finally (and fearfully) decided to break her silence about the abuse going on in her home and free herself and her children to live without fear.   In the note, he includes a quote that I found a while ago:  “I stand, I reach, I yearn, I bellow, and finally I live.  What do you do?”  Notice the sequence of the words.  He was telling Jess, and I was encouraging all women in abusive situations, to take a stand, to dare to dream, to cry and to get angry and yell out – to bellow, in fact.  But to finally be what she was meant to be.  And truly live.

What does Sam’s message to Jess have to do with the song about rowing downstream and being merry about it?  A lot.  Because if we float along, pretending that we’re not being carried along by the tide, and even assume merriment along the way,we’re dreaming.  We’re not really living.  “Life is but a dream.”

The two messages, and, I dare say, mine, is that being simply safe is never good enough.

I sign off with one more quote:  “It is never too late to be the person you were meant to be.”  George Eliot

“Aspire to Inspire Before You Expire”

I love this quote! A gentleman brought it up during a book discussion with me several years ago, and I hear it repeated occasionally. I wrote it down in my book of quotes, which I keep on my desk and refer to almost daily. For a long time, I misunderstood the words. I was thinking in too lofty terms and was missing the point.

I’m hearing more and more often too these days that we all need to live life to its fullest because we never know what tomorrow might bring. I couldn’t agree more and don’t need to write that one down.

To me, living life to its fullest is loving unconditionally, talking often to my wonderful family, learning something new every day, looking for challenges, taking risks, smiling at strangers, and being a good friend.
I also try to thank people who help make my life comfortable: grocery clerks, taxi drivers, service men and women, sales clerks, trash collectors. I got that inspiration from the Dali Lama in one of the many books he’s written. Before he leaves a hotel, he said, he makes a point to stop by and talk to the staff – particularly the housekeepers – to thank them for making his stay so comfortable. He asks his readers to consider how different their lives would be without all of the people who surround us who see to it that things get done – things that we don’t want to do and probably couldn’t. He’s inspirational. Among other things, he inspired me to try to make little differences in people’s lives before I get too old and crotchety.

Other people have said things like, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and that “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” How true. So…let’s get out there tomorrow and the day after and the day after that and live life to its fullest and, in doing so, be inspirational in lots of big and small ways.

Breaking Away

This past month, I’ve had several wonderful opportunities to speak to book groups about Skipping Stones, and I’m amazed by the interest women my age have in domestic violence. Most of the women I’ve spoken to are what we call “women of means” – affluent, highly educated, successful in their own right. They want to know the facts, particularly what causes a man to become an abuser; why women stay; why, on average, they leave and return to the abusive relationship an average of four times.

Something interesting occurred at my most recent presentation. A participant came right out and asked her friends how many of them know women who are or have been in abusive situations. There were thirty-three women there. Out of the thirty-three, fourteen women raised their hands. The statistics are that one in every three women will, at some point in their lives, be involved in a violent relationship.

How do abused women break away? How do they break the silence? That is the central focus of the book, and one of the major points of discussion at the book clubs. For affluent women like my character, Jess, the process often begins with someone close to them really paying attention to their moods, their appearance, their overall health, and the small openings that the victims leave in conversations. In the case of Jess, it is her young nephew who became the catalyst for change – the only one in the home who had known unconditional love and open communication. Victims are hesitant to talk about how they’re living. They’re afraid; embarrassed; ashamed; lost, believing that they are somehow at fault.

Women…help other women and their innocent children. Learn about domestic violence. Listen, observe, and reach out to women you suspect are being abused. Communicate in an honest and sincere way. Break the silence. Offer help. Be a good friend, a caring mother or sister, a compassionate co-worker. You just may end up saving a life.

Be the Gull!

One of my favorite books is Jonathon Livingston Seagull. In it, Jonathon risks family, friends, and his own safety to reach his full potential in order to realize his dream to fly higher, to see the world in a different perspective, and to encourage others to do the same. In my book, Skipping Stones, after reading about Jonathon, Josh, Ben and Katie vow to “Be the Gull!” and whisper their own individual dreams to each other outside their home on New Year’s Eve. The statement becomes their mantra and motivates them to begin their journey to break out of their lethargy and to escape from the violence they endure inside their home. They dare to dream, and their intent to pursue their goals encourages Jess to find her voice and to finally communicate to the people she loves and trusts how she and her children live.

The story of Jonathon is inspirational for all of us and reminds us that each of us is unique and has particular gifts to offer to the world. We have the right – the responsibility – to use our gifts and to pursue our dreams, however simple or lofty they might be. When that right is taken away, we are lost.

What Do You Do?

One of the first women I met when my family moved to Cleveland was a real power-house, involved – and usually in charge – in all kinds of charitable and civic organizations. Respected and loved, she was the go-to person when a theater needed to be saved, an event needed to be held to raise desperately-needed funds for an arts organization, or organizational skills needed to be honed by Boards. We had an opportunity to have a real conversation at a cocktail party about a month after I had settled in, and one of her first questions was, “What do you do?” I answered back, citing my care for my children, dabbling with golf, involvement in a local school program, entertaining in my home, etc., etc. “Yes,” she said, “but what do you do? That was twenty-seven years ago, and I’ve thought about her question thousands of times since. “What Do I Do?” What, indeed, did I do?

Flash forward to eight years ago, another party, another city, another woman. Once again, at this event, I knew very few people and this time, for conversation, I wandered over to an older, majestic-looking woman who was also alone. After the usual pleasantries, I made the bold move to ask her what she did, afraid, after the words were out of my mouth, that I had been mean-spirited. Her answer stunned me. “Well,” she said, “I just buried my husband last year, I have six successful children, twelve outstanding grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.” Memories of my conversation nineteen years ago flashed through my mind. She surprised me by continuing, with a look of confidence and pride, “And I just finished my first book, which will be published within the year.” This woman was eight-seven years old. She had just lost her husband, was very comfortable financially, had close friends and family, and had every right to take things easy and relax. She had accomplished so many things. But she had never really accomplished her very own dream for herself: to write a novel. And there she was, working, learning, experiencing, at a late age, a totally different slice of life, filled with possibilities. I assumed that the book she had written was a memoir. She corrected me. “Oh, no,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s a mystery.”

That conversation with that woman filled me with inspiration and changed the way I had anticipated living my life. Two women in two different cities had prodded me to fulfill my own dream. There is no such thing as coincidence.

After that conversation with that elderly woman, I wrote my own novel, Bottled Butterfly, about a young, desperately poor woman who decided that she was going to change her destiny. What did she do? She read, she worked doubly hard, saved as much as she possibly could, struggled to change the way she spoke, and, in changing her own life, also brought change to the lives of her siblings. She became the “lady” she had envisioned herself to become one day.

In Skipping Stones, my latest novel, Jess, emotionally and physically abused by her lawyer husband, finally breaks her silence and learns to live the life she was meant to enjoy. A talented interior designer, she had to give up her dreams of bringing her brand of beauty into the homes of others because she was forbidden to go after success by the narcissistic patriarch of her household. Prodded by her nephew, Josh, and her brother-in-law, Sam, she clearly sees what she had become and, despite the danger, decides to change her life. throughout her catharsis, Sam writes her notes to encourage her to move on. One note included this quote: I stand. I yearn. I reach. I bellow. And finally I live. What do you do?”

Do something important to you. Never let go of your dreams. Believe. It is never to late to become the person you’ve wanted to be.

Breaking the silence

The themes running through Skipping Stones were difficult to work through and may be difficult for readers to get through as well. The impact of divorce and the death of a parent on a child, and the heartache and loss of self-identity and self-esteem in a home where there is domestic violence are not subjects for casual reading. And yet I was compelled to write about all of them. Sadly, one in four women will experience abuse at some point in her life. People have trouble believing that, but the statistics are available online to anyone. In the novel, Jess lived for thirteen years in denial about the cruelty she experienced by her husband in her beautiful up-scale home, beginning with the birth of her first child. She didn’t have a name for what she was experiencing and was convinced that the violence inflicted on her by her lawyer husband was her fault. And then she went in for a routine visit to her doctor and everything changed.

Jess and her family believed that “abuse” didn’t apply to people like them, that domestic violence was sordid and ugly and only happened in poor families or those of a different culture. Her parents and her sister didn’t recognize the signs, and Jess was too proud to confess to them the way she lived. A child listened. Josh searched for answers. He and his cousins vowed to fight against the emotional pain they were experiencing and cause change in their home. Josh risked everything that was dear to him to help save Jess and his cousins. Finally, Jess broke the silence.

Domestic violence happens in every part of the world to women of all cultures and all economic levels – even in up-scale communities to “women of means.” It’s important to be informed. It’s important to be aware and to be willing to communicate with women who we believe are suffering. think of it: one in four women will experience violence at some point in their lives. My message in Skipping Stones is hope, the resiliency of children, the importance of open communication, and the healing power of nature and unconditional love. Let’s break the silence and the cycle.

Writing is a game of discovery

People always ask me how I write – how much I plan what I’m going to write before I actually begin – and I’ve always felt that I need to justify the answer I give. Readers assume that writers always know exactly how the story is going to go, that we know each character absolutely before we’ve begun, and that the endings to each of our stories are a forgone conclusion. They can visualize the note cards pasted on the wall to help give us direction and the endless outlines we keep in front of us to keep us on target. And they are absolutely incredulous when I tell them that none of those things hold true for me. I can see the disappointment on their faces, and I rush in to assure them that I’m sure other writers of different genres most certainly do those things.

To me, writing fiction is a game of discovery. I begin with the message that slowly evolves in my mind and let the characters that I’ll develop take their time to pop into my head and inform me that they are the ones to deliver that message. I have no idea how the story is going to go. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I was going in the right direction, only to realize that I was trying too hard and that I had to take a different path than the one I was on. I can’t direct. The characters do that. In other words, I discover the story as I write. And that is what is so much fun. In a sense, I’m my first reader. I can honestly admit that there are times when I’ve gone back to what I’ve written hours or days before and asked myself, “Did I really say that? Where in the world did that come from?” It’s all a part of our past or our present, the people we’ve known, the strangers sitting across from us, the stories we’ve read, the news we’ve heard, our joys, our fears. It’s all there to rediscover, to make sense of, and make the story.

Today Is Here;Use It

A long time ago, right after reading my first book, Bottled Butterfly, a friend emailed me a section from a book entitled Eternal Echoes by John Donahue that says, essentially, that the human heart is never still, that the sense of self is never fixed, and that, in ways, our inner lives are nomadic. He quotes Hegel, who wrote that “Longing is the deepest and most ancient voice in the human soul. It is the secret source of all presence, and the driving force of all creativity and imagination.” Both suggest that if we stop dreaming, if we stop searching for whatever it is that we long for, we stop living in a sense and suggest that “maybe we would be as good as dead.”

My Nellie, in Bottled Butterfly, had a dream that no one but she could believe in, and she struggled throughout her childhood and young adult years against incredible adversity – poverty, illiteracy, prejudice – to accomplish her goals. Josh, in Skipping Stones, did the same, under entirely different circumstances, and risked everything important to him to help his aunt and cousins believe in possibilities and free themselves from the cruelty in their home.

Without dreams, we merely exist; without hope, we are lost. Now go out there and, as Josh says, “grab the tail of the wind and go for the gusto.”
Today is here. Use it.

Dancers in the Rain

I’ll never forget a book club presentation I made in Naples, Florida, two years ago. There were around thirty very well-read, sophisticated, involved women discussing with me all of the trials and tribulations Nellie, the protagonist in Bottled Butterfly, had endured and why she had not only survived it all, but had actually thrived. One quite beautiful and elegant woman raised her hand and quietly summarized our thoughts for us, quoting a saying that she had come across a long time ago and that she tried to remember every single day since: “Life isn’t about weathering the storm; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

After our discussion, several of the lady’s friends came to me and discreetly told me that she had had a very tragic life, but she had never given up. She had laughed, listened, shared, encouraged. She had become a role model for every woman she met. She saw the glass half-full, not half empty. She had presence, dignity, a sense of humor, and quiet wisdom.

I’m sure that you’ve met women like the bookclub lady. I know that I have, and I hope to emulate them when it comes my turn to determine what kind of person I’ll strive to be when faced with pain.

I hope that your day and all of your tomorrows will be bright ones. And if they are not, I hope you’ll remember my Nellie and the lady who had done more than just weather the storm. I hope that you’ll becomee dancers in the rain.