A Writing Lesson from Clark Griswold

I am Griswold.

Clark Griswold and I both love Christmas, but we can sometimes go too far. This year I actually had our writer’s Christmas party at the beginning of November, and the festivities haven’t stopped.

Christmas Writing Group

So when my writer’s group read the book The Emotional Craft of Fiction by literary agent Donald Maass, and I was struck by the lesson on catalyst and catharsis, I looked to Clark Griswold in the movie Christmas Vacation to be my example.

Here’s Donald’s definition of the idea: Catharsis is a storm followed by a release of something inside.  It is preceded by a catalyst, an event that causes the storm to break.

Here’s Clark in the midst of the storm: Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I’d like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless…

You get the idea.

Now when I was explaining this term to a writer’s group recently, one woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t buy it.” She doesn’t think we should encourage readers to lose their tempers.

Donald, Clark, and I are not encouraging such an explosion. Clark didn’t want to lose his temper. He tried to keep it all in. But his catalysts did not relent. The one thing that held him together was the belief that all of the hardships of the season would be made up for with the pool he’d planned to buy using his Christmas bonus. When he found out there would be no Christmas bonus, he lost it.

I’ve been there too. It’s not fun. But it’s real.

And that’s what Donald is encouraging. Writing real. In real life, our pent up emotions have to release sometime. I know mine do. In fact, I once bought China dishes from a thrift store just so I could throw them. It was going to be messy, so I went to a recycling station and smashed them into the glass bin. Then my best friend and I laughed like maniacs because it felt soo good to let out the anger.

That’s where we want to take our characters. To a feel good ending. But so often we are afraid of how messy their catharsis will be.

Eureka CoverAfter reading Donald’s book, I went back to my manuscript for Finding Love in Eureka–to the part where life was pressing in on my character from both sides. I’d originally had her sidestep the pressure. But life is never that easy, is it? So I rewrote the scene.

Genevieve stayed. She lost her sanity a little bit. She made a poor choice. But when the smoke cleared, she was able to see things from an objective perspective. Which created a feel-good ending that was more relatable. More genuine. More powerful.

One other tip from Donald: Make the explosion public.

Not only did Clark to blow up, but his cousin kidnapped his boss as a Christmas gift then the S.W.A.T. team swung through the windows of his house. Could Christmas get any messier?

But here’s the thing. Clark’s explosion also changed his boss’s perspective. Because Clark was honest about his feelings, and life was as messy as it could get, this made it safe for others to be honest too. There was nothing left for them to lose at this point.

If you haven’t ever experienced a holiday like this, that’s great. Either way, I’m going to encourage you to look for other examples of catalyst and catharsis in your life as well as your favorite movies. Use them to take your own stories deeper.

In the words of Cousin Eddie: That’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Santa Strong

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good rewrite!

All is Calm

Hear that sound? No? That’s because it is the sound of silence. The kind of inexplicable, almost supernatural, silence that expands to fill the void left in the wake of a tornado or an eardrum-shattering fireworks display or, in this case, the Christmas season.

Much is made of the fact that Christmas is a time for peace, for reflection on Christ and the greatest gift ever given, his life, death and resurrection. In reality, though, if they happen at all, those moments of reflection are generally stolen ones, snatches here and there in the midst of rushing through crowded shopping malls, cooking and cleaning madly before friends and family arrive, and squeals of delight as children tear paper off of gifts spilling out from under the Christmas tree.

All good things. Martha things. Things that should be and need to be done. But things that can so easily distract us from the Mary thing. Sitting and listening. Meditating on the words of Scripture. Contemplating the wonder of some of the most profound and stirring words of all, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1).

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Emmanuel. God with us. What an incredible, almost incomprehensible thought.

And not one we can only contemplate at Christmas, thankfully. It is in this time, in the deep silence that follows the noise and (mostly) joyful rushing around and checking off of lists and the general chaos and confusion, this almost supernatural time of stillness, hibernation and rest, that we are finally able to find minutes, sometimes hours, for uninterrupted, undistracted contemplation.

On the words of Scripture. And on the words given to us as a treasured gift, not to hoard but to give, to share, to continue to pass along the powerful message that the Word dwelt among us. That the Word dwells among us. Not just in Bethlehem, not just at Christmas, but here, now, in the silence and stillness that follows the often frenzied celebration of his birth.

So as we enter into this, a new year, a clean slate, an endless stretch of possibility and potential, may the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to him. And may the words he gives us to share with others bless them and draw them back to his presence every day of the year ahead.

Let us continue to share the message of Christmas. That hope came when there was no hope. That light came into deep, impenetrable darkness. That joy came into sadness, grief and loss. It came two thousand years ago. And it comes today when we are finally still enough to know that he is God. When we stop long enough to listen, to meditate, to contemplate and, in the silence, unwrap, discover and experience for ourselves the greatest gift of all.

The Word with us.

Just Beyond the Manger….

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Busyness and noise…presents yet to be wrapped…Christmas dinner – has the turkey thawed yet?…the table covered with cookies, frosting smears, and stray sprinkles…and someone – we won’t name names – is singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at the top of her voice.

On top of everything else, if we don’t get a move on, we’ll be late for Christmas Eve service!

Is that cat climbing the Christmas tree again?

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                      But…wait…

                                                      …look…

                                                                                                 …listen.

As silent as snowflakes dusting the ground, Christmas comes in pristine whiteness. The babe in the manger, the choirs of angel voices, the shadow of the cross.

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With painful glory, the promise is repeated. Do you hear it?

Hope is born.

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Life takes on new meaning.

God enters our lives.

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A turn of the head and the glimmer of light is captured at the edge of our vision.

God enters our lives in peace, hope, promise, life.

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Joyful anticipation.

God enters our lives to bring us to Himself.

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And a baby is born.

 

Walking Down Memory Lane: Recording Your Legacy Stories

Photo/KarenJordan

What memories do you recall of your hometown?

Christmas always brings back a lot of memories from my hometown, Silsbee, Texas.

My husband Dan and I grew up in the same town in Southeast Texas. So, even though he’s a few years older than me, we share a lot of memories of our hometown. Not only were we both born in that small Texas town, our parents grew up there, too. So, a lot of our relatives and friends still live there. And we still make trips back there when we can.

Fun times. Both of our children were born in Southeast Texas, too. But since we moved away when they were young, they only remember the holidays, summer vacations, and fun times with their relatives there.

Painful moments. Some memories are difficult to embrace–like the death of loved ones or mistakes from our past. But I’ve discovered the importance of recording some of my painful memories, especially since both of my parents are gone now.

Writing down some of those narratives brings healing to my soul. Plus, if I don’t write my family stories down, I know they will be lost forever.

Legacy stories. I should have written down the stories my mother and dad told me long ago. But at the time, I didn’t see any value of recording them.

I still hear those stories from my other relatives when I go back to Silsbee for holidays, weddings, reunions, and funerals. I’m trying to work out a plan for jotting down more of those stories as I remember them.

Certain songs also trigger memories for me. Although I moved from my childhood home several decades ago, Kenny Rogers‘ hit, “Twenty Years Ago,” always takes me back in time, reminding me of my past.

As you listen to the song below, I hope it helps you recall some of the stories from your hometown, too. But be sure to write them down. Someone you love might be blessed by your stories. I also hope you’ll share a story with our readers in the comments below.

YouTube/RareCountry2 (“Twenty Years Ago – Kenny Rogers)

Did this video remind you of a story from your hometown?

The Sound of Silence

Hear that sound? No? That’s because it is the sound of silence. The kind of inexplicable, almost supernatural, silence that expands to fill the void left in the wake of a tornado or an eardrum-shattering fireworks display or, in this case, the Christmas season.

prayer and contemplationMuch is made of the fact that Christmas is a time for peace, for reflection on Christ and the greatest gift ever given–his life, death, and resurrection. In reality, though, if they happen at all, those moments of reflection are generally stolen ones, snatched here and there in the midst of rushing through crowded shopping malls, cooking and cleaning madly before friends and family arrive, and squeals of delight as children tear paper off of gifts spilling out from under the Christmas tree.

All good things. Martha things. Things that should be and need to be done. But things that can so easily distract us from the Mary thing. Sitting and listening. Meditating on the words of Scripture. Contemplating the wonder of some of the most profound and stirring words of all, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1).

Emmanuel. God with us. What an incredible, almost incomprehensible thought.

And not one we can only contemplate at Christmas, thankfully. It is in this time, in the deep silence that follows the noise and (mostly) joyful rushing around and checking off of lists and the general chaos and confusion, this almost supernatural time of stillness, hibernation, and rest, that we are finally able to find minutes, sometimes hours, for uninterrupted, undistracted contemplation.

On the words of Scripture. And on the words given to us as a treasured gift, not to hoard but to give, to share, to continue to pass along the powerful message that the Word dwelt among us. That the Word dwells among us. Not just in Bethlehem, not just at Christmas, but here, now, in the silence and stillness that follows the often frenzied celebration of his birth.

So as we enter into this, a new year, a clean slate, an endless stretch of possibility and potential, may the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to him. And may the words he gives us to share with others bless them and draw them back to his presence every day of the year ahead.

Let us continue to share the message of Christmas. That hope came when there was no hope. That light came into deep, impenetrable darkness. That joy came into sadness, grief, and loss. It came two thousand years ago. And it comes today when we are finally still enough to know that he is God. When we stop long enough to listen, to meditate, to contemplate and, in the silence, unwrap, discover, and experience for ourselves the greatest gift of all.

The Word with us.

Christmas Need List

I was out shopping and feeling a little overwhelmed by the financial pressure of the holiday season. Organizations begging for donation money. My shopping list for friends and family and my own Christmas want list.

Christ's Birth In A StableDo you ever get that way? I deserve this because: (list reason here.) It’s not at all financially responsible or Christ-like but I was in one of those moods as well.

Perhaps you’ve had a year like our family has where you’re hemorrhaging money around every corner. Two children in braces. Hubby needing dental work. Crowns (the dental ones) are expensive! The house needed painting. Before we knew other things were going to break, we built a roof over our deck which we’d put off for years. Then cars broke down. The garage door broke. The dog broke– well, got sick and that mysterious hum vibrating our house whenever someone took a shower meant the water heater was on its last leg.

It just seemed like everywhere we turned– we were signing big checks for things that weren’t vacations at Disney.

I’m in my car, thinking through all these things when my own children came to mind. This is probably the first year they’ve been anxious and uber-excited about buying gifts for other people. Their allowance couldn’t stay in their pockets long enough. It was fun to see them pick just the right things for people of our family. Though, they did soon figure out that those “good prices” generally meant “small quantity” but I digress.

This has been a year where I’ve seen my two children grow in their giving spirit. Over the summer, my girls and several neighborhood children were putting up lemonade stands almost every weekend. They collectively earned close to $90.00 and decided to donate it to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. It was definitely one of those proud mommy moments.

Look at these children I’ve raised. How generous they are with their money!

Then, a little bit of the Grinch seeped into my heart when analyzing the reason for their generosity.

Of course they can be that generous with their money because they know their father and I will take care of all their needs. 

And then one sentence spoke into my mind breaking the silence of my car.

Do I not do the same for you? 

I’m not one to hear God’s voice all the time. These moments are truly rare for me but I felt a conviction deep in my soul. Of course, God does provide for our every need but how often do we recklessly apply that principle, like my children, to our every day lives? How quick are we to completely drain our bank accounts to a worthwhile charity and be completely at peace with it because we know that God will provide for us?

I know I don’t but it got me thinking about ways that I could begin to stretch myself to do these things.

Christmas is really about getting every need fulfilled. There was an unrepairable distance between God and ourselves until Jesus came along.

What is it you need for Christmas? Is it unconditional love? Friendship? Grace? Mercy? Forgiveness?

That’s what was sleeping in the manger.

My hope for you this Christmas is that you, too, can have a moment where the Christmas spirit speaks to you in a way like this.

This year, the Water Cooler will be taking a blog break until January 2nd to give our authors and volunteers focused time with God and their families.

Speaking for all of here at the WordServe Water Cooler– we hope and pray you have a wonderful, blessed Christmas!

What Matters Most During the Holidays?

During the holidays, my writing projects, ideas, and dreams don’t always fit into my everyday life. So, I’m forced to decide what matters most.

Photo/KarenJordan

As I prepared to lead a session on holiday traditions for a “Countdown to Christmas” workshop a few weeks ago, I asked myself, What holiday traditions mean the most to me?

I found myself resisting the idea to plan for Christmas before Thanksgiving. I knew I didn’t have the time and energy to accomplish everything that I wanted to do, much less the things that others expected of me. And the burden of planning holiday events and activities overwhelmed me. I knew I had to be honest with myself about my expectations.

Traditions. As I listed my family’s holiday traditions, I decided to find a new way to prioritize them. I chose three basic categories to help me sort through the chaos. I posed three questions.

  1. Which traditions are treasured most by my family? I brainstormed about our holiday activities, noting some old and new favorites—recipes, gifts, parties, and other family activities.
  2. Which traditions are the most practical for my family? I listed the most difficult traditions to maintain, since our children live in different cities with children of their own now—and since climbing on the roof and hanging Christmas lights are no longer options for me.
  3. Which traditions help me to communicate the “real” meaning of the holidays to those who matter most to me? As I examined my traditions, I wanted to be sure to include those that best expressed my faith. As a writer, I know the importance of showing, not just telling. So I scratched off some things that might distract us from the main “reason for the season.”

Realization. This process helped me to begin planning for my holiday celebration and relieved a bit of my holiday stress. How?

  1. Expectations. It helped me release my expectations of myself and of others. I won’t be avoiding certain family members who might not have the same values and beliefs.
  2. Stress. It enabled me to avoid unneeded expenses and the exhaustion of time-wasting commitments.
  3. Focus. I refocused on what matters most and the “real” meaning of the holiday and not on the frustrating and unnecessary aspects of the season.
  4. Pattern. It established a new pattern for approaching my life and work. Instead of thinking that I have to do everything that might be expected of me, I can choose a different response.

Questions. Now, I ask myself three questions before accepting any new challenge.

  1. Passion. Am I really passionate about this?
  2. Practical. Do I have the skills, talent, or knowledge to do this? If not, do I have the time or resources to pursue it?
  3. Purpose. Does it meet an important need?

If not, I’m saying, “NO!”

Celebration. I’m granting myself permission to let go, enjoy life, and celebrate. And I believe this holiday season and the upcoming year will be the best ever.

How do you determine what matters most to you and your family?

It’s a Heart Wide Open Christmas, and You’re Invited!

Raise your hand if you’re ready to experience Christmas instead of trying to survive it.

Awesome! Me, too.

And yet, I’m acutely aware of how the over-hyped commercialism of the season will threaten to obscure the sacred story, once again.

Immanuel, God with us.

Christmas, God help us.

I want to do it differently this year, don’t you? I want to ignore the madness and listen for the holy. Have you said that as often as I have in years past?

We can, you know. We can dismiss the marketing, the magazines, and the endless social media pins urging us to do it bigger and better. For the love of Jesus, we really can quit doing Christmas long enough to live it– just not on the steam of our own good intentions. We’re tried that, haven’t we?

If we’re going to worship Jesus well this Advent season, we’ll need His strength and His grace. We’ll need His abiding Presence.

This is not a challenge. That would defeat us before we begin. This is an invitation to walk through the twenty-five days of Advent together. Our goal will be to keep our eyes on Jesus—and if we start getting steamrolled by our gift list and party schedule, we won’t berate ourselves. We’ll simply train our grateful gaze back on Jesus and begin again for the joy set before us. Immanuel, God with us.

HWO_ChristmasHeader_postcardI’ve prepared twenty-five prompts, one for each day of Advent, beginning on Sunday, November 30 and taking us through Wednesday, December 24. Each day has a Scripture passage, a brief thought, and a suggested action.

It gets better! I’m super excited to have four awesome author friends joining us for this sweet journey, Tricia Goyer, Dr. Joneal Kirby (The Heart Mom), Mary Snyder, and Marybeth Whalen. I’ll be kicking off Day One on my own blog and then my buddies will each take a turn hosting five days of A Heart Wide Open Christmas in a lovely blog hop that will culminate back at my blog!

For consistency, the day’s image will always be found on my blog, and I’ll be shooting it out first thing each morning via my social media platforms to remind those who are participating. That image will be conveniently linked to the week’s hostess where you can engage with the full content however best suits your schedule.

Whether you choose to read your brief devotion, print out your ornament, enjoy community conversation, or all of the above, you are cordially invited to join us for A Heart Wide Open Christmas!

Hugs, Shellie

It’s totally not necessary for you to let us know that you’re participating but, for the sake of community, we would sure love it if you did!

What Can We Offer This Christmas?

adoration-magi2

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Matthew 2:11

Yesterday I read an article listing the ten best Christmas gifts for writers.  Pens and markers, Starbucks gift cards, back and neck massage — all good. This brought to mind the story of Harper Lee and an article that she wrote for McCall’s magazine in 1961 describing her best Christmas gift. She was staying with her friends in New York for the holidays. Christmas morning she was surprised by their gift to her. In a simple envelope on a slip of paper was written:

“You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

The family providing the gift was not wealthy; they were raising young children. With their gift they gave a young writer hope and encouragement. Who can measure the impact on hearts around the world of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Harper Lee reflects on the gift:

“Outside, snow was falling, an odd event for a New York Christmas. I went to the window, stunned by the day’s miracle. Christmas trees blurred softly across the street, and firelight made the children’s shadows dance on the wall beside me. A full, fair chance for a new life. Not given me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love.”

What can we offer this Christmas?

Our best gifts are given not as acts of generosity but as acts of love. Take time to reflect on your giving this season:

Look at each person on your Christmas list and ask yourself: What do they need that only I can give? Maybe it is not a new tie or a gift card. It might be the gift of an affirming note or your time.

Look at your community and ask yourself: What do they need that only I can give? It might not be a check. It might be your prayers or the time to touch one person well.

Look at the world and ask yourself: What do they need that only I can provide? Maybe the words you write today will change the hearts of the world like Harper Lee’s words did.

Finally, look up at God and ask yourself: What does He need that only I can provide? He doesn’t need what we have materially. It’s all His anyway. But what about our love? Our worship? And our sacrifice?

Our prayer for us all this Christmas is that our gifts be given “not by an act of generosity, but by an act of love.”

Merry Christmas, The Writing Sisters

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest.

They are the magi.

– O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi

You Still Haven’t Fill-in-the-Blank?

1327383_64930133In case you haven’t noticed, it’s that holiday time of year. You know the routine. Parties and calories galore. Crowds and credit cards smoking from overuse. Getting together with relatives you haven’t seen for an entire year.

And—worst of all—having to answer the inevitable, “How’s your writing going?”

Oh, on the surface, it’s a harmless enough question. Much less in-your-face than a glitzy-gaudy Christmas sweater gone wrong. Don’t misunderstand, either. I’m not dissing the genuine interest that others hold in regards to the writing journey. In fact, the question shows care and concern from loved ones.

Still, why in the world do those four simple words, “How’s your writing going?” always drop me to my knees?

Because this question is like a bag of potato chips. You can’t have just one, folks. It’s the follow-up questions that sucker punch a writer into a drooling idiot . . .

“You still haven’t finished that book?”

“You still haven’t been published?”

“You still haven’t gotten an agent?”

“You still haven’t heard from Publisher X?”

“You still haven’t made it to the NY Times Bestseller list?”

The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results. This year, stop the madness. You know those questions are coming, so writers, let’s be proactive. How? Plan ahead.

Share an interesting bit of research you’ve uncovered.

An engaging tidbit of information oftentimes turns the conversation in a whole new direction. And who knows…you just may have found someone who can add to your knowledge base on a particular subject.

Prepare a fun and snappy comeback.

You don’t have to feel defeated because you “still haven’t.” Lighten up the situation with a quippy reply. Don’t just grin and bear it. Really yuk it up.

Flip it.

No, not your finger. Flip the question back to the questioner. Be honest and admit you haven’t whatever-they-asked, then ask them if they’ve accomplished one of their goals yet. Only use this tactic, however, if you really care. Otherwise, you’re going to come off as a sour grapes connoisseur.

Remember, ‘tis the season to be jolly, not crabby. Instead of cringing in the corner at the next holiday gathering, go out there and have fun!