Entering Through the Back Door

entering-through-the-back-door

The two-story farmhouse where I grew up had a back door that faced west. Visitors and family members entering the house through that door found themselves in the mud room, where boots could be removed to leave puddles on the linoleum and coats could be hung in what was aptly named The Coat Closet. (Note: Minnesota Norwegians aren’t known for complicated labels.)

Before my parents remodeled, the front entrance consisted of four cement steps that opened into the room known as the Play Room. (See previous comment about Norwegians.) Within that room’s walls my sisters and I orchestrated fashion shows for our Barbies and my brother and I fought wars with little green army men. The piano and various other musical instruments took up residence in that corner of the house, giving an entirely different meaning to the word play as we dutifully plunked out thirty minutes until a ringing alarm released us.

One house. Two doors. I have no memory of ever entering the house through the front door. The front door was used only by people who didn’t know us: delivery services and door-to-door salesmen. 

For those who knew us–neighbors, friends, relatives and family–they all used the back door. Perhaps because the kitchen–the heart of the home–was the next room after you hung up your coat. The back door was the fastest way to getting a cup of coffee and a little lunch, which in a farming community had nothing to do with “little.”

Recently, I taught a writing workshop to participants who wanted to record their cancer stories. As a seven-year breast cancer survivor, I understand the value of capturing a difficult story on paper and sharing it with others. I also knew that unburying the deep parts of a cancer journey can be difficult. Memories are often stuffed as patients have had to deal with the chaos of living in the overwhelming now. It is sometimes difficult to bring those stories out into the light of day.

The class began with the typical questions:

  1. What day were you told that you had cancer?
  2. What was your diagnosis?
  3. What treatment plan did your doctor recommend?

People shared the facts, the analytical details. Breast cancer. Skin cancer. A parent with three cancers. Chemo. Radiation. The participants shared important details, but the questions were lacking. The inquiries didn’t invite the telling of a story, the intimate details of a life. 

Rather, the class invited others into the front door. A place for strangers.

For the second round of writing, I read a story from my journal about a day I was swimming laps at the gym after my diagnosis, a day I decided that I was going to beat the woman swimming next to me to the wall. She didn’t even know it was a competition, but on that day I decided that cancer would not win. I talked to the class about the smell of the chlorine. The feel of the water on my skin. The exaltation of touching my fingers to the wall.

Then I said, “We all have those moments when we decide that cancer will not win. I want to know about yours. Maybe it was wearing a certain outfit to treatment. Maybe it was going religiously to chemo. Maybe it was doing something that was physically challenging. Tell me about a time when you determined that cancer would not win.”

People picked up pencils or typed on their laptops. One man told about wearing purple–the color for cancer survivors–to treatment. A woman told a story about putting on lipstick and a wig to feel beautiful. Another told about training to run a marathon. 

One by one, people shared hard things, but with smiles on their faces. In the midst of a difficult diagnosis, at that moment in their story, they were victorious. 

I realized something important. By asking a question tied to an emotion, I invited people into the heart of their story, a task, we, as writers, attempt to do every day. We don’t spout facts and figures about relationships, conflicts, and belief systems.

No, we pick up our pencils and we invite people to enter through the back door, where they can hang up their coats and leave their boots to leave puddles on the linoleum.

Lynne Hartke’s first book: Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty and Faith in the Hardest Places is coming out with Revell/Baker in May 2017. She blogs at http://www.lynnehartke.com.

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Got Writer’s Block?

pencil-918449_640It happens to all of us at one time or another. If you’re anything like me, you probably tend to experience “feast or famine” when it comes to putting words onto a page or screen. At times it is hard for my now middle-aged hands to keep up with my brain; and other times, it is frustrating to these same hands to have little, if any, words I can string into sentences that make sense.

If the season I’m in permits me to do so, I use the down times to invest in my own personal growth. I study. I read. I observe. I take notes. I connect with others. This helps me in several ways, but this one way is what motivates me most:

It allows my brain to rest and receive. As writers, we offer so much output that we need to be careful to prevent our own well from drying up. Without investing in our own personal growth and development through relational and educational resources, we minimize our own effectiveness in what we share through our writing.

Most of the time, though, I have some kind of deadline–whether for an event where I’ll be speaking, a blog post I’m writing, a class I’m teaching, or a book I’m authoring. It’s in these situations that I find this one tip helps me get over writer’s block.

The Power of Story

For me, it helps if I can quiet the noise in my inner world long enough to allow a story to come to my mind. It might be a story I’ve read or a story I’ve lived. Either way, there is much to be said about how story inspires.

Consider the following:

“We may live our lives in prose, but it is poetry that we live for. A compelling story can evolve into a narrative that inspires a shared sense of mission. That, in turn can lead to a long and great legacy. That’s the power of story…

As Geoff Colvin explains in his new book, Humans Are Underrated, we are wired for interpersonal connections and put more stock in ideas that result from personal contact than from hard data. Essentially, we internalize stories much better than we do facts.

As proof he points to research that examined expert testimony in a court case. The study found that jurors considered experts that had a personal clinical experience far more credible than those that merely offered an analysis of the relevant facts, even if they were shown that a data driven approach is more accurate. In other words, the jurors needed a story.

Stories are emotional and we are more likely to remember and react to them.”

(For the entire article, written by Greg Satell for Forbes.com, please click here.)

So, if you find yourself struggling with writer’s block, find a quiet place, or do something with your hands that you don’t have to think much through (chores around the house help me), and allow the story to inspire your writing.

As you share the story with your readers, there’s a good chance you’ll connect with them on a personal level in a way that facts alone–regardless of how powerful those facts may be–could never do.

Consider what Curt Thompson, MD has to say in his book, Anatomy of the Soul, in regard to story:

“When we tell our stories or listen to another person’s story, our left and right modes of processing integrate. This is why simply reading The Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts has so little efficacy…Isolating commands for right living apart from their storied context is at best neurologically non-integrating and, at worst, disintegrating. This is why telling our stories is so important.”

Your story is powerful. Refuse to listen to the negative voices inside your own head that tell you differently. There are a whole ‘lotta someones out there who need what only you have the experience to offer. 

Comfort for the New Year

Photo/KarenJordan“He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Cor. 1:4 NLT).

A New Year offers new opportunities and challenges. As I sense the needs around me, I often think, “What can I do to help those in need?”

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to respond. In fact, some people may say,”the devil is in the detail,” inferring that there’s some mysterious secret hidden in the details. That term comes from the original phrase “God is in the detail,” which reminds us that the details are always important.

Discovering the mysterious details of how to help others requires wisdom. And God promises to guide us in this discovery process. But He wants us to ask for HIS help first.  “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you … ” (Jms. 1:5 NLT).

Seek God first. The Lord promises to provide the guidance we need throughout our lives. Psalm 32:8 says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you” (NLT).

God often uses my experiences—good and bad—when I seek Him for direction in helping others. At times, He prompts me to share small things—like prayers, concerns, and a listening ear.

When my friend, Kathy, struggled with vertigo following her cancer treatments, I felt helpless to help her since she lived in another state. And I knew the misery of vertigo. When Kathy mentioned that she could not even read her Bible, I was able to read scriptures to her by phone.

Later, Kathy told me, “Your calls helped me survive my cancer treatments.”

Listen. In Matthew 11:15, Jesus asks His disciples, “Are you listening to me? Really listening?” (MSG).

As we seek God and ask questions, it’s important to listen for the answers. Sometimes instead of listening to God, I’m tempted to offer unsolicited advice to friends and family.

Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t want or need? Awkward! Our unsolicited gifts might actually offend instead of blessing others. Perhaps they need godly advice, not just a hasty opinion or thoughtless response.

Ask questions. I also ask questions when I’m trying to discern how to encourage others. What matters most to them? How can I discern how to help? What helped me when I faced a similar problem? What do I wish someone else had offered me when I faced my last crisis?

John 14:26 promises, “… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (NIV).

Tell the stories that matter most. As a Christian writer, I never want to lose sight of the needs of my audience. Author Anne Lamott offers this advice: “Write the books you really wished were out there in the world.”

During a crisis, I look for resources to help me find solutions for my current needs. Encouraging words heal my soul when I’m desperate for answers. And I’m grateful for the writers who have poured their lives into helpful devotionals and books for those troubling days.

So, “… even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you” (Phil. 2:17 NIV).

As you plan your projects for the New Year, consider offering some words that could help meet the needs of others.

“… Words are powerful; take them seriously” (Matt. 12:36 MSG).

Can you think of a book that helped you through a crisis?

On Telling the Truth, Sort Of

Yesterday my daughter, Charlotte, was talking to me about churches. She’s away at college, and beneath our conversation I was pray-hoping her speculations might indicate she was thinking about attending church there one of these days.

“I hate churches where the preacher tells those fakey stories,” she told me. “You know, the kind that starts out, ‘A woman once said to her husband…’ or something like that. I mean, it’s obviously made up and just wrecks his credibility.”

Our conversation went on—to the endless sermons of the church we’d attended in her youth and her preference for the brief, strictly Bible-passage-focused homilies of Catholic masses she’d gone to with her grandparents—and then moved on to other subjects, but I’ve kept thinking about this business of the fakey stories preachers tell.

They arise, I’m guessing, from a problem nonfiction writers often confront. I mean, I told Charlotte, it’s not like the guy can actually tell a true story from his own life in church, especially one about something sensitive, like meanness or covetousness or lust—a story, that is, about something truly relevant to the people he’s addressing—with his wife and kids sitting right there among his listeners. If he wants to tell a story from real life—which he likely does, since that’s the best way to interest an audience—he must take pains to remove its realness.

Whenever I go to writers conferences, there are nonfiction workshops dealing with precisely this problem, because publishing a story from one’s actual experience is likely to upset the people involved. (More important, at least from your publisher’s perspective, is that upsetting the people involved can get you, your editor, and your publisher sued. Most publishers have lawyers on staff to prevent such eventualities. That’s how problematic telling true stories can be.)

At the conferences, writers are advised to do everything from changing the names of the people involved in a story to getting permission first to waiting to tell a story until all the people in it are dead. In my experience, the permission solution is best…unless, of course, you have a story you really want to tell and you’re certain someone involved will never grant you permission to tell it. Like when it’s about your kids, who must be legally fair game, since I’ve never had a publisher demand I get their permission for any of my daughters’ many appearances in my writing.

Which is good, as getting permission from them would have been impossible. What kid is going to want you writing about her spate of evil tantrums at age eight? Or your terrors as a parent when she started developing pubic hair?

When my other daughter, Lulu, at age six or so, figured out what I was up to when I sat at the computer, she flat out refused to be written about.

That stymied me a bit. With only one daughter’s foibles and my own to plumb, what could I write about?

“You’re the daughter of a writer,” I finally told Lulu. “It could be worse. You could be the daughter of a preacher and never allowed to do anything wrong. Or the daughter of a soldier and always worried about my being killed. There are worse things than being in the public eye.”

But I’ve trodden carefully since then. I opted not to write about Lulu’s potty training trials when the idea bounced through my consciousness the other day. And I have decided to put the sketchier of my daughters’ college experiences (that I know about) on literary hold until after they graduate. When I just can’t resist, I make up fakey stories that probably damage my credibility. But, oh well.