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Three Reasons to Write About the Worst Experience of Your Life

By Kellie McGann
Reposted by permission of The Write Practice

It’s been proven in many scientific studies that we, as writers, are significantly healthier emotionally than the general population. Why is that? Because we write about the hard things of life. We write about the things that haunt others’ souls. We write about our pain, share our torment. We write about the worst experiences of our lives.

While the rest of the world lets their agony steep, we write.

Why Write about Your Worst Experiences? 

There is power when you write hard things, but there are more benefits than you realize. Here are three reasons you should write about the worst experiences of your life.

1. Writing about Your Worst Experiences Heals
I’ve read numerous articles recently that have explained how beneficial writing is for one’s health. It has been shown that writing can help even physical injuries heal.

Another scientific journal explains that blogging specifically is good for mental health. The main reasoning behind these discoveries is that when a person writes, they process events around them in a healthier way and because of that stress is reduced.

Through writing my own memoir I have found it to be incredible the amount of healing done from things in my past. Basically, writing is really cheap therapy.

Through blogging and personal journaling we are able to process situations in a healthy way that brings about a lot of healing.

I have found that even as we write fictional stories, so often we find ourselves amidst our own characters.

2. Easy Stories are Boring

Have you ever wondered why fairy tales end with, “and they lived happily ever after,” but rarely do they actually depict the happily ever after. That’s because the happy, bird-chirping, charmed life isn’t what people want to read.

They want to read the struggle, the climax, and the solution.

Kid President says it himself, “Easy is boring. Anyone can be boring.”

3. Writing about Your Worst Experiences Creates Credibility with Your Readers

Something that I’ve learned while writing about hard things on my blog is that it creates credibility and authority with my readers. When we are willing to share the hard things, we gain trust. It’s just like a face-to-face relationship: trust often takes vulnerability. Often sharing personal and even hard things creates a bridge between you and your readers. And in turn, they are more likely to subscribe to your blog, buy your book, or tell a friend about what they read.

For example, books such as: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank are all based on true, hard stories.

They are bestsellers because readers can relate to feeling left out, friends and loved ones dying, and the effects of war. These books all depict difficult situations, but the readers are looking for hope and often a way out; your story can bring that.

Writing about Your Worst Experiences Will Change Your Life
I’ve had a lot of practice over the last few months writing about my worst experiences as I’ve written my memoir and confessed a few secrets on my personal blog.

The most important tip I have on how to write hard things is this: Hope.

When writing about hard things, hope is the feeling of expectation that there is something better around the corner. Hope is what keeps us turning pages and scrolling down. Hope is the answer your readers are searching for.

So while writing about your worst experiences, be sure to hint at the sun behind the cloud, or the hero around the corner. Your reader needs this, and so do you.

We write hard things to inspire others. We inspire them to overcome their fears, and to tell them that they are not alone in their dark night of the soul.

Why do you write hard things? What can you write that will inspire someone today? Post your comments below.

Kellie McGann is a writer and missionary. She blogs at kelliemcgann.com. The Write Practice encourages writing fifteen minutes a day, six times a week.

Photo: D Sharon Pruitt/Creative Commons

You and Mark Twain: A Good Story Well Told

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) 1835-1910
I picked up a paperback in a friend’s office. The 300-page book had dimensions of a sheet of copy paper. The author, a man in his eighties, spent a lifetime developing and promoting tourism in a popular area and wanted to share his experiences in book form as a lasting legacy. In the introduction, he noted that family members, friends, and a professional writer read his manuscript and suggested changes. However, he thought his book was just fine with colloquialisms and homespun humor and decided against making changes.

Not so fast
His introduction and the rest of the book were riddled with misspelled words, grammatical errors, and imprecise sentence structures. What he took for local flavor came across as lack of education and care for readers. His motivation seemed on target, but his writing lacked quality. He probably thought readers would see his accomplishments as wonderful—they were wonderful and numerous –and overlook his technical mistakes. However, by writing poorly, he drew my attention from his achievements.

You may be motivated to write your memoir or life story by several strong desires: leave a legacy, tell of exciting travels, heal wounds, share your spiritual testimony, pass along your business wisdom, or dozens of other reasons. Regardless of motivation, you should strive for two outcomes: readers view you as credible and readers enjoy your story; note the focus on readers. You achieve those outcomes by the quality of your writing. You achieve quality by proofreading, editing, and formatting your manuscript. Too many beginning authors think finishing their manuscripts renders them done and they go directly to publishing. Not a good idea.

You and Mark Twain
Mark Twain said, “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” You know your story better than anyone; here is how to make it well told:
  1. Use your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker. A note of caution: A processor won’t catch every error and you may disagree with what it finds, but it is still the best place to start.
  2. Proofread your manuscript. Read every word, sentence, paragraph and page to find errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation your word processor misses. See Twelve Common Errors, by the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Consider hiring a professional proofreader. Ask your librarian or local writing club for suggestions.
  3. Edit your manuscript. Some people give editing and proofreading the same definition, but editing is the next step after proofreading. Editing is looking for ways to improve your story by adjusting length, descriptions, dialogue, character traits, actions, and other elements. Ernest Hemingway said he wrote the ending to Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times “To get the words right.” See The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Well, by Laurie Rozakis, and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Consider hiring a professional editor.
  4. Format your manuscript. Formatting helps organize your work. Look like you know what you are doing when submitting to an agent or publisher. Even if you plan to publish by having a quick-print shop bind a few copies for distribution to family and friends, correct formatting enhances your credibility and the reader’s enjoyment. Don’t try to get fancy with formatting. Follow generally accepted formatting guidelines of the pros in Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, by Chuck Sambuchino, and "Proper Manuscript Format," by William Shunn. Don’t be put off that Shunn’s guidelines are for a novel; they also work for nonfiction. 
  5. Join a writing club or a small critique group. Ask your librarian for contacts. Limit the critique group to three or four persons, at least one of whom is a professional writer. Share your work by email, telephone, at a restaurant or coffee shop, or in a home. Schedule meetings at least once a month to keep you writing regularly. See "Join A Critique Group to Get Your Writing Moving," by Terry Whalin, and "Choosing a Writing Critique Group," by Writer’s Digest.
Bonus tip
Subscribe to free online newsletters that provide tips on grammar and punctuation. Two excellent ones I subscribe to are Lynn Gaertner-Johnston’s Business Writing, and Jane Straus’s GrammarBook.com.

What are your most difficult proofreading and editing issues? 

Please let me have it between the eyes if you find punctuation, grammar, and spelling mistakes in this post. Keep in mind some writing is a matter of style, while other writing is just plain incorrect. 

Photo: A. F. Bradley/Creative Commons

Free Resources to Get You Started Writing Your Memoir or Life Story

Searching for free resources
The question I’m asked most often by students in my library class on writing memoirs and life stories is, “How do I get started?” I suggest three things: Read all kinds of books—fiction and nonfiction—and pay attention to how the authors write, join a writers’ group, and subscribe to free resources on the web.

Thousands of free writing resources are on the web. If you asked 100 writers for their best suggestions, you would get 100 different lists and not all lists would be helpful to you.

Below in alphabetical order are some of the resources I subscribe to and find helpful. If they don’t work for you, enter into your browser’s search field free memoir writing resources or free writing resources. To subscribe, find a box on the site that states Subscribe by Email, and enter your name and email address. To entice you to subscribe, many sites offer free eBooks on writing topics you may download when your subscription is confirmed.

About.comNewsletter on genealogy. Resources for finding your family’s history include how to search old newspapers, U.S. Census records, passenger ship logs, cemetery records, and records from foreign countries.

American Christian Fiction Writers Paid membership organization. You may sign up for a free newsletter without joining. Don’t be put off by the fiction emphasis; the newsletter offers tips on all aspects of writing well.

Author PublishWeekly online magazine of fiction and nonfiction opportunities for traditional publishing and self-publishing. Includes writing advice, prompts, and free eBooks.
 
The Easy Way to Write
Although the title is a misleading attention grabber—there is no easy way to write—I find the tips useful. Writing tips on all genres. How to get ideas and how to improve writing your nonfiction books, novels, short stories, and articles; how to get published and how to promote and market your work.
  
The Heart and Craft of Life Story WritingCovers memoir, story, essay, free-writing, journaling, and more. Recent topics: How to write about friends and the impact of shocking disclosures.

Memory Writers NetworkPrimarily offers paid courses on how to become a personal historian to teach memoir writing. Some resources may be purchased without taking a course. Lots of tips in free newsletter.

National Association of Memoir WritersPaid membership organization. You may subscribe to a free newsletter without joining. Offers workshops and teleseminars by experts, and memoir writing resources including legal issues, writing to heal, editing, and creating powerful scenes that tell your story in ways that emotionally connect with readers.

The Write Practice
Tips to help you kick-start your writing. Focuses on the practice of writing. “You have to write millions of words no one is ever going to see before you can write the ones that will change someone’s life,” says Joe Bunting, creator of The Write Practice.
  
Writer Beware Uncovers literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Warns of specific agents, publishers, and services with unscrupulous and illegal methods.

What websites have you found helpful in writing your memoir or life story?

Photo: www.morguefile.com 

Marilyn and Me and U.S. Route 65

When I was growing up in Marshall, Missouri, U.S. Route 65 ran through the middle of town, sharing the main street, Odell Avenue. My friends and I stood at the corner of Odell and Yerby, our swimsuits wrapped inside towels, waving at passing motorists for a ride to the city swimming pool.

I traveled the highway thirty miles south to the state fairgrounds in Sedalia after I learned to drive; the highway was hilly and curvy and in many places the safest speed was less than forty miles per hour. The highway also took me thirty-five miles north to Carrollton and my first full time radio job as an announcer.

Where it goes
Route 65 just about splits the numerical population of the United States in half, running 1,500 miles from New Orleans to Fort Frances, Canada. Its history, mysteries, and idiosyncrasies are documented in a 2014 book, A History of Highway 65 from the Middle of the Road, by Marilyn K. Smith. Why from the Middle of the Road

“The first section of highway 65 was completed in 1930 in Missouri between Fair Grove and Springfield over what was Route 3," she told me. "That’s not quite in the middle between New Orleans and Canada, but close enough that it made sense for my book.” As well, she says, much of her book is on the highway’s Missouri history between Sedalia and Branson, and Fair Grove is about in the middle.

Marilyn grew up on a farm adjacent to the old Buffalo-to-Springfield road, which became Route 3 and then Route 65. Springfield business developer John T. Woodruff was influential in getting Route 65 through Springfield, as he was with the east-west Route 66, creating what he called “the crossroads of America.”

Marilyn recounts several ghost stories in her book. “Fred O’Dell, a teacher at Elm Spring School, was driving home one night in his horse and wagon and drove past Elm Spring Cemetery. He saw something white in the cemetery rise up and back down, then rise and up and back down. It scared him so that he unhitched the wagon, got onto the horse and rode it very fast home. When he got home, he thought, ‘Now that was silly.’ He went back the next day and discovered what he saw was a piece of paper that had been picked up by the wind.”

She says others have sworn seeing a headless horseman in the woods behind where she and her husband live today, on thirty acres across the road from where Elm Spring School was located.

A personal journey
Over the course of thirty years researching and writing her book, Marilyn interviewed dozens of elderly persons who have since passed away. “Hearing stories of them and their parents or grandparents traveling on the road when it was dirt or gravel, when it was Route 3 with potholes, curves, and hills that took forever to get somewhere, was the most fun I had in writing the book.” Floods often made the highway impassable in some locations, especially in the Lower Mississippi Valley where flood waters could be thirty feet deep.

In searching photos for the book she discovered a personal connection with one. “I’m secretary of the historical society at Fair Grove. We were donated a photo of a WWI Home Guard Unit bivouacked at Fair Grove posing in front of Springfield City Hall. Persons named in the photo included my grandfather Casper Thomas and two great-uncles, Ottie Hainline and George Graham.”

Marilyn wrote of the Home Guards: "Groups such as the Fair Grove one were guarding the home front in case of fire, flood, tornado or other disaster. . . . The Home Guard’s purpose was to fulfill the duties formally taken care of by the National Guard, while they were away fighting World War I."

A portion of highway 65 from Fair Grove north is named Thomas Road because construction took the farms owned by Marilyn’s grandparents, Casper and Belva Thomas, and her great-grandparents, Joseph and Addie Thomas.

Marilyn K. Smith is author of The Window Pane Inn and Other Short Stories and has been published extensively in newspapers and magazines, including The Ozarks Mountaineer, Springfield! Magazine, and 30 years as a weekly columnist for the Buffalo Reflex. She is contributing editor of Journal of the Ozarks. Her books may be purchased at Somewhere in Time gift shop in Fair Grove or directly from her at msmith_writer1@att.net

Photo courtesy Marilyn K. Smith.

Paperback-Press Is Publishing Niche for Independent Authors

Sharon Kizziah-Holmes
Publishing took a giant leap in the 1990s when computers and digital printing made it possible for nearly anyone to be a published author. The leap was immensely influential on independent authors of memoirs and personal histories, challenged perhaps more than any other group to secure the attention of traditional publishers. Digital printing enabled memoir authors to explode onto the publishing world.

Today, hundreds of companies offer print-on-demand services, causing author reliance on costly traditional publishing houses and subsidy publishers to disappear. The flip side of those services is that navigating the maze of prices, options, customer service, and quality—which vary widely among companies—can be intimidating and discouraging.

Help is available from entrepreneurs like Sharon Kizziah-Holmes and her husband Dennis, founders and owners of Paperback-Press Publishing Company, Springfield, Missouri. “We are an indie author assist publisher, which means we help independent authors pull everything together to get a professionally published book,” Sharon says.

How it works
Paperback-Press is similar to small-press publishing, providing emerging authors with personal attention and enabling them find their audiences. It formats a manuscript for paperback and electronic book, designs the cover, and makes the book available on Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com. Bookstores order the book on the Internet. All payments from booksellers and royalties go to authors and authors keep all rights. Authors are not required to purchase a minimum number of books.

Paperback-Press uses CreateSpace, an Amazon.com company, to produce books. Although an author may go directly to CreateSpace to do what Paperback-Press does, some authors find the process daunting. For a few hundred dollars, Paperback-Press will do the job for them.

“We can usually get a book out in less than six months for between $500 and $1,000 including all our fees except proofreading,” Sharon says. “We want authors to have affordable access and not be taken advantage of.”

Proofreading can be as low as a penny per word. “We have three editors who proofread,” Sharon says. “We don’t accept everything; it has to be something good. If an author wants to publish without proofreading we will do a project, but the book won’t carry our logo.”

One project involved a woman who wrote three novels. “Her stories were great. She didn’t know the mechanics of writing very well, so we helped her with that,” Sharon says.

Experience from the trenches
Sharon founded Affordable Creative Editing Service (ACES) with Kathleen Garnsey. ACES prepares manuscripts for submission to agents and publishers. Sharon and Kathleen teach writing classes and critique and edit fiction books of all genres. Sharon is author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a children’s book. Kathleen is author of four novels.

Sharon helped authors self-publish for many years before she and Dennis started Paperback-Press in 2012. The company has published thirty-seven titles of fiction and nonfiction, including children’s books, biographies, and memoirs. Among the memoirs are a psychic’s journey to God, a correctional officer’s poetry and prison experiences, and a farm boy’s account of serving on a U.S. Navy ship in WWII. Fiction includes romance, mystery, inspirational, fantasy, and science fiction. For children’s books, Paperback-Press connects authors and illustrators. The company also records audio books, karaoke singles, and live bands.

Besides helping independent authors, Sharon and Dennis help traditionally published authors who have gotten their book rights back to bring their manuscripts up to date and then self-publish.

Although publishing is their passion, Sharon and Dennis are retired road musicians who own and operate a barbershop, aptly named The Barber Shop. Their son Aaron barbers with them.

What have been the benefits and drawbacks of your experience with an independent author assist publisher? If you used Paperback-Press, tell about that.

Sharon Kizziah-Holmes may be reached at Paperback-Press.com.

Photo courtesy Sharon Kizziah-Holmes.

My First High School Class Reunion, Part 3 of 3: Through the Years We Persevered

Crest of Marshall Public Schools
The 2014 reunion dinner of my 1957 Marshall, Missouri high school class closed on a wistful level. Sandra Hilton Bucksath read a poem by classmate Ben Swinger who could not attend. He wrote it in 2002, five years ahead of the fiftieth reunion. I enjoyed the poem’s humor and insight and called him for permission to publish it. He did not title his poem; that’s my doing, so fuss at me. 

Through the Years We Persevered
By Ben Swinger

Every ten years, as summertime nears,
An announcement arrives in the mail.
A reunion is planned; it’ll be really grand;
Make plans to attend without fail.

I’ll never forget the first time we met
We tried so hard to impress.
We drove fancy cars, smoked big cigars,
And wore our most elegant dress.

It was quite an affair, the whole class was there,
It was held in a fancy hotel.
We wined, and we dined, and we acted refined,
And every one thought it was swell.

The men all conversed about who had been first
To achieve great fortune and fame.
Meanwhile, their spouses described their fine houses
And how beautiful their children became.

The homecoming queen, who once had been lean,
Now weighed in at one-ninety six.
The jocks who were there had lost all their hair,
And the cheerleaders could no longer do kicks.

No one had heard about the class nerd
Who’d guided a spacecraft to the moon,
Or poor little Jane, who’d always been plain,
She married a shipping tycoon.

The boy we’d decreed “most apt to succeed”
Was serving ten years in the pen.
While the one voted “least” now was a priest.
Just shows you can be wrong now and then.

They awarded a prize to one of the guys
Who seemed to have aged the least.
Another was given to the grad who had driven
The farthest to attend the feast.

They took a class picture, a curious mixture
Of beehives, crew cuts and wide ties.
Tall, short or skinny, the style was the mini.
You never saw so many thighs.

At our next get together, no one cared whether
They impressed their classmates or not.
The mood was informal, a whole lot more normal,
By this time we’d all gone to pot.

It was held out-of-doors, the lake shores,
We ate hamburger, coleslaw and beans.
Then most of us lay around in the shade,
In our comfortable T-shirts and jeans.

By the fortieth year, it was abundantly clear,
We were definitely over the hill.
Those who weren’t dead had to crawl out of bed,
And be home in time for their pill.

And now I can’t wait, they’ve set the date.
Our fiftieth is coming, I’m told.
It should be a ball, they’ve rented a hall
At the Shady Rest Home for the old.

Repairs have been made on my hearing aid,
My pacemaker’s been turned up on high,
My wheelchair is oiled, and my teeth have been boiled,
And I’ve bought a new wig and glass eye.

I’m feeling quite hearty, and I’m ready to party;
I’m gonna dance until dawn’s early light.
It’ll be lots of fun, I just hope that there’s one
Other person who can make it that night.

What was special about your last high school reunion?

Image courtesy Marshall Public Schools. 

 "The owl is a time-honored emblem of knowledge and wisdom." Part of opening ceremony of Future Farmers of America.

My First High School Class Reunion, Part 2 of 3: Things Not Quite Remembered

My 1957 high school class reunion in 2014
Sandra Hilton Bucksath and Wayne O’Neal, organizers of my fifty-seventh high school class reunion, were at the dinner site in Marshall, Missouri, when my wife Eryleene and I arrived the morning of the reunion. I hugged Sandra and shook hands with Wayne.

After introductions and chitchat, I saw on the sign-in table a framed list of names of deceased classmates. My eyes moistened as I read the names—not only because the individuals were gone, but because I was unable to put faces to some of the names.
 

Creative nonfiction
At the gathering that night, I recognized only a few classmates, since I hadn’t seen them in nearly six decades. I spotted Dick Bueker, whose father was superintendent of schools when we were students. Marshall High School was renamed Bueker Middle School in 1976, when a new high school opened west of town adjacent to rerouted U.S. Route 65.

“Wayne Groner,” I said, as I touched Dick’s arm. He gave a disbelieving look.

“You are not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“You are not. You’re a ghost.”

I didn’t have a ghost-comeback line, so I launched into one of my favorite stories. “When we were kids, we played in the basement of Sandra Hilton’s house. You, Sandra, Carol Nichols, and I rummaged through boxes and hangers of grown-up clothes and put on mystery plays. We made up stories and took turns being victims and villains. One of our props was an old bedroom dresser with an attached mirror.”

A flat look. “Sandra said you mentioned that. I don’t remember.”

Neither had Sandra when I told her the story that morning.

Another story opportunity came when I interrupted a group that included Janice Esser Reinhart. After handshakes and introductions, I said confidently to Janice: “Your father owned a jewelry store. Each year he gave a high school senior a new watch for citizenship and I received one.”

Janice smiled politely. “A lot of people thought that was my father’s jewelry store, but it was my uncle’s. My father owned several liquor stores in and around Marshall.”

“I did not know that,” I said, in a feeble attempt to imitate Johnny Carson. 

The artist 
Among those at our dinner table were Gay Griffitt Rooks and her husband, Wayne. I told them Eryleene and I spent several hours earlier in the day visiting places of my childhood, including my first school, Benton Elementary. My family lived two blocks away, near the corner of Benton and Jackson. I tried to spot the house for Eryleene but couldn’t identify it.

“I know exactly which one,” Wayne said. “Five eighty-five South Jackson, second house from the corner. Brothers Donnie and Ronnie Wade lived several houses away on the other corner.” Donnie was a classmate at Benton school.

“How could you possibly know my house?” I asked.

“My family moved in after yours.”

“What makes you think I lived there?”

“You drew pictures all over the walls of your room.”

I was still incredulous of his magical feat. “What kind of pictures, and how do you know I drew them?”

“Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, mostly. You signed your name.”

That I was dumbfounded is an understatement. I had no remembrance of the drawings. Evidently, since it was a cheap rental, my parents had no contrition that I marked on the walls.

An alias, a debater, and a girlfriend
A couple of tables from ours sat a classmate I recognized. I didn’t remember his name and didn’t speak to him before he left. After dinner, I went to his table and met Ken Randolph, also a classmate.

“Who was the guy who left?”

“Don Gibson,” Ken said. “He preferred the name Don Taylor. He wanted to write western novels using the name Taylor.” Ah, then I remembered. He wore western clothes to school and sometimes a yellow scarf around his neck. For his senior picture, he wore a Kentucky Colonel black bow tie. I don't know whether he became a writer.

Throughout the evening I looked for Hal Lowenstein. “He sent in a reservation, but it looks like he didn’t make it,” Sandra Hilton told me. Hal and I were high school debate partners and when we were younger played in his house across from the school.

As things wrapped up, I recognized Carol Clark Evan, my first girlfriend. We hugged and I introduced Eryleene. I didn’t date Carol until after Irv Williams did; he was at the reunion, his first time back. Small talk with Carol didn't reveal anything embarrassing about our relationship, which was quite ordinary and innocent. After dinner, Eryleene wanted to know more. Predictable. I didn’t share much, except Carol was a knockout in a swimsuit.

Coming up in Part 3: A poem by Ben Swinger, class of 1957.

What were surprises at your high school class reunion after many years? Leave your comments below, especially if you attended your twenty-fifth reunion or later.

Photo: Tammy Kerksiek, Lee's Studio, Marshall, Missouri