What If Your Story Is Too Good To Be True?

In my writer’s group I offered for critique a short piece I had recently written about my dad. It’s a true story from many years ago, but one with unbelievable events involving my father somehow managing to reach out from the grave to give me money when my husband and I really needed the help. While Dad didn’t literally send a hand out from the gravesite, he did, I believe, send a handout from the grave in the form of a CD he opened for me showing up miraculously years after he had died, despite the fact there had been no record of the account previously.

As I said the story is true. The money showed up under very mysterious and timely circumstances. I wrote the essay with warmth and a poignant and humorous tone. I really loved the ways the piece turned out (because as all you writers know, these things we write often have a mind of their own in terms of the way they form) and maybe even more I loved  the memory associated with it. Members of my writers group had almost universal glowing and positive reactions similar to these:

“I love your dad.”

“This is wonderful.”

“I feel like I know your dad.”

“You were so blessed to have him.”

And, then there was this one.

“I’m sorry. I know I’m a cynic but this story is just too too perfect. It’s hokey. You were in trouble, Grandpop came back to save you just as he always did. You needed money, and oh lucky you, you got money. Ugh.”

The critic, a very nice man and good writer, didn’t intend to hurt my feelings. He was offering honest critique as we are supposed to do in order to support each other to create better work. And, my feelings weren’t at all hurt. I just didn’t quite know how to respond. Yes, it’s a lovely story. Yes, it all happened almost exactly as I recounted it. Yes, it is very mysterious and unexplainable, and yes, my dad was always there for me, even, as it turned out, seven years after his death. The story may have been too too perfect. But it was true.

Just as my memoir, Tales From The Family Crypt is about family members who may be too awful to be true but are, this story about my dad is the exact opposite. The critic suggested it would be a better story if I made it a little less pristine in its goodness, in its somewhat miraculous aura. If I toned down the facts to suit what real life is like, which is to say, not often perfect and beautiful and poignant and lovely and true simultaneously.

But in that moment in time when the CD showed up, in that instance real life was all of those things. Too good to be true? Yes. But it was.

So, what do you think, writers? Do you shy away from such stories? Is grit always better fodder than grace?

30 Reasons To Be Grateful You’re Alive

If you haven’t yet read Sheryl Sandberg’s ode to mourning, you’re in for a life-affirming treat. That sounds perverse, I know, but here’s the thing — if you’re truly grateful for your life and the lives of those you love, maybe you don’t fear death quite so much.

Here’s a piece of what she wrote about grieving  the abrupt loss of her husband if you don’t have time to read her whole post. (I strongly suggest you find the five minutes it will take you to improve your outlook on life.)

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. 

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

Choose life and meaning…if you have trouble with that, in tribute to the 30 days Sandberg thought about this, here are 30 things (in the most random order imaginable)  you can ponder to choose life and meaning. You may not have all 30 in your life but I’m giving you enough to get started with at least 10! If you have 10 things to be grateful for, life is pretty much worth enjoying.

1. You’re reading this. Consider the joy, the news, the advice, the sheer pleasure you get from  absorbing information through the written word.

2. This.

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It’s just a flower I came across one day but seriously, if this doesn’t give you gratitude for the little things, there is something wrong with you.

3. Moments are just that — moments. They pass so the bad ones will not last forever. That should make anyone having a bad day a bit happier. Time passes but it takes time.

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4. You may have people in your life who can move your shoes. Yesterday my daughter moved to a new home. Today she gave a shout out to her friends, family and loved ones who helped her with the enormous task of moving her shoes. If you saw her shoe collection, you’d understand the depth of her gratitude. If you have people who can move your shoes, that’s a reason to give thanks.

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5. You can always make someone smile. Smile at the next five strangers you pass. At least one will smile back and in that moment, you’ll both feel pretty good about life.

6. You can ask for help. If you are one of the lucky people who feels comfortable asking for help that will make your life a great deal easier.

7. Stories to read. Literature to love.

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8. You are vulnerable. You get hurt. Why should this make you grateful? Because if you feel pain, you understand what it means to feel better and you appreciate it when it happens.

9. You have a birthday. You get a day to celebrate yourself. Do it! Let others do it! I know people who say birthdays are no big deal and they want no fuss made about them. Are you kidding me? You were born and you’re still here, throw a freaking party!

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10. You’re a communicator. If you’re reading this chances are you also write, or at least speak. Communicating is the beginning of understanding and with that comes clarity of what the world is all about.

11. You have virtual people. Maybe your people can’t move your shoes but they can stir your soul with the words they send out into the blogosphere and those words reach you. If you have ever read a blog post that resonated with you, be grateful. It’s a connection you made.

12. You can do some good in some way. From opening the door for a person who’s carrying a heavy load (literally and/or figuratively) to volunteering your time delivering meals to shut-ins, you can help others. That’s a gift to you and to the world. Do some good. I know a woman who doesn’t leave her house much but she counsels people online as a volunteer. She doesn’t let being mostly house bound keep her from doing good in the world.

13. People are social animals. It’s a good thing.

14. Beauty exists. You get to be the judge. Seek it out. Seriously, stop right now and look around you until you find one beautiful thing. It’ll likely take you just seconds and you can do this anytime you need a lift. Beauty is limitless and so is your ability to find it.

15. You can cry. It’s a release that enables you to feel better. Being capable of crying is no small matter,

16. You never really lose people you loved. Your relationship may change or even end but you have them with you always.

17. That.

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18. Love is in the air somewhere.

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19. Romantic love isn’t the only game in town. Just because you may not currently be in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t have love in your life. Your parents, your kids, your friends, your pets, even your coworkers may be lovable. Love is what matters, not what kind of love or with whom it happens.

20. Good, multigrain, fresh crusty bread dipped in olive oil…..

Food, from the most simple to the most complex is something you can enjoy. If you have a healthy relationship with food, it’s okay to derive joy from it.

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21. You can dream. Humans dream in sleep and while waking. Sleep dreams may bring you messages worth paying attention to. Waking dreams are those you choose to have because they lift you up and give you hope. Cherish both kinds of dreams and listen to what they tell you because you can.

22. Life doesn’t have to make sense. That’s okay. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to figure it out. You can choose to move on instead.

23. Poetry lives. Few words can be so healing, so embracing, so motivating…

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”
Enjoy every moment.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

24. When the rug is pulled out from under you, the floor beneath will support you. When you feel ready, you will stand up. That’s how life works. Believe in your ability to stand when ready…

25. Music… just… music… well and lyrics… watch this (enjoying the time warp trip to 1969) and you’ll know…

26. The Buddhists are right. (I paraphrase here, I haven’t actually met the Buddha.) Live inside each moment to the fullest extent you can. The key there is “you can.” Some moments make it easy to live fully. Some moments make it hard but you can choose, you have the power to live each moment the way you want, even in circumstances beyond your control. You can’t change everything but you can control the way you react to anything.

27. Sometimes things in your life are seriously not okay. That doesn’t mean they won’t be again. Knowing that helps get you to that better time.

28. This:

Random encounter I had while taking a walk. Random encounters make life worth having.

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29. That:

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Art of all kinds waiting unexpectedly around the corner.

30. Look in a mirror. Be grateful for whatever you see.

Feel free to share. Spread the reasons to be grateful with anyone who needs a lift.

Free Is Just Another Word For…

Yesterday and today I’ve been offering a free download of Tales From the Family Crypt on Amazon.   I’ve been watching the download numbers go up with… well… actual glee. Mind you, no one makes any money on a free download so why is this making me so happy? What is it about imagining the readers who are about to crack open (cyber-wise that is) my work that gives me joy?

I think it’s something like this– Writers write. We often write in isolation but while we’re doing so, we’re envisioning the reader who is going to absorb our words. However, we can only imagine that person, we’re not there when they’re reading what we’ve written. (Unless you have a significant other you’ve been regularly forcing sweetly asking to read what you’ve written.) Seeing my download numbers go up on that lovely graph Amazon provides and on the rankings (#63 in nonfiction, #1 in Parenting, #1 in Aging Parents!)  just fills me with the hope that maybe, just maybe, in the next couple of days lots of people will read what I artfully crafted and poured heart and soul into in the tiny space that is my office. The work from that small space will spider out, yes, like the crack in your windshield that pops and then grows quickly into a web eventually taking over the front of your car, but in a good way. It will grow and expand into the universe of readers who will see what I wrote and perhaps act on it in some good way. Maybe they’ll call a long lost relative. Maybe they’ll find a way to speak to a family member or friend with whom they’ve had a falling out. Maybe they’ll hug someone who means a great deal to them. Maybe they’ll phone me with an offer for a movie script in which I will be played by Jennifer Lawrence. Anything is possible, right?

So for today, the download graph forecasts more joy. I hope you have a wonderful day too. And, remember, the best things in life are free. Some very good things cost money, don’t get me wrong, I like those too, but being able to enjoy the free is also terrific.

Writers and Parents: Be Careful What You Wish For!

Writing is a great many wonderful things but making a living at it isn’t easy. And, more importantly, it may not be a good thing. Consider this story. I wrote a parenting book some years back, before the advent of self publishing. Shockingly, at least to me, it was published by a major publishing house and even more shocking, they actually spent about 10 minutes promoting it. (Because promoting books is not one of the things big publishing houses do well or even at all for most books! Yes, that was a surprise to me too.) One afternoon I returned to my home office to hear this voice mail:

Woman’s voice: Hi. This is Andrea. I’m a producer  at the Oprah Show. We just received your parenting book and we think it’s terrific. We’re doing a show on being organized and we already have an expert booked on the show but if you could be in Chicago next week, we might be able to add a segment specific to parenting. If you’re interested, please call me at …

OMG. I won’t even bother trying to describe how I felt.  I know you can easily imagine. (Suffice it to say the moment was so thrilling, I can still remember what I was wearing when I heard the message.) So, of course I returned the call ASAP. First she waxed poetic about my book and explained the reason they loved it was because it was so practical. Every suggestion in the book was something any parent could do with any child. She loved the way I looked at parenting which was that parents should integrate kids into their lives while maintaining as much of themselves and their previous lives as possible. I was thrilled they understood the point of the book which was to give parents actual, doable advice for raising responsible, good kids without overwhelming parents with a lot of theories and philosophizing. She asked if I could send video of me on any prior appearance on TV as well as a brief description of what I thought would be a good two-minute segment. She explained it was not highly likely they’d be able to add me in since the show was really already tightly planned but she really liked the book and was going to try. I sent off my package and held my breath.

Next I phoned my agent, who, while she was thrilled for me, had a cautionary warning. What I said to her, somewhat jokingly but also maybe a little bit wistfully was, “Maybe I’ll be the John Gray of parenting.” Back then he was the IT writer, who had written the phenomenally successful relationship book about men being from Mars while women were from Venus. She answered quickly, “You don’t want to be that. He’s a relationship expert who’s on the road about 50 weeks a year. Do you want to be writing about parenting while being away from your kids 50 weeks out of the year?”

That struck me and proved to be a little comforting when I heard back from the producer who reported, alas, they could not fit my two-minute segment into the show, as she had feared. But, she said they loved my book and would try to find another show to work it into. Despite the fact I spent the next year sending her show theme pitches and small gifts in Fed Ex envelopes monthly (my agent’s suggestion), my Oprah appearance remained elusive. I was so disappointed. My dream of being a fantastically successful writer did not come to pass.

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Lego Art by Nathan Sawaya

Thus, I did not become the John Gray of parenting. But I did raise three amazing daughters who probably lamented how much I was around the house more than I did! I have no regrets. My book sold okay, I did some other  fun TV and radio appearances with it and got some very positive feedback. Thanks to the ability to self publish and the fact that the rights reverted back to me, I updated it and published it again this year so if you want to check out Raising Amazing Children: While Having a Life of Your Own, the practical parenting book an Oprah producer loved but didn’t produce a show about, it’s just 99 cents on Amazon. I figure if it’s a bestseller now, I can hit the road. My kids are all grown and won’t even notice if I leave town!  If you give it as a gift to a new parent you know, you can tell them it was almost on Oprah. (They don’t have to know you only spent a dollar on it!) If you read it, please share a review on Amazon. Your opinion will mean more to me than any producer’s! And, writers, rethink your disappointments. Maybe the way it’s working out for you is the way it’s meant to be after all.