Be Interested, Not Interesting.

Be Interested, Not Interesting.


Submitted by admin on Mon, 02/18/2013 – 13:19

It’s a good thing my husband and the guy in the aisle seat were dozing because I started writing this and soon had mascara running like an idiot.

I first wrote this on a plane to San Francisco–my dad’s favorite city–last fall on what would have been his birthday. We made so many memories there, our camper parked on the wharf, mingling with a certain breed of San Fran hippie at the Whole Life Expos where we exhibited. We had some epic father-daughter talks on the end of the pier at dusk. The year before he died I stopped at his hospital room at the VA on my way to a conference in San Francisco. We spent a couple hours shooting the breeze and he told me he thought he wanted to have his defibrillator unplugged. Then when it was time it was time. Before I left he asked me to pour him a shot of caffeinated soda into a pill cup and he took a swig—his first taste of such a beverage in like 25 years—and toasted to life.

I know everyone loves their dad, but there was something else. Everyone loved MY dad. Why was that?

Yes he left quite a legacy with a big posterity and a bustling family business. He had an earthy sense of humor and found balance between high altitude dreams and street-level humility. Yes he was smart and unorthodox. But many folks have those qualities. What made him special to us?

Maybe it was simple. Everyone loved him because he loved everyone first. He believed a person would have more friends by being interested than interesting. And he was intensely interested in us, in what we had to say and in our dreams. He didn’t so much light up a room as light up when YOU entered the room.

Is that the secret? To be loved–really loved–give it freely first. There is no guarantee we will not be hurt or disappointed, no guarantee it will be returned but that is missing the point. Real love is an unselfish act, sharing without motive for return, cherishing others regardless of their quirks and flaws. I watched how disagreements my parents may have had with others dissipated because they shined a brighter light of love in the foreground. Light is more powerful than the dark and love the most irresistible force of all.

On Aunts and Aunties

On Aunts and Aunties


Submitted by admin on Sat, 02/01/2014 – 13:35

It has been a while since I have posted anything in my parenthood series; being pregnant and having a new baby just hasn’t left time. Now that I have a daughter of my own I have a hundred fresh thoughts to write about. This morning as I put her in a pretty pink dress given when I was born, I felt so grateful for the women I call aunties. This in in honor of them. I snapped the photo above showing a dress sent by my mom’s girlhood friend, Edna. Although not related by blood, she was one of my aunties.

The difference between an aunt and an auntie, you ask? And what have they to do with parenthood? Friends, allow me to b’splain an auntie’s special role, distinct from and complimentary to mothers.

The label of auntie first came into my lexicon when my nephew Daniel started calling me this. What began as humor stuck. I was young and the word seemed more befitting a lady from a different era. Perhaps for this reason it caught on and I’d like to think eventually became a term of endearment among my nieces and nephews. Therein lies the difference. An aunt is simply the sister of your parent, perhaps also the mother of your cousins. She’s a grownup and when the kids are in a back room causing trouble, she’s in the living room talking and snacking. An auntie is in there with you. An auntie has tea parties and sleepovers. You know she adores you. She spoils you but also doesn’t take any crap. She has a genuine interest in you, and she’s someone you can talk to in a way you can’t with your mother. She may or may not be related.

At least that’s the kind of auntie I wanted to be. Truth is, I always got waaaay more out of the job than I ever put in. I’ve said many times that it takes such a small amount of effort to get so much back. Here’s the selfish truth too. I wanted to be an auntie precisely because I wasn’t a mother. I wanted to somehow matter. I knew being a parent was much harder, but maybe I could supplement their role and still make a difference. Now that I am a mom, I appreciate aunties precisely because I can’t be one for my girl.

So this morning, I was thinking of all the aunties in my life. Edna, who gave my mom that gorgeous dress, was always dear to me. She lived in a big historic home in Reno and I loved everything about the place: the woodwork, the wrought iron fence and the fancy staircase. She may have been responsible for my early love of old homes. Whenever we visited, she showed us her doll collection, we had tea parties with dainty pastries, and girls-only shopping trips. She went out of her way to make it a special experience for me, and she hit the mark.

My aunt Arline was another auntie. Her daughter was my age and I cannot count the number of sleepovers at her house. She took us to do fun things, talked to me like I mattered, and most of all, she made me feel loved in her home. I never felt like the pain in the rear that I probably was. I was kind of an odd duck (okay still am) but felt like I belonged fine there. Great aunt Peggy was another. We visited her in California whenever we passed through and she always had something for me, including a lovely piece of jewelry that was hers when she was a girl. She taught me how an auntie can make a girl feel special.

There were also the mothers of friends. Stacie’s mom Brenda comes to mind as someone who had a big impact. I remember entire summers at her house baking cinnamon rolls, playing games on the computer, and her talking with us, never down. She remains one of the sweetest, kindest people I have ever known.

When my daughter was born, so many women have volunteered their services in the auntie role, including my nieces. Funny how things come full circle. Truly this little girl has no concept of how loved she is, but someday she will. The outfits, handmade blankets and other gifts were not just for practicality–although they are all certainly useful. They are reminders that she will never be alone in this world. If it takes a village, she was born into a community of strong, compassionate, and fun women who will always have her back. I have a feeling someday she’ll go through things that I saved for her–given by aunties at her birth and will realize just how lucky she is.

60 Quotes for 60 Years

60 Quotes for 60 Years


Submitted by admin on Wed, 12/12/2012 – 07:24

Essential Elements of Happiness by Gaye and Hartley Anderson (On their 60th Wedding Anniversary)

The date 12.12.12 was the last repeating date we would see, and also happened to be my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. So to honor them I compiled 60 quotes from my parents, one for every year since their amazing partnership began in 1952. These were mostly pulled from their story Every Essential Element. Enjoy!

  1. “I never had the luxury of saying it couldn’t be done.”
    2. “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”
    3. “Don’t get emotionally attached to the inventory.”
    4. “This too shall pass” (Full quote by Og Mandino: “For all worldly things shall indeed pass. When I am heavy with heart ache I shall console myself that this too shall pass; when I am puffed with success I shall warn myself that this too shall pass, When I am strangled in poverty I shall tell myself that this too shall pass; when I am burdened with wealth I shall tell myself that this too shall pass.”)
    5. “I wouldn’t trade all my single days combined for even one married day.”
    6. “We have plenty for today. Tomorrow will take care of tomorrow. So today, focus on today.”
    7. “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”
    8. “Visualize your parking spaces.” (This was a metaphor for visualizing then going out looking for success, not just parking. This is how lucky people behave.)
    9. “If you don’t ask you don’t get.”
    10. “Grow your kids through your business and someday your kids will grow the business.”
    11. “Men, 80 percent of life is just showing up. By getting out of bed, we’ve got an 80 percent chance of catching fish. Remember I told you that.”
    12. “You can’t steer a parked car.”
    13. A good deal with a bad guy is a bad deal.”
    14. “I’m retired. Because if being retired means you get to do what you want I retired at 39, the year I started in business.”
    15. “If you want to catch fish, you’ve got to go out when they are biting.”
    16. “I’m not asking your permission, I am telling you I have already done it.”
    17. “Don’t listen to more educated people who think your idea is crazy.”
    18. “Don’t share your big plans with just anyone. They mean well, but they really want to tell you all the reasons you can’t.”
    19. “Just the way I like it.” Hartley always said this when someone apologized for a meal they thought did not turn out right.
    20. “If you’re going to be crazy, be crazy about the right things”
    21. “My weight is hereditary. It’s all that Danish cooking.”
    22. “Make happy products. In other words, we should be positive while we work so the products we make go out the door full of good energy. Our work should make people’s lives better and hostile energy could mar the result.”
    23. A picture is worth a thousand words—every business needs a great demonstration.
    24. “We all matter. Every single day, just not everyone realizes it.”
    25. “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its trouble. It empties today of its strength.” (Gaye quoting Corrie Ten Boom)
    26. When they were in a bind once and his son wondered why he was so calm Hartley said, ‘It’s like this. We’re out there busting our butts, and you know why? Because this business is what we are supposed to be doing. Name one time we needed help and it didn’t come.” Gaye later said, “This was how Hartley calculated our risks. He wasn’t fearless; he just didn’t believe we were on our own.”
    27. “If you want to get a job, don’t say, ‘I’ll do anything.’ Be specific about what you want and it will make you more desirable.”
    28. “Losing by default—out of fear—is a worse mistake than taking a risk.”
    29. “When you’re in a fix, be a Boy Scout and ask ‘What are our resources?’”
    30. “People will stand around heckling what you’re doing without offering to help. But they should stand clear. When your wheels take hold they might get splattered with mud.”
    31. “Life is too short to waste it worrying over money.”
    32. “If you’re throwing a party, invite everyone or no one. Never leave someone out.”
    33. In reference to a kid in his Boy Scout troop who was different, Hartley said, “If any of you have a problem with him, you’re going to have a much bigger problem with me.”
    34. “No one is a ‘non-member.’ We’re all members of the human race.”
    35. “When you face your biggest fear, you are never the same person.” Hartley once said to a young man, “You are going to make a choice right now that can define your character. Do you want to be the kind of guy who shrinks away or one who faces what scares you? I’m not saying you shouldn’t be afraid because that’s called stupidity. But courage is being scared out of your gourd and going for it anyway. You absolutely can do this. I promise. You will not fall. It comes down to this; you can either overcome your fear tonight or walk away wondering for the rest of your life how things might be different if you had.”
    36. “Your kids are capable of more than you might think. Show them and then say, ‘Now it’s your turn.’”
    37. “The body is electric and minerals conduct that electricity. A little sea water or Great Salt Lake water will conduct that electricity.”
    38. “Sea water and blood plasma are almost identical in mineral content. If you have a deficiency this can be a perfect source of whatever your body needs.”
    39. “Eat a good breakfast. Make sure your kids do too.”
    40. “If you want to make people feel welcome, feed them.” (Quoting Grandma Anderson)
    41. “Freedom isn’t free.”
    42. “Say what is in your heart now. You never know when someone might be gone.”
    43. Regarding a lawsuit they decided to drop, Hartley said, “I see plain as day how we’re right in this. They are greedy, arrogant cheats. They kick below the belt, and I’ve got a mind to not let ‘em get away with it. But if we get sucked in, we’re no better. Revenge is a counterfeit for justice, and it can destroy what’s good. If we let that happen, then evil wins. I think what we have is too important to get taken off course.”
    44. “Rich people are just like everybody else. The ones that got there by working hard are generally good people. The climbers are the ones to watch out for…After learning that, I decided then that I’d never feel inferior to anybody again. And if I ever made it in life, I’d never act superior either.”
    45. To his sons about accepting someone from a different culture, Hartley said, “He will learn some things from us while he is here, but if we went to his culture, we would probably learn even more from them.”
    46. Hartley said to his grandsons before a fishing trip, “If I die while we are fishing just lay my body in the shade, catch your limit and then haul me back.”
    47. “Death is a natural part of life so learn to get comfortable talking about it while you still have time.” Hartley’s grandmother died on the day he was born and his parents used to say, “Some’s comin’ and some’s goin’ all the time.”
    48. “How to do something hard? You just get up there and do it. You’ll be surprised what you’re capable of when the time comes.”
    49. “Most people miss the easy pickings because they won’t get their butts off the couch. Give serendipity a chance.”
    50. “Right sometimes means right now.”
    51. To his sons, Hartley said, “I’m not going to make you do anything. I just might make you wish you had.”
    52. Note, this quote is of a full passage to provide context: “Hartley and Matthew sat on the pebbled lake shore with poles asleep in the water. A shiny black beetle inched its way on the ground in front of them. Matthew saw it coming toward his sneaker. He picked up his foot and mashed the bug into the dirt. Hartley looked at the crushed remains and then looked at Matthew. ‘Now bring it back’ was Hartley’s impossible challenge.”
    53. “Keep searching until you find your purpose. Then go for it!”
    54. “If you ever get down to just a dime, pray.”
    55. “When you’re in business, you’re in politics.”
    56. “Our relationships are the only thing we will take into the next life.”
    57. “Institutions best prepare you for somebody else’s idea of success.”
    58. “If you want freedom, work for yourself.”
    59. “If you want wealth, share what you have.
    60. “Take your kids fishing.”

Capture moments

Capture moments


Submitted by admin on Sun, 07/29/2012 – 08:53


I didn’t expect to remember advice given on my wedding day because there was a lot going on, but something poignant stuck. As my husband and I knelt together at the ceremony, two large mirrors flanked our backs. Together they produced infinite reflections representing eternity. The man who married us explained that the images represent the past and future—and I expected him to mention this symbol because it is a beautiful part of this setting—but what he said next surprised me. “Be mindful that the most important part of this scene is not what was in the past nor what will be in the future. What matters most is this moment—the present—where eternity meets. What you do today links past to future, and it applies not just to your wedding day. As you live life together, it is too easy to always look ahead or behind and forget that this is the moment that counts. This moment is all we ever have. Right now. And Right now. And Right now.”

A lifetime is made of moments. Good storytelling captures them. But which ones? My advice to get started writing a memoir or family history—or even fiction for that matter—is to think small and specific. The over-arching story line can come later. There will be time to consider character development, themes, and how to string it all together. But not yet. Worrying about all that in the beginning will stall you so cut yourself free for now.

If you want to write a history that future generations will cherish reading, capture moments. If you do, your inspiration will come.

So what kind of moment is most important? The big one—like weddings—or the stuff of everyday that fills a lifetime? My answer is both, and for different reasons. This article discusses big events, and what I mean by big might come as a surprise. The next article will go small.

There is no bigger event in a lifetime than a wedding. Disney gets that females of all ages are wired to fanaticize of that day when all dreams come true. Not the first date, not the honeymoon and certainly not the lifetime of laundry afterward. There is one glittering evening with everything girls live for: a prince, lavish dresses, moonlight, and a new china pattern. She is the beautiful girl in the center of it all. My brother joked once that weddings are female porn.

So with all the buildup to this day, when a woman compiles her life history, how much attention does this day get? In my mother’s story, Every Essential Element, the courtship and uncertainty over competing suitors warranted two full chapters. How much space did the wedding day itself get? Precisely two paragraphs or 116 words.

So if weddings are condensed to a handful of words in a lifetime’s retelling, what does get the attention? When I think of big moments I land on the ones that are life changing. Contemplate these questions: What were the pivotal decisions that altered the course of a life forever? When did a difficult challenge require digging deep, and in so doing, the character learned who she really was? These are the elements of great writing and the stuff people love to read.

Try some mental exercises to bring this material into the fore:
• Think of a decision that changed the course of your life. How did you struggle with the choice, and when did you first know what you had to do? What led to that choice? What changed because of it? What did you learn about yourself?
• When did someone teach you a lesson you would carry with you forever? What brought you to that moment and how did it guide you in the future (think of a specific example when it played out differently because of the lesson).
• Did you ever have an argument with someone that would forever alter your relationship? Did something break or did you resolve long overdue issues? What was the buildup to it? What was the landscape afterward?
• Have you ever finished something you did not think you could do? In the middle of it were you unsure or determined? Did others help or did naysayers surround you? When did you know you would make it? How did this experience change you and the way you view yourself?
• Think of a time when you were backed against a wall, when you faced a very difficult challenge and you had two choices—come out fighting or succumb. What emerged in your character?
• Have you ever had a time that was you and another person or group against the world? How were you stronger together than you could have been alone? Did you triumph? How did it feel to be part of this team?
• Was there a day when you were out of money, time or food? How did you survive? What did you learn about yourself and the human condition?
• Have you ever experienced an answer to a prayer or the hand of God in your life? How did you know?
• What was a choice you later regretted, and that you never forgot? What was your thought process at the time? Did you know it was the wrong choice all along or did you understand this at a future moment? What did this teach you, and how did this growth affect a future choice?
• Have you ever decided to stand for what was right even if it meant standing alone? Did you pay a price for it? Were you ultimately vindicated? Would you make the same choice again?

You get the idea. To reiterate, begin by setting aside the big picture for now. That will come later. Conjure your memories or interview other people in the story and just see what comes. Some story will grab you, even if you don’t know why at first. Then—and this is important—when the spirit moves you sit down and write this vignette. Don’t worry where it is going, just write. You will be surprised how the process of discovery will lead you to insights. The most exciting writing days are when the process illuminates truth you had not understood before.

Enjoy this part. Please! Editing can be a grind but this is your chance to let go. Work on the stories that inspire you when they inspire you. If a scene presents itself do not delay. Sit down and capture it while your muse is present because this makes the best writing. You will refine it later. You can analyze its meaning after the fact. For now, set yourself free to discover what is there because a wonderful memoir is built on these scenes.

Read the full series on “Leaving a Legacy Through Story:”

Want to Leave a Legacy? Tell a Story

Want to Leave a Legacy? Tell a Story


Submitted by admin on Sun, 12/21/2014 – 15:51

“The cemeteries are full of people who thought they were irreplaceable.” I remind myself this naked fact when my ego drifts into self importance. It’s humbling to realize how fast my workplace would go on without me. If I got hit by a Mac truck, it would take a ridiculously short time for my influence to vanish entirely. Of course we all have strengths, and our friends would miss us. I know that no one can fill the place of a loved one gone. Still, it is a fact that the world will someday continue in my absence.

And here is a startling question: how many years will it take before nobody remains who knew me well. Fifty, tops. Then what’s left aside from a name on a gravestone?

To catch my drift, try this exercise: write down the names of your eight great-grandparents. Without calling your mother. Can you? Next, how much of a portrait can you paint of their lives? What of their personalities? How did triumphs and heartbreaks shape their views? What traits did you inherit from them? What wisdom would they want to teach you?

This gives me pause. I did not even know my grandparents very well because I was the youngest on both sides. They lived in declining bodies by the time I came along and passed away before I reached adulthood. Oh what I would give to have known them when they were young, in their dancing shoes. And my great grandparents? I come up so empty regarding the richness of their lives. Only some faded details remain as clues.

There are a few, however, that I understand a little. What I have is because of stories.

I have come to believe that the ONLY way to convey a legacy to future generations is through story. Everyone bristles at a sermon, especially from our parents, but how many times did I ask my folks to tell about when they were young? Example always trumps advice, and in absence of having witnessed an event in the flesh, a story will do nicely. A priest reminded me of this recently when he said that “we can all preach the gospel, and sometimes even use words.” Then when someone is gone, the wisdom they gained from a lifetime of experience is conveyed one story at a time, if it is to be conveyed at all. So yeah, I guess that’s a time when words will do.

This ties into another insight I picked up in graduate school. In a class on culture, I was intrigued by the idea that one can pinpoint the values of a group through the stories they cultivate. That is true for countries, business organizations and families. It occurred to me then, and I believe even more now that organizations—even families—can be intentional about building culture through story. We can consciously curating examples of who we are and retell those stories. What happens is that the very best episodes from a group’s history ultimately become enshrined as lore. When newcomers hear these vignettes and they understand, “This is the kind of people we are. This is who we are meant to become.”

Let illustrate with a story of my own.

When my parents were getting their health business started, folks thought they had gone kooky. Remember, this was a time when you could not buy whole wheat bread in the grocery store, let alone the kind of trace mineral supplements they made. So my mom and dad had a rough time of it and they lived with their toes over the financial edge. But my mom used to tell me that every time they got discouraged, someone would write a letter saying how much the products had helped them, and they would think, “That is why we are doing this.” Those letters kept her going.
To grow the company my dad would hawk his guns to get enough money to leave on a selling trip, but not enough to get home. He would leave with the station wagon loaded to the hilt and would have to sell his way back to the family.

This image of dad driving away with one-way cash became part of our family folklore, and helped me—the youngest—see that we are people of purpose and conviction. We continue on when others snicker. We have enough faith to head out on the road without a guaranteed ticket back. And if we ever run out of cash, we have a hundred examples of how things had a way of working out. It always turned out okay, and that told us that it always would again.

After my dad passed away, I gathered these cherished memories and set out to compile my family’s stories which became a full book, Every Essential Element. I thought I would do a quick compilation and be done with it, but the stories inspired me and they seemed too important to give quick treatment. I wanted them to shine on the page the way I remember my parents beaming with life. These stories seemed too important to fade out before my child—not yet conceived—could hear them. Now this little girl who is named after my dad will understand the kind of person she is meant to be.

I knew I had done my job when I got a text from a twenty-something nephew. His dad had the most tumultuous relationship with my parents and this nephew is also a tad rebellious. He’s not a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of kid. I adore him. He texted me to tell me that he read the book, couldn’t put it down and then said this. “I thought I had heard all the stories but I really didn’t understand until now. Reading it made me proud to be an Anderson.” That was my payday. That was when I knew our family’s values would live beyond my generation.

This has led me into a passion for memoir. In writing my book, learned a lot the hard way, got a few things right, and have been collecting best practices from others. So this blog post is the first in a series of lessons learned. I hope you will enjoy.

Look for more on my blog on parenthood and the craft of memoir at or on Twitter @rhondalauritzen.

Rhonda Lauritzen is the author of Every Essential Element, available on in print and Kindle format for $3.95.

Like Rain Publishing ( helps families and business leaders complete their stories.

The Supporting Cast

The Supporting Cast


Submitted by admin on Wed, 08/22/2012 – 07:40

The Supporting Cast: “I like myself best when I’m like you.”

Stephen King wrote, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.” Around that age I met a willowy redhead named Megan. She was a dancer and a free spirit who never wanted to grow up. I was a “big boned” olive-skinned brunette with a bookish disposition and an after-school job. On the surface we might not have seemed like BFFs but in the decades since I have discovered that we are kindred spirits in ways that defy words. We’ve survived boyfriends and breakups, children and the lack thereof, marriage and divorce, times when we’ve had nothing but time, and times when we’ve eked out some out of nowhere. She is the Best Supporting Actress in my story, and I’d like to think I am that in hers. I could write a whole book just about her…maybe someday I will.

In your story, who are the people who were there when no one else was? Who have you called when you needed a pep talk or a reality check? Who makes you say, “I like myself best when I’m like you?”

I think of these people as the supporting cast, and they serve an important purpose in any memoir or family history. They can add comic relief or present different perspectives to the protagonist’s view. They can say things your leading lady/man never could or would. They make the main character seem somehow more.

In collecting my family’s stories, I have loved shining light on the “best supporting cast” because in learning of them, I understand myself better. My grandma Laub always set an elegant table, and Grandpa Laub was a small business owner, golfer and a lifelong member of the Chamber of Commerce. Grandpa Anderson was easy going and Grandma was independent. I see all of those traces in me, and these are the parts I like best. In my siblings I see some personality threads that I cherish and others that I work to overcome. The older I get–in spite of my younger efforts–the more I become my parents. I could do worse, actually.

I hope this gets you thinking about your supporting cast. To jumpstart your process, here are some tips followed by questions to draw out insights.

First the tips:
• Write your first drafts drawing from vivid memories and with as much emotion as you can conjure. Bring the supporting characters to life on the page with believable details and their endearing quirks much like you would with your protagonist (see my protagonist article for ideas).
• Don’t write first drafts with them–or anyone else–figuratively watching over your shoulder. If you worry what they will think or how their memories differ, you’ll find yourself with writer’s block and your storytelling will be stiff.
• Once you have captured what you feel is an honest and rich depiction of these characters DO NOT charge in and show them your work. Not yet. You need some time to let it sit and to come back with a fresh eye toward sensitivity. (We’ll talk about sensitivity in a later article.)

Here are some questions to spark ideas about your supporting cast:
• Was there ever a time in your life when others turned their backs, but someone remained loyal?
• Have you ever felt you were better because you were part of a team than alone?
• What are life lessons you have you learned from your children and in what ways have they been the supporting cast in your story?
• Who are the people who make you feel most like you, and how do you act when you are together?
• Who have been your best friends throughout your life? How are they similar to or different from each other and you?
• If you need encouragement, who do you call?
• Who is the wisest person you know?
• Let’s say it is 2 a.m. and you need an emergency favor. Who could you call with no questions asked?
• Whose number would you–or did you–dial from jail?
• In what ways have you become like your parents, and in what ways have you rebelled?
• Who makes you laugh the most?
• Who was the instigator or trouble/adventure when you were growing up? Who was the voice of reason? Which voice won?
• How would your best friends describe you when you were young? Today?
• What is a story your best friends would love to tell your children or grandchildren to embarrass you?
• Describe a time when you and your friends almost got in big trouble but escaped by the skin of your teeth.
• What would be the perfect weekend with your best friend(s)? Write about one that felt darn near perfect.

Getting Started: Three Procrastination-Busting Tips

Getting Started: Three Procrastination-Busting Tips


Submitted by admin on Sun, 06/09/2013 – 20:31

Getting Started: Three Procrastination-Busting Tips

I am helping a friend start a big writing project and we recently talked about how she doubted her ability to finish. The negative narrator in her mind rattled off a litany of al the times in her life she had not completed something.

“I know that voice does not have my best interest in mind,” she said. “So why am I afraid to just shut it out?”

We talked about her fears and some of the real obstacles that stood in her way. After our conversation, I got thinking about some of the generous mentors I’ve had in my career who taught me three tools that help me dig out whenever I am mired in procrastination or doubt.

The first tool I learned is a framework for making commitments. This is important because making commitments to others, and especially ourselves is one of the most powerful ways we can set events in motion. Making commitments seems to draw on forces in the universe outside our own abilities, and finishing them gives us confidence. Thing is, though, we start off gung-ho but we’re human, stuff happens and we don’t always do what we say we will do. Then the mind’s nay sayer sees its opening and has a heyday. “You don’t have what it takes. You’re not a finisher. Who do you think you are to take on such a big idea?” Guilt and doubt are destructive demotivators so it’s important to break that cycle quickly. Rather than over analyze why I didn’t make a commitment to myself or anyone else, I have learned to take a breath and go to what we’ll call here “The Commitment Formula.”

The Commitment Formula:
Step 1: Acknowledge it. Own that you made a commitment and that you didn’t live up to it. Simple as that. You don’t have to explain all the reasons, just acknowledge it to the other person or to yourself. Be sincere and humble while you’re at it. Then move on to step 2.

Step 2: Make it right. If breaking the commitment had an impact on someone else, then do what is necessary to make it right. Forgive yourself, clear the energy, and move on to step 3.

Step 3: Recommit. Make the commitment again, or replace it with a new one that is more appropriate for the new reality. Then move on to step 4.

Step 4: Follow through. Do what you said you would do by when you said you would do it. If you don’t live up to that commitment, then keep repeating the cycle until you get it right. Keep your chin up, give yourself a pep talk, and remember that it is worth it to make commitments. Anything in your head that says otherwise is doubt talking. Doubt might have been your companion, but it is not your friend.

The second tool I’ve learned to tackle resistance is how to beat the “but first” trap. You know how it goes, you have something important to do, but first you have to do this one little thing, then one more, then one more. These add up and obliterate the time you have. Sometimes they are legitimate and sometimes they’re just distractions. An example of the legit kind was when, a few years ago I felt it was important to start doing some writing. I had a few “but firsts.” One was that I didn’t know what to write about. I got past that by saying, “Okay, I don’t know what to write about but on this date, I am going to sit down and write whatever is there. If this really does matter, then the inspiration will come in due time but my job right now is just to get started.” So I penciled a date to begin on my calendar. I also felt it was important to clear my physical space, so I spent the week leading up to the date working like a madwoman. I got projects wrapped up at work so I wouldn’t be stressed. I cleaned my house so I wouldn’t be distracted. When the day came I worked out to get my head in a peaceful state. So in short, I got those “but firsts” out of the way. Then the time came to begin and ideas flooded onto my legal pad. An hour later I got the call that my dad had died, and I ended up turning those ideas into a full book of my parents’ story Every Essential Element.

Sometimes, though, the “but firsts” are just mindless distractions: checking email, piddling around on Facebook, or working on tangent projects that seem like a good idea at the time. One discipline I use when I need to concentrate is to turn off all notifications on my cell phone, close my email and decide that I will not get up or glance at any peripheral electronics for the next hour. It’s ridiculous how I start tweaking like an addict to look at my phone after five minutes. What a wake-up call that exercise is. After the hour I’ll allow myself a minute to check in, refill my water bottle or whatever. Then it’s back to work for another chunk of productivity.

The key here is to recognize that I’ve sunk into a wasteful habit and break the cycle before my time window runs out. If not, any inspiration that might have been hanging around will get the hint and move on to where the love is.

A third reason for procrastination is feeling overwhelmed, and the root cause is that a huge project is impossible to tackle all at once. The tool here to “break it down.” I know this sounds like a platitude because it takes mental effort to figure out the next step while avoiding the quicksand of trying to plan out the next year of your life. What I mean is to stop and figure out the very next teeny, tiny step needed to move forward.

As an example, my friend asked how to start organizing all of the supporting documents for her project. Well, in big terms she could say, “how do I digitally capture and organize my husband’s letters, awards and memorabilia?” That makes me tired just thinking about it. Where to start? In this case she moved forward by taking the step of asking my advice for how to begin. Well done. I thought that next, she might ask at her husband’s business if they have a newish copier that will make quick work of scanning these documents into a PDF. If they do, then the next step would be to learn where scanned copies go after you hit the green button, and ask for help to get the process all set up. Then she can save the documents to DropBox or Evernote. Then she might start with one file drawer at a time. She might even hire an assistant to help with the grunt work once her system is in place.

See how we broke this down? I find when I am avoiding a project, I am nearly always stuck not knowing how to begin or because I don’t have the information I need to proceed. For example, perhaps I need to call an expert but I don’t know an expert, let alone have a phone number. So I might realize that my next step is to ask around for leads or maybe do some Internet research. Then it’s important to get on with it before I stall again.

Once I begin, momentum starts working in my favor.

So to recap, the three tools are: 1. Recognize the power of making commitments and rectify any that I have broken. 2. Catch myself when I am caught in a “but first” trap. If the “but first” is important, then get it out of the way and move on but if it is just a distraction then muster up the discipline to focus. 3. Realize when the root cause of procrastination is a blockage in not knowing what to do next. Spend the mental effort to break it down into the smallest step possible. Then get to work and let inertia start working for rather than against the project.

Happy productivity!

Everyday Moments in Your Story

Everyday Moments in Your Story


Submitted by admin on Sun, 08/05/2012 – 11:15

“Enjoy the little things, for someday you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

If you could choose an ordinary day to relive and savor in detail, what would it be? Were loved ones there who are now gone? What did you eat and how did it smell? How did you feel? Now, how can you make the most of these memories in your story?

Begin capturing a lifetime in words by starting small—focusing on moments. There are two types of moments: the life-changing, gut-wrenching, character-defining moment and the opposite, the stuff of every day. I covered big moments in a previous article ( Today’s post delves into conjuring up and then utilizing memories of ordinary days that blend together and end up representing entire swaths of time. These are memories that in total impact become far dearer to us than we could have guessed in the middle.

Of course there is not space in a history nor would it make a compelling read to cover all of life’s mundane happenings. We don’t tote around every individual memory. Likewise, in writing a history, hours blur into years and it is almost as if these times become a memory montage where every breakfast scene is now represented by one breakfast scene. Every Saturday tossing a ball with Dad is illustrated by one such day. Every Christmas is illuminated through the best—or worst—of these holiday meals.

So in addition to telling the stories of times that made all the difference, filling in details will provide richness and context. This is where everyday moments come in. The best use of everyday memories is to create scenes alive with sensory and emotional texture.

In my writing, I have done this in two ways. For simple journaling, I sometimes write a “day in the life” chronicling the sort of details I wish I had from my ancestors. This is a no-nonsense approach to tell the reader how it was. But for a compelling, story-driven approach we follow the “show don’t tell” mantra.

To write a great story, weave details like these into a narrative that will immerse the reader in a scene. Rich details stimulate a reader’s imagination. In other words, if the purpose of big life-changing moments is to move the story forward then the purpose of small moments is to create a mood of place and time.

For example in my parents’ memoir, Every Essential Element, I set many scenes in the high mountains where my family camped each summer. Check out this brief essay that utilizes this alpine setting to tell a story of one day—a day that might have occurred a hundred times in my childhood. I then bring it around to a lesson internalized in adulthood.

In your own writing, you might set a kitchen scene where everyday activities—an amalgamation of all kitchen scenes from that period of life—are unfolding. Then you introduce a significant event that propels the story forward. Remember that setting might be lovely but it isn’t a story. In a story, something happens: conflict, action by the protagonist, character development and resolution.

To get your creative juices flowing, try chewing on these questions:
• How did your parents and grandparents go about teaching you life lessons and useful skills? How did you feel about it at the time? Has your perspective on this shifted over the years?
• What did your family do for fun together?
• When did you feel closest to your loved ones?
• Which of all holidays were your favorite and what was the feeling that made them special?
• If you were to make a soundtrack for a particular period, what songs would it include?
• What struggles did you face? Did you feel adequate to handle them or did you have doubts? In retrospect what did those struggles teach you?
• When you spent time with your best friend(s) what were your activities? What did you talk about?
• Were you close to your siblings? What were your favorite childhood games and what was your relationship like later in life?
• As you look back at photographs, what fashions make you say, “What were we thinking?” And seriously, what were you thinking? What were your favorite clothes, the ones you wish you could still wear?
• How did you feel about your body and your appearance?
• Were your parents and grandparents good cooks? If you could have one meal prepared by them, what would it include? Describe the colors, textures, flavors and aromas. What are your emotions now as you conjure the memory of these foods?
• What are the smells of childhood? Of summer? Of your grandparents’ home? School? Work? What are your favorite smells and what feelings are associated with them?
• Who did you look up to when you were young? Describe a specific memory in which that person was at his or her very best.

When a memory inspires you, write about it to your heart’s content. Examine it to determine what was significant about it. How did this memory shape you? Why does this particular memory linger with you? If you don’t know where to use it in your story right away, just keep it until an opportunity comes along to incorporate it in a scene. As I completed my book many moments written earlier became part of a vignette later, and—alas—some were edited out because they did not add to the storyline. I still kept them in a separate file and some have become inspiration for later writing while some simply remain treasured journal entries.

Read the full series on “Leaving a Legacy Through Story:”

“She Was Such a Character!”

“She Was Such a Character!”


Submitted by admin on Tue, 08/21/2012 – 15:57


When I first saw my aunt Audriene last Wednesday my eyes welled up. She looked so good to me—old yes, in declining health yes—but she reminded me so much of my grandma. It caught me off guard because Grandma Anderson has been gone for more than twenty years. But there she was with snow-white hair and a soft lap that I could have crawled into. A few minutes later, she made me think of Grandma again with her quick wit and razor-sharp memory.

I came away with new insights about my family on a digital recorder. So indulge me for a moment with some highlights (I promise, I’m going somewhere with this). Grandpa grew up in a Danish-American town as the son of a pioneer boy who crossed from the old country on a boat and t hen to Utah in a covered wagon. When asked to describe the collective town culture, Audriene didn’t hesitate, “Easy going.” Of my grandpa she said, “Most men don’t care much for babies but he loved to hold them.” He connected easily with “babies, horses and plants.” Mary, my grandma, was his complement in everything.

When she was a teenage girl before World War I, her father taught her how to drive the Model T after she proved she could start it with the crank. When she met Grandpa she taught him how to drive, and did most of the diving their whole marriage—not just with the car, but in all aspects of their life together. Grandma’s friend once said, “You and Alvin have the best marriage of anyone in town,” but it was a backhanded compliment. “Of course he lets you do whatever you want.” Grandma replied, “Well, there you have it!” I asked my aunt if Grandma could be stubborn, “Oh yes,” and I wondered where this came from since she was also Danish. Audriene corrected me, “Well her father was English.” Oh!

My grandparents would make rich characters in a story and indeed, they were part of the supporting cast in the book I wrote about my folks. Actually, that is the point of this article: I believe everyone is the protagonist in their own epic saga and their stories should be preserved.

All great stories begin with great characters. So to begin a family history or a memoir, think like a novelist about how to discover your characters and then bring them to life on the page. Here are nine quick ABC tips:

  1. ACTION: Great protagonists take action and they do so in every scene. They do not let circumstances dictate the outcome of a conflict. They fight, take risks, beg, borrow and steal to survive. If that fails, they still don’t give up but drop to their knees and pray.
  2. BAD GUYS: A protagonist needs an antagonist: a person or group with competing goals. This drives action and emotion in a story. Bad guys make the good guys look good and the worse they are, the better the story. So to quote from the great writing book Save the Cat, “Make the bad guys badder.”
  3. CONFLICT: Conflict drives story and without it, all you really have is setting and description. Although this might be fine for pure journaling it makes for lousy storytelling. Conflict exists when one character wants one thing, and another wants something else.
  4. DIALECT: Great writing requires dialogue that sounds like how real people talk, only better. You should remove the “He said” tags and still tell who is speaking because of each character’s unique phrasing and personality. Each generation and each region has its own way of speaking with unique expressions and phrasing. One of the most wonderful treasures in any family history is when language, idioms and dialect are preserved. When possible—when people are still living—I like to record interviews on audio or video because this is the best way to capture the essence of a person’s language. I had hours of my dad on video with his colorful, earthy language. I had heard it my whole life and still couldn’t capture it all from memory. These interviews were invaluable in writing dialogue that felt alive and authentic.
  5. EYES: “Eyes are the window to the soul.” So use the eyes to hint at personality, mood and intent without having to spell it out. In The Art of Racing in the Rain, the protagonist says, “The car goes where your eyes go.” So to foretell where a person is going, let the eyes foreshadow.
  6. FLAWS AND STRENGTHS: We are inspired by characters who show heroic strengths yet we relate to those with human flaws. So include both. Indeed, no one believes in a flawless character who makes no mistakes. Any story—including family history—will feel fake without a counterbalance to all that is good and right in the world. Also consider that often, our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses are two sides of the same coin just manifest at different extremes. This makes people both complex and real. If you only write the fairy tale details, e.g., “And they never once had an argument,” your readers will become a skeptic, speculating about the truth between the lines of your tidy version. So for heaven’s sake, give ‘em something to work with.
  7. GROWTH: We want to read about a character’s arc, about heroes who show folly in the beginning and make human mistakes but grow by the end. So when you introduce a flaw in your leading man or lady, bring it up again throughout the story, showing how your character grapples with it and ultimately triumphs. Of course in family history we can’t just make up the story, but we do choose which strengths and weaknesses get the most attention on the page. I generally focus on the weaknesses that that have the most growth by the end.
  8. HANDS: I recently had stitches on my right hand and the doctor took great pains to do a perfect job so I would heal without a scar. She explained that our hands one of the most personal, even intimate parts of us. In cadaver labs, a body will lay on the table naked but with the hands covered out of respect. Imagine that. It reminded me how in an essay about my dad I started to cry at my laptop as I described his hands with scratchy palms, a plain gold wedding band, and strong fingers wrapped around my chubby little girl fist. My husband has skillful, artist’s hands. My mother’s are delicate yet knobby with arthritis from a lifetime of busyness. Hands show personality and they also give away intent. Police officers are trained to watch the hands. As a writer so should you.
  9. IDIOSYNCRASIES: The characters we adore most have little quirks that make them unique and memorable. How did they defy stereotypes of their culture, gender and generation? How were they ahead of their time, or more befitting an era long gone? What were their favorite seasons and what did this reveal about personality? What were the little things their family members missed most, that they might not have noticed until they were gone? Please do us all a favor and include these loveable details.

In writing memoir and family history people often get bogged down in the details of timeline and facts. But consider this: in a generation, most people will not care about all that. They will be hungry to know who the people really were because in seeking their ancestors, they really want to discover themselves.

If all you do is paint a beautiful portrait in words without any other facts or biographical details, you will leave an heirloom as valuable as a Rembrandt.

National Congress on Medical Quackery

National Congress on Medical Quackery


Submitted by admin on Sat, 05/12/2012 – 20:43

In 1961 the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug administration sponsored an event for the purpose of stamping out perceived “quackery” and to erradicate the “food faddists and crackpots” from American society. The link above contains the entire official transcript of proceedings, a word-for-word account of the speeches given by medical experts and agency enforcers of the day. (Note that page two is not part of the original proceedings was added to the binding by Clinton Miller after the fact.)

Here is an excerpt from Every Essential Element on this subject:

Clinton and his family had arrived in Washington in the wake of a conference put on by the American Medical Association called the “National Congress on Medical Quackery” in October of 1961. It was co-sponsored by the FDA. Other headliners included the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, the American Cancer Society, the National Better Business Bureau and others. The FDA’s endorsement positioned the AMA as a quasi-government agency, and it appeared they had the authority of the government.

The purpose of the conference was to stop quackery within the health food industry, and they labeled just about everything so. The book before us was a complete transcript of the proceedings.

Clinton read excerpts from speeches wherein bigwigs from the FDA, AMA, Harvard Medical School, and the Federal Trade Commission called us, “…a shrewd brand of huckster (operating) just within the bounds of the law—but well outside the realm of human decency and honesty,” “slippery targets,” “evil,” “quacks,” a “menace to the health and well-being of the nation,” and called a “crusade” to alert the public of “this menace to the health and well-being of the nation,” and to “inform them that the quacks of today are suited in the clothes of respectability…(but) their morals have degenerated to the point where they can blandly offer false hope where no hope exists.

That was just the first speech. On day two they said,
“Speaking for the American Medical Association and our 180,000 physician-members, I pledge our efforts to the final eradication of quackery and all its minions and satraps.”

In that conference, Clinton said the medical establishment declared war. He was warming up to something. “I don’t like bearing bad news, but this wasn’t just toward the industry in general. At that conference, they singled out sea water products. They slapped all those ugly labels on you.”

What did this mean? He thumbed to some marked pages. “See, right here.” He pointed to a transcript of the keynote address by Abraham A. Ribicoff, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

“Today, quackery is sophisticated. The old time hokum has assumed new disguises. The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, is now engaged in legal proceedings against certain vendors of bottled sea water priced up to $20 per gallon which has been offered as a modern preventative and panacea for virtually all human ailments…But quackery’s cost cannot be measured. The quack flirts with disaster. He challenges the sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ (Official program from Congress on Quackery, p. 3-4)”

So we were murderers too?

Clinton flipped to another speech, this one by Fredrick J. Stare. Dr. Stare ridiculed a letter he had received. It read,
“I dare you to write me defending your statement that there is no essential difference between enriched white bread and whole wheat breads in the health of man.” Dr. Stare called the writers of such letters, “food faddists and crackpots.”

Clinton’s eyes smiled, “I guess that makes me a crackpot. Now here’s where this one talks about you.”

“Recently, sea water has become popular with the food faddists. This is based on the old but widely held misconception that because such water contains numerous mineral and trace elements, and the body needs some of these elements, it will be healthful to take a little sea water every day. This is just another adaptation of the false premise that modern foods are nutritionally inadequate… Don’t be taken in. Have confidence in the skill and ingenuity of America’s great food industry. It deserves it.” (Official program from Congress on Quackery, p. 66-72)

We groaned at how they applauded the “skill and ingenuity of…America’s great food industry.” The heroes of that day were the makers of snack foods and TV dinners.

It was unsettling indeed to hear a story in which you are the bad guys. It sunk in. We had been marked by the government a full eight years before we had our first customer. The powers in charge had pledged our destruction calling us minions and satraps. They labeled folks like us, Clinton Miller and Bessie Shafer as evil. Make no mistake, anyone who blew the whistle on nutritionally bankrupt food had better watch out. They felt justified ridding the world of health food makers who held “morals that had degenerated to the point where they would dare offer hope where, indeed, no hope existed.”