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On the first day of my creative writing class, the teacher opened the discussion by asking “What is a story?”  She suggested that we begin by defining the word.  Several people responded.  I took a minute to think about the meaning, and then raised my hand and said “A story is something that happens to someone.”  The teacher smiled broadly, nodded, and said “That’s it exactly – at the very basic level, the essence of a story is action.”

So what was the best way to tell a particular story, to describe that action?  Over the next several years I read a lot about point of view – mostly looking at first person and third person, and what were the advantages and limitations of each.  First person is confined to the thoughts of the narrator.  Third person can either be omniscient – using the thoughts of all of the characters, or limited – using the thoughts of one character’s mind. After I experimented with point of view, it became apparent that it depended on the story.

Years later I wrote about a time my Dad’s life when he disappeared for a year, worked the wheat harvest, had a spiritual experience in the process.  He returned a changed man.  After his death I realized I’d never asked him what happened.  I started with the part I knew, leading into what might have taken place later.  I decided to make it a novel, and chose the third person omniscient viewpoint.  I wrote in a more detached style, which allowed me the distance to step back and imagine the events objectively.  I could speak from the perspective of various characters as needed.

When the story was about me, “something that happens to someone” still held true.  Something had happened that I wanted to share, and decided to write about it in depth.  Not an original concept.  Many people have written a memoir for that very reason.  The first person viewpoint had an immediacy that helped me capture the emotions and experience of the moment.  I wrote about the events surrounding the time of my father’s death 17 years ago.

I knew what happened, and had journalled extensively about it at the time.  There was plenty of fodder to refresh my memory of the events.  As I wrote I fell into the mode of  “I did this, that happened, I felt this about it, I experienced, and then next I …”  I was in the middle of the events, with no psychic distance.  To tell that particular story, I needed to be that close.  Yet as I wrote, I could feel the events at a physical level.  My heart raced as I felt unsafe when that strange person entered the room.  I smelled the coffee I drank in a restaurant as I chronicled my feelings in a notebook. I felt the heat of Houston on a muggy afternoon in October; heard leaves blowing in the breeze that only stirred up the heat without relief.

Even more happened.  I had never written down everything that took place the week my Dad died.  I heard the jangle as the phone rang; heard my sister say “better come home, Dad is dying.”  I sat in a darkened airplane and wrote brief notes in a small notebook “it’s too soon, I’m not ready for this.”  I walked up to a hospital at night in Tulsa, wondering if it was just my imagination because of the lights, or was this huge building really pink?” (I saw it the next day, and sure enough – it was pink.)

I looked down at my father lying in a hospital bed with a tube down his throat, barely heard the nurse saying he was already functionally gone, and the machines were keeping him alive.  I returned to the room after the machines had been turned off, and his breathing had stopped.  I stroked my father’s forehead, something I never would have dared if he were alive.  I walked into to the “Grief Room” at the hospital, where no one was attending to the needs of my family, sitting and crying all alone.  I pushed down my feelings because someone had to make funeral arrangements, and the task fell on me.

Later in the week, I visited his office at the hospital, heard his boss describe how he had spent his last several years helping others.  I drove just outside Tulsa and walked across his 5 acre pecan orchard, then used his chain saw to cut down a couple of dead trees, a project he and I had shared.  I sat at the dinner table at my parent’s house and went through my parent’s financial papers to reassure my Mom.  I stepped out in front of a packed church to deliver his eulogy.

Of course it was cathartic to write down those experiences – isn’t that one of the biggest benefits of memoir?  I felt the events, experienced them in a deeper way than before, and could release some of the emotional charge they contained.

As the memoir continued I wrote about the events after my Dad died.  I met with a minister to discuss an reservoir of old anger I had discovered – anger at my Dad, anger at God.  I dreamed a man was chasing me with a gun.  I did an inner child exercise, and remembered a violent incident with my Dad when I was a teenager.  Then came some intense healing work.

I did an exercise to cut cords to the feelings I was carrying from generations of my family – an ancestral burden that had weighed me down greatly.  Many nights I released terror from the violent incident.  I relived the violent incident on a feeling level several times.   I wrote down ways I had changed, and burned the papers, to let go of who I used to be.  I dreamed that there was a tiger living in my house.  I knew it was my rage, and had to be dealt with.  I made a commitment to release that rage in safe ways.  There were a number of other healing experiences, and by the end of the memoir, it all led to a new sense of forgiveness for my father.  I wrote down my tremendous gratitude for the whole experience.

Then something happened which I hadn’t envisioned.  After I published the memoir, which I called Freedom’s Just Another Word, I had numerous people say they benefitted greatly from my experience, from reading about my journey and the steps I had taken to heal.  I was genuinely surprised.  I hadn’t seen that coming, but was delighted that it happened.  That was not the reason for the memoir – it just was something I needed to do.  For me it was an enormously healing process.   But if writing a memoir could yield additional rewards like that – helping other people heal and grow – then it was a huge success.

 Originally Published in Laura Schultz Now

Photo Credits:

“Good Question” e-magic @Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

leaves in the wind: jans canon @flickr.com.  Creative Commons.  Some rights reserved.

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My grandmother was thrilled that I was stopping by the church on my way home from school.

It was 1968, and my Mom, my sisters and I had moved back to Fort Worth and were living with my grandmother.  My Dad had disappeared after his drinking had bottomed out.  We didn’t know where he was.  I was going to Paschal High School, where my parents and several cousins had gone to school.  Fort Worth was home and family, and yet I was terribly disoriented.  I had grown up in a small town in Northwest New Mexico called Farmington, and had expected to graduate from high school there.  When the drinking unraveled our world, I was suddenly thrust into Paschal as a new kid, something I had never experienced.  I’d made some friends through the church, but I was still shell shocked – I thought it was from the sudden relocation.  I was to discover 20 years later I was in shock also because of some violence that had occurred with my Dad just before we moved out of the house.

The church was right next to the high school, on the way home as I was walking home from school, so it was convenient to stop by.  Several of my new friends went by as well, and it was a safe place to be.  My grandmother was a staunch Methodist, had been all her life, and was delighted to see my new found interest in church.  If it was church, it didn’t matter what you were doing, as long as you were there.  Which, as it turns out, was a good thing.

Upstairs, they had set up a youth area, and it included a pool table.  Somehow I never got around to mentioning that to my grandmother.  A group of us would hang out and play pool for a couple of hours before supper.  It was a great time, and helped me bond with this new group of people I had met.  Sunday mornings we had one of our youth Sunday School classes in this room.  Then Sunday Night we met in this same room for Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) and would have discussions about a wide range of topics.  So that room had a really comfortable feel – it was like my new home – and I was glad to have that stability with all the changes that had happened in my life.

The other thing that I got to do after school was visit with the youth minister.  He was a really great guy.  His name was Richard, and he said he was from Kings County in New York City – so he had the accent.  He was Italian – so he had a bit of that accent.  And he had been in Texas for a number of years, so the flavor of that accent was creeping in.  It made for an interesting accent stew.  He once told us he had stopped watching The Untouchables because they kept having his relatives on the show.  He said it with a straight face, and I never had the nerve to ask if he was serious or joking.

Richard was also a big guy – as I remember he went around 6 foot 4, and about 250 pounds.  Our big bonding experience with him had been when we went on a retreat to the Methodist Camp down at Glen Rose, Texas.  There was a river running behind the camp, and we had threatened for weeks to dunk him in it.  When it came time for the event, it was like a bunch of mosquitoes bouncing off an elephant.  We were knee deep in the river, surrounding him, and the six of us weren’t even coming close to knocking him down.  He’d just laugh as we pulled on his arm, or wound ourselves around his leg.  Finally I think he saw that he was wearing us out, and gave us a break, letting us pull him down so that he was sitting in the water.  Great victory for us, but he was just that kind of guy.

Then we did a Christmas play that holiday season, and Richard directed.  It was some odd story about aliens coming to earth and learning about God through our holiday experiences.  One of my buddies was supposed to say the line “tending the sheep and milking the cows.”  But in rehearsal, he kept saying “tending the cows, and milking the sheep,” and the visual of that cracked us up every time.  By the time of the performance, we were all waiting for it, and when he blew the line, the whole cast was barely able to keep from falling down with laughter.

Now that I think about it, just being at that church for a year before I went off to college, I had some really great experiences, and bonded with some neat people.  Today I have lunch occasionally with one of the guys who helped dunk Richard in the river, and still talk to another one.  It was a solid and healing time.

But the most memorable – and healing – part of it all was talking to Richard in his office after school.  It would be after the group had broken up from playing pool, or maybe if no one else had showed up, which happened sometimes.  He and I would sit in his office and visit.  I felt a hurt down deep in my gut that I couldn’t explain, and would never have dared to try to talk to someone about it.  For some reason, in our family, you just didn’t do that.  But I think Richard sensed something.  He would talk with me very lovingly and sympathetically.  Almost like he was talking to a wounded person – which he was, not physically, but emotionally.  I couldn’t tell him about the emotional wounds – I didn’t know they were there until many years later.  But I could talk about my feelings and misgivings about church, and my faith.

I had attended church since I was a child, but had never really been able to connect with what went on there.  Something was holding me back.  Now it had gotten to the point where I went to the Sunday morning service only if we couldn’t find a way to sneak out to the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street and hang out until it was over.  But talking with Richard was different – the way he talked, I got it.  I shared some of my doubts, and admitted I just really didn’t know much about it.  When I sat in Sunday School, I didn’t really get much out of it – the lessons just didn’t grab my attention.  It was like they were talking about things foreign to me.  They would talk in abstract concepts that didn’t give me anything to hold on to, so my mind would drift a lot.

Richard didn’t berate me for that, but seemed to understand.  He gave me a copy of the New Testament called “Good News For Modern Man.”  It was more in an informal, conversational language, and much easier to read than the older translations used during lessons.  I took heart – I felt like I was really getting somewhere.

But more than that, I felt a safety and warmth from Richard – which I’d never experienced around a grown man before.  (He was all of 22, but that was really old at the time.)  He gave me a reason to want to try to listen, to try to understand.  Being in his presence was very calming and healing.

I went off to college, and didn’t see much of Richard.  I went by his new church once and visited, and he was delighted to see me, and we visited for a while.  I caught him up on my life, and I tried to express how important he had been to me.  Then he moved to a church in another town, and I lost track of him.

Richard passed away last fall.  They were to have the funeral at the church he had started in Fort Worth.  I went by the funeral home to the viewing, and was startled at how upset I was at seeing him lying there.  He was an important part of my healing process, and I am forever grateful for everything he gave me.  But most of all, for the safety – the safety to say I didn’t understand church, and have him quietly nod his head, instead of chiding me for not getting it right.  Thank you Richard!

 

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