Convergence (continued.)

It is still my biggest challenge  in storytelling that I cannot select the *perfect* words for a given tale and be done with my work on it. The work is the continual internalization of the story (ostensibly in images– which I’ve learned is not my first language) in such a way that I will feel confident to convey the heart of the story, whether or not I use my most-favorite words.

Of course, between my love for precision, and my gift (I have to call it that, I didn’t earn it) of memorization, I find myself with the impulse to “cram” before every presentation, latching on to my favorite phrases like handfuls of candy, hoping the corner of a wrapper will be enough to hold on to this precious sweetness until I can share it with someone who’s never tasted it before.

From then on, with each day that passed, as the black serpents grew stronger, nourished by their ghastly food, Zohak grew ever more hardened, becoming more cruel and ambitious.

“I have seen the world, Rabbi, and I know that God cannot be here.”

“What would God have to do,” asked the rabbi, “to prove Himself to you, young Chiam who has seen so much of the world?”

“He would have to make a wonder, Rabbi. God would have to make a wonder.”

For all her joy and relief she was near tears.

Every time I tell a story, it is a surrender to imperfection. Not because I’m sloppy or don’t care enough, but because every live performance contains variables, and aside from memorizing the entire piece I can’t guarantee how exactly it will go.

Surrender to imperfection.

Accepting my limits, and believing that the story itself is more important than flawless delivery, as if it could be spoken as poetry.

It reminds me of a G.K. Chesterton quote, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

I latched on to that saying in the beginning of my fight against crippling perfectionism.

Now I’m just a perfectionist. Or maybe I have perfectionism, like most people get the common cold. It can be an irritation, a distraction from the simple experience and enjoyment of life. It reminds me that failure is all around me, like dog poop, just waiting to be stepped in if I don’t pay close attention to every. single. step.

The difference between this and crippling perfectionism is that I’m no longer afraid of scraping dog poo off my shoe. It’s disappointing, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing, but it’s not the end of the world. Or even the walk.

That said, I’m not bad at storytelling. A number of people tell me I’m quite good. And everyone should know that the vast majority of stories don’t take themselves so seriously that they are massively improved upon memorization. I think my impulse to memorization is tied to my drive for perfection. There’s a competitive element in my nature that wants to get everything “correct” and that element is tangled with an instinct that sees being right as a sort of armor.

Precision as armor is definitely a hold-over attitude from my journalism mind. When I’m writing about something that could make people uncomfortable (especially if they might feel the need to pass that discomfort on to me), getting all my facts/quotes/statistics accurate is the best way I know to shield myself.

Uncertainty feels like liability.

Uncertainty = liability is a crippling mindset to bring into either noveling or storytelling.

In noveling, this shows up as the critical editor, mocking or damning material before it is evaluation-time, squelching the baby bird of a rough draft rather than letting it hatch, breaking itself free with the muscles that must be developed by the fight of its escape. The critical editor’s voice might purport to try and help open the egg, but most often it is too clumsy and can crush the shell while it challenges the blind and featherless life inside to prove its right to exist.

In storytelling, this crippling mindset demands a perfection in practice that is not possible before practice. One of the great paradoxes of learning a story is you always have to start before you’re ready. Ultimately, to make a story mine, I have to step away from carving filigree, from expecting the tools of noveling (falling in love with whole paragraphs of beautiful prose), and start making my story selections based on their content, rather than the poetry in the pen of the collector.

In storytelling, as with noveling and my non-fiction work, the key seems to be know and choosing what’s important to me. Once that core is in place I have the motivation that leads to the attention-span that results in quality work.

I’m still figuring out which tools are best for which area, but recognizing a) different forms thrive in difference circumstances, and b) it makes sense that my __________ muscles will get fatigued through prolonged use, I’m learning to trust my instincts. Which, considering I’ve only acknowledged them for the last five years or so, is an encouraging point of growth.

The Convergence of Expertise

It started out badly enough: a journalism background muddying the waters of my novel-creating.

My scrupulosity — the need to cite/confirm/reality-check everything — was getting in the way of just creating a high-stakes story.

I eventually separated that (in my head) by pretending I was one of those high-output authors who just roll with the story and write it as it comes, waiting till the story is done (and someone complains that it doesn’t work) before seriously considering that something is weird or unrealistic.

Last I checked, a lot of the reason people read is the alternative from reality. (As long as it supports their core view of reality — but that’s another conversation.)

Then, just a couple weeks ago, I shifted from a word-glut of novel-production (that is NaNoWriMo) to prepare for a sudden opportunity to bring storytelling into a local middle school.

And discovered another level of complexity.

It makes me think of the red Snap-On toolbox my dad used for his work as a mechanic in the first half of my growing-up years.

The thing was taller than me (with drawers that slid beautifully smooth, and a satisfying solidity that let one bang the drawer shut  for clangs upon clunks as the tools collided at closing), and no matter how full it got, it never ceased to amaze me that a) more might fit or b) more were needed at all.

Eventually I learned about metric vs. empirical measurements, and the need (essentially) to double ones tool stash in order to best interact with different systems.

Add a third measurement system (tonakle?) and you start to see the convergence of journalism, noveling and storytelling.

All require similar skills, and understandings of a fairly consistent process or structure: Problems – real, natural, or created – are encountered, and decisions must be made and/or consequences ensue. That is the core of everything I deal in.

But journalism (what I began with my formal, college degree) uses what I would call the empirical system. It is (sometimes) less elegant, but definitely complete and logical. And (having the advantage of being brought up in the system), it feels as natural as any externally prescribed system to label the world I’m interacting with.

Words themselves are a system of labels, and God knows I’m comfortable with those.

Noveling, as I encounter and interact with it, is more like the metric system. Decidedly more elegant than raw journalism, “literature in a hurry,” noveling gets to make sense (in fact, most readers demand it).

Mark Twain is attributed with this gem: “Of course life is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

Sense and symmetry in journalism is like the beauty in nature as distinguished from the beauty in human-created art; it most-emphatically exists, but we don’t generally get to choose when.

That said, just like a good photographer can bring meaning and (through that) beauty with the angle of a lens, in the way s/he chooses to frame an image of reality, just so a journalist can seek or distill beauty from a hard place.

Noveling has the freedom to be deliberately beautiful, a freedom that can become a beloved obligation.

I’ve made peace with that. I’m wresting into cooperation my two major art forms of the last 13 years.

And then, Storytelling.

Orally. Out loud, in front of an audience: attentive or indifferent, it doesn’t matter.

Let me rephrase that: It most-definitely makes a difference how engaged the audience is, but my job doesn’t change. If I was more of an expert, I might feel more of an obligation to make sure the audience was connected, no matter what.

At my current level of skill, my focus must still be on the story as much as the audience, and if this particular story doesn’t connect with an individual, all I ask from that listener is a quiet patience till the end where you’ll soon get the chance to try an alternative on for size.

Storytelling is another animal altogether.

It has the requirements of the novel:

  • It must entertain, or why will anyone listen?
  • It has elegance and symmetry, because those are ingredients of beauty as well as aids to memory

But it also reminds me of journalism, because the stories tend to be short and spare– a description that invokes a reaction, not necessarily because of the exact words chosen (since the piece is seldom memorized) but primarily because of the content itself.

When I talk about massive snakes growing out of a man’s shoulders (something, in all my years of folklore I’d never seen before this story), people react. And why wouldn’t they? The original teller told it to get a reaction, and so do I.

That is the work of every journalist, every novelist and every storyteller. To grab the imagination of that consumer of our words.

Ah, but the means.

Knowing the difference between the systems has become so important. This is where the tools can start to slip, or have to be held so carefully in order not to strip the useful edges and angles from what we’re working on.

Life & Fiction: Grieving Through Fiction

I love how this column I wrote a month ago teams so nicely with the poems I posted last week. I was thankful to have a friend staying with me while Jay traveled, because there is heaviness in writing hard things. She was a loving presence that kept me company as I read my words about losing friends to distance.

She listened with respect and intensity, letting me try the words aloud, never commenting on the meaning-obscuring fog in my voice. Then said the last thing I would have guessed.

“That sounds so sad [a word that I later realized I never actually used in the original article]. I’ve never known anything like that.”

I might have laughed (cheeks still tear-damp from reading). I hope I said, “I’m glad for you.” What I remember is being glad for the shift in me, to speak openly and let the tears fall without apology.

Tears really are a gift.  And so are good, good friends.

In grade school, I read the book Bridge to Terabithia, a story that has been called a modern-day-classic by some, which basically means enough people were surprised by a book they discovered themselves that they insisted other people read it as well.

It is a story about loss. It was written by Katherine Paterson, in response to her son’s grief when he lost his best friend at a young age. I cried when I read that book.

I cried like I didn’t know I was allowed to. My mom did the right thing. She redirected my siblings, held them off. She let me cry.

But I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. I thought this kind of emotional reaction was wrong. The story wasn’t real. The people I mourned with never existed. I didn’t understand this empathetic sadness, and it scared me.

From then on, I spent most of my conscious reading and movie-watching avoiding anything that might invoke a similarly intense response.

I forgot that I’d ever cried at a story. I prided myself at having a firm grasp on reality and separating myself from the sentimentality of those lumpy, leaky women who cried at weddings. Who cried even at movies with weddings in them.

Then, in 2006, fewer than three months after my youngest child was born, my dear-friend grandmother died.

Later that year I read The Thirteenth Tale, and I cried. I didn’t even identify that closely with much in the story, but I cried hard.

I began to consider that tears might not always be about exactly what started us crying.

Penelope Trunk, a career coach and blogger, once said something that I’ve co-opted in the paraphrase: “PMS is your body telling you to cry about the stuff you’ve been ignoring all month.”

This is beautiful and freeing because it starts by assigning value to the tears: the stressors that break us open, showing what’s inside, did not create the emotion in some mysterious alchemy. The reality has always been there.


Read the rest at



Busy Mind, Busy Life (Reading Notes)

Image courtesy of Timo Balk via stock.xchng

Jay got home Friday after a month away.

I’m starting to feel re-stablized, and ready to pick up whole books again. But this has been an interesting month of idea collecting (along with overwhelm…).

Every now-and-then I think I might start an INFJ blog, but then I do a bit of Googling and see there’s scads out there, and they make me notice more of my ENTP side, so I refrain from publicly claiming a “type” anymore.

For the most part.

But, for all you intuitive types who find yourself stuck between the “real world” of details and the “more equal” world of your thoughts and discoveries I will give you a peek into some of what my month of (blogging) silence has been steeped in.

It always seems like a crazy-huge variety while I’m reading and collecting, but sitting down in the (relative) peace and quiet of a school-isn’t-started-yet morning, I find a few broad headings can umbrella the frequent settings of my thoughts.

Even so, rabbit-trail chasers: you’ve been warned.

Body Thoughts

Writing Thoughts

Thoughts on Story/telling

Thoughts on Being/Belief/Behavior

From Sarah Bessey: We use words like “true” and “real” in reference to womanhood or motherhood or marriage, and I think it’s wrong to do this.

We use these words like they are freeing or universal or helpful, but they are forging new chains for a new law.  There is no such thing as “real” woman or a “real” man. If you are a man, you are a real man. If you are a woman, you are a real woman.

In an Unspoken Voice is based on the idea that trauma is neither a disease nor a disorder, but rather an injury caused by fright, helplessness and loss that can be healed by engaging our innate capacity to self-regulate high states of arousal and intense emotions.

Such an encouraging, hope-offering thought.

Thoughts on Book-Reading

I’ve signed up for Net Galley‘s reading & reviewing program, so I’m excited to make Reading Notes a more consistent feature here at Untangling Tales. My favorite non-fiction titles are about mental and physical health, and how they intersect with every-day life. The fact that these books are being written, and that they’re available to me = lots of warm-fuzzies.

Life & Fiction: Pick a Genre

Life & Fiction is my monthly column at Wyn Magazine where I apply my experience with Story, reading, and the writing life to the broader goal of mindful, healthy living.

When you go to counseling for the first time, it’s useful—for you and the therapist—to know why.

If you have something specific that drove you to counseling, it can help direct the beginning of your time together. The focus may change, but it’s a starting place.

I think of it as giving yourself a genre to work from.

In literature, or at least, in submitting a book for publication, you need to get more specific than “Dystopian-Paranormal-Fantasy-Romance with SciFi elements and a Chick Lit feel.” I can already imagine the type of novel that would fit that description, and I think it would be crazy-fun to write, but a bookstore, and therefore a publisher, will have to ask, “Where it would be shelved?”

In the same way, recognizing your issue down to a very finite level will probably give you a great deal of personal relief and even satisfaction, but being too specific will also limit the type of help you may receive.


Wyn is Live!

It is with great delight that I announce and present the first issue of a new online publication.From the About page:

Wyn is an online magazine focused on providing resources and hope for mental and emotional healing. Each month’s issue has a specific theme that runs through all the articles. Articles and columns are published every-other-day or so throughout the month. To receive one email a week with the latest stories and news, sign up for the Wyn Weekly Newsletter in the upper right corner of the site.

The name Wyn is from the Old English rune that later became “w.” The word “wyn” means “joy/delight/pleasure” in Old English. The goal of Wyn Magazine is to help bring joy to women who have lost hope.

After Managing Editor Becky Castle Miller and Associate Editor Amy Jane Helmericks went through different experiences with depression, they talked about the resources they wished they’d had for themselves…and decided to create those for other women. The idea (and name) for Wyn came together in December 2011, starting a two-year project assembling a global team of writers, designers, and photographers. Wyn officially launched in June 2013.

Becky emailed me with great intensity (if you can accept that as a combination) toward the end of November 2011. Four hours ahead on the East Coast, she wanted to set up a mutually kidless time to talk about an idea.

Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m all about talking ideas, but we’re talking the end of November (days away from my third win in NaNoWriMo). I hesitated just enough for her to remember my near-goal and reschedule for December 1.

During that phone conversation we entered into hope and delight and concrete planning that tied to our strengths in a way that the world of dirty dishes and dirty diapers just couldn’t touch.

I don’t know about Becky, but for me the fit and the energy seemed too deep to be real. But there’s something true about speaking reality into life.

Becky and I talked about creation and consistency and content and sparked this hunger that we might have an opportunity to spare other women the confusion and isolation we experienced as we struggled for language and right-response to this unfamiliar entity called depression.

Becky’s years of traveling as a military kid and facility on the internet made her the hub of our writing and photography pool. My intensity, love for words, and impulse for instant-feedback (or maybe Becky can say the real reasons?) combined with hers to move us forward.

All the delight and hope-of-purpose suggested by our initial conversation has persisted. There is something ineffably rich about participating in a project so perfectly aligned with one’s natural gifts and natural brokenness.

Life & Fiction: The Power of Naming

Life & Fiction is my monthly column at Wyn Magazine where I apply my experience with Story, reading, and the writing life to the broader goal of mindful, healthy living.

Names have power.

It’s a consistent story element across cultures and epochs.

Possessing someone’s True Name gives you power over him or her.

Guarding your True Name, or sharing it, is an important part of either protecting yourself or expressing your trust in another person.

In the Bible, the first man, Adam, is told to name the creatures, and there are those who tie this naming to the position of authority he was given in the created order.

Real-world parallels I can imagine are all the TV shows, movies, and novels where protecting (or discovering) the cover identities of secret agents is the core goal.

The name for anything is a word, and words hold power as well.

Words are one of the few tools we humans have for imposing order on the world around us. (There are other tools of course, such as numbers, but I must leave the treatments of those to other types of souls.)

Once we’ve named something, we’ve put it in its place. We’ve laid the foundation for how we will interact with it, how we will treat it. A word gives shape to the liquid intangibility of feeling and experience. A word is a vessel for truth and connection.

Using words to describe an emotion (or jumble of emotions) moves our experience of that emotion from the reaction parts of the brain (amygdala and hippocampus) and into the part of the brain where all of our “grown up” thinking happens (the frontal cortex).  This is where we want to be making decisions from.

The emotions don’t completely migrate; you don’t necessarily stop feeling angry, afraid, or grief-stricken, but through naming, you enter a process that allows you to move from feeling helpless into a place where you might be able to take action.

(Read the rest at

Real-World Magic: Not Speaking

Image courtesy of ACSelcuk via stock.xchng

Someday, I really hope that I write a serious essay on the existence– or at least the definition– of different types of magic.

Today I’ve settled for discussing the first on my mental list: Spells of Silence.

Those exasperating moments when the story is extended by a piece of information coming out a moment (it’s always just a moment) too late.

Let me begin here: Fairy tale silences are beginning to make a lot more sense to me.

How many people, today or at any time in history, have been trained to explain what they can’t explain?

Can you imagine saying, “I’m under a spell, dear, and if you see me in my human form, I’ll have to go off and marry an ugly troll princess.”

I mean, I am one of the most articulate, word-ready people I know (Sorry if that sounds bad, it’s just true), and I have found myself mute in the face of certain circumstances, certain people.

This even comes after years of practice talking about how confused I am, or how I don’t have the words for something. In those situations I would keep talking (or journaling) until I reached some kind of coherence, or at least the next action point.

That was when I didn’t understand fairy tale silences.

Image courtesy of Michael & Christa Richert via stock.xchng

But something changed with the depression. I wonder at times (in the present) if I would have had some kind of help–more help– if I had tried harder to say how broken I was.

For the most part I kept quiet, because I didn’t have any better ideas to give people to give me, and I was pretty sure that criticism without offering alternatives was shameful. That was complaining and it  recalled countless references over the years to “the children of Israel” after they’d been led out of Slavery in Egypt.

“Here they’d had so great a deliverance and now they were complaining about the food?”

I had little to give in terms of nurturing energy, and I imagined that I was caring for others by keeping the weight of my problems off of them.  It made me feel nobler or more generous in my isolation and loneliness.

Image courtesy of Michaela Kobyakov via stock.xchng

I’ve since learned that “Self-blame is a symptom of the disease [of depression]:” That “people feel ashamed of being depressed, they feel they should snap out of it, they feel weak and inadequate. Of course [they do:] these feelings are symptoms of the disease.”

And these symptoms all go a long way to keeping us shut up.

Continue reading »

Speaking Practice #1: Start as You Mean to Go On

I gave my first speech at Toastmasters today.

Posting here at UT will probably be limited to speech-topics and/or the speeches themselves while I push through this speaking track. (There are 10 speeches in the first book, and my goal is to do one/week as long as the children are still in school.)

Part of what I find interesting about this start is comparing it to the first time I gave an “Icebreaker” speech.

It was literally my first blog post, almost 7 years ago. It had three precise points, and a reasonable structure. This one dismisses the possibility from the very beginning.

I started blogging at the same time I (tried) to start speaking, and blogging is what stuck. Instead of wondering what to get up and say, I made notes, some of them incredibly short, of complete thoughts.

I got used to “capturing” ideas. And organizing them (somewhat) and presenting them. Continue reading »

To the Pure all Things are Pure

Or, to be less poetic, Who you are will direct what you see.

Some years ago I was in a storytelling workshop where we analyzed and discussed a Native American tale.

In it a girl sleeps beside a lake no one is supposed to visit alone.  A snake comes out of the lake and impregnates her.  When her pregnancy begins to show, the other villagers drive her into the wilderness. It is there that Lightning, the shining daughter of the old man of the mountain, finds her and brings her home.

The girl ends up marrying Lightning’s brother, Thunder, and after the young woman has his baby she wishes to take the child back to her village to show him off.

When she returns she tells the villagers who had been so unkind about her new family. They are fearful of her powerful new relations, but she tells them not to be afraid, because they are all family now.

It was a fabulous example of how much story can be crammed into few words (the original was less than half a page), and we spent a fair amount of time with it, discussing images, motifs and how one might learn to tell the story.

My favorite part of it all was the ending, I felt it was a wonderful picture of forgiveness and reconciliation.  I thought it was beautiful how the girl was able to forgive her home village and be happy after her tragedies.

I said so, and another woman present looked at me as if I had three heads.

That’s not the way she saw it at all.

“I thought it was about getting revenge.  You know, ‘Don’t be afraid of the storm’ so they’ll be careless and get zapped by it.”

And I’m sure I gaped.