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.


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 »

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.

Hurt People Hurt People

It’s not an excuse or a justification.

It’s simply a fact.

As a creator of fiction, one of my jobs is to make a story make sense.

At times I’m sure this is my primary motivation for writing: to have a place where stories make sense. As in, now.

Villains aren’t just evil to make life difficult for the main character; that’s too narrow a purpose. That’s living for someone else, and far too selfless for the best villains as I imagine them.

~ ~ ~

Antagonist is a more broadly applicable word than villain.

Most of us will not encounter a terrifying villain, in the same way that most of us will not change the world in any masses-remembered way.

I’m just talking statistics here. How many people do you remember of the billions that have come before?

It’s a math thing, not a despair thing.

And many, many people face villains the way that many people make a difference in a way known only to few.

How widely something is known does not change the power or significance of what we experience.

Antagonists may be out specifically to hurt us, for reasons of their own, or they may simply be thinking of themselves, pursuing their own goals, and we get run over in the process.

I highly doubt the individual who stole my iPhone last week heard my nutrition talk, took personal offense at my content or my speaking style and decided to take my phone to spite me.

Far more likely is the scenario when s/he saw the cracked thing in its dirty case, unattended, and decided it was worth taking.

Really it had nothing to do with me, personally, but it has seriously disrupted my life, and disappointed me (in no small measure because it was taken at a gathering of Christians).

Yes we’re allowed to be disappointed. That we’re warned doesn’t mean our feelings and reactions are tied.

What we’re left with is how we will respond to the hurt that comes into our lives.

Because if we’ve been hurt, we have hurt other people.

This is really hard to think about when we’ve been hurt really badly.

We see and feel our own hurt, and depending on many things, our own hurt can be big enough that it fills up all our available vision.

We might not see what we are doing to others, and what’s even sadder, we might not care.

The reason I call this even sadder is that this attitude (I’ve been hurt so much I shouldn’t have to be careful.) frequently drives the next iteration of wounding.

The fact is, we’re all hurt. And that ties us to the truth that we have hurt others.  May still be in the process of hurting others.

And ignoring this reality won’t make it go away.

Two responses I see are necessary: awareness and humility.

Continue reading »

Getting Personally Practical

Sometimes I think the reason I continually return to the idea of Storytelling is because I am looking for ways to  tie my story-compulsive brain back to my real life as the dedicated mother of three brilliant, sensitive children who need me to be connected to them.

So, with this in mind, yesterday I engaged my imagination as if my real life were a novel.

That is, I threw back to my earliest memories (sorry-in-advance to the loving adults in my world; this is not a reflection on you) and looked for concrete things that made me feel less, to feel insecure.

This was genuinely not a pity party. I was looking for specific ways I might be missing to affirm and encourage my kids. I think it could be a useful tool for any parent, I just applied it first in my writing, because that’s where it came naturally.

We had just had a tragedy that resulted in Melody *certain* she needed a band-aid, and as I did not share her certainty, I delayed my verdict to finish my task.

As I wrapped up, I had this memory of feeling completely useless.  Unnecessary.

All my life– including now– I have been surrounded by amazingly competent people.  And all my life– including now– I’ve had a painfully accurate awareness of how small my contribution is in ratio to the needs around me.

*Unnecessary* is a terrible thing for any child to feel.

I was on to the next project before I remembered I’d gone soft and decided to get a band-aid.  So, stopping when Melody walked by (and secretly hoping she’d noticed the interruption so I’d get Attentiveness points) I invited her back to the First-Aid basket where we bandaged her wound.

Continue reading »

What is a Real Story?

Because a site like this that takes the word Story as a proper noun really ought to have such an important term defined.

Story is not a cute (or obscene) something someone said.  It is not a physical object.

A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Becky is always quoting Donald Miller’s definition at me:

A story is just a person that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

Antoinette Botsford, in a workshop here in Fairbanks some years back, offered a memorable formula with the letters P.P.P.O., asserting this (short list of four elements) is the test to distinguish a true story from a mere anecdote.

An anecdote can be entertaining and can be valuable, but a group of words is not a story unless it contains a person, a place, a problem and an outcome.

 The basic story formula I heard James Scott Bell use  is:

Chase a man up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down again

My main problem with this format is that I never could figure out why someone would end up in a tree, just to get rocks thrown at him.  So I’m always looking for motivation or reasons behind the “had to happen for a plot-point” stuff.

Could be why I’m drawn to folktales, to expand or find the why of what is required within that story.

Ultimately, I think a real story is about change.

It may be growth or atrophy, hard or harder, but if the characters are all the same as they were in the beginning, we have not experienced a story, just a storm.

My Favorite-Folktale Formula

So I’ve been looking for a shorthand/formula for m-o-n-t-h-s now, and finally sat down and created one out of the tales I constantly return to.  And it works!  Made it very clear which elements do and don’t belong in *this* novel.

I started by analyzing favorite Beauty and the Beast and Iron John variants, then compiled a structure/format that also fit other tales

  • The Ebony Horse
  • East of the Sun, West of the Moon
  • The Lindorm King (of course)
  • The Lady and the Lion
  • “A Flowering Tree” (basically a pre-marital counseling session wrapped in a folktale. I might be able to write this novel in my 50s)

This covers pretty much all the complex tales I am drawn to, showing relationship development (usually in a nutshell), and allowing both the man and the woman to think and affect their “destinies.”

  1. Opening state.  Usually there are some inherent qualities of the MC
    1. Birth; e.g. royalty, other significant parentage (optional)
    2. Attitude; which attitude depends on the needs of the story
  2. Other intrudes
    1. Does M.C. notice?
    2. How does M.C.respond? Acceptance (in this model), but how?
      1. reluctantly?
      2. with fear?
      3. innocence/naivety?
  3. Physical separation from the known
    1. Frequently this includes an emotional connection with a former stranger
    2. If the emotional connection is skipped/missed there are deeper regrets and pain in the next step
  4. Physical separation from the new known
    1. Opportunity for character discovery- self and/or others
    2. Journey to return
      1. Sometimes a series of tasks/helpers to process
      2. often anguish of seeing things changed while gone
  5. The closing FIND, usually with a final twist that is victory beyond mere achievement.

I like how this formula isn’t as complex as Campbell’s Journey of the Hero, and provided me with a structure to look at individual story lines for each major character.

I’ve not much liked how many steps there were to keep up with in the Hero’s journey, and how some authors feel it’s so central/clever that they’ll over-work a story to fit it.

And it always seemed a waste of time to “reject the call.”

Continue reading »