The Crafty Life Writer

(Zoom Xplore Talk: October 15, 2020)

Welcome to our third session of “Life Sentences: Writing for Yourself and Others.” In the interval since we last met, those of us here in Canada have taken time for our annual observation of Thanksgiving, a time when we pause to remember the bounty that we enjoy and the responsibility we have to share with others less fortunate. 

I took time to review the “Living with Gratitude” Writing Activity that I created some weeks ago. It was a good reminder of ways to practice gratitude for all that God has given me, including the generous gift of years and our ability to recall both personal experiences and family heritage.

Also in the interval, several of you have written to me, indicating that you are actively engaged in the writing. I’m pleased to know that and it’s my hope and goal that these Zoom sessions together and the resource material on the web-site will help all of us to recall our life experiences, to reflect on them, and to record them in a way that we find satisfying.

I have taken time as well to review what each of you has said you hope to get from this brief course. I can list those points in four categories:

1) To Get Motivated

Most of us are quite disciplined in taking on assigned tasks that come with our jobs or family, church and community commitments. And most of us do not hesitate to attend to the needs of others. But we may find it harder to get started if the focus seems to be on just ourselves. It might seem too self-centred, even narcissistic. I’ll be speaking further about this in Session 5.

2) To Understand the Rationale for writing about oneself

In part, this relates to the question of motivation and discipline. If we don’t see a real point in writing about our life, we’re not likely to do it. That has led me, in these Zoom sessions, to devote considerable attention to the WHY. 

  • In Session 1, I spoke about how life writing can be a way of stepping back to remember the richness, goodness and completeness our own unique story. Writing about our life can help us to understand it as a good story and to find greater meaning in it. 

Of course, there are competing stories in our society and, if we don’t have clarity on our own, we can be unduly influenced by them

  • Last week, in Session 2, I talked about Writing for Discovery—writing as an evaluative act that can help us bring to our society a corrective 2020 Vision. I focused, in particular, on five types of “stories of hope.” 
  • In the weeks ahead, we’ll continue to explore the rationale for sharing in writing what we have experienced in life.

3) To Reflect on Life / To Leave a Legacy

  • Some of you already are writing down your stories for children, grandchildren and friends. And that is good.
  • Others of you want to start. And I sense that you are looking for stimulus and guidance. We will talk about “leaving a legacy” more specifically in Session 5: “A Call from the Future”

4) To Develop Skills

Each of the previous categories is about the WHY or WHAT of this course.

But the HOW also is very important. Last week, in addition to our consideration of “2020 Vision” and “Stories of Hope,” I had intended to speak about an important skill: the use of Scenes and Summaries. 

As often happens for me, in the first delivery of a course, I try to pack too much in. My aim is to balance the WHY and the WHAT with some treatment of the writing skills—the HOW. 

You may recall that the first skill we talked about, back in Session 1, was on writing as a process. The reality is that developing a course like this also is a process. During my classroom years, I developed a number of different courses and typically I found they went through a cycle. 

  • The first-delivery was exciting and filled with passion, but the course was still taking shape and we would have to make adjustments.
  • The second delivery often was more polished and had greater depth, but the pace tended to bog down with the additional detail. 
  • The third delivery usually achieved a balance between depth and breadth (and any of the subsequent deliveries tended to be similar). 

So, here we are…in a first-delivery. I can assure you that I am finding it fun and exciting. The landscape is new, and I hope that you will enjoy this ride together and that, as we near our destination, you will find yourself writing down memories and reflecting on them in ways you can share with family, friends and others.

Even so, you can think of this course as a “first-draft” and, like most first drafts, it will need changes along the way. One of those changes is in our focus this morning. I am going to defer until next week our consideration of Writing for Wholeness and Writing for Legacy for the week after that. 

What I had projected as our fifth session, one I had called “Keeping Time,” I am putting aside for another time. In its place this morning we will consider “The Crafty Life Writer.”  

Let me start with a personal story: Near the end of my teaching career I had a Grade 12 student in one of my English classes who I sometimes thought of as “Messy Mitchell.” Mitchell reminded me of that character in the Charlie Brown comic strip: PigPen. 

Only instead of dust and dirt, Mitchell seemed to attract paper. Bent, crumpled, or torn, it found its way into his notebook. Mitchell carried a tattered one-inch binder, bulging about three inches thick with papers of every sort. He was, to put it kindly, “organizationally challenged,” and I had made mention of it in my quarterly reports home.

At the end of the year, Mitchel presented me with a short video that he had filmed at home in his bedroom. His room looked as unkempt as the notebook. Yet, for all the apparent chaos, Mitchel knew where to find things. He had his teacher reports from Grade 1 on, mine included. He read through the recurrent comments:

  • Grade 1: “Mitchell needs to be more organized.”
  • Grade 2: “Mitchell lacks organizational skills.”
  • Grade 3: “Mitch has difficulty keeping his papers organized.”

And so on, all the way through Grade 12, with my comments echoing those of my predecessors. Then, Mitchell looked straight into the camera and said: “Mr. Danielson. You have all told me I need to be more organized. None of you has ever told me how!” 

That’s a painful moment of truth.

I try not to make the same mistake twice, so when I designed this course I thought much about the HOW as well as the WHY and WHAT of life writing. Exploring the HOW (the craft of writing) could be a year long study and we don’t have time for that. But I do want to highlight certain aspects. This morning we will consider the story-writing skills of creating scenes and summaries, developing characters, and depicting conflict.

In your statement of hopes and expectations for learning in this course, several of you mentioned the desire to gain new skills in self-expression, especially to be able to write in ways that are compelling and interesting for your children and others. It is a worthy goal and the Number 1 recommendation that I have is to learn to create both Scenes and Summaries. 

Over the years I’ve looked at many personal memoirs, and the vast majority of them tell the story of the person’s life, but do not show it. It’s a past-tense summary.  Of course, I’m still glad the person has written the account; that alone can be a huge achievement. 

Let me be clear: It’s better to write something than nothing, however you get it out and get it down. We still learn much, whether or not your writing is artful. But, if you want to make your story better—more interesting—you can do that by using Scenes as well as Summaries.

Just what is a “scene”?

The technical explanation is that it’s a small unit of action that takes your story forward by showing what happens rather than just telling you. It is set in a specific time and place. It has one or more characters and, in a life story, the main character would be you.  In a scene, you are trying to accomplish something—achieve a goal, satisfy a need, fulfill a desire. And there is problem, an obstacle, some kind of conflict. We’ll talk more about the conflict and you as the character in a few minutes. 

A scene is a basic building block in your story.  If you have ever written an essay you likely are familiar with a paragraph—a group of sentences organized around one main idea—sometimes called a “topic sentence.”  Your essay progresses from one idea to the next using “transitional” sentences. The paragraph structure is a building block in essay writing.

Similarly, in our story writing the basic building block is the scene. And the transition is called the summary. Structurally, these are the two heart beats in a story.

You may recall from your elementary school days an activity called “show and tell.” We held up an object and we talked about it.  As adults, writing stories, we still need to “show and tell.”  And often this is a challenge.

We tell stories all the time—in our conversations. There the showing part tends to be our hand gestures and facial expressions.  But you can take a dramatic or entertaining story that someone tells and record it and print it. The result will not be the same. In fact, it might seem quite boring. We have the telling—perhaps word-for-word—but we don’t have the showing. 

Probably the best way to get a sense of a Scene is to watch a movie. Movies tend to move from scene to scene to scene. Usually, you don’t have a narrator talking to you. Instead, you have characters interacting in a particular setting. There’s action—something happening. The main character needs or wants something and is trying to get it. And there is a problem, an obstacle, or at least a tension. A scene brings to your story vividness and a sense of immediacy.

On the website, in the second Writing Lesson (Making a Scene), you will find a couple of Sample Scenes and I refer you to those.  One of them is a scene I’ve taken from Betty Enns’ mission memoir Living Our Prayer. (I am grateful to Betty for her generous permission to use material from her work).  The sample scene from Living Our Prayer is from one of the early chapters. In that scene, there’s not a big problem or obstacle. It’s more of a tension. Betty and Bill are touring the MCC Centre which will be their new home in Lesotho. And from the start we sense from her description of the barred windows and heavy protective door that this may be a violent setting. 

In part, this is a “set-up” scene; we get a clear sense of the building’s layout. The “pay-off” scene comes later in Betty’s account of an armed home-invasion. In such an action scene, we don’t want to have to stop to explain the layout of the house.

In any scene, there’s also progression—something changes. We don’t always get what we want. Things don’t always turn out the way we hope and pray.  Sometimes in a scene, there’s considerable dialogue—people having conversations…or arguments. And usually there’s at least some description that gives us a sense of time and place. 

A scene takes longer to read, but it gives your reader a sense of being present in the story, caught up in the conflict and action and living through the experience with you.

In the illustration from Betty’s memoir, I’ve also shown how she might have told it as a Summary. Because ‘There is a time to show and a time to tell.’ If you are writing a play, a movie script, or a show for TV, all you have to work with are scenes. It’s all about showing. But in our writing there is a definite place for telling, for using the Summary. 

Like the transitional sentence in an essay, the Summary is a bridge that takes us from one scene to another. That’s important, but that’s not all it can do. Sometimes we need to change locations and often we need to condense time—to jump forward a few hours, a few days, even weeks, months or years. 

The summary is also the place where, as narrator, we can give our perspective on the scene. We may comment on the characters or the situation. Perhaps we’re looking back on our youthful actions and feeling embarrassed by our sensitivity or our cultural lack of knowledge. It is in the bridging summary that we can comment on that and indicate we have matured and grown.

One of my favourite summaries comes in the Bible, in Luke’s gospel (2:52): “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” [I use the King James Version that I memorized as a child].

First, Luke was a medical doctor—and the four terms he uses reflect holistic medicine. It is the definition of “good health”—to improve physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually, and that’s Luke’s check-up report on Jesus.

But this summary does more. It changes locations, condenses the time, and advances the action, all in a dozen or so words. The story that goes before is of Jesus, getting left behind in Jerusalem, where he is sitting in the temple, questioning the leaders and learning from them. The next scene is in the wilderness by the river Jordan, where his cousin John is baptizing the multitude.  That one short verse jumps the story ahead by 18 years, through all of the coming-of-age experiences that Jesus must have had. It’s an amazing summary and, for me, an inspiration.

So, I recommend Scene and Summary to you, and I wish you well as you consider how you might use them.

Our Selves as Character

Next, we’ll look at the characters in your story. In your life story, you are the main character. Actually, we are both the narrator and the character. Our identity as narrator comes through mostly in the summaries. But our character can shine forth in both the summaries and the scenes.

I have on my bookshelves at least ten books dealing primarily with character in story. But I can give you the gist of all of them in three points:

  1. the Key Traits
  2. the Motivation / Goal
  3. the Character Change

KEY TRAITS: Our Key Traits are a broad category. Our readers want a sense of our age and appearance and physical attributes. What do we look like? How do we dress? What kind of impression do we make? 

If it is another character we are describing, we can say something like: “He was an older man, tall, balding, casually dressed and slightly overweight.” But if it is ourselves we are describing it’s more difficult. How do we do a “Selfie” in a life story? It’s pretty awkward to say, “I am an older man, tall, balding, casually dressed and slightly overweight.” But, if we’re clever, we can find ways. 

If we have a medical appointment, we are often asked about our height, weight and general condition. If we show our Driver’s License or Passport, it has our picture on it and we can describe that. Maybe we’re in a clothing store and the savvy clerk can size us up, while commenting on our appearance. Or, to use a frequent device, we might look at ourselves in the mirror as we are getting dressed for the day or preparing to go out for the evening.

Our personality and our philosophy will come through both in what we do in the Scenes and what we say in the Summaries. Are we cheerful or sober? Outgoing or reserved? Talkative or on the quiet side? Calm and even-tempered or excitable and easily irritated?

Our Key Traits also include our habits, our tastes and preferences, our special abilities, our attitudes and our characteristic emotions.

MOTIVATION / GOAL: At its most basic, our motivation or goal is the main thing that we want or need in the course of our story. In a published work, fiction or non-fiction, this may not seem difficult to determine, but in our own lives, it often is. Looking back, we may feel that we had a number of motivations or goals. For Betty and Bill Enns, in their mission to Lesotho, Africa, the goal was to “live their prayer,” or as a yard sign at the M.C.C. centre expressed it, “to serve in the name of Jesus Christ.”

For many of us, whether at home or abroad, our main motivation in life has related to service. We have felt called to a particular vocation or a way of living. And that may be one point of entry as we try to discern what is the motivation or goal around which our story can be organized. Dolly Parton says that at the age of ten she performed for an adult audience and so loved the applause that she declared to her uncle, “I’m going to be a star!” Through many decades since, that has been her goal, though her sense of stardom has been as focused on her fans as it has been on herself. 

I don’t think any life story or memoir is ever totally comprehensive; at best, it is an interpretation. For me, a primary goal in life has been good learning; it started with the nurture of Mr. Ness, my Grade 2 teacher; it continued through high-school and university with the mentoring of some excellent teachers and professors; it carried on in my own classroom commitment to students; and even now in retirement with Sunday School teaching and such courses as this. Sometimes I say that the “through-line” in my life is “Sharing the Joy of Learning.” 

Using the twelve Writing Activities that I’ve provided on the website, you probably can generate a considerable amount of writing, and I recommend it. But the hardest part in this course—in our life writing—is discerning what our motivation or goal has been in life. If you know that, and can articulate it in a word or phrase, as Betty Enns has done in the title of her book—you are fortunate. On the other hand, if it takes you time and considerable thinking to identify the motivation or goal that has guided your life, don’t feel discouraged. You’re not alone. When we talk about Evaluation, Writing for Discovery, appraising our lives and gaining perspective, this effort to state our motivation or goal is at the centre of the effort.

CHARACTER CHANGE: The third point in my condensed description of Character is character change. Some writers talk about the “Character Arc”—the curve that arches over our story from beginning to end and that marks the stages in our becoming who we now are. 


Think back to your late childhood or early teens. 

  • What are several words that you (or close friends) might have used to describe you? 
  • How did those words apply to you—your thoughts, behaviour or activities?  
  • How have you changed since then until now? 
  • And what contributed to these changes in who you are and in how you now might be described.

Likely most of us, in our senior years, can describe how we are different from our youthful selves. We may not be as physically robust, but we probably are better people. And, if we are like most older people, we now are more content with ourselves and more at peace with the world than we were in earlier years. 

As you think about your life story, try to identify the stages in your journey of change? Try to show the tell-tale markers on your own Character Arc?

The Conflict in our Story

We’ve talked about Scene and Summary and about Ourselves as Character. The final story element I’d like to discuss is Conflict. If we are honest, each of us has known considerable conflict in our life, conflict of one kind or another. 

For some of us, writing about conflict in our life is difficult ground. We’ve been taught that these things shouldn’t be talked about. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  Yet if we write about our lives as if there were no conflicts, as if everything always went well, we come across as people who’ve never had problems and likely wouldn’t understand those of our readers.

There is a frequent saying in the writing world, to the effect: “No conflict, no story.”

As we move through the scenes, it is conflict that drives the story forward. And that conflict has to do with whatever we’ve discerned to be our motivation or goal.  So, for Betty and Bill Enns in their M.C.C. service, “Yes, they want to ‘live their prayer’ as peacemakers in Africa, but what do you do when find your home has been broken into and anything valuable you had has been stolen? What do you do when, repeatedly, a gun is shoved in your face and your vehicle is stolen?  What do you do when your home is invaded by armed young men and your lives are in grave danger?  That’s conflict—of a kind most of us are grateful not to experience, but which some of you have.

The real question isn’t whether should talk about conflict, but how and why we do it and what we’ve learned from it. As author K.M. Weiland says, “We need to do it in a way that is life-affirming.” We need to do it in a way that is honest, respectful and affirming of our values and beliefs.

You will find more detail on both Character and Conflict in the Writing Lessons section called “Arcs and Sparks.”


Next week, we’ll turn our focus back the WHY questions in a session I call “Restorying our Lives.” It’s about Writing for Wholeness. 

As before, I’m not making formal assignments, but I know that some of you are looking for the impetus to finally get started. I encourage you to use either one of the Writing Activities or an event in a project you’re already working on, and then try the following:

  • create one or more scenes, not just telling what happened but showing it;
  • describe yourself as the main character: your age, appearance, attributes; your motivation or goal; and your change from the start to the end of the story, AND
  • reflect the nature of the conflict you have experienced, saying how you dealt with it and what you learned from it.

Take care and stay well.