Top 10 People Who Shaped My Storytelling

Any writer would have a difficult time counting all the things that affect his or her work. Places, different environments, other writers. Lots of things.

People inevitably affect the way we write, some from a technical, craft kind of standpoint, others from a place of voice and how we see the world, and tell the story.

These are ten people who’ve shaped the way my mind develops a story, and conveys it in black and white.

My Mom: After an unhappy first freshman semester at the University of Central Arkansas where I majored in public administration, I decided transfer to Arkansas State University with no idea about my life’s future. “Why don’t you talk to the people in the journalism department,” said said. And that’s where it began.

My Dad: Pat Conroy once said: “My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and life.” I didn’t live with a father who displayed violence anywhere near that of the Great Santini, but he was rough and tough enough. It was my father who evoked the strongest emotions I’ve known in a lifetime. Fear. Embarrassment. Gut rage anger. The strongest desire to do anything that would make him proud. It’s a strange thing to say, but my life is richer for my father’s rigid ways and a lifestyle more about his next beer than anything that had much to do with me. The stories born from my childhood and adolescence are a storyteller’s paradise.

Arkansas State University’s Journalism Department Triumvirate (Dr. Joel Gambill, Dr. Gilbert Fowler, and Dr. Marlin Shipman) : These three men were the foundation of ASU Department of Journalism for a good two decades. The foundational skills they passed on to me are are invaluable, and their great friendship was an uncommon encouragement.

Jesus: It’s pretty simple actually. Jesus was the greatest storyteller of them all. He was a master. Jesus used common, everyday, slice-of-life stories to teach the masses about God’s Kingdom.  His parables have been a model for my work from the beginning. For me, no story is greater, no image more amazing, than the prodigal son’s father running toward him upon his return.

J.L. Kimbrell (representing so many others): J.L. Kimbrell was an average, ordinary man from my hometown of Monette, AR. He was a farmer, a war veteran, loved his wife, told great stories of his own, and he was kind to everyone he met. He was like so many men in my hometown who, over the years, I had the chance to observe as they gathered at the local gin, or the implement company, or the duck blind. Watching their mannerisms and their language, even the way they crossed their legs was an extraordinary education. There are too many to name here. But I loved those men.

Fernand Brault: My French-Canadian friend told me an incredible story one day about his solo adventure from Montreal, Canada to the Bahamas on a vessel called Windseeker. To that point in our relationship, he’d never shared with me a story so captivating. As he shared the emotions he encountered when it came time to turn around and sail home, I was speechless. Fern’s tale was a great reminder that we all have a story. There is really no boring life.

Vegan Jake: That’s not his true name, but the name I used for the villain in Pilgrim Strong. Jake was a midwestern, number-crunching, vegan, atheist, extreme liberal of Polish decent, who believed it a sin to use things like washing machines, or lawn mowers, or even drink a Coke. As we spent time together on the Way of St. James, it seemed he expressed his disdain for my ways at nearly every turn.  One day I surprised him. “You can act as though I disgust you, but deep down inside you like me,” I offered. “You’re likable enough, High Roller,” he countered. He was a two-week lesson in conflict.

Jeannick Guerin: Another pilgrim with whom I spent considerable time on the Way. As we stopped one morning for second breakfast and Jeannick explained his reason for walking, it was clear that a terminal illness had brought him from Australia to his homeland in France so that he might say “goodbye.” I never asked another question about it. Some things are more important than the story.

Bradley Harris: My first editor. Upon our agreement to work together back in 2013, Brad was pretty straightforward about his toughness. He asked me to picture a dial 1-10 and give him a number representing just how much I could stand without having a meltdown. I think I offered a nine. Brad taught me so much. Mostly that every story that gets told can no longer be about me. It’s all about the person reading the words.

I’ve never met Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller, but his work has guided me for years. His recent book, Building a Story Brand outlines a simple, three-pronged idea for how stories can best hold readers’ attention. The writer first addresses a problem, then a solution, then explains how life is better because of that solution. Simple really. It’s a theme in many stories I write.

(Coming Wednesday: The Honesty Box)

 

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Photo of the Week

REELFOOT MORNING

Fog lingers across Reelfoot Lake and up to the cypress tree line in Tiptonville, TN on 2/1/20.  Reelfoot formed in a series of major earthquakes in 1811-1812 when many locals said the Mississippi River ran backwards for a time.  The 15,000-acre lake is known for some of the finest crappie fishing in the world and was the filming site for the movie US Marshals.

TOMORROW: The Top 10 Real Life People Who Shaped My Storytelling, and How.

 

The Power of Just Walking Away

“Boys, the best thing you can do with death is ride off from it.” ~ Capt. Woodrow F. Call from the movie, Lonesome  Dove

Dr. Robert Lewis was teaching pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock for many years. I lived three hours away and wasn’t a member of his church, but Dr. Lewis taught me lots of things.

Like many men, I spent considerable time in my early thirties searching for an identity, a purpose, and God’s plan for my life. Clarity on those bigger things isn’t always easy when you’re simply trying to earn enough money to pay for diapers, formula, and day care. The thirties aren’t easy.

Across the country there were rave reviews in the early 90s about Dr. Lewis’ curriculum called The Quest for Authentic Manhood. Thousands of churches taught the curriculum. Dr. Lewis led the effort at his home church, and for many weeks I left home at 3 a.m., drove to Little Rock, sat in on the session, and returned to Jonesboro for work by mid morning. Quest reinforced four basic tenets for a man’s life:

•Reject passivity.

•Accept responsibility.

•Lead courageously.

•And, expect a greater reward.

For 23 years, these four ideas have guided everything I do. There were moments of failure, yes, but fewer than there otherwise might have been without them, I suspect.

One of the most important things I learned from this comprehensive study on manhood was posed by a simple question that catches many of us off guard.

When does a man become a man? At bar mitzvah? When he completes his Selective Service registration? When he first votes? What is this moment in time when a male transitions from boy to man? How does he know?

It all emphasizes the important need for things like ceremony and symbols.

How do we mark a marriage? A ceremony and symbols. How do we mark milestone anniversaries? Ceremony and symbols. In the Christian life, how do we mark the milestone of our most important decision? Ceremony and symbol.

We need these things in our life as an important way of both marking growth, and leaving things behind. Sometimes we underestimate the power of leaving things behind.

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About two-thirds through their five-hundred mile walk, modern-day pilgrims representing dozens of nationalities encounter a special place on the pilgrimage known as northern Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

It’s really nothing more than an iron cross atop big pile of rocks, but many consider it holy ground. 

For more than a millennia, tradition has encouraged pilgrims on The Way of St. James to carry a small object from their home (most carry a small stone) and as they walk. The object represents the pilgrim’s burden, or her sin, or regrets, however they may wish to characterize it. Upon arrival at this special location known as Cruz de Ferro in the Cambrian Mountains, the pilgrim places the object on the hill at the foot of the cross, offers a prayer, and walks away.

The symbolism of marking such a moment in time is a powerful milestone representing the heart of the gospel truth.

Some say that upon our repentance of sin God cannot remember our wrongdoing. The more accurate and amazing truth is not that he can’t, but that God chooses with a holy intention NOT to recall the past. Through the power of Jesus’ blood shed on a different cross nearly two thousand years ago, we need not wallow in the shame and regret of sin.

You may not walk a five-hundred mile pilgrimage, but you can surely mark a moment representing your repentance of sin.

•Write your regrets on a piece of paper, light a match, and watch your past mistakes go up in smoke. 

•Construct a simple cross and nail your paper list to the symbol of Christ’s crucifixion.

•Next Sunday, leave an object representing your shortcomings at your church altar, say a prayer, and walk away.

Remember, God has a purpose for every person, and His work is too important for us to remain bogged down in the past. 

That’s why He sent Jesus. For your freedom!

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Ask Yourself: What Can I Unlearn Today?

“Intelligence is what we learn. Wisdom is what we unlearn.” 

~ J.R. Rim

 

Never stop learning! Always be a rookie at something! The older the wiser!

The cliches about learning are almost unending.

We’re a society that values learning. And indeed, there’s not much substitute for education and life experience. Wisdom brings a certain peace that Jesus desired for all those who walk his Way.

But could it be that our deepest wisdom comes from the things we once believed as true somewhere back on the path, but no longer find true today?

Jesus spoke of this in the way he taught and told stories.  He begins with “you have heard it said…”, then continues with “but I tell you…”  The pattern is repeated in Matthew 5 starting in verse 21.  It was not enough for Jesus to give new information.  He needed to correct the wrong beliefs that lead people astray.

American pastor and author Mark Batterson says, “Unfortunately, unlearning is twice as hard as learning.  It’s like missing your exit on the freeway – you have to drive to the next exit and then double back.  Every mile you go in the wrong direction is really a two-mile error.”

As we study God’s truth, we may also have an awareness of certain things not so true.  Sometimes they are easily spotted, and other times they’re ingrained so deeply that it’s not so easy.  We need to work toward being Christ-like, while also rejecting the things that are not of God.

What is something you were taught, or once believed, that the Holy Spirit is now suggesting you reconsider?

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” ~ Romans 12:2

Day 1: Crock Pot Dressing and Buttermilk Pie

(WRITER’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring recipes from a beloved “back-home” group I call the Crock Pot Brigade. Hope you enjoy.)

I LOVE Thanksgiving. Everything about it. Always have.

I love that we have a dedicated season of  gratitude. I love cooking for a big group, family and friends gathering together. Leftovers for days. The smells, and oh, the anticipation!

This first featured recipe changed my life. As a kid we only had chicken and dressing (my all-time favorite food) once a year. When this idea came around it made the dish possible just about any time. I cook Crock Pot dressing three to four times a year. It’s perfect every time. Here it is:

Crock Pot Dressing by Patricia Adams

INGREDIENTS:

1 large pan of cornbread, 6 slices of day-old bread, 2 cans chicken broth, 2 cans cream of chicken soup, 4-5 beaten eggs, sautéed onion and 2 cups celery, salt, pepper, 2 tsp. poultry seasoning. Mix all the ingredients with shredded chicken. Cook on high for 4-5 hours.

***

BUTTERMILK PIE by Shirley Cloud

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 3 tsp. flour, 1 tsp vanilla, 4 beaten eggs, 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, 1 pie crust.

Cream the butter, sugar and vanilla. Add beaten eggs, then buttermilk. Mix well and pour into the pie shell.  Bake at 350 about an hour.

Buen Provecho!

 

Be Teachable

You wouldn’t think it would be the case for someone who’s completed five decades and entered a sixth, but one of the most important lessons I continue learning is the value of being ‘teachable.”

It’s been especially true with writing — ironically the one thing I’ve always done with some confidence, and the only thing I ever considered a natural talent. Especially true in recent years, I’ve learned to maintain a spirit that is teachable.

Most of my livelihood has been based in the written word. Ten years in the newspaper business, another eight in the magazine trade. As a higher education fundraiser, and a political press secretary I made a living informing people and persuading them about certain things. It all came fairly naturally. Not all, but so much of this is about gut instinct and understanding people. That’s what I do. It’s art. And it’s science.

So it stood to reason way back in 2012 when I first decided to write a book that I came into the process with a fairly confident (arrogant) attitude. I’d interviewed 15,000 people. Written miles of copy. I’d sat with tattoo artists, strippers, men dying of AIDS, ambassadors, and presidents. A book was only a longer, more drawn out process, right? More story, right? Wrong.

That first book manuscript still sits in a file, crumpled, wrinkled, and dusty. I remember when it came back from my editor that first time. It was humbling. There was obviously an incredible amount to unlearn and relearn, so much so, it was almost overwhelming. 

But I didn’t quit. I read, studied, researched, found mentors, attended conferences, chased agents and publishers, and practically gave my life to the pursuit. If you’ve given up on a dream forgive me, but chances are you didn’t want it as much as you thought. If you want something, you’ll find a way.

In the meantime, I have published a book based on an incredible experience and a story that I thought deserved to be told. The story was as much about healing as it was about walking a very long distance. That process took more than three years.

Today, I’m closing in on the second book. It’s about a year in the making so far, and quite possibly, has involved more learning than all the years leading from 2012 until now. This is a LONG process. That’s another thing for the learning. Endurance.

You have to learn to listen to people. You have to learn not to listen to people. You have to learn who those people are. You have to learn the hard lesson that really good writing is not necessarily a great story. You have to learn how a reader’s mind processes a story. You have to learn that even when you believe so strongly in your gut that you’re right, you may be wrong. And you have to learn when to stand your ground. But you have to remain teachable. We never stop learning.

Whether you’re writing a book, or raising a family, pursuing a new career, or seeking some great truth, it’s the most important thing. Being teachable.

What will you learn today?

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Some Work Thoughts on Labor Day

 

•There is nothing worse than waking up each morning dreading where you’re about to go and spend time for the next eight hours. It’s not likely that you’ll land your dream job right out of high school or college, but you’ll get there. Don’t quit until you do.

•When you are considering a career in your young adult years, ask yourself this question: What stirs my heart?

•College is not for everyone. Don’t go to college as a default choice. Personally, I wish I knew more about skilled trades.

•Don’t be scared to take risks during your career. The greatest rewards often come with the highest risks. This is especially true for those who want to branch out into self employment. Remember, there is almost no decision that can’t be undone. Embrace risk.

•Seek out career mentors. Most professionals older and wiser are happy to share their experience for your benefit, and  you can fast forward your career track by learning from the mistakes of others.

•Have a side gig. This is especially important for those times when you may not be perfectly suited to the job that’s making you money and paying the bills. Maybe it’s a booth at a flea market, or maybe you make cinnamon rolls each Saturday for the farmer’s market. Professionally, side gigs can be a great breath of fresh air. I’d still like to have a food truck in my life, and probably will one day. I find that cooking and writing go well together.

•Don’t let people treat you badly. At least two to three occasions in my life I’ve found myself alongside toxic people in the workplace. Don’t be afraid to just walk away. One of the best decisions I ever made was dropping a key in the workplace mailbox one night, walking away, and never looking back.

•When you find that thing that stirs your heart, try to remember that everything you do is not for you. It probably stirs your heart for a reason, and the reason might be is that you were meant to have a passion for this thing and use it for the greater good. i.e. helping others.

•Understand there may be seasons to what stirs your heart. You may have a passion for something (and a capacity for) in your sixties, that you never imagined in your thirties.  You can always be a rookie at something.

•When you find that thing, and when you’ve spent some years gaining wisdom doing that thing, always be available for younger people trying to find their way. Be a mentor.

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In Case You Missed It — Wendi Lou Lee

Join me this Wednesday, Sept. 4, at 2 p.m. CST for the premier of my social media livestream news magazine, In Case You Missed It.

This week we’ll visit with actor/author Wendi Lou Lee, who you may better recall as Baby Grace from Little House on the Prairie. We’ll visit with Wendi about her career as a young actor, an extraordinary turn of events in her adult life, lessons learned from Little House, and a wonderful book she’s authored titled A Prairie Devotional.

Watch for our interview Wednesday at 2 CST. Set your VCR or Beta Max or whatever you have to do!

And subscribe to our email newsletter to keep up with all the upcoming shows and breaking news!