All Posts Filed in ‘{EXTRA}ordinary Stories

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a story by Stephanie Dethlefs

Your friends push you to dance with him, and so you do. The rhythmic pulsing of the club music moves the crowd on the floor like ocean waves, the bright blue shots you took from test tubes handed out by an exhausted waitress in miniature black clothing now numbing your limbs. He moves closer, hand on your waist, but dancing is your thing, and it doesn’t matter if he’s there or not. Each song bleeds into a new one and you forget where you are, the first night on a spring break trip to a desert town with girlfriends who now want to leave, except one, the only one as drunk as you, the only one also dancing with a boy whose face she can’t really see. The two of you sloppily protest that you have each other, you can find our way back to the condo you’ve rented. They go.

Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

You dance for another hour, closer to your partner with each song, kissing a little until the glaring lights come on, stripping you down to your sweaty hairline and smudged eyeliner. In this light he is not what you thought, looking more like a Picasso painting than a young Army soldier but he has promised you a ride home and so you follow him out the door clinging to your friend who will protect you, and you her, except that when you arrive in the parking lot you realize that the two young men you are walking with didn’t arrive in the same car, don’t actually know each other, and then you are alone with your soldier and his buddy slouched low in the backseat – “You remember him, right?” – but you can’t seem to recall having met him in the club and then you are on the road, streetlights blurring as he races through the town, your head resting on the cool window. It doesn’t occur to you what we see, cringing with the horrified anticipation usually reserved for scary movies, when everyone knows the monster is behind the door but the stupid girl (always a stupid girl!) opens it anyway; that he is going to keep driving straight out into the desert and…

You can’t really remember the way back to the condo, you think it’s this street but maybe that isn’t right, and he weaves his way through town – perhaps he shouldn’t be driving, but this hasn’t crossed your mind either – and his hand is on your thigh and suddenly you realize that you don’t know his name, but it’s too late now to remedy that social slip so you make up for it by putting your hand on his, fingers intertwined, and moving it half an inch up your thigh

 

while his buddy (you’d forgotten he was back there)

moans

and tells you to

 

roll down your window. Warm desert air floods the car, and suddenly you know where you are, you sit up straight and with sober intention but slurred words you direct him left, then right, then right again, and there is the sign for the condo unit – here, pull over, you say, and you climb out of the car and your friend is climbing out of a car parked a few feet away and you adjust your skirt and you clasp her hand and run, laughing wildly.

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EOS Part 2: Draw in your reader.

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Do you remember the last time someone told you a story and you laughed so hard you cried? How about the last time you wept as they shared their tale? Or got angry? Scared? Envious?

Have you read a narrative book that punched you in the gut*, or stayed with you for weeks, or made you laugh out loud on the city bus?

And writers, do you then think “How do I do that?” (Or worse: “I’ll never be able to do that.”)

Guess what? You totally can.

*Far be it from me to let a moment pass to recommend a book. I just read The Power by Naomi Alderman and, holy crap, my gut has been punched (or, um, electrocuted). Read it, I beg of you. So, so good.

On the flip side, do you remember someone sharing a story with you and it just kind of fell flat? Or read a book that after finishing it you just shrugged and thought, “meh…”?

There are many things that can cause both of ends of this spectrum, from the voice of the storyteller to narrative suspense to having uniquely intriguing details to work with.

But there is one thing that every writer and storyteller needs to consider, and that is the universal themes that are present in the story.

Without considering themes that are present in your story, you will not know where to focus your attention as you write it. You will get lost in the weeds of the details while losing sight of the reason your audience might be interested in the first place.

First the bad news. As humans we are all selfish and our time is short. As readers, we want to know one thing: “How does this relate to me?” If it doesn’t, the reader will abandon the story. The listener’s eyes will glaze over. You know this is true, because you’ve been that reader or listener. We all have.

Now for the good news:  this is a relatively easy fix.

Consider the universal themes of your story. Shall I list but a few? Love. Loss. Heartbreak. Illness. Grieving. Parenting. Family. Marriage. Racism. Misogyny. Dreams. Maturity. Immaturity. Loneliness. Forgiveness.

The list is endless.

The point is that as writers we need to be aware, from the first draft, of the themes that are present in our stories. These are the places at which the listener will be able to enter and say, yes, I get that. Or, yes, I’ve felt that.

The audience didn’t experience our story, but they have experienced the universal themes within them. Tap into that.

When I was in my mid-20s, I wound up on a jury for a murder trial. The man accused in the case shot and killed a cashier. The question was if it was intentional or by accident.

The details of the case, now long over and part of the public record, are interesting in and of themselves. I told the story over and over until all of my friends and family were probably sick of it. I don’t know; they were pretty gracious about it.

The thing is that for years afterwards, I was troubled by that experience. I wrote about it but it kept falling flat, like a rote list of events with no real impact for anyone but me. I could tell I wasn’t getting to the core of my problem. I abandoned and returned to this story in my writing several times for the next 15 years, but I never shared it with anyone because it didn’t feel complete.

The part of the story that I remember with equal parts shame and pride is that I was the reason we deliberated as long as we did. I was the youngest person on the jury and at the height of my passion for justice and equality for people who have been historically marginalized. I was angry that this jury of all white people (myself included) could decide within minutes – minutes – that the young black man in the courtroom was guilty. So I dug in my heels. I got defiant. I was totally wrong, the evidence was clear and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop myself because it wasn’t fair and I didn’t know how to make that young man’s world better.

In my early drafts of the story, I left this whole component out. But therein lay the universal themes: racism and white privilege and youthful naȉvety. Once I realized that and really sat with the way the whole experience matured me, I was able to write it. And it was almost immediately published.

Action steps to find the universal themes in your story:

  1. If it is a true story, ask yourself how you felt at various points of the experience. Emotions are a great indicator, because we all feel them. Create a list of those emotions.
  2. If it is fiction, do the same for your protagonist and even your antagonist.
  3. Look back on the list of emotions, and ask yourself “Why?”
  4. If the answer is too simple, insincere, or shallow, dig deeper. “Why?” (Example: If I said I was “frustrated” in the jury deliberation room because everyone voted “guilty” so fast, I would need to go deeper to find out why that was frustrating.)
  5. The answers to your WHYs are going to give you your universal themes.

Sometimes the universal themes are right there, staring you in the face. Other times, we have to work to find them. But it is our job to do this. And it’s essential that we do.

Because our stories are important, but they will fall flat with readers if we don’t know why.

Want to learn more about ways to impact and engage your reader with a true story?  

In this free workshop, we will explore six essential strategies to crafting engaging and impactful true stories for your memoir, essays, blog, family legacy, or for live storytelling events.

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{E}OS Part 1

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“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  – Maya Angelou

When I was in college I worked as a lifeguard at a small pool. One evening, I watched as a little girl, 18 months old at most, jumped from the wall into her father’s arms. They did this over and over, her giggles louder each time. And then he looked away, distracted by something else in the pool, and she jumped, and she went under.

He heard the splash, whipped around and got her within seconds. Then he glared at me over her sputtering head. Why? Because I hadn’t even moved. Not even a flinch.

This is a five-second story from 25 years ago. Everything worked out fine, and it seems on the surface to be inconsequential. Yet it has stayed with me. I have dug into the reasons why I might not have moved, such as physical responses to fear, the father I was recently estranged from, the irresponsibilities of my 20s.

I have told this story live and I have written about it.  The more I tell this story, the more I understand it…and myself. I have written about it this story and I’ve told it live.  The more I tell this story, the more I understand it…and myself at the time. People have received this story and held space for my emotions around it. Through this experience, the story has transformed and I have been able to let go of the pain I was holding. Through sharing this small story, I have been transformed.

One of the things I hear from writers – or those who long to be – is that they don’t know what to write about. They worry that there is just one good idea, one perfect story.

I think that intellectually we all know that this isn’t true. There are as many stories as there are molecules of air. So then why do we fixate on finding the “right” idea for a story?

Hello again, fear.

When we sit down to write, fear (in the form of our inner critic) dismiss some stories as unimportant. Uninterestesting. Uninspired. Unworthy. 

Picture yourself in front of your computer, waiting for inspiration to strike. A memory steps into the light and you start to sweep it away.

Stop. Keep the light on it. Widen the light to the moments or years before it, or the ones that came after.

Even the smallest stories from our lives, the most everyday, mundane stories, hold power to illustrate the transformation that makes a story impactful.

Action Steps to Capture Small Moment Memories

  1. Set the timer for 10 minutes. In a journal or on scratch paper, start with “I remember.” Each time you run out of things to say, start again with “I remember.”
  2. Set the timer for 10 minutes. This time, use the prompt “I don’t remember.”
  3. Write thesis statements for various areas of your life. For example, “I have never been good at managing money.” or “If given a choice, I will always choose dessert.” Then write a list of moments that support that thesis.
  4. You know that story that you tell over and over to anyone who will listen? Write it down.
  5. You know that story you’ve never told anyone? Write it down.

Here’s the thing I want to leave you with: every story is important. Will you publish or even share all of them? No. But do they all hold power to illustrate a transformation that might resonate with just one other person?

Yes. Because your stories matter.

Free Workshop!

I’m thrilled to announce a new opportunity for you to dig into one of your true stories. 6 Steps to an {Extra}Ordinary Story is a free workshop for memoirists, bloggers, storytellers and family legacy writers. Learn and apply six strategies that will make your true story engaging, impactful, and entertaining.

Click here to learn more! >

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{extra}ordinary stories

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“Daddy! My favorite dancing show is on!” Small feet skittered across the kitchen floor to find him. “Daaaaaaddddyyy!”

“I’m right here, kiddo,” he said. He stood in front of the t.v., adjusting the rabbit ear antennas. Lawrence Welk shimmered into focus and introduced the song in his nasal drone. As the band began to play, dancers Sissy and Bobby took to the stage in pale blue flowing dress and tuxedo, respectively.

Her father swept me up by my armpits, Mickey Mouse nightgown flapping around my knees. I squealed as I tried to touch the ceiling with my feet before he lowered me down. Keeping my small hands enclosed in his, he swept one leg over my head and twisted around.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Yes!”

“Really ready?”

“Daaadddy! Yeeeessss!”

“Okay then. One…two…three..” He swung me through his legs by the wrists, flipping me up into the air, and I squealed. He dropped me down into an embrace and whirled me in a circle. My feet whipped around, past Lawrence Welk and Sissy and Bobby, past the doorway into the kitchen where my mother was cleaning up the dinner dishes and the baby was cooing in the high chair.


This is an excerpt from a project at which I’m steadily chipping away.  I’m sharing it with you today because I want you to understand something really, profoundly important.

Even the smallest stories, the most everyday, mundane stories, hold power. 

In this small moment, my father was being playful, dancing with me to the Big Band music of the old Lawrence Welk show. I was five years old, or thereabouts.

In this small moment, my family was intact, two parents, two children.

I remember that moment with a mixture of wistfulness, nostalgia and anger. Why? Not because of the moment itself, but the way in which is represents something that WAS before it WASN’T.  Because when I remember that moment I have to acknowledge how things changed.

That is what our stories are always about. How things WERE before they WEREN’T. Or the other way around.

Picture yourself in front of your computer, waiting for inspiration to strike. A memory steps into the light and at first glance seems like nothing, so you start to sweep it away.

Stop. Keep the light on it. Direct the light to the moments or years before it, or the ones that came after.

It might look ordinary. But trust me…it is extraordinary.

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One story, three ways

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One time, I froze when I should have acted. When I recall it now, many years later, the memory lands in my body as a punch to the gut.

I was 19, working as a lifeguard at a local swim club. It was a small pool, and lifeguard procedure was not a strict as it is now. I sat in a plastic chair on the pool deck, twirling my whistle lanyard around and around my finger.

There was a man with his baby girl there that evening. She must have been about two, maybe a little younger. Over and over, he lifted her up to the edge of the pool, and she would jump, squealing with laughter, her little fat arms and legs reaching for her father. They played this game a few feet from where I sat.

Oh, man, I really hate telling this story. But here goes.

He put her up on the wall and looked away for a split second. She jumped. She went under. He heard the splash and turned around, pulling her up, comforting her as she wailed. And he glared at me over her wet curls, because I hadn’t moved. I had been watching the whole time, but I didn’t move a muscle. I froze in the face of danger.

I’m going to leave it there, because I want to talk about the intention behind the story.  But first I’m going to release the urge to beat myself up. Again. *breathe*

IMG_5215.jpg

my own sweet little water baby

Okay, back to the story. I have options.

  • I could use it as a vehicle to talk about the evolutionary responses to danger and what I’ve learned over the years about how I process fear.
  • I could use it as a launching point to explore how disappointing others is one of my greatest worries.
  • I could use it as a parallel story to the estrangement with my own father, which was at its peak during that time of my life.

My point here is that any event in our lives can be told with multiple intentions, and the first inclination might not always be the best path to follow. One linear 5-minute event from your past can be used to explore a variety of different messages you want to share with your audience.

And, considering that, one story could result in multiple pieces of writing, all with different intentions, each with their own unique perspectives.

How cool is that?

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Hi. Tell me your story.

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I want to tell you a story, one that I hope will show why I am so passionate about helping people share their stories with others.

I was in the girls’ bathroom in 7th grade. A small group of girls hovered around me, girls who had never talked to me before. Why were we there, in a circle between the row of sinks and the beige metal stall doors?

Because one of the girls had walked in, seen me crying and generously asked what was wrong.

What was wrong? I don’t remember. But I can guess. I was lonely. I didn’t feel seen. With a quiet voice and downcast eyes, my stories were rarely heard, and subsequently I didn’t feel like anyone really knew or cared about me, even those I considered friends.

As an educated adult I can give these characteristics labels that make it easier to separate my personality from my soul. Social anxiety. Introversion. Shyness. INFP. Enneagram Four. And on, and on.

Labels or no, I wanted to be seen as much as the next person. To have my stories heard, even though I wasn’t capable of talking over everyone else.

When this girl asked me what was wrong, I didn’t know what to say. So I made up a lie. A whopper of a lie, actually, about my family, which I knew in this girl would never be able to disprove. More girls came in. I kept talking. They nodded, patted my arm, even hugged me. My lie extended, grew branches, rooted deeply in the guilt I felt betraying my perfectly normal family. It became a story that moved past me and out into the halls, where more girls who’d never given me the time of day came up and asked if I was okay.

Finally, when a teacher pointedly asked me what was going on, I crumpled and admitted defeat. I didn’t know why I’d told such an ostentatious story that wasn’t even true.

I know now.

I wish I could go back to that little girl on the edge of puberty and tell her that her real stories mattered. That she mattered. That her stories, as small and inconsequential as they felt sometimes, made her who she was. And because she matters, so do her stories.

I can’t go back and stop the earlier version of me from telling that lie, but I can help the NOW version of me. And this is a daily work in progress.

Here’s what I haven’t done:  world travel, solo expeditions to find myself, stints in rehab or mental hospital, lost a limb, fought a war, invented anything, given birth to an alien creature… you get the picture.

What I have done:  lived 45+ years.

Every day, I have to remind myself that even though my life has been filled with everyday, regular stories, they hold power. My power. 

I matter. Therefore, my stories, big or small, matter.

You matter. Your stories matter.

Tell them. Share them. I will listen.

We will all listen.