On Writing the Grisly Scenes of My Friend’s Former Life

It would be easier to write the scenes of murder, torture, drug-trafficking and all the other evils that come with the life of organized crime if they weren’t true stories, or at least if they weren’t true about the friend I’m calling Newman.

It is hard for me to imagine the man I know doing these things. And it’s an agonizing process to interview him for details, forcing him relive the things he’s tried so hard to leave behind. Seeing the pain in his expression, watching him unknowingly clutch his chest as if to stop the pain, and hearing him swallow down tears makes me want to stop pressing.

I hate when I’m in the throes of writing and I need to message him to get clarity on something. He’s commented on how this will sometimes interrupt an otherwise normal day and take him back to a place he’d rather not be. I’ve offered to send my questions via email so he can open them at his discretion, or save them up and let him initiate a time to go over them. He’s understanding, though, of my need to get the information quickly so the writing process is not stalled. So, we’ve continued in this manner – though, I do try not to do this unless absolutely necessary.

We’re both determined to push on with this book project, but I sure will be glad when it’s done. Sometime today or tomorrow, I’ll post an excerpt from the scene that prompted this entry. For now, though, I just wanted to take a break from it and bawl out into the blogosphere this is stinking hard.

Update 1/31/15 – I have published the promised excerpt from the book. At first I made it a password protected post so the “grisly details” and language would not pop up on the feed for followers who may not wish to see them. I have since decided to go ahead and post it without requiring the password. I will explain why I changed my mind in a follow-up entry.

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I’m Going to Eat a Live Frog – Things You Do on a Writing Retreat

This is the third year I’ve participated in a writing retreat with a group of friends. Our plan is simple:

  1. Rent a vacation home far enough away from our daily lives that we can’t be sucked back into our normal routines. The place must have enough space that each of us has a private area to do our work.
  2. Meet at the beginning of our time together to establish our goals. We each write them out on a giant sticky note and hang them in the public area for all to see and monitor each other’s progress.
  3. Have an evening meal together (we each take one night to prepare the meal). When we gather at the table, we update one another on how we’re doing with our goals. There are also lots of laughs, a good amount of encouragement, and sharing of tips for those who may be facing obstacles to creativity.
  4. Other than our one daily mealtime, we honor each other’s need for solitude. It would take an extreme emergency to knock on someone’s door. We communicate through a Facebook page so each of us is free to check the announcements whenever we desire and not feel pressure to respond immediately.

At last night’s meal, I shared that I’m having trouble getting started on my main writing goal – completing the full rough draft for my book. Since I can’t seem to get into that “zone” I need to get into for productive writing, I’m trying to knock some of the smaller goals off my list – things like working ahead on my Encourager’s Devotional Series for this blog.

That’s when one of my friends mentioned the video below by Byran Tracy and the concept of “eating that frog.” The logic is the reverse of what I’ve been doing. Tracy advises to tackle the big thing first – the thing you’re likely to procrastinate about doing. In other words, don’t let the smaller tasks distract you from the more important one. Continue reading

No Time for Writer’s Block: Why I Must Finish Writing this Story NOW!

With a story as intriquing and inspiring as the one I’m writing (see details here), I never imagined how much trouble I’d have with writer’s block when I first started on the project. Yes, I know, that was the naiveté of a beginner. Still, when writing about a friend who is living under an assumed name provided by the Federal Government because his testimony was key to bringing down a crime syndicate … well, lack of good material is certainly not the problem. So, what is?

As Tony S. put it in a recent blog post on writer’s block, I’m a PROcrastinator. He gave physical, mental/emotional and spiritual reasons for combating that tendency. I found those to be helpful for me, but more importantly, it got me to thinking about the physical, mental/emotional and spiritual impact the delay is having on my friend.

My friend needs to have this book finished. Living in anticipation of his former identity being revealed brings with it a roller coaster of emotions. Will the friendships and professional relationships he’s come to know in this new life be jeopardized once people know the details of his past? Will the demons he left behind come back to harm him once they know where to find him? He’s willing to take on whatever may come, but needs to get on with it. Dealing with “what is” would be a welcome relief from pondering “what might be.”

He also needs his life to be unified instead of fragmented. There are many things he’s set out to accomplish, but the process is hindered by having to guard his secret. He is a pastor, the founder of an outreach ministry to help those who come from a background similar to his own, and a mentor to urban youth. Each of these roles requires a certain amount of transparency he is currently unable to offer.

My friend and I are both excited about the greater impact he will have once he can freely communicate the fullness of his own transformation to people who need to believe transformation is possible. His is a story that will bring hope to many. We both feel God brought us together to collaborate on this book.

Remembering these reasons for taking on the project in the first place now has my creative energies flowing. I’m tempted to elaborate on this newfound method of fighting my writer’s block. Instead, though, I think I’ll get back to the book. Stay tuned for an excerpt.

(To see all posts about my book, click here.)

Post #1 about My Book: How I Got This Assignment to Write

When he walked into my office and said, “You need to help me write my life story,” I knew this was a “God-thing.” For a full week prior to his request, during my quiet times of contemplation and prayer, I felt strongly pressed to begin the writing I’ve known I was meant to do for most of my life. Several books had been rolling around in my mind for years, so I figured God was encouraging me to finally get started on one of those. But life was busy for me, a workaholic, and I was thoroughly enjoying my position on the faculty of the Bible college where my friend and I met.

As always with such promptings towards adding writing to my agenda, I initially pushed the notion aside and relegated it to my “some day” pile. This time, however, my spirit continually went back to the thought, each time with a greater sense of urgency. At the end of that long week of feeling almost nagged about “getting to it,” in walked my friend with his proposal.

Besides the whole “God thing” (as if that wasn’t enough), I was intrigued by the possibility of writing his story because I already knew things about my friend’s life that were fascinating. I also had an inkling there was much more to it that had not yet been revealed.

Despite his current middle class lifestyle, I knew he had once led a life that was well connected to people above that status. He had friends in professional sports, in the music industry, and in Hollywood. He once arranged for my family to get VIP passes to a movie opening because he knew the star of the film. We were actually going to meet that actor. My kids were thrilled because they had grown up watching this particular star’s television show.

When we arrived at the event, my friend showed the organizers his personal text from the star himself and we were ushered into place immediately. It was amusing to see the reaction on the face of the girl who had come to see why we were butting in line once she got a look at that text.

I saw hints that day of my friend’s “other life” even in the way he dressed for the occasion and the way he carried himself. He easily blended in with the elite crowd. It was a strong contrast to the humble demeanor he usually maintained on our small Midwestern college campus.

My friend did not stay for the event after getting us into the VIP area. This was puzzling to me as I figured he’d like to see his old friend. Later, after I learned his full story, I understood why he didn’t stay. Having escaped his former life, he is very careful not to get too close to the things that once drew him into it. He’s had enough of the glitz, glamour and prestige his former dealings brought to him. He now leads a much simpler life, and prefers to keep it that way. It also now makes sense that we had to say we knew “Shots” (my friend’s former street name) when we were able to shake the actor’s hand. The actor wouldn’t have known him by his current name.

The information I learned about my friend that day in my office shed light on all these mysteries for me. He told me he is currently living under the name given to him by the FBI when he entered the Federal Witness Protection Program. His testimony at a trial that brought down the criminal organization he was once part of is the reason for his new identity.

We will reveal his identity – well, identities, both past and present – in the book we are writing. Until that time, I will refer to him in all future posts as Newman, because he is indeed a new man. And just FYI, “Shots” is also a fictitious street name. His actual nickname is well recognized in his former circles, so it won’t be revealed until later either.

As I shared the concept and drafts of this book with a few close friends, I learned not everyone is able to overlook someone’s past, even when that person’s repentance and transformation is obvious. Some still want “justice” but forget about mercy. It’s no wonder that few will really reveal their hearts and their histories, especially to “church folk.” Maybe that’s why God prepared me to view this project as divinely inspired the week before Newman revealed to me the full nature of his past.

His is a story of true transformation and I am honored to help him tell it. I believe this book will be a “must read.” For now, though, it is a “must write.” I’ll take any prayers, good vibes, mojo or whatever you want to send my way to help me make sure this assignment stays on the front burner of my still busy life. After all, this is a “God-thing” and I probably should make it a priority.

A book? A novel? A creative or narrative nonfiction?

Well, it looks like we have our first debate on this blog. Yay! I love a good debate. I think it helps us all come to balance on a topic when we see and understand opposing viewpoints – not necessarily agreement, but balance.

So, what’s the big hot button issue we’re going to tackle right out of the gate? Whether or not I should use the word “novel” when telling about the book I’m writing.

I suppose that’s a good place to dip our toes in the water and see if we want to jump in further. It falls under the category of “day-to-day conundrums” I listed in my first blog post as possible points of conversation. Seems like a safe place to test the ground rules of open-mindedness and civility before diving into things like global problems or theological issues.

So, here’s the basic dilemma:

Typically, a novel has been defined as a fictitious story of book length, written in narrative form. More recently (especially since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), some have come to call works of narrative non-fiction novels. These works read like novels and the authors write with the same considerations of a novelist (developing plot and character, making decisions about the role of the narrator, etc.). The only difference, and the bone of contention, is that one is fiction and one is not.

While this topic may not seem to matter much (it didn’t to me when someone first brought it to my attention), I suppose I do need to come to a conclusion before proceeding further with book proposals to publishers or posting even more about my “novel” only to be seen as having a lack of understanding of genre. I actually have done some reading on the issue and will post some links at the end of this post for those who wish to do the same.

Here’s where I am at this moment. Following one of my mottos – choose your battles – I’ve changed the wording on the descriptions of my project to say I’m writing a book. That’ll work for now, but I have few hesitations with that.

First off, I feel like I’m writing a novel and to say “book” just seems so generic. Of all the current offerings, there is one description I prefer, but it would be cumbersome to always have to refer to my work as a narrative non-fiction (some use NN for short, but that’s just ugly). Other things like biography or creative nonfiction also don’t seem to fit.

I side with those who view this as a new genre (or at least a revival of an older genre). The goal is to tell a story, not just report the historical facts of a person’s life or an event. In the case of my book, I’m telling the story of a friend who is in witness protection. When I set out to write a book proposal for it, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to utilize the format suggestions for nonfiction proposals. I finally scrapped that approach and used the typical template for a novel. It was a much better fit.

So, I thought I had the matter settled in my mind … until a friend pointed out to me that she was confused because she thought I was writing a true story. When she saw I called it a novel, she figured she must have misunderstood and I was actually writing fiction. This friend is an avid reader, so I value her input. I value yours, too. So, what do you think?

Some articles I found helpful or enjoyable on this topic:

http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html

http://amsaw.org/amsaw-writingright-EmblazingTheTruth.html

http://www.riverteethjournal.com/blog/2013/02/01/what-is-creative-nonfiction

http://old.post-gazette.com/magazine/19991226creative6.asp

Welcome to the table …

The table – It can be used for meals, meetings, games, conversation, counsel or even as a make-shift writing spot for those like me who cannot always find the top of their desk (or just prefer to head out to a coffeeshop to write). It is my hope that this blog will serve as a table where we can gather for each of these purposes. So, here are the kinds of things I’ll be posting:

Meals – We all need nourishment for our minds, our bodies and our souls. Through music, art, devotions and challenges to our thinking, may we all be well nourished.

Meetings – I am a certified Grip-Birkman coach and have a passion to help people discover their gifts, personalities, intellectual styles, and occupational motivations. I particularly like to hold team-building seminars and foster appreciation for the fact that an effective team requires people with different ways of thinking and doing. See more at www.gripbirkman.com.

Counsel – Life is messy. Why pretend it’s not? I am a pastor who avoids the idea that there are quick fixes to tough problems; no one here will be told to “just get over it.” Instead, you’ll find links to resources and good advice from others who have been where you are. Those who are suffering and those who are overcoming are welcome to this table to share their life experiences.

Games – We all just need to have fun sometimes. “A merry heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22). You’ll find healthy doses of humor here.

Conversation – I believe the best solutions come when we do life in community. Whether we’re looking for answers to global problems, theological debates, or just day-to-day conundrums, we’ll take a look at varying opinions and develop an ear to really listen and hear what others think and feel about the issues at hand. Open-mindedness and civility will be part of our core values, but that doesn’t mean we’ll tip-toe around the issues.

Writing desk“Lisa Womble writes hope-inspiring true stories that draw people closer to God and closer to each other.” This was my answer when instructed to draft a one-sentence mantra to keep me focused on the primary goal of my writing. I’m currently working on a book about my friend who is in witness protection. I will be sharing excerpts and reporting on my progress here. It is a powerful story of transformation. But not all stories have to be this dramatic to be powerful. Story sharing is a great way to get to know each other and my aim for this blog is to create a space where we come together to share our stories.

If you want to be understood, tell your story.                                                                                                                                      If you want to understand others, listen to theirs.