“Finding Grace” by Donna VanLiere

by Kendra Bonnett on March 31, 2009

Post #1 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Today we are introducing our first guest blog here on Women’s Memoirs. Our guests are memoirists; their objective here is to give you a bit of insight into their writing process…some understanding of their inspiration(s)…and a little encouragement to get aspiring memoirists like you moving forward with your own work. We hope you enjoy.

But there’s more you should know. We’ll be following Donna’s guest blog with a review of her memoir
Finding Grace, then on April 14th we’ll be doing a live interview with Donna (we’ll give you more details as we get closer). We invite you to participate in this interview by listening (of course) and by submitting your questions about memoir writing for Donna. You can leave your questions in the form of COMMENTS at the bottom of this post. 

And if you haven’t yet signed up for our Blog News and Tips (opt-in in the center column) do so now and you’ll always be among the first to know about events, interviews and other activities here at Women’s Memoirs. Now enjoy Donna’s story, then order her inspirational memoir Finding Grace and plan to join us for our live conversation with Donna on April 14th. Please post a question for Donna. She’ll be glad to answer it during our live conversation.

Here’s this week’s writing prompt. Perhaps it will help you reflect on your life.
Write for 10 minutes about the person who gave you the best advice that you kept ignoring. Who was the person? What was the advice? Why did you ignore it? Did you finally see the wisdom in the advice? How did this change your life? After you read Donna’s blog, we think you’ll see why we’ve suggested this writing prompt.

When I was a junior in high school, Mrs. Elrick, the Advanced Placement English teacher for seniors took me out of my Literature class to ask me to be in her AP class the next year.  Hers was the Holy Grail of classes.  Every junior longed to be in her class just to say he was in her class.  I didn’t even know she was aware of who I was.  I hung out with the drama and choir geeks.  She looked at me.  I was silent.  Shock does that to you.  “Your grades are excellent in literature,” Mrs. Elrick said.  “But interaction is crucial to the A.P. class.  Each student must participate and that worries me about you.”  I stood speechless.  “You walk through these halls and sit in classes like a little mouse but then you get on stage and the teachers say, ‘Who is that?’  You’re a different person up there.  You can clearly hear the language of words but I’m wondering if you can be that person you are on stage in my class?  Can you verbally participate?”  I nodded my head, which wasn’t a good sign.

Mrs. Elrick said I could hear the language of words.  I had no idea what that meant at the time but I do know that she recognized something in me long before I did.  Sometimes it takes someone else to recognize our gifts and point them out to us.  I wrote for the high-school newspaper and in college I wrote for the traveling speech and drama team.  In Finding Grace (St. Martin’s Press, March 2009) I relate that after I got married I took a job as a salesperson for a communications company.  It was not a good fit for someone who loves words.  I knew so many people who tolerated their jobs.  I’d ask a friend about his job and he’d sigh a pitiful okay with a shrug of the shoulders.  I figured we were all in this together, working okay jobs with an okay salary just hobbling along as best we could on this okay journey.  I hated sales but figured the paycheck was decent so I could make do.  Every now and then the deep philosophical words of Uncle Remus would ring through my head: Boy, whatever you is and wherever you is, don’t be what you ain’t, because when you is what you ain’t, you isn’t.  Unfortunately, I never asked myself the question, “What ain’t you?”

I continued to write, always on the side.  I never heard thunder peals or saw flashes of lightning but a steady drizzle of writing work continued to pour in from different places.  I never noticed.  I was writing short or full length productions complete with plot and character but couldn’t distinguish the plot of my own life and the story that was being revealed.  Grace is subtle that way.  It never knocks you over the head but caresses your soul.  That’s the tricky part in discerning it. We want storms and hurricanes to capture our attention but get silent breath; and like breath grace moves in and out, in and out, every moment of every day, always present and always so easy to miss.

Each time I received a request to write a script for a short sketch or full production I was eager to begin but I began to cringe at technical work (disliking certain work is also a gift of grace!)  I drove home after work one afternoon and sat down at the computer to begin a job of writing the instructions for a piece of computer software.  It sounded like such a simple job.  After an hour sitting in front of the computer I was still at ground zero.  When my husband got home from work I explained the job to him and he said, “They hired you to write the instructions for this software?”  I nodded.  “And you said yes?” he asked.  My husband knew long before I did the kind of writing that suited me.  Troy wrote the instructions (he’s a closet computer geek) and I received the paycheck.  My life was saying, “When you is what you ain’t, you isn’t,” but the paycheck was great and really, isn’t that what it’s all about?  I hope you said no. 

As you continue on your writing journey try to surround yourself with people who can help you discern the work at which you excel (yes men and women are incapable of making your work better).  If it’s clear that you can hear the language of words then write what you know and don’t be “what you ain’t.”  That is the greatest gift you can give yourself.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Deborah Putting March 31, 2009 at

I’m trying to write my memoir and keep running into various problems. I wonder, what was the most difficult part of the writing process for you when you were working on your memoir? How did you overcome the problem or difficulty?

Linda Austin March 31, 2009 at

Your book has a theme to it, of being lost and finding your way. What if we don’t have an overriding theme to our life, a problem or conflict? How do we make ordinary into interesting?

Sally Speaker March 31, 2009 at

I recently looked back through many of the things I have written, most in poem form, and was emotionally “sucked back in” to the difficult times in my life when I wrote them. I was surprised by this “relapse,” and I’m hesitant to try again. Do you know how I can go back into my old writings for inspiration and ideas without the risk of getting myself mired in old feelings?

Halle S. April 1, 2009 at

Hi, love your stories. I’d like to write a memoir about my family, but I can’t help but wonder if my life and that of my family is special enough or unique enough. In other words, would anyone want to read it? I think they are pretty special but will the world?

Allison April 5, 2009 at

I’ve been trying to write my memoir and find my writing covers parts of my life that I didn’t intend to write about. I wonder if you had a set plan, a good outline, that you found you could follow? Perhaps your story began to unfold as you wrote and you had to change your outline?

I need some guidance as i think I am starting to falter in my writing.

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