Lessons from Current Reading

Lately, I’ve been reading a sadly ironic biography of a talented but confused author who spent his life trying to find himself. He rejected what he had in his own backyard and wandered to strange vistas in search of what he thought he wanted only to realize that what he had had was really what he was and what he wanted all along.

Sound confusing? It is. But that’s life. Or rather, it’s the life of John Orley Allen Tate as recounted in Thomas A. Underwood’s book Allen Tate: Orphan of the South (Princeton, 2000). Growing up in the post-World War I South, in a dysfunctional family with parents who chased get-rich-quick schemes and could never settle down in one spot, Tate hated everything about his lot in life. He did everything he could to distance himself from not only his family but also the South and its traditions. Yet, he found himself bound to an overly protective mother who even went to college with him.

Tate wanted to be a famous poet. He wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. Above all, he wanted affection, attention, and approval by the literary elite outside the South. He enrolled in Vanderbilt to gain the education he thought he needed to achieve all those things, but he quickly found himself caught up in the group of writers known as the Fugitives, so-called after the name of their little literary magazine called The Fugitive. Among the group’s members were several faculty members with whom Tate developed a love-hate relationship. Men such as Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Edwin Mims. As Tate’s literary career struggled along, his grades suffered along with his finances, and he ended up getting his older, financially successful brother to pay his way. He sought the approval and acclaim of such Northern literary critics as H.L. Mencken by striving to write in the newly arising Modernist style.

Tate produced several poems that he considered magnificent Modernist works of art, but they were so convoluted and complex and lacking in message that even fellow Modernist writers in his circle failed to understand them. Tate seemed to think that the more obscure his writing the better it was. Enough people whose opinions he valued encouraged his continued production of such writing that he became increasingly disgusted by the uninitiated and unenlightened Southern morons who couldn’t understand what he wrote.

Eventually, Tate became so disgruntled with the perceived boorish literary ignorance of the South (they didn’t know good writing when they saw it, he thought) that he decided to leave the South for good. He finally achieved his dream of living among the literary luminaries of New York City. Later, he traveled to Europe and lived among the expatriate Americans in London and Paris who were trying to produce avante garde, Modernist literature. At first, Tate was enamored of those writers, meeting, partying, and rubbing shoulders with such writers and publishers as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Mark Van Doren, and others. And he relished the libertine life they lived.

Over time, however, he realized that those people were no more than literary snobs who cared for only their own writing, the people who gushed about their writing, and other writers who sought to imitate their writing. About the time this light was dawning for Tate, a publisher offered him contracts to write sequential biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. His research for those books took him back into the South, and that was when he realized that what he really longed for was a return to his roots in the South.  So the prodigal returned.

Tate became a motivating influence for the development of a movement known as Agrarianism, a protest against the ill effects of industrialization, and especially what he saw it doing to the South. He helped organize a group of like-minded writers known as the Agrarians, who became most famous for their collection of essays titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.

Although I haven’t yet finished Underwood’s book, I’m learning that the overriding lesson from it is that one should not despise or be ashamed of where he or she is from but rather to honor and reverence it. One should be himself, not try to be someone else from somewhere else. Look to your own backyard and make the most of what it holds for you.

Oddly, one of my favorite authors also was influenced by many of the same authors with whom Tate worked at Vanderbilt, but he turned out much differently. Rather than rejecting his roots and seeking literary success somewhere else, Jesse Stuart followed the sage advice of Donald Davidson: “Go back to your people. Go back and write of them. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.” (For more on Stuart, see my article “The Beloved Country” in The Writer, April 2016 at this link: https://www.writermag.com/2016/04/11/dennis-l-peterson/.)

Stuart’s writing is everything Tate’s was not. It’s understandable. It deals with common people. It honors Stuart’s Southern heritage and people. And it has a message, a legitimate “takeaway.”

The subtitle of Underwood’s biography is Orphan of the South. If Tate was an orphan, it was an orphanhood that he himself created. Maybe by the time I finish the book I’ll find something about Tate that I like. To this point, however, I find him to be an orphan that I wouldn’t want to adopt!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Advertisements

Books Re-Read

It finally happened, just as I had long fear it someday would.

Several times, I have blogged about having too much to read (for example, https://dlpedit.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/so-much-to-read/). I’ve often feared that with my voluminous reading habit, I would someday read (or worse, buy) a book that I had already read or (worse yet) already had on my shelves.

On a recent trip, my wife and I stopped at an outlet mall beside the interstate to stretch our legs. Amid the plethora of shops was a bookstore. We strolled through its aisles, not to buy but just to browse and stretch.

I breezed through the history and Bible study sections untempted by any title, although those are the sections in which I’d normally be most tempted to buy something. After all, I had only recently donated 13 boxes of my books to charity in an attempt to downsize my library for retirement. I had no intention of buying any more books!

But when I was passing through the section of reference books, a title grabbed my attention. My hands lifted the book from the shelf, and my eyes skimmed its pages. The title sounded vaguely familiar. And I seemed to recall having seen the cover before. But neither the author’s name nor the table of contents rang any bells of remembrance.

The longer I studied the book’s pages, the more I heard it crying out to me, “Buy me! I’ll help you with your writing!” That plea–and the 60-percent-off sticker in the upper right corner of the cover–won me over. I walked out of the store with yet another book.

Shortly after returning from our journey, I began reading my new acquisition. It was pretty good. I began to underline key points and to jot down in my notebook ideas for writing projects that the book brought to mind.

But in the back of my mind I kept hearing another little voice crying, You’ve read this before! Finally, I decided to silence that annoying voice once and for all. I climbed the steps to my office and scanned the dusty shelves. The newly purchased book was nowhere among my other literary trove. Then I pulled the journal in which I write the titles of every book I read as soon as I’ve finished it.

And there was the title of the book I’d just bought. I had checked the book out of the local library a little more than a year earlier. Then why hadn’t I remembered it?

This just shows that it’s sometimes good to read some books more than once. Obviously, I hadn’t received that book’s full benefit the first time I read it. Or maybe I hadn’t been paying sufficient attention. Or maybe it just wasn’t the right time; now, however, time and circumstances were just right for the book’s message to “click” with me.

Francis Bacon famously said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” I might add, some books apparently are to be read more than once.

I also know of another Book from which I would benefit from a second reading–or, rather, numerous readings. Even daily readings. God’s Word. Human authors can teach me some things; God’s Word can teach me so much more. It teaches me everything I need to know for this life. More importantly, it promises eternal benefits, what I need to know for the life to come after this earthly life is ended.

Why not join me in reading the Bible–again and again?

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

 

The Evolving Writer, Part VI–Write for the Intended Audience

If a writer wants his or her message to be understood, one must keep the readers in mind and write to them on their level. Failure to do so results in misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and possibly the total loss of the readers as they, in either frustration or boredom, quit reading.

Many writers make one of two mistakes regarding their audience. They write either above their audience members or down to them. Neither extreme is acceptable.

The writer must know who his or her target audience is. Before you begin writing, ask yourself who will be reading your work. (Whom do you want to reach with your message?) Write using the vocabulary and the sentence structure appropriate to the target readers’ educational level, matching your vocabulary to their vocabulary and prior knowledge of the subject. Don’t assume that the readers know as much as you know about your subject. On the other hand, don’t underestimate them or their knowledge.

Okay, it’s confession time: One of my pet peeves is the writer who tries to impress the readers with his knowledge and vocabulary. Please don’t try to wow or con your readers in this way. Be yourself, and use the terminology and style that is most appropriate to your audience. Remember that your goal is their understanding, not the elevation of your reputation as a scholar or literary genius.

Someone (I’ve seen this quotation attributed to several different people, including the ubiquitous “Anonymous”) once said, “Never try to impress your readers with the profundity of your thought by the obscurity of your language. Whatever has been thoroughly thought through can be stated simply.”

If you keep your intended readers in the forefront of your mind as you write, you’ll avoid this pitfall, and your writing will be brief, concise, precise, and understandable.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part V–Be Precise

Precision in writing is as important to good writing as brevity. In fact, precision, and it’s cousin clarity, inevitably produce brevity. The evolving writer will strive to develop all three qualities. Failure to do so will result in confusion and misunderstanding.

In writing, precision means using the best word for your intended meaning. This usually will not be the first word that pops into your head. It will be the word that you discover on your second, third, or an even later revision of your original work.

Mark Twain famously said (and has been quoted widely ever since he uttered the words), “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

For example, we are often tempted to write something like this: “I feel that we should. . . .” What we really mean, however, has nothing to do with our feelings. Rather, we mean something that has occurred in our logic or reasoning. The more precise term would be “I think (or believe) that we should. . . .” We have way too much acting on feelings; what we need is more thinking.

Here are a few ways to get you started on your quest for more precise writing.

  • Use active voice. Rather than writing “The ball was hit by John,” write “John hit the ball.” That construction not only makes the sentence shorter by a third (brevity) but also gives the opportunity to be more precise, as illustrated in the next suggestion.
  • Use vivid verbs. Rather than writing “John hit the ball,” choose a more precise term for hit. The word hit could be interpreted in many ways, whereas more precise options, depending on your intended meaning, might be tapped, tipped, bunted, dribbled, whacked, clobbered, creamed, or a host of other terms, each of which creates a slightly different image in the reader’s mind.
  • Avoid euphemisms, jargon, and cliches. These are the lazy writer’s tools. Euphemisms are words that soften the real meaning, such as writing passed away instead of died.  Sometimes, a euphemism might be appropriate, but such “softeners” tend to open the door for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Jargon is tired, overused terminology that often is confined within a specific profession. Akin to jargon are worn-out idioms and cliches. Rather than using these, come up with new, more precise ways of saying things.

These are just three ways you can make your writing more precise and lively, thereby achieving both brevity and clarity. Begin to use verbal calipers in your writing, striving for precision, the best way of saying what you want your reader to know.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

 

The Evolving Writer, Part IV–Cut the Fat!

The next stage for a writer who continues to evolve in his or her skills is learning to “cut the fat.” First drafts are enveloped and permeated by streaks of fat, things that do not really help to carry the essential message. But the evolving writer can learn how to streamline that message and get quickly to its various points, to “cut the fat,” just like a butcher might do.

I’ve already discussed how to “speed your lead,” cutting out nonessentials to get to your point quickly in your opening paragraph(s) https://dlpedit.wordpress.com/2018/05/22/the-evolving-writer-part-iii-speed-your-lead/ . One of my earliest lessons in cutting fat in the body of my writing occurred when the editor of The Christian Writer (now out of print) replied to one of my submissions that he would accept my manuscript–but only if I cut it by half! Those were the days before personal computers and clip-and-paste, so I literally cut my manuscript apart using scissors and taped the pieces together. I then inserted transitions to link those somewhat isolated points. After retyping the whole thing, I resubmitted it, and it was accepted and published.

More recently, the editor of The Writer accepted one of my submissions but asked me to reduce it by two-thirds! It took a lot of work, but I was able to do so, and it was published https://www.writermag.com/2016/04/11/dennis-l-peterson/ .

More was involved in my cutting the fat for both of those projects than I can explain here, but here are a few of the ways I trimmed my writing to produce exactly what the editors wanted. These actions seldom will hurt your writing but always will help in communicating your message.

  • Eliminate needless repetition and redundancies.
  • Give only the number of examples, quotations, or Bible references needed to get your point across; don’t pile them up like cordwood.
  • Don’t use a long, complicated word when a simple one will do.
  • Avoid “Pauline” writing (i.e., a long series of complex sentences). Instead, use a variety of sentence structures: simple, compound, and a few complex sentences.

These are only a few of the many ways you can trim the fat from your writing. Begin practicing them and you’ll soon discover many others.

How badly do you want to get published? Be willing to put in the work necessary to cut the fat, radically if necessary (as in the two examples I’ve given), and you’ll begin seeing more progress in your publication record.

What are some ways that you’ve discovered to cut the fat in your writing? Share a few of them with us.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part II–Hallmarks of Good Writing

All good writers want to keep growing in their craft. In the nearly 40 years that I’ve been writing for publication (has it really been that long?), I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. And the pile of rejections attest to that fact. But I’ve tried to learn from those mistakes, thereby improving my writing.

During that time and through all the ups and downs of my writing career, I’ve noticed seven recurring characteristics that editors seek in the writing they’re willing to publish. The more of these hallmarks that exist in a submission, the greater its chances of being accepted. Conversely, the more of them that are lacking, the greater its chances of being rejected.

  1. BREVITY

Write tight. Make every word count. When in doubt, cut it out. Get to your point quickly. I recognize this as one of my greatest problems. I tend to be too wordy, dragging things out and going into more detail than necessary.

2. CLARITY

Don’t repeat unnecessarily; avoid vagueness.

3. PRECISION

Use the best word to say exactly what you mean.

4. HARMONY

Pay attention to how your writing sounds. Read it aloud. (This will also help you identify typos, grammatical errors, and other problems in your writing.)

5. HUMANITY

Don’t merely write about things, ideas, or concepts; write about them in the context of people.

6. HONESTY

Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else in style or vocabulary.

7. POETRY

Strive to write beautifully, not by forcing it but by permeating your writing with the other six hallmarks of good writing.

Compare your most recent writing efforts against these seven hallmarks. How many of them characterize your work? Strive to ensure that you incorporate as many of them as you can into your writing. You’ll not only see your writing improve but also find that more of your submissions get accepted for publication.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part I

If one is making progress in his or her writing, that writing is constantly changing in many ways. It will be changing in content and subject matter, in form or media, and in quality (and perhaps even in quantity).

I was reminded of this fact recently as I thought back to what has happened to my own writing since I submitted my first article in 1981, thirty-seven short years ago. (It seems like only yesterday that I felt the thrill of opening that acceptance letter that is now framed and hanging on my office wall, a spark of encouragement when I’m getting down about my writing.)

I had had minimal formal education in writing–the required college composition courses and the one journalism class offered by the college at the time. And a lot of papers that I had had to write for my other classes. That was a solid starting point, but it was what I later learned in the School of Hard Knocks that most changed my writing. All the “booklearning” in the world will never take the place of experience.

I began writing about economics, taking common economic principles and stating them simply, illustrating them with everyday examples from my experiences as a young social studies teacher. Later, I began writing about the art of writing, sharing with other struggling wannabe writers the lessons I was learning as my teaching career evolved. (By then, I was teaching writing within the English curriculum. After all, I had a minor in English and was a published writer, so the administration assumed I could teach writing, too.) Then, over time, I started writing about educational topics for fellow educators across the nation. Occasionally, I also wrote pieces for religious publications.

All the while, I continued to tackle those other topics about which I’d been writing. The shift that was occurring in my writing was more an adding to, a broadening of, than a series of complete changes in subject matter.

Simultaneously, I found myself changing in the media toward which I directed my writing. Whereas my initial focus had been on journal articles, over time that focus also broadened. Prompted by a temporary job change, I began writing ad copy, including radio ad scripts, as advertising director for a multimillion-dollar, family-run business. Later, as an editor of technical and scientific documents for a large government contractor, I had to help nonwriter scientists communicate their complicated material in understandable terms. Still later, I wrote textbooks and curriculum guides for junior high and high school students before writing my own books.

Through all of these changes, I was learning, and my writing was evolving. By comparing the wording of my original manuscript submissions with the final edited, published results, I saw how magazine and journal editors had improved my pieces. And I tried to do in later writing what they had done. By complying with editors’ requests that I shorten certain pieces (sometimes by as much as half or even two-thirds!), I learned how to make my writing more concise, direct, and precise. By following suggestions that I eliminate direct Scripture quotations and simply paraphrase the principles that those texts contained, I learned how to insert spiritual lessons into secular publications.

Not all change, however, is good. Sometimes we change for the worse. But our writing can still benefit and improve even from bad change if we recognize and learn from our mistakes. The biggest mistake is not in making the mistake but in not doing anything to correct it. If we try something new and it falls flat, we must either learn from it and do better next time or drop it and move on. Don’t keep repeating the same mistake.

If your writing is not changing, you’re not improving or growing as a writer. Only with change comes improvement. I’m still learning, and so should you. There are no know-it-alls in life. Learn something new. Try a different genre. Test a new market. Keep growing and improving.

This fact is true not only in writing but also in every other area of life, including intellectually and spiritually. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying; if you’re not moving forward, you’re sliding backward. Don’t wither and die as a writer. Change and grow!

I hope in future posts to share some of the lessons that have caused me grow. I’m still learning, but maybe some of what I’ve learned will help you in your writing, too.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

 

So Much to Read!

At times, I get frustrated by the amount of reading material that pours in through both my postal mail and my e-mail, every item demanding my attention. There is so much that I can’t keep up with it. And I find myself piling up reams of material in a “To Be Read” file, either as a pile of paper or overflowing electronic files or a crowded computer desktop.

In just one recent week, my mailbox and computer in-box brought more reading material than I could devour in a month of Sundays. The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Southern Writers Magazine, Imprimis, Journal of Southern History. And more. Throw in a dozen or more once-, twice-, or thrice-a-week e-zines I subscribe to and numerous blog posts I follow, to say nothing of article manuscripts and book galleys to proof. And I haven’t touched on the ubiquitous posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Or keeping up with all the news of the world, nation, state, and local community. Or the voluminous amount of reading I must do in my research for my articles and books and blog posts.

My day is prescheduled for me. If I allow it.

Every so often, I force myself to stop everything else to plow through those accumulated piles, reading a few, skimming others, and merely glancing at still others before deleting them or relegating them to the legendary File 13. I wonder why I bothered to save them in the first place.

I’m convinced that part of my inability to remember things as well as I once did is this innundation with information. (It can’t be purely the rest of aging!) Our minds are overloaded, just like an overloaded electrical circuit. And you know what results when that happens! Zzzzzzt! There’s a short circuit.

So what’s the solution? People have offered several. And I’ve probably tried them all, some more than once, before I again fall off the wagon and begin to see the “to-be-read” pile growing again.

  • Go on a vacation. Media free, computer free, mail free. But the pile is still there, just much bigger than before, when I get back. (No vacation lasts forever.)
  • Prioritize reading material. But that requires taking time to at least skim the material to determine the place it deserves on the priority list.
  • Hit DELETE. Unsubscribe. But then you feel uninformed. Besides, you might accidentally delete something really important. Or the magazine is offering such a great deal to extend your subscription that you just can’t pass it up.

I’ve found (not to say that I’ve perfected this point; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing on this topic, would I?) that the key, as with most things in life, is moderation. I must resist the urge to sign up for every free e-zine, to follow every interesting blog, to subscribe to every magazine, no matter how interesting and helpful they promise to be. To stop all of them cold turkey would be intellectual suicide.

I must prioritize. In e-mail, only items that are directly business related must be answered. All e-zines will have to wait their turn. All appeals from social or political causes must wait even longer. And spam e-mails that are trying to get me to sign up for a book, training class, or “special report” that will revolutionize my writing and make me a millionaire, DELETE!

But there is one bit of reading that must get the No. 1 slot every day, regardless of what other things are pressing: my reading of God’s Word. Watchman Nee’s motto was “No Bible, no breakfast!” And legendary preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “He who rushes from his bed to his business, and waiteth not to worship, is as foolish as though he had not put on his clothes . . . and is as unwise as though he dashed into battle without arms or armor.”

With so many good things to read, how could I fail to read the best thing?

I also must limit the time I spend on social media and resist the urge to watch every hilarious cute cat video that gets posted. I must even limit how much time I spend in writing my own blog posts. Although I try to do my best writing on this to create a good impression and entice more readers, thereby expanding my writer’s platform and showing that I’m a professional, I also realize that it’s only one arrow in the arsenal. And a blog post’s lifespan is about a day (if that). Besides, it’s meant to be casual and conversational, not academic and literary perfection. So what if there are some dangling modifiers or typos? You get what you get, such as it is, in the amount of time I can afford to devote to it. That’s what I’ve done on this post anyway.

Now I have to shift gears and resume reading for the research I’m doing on my current writing project. But first I must check my e-mail and Facebook. Priorities, you know!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

But That’s Not in My Plan!

Sometimes things just turn out differently than we plan. That’s life. But, if you’re like me, such unexpected changes to the plans tend to upset us.

For example, whenever we’re heading out on a trip, I like to make a list of everything I need to pack so I don’t forget anything. (Yet, I always manage to forget something! I once had to buy practically a new wardrobe because I left my suit bag hanging in the closet at home. My wife still insists that I did it on purpose.) I also like to have a schedule: a specific time of departure to which I adhere religiously; a timetable with definite milestones that we must reach at precise times; planned necessary stops for food, gasoline, bathroom breaks, etc.; and a definite time of arrival. Any deviation from the plan creates frustration.

But it seldom works according to my plan. Things happen. The stops take longer than expected because we have to wait longer than we should at the fast food joint. The bathrooms are crowded (or we have to do the janitor’s job for him before we can use them). Or we have car trouble. The more such disruptions to the plan, the greater the degree of frustration that results.

I must admit, however, that sometimes the best things have happened when the unexpected disrupts my plan. At the moment of the disruption, I might not know how it will turn out, but afterward I might see that the revised schedule or itinerary or event actually worked out for the better. I think that’s what’s called a serendipitous moment.

That has sometimes happened with my writing. In fact, it happened just a few weeks ago.

From the beginning, my original plan for my four books has been that my promotion and marketing efforts would focus on only two of them, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries and Teacher. A third, Look Unto the Hills, would receive much less attention because it is a collection of memoirs of my early personal life (childhood, in fact), and I knew there would be little public interest in that. And for the fourth book, A Goodly Heritage, I intended no marketing efforts whatsoever, having written it for only my own children, my two siblings, and possibly a few other close relatives who might (might!) be interested.

That was MY plan. And then something happened to change that plan. I received an e-mail request from the editor of Southern Writer magazine. She wanted to “push” one of my books, but neither of the two that I would have expected. She wanted me to write an article on how I wrote and researched A Goodly Heritage. She wasn’t interested in my family; she was interested in sharing with her readers how to write a “family legacy.”

Who knows how this article will turn out or what may result from its publication? Perhaps nothing at all will come of it. Nothing lost. On the other hand, it might open other doors for my writing that I could never have imagined, things that weren’t on my plan.

This is often the way God works with His children. His Word tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9, Amplified).

But He also tells us about His plans for us: “For I know the thoughts and plans that I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts and plans for welfare and peace, and not for evil, to give you hope in your final outcome” (Jer. 29:11, Amplified).

Have you had a sudden change in your plans? Rather than allowing frustration to ruin your day, seize the new opportunity and make the most of it. That’s what I’m slowly learning to do. Let’s learn together!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Twice- (or More Often) Told Tales

Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are to be tested, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Such is similarly the case with stories, especially stories that involve one’s family. Some family stories are good for one or two tellings, but a few stories are to be told over and over again. They are, like the title of a set of books that I was given as a child, Stories that Never Grow Old. And they should be told and retold so often that one’s children can tell them accurately to their own children, and their children’s children to their children.

They do not have to be long, elaborate, detail-laden stories; they might be mere passing incidents. But, told and retold, they become part of family lore and potentially carry with them strong family values. That’s how the children of Israel passed their religion from one generation to another with the purpose “that the generation to come might know” (see Psa. 78:1-7).

For example, when our daughters were young, my wife and I were driving in the city with them one day. We were driving the speed limit, but when a traffic light that we were quickly approaching turned yellow, I couldn’t stop safely, so I sped up ever so slightly and sang out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”

In response to my daughters’ curious inquiries of “What was that?” and “What did you mean, Daddy?” I told them about Fred, a college roommate who was a cinema major/speech minor. Fred had a lot of speaking assignments for his classes, and he practiced all of them before the mirror for hours on end. One night, when I was trying to study int he room, he was practicing an excerpt from James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” As he practiced, he was increasingly dissatisfied with his rendition of one particular segment, and he kept repeating it in attempts to get it right–the right sound, volume, tone, and intensity of feeling. In fact, he repeated it so often that I had that part of the story memorized as well as he did by the end of the evening. And I’ve never forgotten it.

When I went through the caution light, the situation reminded me of Fred’s story line, and I instinctively repeated it aloud. After I had told the story to the girls, I used the phrase every time I went through an intersection on a yellow light. They soon became so familiar with it from my repeated recitation that they started saying it before I could.

The other day, one of my daughters told me of an incident that occurred as she and her husband were driving in their city. They had almost entered an intersection when the traffic light changed to yellow. Reflexively, she cried out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”

Her surprised husband looked at her strangely and asked, “What was that outburst all about?”

Suddenly realizing what she had done, my daughter burst out laughing.

“What made you say that?” her husband pressed.

Between fits of laughter, she explained the whole backstory of the exclamation. Now he knows. The story is spreading.

My sons-in-law are getting used to such things as they happen often in our family. Just as they’ve become used to saying, in chorus, “We were meant to be here!” whenever we’re out shopping and find a parking spot close to the store when the parking lot is crowded.

I recounted that lengthy explanation as an illustration of how family stories, legends, and even values get passed from generation to generation. That particular incident is inconsequential, but some family stories are critical to an understanding of who we are as a family, how we got to where we are today, or what makes us tick as a family.

What stories do you have to tell your descendants? Tell them! And then retell them–over and over again. Your family will, in turn, tell them again. “That the generations to come might know. . . .”