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

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In all Honesty. . . .

One of the most important lessons my parents taught us kids when we were growing up was always to be honest, always to tell the truth. Even when doing so would cause us pain (as in bringing on punishment for something we admitted doing), they expected us to tell the truth. Being true to one’s word was the most important characteristic of the reputation they wanted us to develop. Such had been the case with our ancestors, and they wanted it to continue with us.

I thought of my parents’ admonition recently when I ran across two quotations from Napoleon Hill (on the right in the photo with W. Clement Stone). I share them here with the hope that they will inspire you, too.

It’s mighty easy to justify dishonesty if you make your living from it. [For some reason, I automatically thought of politicians when I read that statement! A sad commentary on the state of our government today.] The subconscious mind makes no moral judgments. If you tell yourself something over and over, your subconscious mind will eventually accept even the most blatant lie as fact. Those whose lives and careers have been destroyed by dishonest behavior began the process of self-destruction when they convinced themselves that one slight infraction of the rules wouldn’t matter. When you sell yourself on an idea, make sure the idea is positive, beneficial to you, and harmless to others. Just as negative thoughts and deeds return to their originator, so do positive ones. When you practice honest, ethical behavior, you set in motion a force for good that will return to you many times over.

Closely related to and building upon that first quotation is the second one:

Falsehood does evermore have a way of publishing itself. It is virtually impossible to conceal the truth forever. It is the natural order of things that the truth will eventually come out. This single fact is the foundation of our judicial system and the basis on which all human relationships are formed. A business, professional, or personal relationship built upon a lie cannot long endure, but one that is founded on truth and equality of benefit for the participants is unlimited. Make it a practice to tell the truth in all that you do–even when it doesn’t matter–and you will form a habit of truthfulness. You will know instinctively that it is better to tell the truth and face the consequences than to launch a falsehood that will eventually make itself known to the world.

Mother and Daddy had never read anything by Napoleon Hill, but they read faithfully the original source of his tidbits of wisdom: the Bible. Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life” (John 14:6). What better foundation to build a reputation upon than the Truth Himself?

[Receive Napoleon Hill’s “Thought for the Day” in your e-mail every morning absolutely FREE. Just click this link http://www.naphill.org/  and sign up!]

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Tissue in the White Wash

I was ready to tackle the last of my morning domestic duties–taking the white wash from the dryer, folding it, and putting it away–when I noticed what my wife had warned me of earlier.

(As a home-based writer/editor with a teacher for a wife, I have to chip and do my share of the house work: clean up the breakfast dishes, vacuum, dust, etc. And I’ve honed the process to a science. I had to if I expected to have any time left for my real work.)

I recalled (vaguely) hearing my wife mention something about finding a facial tissue in the white wash. Her comment went in one ear and out the other, as I’m wont to let such remarks do whenever I’m focused on something else. I promptly forgot her warning.

Until I opened the door of the dryer and out fell dozens of little pieces of white tissue.

Thankfully, the lint trap caught most of it, I thought.

I removed the trap and scraped off an amazing amount of tissue among the normal lint. Putting the trap back into its slot, I caught a glimpse of a bit of tissue that had escaped. My eye followed its lazy descent to the floor. At my feet the floor was covered with shreds of tissue. I dutifully picked them up and tossed them into the trash can before pulling out the assorted T-shirts, athletic socks, and unmentionables and depositing them in the laundry basket. With every handful of white cotton wash came bits and pieces of tissue.

I took the load to the kitchen table and began to sort the items. I shook each one vigorously to get out the wrinkles before I folded it. With every shake came a cloud of tissue lint and residue.

That tissue must have been of three-ply (maybe even four-ply) construction. It multiplied like the biblical loaves and fishes. It seemed that every time I moved a piece of clothing, it shed particles of tissue all over the kitchen floor. I picked up all I could see and tossed it into the nearby trash can.

I carried the folded clothes to the bedroom and began placing them in their assigned corners of the dresser. As I did so, I picked more tidbits of tissue from the items.

Sighing, I returned to the kitchen to begin my writing for the day. As I passed through the living room, I noticed bits of tissue on the carpet, pieces I’d missed on the kitchen floor, stepped on, and tracked through the just-vacuumed living room and bedroom.

I just know that the next time I pull a T-shirt from my dresser drawer that with it will come even more tissue particles. I can feel that lump under my armpit even now. Or the lump in the toe of my sock after I’ve put on my sneakers and headed out for my walk. I’m convinced that if I could reassemble that one tissue like a jigsaw puzzle, I’d have a small box of tissues for that next cold or sinus infection.

As I think about this incident, I can’t help seeing the lesson it can teach. Our words and actions, whether intentional or unintentional, have consequences. Although we might try to clean up or make amends or seek the forgiveness of those affected by what we say or do, the consequences sometimes keep cropping up, just like those infernal bits of tissue.

Eventually, those pesky pieces will all disappear, but until they do, I’ll have constant reminders to check somebody’s pockets before doing the wash. And I’m reminded that it could be worse; I could have left an ink pen in my shirt pocket!

Been there. Done that. Don’t want to repeat it!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

 

More on Getting Started

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. But taking that first step is, admittedly, often hard. Harder for some than for others. Especially hard for some writers. And at some point for all writers.

Continuing my thoughts on this topic from my two previous posts (https://dlpedit.wordpress.com/2018/03/23/how-to-be-a-high…ersistent-writer/ ‎ and https://dlpedit.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/the-time-to-act/ ), I’d like to offer for your consideration the following two quotations, each by a famous, successful author.

Louis L’Amour: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

Some of what you write will, undoubtedly, be garbage, but you can remedy that when you go back to edit your work. After all, didn’t someone else say, “The writer’s best friend is the trash can?” (This quotation reminds me that I have downloaded on my Kindle several of L’Amour’s novels that I must get around to reading. Someday.)

William Faulkner: “Don’t be a ‘writer.’ Be writing.”

Many people want to be known as writers, but they don’t want to do what is required to warrant that title, which is to write! They’re more than willing to talk all day about writing, what they’re going to write, what someone else ought to write, etc. But they don’t write.

Now you know what to do. So what are you waiting for? Start writing!

(Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson)

 

Put the Cookies on the Bottom Shelf!

An effective teacher teaches such that the lowest-achiever, the least capable student in the classroom, can understand. If the lowest student can understand a concept, certainly everyone else will be able to. . . .

The best teachers take complex concepts and present them simply and meaningfully to their students when the time and subject matter are appropriate and the students are ready to learn them. This does not mean “dumbing it down” or being anti-intellectual. It does not mean either resorting to mere entertainment or rejecting the teaching of higher-order thinking skills. It does not mean teaching junior high and high school students using one’s college class notes. And it does not mean assigning professional-level materials as “ancillary” or “supplemental” readings.

It does mean taking students from where they currently are, making them stretch (but not too much at once), and guiding them slowly onward, as they are ready and as far as you can take them.

Let’s start putting those cookies on the bottom shelf!

(Excerpts from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught by Dennis L. Peterson, 2017, pp. 208, 215)

Copyright (c) 2018

Selective Impatience

By nature, I’m an impatient person. (I know that some of you who know me think that I’m calm and laid-back and that nothing disturbs me, but what you don’t know is that inside that calm exterior is brewing a frustrated, impatient turmoil!) Part of that trait, I think, was instilled in me by my parents, who taught us kids to obey those in authority; to be on time for everything; to reply promptly whenever an adult spoke to us; and, when something had to be done, to “just do it” rather than “dilly-dally” around about it.

Whenever Mother or Daddy told us kids to do (or not to do) something, we learned that theirs was the final word on the matter. We’d better “hop to it,” or else! And that principle carried over to every other authority figure in our lives. If a teacher told us to do (or not to do) something, we obeyed. We knew that if we didn’t, we’d not only get into trouble at school but also face greater repercussions when we got home. They taught us that the policeman who directed us to do something was the boss in that situation, and we’d better obey him.

So whenever I see kids disobeying their parents’ instructions today (and apparently getting away with it), I quickly become impatient with the situation. It frustrates me. I want to shake the parents and tell them, “Don’t you realize what you’re doing here?” I also think of this principle whenever I hear on the news of someone who was shot by a policeman and learn that the “victim” had disregarded numerous orders to stop or to put up his hands or whatever else the policeman might have instructed. How much better it is simply to obey!

My parents also taught us kids to be on time. Actually, if we were merely “on time,” we were late! Being late, they taught, was showing disrespect for the people who were running the meeting (who were at least distracted by our late arrival or, worse, had to repeat themselves for our benefit but others’ boredom). It also was disrespectful of the other attendees whom we were disrupting by our entering the meeting late. Therefore, whenever I attend a meeting or a function that doesn’t start on time, I get impatient. I’ve often thought that it seems that the people who live closest to the venue tend to be the ones who are always late.

Another lesson my parents taught us was that whenever something was to be done, we were to do it right then, not later. And their word was the law. When they said, “Jump,” they expected us to jump. And we didn’t dilly-dally about details of how high. We just did whatever they said. That was not just for their convenience; it was, in the long run, for our own safety. Suppose that we’d habitually ignored their instructions until we got good and ready to obey and then one day they told us to get away from a certain area of the yard. Rather than obeying, we might have argued or questioned why–and then stepped on a yellow jacket nest and been stung.

I learned early in life that whenever an adult spoke to me, to reply courteously and promptly. (That was hard for me because I was so shy, and I still struggle with it, but good habits are hard to break.) If I was introduced to someone, or if someone approached me and I was seated, I was taught to stand and address them politely. It’s a sign of respect for the other person. And I get impatient with kids today who ignore adults who address them, remaining slouched over their electronic gadgets and apparently ignoring or disregarding the person who is approaching them.

These lessons and others (e.g., giving up one’s seat to a lady and taking off one’s hat or cap inside a building) have stayed with me throughout my life, and people sometimes express surprise when I act accordingly. Whenever a job is completed before its deadline. Whenever I stand when approached by someone. Whenever I get started on a job right away.

“Oh, but that’s so old-fashioned,” some people might object. “We live in a more laid-back society today.” That’s certainly true, but good habits and proper etiquette never go out of style. And that’s why I get so impatient with people who weren’t brought up that way. They cause a lot of inconvenience and problems and sometimes even harm for the rest of us–and themselves. Society might be more laid-back today, but it’s also less polite, less friendly, less civil. Part of the reason is that everything is about self today rather than about others. The surprising and seemingly oxymoronic fact is that whenever we show respect for and put others first, we are actually respecting and helping ourselves.

There’s a difference, however, between mere impatience and selective impatience. Impatience might manifest itself when I become frustrated at the immature behavior by a child who knows no better or by the delays of someone who isn’t getting started on their project because they don’t know how to go about it. But selective impatience is that which manifests itself when confronted by inappropriate behavior by those who should know better. By disrespect. By lack of common courtesy. By total selfishness.

May God give me grace and wisdom to be more selective in my impatience. I dare say that I’m not the only one who needs such divine help. You, too? 

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Playing Trucks, Undermining Foundations

Uncle Dillon had bought my brother Dale and me a set of toy tractor-trailer trucks and an assortment of accessories. Each of us had his own tractor, one red and one blue, I think. The set included a variety of kinds of trailers: a flatbed, a box trailer, a cattle trailer, and a car carrier. And then there was an assortment of highway signs.

Dale and I decided that the best place to play with these wonderful toys on hot summer days was in our cool basement. The basement was still unfinished, and its floor was just hard, leveled dirt. In the center of the basement were two 5 x 5-inch support posts sitting atop concrete piers about 6-8 inches deep. They held up the center beam of the house.

We already had a Tonka or Buddy L road grader, so we graded roads all over that basement. And we ran our tractor-trailer loads of imaginary consumer goods and livestock all over our basement roadway network.

At some point, I decided to start an excavation company to expand the economy of our basement world. The site I selected was right beside the first of the support posts, the one that was in the dead center of the house. I dug our dirt, loaded it onto an empty plastic dish on the deck of our flatbed trailer, and hauled it elsewhere in Basementville. I kept up my work faithfully every time we played there, which was practically every day.

One day, Daddy came down into this tiny world on some errand, and he immediately noticed my pit, where I had dug all the way down to the bottom of the pier and all the way around it. Suddenly we noticed that Daddy had added a Cape Canaveral (it wasn’t yet called Cape Kennedy) to our little world because he lifted off the ground. Was he ever angry!

Daddy caught up with me somewhere outside, where I was roaming the fields and woods, and he carried me quickly down to Basementville, but he wasn’t wanting to play trucks. He sat me down in front of my excavation site and gave me a very graphic lesson in what would happen to our house if I continued to dig away at the foundation post. I got the lesson with all of my senses: I saw what he meant, I heard what he said, and I certainly felt the intensity of his conviction!

The Bible asks, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psa. 11:3). As a child, I learned an important lesson about how a little chipping away at foundations, a little erosion of values, and a little undermining of standards can go a long way toward producing massive failure. Just as I had threatened the very structural integrity of our home by my digging around the basement foundation post, even so our nation has eroded its Judeo-Christian values, and it will ultimately (short of a spiritual revival) lead to God’s judgment, just as my digging around the footer led to my punishment. I learned my lesson in that instance. The bigger question is whether the United States of America will learn God’s lesson before it’s too late.

Not long after the episode I’ve described, Daddy found the time and money to pour concrete in the basement. . . . Supporting the upper floors then were not wooden beams but strong, adjustable metal posts. His “urban renewal”program spelled the end of Basementville. It wasn’t merely a ghost town; it ceased to exist altogether. But the lesson has stayed with me ever since.

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

(Excerpted from Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee. Available from http://www.amazon.com.)

 

Mile Markers

We’ve all passed them on the interstate. They’re ubiquitous. We can’t miss them, but we seldom notice them. We note them only when we’re in trouble and might need to refer to one to direct help to our location. We’re just too involved in our journey to notice them more than then.

I’m referring to those narrow, vertical green signs along the shoulder called mile markers.

Today, this post is sort of a mile marker for me. It’s not much of a mile marker to many bloggers who have been at this longer than I have. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer.

Be that as it may and for what it’s worth, this marks my 200th blog post since I began this blog on September 4, 2015. Much like what happens when I’m driving, I happened to glance to the shoulder during my writing journey and noticed this mile marker. It flashes past and becomes history as soon as I hit the “publish” button. Then the journey goes on as though the marker never existed. But for a brief moment, it made me reflect.

Why Did I Begin Blogging?

I had read and heard the “experts” say that every author must have a blog to gain “credibility,” to build and expand a “platform,” and to “brand” himself or herself. (Hmm. Doesn’t branding involve getting burned?!) I had only days earlier signed my first book contract with McFarland for Governing the Confederacy. (Only they changed my title to Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, which I thought was too long and ponderous and uninteresting for an effective title. But they were the “experts,” so that’s how it hit the market.)

I’ve never been much of a salesman, especially when it involves promoting myself, so even the baby step of starting a blog stretched me well beyond my comfort zone. I’m still uncomfortable doing so.

Has My Blog Achieved Its Purposes, Accomplished Its Goals?

I don’t know, but probably not if measured by the standards of those who presume to know. And judging from the successful blogs I read, I’d have to agree. I’ve gotten a few “likes” and fewer comments, and I have a couple of faithful followers. (They’re usually the ones who comment.) I have no idea whether it has led directly or indirectly to any book sales.

Judging by the number of readers, most “experts” would say that my blog is a failure. Agents, editors, and publishers want to see a lot of followers and shares. They judge the size of an author’s market by those magic numbers. Without them, they won’t consider the author’s works, no matter how well written or timely. Or, if they do, they won’t devote a lot of time or money marketing them.

The Positive Benefits

But my blog has accomplished a couple of things. First, it has forced me to write regularly, according to a self-imposed schedule. That is a big part of my journey. I determined (based on what the “experts” said) to post something twice a week, every Tuesday and Friday. Those self-imposed deadlines, the mile markers along the writing roadway, forced me to come up with things to write about. I don’t know if readers have found my subjects to be interesting, but those subjects interested me–at least at the time I wrote about them.

Most of my topics have related to historical events or historic characters. Sometimes they were about writing, editing, or publishing. Sometimes about educational issues. In a few instances, I’ve even forced myself to post something about my articles or books. And I’ve learned, unsurprisingly, that it’s much easier and more natural to write about those other topics than about myself or my writing products.

Second, writing a twice-weekly blog has forced me to plan. I can’t wait until the last minute and then just throw something together. Oh, I’ve posted a few things serendipitously, such as quotations that struck me during my reading or when something unexpected happened or came to my attention. When “the muse” spoke to me most clearly, however, was when I had a planned schedule, a prepared list of topics, each tied to a specific date that just happened to coincide with a Tuesday or a Friday. These were the items on the itinerary of my journey. Once posted, each became another mile marker passed, little noticed and insignificant.

The “experts” would probably say that I’m being too transparent here. But I’m just telling it like it is.

Mile marker 200 is now behind me. MM201 is approaching. I don’t know how many more such mile markers I have to pass during my journey. No one but God knows when or where one’s journey will end at one’s final destination. I only know that I must keep “driving” on my journey. I must write. I don’t know how many people are following me; I know that a lot of people are ahead of me, and a lot of people are passing me, progressing faster in their writing careers. But I just know that I must write regardless of numbers. That’s my calling. I’ll leave the numbers, the results–the “likes,” the “shares,” the “followers,” the sales–with God. After all, He is the only Judge of true success.

In yesterday’s sermon, our pastor hit the nail on the head and offered this food for thought: If glory goes to you, it’s not going to God.

Soli gloria Deo!

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

 

Lessons Learned: Writing

For the last 36 years (since my first article was published in 1981), I have been learning the art and craft of writing and the “tricks of the trade” of publishing. To paraphrase a certain insurance company, I’ve learned a lot (much of it the hard way) because I’ve seen and experienced a lot. And I’m still learning. Perhaps you can relate to some of the things I’ve learned. Here are a few of them but by no means all of them.

  1. Study the markets before you submit. When the first article I ever submitted was accepted and published and I got that check in the mail, I was hooked. I began cranking out article manuscripts right and left and submitting them so often that the postal clerks and I were almost best buds. But then reality struck: I began finding more rejections than junk mail in my mailbox. That’s when I realized that something was wrong. I wasn’t studying the markets and tailoring my submissions accordingly. When I began to do so, the acceptances became to creep in. Even some articles that had earlier been rejected found a home and were published.
  2. Rejection is not personal (usually). Publications have needs and guidelines, and those needs change over time. Sometimes the changes are seasonal. Sometimes they are topical. And sometimes they are philosophical. When the rejection reads, “Doesn’t meet our needs at this time,” we should take it at face value. In a few instances, however, maybe you and the editor just don’t hit it off. Or your writing isn’t quite up to the bar that publication has set. But those instances should be rare. Even if the rejection IS personal, move on. There are other publications and editors out there who want and need what you write. Forget the bad experience and create good ones elsewhere.
  3. Editors change. This point goes along with the previous item. Editors tend to move around a lot. If you have a good working relationship with an editor, work to stay on good terms with him or her. But realize that one day–sometimes sooner, sometimes later–that editor will move on. Be ready for the new editor and brace yourself for rejection–then move on. I once worked with the same editor at the same publication for nearly 25 years. He published almost everything I submitted. But he eventually retired. His replacement rejected everything I submitted. My writing hadn’t changed. The editor did. I submitted my work elsewhere, telling myself that he and the publication’s readers, not I, were the losers.
  4. Not everyone will rejoice at your successes. People are funny. One day, someone will cheer you in your writing efforts, but as soon as your work is published, he or she suddenly becomes sullen and silent or begins to find fault with your writing. I think it’s the result of a big lump of envy and a dash of jealousy that prompts the change. If you’re excited about your writing success, I hope others will be, too. But don’t count on it.
  5. Be faithful to your calling. If God has called you to write, realize that He does not use the same measuring stick for success that people use. He rewards faithfulness in performance, not outward results. This truth is hard to swallow when you’re getting rejection slips, but faithful persistence promises and pays an ultimate reward. Keep at it. All in God’s time and in His medium of exchange, you’ll see success.

What have you learned from your writing experiences? Care to share them? I look forward to reading them.

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Memories, Memories

It’s happening with greater frequency nowadays. At least it seems to me to be more frequent.

I’m downstairs and need something (say the stapler) that is upstairs. I fly to the stairs and climb them as fast as my arthritic knees will allow. I reach the landing, step a few feet to the right, and enter my office. And then I stand there wondering what it was that I came up to get.

Failing to dredge that fact from my memory, I turn and trudge back down the steps. About three steps from the bottom, I suddenly remember. I turn in mid-step and retrace my steps back to the office. As I pass through the door, I spy a book that I had meant to reshelf yesterday when I finished looking up a bit of information but, sidetracked by something else, had placed on my wife’s school supplies cabinet. I grab the book and return it to its proper spot on the bookcase shelf. Then I walk over to my oak roll-top desk, shuffle a few papers, and stare into space wondering why I came upstairs.

Again failing to recall the purpose of my ascent, I begin the trek back down. Entering the kitchen, I again remember, and I make a third trip up the stairs, muttering under my breath, “Stapler! Stapler!” I repeat the word over and over until I put my hands on the stapler sitting on my desk. I then take it back downstairs and staple whatever it is that needs stapling.

That happens several times a day, it seems. It happens so often that it has long since ceased to be the topic of humorous, self-deprecating conversation.

Memory–or the lack of it–can mess with one’s mind, especially if he or she is a writer. Even moreso if one writes memoir or history.

Two or more people can experience or witness the same event, and yet each will have a slightly (or maybe even a vastly) different memory of it.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when my nieces and nephews came to visit us and asked, “Uncle Dennis, Dad told us that when you two were kids such and such happened. Is that really the way it was?”

Then I felt obliged to set them straight on what really had happened in the anecdote my brother had told them. Somehow, in his accounts, he was always the innocent victim, and I was the guilty party. In my account, it was the reverse; he was the instigator, and I was the gullible victim. Each of us remembered the same incident in dramatically different ways. And each of us is adamant that our rendition is the true and only reliable account.

The truth is that each of us tends to remember only certain details in a decidedly individualized way. We don’t remember some details at all. And we often misremember the details we do retain. That’s why it’s so important that we writers, especially those of us who are attempting to write memoir or history, study multiple perspectives before we write. Even then, we must recognize the fact that our flawed and failing memories and our biases or prejudices can mislead or deceive us as to the truth of our subjects.

Too often, historians (especially those whose writings are motivated or driven by a political or philosophical agenda) present a complex event or issue in an oversimplified way that ignores certain facts that do not fit into their scheme and present their myopic view as the only right view.

Take, for example, the issue of slavery in America. Too often, that issue is simplistically presented as a uniquely Southern institution for whom only Southerners bear blame and responsibility. In reality, it was a national issue. Had it not been for Northern shipbuilders, shipowners, and ship captains and Northern textile manufacturers who profited from the transportation and sale of slaves and used the cotton produced in the South as raw material for their goods, there would have been no demand for cotton and therefore no demand for slaves in the South. Besides, in the colonial period, there were slaves in every American colony, including those in the North. And not only black slaves but also Native American slaves. And little Rhode Island was a big supplier of slaves for the trade. The same problem is evident in the recounting of the treatment of slaves. Many slave owners and overseers were indeed Simon Legrees, but many others were not.

Too many historians also present slavery as the only cause of the war that soon engulfed the nation. They conveniently forget–or ignore–the many other issues that contributed to the eruption: the tariff, state sovereignty, the debate over federally financed internal improvements, regional disparity in representation in Congress, etc. In reality, there was no one cause of the war but many. To present it otherwise is sloppy history at best and intentional deceit at worst.

In memoir writing, memory can put one in a nostalgic mood and win the plaudits of relatives, or it can cause life-long rifts between family members who remember events differently than the writer presents them. The key is to present memories as clearly as one’s mind will allow but to do so as kindly as possible. As John Leax wrote in his book Grace Is Where I Live, “I take the stories of my people, I give them shape, and hand them down. What I pass on is truth made new–half-truth spun through kind invention.”

Now let’s see. I had one other point I wanted to make about this topic, but I can’t seem to remember what it was. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have remembered it by the time I sit down to write my next blog post–or not.