Travel “Inserimento” and a Book Review: Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Lately I’ve been calling for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Meanwhile I’ve been reading Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron. Yes, dear reader, I look everywhere for fresh insights to bring you, including in the world of fiction-writing.

This morning it struck me that Cron’s advice is highly relevant to writing that “inserimento” episode of your travel memoir. Her key point is that, based on the science of what our brains are wired to crave in every story, writers must not start by plotting the external structure of their work (whether fiction or nonfiction). Rather, we must blueprint the inner struggle of the story’s protagonist. What do they want? What do they believe will help them achieve that aim, and why? Where is a mistaken belief thwarting their progress?

Or, to let Lisa Cron say it:

How do you isolate and identify your protagonist’s inner struggle, so you can then develop it? By laser beaming into his specific dueling internal duo: what your protagonist wants (his desire) and the misbelief that keeps him from it (think: fear).  It is from these two small, burning embers that all stories grow and flame. It is this struggle that becomes your story’s third rail.

The opening of a travel memoir is the perfect place to explore this starting place. Before the external events get underway, the trip to the airport, the jet-lagged “inserimento” in some strange new now, the protagonist wants something and believes something.

  • She wants to arrive in a novel, exciting, delightful experience.
  • She believes she knows enough / has trusted the right advisors / to lay plans that will deliver that surprise and delight.

Here’s a little example from my 2008 trip to Italy–

 “Cena? Non ce stasera,” the barrista tells us. Dinner will not be served tonight. The little restaurant of the Torre Cambiaso hotel is closed, because this is a Monday.

This means there really WILL be no dinner, because the nearest restaurant is so far down the mountain that the cost of the taxi alone would equal a dinner.

We have arrived at this baronial-estate-turned-hotel high on a promontory overlooking Genoa, and we are in the kind of personal low that predictably overtakes anyone who’s been in transit more than 24 hours and has been told there will be no dinner.

I had wanted to cushion the landing from a transatlantic flight, and (mis) believed that my knowledge of Italian culture trumped the several negative reviews on Trip Advisor of the Torre Cambiaso. And I got what I deserved… a good story (which I’ll publish here in a few weeks) and a comeuppance for my hubris.

Back to Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. As I read, I am finding my approach to memoir writing undergoing a deepening in appreciation for the emotional beats of the story, brought on by the shift from a focus on external structure to internal struggle.

The book itself is annoying for its padded, joke-y style. I’ll end with a quote from GoodReads reviewer Rebecca Renner: “…a little bit of really stellar advice almost eclipsed by the rest of the junk surrounding it. My advice? If you read this, check it out from the library. Read pages 35-123 and skip the rest.” That’s what I’m doing and hey, it’s working for me.

Writing prompt: Send me YOUR stories of inserimento! Submission guidelines here.

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A Guatemalan Inserimento

Last week I called for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Several of you have responded, so here come the stories! – Sarah

By “WanderN Wayne” Hammerstrom

As WanderNWayne, people assume my wandering travel is directionless, without destination or arrival. Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.” Anywhere and somewhere are wonderful travel locations discovered by random wandering, but I often need to go to a specific destination, and that’s when unintended adventures begin.

I had volunteered to help at a rural school in Livingston, Guatemala, approximately 150 miles from my location in Guatemala City. Google mapped my northeastward route with public transportation: bus to Copan, in Honduras, for a 3-day exploration of ancient Mayan ruins, then bus to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, where I would have to take a boat to Livingston, which is a water-only-access community adjacent to the Caribbean shore. My itinerary was made with good intention, but like the crumbled Mayan ruins I had finished exploring at my first stop, Copan, the schedule and route quickly fragmented.

I nearly missed the hotel shuttle that took me to my second, connecting bus. My limited Spanish vocabulary is sufficient for making small-talk, ordering a meal, a beer, or a place to sleep, but not for navigating details like bus routes and schedules. When I didn’t hear my destination announced, I assumed that shuttle wasn’t going where I was. Wrong, my destination was en route to the final stop.

After 15 miles, the shuttle driver assisted me, his geographically confused passenger, onto the bus going to Puerto Barrios. To reduce my continued anxiety, I calmly walked the isle past local commuters as an experienced world traveler, who carries his personal belongings in a backpack. My confidence returned, and soon was sharing songs on my phone with adjacent passengers in broken English and Spanish conversation. Music can bridge cultural gaps and languages.

My musical reverie was interrupted later by a bus assistant silently waving me to bring my backpack to the front of the bus where I was unexpectedly let out at an unmarked, rural transfer point. Alone. Somewhere or anywhere, but not at a busy bus terminal. There was no sign or indication of being an official bus stop, only a metal bench placed on the sandy roadside. Two people came to stand with me, assuring me that this was the route to Puerto Barrios.

A rural gas station in Guatemala, photo by WanderNWayne

A 15-passenger van, already filled with perhaps 20 people, stopped to load the three of us onto the front seat with the driver; my pack pressing upon my lap. Uncomfortably, we rode silently through the hot afternoon sunshine. The van driver asked me where I was going and I simply stated, “the port of Puerto Barrios,” because I didn’t want to try describing a destination I knew nothing about. He nodded his head and continued erratically swerving around slower vehicles and driving on pedestrian sidewalks whenever left-lane passing was unavailable. His route wouldn’t take me directly to the boat dock I needed, so later he stopped the van and motioned to the left as a direction to the port. Hefting my backpack, I exited the van and walked in that direction as dusky shadows were beginning to conceal my destination.

In darkness, a small boat filled and slipped quietly into the busy shipping lanes of the port. Mine wouldn’t depart until a number of paying passengers made the voyage financially viable. My arrival in Livingston, by boat from Puerto Barrios, took more than an hour of listening to slapping waves against the hull, looking at residential lights on the shore, and hoping we’d see, or be seen, by other vessels on the black water.

At journey’s end, I was both exhausted and stimulated by the 5-day adventure that took me well out of my language and location comfort zones.


© 2017 Wayne Hammerstrom

Wayne Hammerstrom has been a lifelong traveler who now wanders (WandrNWayne) serendipitously on journeys near and far. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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A Southern Indiana “Inserimento”

Inserimento in Italian means “settling in.”

It describes the process travelers go through when arriving in a new location. it happens at the beginning of the trip, and again with each change to a new locale. Inserimento is that gateway between the transition and the new “here and now.”

It is equivalent to the Hero’s Journey step of the gateway (“he finally crosses the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not”) or, if inserimento goes badly, the beginning of tests, allies, enemies (“out of his comfort zone, the Hero is confronted with an ever more difficult series of challenges he must overcome on the journey towards his ultimate goal.”)

As I wrote in Write Your Travel Memoirs (shameless plug), “How do you sync up with the place you’ve reached? What is its story, and what is your place in it? When expectations crash into reality, how do you handle the impact?…On a short vacation there’s a lot riding on inserimento.”

In my last post, I invited you to send my travel stories. How about we share tales of  inserimento? Here’s mine.


I went to Indiana over the 4th of July weekend for a reunion with my closest friends from college. These people are my chosen family, dearer to me than life itself, and we haven’t all been together in one place since roughly 1978. Thanks to the miracle of social media we’ve stayed in touch, and were able to align on staying at a lake cottage down in the hollows of Brown County, Indiana, not far from Bloomington where we hung around Indiana University all those years ago.

Before I could reach the calm still center of that lake cottage vacation, I had a lot of inserimento to get through.

My route was circuitous, a plan designed to get me there with time to do some necessary work on the way instead of behind the steering wheel for the 7+ hour drive. I took a bus to O’Hare airport where I caught a flight to Cincinnati. There Friend Marty and his wife would pick me up as they passed through en route from West Virginia to Bloomington.

Arriving in O’Hare, my troubles began. The airline wouldn’t let me carry on my carry-on bag. A short two hours later, waiting for it at the baggage carousel in Cincinnati, texting with Marty waiting in the cell-phone lot, my iPhone went “brick.” Dead to the world. I had my laptop–but its battery had run down to zero while working during the flight.

Then I noticed my flight had cleared the monitor–no bag. And no contacts. Everything was on those devices.

I went to the customer service desk, got the delayed-bag report started, used the nice man’s phone to call my husband back home and have him look up Marty’s number, then call Marty with the update. The nice baggage man promised United would forward the bag, even though my destination was over 2 hours and a state away. Marty came, I met his wife Diane for the first time, and off we went.

That’s about the time I realized the asthma inhaler I need twice daily was in that delayed bag.

We arrived in Bloomington about 5pm, went to the house of  Friend Donna and her sweetie Tom, and I explained my dilemma. “The bag might make it yet tonight,” I hoped. But Tom insisted, “The stress of worrying about it could bring on an asthma attack. I want you to have that inhaler,” proving to be a take-charge, take-care kind of guy. We drove to Bedford 20 minutes away to fill the prescription.

That evening, I opened the bag I’d picked up at the pharmacy. Wrong inhaler.

In my panic (I am surprisingly flappable when plans go awry, to my own dismay) I had told the pharmacist the name of my rescue inhaler, not my daily maintenance drug. I spent an uncomfortable night worrying about when I would stop being able to breathe. In the morning, Tom went back for the right inhaler. In my Hero’s Journey, I had found my ally.

By noon the next day my bag still hadn’t left Cincinnati. We left in several cars for the lake. Donna gathered some hotel mini personal products for me and took me to Target to pick up a bathing suit, coverup, and hat. We arrived at the cottage, opened the window to chase the mustiness out, changed into bathing suits and Inserimento was over. I had everything I needed–and my friends.


Soon the rest of the “family” arrived–Victor,  Rick, Colette. We welcomed their “plus-ones”–spouses/lovers and Colette’s sister Suzie, whose urge to return to Indiana had set this whole Rube Goldberg machine of a reunion in motion.

Then the delight of downtime enveloped us. The weakest whisper of a cell signal reached down in that valley, and I used it to tell United “forget delivering my bag, I’ll just pick it up on my way back.”

We powered down and story-told instead. The convoluted tale of how we all met, the combinations and recombinations since, co-creating the myth of our shared past.

And so passed several days. We migrated and morphed in small groups conversing on the deck, down on the dock, and in the water hanging out on our swim noodles. In the Hero’s Journey, we had reached Reward. (“After defeating the enemy, surviving death and finally overcoming his greatest personal challenge, the Hero emerges a stronger person and often with a prize.”) As I wrote in Write Your Travel Memoirs (shameless plug, now available for Kindle and iBook), “If insertion goes well, you are living a new life you were always meant for.” I only wish I could have stayed there a whole summer, living the life my friends and I were always meant for.

But for the Hero, the journey has a return leg. He must make it through more ordeals to return to the Ordinary World, bearing the Elixir that “represents three things: change, success and proof of his journey.” For me it was back to Cincinnati, reunion with my bag, a flight and a bus and a short drive to home. My other home, because in my heart, like Rick and Ilsa have Paris in Casablanca, we’ll always have that lake.


Now, send me YOUR stories of inserimento! Submission guidelines here.

– Sarah White




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Let’s have some true travel stories, well told!

I have travel coming up on my calendar–Indiana to see college friends over the 4th of July, then Halifax for grad school residency in August, followed by some tourism in Nova Scotia…  and after that? Maybe a trip to Oxford, Mississippi to the Southern Foodways Alliance conference in September, related to my MFA project.

I’m in a suitcase-packing mood!

While I’m traveling hither and yon, help me keep the virtual pages of True Stories Well Told stocked. Send me your travel stories. And if “how to write them” is on your mind, I know a nifty little book that might help… shameless plug. 😉 Write Your Travel Memoirs is now available on Kindle for only $4.99.

So let’s get out of town! Pack up those stories and send them my way. Essays of up to 1500 words accompanied by a photo or two will find a warm welcome here. Find additional submission guidelines here.

To get in the mood, read Mark Blondin’s essay on arriving in San Miguel de Allende–the first day of a six-year expat experience that led to writing At Home Abroad: Today’s Expats Tell Their Stories with his wife Betsy. Click the title in the image below to go to Mark’s essay on Medium.

View story at

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“Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction” by Jack Hart

Sarah’s Big MFA Adventure began with a book order for three texts, to be read before the residency begins August 6th. The first book I tackled was this one:

Storycraft got me really excited about my writing. What higher praise could I give?

It is a practical book filled with examples, written for an audience of journalists who are experienced at producing true stories about real people and events, for publication, usually on tight deadlines. This isn’t writing to find out what you think, or writing to learn a la William Zinsser. This is effectively using the tools of the writing trade to write better, faster.

The book starts with cogent advice on structure that could save you weeks of work repairing bad drafts, and returns to go deeper on structure after a tour of basic components like point of view, voice, scene, character, action, and dialogue.

I particularly appreciated Hart’s parsing of narrative nonfiction into several specific forms: reporting, story narratives, explanatory narratives, and “other.” That last category contains vignettes, tick-tocks, bookend narratives, personal essays that “take an idea for a walk”, and issue essays like Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine article “An Animal’s Place” that grew into The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

My favorite line in the book is “give structure its due.” Hart backs that up with a quote from John McPhee, who says outlining is essential to his process. “Going through all that creates the form and the shape of the thing. It also relieves the writer, once you know the structure, to concentrate each day on one thing. You know right where it fits.”

It didn’t hurt that Hart frequently referenced my favorite writing instructor Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story. If you’ve ever heard me talk about the complication, three developments, and a resolution–that’s Franklin’s infallible advice on structure.

Being written for journalists, the book reports the evolution of this genre from the “New Journalism” of the 1960s-70s pioneered by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, and the like. Hart takes a dim view of their emphasis on the subjective perspective. His chapter on ethics points us toward what I’ve heard referred to as “the nonfiction contract” (although Hart doesn’t use that term), a hallmark of today’s creative nonfiction (the term currently in vogue). In that contract with readers, the author’s challenge is to portray the world accurately, without indulging in speculation, compositing of characters, collapsing of time/space, exaggeration, etc. “Develop an ethical habit of mind,” Hart counsels. “When a story idea takes shape, the first questions should measure the idea against its ethical implications… Question everything with the same tough intensity that a district attorney brings to bear on a criminal defendant.”

The fact that the book is written for journalists means it reads a little differently than the many “how to write your memoir” books I’ve collected. Many in this genre offer writing craft tips in the same vein, but Storycraft is to those what a master class is to a weekend workshop. The topic list is the same, but the instruction goes much deeper.

At the same time I was chowing down Storycraft I was drafting a 4000-word sample essay about my MFA project, a company history of Glory Foods drawn from interviews with one of the founding partners. I literally felt my brain expanding as I swallowed chapters whole, then immediately tried to apply what I was learning to what I was writing. Each draft grew stronger under Jack Hart’s specific, practical advice.

Would you benefit from reading this book? That depends on your intentions for your writing. If you have one life story you plan to tell, for an audience of family and friends, there are easier little how-to-write-memoir books I’d point you to. The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith is one of my favorites, (reviewed on Trues Stories Well Told back in 2011).

But if, like me, you want to deepen and clarify what you know, to learn terminology for things you’ve sensed but never been able to put into words,to take your nonfiction writing to a new level, to boy oh boy is this a great guide!


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Sarah’s Big MFA Adventure

“I was born into a writing family,” began my Personal Statement for my application to the University of King’s College School of Journalism Master of Fine Arts-Creative Nonfiction program. I continued:

My freelancing father counseled me on my writing ambitions from early childhood, while my editor mother marked up every letter I mailed home from camp through college. I graduated from Indiana University in 1980 with a Journalism degree and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, my home ever since.

By the age of seven I was envisioning my eventual success as a writer. But I recall believing that “I need to get wise first, and that will take a lot of time, so I should choose another career in the meantime.”

I did, and that was a good decision. But the meantime is over. It’s time to become the writer I was born to be.

It all started when I bought a ticket to England last summer to attend the “Global Reflections on Narrative” conference at Mansfield College, Oxford. “This is going to be life-changing in some way, if I’m open to it,” I thought as I clicked “purchase” on Orbitz that day.

For a couple of years I’ve been growing increasingly intrigued by the idea of pursuing more education in writing creative nonfiction, and yearning for a recognized academic credential. But I never met an MFA program I wanted to be part of. They were all born out of a fiction or poetry program, or they were as obscure as “personal history”, and I needed another obscure affiliation like a hole in the head. (“Transformational Language Arts?” Sounds groovy, but who gets paid for doing that, exactly?) Besides, I needed something low- or no-residency. So many programs required more than I could give while working for my living.

Then I met Dean Jobbs, faculty at University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a fellow attendee at the Oxford conference. He slipped me a little brochure. “We’ve got your book,” it promised. Conversations ensued. I began to flirt with the idea… could I? Should I? The flirting became dating. We had our first sleepover last November in Toronto, when I went to a meet-and-greet for potential students.

“Could I?” became “Would I?” Writing the application letter, culling the portfolio for writing samples, sending away for the transcripts from my extremely checkered academic career… (Want a great memory prompt? Get your college transcripts.), seeking letters of recommendation… the packet was complete and submitted in December 2016.

Now it’s official. I’m in an LTR with my MFA.

And the work has begun! I have books to read, essays to write, before I arrive for residency in Halifax in August.

Stay tuned: next week I’ll review Storycraft by Jack Hart.

Stories from my MFA experience will appear occasionally here on True Stories Well Told. Let’s do this together!

  • Sarah White
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Throwing a Perfect Family Reunion Party

By Aimee Lyons

Planning a family reunion this summer? Here are a few things to keep in mind before the crowd arrives.

Before Aimee shares her tips, let me reminisce… Family reunions can be remarkable moments that bind a family closer through the generations, or lost opportunities. An example of the former–as a personal historian I was once hired to conduct a “performance” oral history interview with the oldest generation of a family. I sat the four brothers, ranging in age from early 70s to later 80s, in a row and recorded a conversation in which I guided them through their earliest memories and stories of their mom and dad. Even the little children came in from the “bouncy house” to see what was going on–and stayed. For over two hours. Everyone was spellbound by those four great storytellers, recounting THEIR family lore. Afterward my client family got the recordings, and the genealogy maven drew content for months of family newsletters from those stories. A family ensured its memories would last as long as its DNA.

On the other hand, there are gatherings where no one prioritizes the stories–and all you get is a photo or two and a memory that will fade. Now I’ll let Aimee take it away. If you are planning a family get-together this summer, please heed her advice!  – Sarah White

Here I am at one of “those” family reunions in 2012 at Winona Lake, Indiana.


Family reunions will last hours after they are scheduled to end.

Your ancestral line probably hasn’t been in such close quarters since your last family bash. This means lots of catching up. Make everyone as comfortable as possible with plenty of seating and access to ice cold beverages. Have at least three gathering spaces in the shade, and place several large trash cans throughout the venue to make cleanup easier at the end of the day.

Pace yourself.

Hosting a family reunion is an art form that requires patience and a certain amount of finesse. You can’t just throw a pile of food and drinks on the table and call it a success. Before guests arrive, fill coolers with ice, bottled waters, and other individual drinks. As aunts, uncles, and cousins begin to find your doorstep, place non-dairy-based appetizers out for grazing. Fire up the grill or place your main meat course on the table once the bulk of your group has arrived. If it’s a large group, you should allow around two hours for everyone to eat their fill before opening up the dessert bar which, ideally, is comprised of brownies, cookies, and other fun fare that won’t succumb to the heat of the sun.

Enjoy the evening.

Now that you’ve spent the last six hours catering to everyone else, it’s time to relax for a while before cleaning up. Light a few citronella candles and throw some wood in the fire pit (learn how to build one in a single day here) if your party is slated to last well after sunset. The bulk of the cleanup can wait until morning.

Tips and tricks

If you have family struggling with addiction recovery, forgo booze and opt for fun summertime beverages, such as fruit tea, lemonade, and flavored water. It can be difficult for your loved one to stay sober when everyone around them thinks it’s time to party like a rock star. If you do offer alcohol, have plenty of non-alcoholic options at the ready and close the bar at least two hours before the party is over to reduce the risk of anyone driving while impaired. If there is an alcohol-related accident after leaving your party, you may be held accountable. And remember, reducing alcohol availability will also help cut down on family conflict.

When picking foods, throw a few vegetarian options on the table for family members with dietary restrictions, and cook the vegetables first to avoid cross-contamination with raw meats. Keep an eye on the weather and remember that appetizers such as chips and salsa will last longer outdoors than a meat and cheese tray.

Have plenty of activities, especially for the younger family members. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to entertain children. Those in the 10-and-under crowd will likely be happy with bubbles, water balloons, and lawn games, many of which you can make yourself. Have a separate cooler full of juice boxes and small bottled waters for the kids. Tweens and teens make an excellent cleanup crew that you can likely bribe for just a few bucks each. Don’t forget to have plenty of popsicles to help your smallest guests cool off.


For the older crowd, remember that there will be lots of reminiscing going on. Be sure to put out photo albums and make a few posters covered in a variety of family photos. A picture can easily be the perfect prompt an uncle needs to tell the funniest story about your mom that you’ve never heard. Also, try leaving a few empty notebooks and pens laying around for people to share a story or a remembrance. And if you want to go the extra mile, have someone walking around during the day taking video to mark the occasion and to document all the family stories that come up. It’s a great way to catalog family history, and there just might be a surprise tale that you’ll come across later when it’s all said and done.

Make sure you have ample paper products available so as to avoid breaking into – and possibly breaking – your fine China. At a minimum, strive for two sets of dinnerware per person. This includes cups, plates, napkins, and cutlery. Don’t forget to restock your supply of toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues before the big day.

Don’t stress when things don’t go exactly your way and don’t be afraid to ask for help before, during, and after the event. At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure that everyone has a belly full of good food, a heart full of love, and the head full of memories to last until next year.

© 2017 Aimee Lions, the “DIY Darlin‘” who loves to craft, paint, build, and spread her creative touch all over her world. She shares her love of DIY and offered this post to True Stories Well Told. Besides DIY she loves spending time with friends and family in Austin, TX.

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