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May 13, 2020

Sam Haskell Explains Why the Best Stories Come from the Heart

Writing from the heart is often the best way to let yourself shine through your work. Sam Haskell is an Emmy nominated Hollywood producer and author of the inspirational memoir, Promises I Made My Mother. Released by Random House/Ballantine Books in late April 2009, the book is a national bestseller where it reached #10 on the Los Angeles Times Best Seller’s List and was a top-five bestseller on Amazon during its release. It also made top ten lists in the Denver Post, Kansas City Star, Milwaukee Times and was #1 in the Dallas Morning News. Moreover, Promises I Made My Mother was also one of USA Today’s 5 Top Picks for Mother’s Day and #2 on the CEO READS Business Journal Best Seller List.

In this article, Mr. Haskell explains how to write effectively to capture and inspire your audience.

The Best Writing is Personal

It is so important. When you write from a most personal place, you’ll find your voice naturally expressing itself on the page. In Promises I Made My Mother, I chronicle my journey from a small-town Mississippi boy to rising through the ranks of Hollywood, through personal lessons that I learned from my mother, Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell. These teachings were grounded in faith, hope, and character. One of the most frequent stories I get asked about is the Cheer Man. That’s because it resonates so wholeheartedly with anyone who remembers their childhood dreams.

I grew up in Amory, Mississippi, a town much like Mayberry from the popular Andy Griffith show. As a nine-year-old in 1964, I already had a love for the entertainment industry, and I read TV Guide weekly and Photoplay magazine to know what was going on in entertainment. Of course, Hollywood is where I dreamed of working. In 1964, one particular TV commercial would frequently come on that caught my attention. It was the commercial for Cheer detergent where the character, “The Cheer Man,” would go to different towns, door to door, and ask the lady of the house if she used Cheer. If she did, The Cheer Man would give her a check for $10. At the end of the commercial, the announcer would say, “The Cheer Man is coming to your town.” Since the first time I saw the advertisement, I was convinced that The Cheer Man would come to my house. When I told my mother, she didn’t discourage me. Instead, she told me it was a beautiful dream and helped me plan for The Cheer Man’s arrival by making a huge Cheer sign of my own.

The word spread throughout town what I was doing, and sadly I became the source of jokes, notably from my father and his friends. However, this did not deter me. I would believe and say with confidence, “He’s coming.” To my father’s disbelief, my mother would say, “If he believes the Cheer Man is coming, then, of course, he’s coming.” Even when the commercial stopped running, I believed the Cheer Man would still come. Then one day, he did come, right up to the steps of 405 South 3rd Street in Amory, Mississippi, my childhood home. People in our town tried to get their make-shift Cheer signs, ready to show that they used Cheer. My sign stood out, and I received the $10 from the Cheer Man.

That day I learned the power of faith and perseverance, and it has set me up for my entire adult life. The story is so beloved by readers because they connect it with their childhood triumphs, and reflect on how those experiences have influenced who they are today.

Show Your Personal Vulnerability

When I finished the first draft of Promises, I Made My Mother, my editors in New York said: ‘Well, I guess you’re perfect.’ I went, ‘That sounds a little condescending. What do you mean?’ ‘Don’t you want people to relate to you?’ they asked. ‘Well, yeah.’ ‘They’re not going to relate to you if you’re perfect. Where are your failures? Your disappointments? Your problems? Your warts?’

Suddenly a light went on in my head. How can people relate to me if I don’t share with them what I went through to get here? What’s the real journey? It’s then that I remembered my mother saying something she termed ‘standing in the light’: You’ve got to show them everything about you. If you do that, more people will react to you.

I went back and restructured the whole book. I made my mother the focal point. Every chapter began with a lesson she’d taught me and how I used it in my life. When I turned the book back in, my editors called, laughing and crying. They said, ‘Now, now we’ve got a book!’

Know Your Audience & Feedback

Always ask yourself who the reader is. Many times, writers insert themselves as the audience, but that can limit the reach of the storytelling. Make sure you surround yourself with smart, critical, and constructive readers who will tell you what’s working and what isn’t. A great editor will guide you on delivering your narrative in the best way for the largest possible audience.

Anticipating Public Reaction to Your Work

If you spend too much time worrying about how well your work will be received, your writing may never fully emerge. Every writer has self-doubts; these are unavoidable aspects of the writing process. Think only about your perspective and try not to let potential critics hamstring you. 

I love the following quote:

“The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write, don’t have the time to read reviews.”

 – William Faulkner

Writer’s Block

It happens to everyone, so don’t be discouraged. I find that if I’m having a difficult time getting words on the page, I take a break and read something else. That’s right; the best medicine for jump-starting your creativity is to find inspiration through another author’s work. You don’t have to necessarily read anything thematically similar to your project. I love reading about English and European history and often revisit it when I’m feeling stuck.   

Focus on Your Uniqueness

There are so many writers and writing styles out there. What’s important is that you tell your own story. Another quote I love is by C.S. Lewis who said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before), you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

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