Writer, Blogger, & Educator Elizabeth Daghfal—Nothing Beats a Great Story

My friend and fellow writer Elizabeth Daghfal and her seventeen-year-old daughter Lydia participated in a three-day 60-mile walk to fight breast cancer. Throughout the miles, Elizabeth pointed at various sights and said, “That could make a great storyline for a mystery novel,” or “That’s a great idea for a children’s picture book.”

Elizabeth and her daughter Lydia on the 60-mile walk

When walking by a restaurant with an incredible aroma, Elizabeth remarked, “Doesn’t that make you want to write a poem about how smells ignite our memories?” 

Two minutes later, a car went by, belting out music. Elizabeth commented on how it made her want to write a play where the characters took a road trip. 

By the third day, Lydia finally blurted, “Mom, do you do this all the time? Just constantly come up with ideas from everything around you?”

“Well, yes, don’t you?”

Lydia’s answer was clear. “Noooo!”

But for Elizabeth, percolating with story ideas is as natural as popcorn kernels bursting in hot oil. (More on popcorn below . . . the very impetus for her blog.)

I learned this firsthand as our friendship developed. Full of originality, Elizabeth has her own way of looking at things.

One of the elements of fiction is Point of View (POV)–one of the more difficult concepts to grasp. It’s one thing to understand 1st person (I, we), 2nd person (you), and 3rd person (he, she, they).

But in fiction, other pressing issues surface: from whose perspective should the story be told? Should I stick with one POV or use several? How do I avoid head hopping (using too many POVs all at once)? Then there’s the concept of deep point of view . . .  

Elizabeth commiserates with me in Point of View issues and the entire novel writing process. Her own unique perspective on implementing technique leads us into stimulating discussions. As a writer, her imitable Point of View wrinkles, ruffles, and refines my own rigid perspectives.

She knows what it’s like to bleed over manuscripts, question contrasting critiques, muse over characters and their antics, puzzle through fiction techniques, and muddle through grammar, style, and effective—or not so effective—revisions, all while wondering if the joy really is in the journey.

But it is. It must be. Because she keeps doing it. Pressing on toward the goal.

Fiction isn’t the only thing Elizabeth writes. She has been a columnist and magazine editor. Recently, she produced three award-winning pieces—an essay, poem, and a picture book manuscript. She contributes to two blogs: Frontida, on caring for senior citizens and the elderly, and MightyMoms.club, an encouragement for moms with young children. 

Elizabeth also provides regular inspiration on her own blog, Lessons in the Little Things, where she delves in the tangles and mazes of daily life, opening the reader’s world to new Points of View as well as raising their eyes to God’s perspective.

Her creativity spills over into every area of her life, including child rearing and teaching elementary school. She has written, produced, and directed children’s plays for school and church, headed an annual student arts contest, and served on the design committee for the building of a new school. 

Her mind goes a mile a minute and takes her to places I’d never thought of. I can just imagine her in a committee meeting. She’d be the one to pop up and say, “What about this?” and “Have you thought about that?”

Two things ring true about Elizabeth. Whatever she does, she’ll tackle it whole-heartedly. And two, she’ll imprint the project or event with her own unique perspective. 

Join me for some Q & A with Elizabeth.

Your blog tagline is “Nothing Beats a Great Story.” How have stories impacted your life and what draws you to telling them?

Elizabeth: Stories have always been a part of me. I learn from them, like the parables of Jesus. I remember events, even from when I was two-years-old. They play back like movies in my mind. I dream vividly, waking up with whole plot lines laid out. In kindergarten, I was the one asking the teacher for more paper because one sentence wasn’t enough to explain my weekend.

I once made a “Life Map,” a visual description of major events in my life. People often do this through posters, collages, or a straight timeline. But I made a book. Each chapter stood for my age. 

For example, the prologue (“0”), I was born. Chapter 10 (age 10), I started middle school. Chapter 20, I married. Chapter 21, I lost my mom to cancer. Each chapter contained something I’d written that spoke to that time of my life. A short story. A narrative poem. A story in a blog post. The prologue of my novel.

Thus, I realized how often writing stories impacted me. It’s how I process life. 

You certainly bring your storytelling abilities into your blog. It’s full of well-told anecdotes that connect to readers by capturing aspects of daily struggles, insights, blessings, or frustrations in relationships—each pointing us heavenward. What led you to start your blog?

Elizabeth: Thank you! I want readers to learn from stories the way I do. Or perhaps, better said, learn from my mistakes—those “Mother of the Year” stories I talk about a lot.

As a PTA President, I wrote the front-page address in the school newsletter, usually a thank you for a committee’s work or a reminder of an event. 

One day I had to meet with another parent to discuss difficult topics. She was clearly on edge. Nothing I said cut the tension, and her body language said it all. 

After meeting, we said goodbye at my van. I opened the sliding door and immediately turned red at the pile of popcorn kernels. Spilled all over the floor. From a month before.

All the stiffness left the other woman’s shoulders as she laughed. “It’s so good to see you’re human. Like the rest of us.” The conversation went much better after that. 

But her words kept ringing in my ears. How many other people felt that way? I went home and wrote my next “from the President” message. This time, it outlined all my crazy not-there-yet tales, reminding everyone, we’re in this together. In all our imperfections.

The response was incredible. Everywhere I went, parents and teachers stopped to say thank you. One woman rolled down her window in the drop-off circle and said, “You need to write a blog!”

That got me to thinking about my Christmas letters—the ones opposite of brag letters. With stories of children painting with Desitin and flooding the bathroom during “nap” time so badly, it dripped through to the dining room table a floor below. 

Based on others’ responses, the stories—and the lessons I learned from them—clearly spoke to people.

It took a few years to start the website, but the message was the same. It all started with scattered kernels and not-there-yet moments.

Yes, having a level of transparency definitely connects us to others. Besides writing blog posts and stories, what else do you love to create?

Elizabeth: Perhaps the better question is, what do I not like to create? Whether I’ve fashioned a novel, a movie, a website, a school, a sewing pattern, or a cake, there’s something about looking at a finished product and enjoying how all those small parts came together to form the bigger picture.

I’m not perfect at everything I try—and sometimes I think I’m going to pull all my hair out before I finish. But once it’s done, even if I pulled five all-nighters to do it, I have such an incredible amount of energy, I can hardly keep my feet on the ground.

Where do you get your ideas?

Elizabeth: I don’t know when ideas will hit. Driving around seems to bring them on. Or when I’m trying to fall asleep. But a crooked picture, a sign on the street, a funny movement by my dog, or a childhood memory all have potential to get creative juices flowing.

Readers, I have no doubt that Elizabeth could come up with a story—maybe even a novel—for each of the following pictures, with no trouble. Do any of them inspire you? This kind of exercise promotes creative thinking and brainstorming. It’s what I try to encourage you to do with my People Watching and American Blue Law posts, too. (All pictures Courtesy of Visual Hunt.)

Anything can be an inspiration for writing a story—a sign, a storefront, a building, a bakery . . .
How about some people watching? How do these people know each other? What has been happening in their lives for the past five years? Or the past week?

Where are they going on their bikes? How does Mom feel about the girl walking on the ledge? How’s the swimming lesson going? What happened right before and after these pictures were taken?

What’s the backstory of these people? Did they know each other? What trauma and historical events did they live through? Whose picture is in the locket?
Where does this road go? Who is going to travel there and why? Why is the viewer watching from a cave?
What does this girl want for Christmas? Will she get it? Or will something even more magical happen than getting a favorite doll?

Elizabeth: I also have a basement full of fabric scraps, nubby crayons, empty spice bottles, and old popsicle sticks, just waiting for a chance to be repurposed.

It’s always been my dream to redo an old house like they did in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Some broken-down, dusty place to sweep up, scrape off, and bring back to life. Now that would be a spot filled with ideas for stories!

It’s one thing to get an idea, but what’s next? How would you describe your writing process?

Elizabeth: It usually involves a glass of Diet Coke or a mug of chai, the Josh Groban station on Pandora, a lot of hair twirling (AKA thinking hard), and probably several all-nighters. Thankfully, I don’t need a lot of sleep.

I always have my spiral notebook nearby to jot down outlines and sketches for my latest project. Or the next project that’s trying to highjack my time from the current one. 

Some people get a quick rough draft down like a big clump of clay, then make deep cuts to carve it out in edits. That doesn’t work for me. It’s too hard to “kill off my darlings.” I’m more like architects or builders who build from scratch rather than fix the broken. 

When writing, my fingers can hang over the keyboard, twitching for ten minutes. I type a little, erase, type again, erase again. But until I find that the particular voice for the piece—or the first sentence—I might be staring at a blinking cursor forever.

Usually that tells me I need a change in location. I wrote a whole novel sitting in McDonald’s and Starbucks, with just enough commotion to keep me awake—and away from the dust bunnies at home that distract me from my words.

******* 

Hmm . . . so the original ideas might come like popcorn, but the writing process itself is more like a slow cooker sometimes. Join me next time as Elizabeth shares more about her stories and how she develops them.

BIO: Elizabeth has been married to her husband David for 28+ years. They have five children whose antics have given her loads of writing material over the years. (At one point she had four children three-and-under—and, yes, lived to tell about it.) She holds a degree in elementary education which kept her busy as a substitute teacher and volunteer in her kids’ school district for the past 20 years. Somehow they all survived to the kids’ adulthood, the last one entering college this year. Elizabeth’s trying to figure out what she wants to be now that she’s all grown up.

Do you consider your creative projects like a lump of clay or like a building? Do you create, then carve away and edit? Or do you carefully construct from the ground up?

OR Tell me a story idea based on one of the above pictures.

Please add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

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19 thoughts on “Writer, Blogger, & Educator Elizabeth Daghfal—Nothing Beats a Great Story

  1. I’m more like the potter with a lump of clay when it comes to writing, but working with actual clay doesn’t appeal to me at all, so I’m not sure if I’m contradicting myself! Haha.

    1. In this case, I don’t think it matters whether or not you like clay or not! It’s just an analogy. Do you like starting with a lot of words and then chipping away at them? Or would you prefer to build and grow your piece without too much excess? I think I’m changing from the former to the latter. That’s due to ending up with so much wordage that it’s overwhelming and daunting to shorten it.

      1. Yes, cutting is the worst. Especially when you really liked it the way it was! (My 10th grade English teacher was always on me to “edit, edit, edit.” Maybe that’s why I struggle with that lump of clay now.)

    2. I think it was Michelangelo who, when asked how he came up with his statues, said he took a giant lump and chipped away at anything that wasn’t the subject. (If it wasn’t him, it was someone 😉 ) So you’re in good company–even if it isn’t actual clay you’re working with.

      I’m always in awe of people like you who can do that.

  2. Laura, thank you so much for your kind words! Yes, we have both bled over manuscripts, haven’t we? I think we have been iron sharpening iron for each other. 🙂

    And your posts always get me excited to jump back into musing.

    All those pictures. Where do I start? The blue house with the red doors is a fairy tale home. A new rendition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs–although I think this time, it’s the Seven Giants. (Their door is in the back.–You’d think that right side is two floors, but it’s really one very high-ceiling. 😉 )

  3. Oh goodness! I am tired just reading about her energy! I’m feeling slothful right now—but maybe after a good night’s sleep I’ll be inspired to get moving and create…something 🙂
    What a fascinating way Elizabeth’s brain works! What a blast that her daughter sounded almost aghast when asked if her mind didn’t function along the same lines. (And the 7 Giants story—I want to read more!)

    1. It sure keeps your mind hopping, doesn’t it, Melissa? I admit sometimes it scares me how quickly potential villainous acts come to mind! Thankfully I never want to commit them 😉 They just make great plots.

      What’s the craziest place/moment that surprised you with a story?

  4. Elizabeth, you amaze me the more I get to know you. Such a dynamite personality belongs in the field of writing. You go, girl. God bless!!

  5. Thank you Elizabeth for the insightful answers and Laura for the great questions. There is so much content here and so many levels of thought.
    I love how you wrote newsletter articles, from your PTA president perspective, that must have been so well written that your friend found the perfection intimidating. She only finally relaxed around you when she saw the spilled popcorn kernels.
    As the PTA leader, and accomplished writer, you likely put hours into making your articles the best they could be.
    This blog entry started out with people observing your perfection, Elizabeth, which you definitely accomplished, and that people expected out of you as their leader.
    You wanted your readers and PTA members to also see you as a real person. So, you reacted by blogging about your real life struggles that are riffled with mistakes and missteps.
    I think writers must walk that fine line each time we sit down to write.
    As writers who want to be published, we are constantly working to bring our writing to a higher level, hoping to finally be worthy of attracting an audience. What I find ironic is that readers are hungry for the human imperfection that provides the best material for tragedies, dramas, and comedies.
    That fine line is also what makes us get discouraged. We have story ideas that we know readers would love, but we have to do the hard work of carving, sculpting, painting, whittling, adding, subtracting, honing the piece into that story.
    This blog is an inspiration to stay enthusiastic about writing. Embrace all the new story ideas as they come, they are gifts and provide fuel to keep going. Do the hard work of making the stories the best they can be. Writing is the journey, the story is the destination.

    1. Beautifully said, Laura. And as much as my writing is a work in progress, so am I. I want to be authentic, and I want to do a good job. But I also don’t want to scare people away.
      I hope in my writing–and in my life– I encourage others, knowing the journey isn’t easy–but we can learn so much along the way.
      Have you found a specific way to not get discouraged in that fine line balance?

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