Everybody has a story to tell, because life is made up of a series of stories. How many of you were told the story of your birth by your mothers, or have told your children or grandchildren about when they were born? Who has a favorite vacation spot they like to talk about? Fish stories? Sad stories, about when a loved one died or a beloved pet ran away?
Since the dawn of humankind, stories have been used to teach, to entertain, to enlighten. There seems to be a biological compulsion that makes people hungry to hear stories, and to tell their own. That’s why you’re reading this blog—you have a story (or stories) to tell, and you want to find the very best way to tell them.
There are three basic ways you can write from life. You can write a personal essay about your experiences. Or, perhaps something so unique happened to you that you want to write a non-fiction feature article, like you read in newspapers and magazines.
My favorite, though, is to take stories from my past and turn them into works of fiction. This is where that 10-inch fish you caught when you were a kid can become a 3-footer, or you tell you boss exactly what you think of him when he gives someone else credit for a project you did. This is where Charlie Brown actually kicks the football.
How do you know what type of writing your story is best suited for? Partly by trial and error—I would wager that by the time you’ve written your story all three ways—essay, feature, and fiction—you will have a clear favorite. One will stand out as the “right” one.
But how you feel about the people or events you choose to write about also will affect what form of writing you choose. A personal essay, for example, will ALWAYS be about something you have strong feelings for. Features and fiction may or may not be. I’ve written features about retiring community college presidents, theater renovations, and hypnosis. Was I interested in these things? Sure. Did I have strong feelings about them? Not particularly.
If you’re going to write a story about your life, you need to be able to remember back far enough to recall the details of your experience. This can be difficult. So here is one of my favorite exercises for getting my brain used to reaching back; to extracting the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of my childhood or early adulthood. It works for me, and it will work for you, too:
Make a map of one of the earliest places you remember—your neighborhood when you were 5, for example, or your favorite park. Take about 10 minutes; make it as detailed as you can. Then, recall at least one sight, sound, smell, and if appropriate, taste associated with this place. If you can recall more, great—list as many as you can. The purpose of this exercise is to help you “see” into your past, and get those neurons firing up in your brain that will allow you to retrieve details that you may have long forgotten.
I used this technique to recall the gardens, orchard, and river at my aunt and uncle’s farm in Maryland; that map helped me with the setting descriptions in my novel, Redeeming Grace, including this one:
The cool, early autumn air hugged the still-warm sandy shores of the Choptank, enveloping the river in a surreal, steamy fog. Water droplets clung to each blade of crab grass in the yard, dangling precariously like a precious crystal earring from a dainty lobe. The air smelled sweet, a sticky mixture of fish and pine. As Grace wandered from the house to the shore of the river, she breathed in deeply, trying to make the scent a part of her.
Similarly, I used it to recall childhood hikes through the mountains of Virginia, taking the sensory experiences the map stimulated to help recreate this setting description in The Cabin, my second novel:
The first thing she noticed was the smell. It was the same scent she had breathed in every time she walked in forest, but this time, she could break down the individual essences perfuming the air: rotting rhododendron blossoms mixed with moss-covered granite and cold, crisp water. She had never noticed granite had a scent—like the air during a thunderstorm, right after lightning struck—or that water could smell cold. The discovery delighted her.
Give this exercise a try. You just might be surprised what memories a simple map can stir up.