The Power of Story. How to start.

photo credit: Pixabay

The Origin of Story

Since the beginning of time, our ancestors recognized the power of story. When the first hunters returned to the cave, those waiting back home grunted, “How was your day, Dear?”

And the hunters, novices at story telling, drew pictures on the wall. And then they sat around the fire and traded grunt stories

Not much has changed. Okay, now we text photos rather than draw on the walls.

Why story?

Because story telling is how we connect with ourselves and our community. Because story telling is how we make sense of our lives. Because story telling adds meaning to the chaos of existence. Stories give us hope and inspiration. Story helps us overcome fear, identify our desires, stretch our imagination and reach for the stars. Stories tie us to the life force.  Stories teach us about those who came before, who’ve walked where we walk. Stories give us warmth and security. Without story, we would shrivel into isolated cocoons of fear.

My current story. The Joy of Book Tour

    I’ve been on book tour the past month, doing performance readings from King of Doubt, telling my story and listening to others tell theirs, teaching workshops about memoir and mindfulness. I am so grateful for the experience, which has renewed old connections and provided some lovely new ones. I am proud and I am humbled. Proud that I persevered through the hard times and told my story in a way that others can relate to it and see our commonality. Humbled by others’ willingness to open up and tell their stories. I am moved by how eager most of us are to tell our stories (once we’ve crossed over the valley of fear) and how the best story telling  joins us in intimate connection in our common web, humanity.

We all have a story to tell. Once upon a time, the predominant belief was that only kings and popes had stories worth telling. The common man / woman had nothing to add. Finally, we have democratized memoir.

I date the modern age of memoir from Angela’s Ashes, 1996, Frank McCourt’s unforgetable story of growing up in slum poverty in Limerick, Ireland. If ever there was a story that was NOT about power and wealth, this is it.  Angela’s Ashes cracked the memoir barrier, showed us how the story of a small boy with no shoes could also be the story of everyman, casting light on the human struggle in words that make us laugh and cry all in the same sentence:

       “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

The desire to tell our story is a universal human need, right up there with  the quest for love and a tasty dinner.  In a recent poll of the baby boom generation, writing one’s life story was voted the #1 retirement goal. We’re all trying to figure out who we are, what we’re doing here, and how to make the most of this brief journey.  “Who am I?” is the fundamental, underlying quest behind all great memoir. Memoir is a wonderful tool for grappling with this, and other life questions. Writing a memoir is deeper than physical therapy, cheaper than psychotherapy, and more fulfilling than retail therapy. And if you want to leave a legacy, memoir writing–while it doesn’t guarantee immortality– is considerably easier than building a pyramid.

Take a First Step

If you’re pondering whether to, or how to, get started with your memoir, there is no one right way. What’s best for you may depend on what kind of writer you are: a planner or a doer, or a bit of both. In future blogs, I’ll write more about getting started, but here’s my suggestion for now.

     1. Brainstorm 3 – 5 “events” from your life that interest you. By “interest” I mean that they are still very alive for you. You’d enjoy revisiting them. Perhaps you don’t fully understand them. Perhaps they still bother you, feel unresolved. Or they feel important even if you’re not sure why.

     2. Give each one a title, and a one sentence description. Write these on 3 x 5 index cards.

     3. Place the cards somewhere where you can see them and play with them. (Bathroom mirror, desk or table where you plan to write.)

     4. See if you can write one, dominant “feeling” word on each card. Examples of “feeling” words are proud, sorry, excited, embarrassed, ashamed, frightened, joyous, confused etc. Don’t over-intellectualize this. The fist word that comes to mind is probably right.

     5. Mull around with the following questions:

             – What (if anything) do these events have in common?

             – How are these events different?

             – What don’t you know about each that you would like to know / understand?

     6. Now, choose one of your card events to write. Wait – don’t start writing quite yet. One more very important step. Find a comfortable spot, where you won’t be disturbed. Now close your eyes. Imagine you are in a movie theatre, watching a movie about this event. Sit back and relax. Your job is to enjoy the movie. Try not to direct or judge or edit. Just watch the action unfold. You are to sit in the audience and witness.

photo credit: Pixabay

(Yes, you are also a character in the scene, but for this exercise, be the audience not the character. The two are very different.) Listen to the dialogue. Pay attention to the scenery. Slow the action down as much as you can. Watch the characters, how they’re dressed, their facial expressions and body movement. What clues are there to how they are feeling? Watch the light and shadow, the weather if the scene takes place outside. Try out all your senses. What do you hear? Any smells? Zoom out for the big picture. Zoom in tight for details. Pay attention to where the scene starts, and where it ends. Enjoy the show.

     7. Now it’s time to write. Computer, paper and pencil, whatever you’re comfortable with. I recommend that you write fast, try to get the whole scene down. Don’t go back and edit. Don’t worry about spelling, or finding the perfect word. As much as possible, keep the critics and the editors away. Remember you are writing the movie that you just watched. You are not writing about what happened. You are writing what happened. Write until you feel finished. At least one page, could be ten. Enjoy the process. When you’re finished, give yourself a reward.

      More about all of this in future blogs. If you try it, please let me know. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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