Delve into your story
guest post by Lynette Benton
As we sit around two rectangular conference tables we’ve pushed together, I eye my memoir-writing students and say, “When you write about your life, make sure it’s a story, not a report. Even your nearest and dearest will recoil from the prospect of reading fifty pages of generic ‘this happened,’ ‘that happened,’ ‘I went there,’ ‘There were 14 houses on our block and ours was at the end.’ etcetera. ”
Well, if memoir and family history writers shouldn’t limit themselves to that kind of two-dimensional reporting, what do I suggest?
I ask my students to delve into their memories for the sensory experiences—the sights, sounds, smells, colors, feelings——and the environment associated with the life they’re trying to reproduce for readers.
What we’re trying to do when we write about our lives is replicate the world we’re describing, and worlds aren’t static. If you’re writing about your life, and you want people to actually read it, let passion and power come through your words. Find those situations when the fur flew, or you faced difficult conundrums, or maybe even discovered a secret that threatened to overturn your ideas about your life or your identity. As Natalie Goldberg, author of Old Friend From Far Away, writes in her book: “… write about a situation where you arrived at zero. A place that you never won, never conquered, never got right.”
It’s hard to be candid, I know, hard to tell it like it was and avoid glossing over unpleasant incidents. But you know what? If you write a memoir or family history in which everything is hunky dory, no one’s going to believe it. Because life isn’t like that. Not even the most luck-filled life. All of us have some tough times, some challenges and dilemmas. Write about them; help future generations learn from the obstacles you faced and the ways you overcame them, or why you didn’t overcome them but learned to live with them. There’s value in that.
Lynette Benton is a writing teacher and coach, and published author of articles, essays, and the blogs Tools & Tactics for Writers and Stylish Ole Woman. Find her on Twitter @lynettebenton and @stylisholewoman.