Memoir is a popular genre these days, as people tell their personal stories and inspire others to overcome obstacles, cope with life, or even just laugh at someone’s funny antics.
But personal stories go much further than memoir. They are great additions to many types of non-fiction, especially SELF-HELP. They are wonderful in TRAVEL narratives. HOW-TO can also become more engaging and effective if you tell about your own ups and downs as you learned a particular skill.
And even your FICTION writing can improve as you learn to tell your personal stories well.
Inside another mind
I’ve edited a bunch of biographies and memoirs over the years, and other types of books that use personal story. I’ve even ghostwritten a couple. This is one of the elements that appears in the ones that really work:
The author finds a way to take the reader inside their perspective and experience the events in a rich and personal way.
But how do they do this? And more importantly, how can YOU do it in your personal stories?
Exercise 1: Time Travel
This is one simple exercise to help you learn to access the wonderful stories that live and breathe inside of you, and get them out of you and onto a page.
What you’ll need:
- A notebook and pen, or a computer
- A quiet, safe place
- Your memories!
1. Set aside 15 minutes when you won’t be interrupted. 15 minutes is enough to begin with. Keep the expectations reasonable and you’re more likely to do it! Plus, it can sometimes be quite draining, so keeping it short is wise.
2. Find yourself a safe and comfortable place, where you can be relaxed. It can be indoors or outdoors. You can be alone or there may be other people around, such as at a library, but it’s usually best if it’s quiet. Whatever is comfortable and easy for you.
3. Choose one story you would like to tell yourself today. It can be anything. It might be related to the book you’re writing, or it could be one you’ve chosen simply for the exercise. It might be from many years ago, or yesterday. If you have trouble choosing, just begin the exercise and get started, and a story will probably come into your mind. (If it doesn’t, don’t stress. Just try again another day.)
4. For 5 minutes, close your eyes and imagine you are back in “that place” and “that time”.
- Let the “movie” of that event play in your mind.
- What happened? What can you see? Hear? Smell? Touch? Taste?
- How do you feel? What are the reactions in your body that occur as you experience these different emotions? Would an observer be able to tell what you were feeling? If so, how? If not, why not?
- How are other people interacting with you? Think about their voices and facial expressions, their dress and manner.
- How are places or buildings or vehicles or animals or weather contributing to what’s happening?
5. Now, open your eyes and write for 10 minutes.
- Write fast.
- Don’t edit.
- Don’t question yourself.
- Don’t try to be neat if you’re writing by hand, or accurate if you’re typing.
- Ignore grammar, spelling and punctuation, just let the words flow!
- Write write write!
- Write only for 10 minutes. Keeping the time limited makes it more likely you’ll do this exercise again!
6. Later, take the piece you have written and examine it. The goal is to help you get in touch with the elements of writing that can help make a “scene” in your book come alive. See what you can gather.
- What can it teach you? You might be surprised by what emerges!
- Don’t be critical of your writing! It’s your story. Be glad you have that story inside you.
- Which parts of the writing do you love? What do you love about it? Are there techniques in there that you could adapt to tell other stories?
- What types of verbs did you use? What types of adjectives and how many? Were the sentences short or long? Can you hear your writer’s “voice” in these sections?
- What can you learn from this exercise for another personal story that you are planning to tell in your book?
What’s your experience with telling personal stories? Do you have other techniques that help you? And if you’ve tried this exercise, tell us what you discovered!