This article (sans pictures) was published in 2009 at the Institute for Children's Literature Rx for Writers. There are many wonderful blogs out there doing a fantastic job of passing on information about writing. I've never felt I had much too offer. But (there's that but...) I did have a few articles published, so I thought I'd share them. This is the second. You can read the first, Finding and Collecting Characters HERE.
Finding the Source: Writing What You Know
As writers we read and are told over and over, “Write what you know! Write from your life, from your experiences.”
In some cases this is easy. A particular memory stands out sharply and can be incorporated into a story. Perhaps it’s the memory of your first kiss or the first time you saw the ocean.
|Age 6, a totally confident Mistress of the Sea.|
But what about all other memories, the ones that aren’t as evident? How do we dig them out of the bedrock? How do we find them? How do we make them come to the surface so we can use them?
An alternative to the autobiography
Maybe, like myself, you have considered writing a memoir of your life. My problem is I don’t know where or how to begin. Suddenly I am thinking in terms of a linear time-line, in chapters and paragraphs. The very structure constricts and I feel penned in. I think and think, I try to outline, I scribble notes, but my attempts fall hopelessly flat. “I was born on….When I was five we moved to….When I was seven my sister and I did….In 8th grade I saw….” All very boring.
One day, while doing some early morning journaling, a memory bubbled up of its own accord from that mysterious underground realm of hidden passage ways. It was of my best friend and me and a place we used to go where we played long involved imaginary games. It was an old abandoned rock quarry. What made it such a special place is that it was exceedingly eerie and spooky.
As the memory bubbled up I wrote it down. Descriptions, emotions, sounds, smells, all kind of stuff pored out onto the page and were exposed to the light of day for the first time in who knows how many years. Three and a half pages later I had a wonderful little vignette. Here was something from my past that could easily be expanded, embellished and incorporated into a story at some future date. Or, maybe it could become a story all by itself.
It occurred to me that I had just discovered a way to tap into and write about my life without the strictures of structure. I got very excited.
You are your own time machine
Instead of being stuck with a linear mind-set, I was now free to time travel. Instead of thinking; “On this date, this happened and was followed by…” I was now able to capture specific, individual memories, and, like a photographer take snap-shots using words.
|At 15 or 16, a stranded mermaid.|
You are your own time machine. You can write about any moment in you life. You can go into the far distant past of early childhood, or write about something that happened last week. No memory is too small or too large. Perhaps it will be only a line or two describing a tiny bit of conversation you weren’t supposed to overhear. Or maybe it will be long and involved and take several pages.
To prime the pump, think of the stories you tell your friends. Don’t we all relate certain experiences over and over? Write them down and a wondrous thing will happen. As I began to write up the story of the rock quarry other memories began to surface. I hardly needed to dig at all. Memories were lying all around, little gleaming specs of gold, each clamoring to be written. Suddenly, I had an infinite well from which to draw. And the by-product of writing down all these little stories is a collection, a source for future inspiration.
It also occurred to me that this would be a great writing exercise to get the juices flowing. It is something that can be done like journaling or while waiting in an office.
Organizing your memories
As I saw the potential I thought about how to keep them organized.
I decided to name each little story. My experience with my best friend became “The Rock Quarry.” You can decide on any number of categories. You could organize your stories by year. Or if you have (which you should) multiple memories of a particular place or person, you could put all the vignettes that relate to that subject together under one heading. If you wanted to get more specific you could subdivide a major heading into several categories.
As an example: one major heading for me would have to be my best friend. Under this I can subdivide further; by year or by categories like, “Games,” “Holidays,” or “Practical Jokes.”
If you want to get really organized you could begin indexing the titles and next to each title describe where it can be found. So, “The Rock Quarry” would be followed by the major heading “Best Friend” under the category “Games.”
|In my 20s, still on the beach.|
Each group of vignettes can then be arranged in an approximate linear order. You could even give them exact dates, if you remember, or just the year they happened.
Imagine, if you wrote down one small memory a day you might soon have…more than you realized possible. You will have more than an autobiography; you will have an album of pictures, beautiful, funny, sad and personal, all captured in words by Technicolor. And, you will have a source of inspiration from which to draw called, “writing what you know.”
Perhaps best of all, you will have an album of your life which could be passed on to your children and grandchildren.