Note: I posted this essay six months ago, when I first started this blog. I doubt if many people saw it, because as far as I know very few people were following my blog. I repost it now to draw attention to the creative writing class I’ll be teaching next month through Humboldt State University Extended Education. For information about that class, see http://www.humboldt.edu/olli/courses/summer/index.html#creativewriting.
Why do we tell stories based on our experiences? Because that’s what we know, of course. And the more we remember about our past, the more we understand ourselves. Where do the stories of our lives come from? Historical records, old letters, diaries, and journals? Old photographs? An attic full of souvenirs? Memories, both happy and sad? All of the above, perhaps, but also the legends and lore passed down through generations. And don’t forget family gossip, which may not always be true but is always important.
Why should we write these stories down? First of all, for the fun of it. It’s a thrill to craft a good story. But also, we do it as a gift: to the future, to our children, to our friends, maybe even to a larger audience of people who want to know what life during our lifetime was like, as experienced first-hand. Writing life stories is a chance to be generous and self-indulgent at the same time.
Here are a few tips to make the stories you write interesting, entertaining, and important.
1. Let the reader know what was going on in the world when the story happened. That way the reader will have some historical reference to latch onto. “In the summer of 1969, when a new generation gathered at Woodstock and a human being planted his foot on the moon for the first time, I realized that there would be no limits to what I could do with my life...”
2. Tell your reader how old you were, or where you were in your social development, so the reader can identify similar rites of passage in her or his own life. “My high school senior prom was a disaster, but breaking up with that person was probably the luckiest...”
3. And where were you in your spiritual development? Not a matter of world history or age, but of some change in your world view. “I leaned a lot from my time in the Vietnam war. The bad news is what I learned about war. The good news is what I learned about friendship...."
4. Write of change. Change is what happens in every good story.
5. Write of choices. Choices are often what bring those changes about.
6. Write of consequence. By that I mean write of things that matter. Get into the part of the story that people care about: love, joy, grief, regret, reward. Celebrate the light, but don’t be afraid of the dark.
7. Be kind. Yes, you can write about people who mistreated you, but treat them as people, not as cartoon characters.
8. Tell the truth, even if you have to lie to do it. Nobody can remember every tiny detail of what happened, but out of every story grows a message of choice and change, and that message must be honest. From your heart.
9. Write a story that’s fun to read. Give it a strong beginning, make it build with suspense to a satisfying climax, and leave your reader with the pleasure of having been entertained.
10. Have fun with your writing.
Enough said. Lesson ten is not optional.