Note. This is the second chapter of a small book I’m writing about how and why to write the stories of our lives. In this chapter I give techniques for mining our pasts for good story material. I know most readers of this blog are not memoirists, but fiction writers. Nevertheless, since I believe that much if not most fiction is to some degree autobiographical, I hope you’ll give this brief essay a read.
One of the reasons writers give for not getting their life stories down on paper is that they “don’t have anything to write about.” Well, maybe they feel that way, that their lives contain no stories, but I don’t buy it. Anybody old enough to hold this book in his or her hands has lived long enough to have experiences, meaningful experiences, to write about. The task is to recall those memories and then shape them into stories.
I recommend three resources for stimulating your memory. I call these the Attic, Rites of Passage, and Archetypes.
The Attic isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, a real attic, upstairs in a dusty loft. The image is just a symbol for where we keep relics and souvenirs we haven’t looked at or thought about for quite a while. It’s the compartment of your memory that opens up and reminds you of an experience, a milestone, a subtle change—in other words, a story to be told. Reminders can come to you from somebody else’s story, or from dreams, or from books and movies; and they’ll hit you by surprise and demand that you remember something that happened to you.
If nothing’s nudging you out of the blue, then feel free to stimulate your memory by climbing the real attic stairs and opening up that real chest of treasures. Don’t have an attic? How about a basement? A junk drawer? Tool box? Glove compartment?
There are all sorts of stimuli at hand: photo albums, scrapbooks, school yearbooks, certificates and trophies, recipe boxes, scars on your body, poems from a love affair that turned sour or bloomed beautifully. A yo-yo with a broken string. A piece of Noxema-blue beach glass from Cape Cod. A favorite stone given to you by a mentor who later killed himself. Old songs, popular when you were a child, or an adolescent, or when you fell in love.
So if you want to write a story from your life and you don’t know where to start, find an artifact. Remember how your life changed when you added that artifact to your collection of odds and ends too precious to throw away.
And start writing.
“Rights of Passage,” a term borrowed from anthropology, refers to those experiences that come as a result of our common biological or social changes. Some of these changes are specific to males, and others to females; but we all either experience them or know people who have experienced them. The important thing about these shared experiences, in terms of the stories of our lives, is not that they happen, because by their nature they’re common to us all, but the psychological changes that happen because of them. The way you experienced a certain rite of passage, and the way it made you different, will be your own story.
What were the rites of passage that changed you and made you who you are, different from before they happened? Here are a few, common to many of us, that may jog your memory and make you itch to write about them:
The Oedipal conflict, the generation gap, sibling rivalry, first friends and best friends, romantic love, sexual love, lasting love, loss of love, courtship, marriage, divorce, children (generation gap redux), toilet training, summer camp, bar mitzvah, first menstruation, learning to shave, first driver’s license, first auto accident, first sex, getting eyeglasses, an abortion, getting religion, getting politics, going too war, passing the bar, being promoted, being fired, grave illness, the joys of grandparenthood.…
Now throw away that list and make a list of your own turning points. Others will relate to them because you’ve stimulated their own memories.
Here are a couple of tips on how to ensure a resonance with your readers. Plug into the story some indication of what was going on in the world when you experienced this rite of passage, this change. The simplest way to do this is by hanging a date on the wall of your story. “I learned a lot about honesty in the summer of 1974.” A more elegant way is to refer to a newsworthy event that was happening at the time: “When Nixon went on TV and told us, flat-out, that he was not a crook, I learned…” It’s also important to let your reader know how far along in life were, either by stating your age or, more interestingly, by referencing your experience: “I learned that love means nothing from the tennis pro I fell in love with, the summer I turned seventeen.”
Archetypes are another rich resource for inspiration when searching in our past for the stories of our lives. Archetypes are those stories we all know from our common cultural lore. Some examples of archetypes in our western culture can be found in Greek myths, Old-Testament bible stories, and European fairy tales. These well-known stories exist as if to illustrate the changes we go through, so in a sense they’re another way of presenting rites of passage.
Have you found yourself in a horrible job situation, doing mindless, meaningless work that you had no hope of completing? So did Sisyphus. (As did Captain Ahab and Wile E. Coyote.) If you’ve ever had a bitter rivalry with a sibling, remember the story of Cain and Abel. Was your senior prom a glorious night for you or an embarrassing disappointment? Either way, think Cinderella. I’m sure that each of us, at some time in our life, has been unable to resist doing something we were told by our elders not to do. We did it in spite of dire warnings, and as a result we had to suffer the consequences. That’s why Eve and Adam got kicked out of the Garden. That’s how Lot’s wife became a salt lick. Why Pandora opened up a box of troubles, and how the Little Mermaid lost her life. And there are hundreds more. Let ancient stories shine a light on your own moments of change. Let them awaken your memories.
The three resources I’ve just discussed, the Attic, Rites of Passage, and Archetypes, are handy tools for stirring up your memories of the changes in your life. These memories are inspirations for stories you’ll want to write.
So now would be a good time to discuss the slippery matter of memory.
Be advised that memory is not an accurate record of the past. Memory is a malleable art form. Every time we remember an event from our past, we’re really remembering our most recent memory of that event. Each time, we edit it slightly, so it changes and usually becomes more meaningful and dramatic. This is especially true for us writers, because every good writer is also a diligent self-editor.
Here’s my advice on this subject: don’t worry about the editing process that goes on when we bring those memories out of the trunk in the attic. The way you remember what happened is good enough, and you don’t need to fact-check. A good memory is a valuable tool for anyone writing life stories, but just as valuable is a lively sense of imagination.