THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
November 5, 2016
Here it is November already. Herman Melville gave November a bad rap when he coined the phrase “a damp, drizzly dark November of my soul.” He considered (or at least Ishmael considered) November the nadir of the year, a thirty-day bad trip.
I have always been fond of November. It’s a month of beginnings for me, probably because my birthday is in this month, and I’m grateful to say it always falls in the season of gratitude. My birthday, November 22, is the earliest possible date for Thanksgiving. I like having a day to be grateful I’m alive. A day to take stock of myself and be pleased with what I have received so far.
Except for one birthday, in 1963, when I learned more than I wanted to know about the dark November of my soul. That was my 22nd birthday. Yes, I turned 22 on the 22nd, and on that day I was put through a wringer of disbelief and denial that festered into grief and dismay. That was the day President Kennedy was murdered, and to add another angry and personal irony, it happened in my home town.
All Americans who remember that event—and that includes anyone not too young to be aware of what happened that day and not too old to remember much of anything—can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
As you might imagine, I eventually wrote a short story about that birthday. The story was fiction, with made-up characters, but my characters experienced the same emotional land mine that blew my complacency to smithereens.
The upside to all this is that November 22, 1963 was the day when I felt political passion for the first time. It was a big change I’ve been grateful for ever since.
Why am I telling you all this? Just to bear witness to the fact that everybody has at least one personal turning point to look back on. Actually we all have multiple turning points punctuating our past. These turning points, my fellow writers, are where we should look if we’re wondering what to write about in our next story. We all have story material in our past. Exploit those secret and special days to find fine fiction. Or nonfiction. Either way, make stories from the raw material of your memories. Here’s some how-to advice.
Ten Tips for Writing Stories from Your Life
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. Step ten is not optional.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for December’s 99-word story submissions is December 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for December 10, and will stay posted for a week.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by the following sentence: A fine romance this turned out to be.
Calling all published authors—
I try to feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at email@example.com.
Thank you for visiting. Please drop by next week.