Make an engaging story

Delve into your story
guest post by Lynette Benton

As we sit around two rectangular conference tables we’ve pushed together, I eye my memoir-writing students and say, “When you write about your life, make sure it’s a story, not a report. Even your nearest and dearest will recoil from the prospect of reading fifty pages of generic ‘this happened,’  ‘that happened,’ ‘I went there,’ ‘There were 14 houses on our block and ours was at the end.’ etcetera. ”

Well, if memoir and family history writers shouldn’t limit themselves to that kind of two-dimensional reporting, what do I suggest?

I ask my students to delve into their memories for the sensory experiences—the sights, sounds, smells, colors, feelings——and the environment associated with the life they’re trying to reproduce for readers.

What we’re trying to do when we write about our lives is replicate the world we’re describing, and worlds aren’t static. If you’re writing about your life, and you want people to actually read it, let passion and power come through your words. Find those situations when the fur flew, or you faced difficult conundrums, or maybe even discovered a secret that threatened to overturn your ideas about your life or your identity. As Natalie Goldberg, author of Old Friend From Far Away, writes in her book:  “… write about a situation where you arrived at zero. A place that you never won, never conquered, never got right.”

It’s hard to be candid, I know, hard to tell it like it was and avoid glossing over unpleasant incidents. But you know what? If you write a memoir or family history in which everything is hunky dory, no one’s going to believe it. Because life isn’t like that. Not even the most luck-filled life. All of us have some tough times, some challenges and dilemmas. Write about them; help future generations learn from the obstacles you faced and the ways you overcame them, or why you didn’t overcome them but learned to live with them. There’s value in that.

If you found this post helpful, you might also like:
Memoir Writing: One Important Element
Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas

Lynette Benton is a writing teacher and coach, and published author of articles, essays, and the blogs Tools & Tactics for Writers and Stylish Ole Woman. Find her on Twitter @lynettebenton and @stylisholewoman.

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Categories: guest posts, pep talks, writing tips

10 Comments on “Make an engaging story”

  1. December 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    Bravo Lynette. Well said. In my experience as a teacher, that’s the hardest lesson for students to get their minds around. That’s why classes and writing groups are so important. Writing is definitely a team sport! BTW, I like to refer to those situations where the fur flew, etc. as “Writing where the juice is.”

    • December 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      “Juice,” that’s exactly it!
      Thanks so much for taking time to comment, Sharon – I’m a big fan of your life writing blog:

  2. Cate Russell-Cole
    December 1, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

    A great post! Thank you both for sharing it. At some stage, I’ll reblog this gem to the Memoir Project!

    • December 2, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

      Thanks so much, Cate, on both counts.

  3. Cate Russell-Cole
    December 11, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    This is a gem from Chris at Flash Memoirs. Whether or not you write memoir, you will find this post helpful.

  4. ianmathie
    December 12, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Bravo! A great post and sound advice for any memoir writer.

    It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t have to fill in every minute detail in your story. Some things can legitimately be left out because they’re not directly relevant to the story you are telling. Those details may form part of another story, which you can come back and write later. This expands your potential as a memoir writer.

    So far this approach has enabled me to write six books and there are more planned.

    • December 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      Thanks for adding that important point – couldn’t agree more.

  5. LaTanya Davis
    June 29, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    For first-time memoir writers, the antidote for two-dimensional reporting: Delve into your memories “for the sensory experiences–the sights, sounds, smells, colors, feelings and the environment associated with the life [you’re] trying to produce for readers.” Good stuff Lynette.. Re-blogging this in Memoir Notes. Thanks for sharing.

    • July 2, 2014 at 6:59 am #

      Thanks very much for the re-blog, LaTanya!

  6. September 6, 2014 at 5:48 am #

    Une fois de pluѕ un excellent article : j’en parlerai dans lɑa
    semaine avec des collègues

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