Stick to Your Story
stick to your own story. I want to begin with because there is a tendency. And it wouldn't be true for for the people who have had the big, obvious situation that just placed itself right smack dab in the middle of your life like a grenade. But some of you, um, want to write a memoir, but you're not sure that you've got your own great story. So you think, Well, I'm gonna tell about my fascinating grandmother, who back in 1947 climbed Mount Everest blindfolded, uh, in a bikini. I don't know. She is an interesting character, and no doubt your grandmother is, But here's what I've got to tell you about all those interesting characters in your life that you may think are much more interesting than you. Um, I just I just worked in Guatemala a couple weeks ago with a woman who whose father was a hugely decorated um, general in Vietnam, and he and he was he saved people's lives. He jumped out of a plane. He was a prisoner of war, and she thought that her job and coming to Guatemala was to tell...
the story of her hero father and you know what? As as impressed as I am with her hero father, the story I want to hear is the story off her. Maybe a big piece of her story is being the daughter of the hero father, which is probably a bit complicated all these years after his death. She's still telling his story. I want your story. Um, I I don't believe some people will say I'm really boring. Nothing, nothing dramatic like that has ever happened to my life in my life. And I'm going to tell you that you do not need to have climbed Mount Everest or or singlehandedly rescued 11 p. O W's, um, in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. There is nothing mawr gripping than total honesty. It is that rare to encounter it, as we all well know somebody who is willing to actually tell the truth. And it's the beautiful thing about memoir that you don't need to have accomplished these extraordinary feats. You need to accomplish the feat off looking square in the eye off what has scared you the most. What has brought you to your knees and then be brave enough to talk about it and I want to say that as long as you're telling your own story, you are telling that you are the world's expert on your subject. And it doesn't matter if you've got me or any other you know, experience professional writer out there. I can't tell your story on Lee. You can, and you are the only person who has ever lived it. So what's keeping you? Are you giving your resume? Don't, um, and often often when you when you write, you think. And this is this is actually what stops a lot of people. Oh, my God, where do I begin? So many things have happened. Well, I was born, um, you don't need to tell every single thing that happened. You know, I use an example often of a one of my favorite memoirs. Mary Karr's The Liarsclub Beautiful memoir. Theo Entire memoir takes place over only one year of Mary Karr's life, but do we need to know about the year before or the year after? There is everything that we need to know to understand that family in that one year, Um, all right, as long as you were going through the events of your life you were writing in a manner that anybody could write who simply checked out your file. I want you to tell the story, not as this is what happened. But this is how I experienced what happened. Um, and I want you to locate and I actually think this is going to take you off the hook from that overwhelmed feeling of Oh my God, where do I begin? There's so much to say, um toe locate a particular theme. It doesn't mean this is the only one you'll ever explore. It's the one you're going to explore this time around. Um, my memoir at Home in the World, which I consider my first riel memoir. It's the one that I published about 25 years after the books that I mentioned Looking back when I actually went back and I wanted to tell him or honest story on, I wanted to explore some rather significant pieces of my life that I had omitted from the first memoir. I was at this 0.44 years old. It you know, it didn't happen overnight. This honesty thing for May it was hard come by, um, at home in the world is not the story of my life. It's not even some people think it's the story of my of a famous writer. Guess what? It's not that either. It is the story of to some degree. Part of it is the story of how my experience with a famous writer changed me. I have no business writing his biography, but I can certainly talk about how that experience affected me. And it's not just that either. It's actually I'm looking at what that meant. It's the story. If I were to describe at home in the world, and I and I will, I think it's important to be able to say what your stories about the journey of at home in the world is the journey of a girl going from believing that she needed to be very good. Please everybody else win approval, be very successful, Um, and found her value through how other people viewed her to a girl who found her own voice, reclaimed her lost identity and wasn't a particularly good girl at all, in fact, was was spoke up, reclaimed her voice and spoke up in a way that made her quite condemned in many quarters. Um, but, um, I got myself back. That's at home in the world Now, over the course of the years that that book covers, um, many other things happened. I raised three Children. Um, I had a marriage and a divorce. My parents died. I carried on a career for those 25 years. You won't learn a lot about any of those things in at home in the world. And not because my three Children aren't pretty darned important to me. It wasn't the story for that book. That was not the journey I wanted to take you on. Um, So what is your story about? Not just what happened, but what is your story about? And this is a question that might seem the most obvious question for any writer. But I'm going to tell you from experience of 25 years, working with students and reading student manuscript and always beginning almost every workshop session with a particular writer begins with the question. Some of you in this room have had this experience with my question. What is your story about? And you know how often the person cannot say or they give an answer that is very long. But if if you cannot say in two sentences what your story is about, then probably you have not yet identified what story you're telling. And that's a red flag. Now I want to talk about a, uh if some of you who has taken a writing workshop before has anybody ever heard a writing teacher say, Don't worry about your first draft. Just get the words out there vomited out on the page. Sound familiar? Yes. Okay, You will not hear that from me. I don't believe in vomiting out on the page, and I don't believe that vomit on the page ever gets cleaned up to anything other than, ah, little less vomit. I do not think my experience tells me that once people have committed words to a page, especially because the process of doing that is pretty arduous, especially for some people that get pretty attached to that vomit. It's really hard to throw it out once it's on your laptop. Am I right about that? People at home, I'm going to suggest an aspect of the writing experience that doesn't get talked about very much, which is to think before you begin and to ask yourself and then write down the answer What you are going to be writing about and the thinking may go on and has, in my case, sometimes for months at home in the world that actually went on for 25 years. Um, I probably couldn't have earned a living very well if that was the only book I was working on and it wasn't during that period, but But it is the not writing period, and it and it will serve you so well. What builder would ever think of just getting to a piece of land and saying, I think I'm gonna start hammering some wood and see what I get here. Make a plan and the plan begins with identifying what your story is about. Take one story at a time. Um, And if you hear yourself saying, um because this is this is what you could write down in that what is my story about? My story is about my relationship with my mother who doesn't have that story. My story is about my marriage. My story is about my the poverty of my childhood. Um, if if If you're writing that then you have not yet focused in small enough to tell a story. Really? Well, um, I want you to give me a sentence that is not simply a state of being, like my abusive childhood, my marriage, but motion and change.