I believe that everyone has a story, stories. If you can speak, you can write. And even if you can't write, if you can speak, you can tell stories. And I think you should 'cause it's noble. Okay, the problem or the first step is finding those stories. So, how to find your stories. One way, my favorite way, or one of my favorite ways, is to mine your pain and humiliation. Okay, please don't leave. I know that doesn't sound fun. Like now I'm asking you to think about something that happened to you when you were 10 years old, then dig it up, and then scratch it for a week or two or maybe a month or five years, and cry a lot. But lemme tell you something. Mining your pain and humiliation makes for great stories, for one, because we need tension in a story. Also, it's good for you. And it's good storytelling. I wrote a book called My Miserable Lonely Lesbian Pregnancy. Thank you for laughing. It's a comedy. Well, it is and it isn't. It really is a true personal story that tracks my pregnanc...
y, and I was clinically depressed while pregnant. Which was something that I didn't even know was an option. Turns out it is. 20% of all women, pregnant women, suffer from depression while pregnant. But the book is not a diatribe about depression, though it deals with depression. What it is, what happened to me during that time was I was taking a writing class. And every week I would go into my writing class and tell a story that I thought. Well, what was coming up for me were humiliating, sad, terrible moments that my class just thought were so funny. And that's the funny thing about pain and humiliation. Sometimes, the thing that you think is the worst, most awful, most embarrassing thing that could ever happen is so funny to someone else. And that might also seem like, that's awkward and not nice that someone would laugh. But lemme tell you something. It's so liberating. I wanna tell you something else about mining your pain. Once you write a story where you bring in something that's been hurting you, and you have that story, now you have something that exists kind of to the side, like it's something that exists outside of you. I'm not saying that the pain of whatever it is that you experienced will go away, but the power that that situation had over you will be lifted, I guarantee it. Please try it at home. But if you have no pain and you did not have a traumatic childhood 'cause we're not all that lucky, you can follow your curiosity to find your stories. What's interesting to you is bound to be interesting to someone else. Actually, you have to be interested in what you're writing about, or no one will be interested. People always ask me, "What do you write about?" And I always say, "Me." It's my favorite topic. But if you have no pain and you have no curiosity, don't fear, you're in luck. You can respond to a writing prompt. So a writing prompt, and this is probably my favorite way to get to stories, a writing prompt is any word or any sentence, anything, like it could be hunger, let's say, or it could be a time I totally messed up. It's anything meant to jog your memory. And what happens when you respond to a writing prompt is you don't, sometimes you remember things you didn't remember remembering. And when that happens, I think there's usually a story there. Here are my favorite, top, some of my top prompts. I will tell you that in the bonus materials that you get for this class, you get 30 days of daily prompts. So there's a whole bunch that you can choose from. So here's examples of some of my favorite prompts. Things you don't understand. I don't understand why my 14-year-old daughter spends hours straightening her hair everyday. I don't understand liars. I don't understand high heels. So, I don't get it! So now I have three stories to choose from. Times you were a big jerk. One time, I wrote in a Valentine's Day card to my then girlfriend. We'd been together for about two years. And I wrote in the card, "I don't know if we'll be together forever, but." So, okay, that relationship died. (audience laughing) Another time I was a big jerk, I was in seventh grade and my best friend wrote a letter to another girl in seventh grade calling her a leech. And a whole bunch of girls signed the letter. I was one of those girls that signed the letter. Now, I've been thinking about that jerky time for a while, like lately, because I think there's something there and I need to work this story out. I need to work it out because it's coming up for me a lot and I think there's something to it, something like, Hitler was bad. This is my theory. But his followers, even worse. And that was me. Okay. Obsessions. Okay, I'm obsessed with coffee. Sleep, cannot get enough. Bicycles, I'm obsessed with pimple popping. Age, I wanna know how old everyone is. Tell me later, I wanna know all of your ages, I'm dying to know. And I'm so obsessed with getting attention that I've like, spent years writing about it. So before we got started, I asked you guys to write down your obsessions, and I want it, I wanna hear them and see if there are stories there. So is anyone willing to reveal how obsessed you are?
Some of my obsessions. I'm also obsessed with coffee. Obsessed with roller derby, and desserts. Yes, I play roller derby, so.
Am dying to know how hard this woman gets hit on the ring. What does the practice look like? How fast does she go? I wanna know everything. That's a really excellent opportunity for this narrator to take us into her world, roller derby. Fascinating, cool. Who else is obsessed?
My obsession is with yoga pants. Not wearing any today, which I'm mad about. (audience laughing and man speaks in distance) Yeah, absolutely. There's--
Oh, I thought he wanted to see your yoga pants. (audience laughing)
Yeah, just jeans today. I'm also obsessed with a podcast called 2 Dope Queens. Makes me laugh every single day. A Seattle, local Seattle company, Glassybaby. Coffee, of course, and naps.
Yes. I'm so interested in more about the yoga pants. What does that mean? What does that mean about someone who only wants to wear yoga pants? I'm curious. Other thoughts? I mean, other obsessed people? Oh, come on! Okay, good, good, good.
Okay, I'm obsessed with traveling. Hiking, backpacking, to be able to wake up in the back country in my tent. Time with my dog, especially in my tent. And people who are intolerant, who can't see other sides of the story, and who feel they're entitled, yet hate people who think they're entitled.
Yeah, yeah. We're gonna get to. The entitled people, la la la, I get it. We're gonna get to, later in the class, we're gonna get to creating a likable narrator, and I hope I remember to come back to that entitlement idea. Because what's really interesting is when someone is angry at a group of people or a type of personality. What's such a great storytelling technique to do is to turn the camera around on yourself and ask yourself, am I ever entitled? Right? So if that's true for you, then it's a wonderful way to like, show the truth of other people while you're showing the truth of yourself. That way your readers will trust you. Let's get one more obsessed person.
I am obsessed with boats. I live on a sailboat. I love sailing. I like to take pictures of boats, and I cannot ride the ferry enough.
What is it about someone who loves boats? I have no idea. That's another opportunity to take us into the world of boating. And what's it like to live on a boat? (audience laughing) Okay, now once you have your list of things that you, so all of these created lists. Once you have that, what I would ask you to do is circle the obsession that you least wanna think about. Just like, I'm never gonna touch it, no, it's out of my life forever. And then I would ask you to write about that thing. Write about the thing you don't wanna write about. And this goes back to mining your pain a little bit. And there's two reasons to do it, to write about the thing you don't wanna write about. The first reason is because, well, there's several reasons. It's good for you, I'll just recap. It also puts the power of that situation on the side. And then once you write about the thing you don't wanna write about, all your other stories will come flying out. I wanna tell you a quick story about my co-producer, Allison Langer, of Writing Class Radio. Seven years ago, she came to my writing class. I didn't know her at all. And I was teaching a memoir writing class, and she came to the class. Every week I give a prompt or two. And every story Allison wrote was about her dog. Now, I didn't get the sense that she was obsessed with dogs. Now if she were obsessed with dogs, then okay, like really, like, what's a dog woman like? I'm interested, I'm totally curious. But the sense I got was that she was hiding something. And I gave her the prompt, write about the thing you don't wanna write about. And the very last day of class, Allison came in with a very heartbreaking and stunning story about losing her child. And the story she tells about telling that story is about how she thought of herself, she was afraid that she would always be defined as that woman who lost a child. But once she wrote it and once she told it out loud, that definition wasn't true. She's still sad, always, about losing the child. But the power of that definition was completely, completely dissolved. And that's the whole reason we started Writing Class Radio, actually, is to get other people to tell their stories because of that experience. So I totally recommend it. Write about the thing you don't wanna write about. Lemme just run through how to work a prompt 'cause I think this is really fun and good to know. Set a timer for any amount of time, six minutes, 12 minutes, 20 minutes. As soon as you hit go on the timer, just keep writing, let your mind wander, keep the pen moving, keyboard tapping, however you wanna write, by hand or by computer, and go, go, go. If you get stuck, ask yourself, or just write what next, what next, just really keep writing. It's so important. The job of the prompt is just to get, it's really to get the truth from your brain onto the paper. Stop when the timer goes off. You're allowed to keep going, but you're not allowed to stop before the timer goes off. No editing. That's so important. Prompts are a first draft. First drafts are very often diarrhea. And that is okay. Once you go through your prompt, you might not be done with your story 'cause it's 20 minutes, 12 minutes. You can set another timer and do it again. Get through your whole story, get a full draft down on paper, a full draft of diarrhea. And then once you have that, now we're gonna start talking about 10 tips to smooth out your rough draft, to take your diarrhea and turn it into Shinola.
Bonus Materials with Purchase
Places to Submit & Read Great Personal Essays
Editing Tips for Stories Meant to Be Told Out Loud