Shauna Niequist uses post-it notes. Anne Lamott uses index cards. If you are thinking about writing about your life, you probably have a lot of little stories that are either floating around your head or jotted down in your iPhone notes. If not, it’s time to start making lists.
When I was getting started with my book, I had all kinds of memories–little stories, really–that were important but didn’t have anything to do with my main topic, which was the search for true love. I had no idea that when my story came together, the little stories in my life would fit in and make sense in all kinds of unexpected places.
For example, I had a memory of waiting outside my dance studio for a ride home, calling on the payphone to see where my mom was, feeling abandoned, frustrated, and close to tears. When I started writing about this guy I was dating who was always late to pick me up, the memory of waiting outside my dance studio flashed into my mind, and I realized why I had been furious with this guy when he was late: it was because I hated that feeling of waiting for a ride that might not come.
OK, that was kind of a negative example. Sorry for the downer. But do you see what I mean by little stories?
Here is a brighter example, an excerpt from my writing:
“After the dinner [for the homeless] I helped clean up tables and sweep the floors of the dining hall. As I swept, I peeked into the kitchen where I knew I would see a theology professor from Regent Seminary scrubbing pots and pans. I could see his long low ponytail down the center of his back, a blue apron over his white t-shirt, his arms furiously scrubbing a massive pot in the sink. Round and round he scrubbed as if it were the most important job in the world to feed these people, clean up, and go back home to his family with a soft heart.”
Again, I didn’t think this memory would have a place in my book about finding the love of my life. However, as I was writing, I realized that working at a dinner for the homeless every Thursday night when I lived in Vancouver, BC, helped prepare me for marriage. No, I didn’t run away with this theology professor. (That would make a good fiction story. Feel free to steal that idea.) You can read more about my year in Vancouver in my book Goodnight To My Thoughts of You–due to be released in November, God willing!
Natural writers tuck these stories away in a special place in their mind, or on a piece of paper in their pocket, to come back and use them later, but everyone has files in their brains with all kinds of memories categorized in different ways. My guess is that you already know what part of your life you want to write about, so take down those files and open them up. Don’t plunge in to tell the whole story just yet. Start by making a list of the events in your life that shook or moved you. List the important things that happened. Don’t worry about whether or not they are interesting to other people. List the things that are significant to you.
It might look something like this. You are going to fill in all the details later.
My List of Memories:
Mexico trip—the kids there
My eighteenth birthday
Prom in Santa Barbara
Grad night with Bianca
Waterskiing trip to Lake Mojave when I met Wyatt, twisted my ankle
Moving to college, starting a new life …
After you write your list (or lists) you will realize, Hey, I do have a lot to write about! Each memory will become a little story within the larger story of your book. One thing on the list will turn into ten pages while another will be one paragraph. That’s OK. Once you begin to actually write your book, each idea will help move your story along and develop what you want to say.
Have you already started your list?
Stay tuned for two more posts in this series! I promise, they do not start with the letter M.