Thursday, 17 January 2019

"Everyone has a story to tell" - or do they?

Writing memoir: I love to read it. But sometimes memoir writers worry about if their story is 'important' enough.

I love reading other people’s stories. Memoir and biography are probably my favourite types of books to read, and documentaries about people’s lives are the best thing on TV.

I also firmly believe that everyone has a story to tell.

Some of the writers in my ‘Write Your Memoir’ course worry about this statement. They want to write their story, but they also don’t believe that anyone would want to read it. They think ‘it’s not important enough’ or ‘it’s not significant’ or, and this is something I hear frequently, ‘my life has just been normal’.

Of course, we all know of memoirs that tell incredible stories of bravery, suffering or triumph – the ones that are a publisher’s dream. Those stories can be moving, inspiring and challenging. But I believe that even the small, ordinary stories are worth telling.

There are two keys when you’re telling a ‘small’ story.

First: know what a story is.

It’s more than just an anecdote, or a series of events. It’s more than an emotion or that time when we fell in love, or the trip we took.

Any and all stories contain certain, distinctive elements which work together, in the right order, and in the right proportion, to produce a sense of suspense, build up, completion and satisfaction in the hearer or the reader. (And no, I didn’t go find a definition of ‘story’ from Google. That’s my own work.)

The beginning of the story must include an obstacle or problem, and a point of decision. The main character of the story must choose to act, rather than be a passive recipient of circumstances. There must be a significant low point, and a regathering of strength, and some kind of showdown. Finally, we must see change in the main character. The events of the story have affected them internally as well as externally.

The second key is this: understand how your story has changed you.

The transformation of the main character is an important part of a memoir. It’s what makes a ‘small’ story – even a ‘trivial’ story – worth reading. When you are able to write with honesty and vulnerability: “this changed me”, you are on the road to writing a story which might help to change others.

Of course, to be able to write this requires self-knowledge and awareness, the willingness to be open, and the vulnerability of putting yourself out there. But if you are courageous enough to put these things on the page, your readers will truly appreciate it.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering if your story is important enough to write? If so, I’d encourage you to think in two ways: firstly, what exactly is my story, and secondly, how have these events changed me?

Let me say it again: your story doesn’t have to be a long screed of drug use, abuse or suffering. It could be as simple as the book my young daughter brought home from the library, about a dog. ‘Marley and Me’, a story about the adventures of a troublesome puppy and what its owner learned, seems like a trivial little tale on one hand. On the other hand, my daughter loved it. And she’ll take the lessons from it and absorb them into her own life.

Cecily Paterson’s online Write Your Memoir course helps first time authors with the confidence and skills they need to tell their story. Her own memoir, Love Tears & Autism won third place in the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards.
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  1. Hi Cecily. I really enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing. I do agree with you that everyone has a story to share and we can learn from all kinds of everything. Thanks for explaining what a story should contain - I reckon all of us have lots of stories in us waiting to be told. What a rich world our Father has created through all the people who inhabit the world!I like the question you pose that we ask ourselves: 'How has the story changed me?'. That's great food for thought as I seek to write for Him in 2019. Thanks Cecily and happy writing.

  2. "Understand how your story has changed you." Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Such a great statement, Cecily. Thank you for your insight. I think mini memoir episodes express their influence in our writing more often than we dare to admit - but the lessons we learn from them are part of the writing DNA that drives our growth and development as writers. When I first considered the question, 'Has God called me to write?', I remembered an incident from twenty years earlier when I woke from a dream with the words, 'You'll write a book one day,' in my spirit and mind as a clear, if unexpected, thought. I scribbled down a book title ("Hands in the Nappy Bucket") and chapter titles on a page, and put the note away somewhere safe (yes, so safe, I can't find it. *face palms). That idea was based on memoir, and the lessons I'd learned while tending to my little ones. Instead, I've written a novel - a New Adult thriller - and oh, how the Lord has changed me, and revealed his changing work and purposes to me through that process. Perhaps that's another story to tell. The great thing about recognising (and sharing) the things that have changed us is the reminder that life is about moving forward, hopefully as wiser, more confident people with stories that have a positive influence. Thanks for encouraging more people to do that.

  3. Thanks ladies. Such great and thoughtful comments.

  4. Great thoughts Cecily. I've worked on a few memoirs with people lately and they've all been stories worth telling. However, I think a lot of people do struggle with how to work out what the actual story or theme of the book is.

    Thanks for the tips.

  5. Hi Cecily, this is a really interesting post. It's great when truth really is as strange as fiction, and when somebody can discern part of the hero's journey in his or her real life events. Thanks for encouraging people to keep sharing them, despite their nerves and misgivings.