The interest in any story, yours included, is not so much what you did, but what you made of it—what you learned, how you changed. That’s not to say if you walked across that bridge in the photo, you wouldn’t have a story to tell. But more than just the fact that you did it, how did you do it? What did you experience when you first saw it? Why did you decide to tackle it? If your feet bolted to the boards halfway across, how did you manage to make it the whole way? How did you feel after you accomplished it? Did it change you in any way?
These are the kinds of considerations that make your personal story become your readers’. We all may not have crossed a chasm on a swaying bridge, but we all have faced a challenge, maybe a fearful one. Reading about how someone else dealt with a situation helps us to absorb his or her experience and apply it to our own. So it’s not “just the facts, ma’am” you want to record when writing your story, but why those moments are important to you. Not only will your reader benefit, but you will too.
When she was arrested for her former involvement with drug traffickers, Piper Kerman, a Smith graduate from a supportive, well-to-do family traded her designer clothes and comfortable lifestyle for a prison jump suit and fifteen months behind bars. In her memoir, Orange is the New Black, Kerman shares the lessons she learned during her incarceration and how that experience changed her. Including this reflection provides readers with both an intriguing story and insight into the complexities and dynamics of a world most would not ordinarily experience. (*The book is not at all like the TV series, by the way.) Here are some sample passages:
I had learned a lot since arriving in prison five months ago: how to clean house using maxipads, how to wire a light fixture, how to discern whether a duo were best friends or girlfriends, when to curse someone in Spanish, knowing the difference between “feelin’ it (good) and “feelin’ some kinda way” (bad) . . . which guards were players and which guards were nothin’ nice.
However, most of all, I realized that I was not alone in the world because of the women I lived with for over a year . . . .We shared over-crowded dorms and lack of privacy. We shared eight numbers instead of names, prison khakis, cheap food and hygiene items. Most important, we shared a deep reserve of humor, creativity in adverse circumstances, and the will to protect and maintain our own humanity. . . I don’t think any of us could have managed those survival techniques alone; I know I couldn’t—we needed each other.
Before and After
There’s wisdom in the rear-view mirror. Looking back and examining the pivotal experiences and events—both in our control and out of it—which have impacted our life, helps us to understand our present. As Danish philosopher Kierkegaard says, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Or, if you prefer John Wayne’s take – “Tomorrow hopes we’ve learned something today.”
Try organizing some of those pivotal moments into pairs of themes. That’s how Bob Goff arranges the stories in his book Love Does. Each chapter is a self-contained story from his outrageously large life. He subtitles each chapter with variations of before and after, following a I used to . . . but now I . . . pattern:
I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.
I used to want to fix people, but now I just want to be with them.
I used to think I had to act a certain way to follow God, but now I know God doesn’t want us to be typical.
Times of Reversals
Looking back over our lives also helps to see how we got through times of reversal, when something difficult or downright awful later turned out good. This is a particularly helpful exercise for those who want to pursue their spiritual journey. You might discover recurrent themes in your life. What helped you get through trying times—people, prayer, divine intervention, gut and grit?
The Friday of this post, Good Friday, is a perfect example of reversal for those of the Christian faith. The day Christ died on a cross was a dismal day for those who hoped in him. All their expectations and hopes hung there, lifeless, about to be buried like any other man’s. Little did the people know that in three days the most life-changing, glorious event was about to take place and what looked like death was actually life.
Regardless of your faith or whether or not you want to embark on a spiritual autobiography, you can learn much by noting these times of reversals in your life and examining how you overcame them. Consider what you lost and what you gained.
1. Model Bob Goff’s pattern to write about a change in your thinking, beliefs, wants, or actions. Explain what happened and why and how you changed.
I used to (believe, think, want, like, etc.) but now I ________________.
2. Make a timeline of your life. Divide it into periods of time—decades, or childhood, adolescence, etc. Mark some of the turning points, pivotal moments, or life changing events in each period. Write about the event and explore what you lost and what you gained from it.
3. If you could choose one event, experience or specific time of your life to write about, what would it be? Why is it important to you? What would you want your reader to know, experience, feel, learn or take away from it?
I know I said I’d post these mini moments for a month, but as my former students used to say, “Mrs. Moston doesn’t just go down rabbit trails, she goes down elephant trails.” So since I’m having fun doing these and I’ve used up all my mulch and outdoor project supplies, and since several of you seem to be following along, we’ll keep going down this trail for a while longer. Hope to see you here next week. And if you have something to share, contact me.
Image: Michael Luenen, Pixabay