“Every [person] has within [themselves] the entire human condition.”
—Michel de Montaigne
We each have a story. All of our stories are valuable. Our stories connect us to each other. This happens because within each of us is the entire human condition. In other words at the basis our humanity, we desire to be seen, loved, accepted, known, and heard—and all that for who we really are not for who others want us to be.
When our stories encompass moments where these things were compromised OR when they were met, we arrest the attention of our readers because they can relate. It’s why we love love stories. It’s why we love triumphant stories when someone accomplishes the pinnacle of their best selves, overcoming crazy odds to get there. It’s why we get emotionally invested in a character—real or made up, good or bad.
Yes, we find ourselves rooting for the bad guy because a good storyteller shows their complexity and creates space for us to insert ourselves into the nuances of the character’s evolution. We begin to feel for them because we feel for ourselves. We can’t help it. We see ourselves in those stories when they are told well.
When they aren’t and the storyteller isn’t doing a good job of relaying the human condition through the pages—we disconnect. We cannot find entry points for ourselves in the story. This happens with too much detail or not enough detail. It happens when the writing turns preachy rather than communal and compassionate, nonjudgmental. It happens when you tell me you were angry versus showing me through dialog or effective scene building. Yes, all this can happen in nonfiction works--memoirs, creative nonfiction. It’s a must.
But before we even get there. Many writers want to know just plain and simple “How do I write my story?” “How do I even get started?” “What should I include?” “Will I get sued?” “What about embarrassing myself or my family?” So let’s talk about this. I want to give you ten points to consider as you write you story.
1. Start at the beginning.
Take stock. Lay everything out. Who am I and how did I get here? Start with one story and keep that one unifying thread.
Write everything you can remember—the first day of school, family vacations, holidays, moving to a new home, the birth of a new sibling, your first memory as a child, recess/playtime, lunchtime, a favorite teacher, the meanest teacher, the meanest kid, the nicest kid, why did they seem this way to you. Just write. It doesn’t need to be pretty. Pretty comes later. Just write. “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.” William Faulkner. Put perfectionism to death. It’s crippling.
2. Write consistently.
To be able to write your story, you need time to write. Find a time during the day where there are no distractions. Many writers wake up very early sometimes before the sun comes up, before family wakes up, before the routine of the day takes over, and they write. I do this often. Others write at night after everything has been quieted, kids are in bed, the spouse/partner is off doing their thing. And they may sit and write for two or more hours.
“Butt in chair,” writer Anne Lamont says, “Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”
3. Manage your expectations.
Let’s break the myth that you should write when inspiration hits you. Inspiration will not always hit you first and then you write. Sometimes you have to meet your muse at the designated place and time and see what they have to say. I love what William Faulkner said,
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
Sometimes no words come and that’s OK. Sit there. You can even type, “I don’t know what to write. What is it about my story that I want to tell?” You’ll start to explore your motivations for writing this is good and may lead you to your writing goal for that day. It may lead you toward a theme that you want to explore the next day. Don’t wink at these moments when writing is hard. Also, writing is always hard, but you have something inside you telling you, you must do it. So answer it and be prepare to plow through the difficulty.
4. Develop a writing practice.
Set time. Set place. Every day. You, your writing tools, your story, and God. Set a goal: 500 words a day, 3500 words a week (which is equivalent to a chapter for most books). There’s also a practice called Morning Pages, which consists of handwriting in your journal or notebook three pages first thing in the morning whatever is on your heart or mind. No overthinking. No editing. Literally write whatever is on your mind. Many times for me writing like this, which is how I journal, helps me know myself—what I think, believe, the root of my struggle in a certain area. I often feel that I don’t know what I think until I’ve written. It’s true!
“I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”
A good writer is self-aware and able to be vulnerable with what is inside them—enough to get something real and authentic on the page.
5. Read. Read. Read.
Good writers are readers, especially within the genre they write but expanding beyond that to grow their skill, to be exposed to other perspectives, for creativity and inspiration, to be simply entertained. Read widely. Read diversely. See how other writers draw you into their stories that seemingly have nothing in common with your culture or identity. Three resources I recommend for you:
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont
On Writing by Stephen King (yes, the horror writer)
The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg
6. Choose how you want to tell your story.
A collection of personal essays or poems. A nonfiction, self-help, spiritual or personal growth, Christian living book. A memoir. A children’s book. These are distinct genres that have their own conventions. Research them. What works for you? What works best for your story? One thing I do recommend to my authors is choose one. Don’t merge genres. You can confuse yourself and your readers, and readers don’t like to be confused. They don’t want to have to work too hard to understand you. Many first-time authors want to write both a nonfiction self-help book AND a memoir or autobiography at the same time. Please don’t do this. Choose one.
7. Don’t worry about being sued.
This is especially true in the beginning stages. Just write. Just tell your truth. I love what Anne Lamont said:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Go ahead and just write for right now. Worry about protecting the innocent, obscuring details, changing names and identifying features, libel, and such for the editing process. For now leave out what you need to leave out that adds clutter and confusion to your story. Cut the fat. Keep the lean, which also leads into…
8. Tell what you personally can handle.
Sometimes a tell-all is not just bad for others, but it can also be bad for you. Going back to certain places and remembering especially traumatic experiences can take a toll on you. If you have not done the work of resolving and healing some of the issues, writing certain parts of your story can be too painful for you. Add to that the response from friends and family where there are unhealed relationships, where they don’t see the story the same way you did and they take offense and respond in ways that bring further hurt.
Because of some of this, a few authors I know and are working with have prayer ministers or therapists on hand while they write. Many of those who tell their story well have years of healthy emotional distance from their experiences so that they are able to relay their stories without bleeding all over the page. I have often read manuscripts where the pain the author is feeling is still very fresh. There is bitterness and revenge on the page. You want to be careful of dumping on your readers. Your careful perspective, insights, and sharing are what they need to bring them through their own troubles.
Sharing your story when you are not healed of can cause both you and your readers to wallow in dark and painful places. Much like the blind leading the blind. Having spoken to so many authors who want to share their story, I know this is not the goal. The goal is to bring light and healing.
Therefore as the writer you get healed. Get distance. Get perspective. Then write. You can only write what’s in you. Out of the abundance of the heart the hand writes (a play on Matthew 12:34).
9. Don’t write in a vacuum.
Get feedback from a writer’s group, a trusted friend, an editor. Writing is a solitary work but there are times when you need to bring your work up for some air. Let someone walk through the work with you. Get constructive and objective critical feedback. You don’t have to write alone. Some authors hire a writing coach through their process. Some write their first draft and then get it critique by a professional editor. Some employ the help of beta readers.
10. Decide what to do with it.
What will you do with what you’ve written?
Just for you (very healing process for many writers)
A family keepsake
For the world
What platform, audience, potential readers do you have to help your message soar?
Writing is a generous work. If you publish you are essentially saying this is not just for me but ultimately it is for you. You are sharing your story with the world with the hope of shining light on something that will make life better in some way for someone else.
For more nuts and bolts on effective ways to write your story well, I prepared a book for new authors called So They Say You Should Write a Book: a New Author’s Guide to Writing a Book People Will Buy and Read. You can get this book for free when you start a new membership to my online writing community and coaching program, Pneuma Writers. Or, you can purchase it and other writing resources from my shop.