I’ve been a writer for years, and I totally get why we have four Gospels in the New Testament. They’re all about the same story: the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But each is unique in its telling. That’s because no two persons experience anything in the exact same way. Police officers certainly know this—no two witness reports line up perfectly, either.
Memory is not history. Memory is your version of what happened, and your version depends on what was important to you at the time—and also what is important to you now, as you look back on it. So when you write about an event—it could be a journal entry, a blog post, part of a family history you’re writing, or a newspaper article—understand that you write it in a way that makes sense to you and that resonates with you emotionally.
If you’re trying to write memoir, your own story, then please know that this process will probably go through several stages. You’ll write what you remember about key events in your life. Then, because a simple chronological telling will be uneven (and, frankly, not that interesting), you’ll need to go back through all that material and determine what the major themes are. The best stories are not mere chronologies but grow out of strong themes in a person’s life. Most people won’t care that much about which schools you went to or what jobs you had; they will focus on the kind of person you are and what made you that way. So you discern your big themes and then go through your history selectively, according to the themes, not the calendar.
Conversations can be a real pain for a writer, because they don’t translate well to the page. If you hear a fascinating conversation and then try to write it down, you’ll discover that you can’t do it literally because most people don’t speak in a logical, streamlined way. There are lots of little side comments and “um” and “you know” scattered throughout. Of course, for legal reasons you can’t reproduce a conversation exactly anyway, unless this is an interview, and even then you’ll have to edit to make it comprehensible to the readers.
What conversations offer the writer are phrases, emotional responses, little indications of the speaker’s character, background, or mood. If you’re writing fiction, then take notes from conversations you overhear—and then glean the best bits from them. If you’re noting a conversation for yourself, in your journal, then try to include indicators such as facial expressions and body language so that you can remember the conversation, not merely the words. If you’re a journalist, take very good notes or use a tape recorder and be certain that when you edit, the changes make the speaker’s intent more clear, not less.
- Write two or three paragraphs about an intense time in your family: an illness, accident, or death; a relocation, a divorce, a time of great discovery (doesn’t have to be a negative experience). Write this as you remember it.
- Now, write about that same intense time—only try to write it from the perspective of another family member—a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt, cousin, etc.
- Write a one-page history of your life, but do it three times. The first time, you tell the story only in terms of the physical place or places you lived. The second time, you tell the story of the jobs you’ve had. The third time, you tell the story of your significant relationships. Each change of focus will bring out particular aspects of who you are.
- Write down a few lines from a conversation you had today. It doesn’t even have to be an important conversation. Just get it started. Now, starting with those few lines you wrote, create a new conversation. Perhaps you change a couple of words that were actually said, and so you invent a new stream of thought. If you like, introduce another person and see what that added voice does to the conversation.
- Invent a conversation of, say, ten lines between two people. First, simply write the words that are said. Then, rewrite these lines two or three times, and each time add details that would change the meaning of the words. There might be a raised eyebrow, a note of sarcasm, the sound of the person beginning to cry or laugh, or body language that adds to the meaning of the words.
Hello, God. I’m figuring out that there are so many ways to experience one sentence or one little happening. Help me open up to the possibilities—not just in my writing, but also in my life.
I wrote the material this week especially for this online retreat—these are not book excerpts! However, if you find this material helpful and would like to pursue your writing further, you will probably enjoy my new book: The Art of Spiritual Writing: How to Craft Prose That Engages and Inspires Your Readers. Use code 4365 to purchase your copy for only $10 through 10/31/13. Shipping and handling are additional.
I’ll be hosting a Tweetchat on Friday, October 4, at 12:00 CST. Use the hashtag #writethesoul to join in and discuss your experiences from this retreat week. Ask me any questions ahead of time here on the blog or @VinitaKS on Twitter.