What Story Should You Tell?
Today is national write your story day.
Posted March 13, 2018
“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else. ”
~ Gloria Steinem
March 14th is “National Write Your Story Day,” and as someone who facilitates memoir-writing workshops, the idea of this day really resonates with me. My passion involves inspiring others to tell their stories, so I am enormously gratified that there is actually a day dedicated to encouraging people to write.
Regardless of the genre—whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or poetry—everyone has a unique story. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the right story to tell, but other times, it can be more challenging and overwhelming. Many writers have enough story ideas to last a lifetime; however, some writers tend to relive and retell childhood stories, which serve as platforms for their work, because those accounts are often filled with pain, joy, or unanswered questions.
Even though writers might have a sense of what stories they wish to tell, once in a while they might get stumped. For the most part, most story ideas come to us—not necessarily when we’re seated at our desks, but rather when we’re out and about. It’s important to remain attuned to the more mundane moments in everyday life—odd discoveries and chance remarks made by others in social, professional, or casual settings. Compelling stories contain snippets of personal incidents interwoven with facts, current events, and other types of information. That’s one of the many reasons why you might consider carrying a notebook with you wherever you go.
My typical day begins with reading the news. An article or story might spark my interest, which drives me to surf the web for more information. If I’m in the middle of another project, I will toss the idea into my “Writing Ideas” folder, which contains stories I hope to tell one day. Whether I get to writing them or not isn’t important; the important thing is to have that folder ready for those days when the well runs dry.
But, no matter whether your mind is flooded with ideas or feels like an empty sieve, here are some questions to ask yourself to help you decide what story to tell:
- What inspires and thrills me?
- What story would I enjoy writing?
- What is continually going through my head?
- What is the premise of my story?
- Who are my villains? Who are my heroes?
- What am I obsessed by?
- Where am I in my life right now?
- What stories am I compelled to read?
Typically, I remind my students that whatever stories they choose to write, chances are they’ll soon realize that the creative journey is similar to life’s journey—that is, it is unpredictable, unstructured, mysterious, and laden with miracles.
In her book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), Margaret Atwood said, “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”
In Writing (1993), novelist Marguerite Duras and Mark Polizzotti said, “Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.”
William Faulkner believed that there is a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he said, “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” Whatever this dream is, writers often lose sleep until their projects are completed, and this is how they uncover the stories they have to tell.
In many ways, writing can be thought of as a modern, guilt-free substitution for confession. This might be one reason why so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real-life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped. Franz Kafka summarized this idea beautifully when he said, “I write in order to shut my eyes.”
Fiction writers might argue that they write fiction so that they can tamper with the facts in their lives, and that they have more freedom during the writing process. Author Neil Gaiman once said that the best thing about writing fiction is the moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know why you’re doing it.
In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he says that the best type of writing is intimate, and that all writing is about enriching our lives and the lives of our readers. Truman Capote, on the other hand, claimed that his greatest pleasure in writing was not what the book was about, but rather, the inner music that the words made.
In essence, we write to know ourselves and to figure out the world around us. It’s all about making a discovery. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories, and fears can transform themselves to reveal value and meaning for us in our current lives. As author Joan Didion said, “I write to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Atwood, M. (2002). Negotiating With the Dead. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
King, S. (2010). On Writing: A memoir of the craft. New York, NY: Scribber Book Co.
Duras, M. and M. Polizzotti. (2014). On Writing. Minneaspolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.