You Grow into Your Story

Graduate1“You grow into your story.” I was surprised to hear these words come from my mouth the other day as I met with a new group of lifestory writing students. I’d never thought of things quite this way, and their truth was a bolt of psychic lightening.

The sentence emerged during a discussion about the need for every story to have a “moral.” Moral is a word with a lot of baggage.  We came to an agreement that strong stories include some element of change or growth as a result of events and experiences included in the story.

As mentioned in the previous post, it isn’t always apparent what that insight is. I pondered for a couple of days as I reflected on the lesson learned in “Grabbing Grannie’s Dishes.” Only as I adapted this previously written story for the Gutsy Story contest, did I realize that the initial version, written a dozen years ago, was an extended vignette, lacking the insightful closure that adds impact and meaning to a full story.

As I explained to the class, I was not ready to discover these lessons a dozen years ago. I had to spend hundreds of hours writing hundreds of draft stories – I know now that they were drafts – at the time I thought most of them were polished and perfect. But most are merely vignettes, lacking the full closure of a complete story. They do a good job of documenting experiences, so they remain a valuable contribution to family history. Far more than enhancing the message for others, the primary value in taking them the next step is the personal insight I’ll derive in the process. 

For many years I had to write simple stories, to practice putting memories on the page. Only recently, much later, have I begun to see the structure of stories and be able to analyze what I wrote earlier to see the gaps and voids, to recognize what’s missing to make them complete on a literary level as well as a personal one. As I see this, uncover the missing parts, my life perspective is coming more sharply into focus, with deeper meaning.

It’s become more clear than ever that writing your lifestory will always be a work in progress. No matter how thorough you are or how “mature” your story becomes, there will always be another angle, another way to tell your story, perhaps better, perhaps with specific application to a new purpose.

If you are just starting to write, please, don’t worry about digging deeply for meaning. Write your stories. Write one hundred stories. Write five hundred. This is a case where more is better.

When you do feel ready to dig more deeply into a story, use some or all of these questions to shed new light on the situation and add impact to your story:

  • What does this story mean to me?
  • What did I learn from this situation?
  • How did it change or affect my life?
  • What would I do differently today in light of what I learned?
  • How might (that other person) view this situation?
  • What other situations does this remind me of or apply to?
  • Where is the tension in this story?
  • What is the most true part of this story?
  • Is any part of it not true?  

Ultimately, the only way you can grow into a story is to start writing.

Write now: look through your collection of “finished” stories and find one you’d like to revisit. Use the list of questions above to explore other ways of looking at it. Explore your thoughts with freewriting. Rewrite the story to incorporate new insights.

If you are new to lifestory ory writing, draft a pile of stories, setting each aside to polish and probe later.

Image credit:  Brian Lane Winfield Moore;


Karen Walker said...

Such wise wise words, Sharon. I always remember the first editor I hired after competing my memoir telling me, just tell your story. In the telling of the story, the meanings do emerge.

SuziCate said...

Writing life stories is like writing fictional stories. With life writing we might not get the "story" until revisiting it.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Karen, I remember you saying that, many times, many ways. You did well to find such a wise editor!

Sharon Lippincott said...


Many people, including neuroscientists, will tell you that memory itself is fiction, created to make sense of fragments of perception. Our only hope for shared reality is to agree on the meanings of some core shared concepts, events, places, etc. Without the ability to do that, we could not have community, let alone civilization.

I don't think I quite addressed your astute comment, which triggered this thought -- the sign of a successful comment. :-)

Samantha M. White said...

So well put, Sharon! That was how it happened for me, too . . . all those years of writing what I thought were finished stories, that were only practice exercises to write while my story continued to unfold. I love that you were able to see and explain how that happened for you. I suppose that means our stories are not over . . . .

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for the additional angle Sam. Practice exercises. Yes! Warm-up, and also valuable documentation for family in their own right. Even if we do finish the polished version.

Herm said...

Sometimes when I sit to write and the words don't come the way I want them to, I'll shift and pull up something from the past to read. I'll always find another way to write that something or more to add to it. Even now as I look at words instead of listening to them in my head, I detect something. Perhaps I should let the words come as they want to. Perhaps they'll tell me a story. ;-)

I like the moral value of story. It seems to allow (cause)the story to continue in the reader's mind past the final period.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Herm, I find much value in hearing about the process other people use to write, to find their stories and fine tune them. Thanks for adding your two dollars' worth.