The Benefits of Life Story Writing

When I view myself as the heroine of my own story, I no longer complain about the conflicts in my life and in myself. I am no longer a victim of circumstances. No longer am I caught within the psychological paradigm of neurosis. Instead, I’m full of anticipation for my journey into the unknown. I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas which contain hidden meaning that it is up to me to discover. I am the artist of my life who takes the raw materials given, no matter how bizarre, painful, or disappointing, and gives them shape and meaning. I am within each scene and each chapter of my life, defining my character through the choices I make. I am on my own side, rooting for myself, aching for myself, celebrating my sensual experiences, marveling in the exquisite subtlety of feelings in my life that novelists have made me aware of in their books. I am as engaged with the ongoing story my life as is a reader who eagerly turns the page.

“Your Life as Story” by Tristine Rainer


Now I Get It!

Isn’t that just the way things work. Once you throw your hands up in the air in frustration, giving up, surrendering to the universe that you just can’t do it (whether it is searching for our car keys or looking for a reason on why you are blocked at writing your memoir) anymore, the answer comes.

I picked up my memoir writing bible Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer yesterday after publishing my blog post. I picked it up cause I felt like I just announced to the world that I had given up and I wanted to know why this happens to me all the time. I get so far in my writing and then I get stumped. I know I need more balance but I needed to know where.

I read a little story in Miss. Rainer’s book and it went something like this:

One of her students would write and write and write. She would shut herself off from the world and go hard but then all of a sudden she would stop and feel empty. She would stop writing and fall into a depression.

I don’t feel that I have fallen into a depression but I do miss the feeling of wanting to celebrate with a glass of wine every night. I miss that feeling of deep grounding joy like everything was right in the world. Why is writing such a roller coaster for me and how can I get it to even out to a steady contentment?

She gives a list of ideas on how to do this at the end of Chapter Thirteen. None of them really surprised me but seeing her words written there was like a little bit of therapy. Like a friend reminding me of what I was suppose to do.  Depending on my emotions and the situation I may choose any of her ideas but the two that stood out to me the most are:

  1. Contain your writing. This is the category of one-day-at-a-time, baby steps, assembly work, and war rations. It means you divide your work into small sections, and when you have completed a section , you stop and don’t let yourself write anymore.
  2. Get off your butt and get some exercise – walking, running, dancing, yoga, whatever works for you to discharge pent-up energy.

I was so desperate to get in a word count that I was pushing and pushing myself to write more even after I felt so much emotion from extracting a major memory. That is where #1 comes in handy. I will write a memory and then that is it. Leave it alone. No word count.

Looking at my puppy the other day I realized that I have not walked him (or me) since I started working steadily on This Old House. I need to get back out there and be with nature, breath some fresh hair and get my heart rate up. Our walks were a special time for both of us and I let it slide.

Miss Rainer also pointed out something else to me. I need to know my theme. Writing abstractly is rather challenging.  My theme … my theme … I need a conflict. I need to ponder this for a spell. What I had set out to write, a charming little story about growing up on the prairies now seems complicated. I need substance.

“Theme” is the conceptual string that runs through and holds a work together; loosen it or break it, and the work tends to fall part. Whereas story is the growth of character, theme is the development of an idea. Story provides the mythic and emotional skeleton for autobiographic writing; theme provides conceptual coherence. Knowing your theme helps you include only those incidents, characters, and scenes that can be hung on it. It is your premise for deciding what to put in your work and what to leave out.”

It has been very beneficial for me to write out these random memories. For the ones I felt the most for are the ones that carry the heart of my story. I am going to excavate those stories and see a common thread. Then I will understand my theme and lay it out on my timeline software.

In the meantime I started on another little project that I have been letting settle for the past year. I will share it tomorrow.

The Autobiography – from dull to amazing!

Reading such memoirs as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls , Eat, Pray, Love By Elizabeth Gilbert, and The Craft by Stephen King, and The Joy of Writing by Pierre Burton, I had assumed that this is what memoirs look like. All the while there was thought at the back of my mind that autobiographies should be dull and yet I found these so interesting.  While I grew up believing they were dull because that is what I heard my peers saying about them.  The opinions around me spoke down on them I now as an adult I see an attraction to the craft in our society.  Has our society changed its taste for the memoir or has the memoir changed?

In Your Life As Story by Tristan Reiner, she showcases the evolution of autobiography in chapter 2.  This isn’t my most favorite chapter so far but I found it very interesting.  I felt it was valuable enough for me to read it a few times to make sure I got something out of it.

She states that the autobiography used to be a chronological series of events. Often used for the intention of maintaining the history of the tribe, clan, or religious sect. Our North American and European cultures then used it as a means to convert you over to religion. People would write about their troubled lives and then say how God save them an invite you over to their religious side of the fence.

Along the way, around the mid-1960s, someone added some literary themes and structure to an autobiography and then named it as literary nonfiction. It became a success overnight. Politicians change their speeches and journalists changed how they delivered the news. Everyone wanted on this bandwagon.

Now genres are intertwined. Journalism for example seems to be more of the legacy keeper than the memoir or autobiography.  Fiction has even moved into the autobiography. As well, both the autobiography and journalists have stolen ideas from the novel.   I find it all very fascinating but then again I like history and I like the memoir.

All of this understanding got me to thinking about my writing process. When I started writing it was very chronological and dry. I sent a sample page to my cousin Christine and ask for some advice or feedback. She introduced me to the concept of “showing, not telling”. When I set down to rewrite what I had sent her I found I put all my senses into it. It was like I was in the trance, remembering everything I heard,felt, saw, … smelled. It was an amazing experience to be taken back through time like that, all in my mind.  It can be quite refreshing to reenter your past as your adult self. A little bit like the TV show Erica.  You can put a new understanding to it.

I must admit that I feel a bit sorry for my memoir ancestors who never had the opportunity to experience this kind of writing.  That people never got to go back into their skin and reflect and relive some moments of their lives like a machine, a telegraph machine that spews out a message. The message that you can decode in a different way than you did when you were a child. Your adult perception is different.

I am so fortunate that I can take this literary concept into my autobiography and add a piece of me into it. By adding my feelings and my sense of the world around me it really does make the story mine.  Care to jump into the past and relive something?  Make it an easy something, like the first time you climbed a tree with your friends or siblings.

Photo compliments of