Mining Your Life Story, Notes from Nancy Linnon’s Talk, March 2017

Notes from Nancy Linnon’s Writing Your Life Story Workshop

Opening question: If you were to write a memoir or personal essay, what would it be about?

Answers covered a wide range of topics from abuse to relationships via

  • Looking back on how you’ve changed from who you were
  • Looking at how faith has influenced your life
  • Inspiring grandchildren
  • Educating children
  • Life as a cultural hybrid (we have a surprising number of hybrids in our midst)
  • Blended families crossing that chasm between genetic and familial relationship
  • Music
  • School
  • How illness affects a life…

…and much much more. What would your answer be?

Questions arising from this discussion included:

  • Can memoir turn into fiction? (Yes, it might do this while you’re writing it.)
  • When is fiction a lie? (Memories are rarely entirely true. The blend is important in determining whether you’re writing memoir or fiction.)
  • Is it memoir if it only covers the last five year? (Yes)
  • Can poetry be memoir? (Yes)

Nancy’s talk covered

  • Mining your life
  • Shaping your story
  • Narrative arc—vertical and horizontal plotlines

and ended with the suggestion that we write (well, we are a writers’ group). Keep a list of pivotal events handy (you’ll create your list in the exercises below) and choose one each day to write about, for 15 to 30 minutes—let go of what you expect and just letting the writing surprise you. Remember, if someone’s going to read what you’ve written:

  • Your story must come alive on the page, and
  • You have to persuade the reader it matters—it will be a voyage of discovery, for the reader and for you!

Happy Writing everyone!


Mining your life – the Submarine Sandwich

When you’ve found the stories of your life, you’ll have to hold them in an open palm—open because when you write you need to be open to learning the story is different—it might not be about what you were planning to write about. But first you need to find the stories.

Start with a rather introverted submarine sandwich! Draw a timeline, from when you were born to the present day. Split the timeline into sets of years (say 7 years in each block, or more, or less, or variable…). Writer the life events that belong in each section, and you just might learn where the focus of your memoir should lie. (If you’re writing fiction, do this for your character’s life.)

A more extrovert version of the submarine sandwich is based on decades instead. The 60s, the 70s, the 80s… Sociologists tell us the decades influence us at all ages. How did you react to that particular decade? What attracts or repels you about that decade?

And a more global version creates submarine sandwiches for you, your family, your town, your nation, your world, and fits them together. After all, every story happens in context.

Now you’ve got your submarines, look for pivotal events—events with a clear before and after, with the potential to inspire your book. While most autobiographies will include the whole submarine sandwich, most memoirs will focus on part, which might result in:

  • Slice of life: e.g. the two years someone was in a mental hospital, or
  • Embroidery thread: e.g. a theme that recurs throughout the pattern of your life.

When you “mine” your life story, you use the pivotal events as turning points/stepping stones. You leave out what doesn’t relate to the time (slice of life) or the embroidery thread (theme, but yes, you can braid several threads in one memoir). Your research is like studying in the library of your mind… ask questions (Why didn’t I keep a journal?); talk to yourself or to others (lots of clues can appear when you talk); ask why you do or don’t remember things… And then…

Shaping your Story

There are two important elements in a story

  • Character—you in a memoir, and
  • Plot

This section deals more with character. A character needs to have a desire, encounter struggle, and undergo change/insight/transformation to create a good story. So write three headings:

  • Desire,
  • struggle (obstacles), and
  • insight/change/transformation.

Select events from your submarine sandwich timeline and reorganize them under the headings. Be open to playing with your material. This exercise should help you change/reopen your story. Let it surprise you. Find out what it’s really about.

Other useful exercises might be

  • Crazy prompts: e.g. Tell your life through your relationship to trees.
  • Stream of consciousness: start with a moment/a snapshot and see what you write.

Remember, writers rarely know where the beginning is when they start writing. Stay where the energy is in your story. This will create more energy. Don’t impose a shape or form too soon. The plot comes later…

Narrative Arc

Whether it’s fiction, fact, memoir, scene or essay, your story needs a narrative arc. But it needs more than just events.

The horizontal axis of your story tells the timeline, the context, the situation… maybe even the plot.

The vertical axis brings in the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insights; the one thing the writer really wants to say; it turns an anecdote into a story.

e.g. in a single scene, there’s a situation, a pivotal event, and a conclusion. Write these across the top of the page. Below them write…

  • Situation
    • Specific details of the scene
    • Internal reflection on the scene
    • Dialog
    • Feelings
    • Etc
  • Pivotal Event
    • Feelings
    • How the character gets past those feelings
    • Is there a universal emotion feeding into this?
  • Conclusion
    • What did you learn?
    • How did you change?

A memoir is not just facts and events; it’s also what came out of those facts and events. But remember, it’s not just feelings either; it’s the facts and events that evoke those feelings. You need both axes in your writing!

If you’ve researched your submarine sandwich and looked for pivotal points, you should now be ready to put Nancy’s lesson into practice: Each morning, choose one pivotal event from your list—whichever one inspires you that particular morning. Write for 15 to 30 minutes, letting go of what you expect and just letting the writing surprise you. Enjoy!

And Happy Writing!

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