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Know That You Have the Power to Write: Your Vast Memory Bank of Experiences and Feelings Can Help You Get Started
Just what is it that drives you to the page, compels you to sit down and write, or makes you want to write, even if it's sometimes hard to get started? Do you feel the strongest need to get words out on paper when you are trying to sort out your emotions and daily life experiences? If so, have you filled thousands upon thousands of pages of private journals with such writings? But do you also sometimes wonder if you might be able to turn some of these musings into stories that could hold interest for others?
Or does the urge to write come over you when the idea for a fictional story has captured your imagination, and dynamic or dreamlike scenes, replete with interesting characters and their life crises and challenges, float through your mind by day and night, just calling out to you to be set to life on paper? If so, is it your greatest fantasy or hope that your story might someday be worth publishing, so that others can enter the world of words you've created?
Whether our urge to write stems from a desire to recount true-to-life stories (nonfiction) or to spin tales that we make up altogether (fiction), I believe that we can all develop our innate capacity to tell compelling stories. At the same time, we can benefit from some guidance in just how to come up with a written story that feels complete, intriguing, and worthy of asking others to take the time to read. And such guidance in exactly how to translate your story ideas into completed form is what The Power to Write: A Writing Workshop in a Book is here to offer you.
What a Story Is
But just what is a story, anyway? Quite simply, short or long, one page or one thousand pages, a story is an interesting tale about something dramatic, funny, memorable, or intriguing that has happened to ourselves or to other real-life or fictional characters. It always contains at least one character who is faced with a challenge or conflict—major or minor—that he or she must try to resolve on some level by the story's end.
Your purpose in telling a story, as the writer, is to take your reader on a brief but potentially powerful emotional journey—as you entertain, inspire, or invite them, for a brief bit of time, to enter into the inner world of another human soul.
A good story also allows your reader to temporarily step beyond his or her own boundaries. More than anything, it invites the reader to feel what the character feels—and thus to feel less alone, more connected to others, and part of the larger circle of life for that short passage of time during which he or she is absorbed in your words. And that highly desirable, though not always easy-to-attain feeling of enhanced connection to other minds, lives, and souls is something we are all seeking to experience, almost all the time.
A story, no matter how short or long, too, nearly always revolves around a time of change in the life of the character—whether the character is you, describing your own life experience, or a fictional character you've created. Such a change may be huge or small, internal or external, one the character is choosing and initiating. Or, the change may be happening entirely against the character's will, one that he or she is valiantly struggling to prevent from taking place.
This impending change produces a sense of mounting tension—for if you have no tension (which is caused by the conflict at the center of the story), you have no story. For in life and in stories alike, it's tension and trouble, that truly intrigue people, and the hope that a resolution will occur that keeps them interested. Happy endings, of course, do happen and are fine in many cases. But entirely smooth-sailing lives, and stories, just don't hold our interest for long—for there's simply no staying or selling power in such strife-free tales.
Your goal, then, is to sweep your readers into your story, scene by scene, and pique their curiosity about the question that the conflict or tense situation raises, about what's going to happen next. And by story's end, you simply must answer that question, resolving the tension for your readers in a logical, at times surprising, but always satisfactory way.
But perhaps you are saying right now, What stories do I have to tell that others could possibly care about? Well, I can guarantee that no matter who you are—your age or life stage; your geographical location or occupation; your religious beliefs or political persuasion; your family background, marital status, or your current family makeup—you have potentially hundreds of stories to tell.
We all have potentially powerful stories deep within us, just waiting to be called forth, perhaps to be told aloud and then put into written words. Your storehouse of stories, too, flows from your many years of life experience; your unique perspective and way of seeing the world; and your ability to access a wide range of feelings. So let's consider just a few of the possibilities.
Just like the rest of us, you've almost certainly had vast experience over the course of your lifetime with virtually everyone's number one interest: and that's love. And whether you know it now or not, you have a lot to say about this timeless topic. For love is the essence of life: and you've known many different kinds of love in your lifetime—from romantic forms of love to the love between parent and child, siblings, and friends. And if you've experienced deep struggles in any of these relationships (and haven't we all, at times?), you have a host of powerful memories to draw upon.
For instance: You've probably been in love, many more times than once—and then felt the agony of losing a love that you'd been certain would last forever. You've probably also felt the ache of being away from a lover for what felt like an eternity, only to ultimately experience a happy reunion. Or you may have felt the supreme sadness of loving someone who doesn't love you back, or who perhaps loves someone else—and you've been stung by the brutal nettles of betrayal. But whatever your unique experiences of love have been, there is no doubt that some of your most powerful and poignant moments could become the catalyst for deeply moving, potent stories—stories that nearly everyone can relate to.
Sigmund Freud once said that love and work are the two main human endeavors that we all pursue and have in common—and he may well have been right about that. You have almost certainly, then, had some powerful moments on your life pathway as you've traversed the world of work—regardless of what is happening for you now in that key aspect of life. Over time, you've probably held a host of different jobs—some of which you've loved, some of which you've hated, some of which you've perhaps been fired from unfairly—but all of which offer potentially interesting settings, characters, and dramatic moments that can trigger ideas for your stories.
Perhaps you've also, at one time or another, had a debilitating health condition, been in an accident, or known close friends or family members who've experienced such life dramas. Such situations can easily become the basis for a powerful piece of writing.
You've almost certainly lived in (or visited) a number of different houses, cities, and other geographical locations—some exotic, some perhaps seemingly plain as can be. You've also probably traveled a bit and had some unforgettable experiences on such journeys. But even a most ordinary setting or everyday trip in a car or bus can become the scene for an intriguing slice-of-life story.
You've almost certainly (even if you've lived in the same town your entire life) known a host of different people, from teachers, to storekeepers, to ministers or rabbis or priests, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and others, whose lives have affected you and whose unique traits or life experiences can enter into the drama of your stories. This applies equally whether you choose to focus on writing solely about true experiences, or to selectively take characteristics from real-life people and spin them into fictional characters.
But more important, still, than your specific life experiences, is that you've undoubtedly felt, at one time or another, every human emotion possible—from wild joy to deep sadness and disappointment to outright fury. For virtually without exception, it's the underlying feelings that truly make for a powerfully told story: the feelings that your characters are experiencing, which you can bring forth and cause your reader to feel as he or she follows your story along.
So whether you choose to become a writer of fact or fiction, or to continually weave a fascinating fusion of the two, the most powerful way to get started writing is to tap directly into your huge memory bank of both life experiences and feelings. That's where you'll find an endless treasure trove of ideas to take off with and expand into story form—and from which truly inspired writing nearly always springs.
The Importance of Sharing Our Stories
Sharing the stories of some of our most memorable moments of life can be a great gift. For at our very core, we have a need to share our stories—those about what has happened to us, and those that come to us through the marvelous realms of our imagination and end up as what we call fiction.
We need to tell our own stories and to listen to the stories of others, for these stories can serve many purposes. They can help others laugh at themselves, or at life, in moments when they most need to see the humor in otherwise difficult situations. At other times, our stories may help inspire someone to move beyond his or her own challenges—knowing that if you've been through something similar and survived, then perhaps he or she can, too.
Our stories matter. All of them. Your stories matter. So I urge you, right now, to go ahead, let your ideas flow, and start to get your stories out on paper—for you just never know how much of a difference they may make, and to whom.
FOCUS ON MEMORABLE LIFE MOMENTS
Here's what we'll be doing to start: I'll offer you topics that can get your memories fired up; you'll reflect a bit, then come up with an interesting moment or time in your life that relates to the topic suggested. You'll then put pen to paper, and take off with whatever comes, by writing a few paragraphs or pages. But first, let's take a look at some examples of the type of piece I'd like you to come up with.
The following story describes a moment in time when the narrator was overwhelmed by fear.
Suddenly there I was careening across the road, totally our of control, helplessly watching a maze of cars, like huge lightning strikes, skating toward me across the black ice, coming at me from all directions; and I knew with certainty that my frantic, desperate attempts to press harder and harder on the brake pedal were futile, and I would never be able to stop on time.
I glanced at my three-year-old daughter sitting beside me, took in her small precious face, her innocent, enormous blue eyes turning toward me for comfort, but instead, I let out a wild, primal scream. Engulfed by my tidal wave of fear, a horrific high-pitched wail of her own then poured from her gut as her face crumpled in terror. I was sure, right then, that in a moment it would all be over and I'd never be able to hold her in my arms again and tell her how much I loved her.
Clearly the feared fatal accident didn't happen, as I'm here to tell the tale. This brief story-starter, though, portrays a moment when my life could have changed in a flash, and that's why it's stayed with me as a still-potent and emotionally charged memory. I was reminded of it because it happens to be winter right now, and silken waves of silvery snowflakes are fast falling down from the sky, whitening the narrow streets of my small New England town. Yet serene as the soft-looking snow appears, I am ever aware that underneath it lurks a sheet of potentially hazardous ice.
I offer this example because I want to emphasize to you that even if you haven't had many major life crises or dramas, I guarantee that you have lots of dramatic, interesting moments that can become the basis for a powerful piece of writing. And we can all transform our ordinary moments and daily experiences into stories that can become intriguing to others.
Let's move on to another example: A memorable evening, one that changed the course of my own life.
Across the Room
I had almost stayed home that fateful night, wanting nothing more than to settle down with a comforting cup of hot chamomile tea and a good book. But it was Friday night, once more, a lonely weekend approaching, and I knew, deep down, that after a year alone, it was high time I began to get out more and at least begin to open to the possibility of meeting someone new. So, shivering from the cold New England autumn air, even though I was wrapped up tight in my long black wool coat, my red skirt flying upward as the wind sent it soaring every few blocks, I walked the whole two miles downtown to the Cambridge "Y," to attend an English country dance for the very first time.
Before long I arrived, and soon after entering the large room, where the dance was already in progress, began to warm up. I noted, too, that the music was quite pleasant and soothing, and indeed there were a host of attractive men of various ages present, just as I'd been secretly hoping. So I joined in as best as I could.
But before long, I was feeling infinitely awkward, clumsy, my face flushed with embarrassment at my ineptness in catching on to the intricate steps that everyone else seemed to have done flawlessly all their lives. Confused as to which way my feet were supposed to move, fearing that I was simply never destined to be a dancer of any sort, I was starting to fantasize about just escaping quietly, slinking away from this sea of swiftly moving feet, arms, and legs, and flurries of faces, and back home to my lonely but familiar and comfortable little apartment.
Yet despite these persistent thoughts of leaving, I found myself still there, an hour later, whirling around the dance floor, getting dizzier by the minute—when suddenly I caught a glance of him, across the room. A new arrival, having come in late, he stood hesitantly, watching the crowd gracefully move across the floor to the rhythm of the live violin trio that was filling the air with a rather enchanting Bach piece. He seemed to be deciding whether to stay and join in, or to simply go on his merry way, to who knows where. In that very instant, mysteriously, but with an intensity far beyond anything I could explain—a stab of panic struck at my heart. Because I knew, already, that I wanted, needed, more than anything, for him to choose to stay. For I somehow sensed, with every fiber of my soul, that my entire destiny depended upon this split-second decision he was about to make.
I kept dancing, yet studying him intently at the same time, my eyes never leaving him, as he stood there. He seemed to be about twenty-three, a student-type, with clear, bright, but wistful-looking deep blue eyes that traveled intently around the room as if he, too, was looking for a lost someone—and was hoping, against hope, to find her here. Though he had an air of uncertainty about him, a sheepish, little-boy quality, he was undeniably handsome. He was exactly what I'd always thought of as my "type," with soft, brownish-blond hair, and a slight mustache, a medium build, and not too tall and not too short, about '"to my'µ?". Just right.
A worn green backpack with a broken zipper, clearly filled with a stash of books, was slung upon his shoulder. Books, I imagined, to be filled with deep insights on philosophy, literature, and Renaissance art—as well as, of course, of volumes of romantic nineteenth-century poetry that I was already fantasizing he would soon be reading to me, late at night—in his place or mine, before turning out the lights, as we then reached out for the exquisite comfort of each other's warmth in the darkness.
Excerpted from The Power to Write by Caroline Joy Adams. Copyright © 2003 Caroline Joy Adams. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A Note to Readers
Part I Shape Your Words into an Intriguing Story
KEY 1 Know That You Have the Power to Write: Your Vast Memory Bank of
Experiences and Feelings Can Help You Get Started
KEY 2 Start Your Story with a Powerful Opening
KEY 3 Create an Emotional Journey for Your Reader
KEY 4 Ask the Six Most Important Questions About Your Unfolding Story
Part II Continue to Develop and Refine Your Writing Skills
KEY 5 Focus on the Five Senses: Sight, Sound, Taste, Scent, and Touch
KEY 6 Discover and Develop Your Own Unique Writing Voice
KEY 7 Gather the Courage to Share Your Work