No matter who you are, your story is a part of something bigthe fabric of history and the human experience. Once written and shared, your story will change someone. And that someone is most likely you.
A Story that Matters offers an accessible and simplified way to get your stories written. Each chapter is divided into three sections: the first discusses memoir writing in the context of themesmotherhood, childhood, relationships, professional life, and spiritual journey; the second provides basic writing and editing prescription, with a focus on common beginner mistakes and roadblocks; and the third provides a sample story related to the life theme discussed in the first section of the chapter. Chock full of writing and editing lessons that focus on how to get a first draft written and how to craft the draft into a compelling story, A Story That Matters explores our ability to help, heal, and connect to others through story, reminding us of the greater need for a broader array of authentic voices in the story-sharing universe.
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About the Author
Gina Carroll is an author, speaker, and editor who believes that everyone has a story that matters. Also the author of 24 Things You Can Do with Social Media to Help Get into College , she helps students use their social media to share their best stories and show their highest selves online; and as a partner at Inspired Wordsmith, a writing services business, Gina helps aspiring writers and business professionals get their life stories in print. A longtime freelancer and blogger, she has written thousands of articles on an exhaustive variety of subject matter, in addition to maintaining her own four blogs. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she currently lives with her husband and children in Houston, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
A Story That Matters
A Gratifying Approach To Writing About Your Life
By Gina L. Carroll
BookSparksCopyright © 2017 Gina L. Carroll
All rights reserved.
Why Your Stories Matter
Why is your story so important? Why is the writing of your life story such a big deal that others — certainly the author of this book-feel compelled to encourage you in that direction? There are many excellent reasons to get our stories down in written form. Once you get past the feeling that your story will not be interesting (it will), then you must embrace the fact that you are an important part of history — at least someone's history. You have played a starring role in the lives of your spouse or lover, your children, your friends, and your colleagues, including your current workmates and the professional people coming behind you. These are the folks who have a vested interest in your life experiences and how you came to be who you are now. In addition, there are people whom you may never know or meet that can be profoundly affected by your words. When you write and put your story out into the universe of story lovers — and we have already established that this group pretty much includes the entire human race — you may set in motion your own Butterfly Effect, wherein the small ripple of your story, like the flap of a single butterfly wing, may cause the proverbial hurricane on the other side of the world. That ripple-turned-hurricane has the potential power to provide help, hope, and connection for someone in need.
However, the most powerful benefits might happen internally for you. The exercise of writing your own life stories is a journey and a gift that you give yourself. It is a rewarding endeavor that allows time for reflection and revelation. In more ways than I can predict for you right now, you may very well be the greatest beneficiary of your writing. And that, my new friend, is reason enough.
YOUR HISTORY IS YOUR FAMILY'S HISTORY
* * *
"Anyone who's fortunate enough to live to be fifty years old should take some time, even if it's just a couple of weekends, to sit down and write the story of your life, even if it's only twenty pages, and even if it's only for jour children and grandchildren."
— Former President Bill Clinton
What Ken Dychtwald, "Age Wave" expert and best-selling author of sixteen books on aging-related issues, has to say about the importance of family history may surprise you:
Many people wrongly assume that the most important issue among families is money and wealth transfer — it's not. What we found was the memories, the stories, the values were ten times more important to people than the money.
This only becomes more apparent as we age, and like all works of art, our written story becomes even more priceless once we are gone. Recently, my family placed my grandmother in a memory-care facility. She has Alzheimer's. In her prime and until very recently, she was a very mentally sharp, astute, and engaged woman. She was a proud finder and keeper of facts. And so the person she is now feels quite foreign to us, and we are already grieving the loss of an enormous part of her: her memory. As my mother packed up my grandmother's bedroom, she came across a little bag of old letters. They turned out to be letters that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother exchanged before they were married in the 1920s, after he moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Chicago for work. He was a part of the great African-American migration from the South to the North.
These letters contain both a personal account of this interesting time in American history and a love story that is the genesis of my grandmother's life. My mother's discovery of these letters was a bittersweet emotional moment. She lamented my grandmother's inability to discuss the letters and the history surrounding them, since my grandmother is the only person still living who could have filled in the details of this story. Yet, my mother was thrilled to find these written accounts that, with my grandmother's loss of memory, would have also been forever lost to the rest of us.
This family discovery happened just as I began writing this book, and it serves as a perfect illustration of American writer Richard Louv's statement:
"Our stories, our personal stories, our family stories, are our real gold. If we're lucky, as we age, we put our stories in the bank, where they gather interest in deepening meaning."
The truth is, our stories are not just our stories. Our life stories are part of the many bundles that make up the life stories of our family members and everyone else we have touched along the way.
Daniel Taylor said in his book, The Healing Power of Stories, that "Families are united more by mutual stories — of love and pain and adventure — than by biology." We should not underestimate the power our stories have to connect, to inform, and to help our families. When a person visits a doctor in pursuit of a physical, the doctor will inquire about his or her medical history; a crucial part of that person's history will be the medical history of his or her parents. Your genetic makeup and your related medical predispositions — challenges and advantages you pass or do not pass on to your children — will most assuredly have an impact on their health. This reality is also true beyond the medical context, in every other aspect of your life.
I will explore this truth further in the upcoming chapter, "My Mother's Lessons," because who your mother is, whether she raised you or not, has influenced who you are. Similarly, you — and the stories you tell — affect who your children are and who they will become. And so, your early stories are important to your children and will be increasingly so, even if this is not so apparent right now.
Your stories are important even if they don't include fairytale happy endings or glowing testimonials of familial perfection. Some stories may be painful, hurtful, or difficult to reveal. Their telling and the resultant impact on others might be distressing, but the stories' imperfections do not in any way diminish their importance or their potential to help and heal.
Many of your stories may already be well known by your family members. In fact, chances are that some of your stories are legends in their own right! But I want, here, to draw a distinction between telling your story and putting it in writing. If your story or stories are not written, they are at risk of being forgotten, or more likely, changed. Though we may value the way oral stories evolve into wholly different stories over time, if you want to maintain the integrity of your story, and if it is important for you to establish and maintain the truth (or at least your version of it), than your best bet is to put it in print, once and for all. Like my great-grandparents' letters, our stories have the potential to long outlive us. If you value the preservation of your stories, then they are much safer in print.
Your Story Is your Own
* * *
"You must have control of the authorship of jour own destiny. The pen that writes jour life story must be held injour own hand."
— Irene C. Kassorla
The popularity of Kathryn Stockett's book, The Help, illustrates the importance of telling our own stories. This engaging fictional account of one woman's quest to forge a writing career in the South during the civil rights era centers, in large part, on African-American domestic workers of that time. The main character, who is not African-American, resembles the author in many ways, as the author has drawn from her own early years in Jackson, Mississippi. However, since the story's real focus is the African-American characters of whom she has only provided enough of a sketch to move the story along, you can't help but hunger for more depth and authenticity for these characters. The stories of African-American domestic workers in pre-civil rights America are rich, diverse, and complicated tales that deserve to be told with their true complexity and fullness of humanity. All writers have a right to share their version of an era, especially in fiction. But as we experience the real stories from people of a certain time period, like the civil rights era, we will be less likely to settle for portrayals that diminish their experiences or gloss over the adversity they overcame at such an important historical turning point.
There are stories in print about the civil rights era that are penned by African-American women, and yet, the widespread promotion and popularity of the highly stylized version offered in The Help says something about the need for more. Many African-American women bought and read the book and viewed the movie version, connecting to the parts that rang true for them, their mothers and grandmothers. There ought to be more stories that are truer and more authentic for the women who crave them.
We must share our own stories and make them available for those who would use them for historical and artistic purposes. We owe this to the world and to ourselves. Viola Davis, who was nominated for a best actress Oscar in a leading role for her portrayal of Aibileen Clark in the movie version of The Help, had this to say about the importance of storytelling in her now-famous speech at the 2012 Women in Hollywood event:
What keeps me in the business is hope, and that's the hope that women of color are also a part of the narrative, that our stories are just as potent, because we also have the power of transformation. We also have the power to be quirky, and sexy, and different, funny, heartfelt — all of those things. And I consider it to be a larger purpose in life that keeps me in the business. My mother has an eighth-grade education, and she started having children and got married at fifteen. Her mother got married at fifteen and had babies at fifteen. Eighteen children she had. My mom had six. And she grew up, she had all of her children at home in my grandmother's house. My grandmother gave birth to all of us. And I happen to think that my mom's story is very interesting. Very interesting. And those are the stories I want to see on screen just as much as anybody else's story. ... And I believe and I really hope that we have the imagination, that we have the courage to bring those stories to life, because I want to do ... what Cicely Tyson did to me ... she allowed me to have the visual of what it means to dream. When I saw her in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, she threw me a rope....
There are so many ways that you, as the writer of your own story, can throw others a rope. Your story can allow another person to reflect on a time, a way of being, an emotion, or a viewpoint. And that illumination or reflection can be life changing in ways that are predictable and not so predictable. And yet, the uniqueness of your own individual telling makes it a solitary stance with which you stake your place in the world.
So, the importance of this effort to get your stories written goes beyond the notion of storytelling. Just as important to the collective consciousness is the imperative that you be the master of the telling and the writing of the stories that are yours and yours alone.
To Help Others
* * *
"We only have what we give."
— Isabel Allende
Recently I wrote a story about my grandmother and how I believe her love of sweets (and her consumption of sugar) eventually contributed to her death. The main point of the story was that I, myself, have a profound sweet tooth, as she did, and I fear that my consumption of sweets will be my undoing as well. Weeks after that story was published, in the midst of a business meeting, one of the other meeting participants pulled out a copy of my article and said that it had completely described her relationship with sweets and piqued her consciousness about the dangers of her diet. My article was her call to action, the sign and the catalyst to make an important change in her life. I am often amazed by and impressed with how unique, personal accounts — writings extremely specific to the writer — can so profoundly affect others.
Cancer bloggers — men, women, and even children who write about their own or a loved one's cancer battle — take to the Internet in large numbers to chronicle their experiences. Many of them have large and loyal followings because their stories connect them to other sufferers. These connections are important for everyone involved. Dennis Pyritz of the Being Cancer Network [of bloggers] says this about the importance of the written experiences for cancer victims and survivors:
There are lessons to be learned from every story of cancer, lessons to be learned from every stage and phase of our struggles. In fact, that is our reason for publishing guest posts in the first place. Some lessons are dearer than others to learn. Some posts are harder than others to read. ... One could argue that there is nothing noble in suffering, that there is little to admire in death. And jet that is part of the transcendent nature of human experience — that meaning can be derived from both.
You can help people in small and enormous ways with your story. But two things are required for your impact to be felt: one, that you get your story written, and two, that you share it.
The religious and spiritual among us already know this about the power of testimony. A testimony is composed of what one has learned along life's journey and how God manifests in one's life. The tradition of sharing testimonies is a long and important one in many religions and spiritual disciplines.
What is the Bible but a collection of spiritual stories of people's encounters with God that teach and guide believers?
The Bible also encourages the sharing of testimonies. Believers are directed to bear witness to God's works in their lives and on their behalf. Mark, in chapter 5, verse 19, says:
And he did not permit him but said to him, "Go home to jour friends and tell them how much the Lord has done forjou, and how he has had mercy onjou."
In John 15:27, Jesus directs his disciples:
And jou also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.
Indeed, the many spiritual lessons one attains become even more valuable in proportion to the extent that they are shared with others. This is a large part of our spiritual obligation. Many believe that the act of testimony is how one reaffirms his or her faith and connects with other believers.
It is no accident that Christian self-help is one of the fastest growing book genres, as it capitalizes on the crossroads in a life story where one encounters the spiritual, and the lessons learned from that crossing. Not only might your testimony be your most rewarding life story, but as a writer in the current market, your testimony may very well be your best way to break into publishing.
* * *
"Ultimately, the richest resource for meaning and healing is one we already possess. It rests (mostly untapped) in the material of our own life story, in the sprawling, many-layered 'text' that has been accumulating within us across the years."
— Gary M. Kenyon and William L. Randall, Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth through Autobiographical Reflection
Lastly, but in no way least, write your own story for yourself. Just as testimony can help you clarify and solidify your religious and spiritual beliefs, your other life stories can help you put your experiences and their lessons into perspective. Writing your stories, articulating what you have done and seen and endured, what you have taught and learned and contributed, where you've made mistakes and failed, allow you to take stock and contemplate where you are going. Sue William Silverman in her book Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir says:
Writing my life is a gift I give to myself. To write is to be constantly reborn. On one page, I understand this about myself On the next page, I understand that.
If you are reading this book, chances are you are already compelled to write. I hope you are now motivated with the knowledge that your story is important to you, important to your family, and important to many others whom you may know or may never know. Your story is a part of something big, the fabric of history, and of the human experience. Once it is written and shared, your story will change someone. I guarantee it.CHAPTER 2
Story of a Girl, Storj of a Boj: Writing About Your Childhood
"The childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day."
— John Milton, English poet
Our early years are called formative years for a reason. Most of us believe that we, as adults, are the sum total of all that happened in our childhoods, and that the beginning of our story is the very core of our life narrative. So when we consider the stories of our childhood, we tend to approach them with a certain reverence for all that they mean about and to us.
You may find that reveling in the stories of your childhood is a little like peering into the life of another. Who is that child — that girl or boy — you will be writing about? Who is that you that is not likely the same you that you are now? This reality is a point of interest. How exactly did you get from being that girl to this woman, that boy to this man? What are the seminal stories that happened in between?
Excerpted from A Story That Matters by Gina L. Carroll. Copyright © 2017 Gina L. Carroll. Excerpted by permission of BookSparks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Why Your Stories Matter 5
Chapter 2 Story of a Girl, Story of a Boy: Writing About Your Childhood 19
Chapter 3 My Mother's Lessons: Writing About Mother 35
Chapter 4 When and Where Love Enters 51
Chapter 5 Your Testimony 71
Chapter 6 Your Professional Journey 91
Chapter 7 A Word About Preparation and Prompts 117
Appendix: Memoirs Worth a Read 137