I had a call yesterday from a writer who wasn’t sure if the story she wants to write will best be told as fiction or memoir. We talked about fear of exposure and how fictionalizing a life story does not necessarily do anything to address that issue. We talked about the kinds of books she loves to read. At the end of our brief conversation, she asked if I had an exercise that would guide her along a discovery process to find her story’s form.
I have a simple step, I said, to take you in that direction.
Sit down with your notepad–or at the computer–and give yourself 15 to 30 minutes to write.
Begin with: The story I want to tell has–
Write down everything you know or suspect you know about the story you want to tell.
–it has a woman and she has a child. Someone dies. Her husband or her mother. She is an artist. No, she’s a social worker. Her child is a girl. No, her child is a baby boy. This story has wounds. It has healing and recovery. It spans a year. No maybe 8 months. It has tears and it also has humor. It has a dog. And a parrot–
Those are my words but the writer understood what I was getting at. If you want to try this exercise, I encourage you to have fun and riff on whatever comes to mind. Whatever elements you feel strongly will be part of your book. This is a way to let the thoughts rise to the surface without feeling pressured to decide if the story is fiction or memoir. Trust that you know many elements of the story by heart. As you write, other elements will come to you.
One more idea for finding form: Reflect on a specific book that has inspired you recently. And if it is a book that you feel has some connection to the book you want to write, jot down the specific ways the story moved you, hooked you, affected you, touched you; take note of how it spoke to you and the way it left you feeling; what you believe its message was for you–what you took away from it when you reached the last page. What has stayed with you over the weeks or months since you read it…
Do this because it will help you learn more about what affects you and how you want to touch others with your own story. In the end, the book you write will be your book and only your book. But each day, we can reach for books on our bookshelf and learn about form from the writers whose work we love and admire.