Once you have done some of the writing exercises in Telling Tiny Stories, you might like to expand the fragments into something larger. The exercises below are designed to help you do that.
First, though, it's useful to reflect on the writing you've done so far with your Telling Tiny Stories workbook. You might not have noticed, but in responding to the TTS prompts, you’re already using some of the tools that poets and memoirists use to write from life. These tools include:
· Drawing on the senses—smell, sight, taste, touch, sound—to create evocative descriptions;
· Thinking about how you’ve changed across your life, and what has motivated those changes;
· Thinking about the other people in your life as characters, and how to write about them so that your readers develop a vivid image of them;
· Recalling the objects and settings of your earlier life and current life (e.g., sharp things, smells, rooms, foods);
· Recording some of your inner life: the wishes, hopes, fears and secrets that shape how you live and how you write about your story;
· Juxtaposing tiny stories from very different times and places. This kind of shifting between times and subjects can create rich and surprising meanings for your reader.
But if you want to take what you’ve written and shape it into a longer autobiographical story, potentially for publication, what should you do?
Well, in my experience as a memoirist, I found it helpful to think about focus, scenes, characterization, dialogue, and musing.
Sometimes it helps to focus your attention on a particular time in your life, or on a particular relationship or issue. For example, in my book Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance, I focused on my journey to Toronto to marry my partner, Heather. That journey then became a frame that helped me to move around in time to consider broader questions about visibility, secrets, love and belonging. In H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald focuses on her training of a goshawk as a means of examining her grief around her father’s death. To find your focus, try to think about a topic that has been important to you (if you’re stuck, consider your response to the prompt: ‘A person or event that has changed me, and how’). Then think about how you can write about this topic by focusing on a particular day, or a number of days.
Scenes are an important tool for helping you to write your stories in an engaging way. A scene describes events in such a way that they seem to be unfolding before the reader’s eyes in real time, just like a scene in a movie. Jeannette Walls’s memoirThe Glass Castle opens with a striking scene that begins like this:
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.
This scene puts us right there with the autobiographical narrator. We get a sense of place and action, and a burning desire to know more about this narrator and her mother.
You can write a scene about just about anything. If you’re stuck, though, you might consider the prompt in Telling Tiny Stories that asks you about a time when you felt very alive. Drawing on your answer to that prompt, try to write about that moment in a scene format. Show the reader where it happened, who was there, and what happened.
· Where does the action take place—Was it in a room? On the street? In a hospital? Write about the setting, so the reader can understand where you are and picture it in their mind.
· Who was there? Try to write about how they looked, how they moved, maybe what they wore. Write about the details that seem important to establishing their character.
· What happened? Show the action as it unfolds.
You can string together a series of scenes to build a longer story. These scenes can all be from the same time, or you can move around in time, putting a scene from childhood (e.g., your childhood self singing along to the car radio with her mother) next to a present-day scene (e.g., your present-day self listening to the radio as she drives to visit her mother in a nursing home). Try to link the scenes to the focus that you have identified.
Oftentimes we’re so familiar with the people in our lives that it can be hard to write about them clearly. Once you begin to write down your life stories, you’ll become aware of how your understanding of other people is filtered through your relationship with them—a relationship that can only ever provide a partial viewpoint.
In order to develop a more rounded sense of the people in your life, try to think about them as though from a distance. Take a step back and see what you find. (You could also try to do the same when writing about yourself.) Questions you might ask include:
· How would you describe this person to a stranger so they could recognise them easily? (There are a few versions of this question in TTS.)
· What are this person’s characteristic gestures and ways of moving?
· What is this person’s most comfortable natural habitat?
· What does this person love?
· What do they hate?
· What do they most want right now? What motivates them?
· What makes this person special?
· What are some of this person’s strengths and weaknesses?
· How has this person been shaped by their childhood experiences?
· How might they have been different if they were born ten or twenty years later or earlier?
You might not be able to answer all these questions, but just thinking about them helps you to approach the writing process from a different perspective.
Drawing from the questions above, try to write a profile of this person in their natural environment. It might be in the form of a scene, in which you are observing them as they go about their regular activities. Alternatively, perhaps you can record a scene in which you and this person interacted. Try to put the reader right there with you by describing setting, character, and events.
Your tiny stories can use dialogue as a means of showing character and action. Think about the people in your life, and the moments you’re writing about. What was said? By whom? How was it said? What was left powerfully unsaid? Sometimes silence is more telling than speech.
Think about the people you’re writing about. Do they have characteristic words or expressions that they often use? If you can’t remember exactly what was said during the events you’re writing about, try asking others who were there. Alternatively, you might write an approximate version of what was said.
Some memoirs focus less on action and more on musing and reflection. When a memoirist muses, we seem to be inside the narrator’s head, listening to their thoughts. It can be a very intimate and productive mode of narration. Consider the beginning of Joan Didion’s classic essay about moving to New York as a young woman, “Goodbye to All That” (1967):
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even inthe old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.
Think again about your response to the prompt: ‘a person or event that changed me, and how.’ Can you pinpoint a moment within that event, a strong visual moment that can encapsulate the change or realization that took place in your life (like Didion getting off the plane in her new, wrong dress)? Try to begin your musing based on this image.
Next, consider how you might extend your response to this prompt by musing on who you were then and who you are now. You might even show the reader a strong image of yourself now, to contrast with the image of the earlier self. Move back and forth in time in your musing. What still bothers you about those past events? What is unresolved? Do those events shape how you approach the future? The best thing about musing is that you don’t need to know all the answers, because the wondering, questioning, and musing allow us to see a dynamic and interesting autobiographical narrator.