Tools and techniques to put pen to paper.
You’re sitting down to start writing a slice of your story. Maybe you’ve poured yourself a cup of your favorite tea, and lit a candle. Maybe you’re ready to jot down a few things in your journal before bed. Maybe you’re scribbling on the subway on your way to work.
Either way, you’ve realized that you’re officially stumped. Where do you start? How do you start?
Thankfully, there are so many ways to spin a story—ways that not only help us to access and extract important memories, but also energize and revitalize our creativity. Below, you’ll find an assortment of tools and techniques to help you begin.
Compose a six-word memoir. This unique writing technique was introduced in November 2006 by Larry Smith, founder of SMITH Magazine. He asked his community to describe their lives in precisely six words. And it’s amazing just how compelling, haunting and hilarious brevity can be.
A famous example comes from Ernest Hemingway, who according to legend was once challenged to write an entire novel in just six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (You’ll find a slew of other stunning examples at SixWordMemoirs.com.) How can you distill the essence of your story, of yourself, into six words?
Of course, you can use this technique in any way: Summarize your entire story. Write six words for selections of different memories. Write six words about that weird summer or your first day at that new school. Write six words about your work. Write six words about being a parent.
Write your story in third person. According to Kim Schneiderman in her book Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life, “Third-person narrative uses the pronouns ‘he,’ ‘she’ and ‘they,’ and it is used when the narrator describes someone else’s story, often from a neutral or all-knowing perspective.”
Writing in the third person is powerful because it gives us distance from our stories, and distance gives us insight, without getting stuck in the mud of conflicting emotions and painful memories, without feeling as overwhelmed. Think about a specific moment you’d like to explore, and start with: He or she.
Write your story through an object. A lamp isn’t just a lamp. A vase isn’t just a vase. Because objects aren’t neutral. They hold memories, emotions, stories. They came from someone or someplace. They were given or bought during a specific time in your life. They sit or stand in a specific place in your home. They represent something: They are special, or they are clutter or a bit of both.
Either way, if these objects could talk, they’d likely have some things to share. So let them.
Set a timer for 10 minutes. Begin by selecting any object you’d like or, if you’re home, pick the one closest to you right now. Where did it come from? Who gave it to you? Do you remember what was happening when you received it or bought it yourself? How do you feel about it now? Or tell a tiny tale from the object’s perspective. What has the object seen? What story does it want to reveal?
Write letters to a loved one. Letters are intimate. We say things in letters that we might not feel comfortable saying in a text or over the phone. Maybe it’s because we handwrite letters, and our personal handwriting is such a reflection of who we are.
Pick one person you’d like to write to, and start by answering the question: What would I like you to know? And if that feels too heavy or hard, simply start with: How am I doing right now?
You might write a letter to the most important person in your life. You might write a letter to a loved one you’ve lost. You might write a letter a week, or even every night.
Use your senses. Our senses hold rich, vibrant stories. Just take the sense of smell as an example. As Diane Ackerman beautifully writes in A Natural History of the Senses, “smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years of experience. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”
Our senses are also absolutely astounding. Take again the sense of smell: “We can detect over ten thousand different odors, so many, in fact, that our memories would fail us if we tried to jot down everything they represent,” Ackerman writes.
Instead of thinking about specific memories, narratives or stories, think about your senses first. Here are some prompts to get you started: the sweetest sound I remember; a bitter taste; a joyful sight; a warm, inviting fabric; the salty scent of the ocean; the taste of Hanukkah or Christmas; a favorite lullaby; the crackling of a campfire.
Your stories are sacred and complex—which is why it helps to start small. With a few words. With a single object. With a single sense. And from there, you may be surprised how naturally the words flow. And if they don’t, that’s OK, too. Keep writing. Keep going. There is so much meaning and magic and power in exploring the story of you.