Elevenses: Who do you think you are – a foray into life-writing

What is Life writing?

Broadly speaking, it’s the recording of memories, and experiences, whether one’s own or another’s. The Oxford Centre for Life Writing suggests that it “encompasses everything from the complete life to the day-in-the-life, from the fictional to the factional. It embraces the lives of objects and institutions as well as the lives of individuals, families and groups.”

Memoir, autobiography, journals, diaries and letters, and these days emails, blogs, and even social media posts are all ways of engaging in life writing, so your finished work doesn’t have to read like a straightforward autobiography. In fact, poetry, prose poetry, fiction and literary fiction can all be rooted in personal, lived experience.

Whatever the style of genre of writing you choose, the same principles apply to life writing as to any other kind of writing through which you’re trying to engage a reader.

It is often said that we all have a story to tell, and I believe we do. The trick is making the story interesting enough to capture the attention of the reader and to engage their emotion and empathy. This means making the content relatable by drawing out the universal human themes from your personal account. We may think that we have unique lives and unique stories, but in truth there’s nothing we have experienced that some other human somewhere and at sometime hasn’t.

Our task as writers is to find the fresh approach and the particular view, our particular view, of the situation that will make the reader stop and think about common experience in a new way.

Here’s a life writing exercise to get you started:

  1. With your notebook and pen, take 5 minutes to write a list of events from your life, from the large and significant (e.g. had baby, father died) to the seemingly small and insignificant but memorable in some way (e.g. lost car keys at the fairground and had to walk home alone). Don’t censor, just write the first things that come into your head.
  2. Go and fetch a cup of tea or coffee (there’s plenty available in the Virtual Writers’ Room, as well as bourbon biscuits and danish pastries).
  3. Come back to your list. Put a circle around or a cross next to three of the memories you’ve written that really stand out for you.
  4. Take 5 minutes to consider your choices.
  5. With a separate page for each memory, list the top 5-points about each one that makes the event you recall memorable. Try to be focussed.
  6. Next, writing down up to 3 things you learned, 3 ways your life changed (however small), 3 things you’d have done differently a point of conflict and how it was resolved.
  7. You might find that one of your pages is fuller than the other. Perhaps the memory was more visceral, the event more life changing, the lessons learned more powerful. Well done! You have now have the ingredients for a story from life that, chances are, will also contain enough of the human universals to be engaging for other.
  8. Finally, using the 5 memorable points your listed above, give yourself the freedom to get in flow and write like the wind, write down everything you can remember. You don’t need to stick to a rigid structure of ‘what you learned’ or ‘the point of conflict’ – your unconscious mind will do this work for you, because you’ve already introduced the idea.

I’d love to hear how you get on with the exercise. Use the comments box below to share your thoughts about the challenges and joys of writing from life.

Happy writing!

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