Giving yourself permission to write your story and knowing how to write it can be two very different things. Perhaps you've come up against this and know instinctively what I mean, but here are two examples:
**A student read an emotional passage on giving her child up for adoption. The grief was palpable. One student wanted to reach through the phone (it was a tele-course) to hug her. But the scene itself wasn't a full story. Everyone wanted to hear more. What happened next? How did the writer cope? The writer wondered how to tell the whole story, and how to know the difference between a short story and a memoir.
**Another student admitted to writing two stories for her assignment: one about her divorce and the one she handed in. She admitted to writing the divorce story to get it out of the way. It was the only way to focus on her assignment. But her classmates wanted more details---details that were, it turned out, in the other draft.
Both of these scenarios are common: You write a story that turns out to be the tip of the iceberg but can't see the whole thing, or telling the story requires writing about things that feel too personal.
In these situations, it's tempting to want a formula---a step-by-step guide to writing the full story. Many sites will give you one. They'll tell you how to write an outline and then a rough draft and then how to polish it into a story.
But when the story is deeply personal, I've found it difficult to follow a formula because it requires a level of clarity I don't have. I can't see the whole story, just see the signs of one. It's like tracking an animal. You can see tracks or scat or bits of fur and know it's a bear or a fox or a coyote. But you don't know its size or color or what it will do next.
Writing is similar. We don't know the story from start to finish, we uncover it bit by bit. We learn to recognize its signs, the things that tell us we're onto something good:
**When we try to write about something else, a topic or storyline keeps getting in the way. We resist, but it's as if the story wants to be told.
**When we write and share our work with others, all the questions we receive point to the same topics and types of information.
**A particular topic or story had a profound impact on our lives, one we're still trying to understand (it's easy to look at published work and think that writers simply have the answers to life's questions, when they really write to discover them).
**The process of writing the story strikes an emotional cord. That tells us its important and worth exploring.
**When we let go of the need to know the full story, one scene emerges after the next. We capture the story on paper rather than think it up.
When we practice tuning into these moments, we can recognize our stories and let the writing process unfold. It's a liberating way to write because we don't need to have all the answers. We turn the act of writing into a process of discovering---we uncover our story as we go.