5 Stories You Can Write Today. For real.

Ready to write but not sure what you want to write about? There's no need to sit with your pen hovering above the page, waiting for inspiration to strike. 

-4Try this instead: Brainstorm a list of 5 life experiences that changed you. Maybe you took a trip to Costa Rica, where you hiked to the top of a volcano the first time. Maybe you were a first responder at a car accident. Maybe you finally had that heart to heart with your mom.

Don't think too hard. Just jot down five experiences that caused you to see, feel, think or live life differently.

Now pick one to explore. Don't worry about whether it would make a good story or whether it's okay to write about it. Just freewrite in response to the following prompts:

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I never imagined that...  

(Set the scene. Describe the experience that changed you.)

When it first happened I couldn't believe that...

(How did this experience surprise you? Scare you? Push you into new territory?)

I worried that...

(What about this experience scared you, made you nervous, challenged you in a new way?)

At first, I....

(How did you respond to this new experience?)

But then I...

(If your first response didn't work or wasn't enough, what did you do next?)

I learned that...

(What insights did you gain? What knowledge or shift in perspective took place?)

Now I know that...

(What wisdom or knowledge do you now have as a result of that experience?)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Notice that there's an overall flow to your answers---an arc, if you will---where events happened, you responded, and you were changed as a result.

I teach my students that those are the bones of every story. An event happens. A character feels a certain way about those events and responds accordingly. The transformation of that character (how they were or weren't changed by their actions) provides the meaning. You can also think of them as the layers of a story.

Each of your experiences will have these layers, meaning that each of your experiences is a potential story. You can prove it by using the prompts to explore each topic, or you can use the exploration you just did to write a first draft. Either way, you'll have put that pen to the page and done some writing. Today. And isn't that the point?

Set Your Story Free: Practice First

Knowing that you don't have to think a story up---that you can discover it through the process of writing---can be a ginormous a relief. Yet it also means letting go of the reins. Admitting that you don't have all the answers. Trusting that somewhere deep inside of you, you have the ability to recognize what needs to be written from one moment to the next.

That's TWO things humans don't exactly embrace on the first go around: letting go of control and trust.

The good news is that we can aspire to trust and practice letting go. I like to practice with practice writing, which simply means putting my pen to the page before I add on the pressure of writing The Big Story.

images5It helps me tune into the part of my personality that excels at trust (I like to call it my inner writer, cheesy as that sounds).

In a world where a lot of people, organizations, and brands tell us what to think, our inner writers get drowned out. We have to practice listening, and sometimes, we have to meet our inner writers for the first time. Here's how:

Imagine a person in your life whose opinion matters. Someone who knows you well but also knows how to push your buttons. He or she wants what's best for you but also thinks she knows what's best for you. What she wants doesn't always fit with what you want.

Write her a letter. In it, express your deepest writing desire. Convince her that it's a good idea to [quit your job and freelance; write a memoir about what it was like to grow up in your crazy family; fill in your dream here.]

(I won't ask you to send it. And if the idea of leaving that dream lying around on paper makes you nervous, you can rip up the paper or delete the file when we're done. For now, imagine that person will really read the letter.)

Now imagine a person in your life who believes you can do no wrong and never judges you. If this is hard to come up with, you're not alone! Pick a fictional character like Mr. Snuffleupagus. Write Snuffy a letter explaining the same dream and all the reasons you want to do it, knowing that he will nod his head, swing his trunk, and say, "Yes! Yes! Great idea!"

Are your letters different? Read them and find out. When I do this, my first letter is a carefully crafted argument. I justify my dream. My second letter is heartfelt. It flows, and it feels true. There's no tone of justification because I don't need to justify it. I simply believe in my dream.

The second letter comes from your inner writer (if you'd like, please name it). Now that you've met yours, your goal is to trust it. We do that by practicing---undertaking writing simply to discover what we think, with no pressure to write well.


Write By Hand

-4Practice writing is best learned by hand. There's no way to access the Internet so it's easier to write without distraction. There's no delete key. It's harder to edit as you go. And it's a more personal way to write. An intimacy forms between you and your inner writer as you resist the urge to edit and let go of control. Your pen will follow your inner writer's thoughts---the feelings you have before your mind corrects you.


In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg calls them first thoughts, "the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash."

I learned to access my first thoughts using two methods:

Morning Pages Just like it sounds, these are three pages of longhand first thing in the morning. Championed by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way, the idea is to start writing and stop only at the end of three pages. Write whatever comes to mind---your grocery list, the acknowledgment that you don't know what to write about, or some brilliant topic that appears. It's a brain dump, and over time, it leads to writing gold. You stumble on ideas. You see the repetitive nature of your mind and learn to break free from it. You get used to moving your pen across the page so you're warmed up and ready when it's time to write your story.

Freewriting These are timed writing activities on specific topics. They're short---ten minutes---and meant to tap into those First Thoughts. I like these prompts:

I want to write about...

I wish I could write about...

I know...

I don't know....

But you can freewrite about anything (you'll find another idea here).

As you gear up to write your story (or if you're not sure what to write about yet), play around with practice writing. Keep your pen moving and get your creative juices flowing. Let your inner writer move the pen. Don't edit. Don't judge. Don't worry about spelling. Just get good and familiar with your inner writer. She'll serve you well as you write your story.


Pen to Paper: Steal Some Time to Write

You know that I like to write in airports--it makes me feel clever to take that otherwise lost time and turn it into something useful. Plus, I always feel better when I've spent at least part of my day writing. Well it turns out that some of you are masters at stealing time, too. I was particularly inspired by Tyrean, who keeps a small notebook in her purse in case the line at the grocery store gets too long. It resonated with a video I watched this week from a graduation speech given by David Foster Wallace in 2005, encouraging the graduates to choose how they react to the world around them:


So in honor of that, and inspired by Tyrean, here's this week's writing activity: The next time you find yourself waiting, write. Use pen and paper, and don't worry if you feel like you stick out because you're writing in line at the grocery store, while you're waiting for the dentist, or waiting to pick your kids up from dance class. Just put that pen to paper and write.

If you need a prompt, use this: When she (or he) first stood in that line--two hours of waiting ahead--she had no idea how it would change her life. 

Yep, it's cheesy. But in the honor of shitty first drafts, see what you come up with. If you're so inspired, share it with us here and I'll do the same.

Pen to Paper: Use letter-writing to discover your story or character

Remember letters? Not the alphabet, the kind that begin with "Dear Mom." (Well, technically, "Dear mom," with a comma. But I couldn't bring myself to end a sentence with a comma. When I was in first grade, we had a whole lesson on writing letters and addressing envelopes, and there's no way to properly convey how much I loved that lesson. Although, I guess the fact that I'm reminiscing about it now gives you an indication of how deep that love went. Anything that had to do with pen and paper was right up my alley.)

Anyway, these days the closest thing I get to a letter is an email from my mom because she still follows the formatting of letters in all electronic mail. Other than that, letters have little bearing on my daily life. Except...

Letters play an important role in my writing.

I've used them to write whole essays, find my way through a sticky point in a story, and get to know my characters. I got the idea after I read two essays by Barbara Kingsolver—one was a letter to her mother and the other a letter to her daughter.

They didn't start with "Dear..." or end with "Sincerely", but Kingsolver wrote both in the second person. She spoke directly to the people she was writing about, and it was powerful. (They're in the book Small Wonders: Essays, go get it asap if you're into essays or if you're not.)

As an essay form, letters can be tricky to write. Unpracticed, we sometimes forget that the piece still needs to move like a story or essay, with tension and resolution and some kind of meaning that the reader cares about. It can take several rounds of revision to make sure that the reader doesn't feel left out of the conversation.

But used as a tool of discovery, letters can be done as a rough draft. Even a pre-draft. Here's what I mean:

Letter as a rough draft After I read Kingsolver's essays, I wrote an essay in the form of a letter to my mother. It became a way for me to figure out how my mother's marriage and outlook on life influenced my own. It didn't remain a letter, but it became material that I worked into another essay.

Letter as a character sketch Whenever I'm having trouble getting into the mind of character, I write them a letter. It works for fiction or nonfiction. I say "Dear, Mom..." and see what comes up. Usually, I learn something new or remember something I hadn't thought of in a long time.


flyingmailIf you have a piece that's been giving you trouble, write a letter to one of the characters. If you don't have a particular story in mind, write a letter to someone in your life.

Letters have natural flow that can lead you to intersting places, so write by hand and follow your pen. Remember that it's just a letter. It doesn't have to be "good" and that frees you up to be honest (especially since this particular letter never has to get sent).

Let all of that be true as you write your letter, and see what you discover.