On Writing: “But, how do I start my story?”

James Hurd, November, 2014

This is the first article in a series on writing. The next articles will be: 2. Revising, 3. Editing, 4. Layout, 5. Getting your story out to others.

New book: Wingspread: Memoirs of Faith and Flying.  Review it and buy it at: http://booklocker.com/books/7785.html

Wingspread site: http://jimhurd.com

You don’t have a choice, you know—you must write your stories. Only you can tell them from your unique viewpoint. You owe these stories to your friends and family. You have something important to say. We all must write, even if’s a few pages in a looseleaf notebook. Do it, and give it to your kids, or to your friends.

Why must you write? 1. To find out what you know, what you remember. 2. To organize your scattered thoughts. 3. To discover, perhaps for the first time, the meanings of your own life.

Just start!

The best advice: just start! This will free you. Planning at this point can stifle you. Freewriting means getting a sheet of paper and just writing. If you don’t know what to write, just write this: “I wonder what I’ll write about…” Force yourself to write continuously, without stopping, for fifteen minutes. Save the agonizing and revising for later.

If you must, just create a list of topics and write on the best one:

  1. Firsts in my life (first day of school, of marriage, of a job, of a new home)
  2. The most, the greatest (surprise, gift, sorrow, challenge, friend, event)
  3. What happened when I (lied, broke up, had my first period, moved, had a fight)
  4. My greatest fear; my greatest joy…
  5. My strongest conviction is…
  6. The strangest, most interesting character I ever met…
  7. The first thing I remember is…
  8. The house where I grew up was…
  9. My deepest spiritual experience was when…
  10. Many other topics

How do I tell my story?

Not many things are true across all world cultures, but one thing is true: Everybody loves a story. So tell stories. Story means narrative—moving things along. What happens first? Then what?

You don’t have to make it all about you. You don’t even have to use the word “I.” But you are the video camera, you are the lens through which you let people see your world. What makes a good story? Writing about people, in some detail. Good descriptions of places, descriptions of events. Lots of good dialogue, people talking to each other. Your readers might skip over many things, but few people can skip over dialogue. But most of all, keep telling the story.

Brenda Ueland gives some advice: “If you want to be a better writer, you need to become a better person.” Who knew? But she’s actually talking about transparency, vulnerability, honesty. You might write about your grandmother’s wearing a dress she didn’t wear. That’s OK. But never have her doing something you know she’d never do. Keep true to her, and to your memory of her. So, be honest. Write what you really think and believe. Don’t invent a style you think a reader might like. Write first of all for yourself, and be honest.

Focus, focus, focus

Anne Lamott says, “Tell your story looking through a one-inch picture window.” She means, better to write about a soldier than about the Civil War, your room rather than your house, your first day, rather than your whole time in elementary school, your mother rather than your family. Focus, focus, focus. Sharpen your lens and zero in on one person, one event, one object, one little place. One writer wrote a whole story about a board game he played as a child! Once you have this sharp focus, you can easily weave the other necessary parts around it.

Where to start your story? Where to end?

Don’t write an “introduction.” You’ll probably cut it later anyway. Just jump in! Of course, your story needs some context, some explaining, but you have plenty of time to do this throughout your story. If you must write an introduction, make it the last thing you work on.

Start with the best part of your story, the high point. If you start there, you’ll find that you can build all the other things around it. You don’t even have to start at the beginning! In fact, I usually wouldn’t recommend it. Start at the most interesting part, and you can gently lead your reader backward and forward in time.

Where to end? When you’re finished, stop! And leave the reader with a punch, with the most surprising or significant thing. Maybe keep your reader in suspense a little bit and then hit ‘em with a powerful ending.

So, what are you waiting for? You’re not writing a book, just one story. Start now.   J.H.

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