FOR YEARS, I BEGAN EACH NEW WORKSHOP with this exercise from WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. It’s a great way to get to know other people in a group—and also a great way to get to know yourself, so I’ve adapted it here for your personal-writing use.
Set a timer for seven minutes. Then, writing fast, hit the high and low points of your life, skimming across the years—from birth to this very moment—like they were so many tumbleweeds.
When the timer rings, stop and read over what you wrote. Mark three events that stand out to you. Pick one (you might save the other two for another day, when you’re looking for something to write about).
Take another ten minutes to write in detail about the incident or period you’ve chosen. Why is it important to you now? How is it relevant to the bigger story of your life-to-date?
Extra credit: Was a shadow* illuminated by your attention? If so, how can you write your way to a deeper understanding of what was hidden?
* * *
Image is of a Free 3D stopwatch. Find them here. *Thanks to Bonnie Cehovetfor seeing the possibilities here.
LIKE MOST OF US AT SOME TIME, the figure in the Ten of Wands bears a burden. She may have taken on the weight of a family conflict or, perhaps, she is staggering under a load of debt. Or maybe she’s carrying a multiplicity of stresses—long work hours, a child’s ill health, car troubles—which have added up to overwhelm.
When we feel likewise burdened, a good list-making session can help us separate out the various elements that comprise our current load. Once they’re untangled, we might find we can prioritize, deciding which big sticks to break into kindling before the camel’s back is broken.
On the other hand, our burdens might seem too amorphous, undefined, too slippery to be corralled into a list. We may only know we are teetering at the edge of our ability to cope. If that’s the case, the following exercise might help us get a peek at our more nebulous—yet still weighty—burdens.
Let’s dig in.
Tarot writing prompt
If you, like the figure in the Ten of Wands, are feeling weighed down, but, unlike her, can’t point to the precise nature of the burden that has you bent in half, give this (admittedly weird) exercise a try.
Grab a journal and describe your burden as if it were an object: Include things like the weight of it, its size, its color, its shape. Where do you carry it? How does it smell? Is it new or old? What does it sound like? Taste like? What texture does it have? Is it flexible? Or is it rigid? How many moving parts does it have? Does it need a power source? (You might find your list is the basis for a poem!)
Once you’ve spent sufficient ink to give yourself a concrete (albeit metaphoric) idea of your burden, do the following: Write a scene in which your burden (now a living beast in your imagination) plays a role. You might turn it into a character or let it act as the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s your burden! Make it work for you—at least on the page.
And who knows? Maybe asserting your authority over a fictive version of your burden will have a ripple effect. Perhaps, after doing so, you’ll find your relationship to your real-life burden shifting, even if only by a single straw.
Some writing inspiration
The classic THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, by Tim O’Brien, is a novel of lists. Heartbreaking lists. Lists of things soldiers carry as they trek through their deployment in Vietnam.
Reading poems from Dorianne Laux‘s collection WHAT WE CARRY can make us feel less alone with our burdens. (Laux is also the co-author of THE POET’S COMPANION, a wonderfully inspiring and informative book, which will enrich writing of any kind, not just poetry.)
THE QUEEN OF SWORDS IS A STRAIGHT-UP TRUTH TELLER. And she’s not worried about offending people, either. But, while this may very well make her the patron saint of memoir writers, she knows it’s not necessarily easy—nor safe—to follow her lead. Memoirists may be wary of putting their truth on the page. They may be concerned others will judge them. Or, they may feel guilt about revealing the harmful (or deceitful, immoral, or criminal) behaviors of someone close to them. They may even fear retribution from such a person.
Writing the truth can be a serious—and, sometimes, risky—business. That’s why the Queen of Swords recommended I include this in my Terms and Conditions: Writing is deep work that comes with its own risks and discoveries. While I will endeavor to support you in your writing, I am neither a therapist nor an attorney. However, as you continue on your writing path, you may find the services of one or both offer you valuable guidance.
So, yeah. Serious business.
If you find yourself stymied when wanting to tell your story while avoiding upsetting someone else, the Queen of Swords may be able to help you slice through. Hers is the sword of discrimination. It separates the hard, nutritious kernels of truth from the chaff of words written to please others. And she brooks no nonsense from family, friends, or coworkers when she’s doing her honorable work.
At least, not in her first draft.
You see, we travel a long road between our first, exploratory draft—in which we record as much of the truth as we can remember and feel and understand—and our final draft, polished and ready to send out for publication. And there are many rest stops in the miles between those drafts. Those rest stops are perfect places for us to pause and consider whether to hit delete on passages that feel too hot, too pointed, too dangerous, or to keep them intact—until our next revision, at any rate.
Tarot writing prompt
With the clear-eyed Queen of Swords as an uncompromising example, try this: Pull out a memory that stings. Perhaps it’s of a secret you were told to keep. Or maybe it’s a memory of a trusted person hurting you or someone else. Or of something you did, something about which you carry shame. Or fear. Or both.
Whatever you’re ready to uncover, write about it as fully as you can—just for yourself, for the moment. You might need to do this in increments. Start with ten minutes. Then return for another ten-minute session … and another and another, until you have all the parts of the story and the accompanying feelings on the page.
Take as long as you need. Days. Weeks. Months. Years.
While you’re in the process, you might want to hide your notebook or camouflage the file you’re creating. Do so, if it will make you feel safer. And when you review what you’ve written, if it’s too much, too hot, you might decide to delete or shred the story in its entirety. You might also, as suggested above, consult with a therapist or counselor as you journey along this path. Do whatever you need to make you feel safer, protected, supported.
With these caveats in mind, then, if you have a wound in your writer’s heart, consider lancing it with the sword of truth. It’s your life. Write it down.
I’ll go first, okay?
This is a story I’ve feared sharing, both because I might be judged harshly for my behavior and because in it I point at my father’s difficult behaviors. It’s a double-memoir-whammy-bind!
What happened is this: A long-lost relative contacted my family (damn you, Ancestory.com!). This relative had a particular interest in meeting my father. But they were my long-lost relative, too. And I got there first. Then, I opened my mouth and toads and snakes fell out as I described my early life with my father, who, good points/bad points, could be violent, and unpredictably so.
Soon after, my father died. Without this person ever contacting him.
For the next several years, I ran a losing race with guilt. But one night, as I was circling the track yet again, a friend sliced to the heart of the matter. “Did you tell that long-lost relative the truth about your father?” she asked. “Your own truth? As honestly as you could”
Well, yes. I did.
“Then,” my friend said, “it is what it is. People make their own choices.”
She’s right. My father chose to act the way he did. I chose to disclose. The relative chose not to connect.
It is what it is.
So, while this story isn’t actually about writing down the truth (although, I have now written it down), it is about the risks we take when we decide to share our truth, and about the possible consequences of doing so.
The fear of such potential consequences keeps many would-be memoirists from writing their stories in the first place. Embarking on a memoir can raise a lot of questions, like: Whom will this hurt? How will I be perceived? Will I ruin relationships—either my own or those of the people about whom I write? Even if I’m telling the truth?
When I speak with a writer who faces questions like these, I never suggest they cast aside these considerations and just publish their raw truth—consequences and concerns and family be damned. But, first draft? The one only you will read? There, you can look your truth square in the eye and let “the vorpal blade [go] snicker-snack.” Then, in a cooler light, see whether or how or if it serves you to release that truth into the world.
YOU KNOW HOW THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR?A backwards glance can offer us a new perspective on where we’ve been. Like a literary rear view mirror, backstory lets readers know where we—or our characters—have come from. In doing so, backstory can reveal a character’s motivation, which, in turn, may elicit sympathy for that character’s present, less-appealing actions or attitudes.
WHAT IS BACKSTORY? A definition
Whether we’re writing memoir, fiction, or a piece of literary journalism, backstory gives context to the story being told. It comprises events—internal (an anxiety attack, for example) or external (loss of a child, for example)—which have occurred before the story starts and are relevant to the story being told.
In a story about a dissolving marriage, the loss of the couple’s child would certainly be relevant. If the child died before we meet the couple, then the death and the characters’ subsequent emotions are backstory—relevant past events.
In a story about a woman wanting to break the World Land Speed Record, the loss of the main character’s best friend’s child would likely not be relevant to the unfolding of the main story thread.
HOW CAN WE USE BACKSTORY MOST EFFECTIVELY? Wait, wait, don’t tell me!
Opinions (of course) vary about how soon is too soon to incorporate backstory. For instance, brilliant film-and-novel-writing guy Robert McKee of STORY fame says to avoid backstory completely for the first three chapters! He believes this gives readers a chance to attach to the forward-moving story, creating a reason for them to care about what’s come before.
Other quite successful writers, however, actually start with backstory. In fact, thriller writer Julie Compton and I created a backstory workshop based on her well-received novel RESCUING OLIVIA, which introduces a fairly lengthy backstory passage quite early in the book. (CLICK HERE to read a post that uses RESCUING OLIVIA’S opening for an example.)
It is typical, though, for writers to hit the ground running. They’ll often start a first chapter in media res (in the middle of the present action), and then, in chapter two, turn back to consider earlier events to give their opening context.
Just say no to the info dump!
An “info dump” is a big chunk of information—especially backstory—“dumped” onto the page all at once. Whether your dump truck delivers your backstory via dialogue, narration, or internal narrative, readers will have trouble processing, and thus, remembering, backstory given in too big a lump.
Instead, think of backstory as breadcrumbs. Scatter small bits along the unfolding story path, informing your reader of what’s happened in the past on a need-to-know basis.
Ways and means committee
Among other techniques, you might deliver backstory via
flashback (a past experience given in scene—including sensory detail and a “real-time” unfolding of events)
dialogue (your characters simply discuss events that happened before the story started)
or as internal narrative (your character remembers events and considers them internally).
No matter how you deliver it, though, use as light a hand with backstory as you can. Err on the side of less is more.
Enough about me! What do other folks have to say about backstory?
Finally, if you want to thumb your nose at my light-hand-with-backstory approach, here’s a super-successful memoir that shovels in about one full ton of backstory—in pretty large doses—and does so beautifully: WILD, by Cheryl Strayed.