- to answer the question: is there something about my life that is missing, some direction or purpose I’m not seeing? Some work I must do?
- to take strength and direction from the creative process
- to make sense of what seems fluid, jumbled, bizarre and wonderful
- to leave a trace, a sign that I was here
- to see another set of interpretations of my story that can help me live more fully
- to embark on writing and to see the myriad ideas, images and emotions that surface that may express themselves in unforeseen ways
Pico Iyer says we travel first to loose ourselves and then discover who we are. Writing is like traveling, it changes us in ways we cannot imagine.
Without writing, you may not discover the chair in this picture has been waiting for you not just to sit in but to move where you need most to be.
The following life-story writing exercises are a synthesis of many programs, seminars, and retreats I’ve done over the years in academic, organizational and community settings. People have found them helpful in dealing with transitions, career change, loss and renewal. You are welcome to use them. Let me know what works for you!
Assignment #1 : Exploring The Whole Pumpkin
1) Think of your life story as a work in progress that had a beginning at some point (it may have begun before or after your actual birth). Muse on that span of years and write down 2 titles that evoke a sense of what these years up to the present has been like for you. Aim for sensory images for your titles that hint at ambiguity. You want to make your titles attractive to you in order to inspire you to write your story. To write about your life, you need to feel drawn into it as though there’s something to learn from the writing. You are not merely recording what happened, you’re looking to make sense of the “facts” and perhaps see there are alternative ways of making sense of those facts. So 2 titles please. (Small Boat on a Rough Sea / Still Waiting For The Bus / Can Fictional Characters Live in A Non-fiction World?)
At one program, we collected core images from our writing, translated them into color and form and put them into this collaborative work. At the end, we cut it into into pieces and everyone took away a piece of the whole.
2) Once you’ve done that, divide your life into chapters, each one having a chapter with a title–assume you have about a dozen chapters in your life, not 3 and not 55! Give each a chapter title. Reflect on these chapter titles for through them you have created a simple Table of Contents for your writing. Of course, life story writing is not that simple because your story will change as you write it and Book titles will become Chapter titles and you’ll see new light and area of darkness that will start you off again with a fresh perspective. Choose one of the chapter titles to start with and write 2 pages. Don’t write a 2-page version of the chapter but rather, 2 pages of what might be a 125 page chapter!
3) To help keep you loose, consider each day of your current life, a day of travel. Bring the same awareness you have when you travel to the very day you are in. At the end of each day, summarize it and give it a title. Do this for several weeks and see what happens.
4) Start creating a time line of your life. A simple one will do at first–a line with year dates will do. This will help you start to sort out what substance hit which object at what time and for what duration! Your time line can be a swirl, a swoop, a hat or anything really but at some point, it’s good to have a simple straight line roadmap that prompts you to remember and accumulate the remembered pieces into an ever expandable format. Consider using Post-its on a long roll of paper with each year given a few inches of paper space to fill over time. Variations on creating time lines will follow in subsequent weeks.
This picture, part of a grant-funded war and remembrance project I ran, invited people to record their stories of loss. For many, what began by making a few notes in a public journal, turned into lengthy writing about personal and societal loss. People reported being blindsided by the amount of grief they were carrying.
Assignment #2: Coloring the Pumpkin
1) Memories are hard to retrieve directly. The familiar ones pop to the surface but the more nuanced ones often need a prompt of some kind to pull out. In this group of exercises we focus on how memories and eras are color coded. What was the color (or colors) of your childhood? Who are the purple men you know? When were you orange? As I write this assignment, I realize it sounds like a birthday party game for an 8 year old. In any case, try to stick with it–it sounded better in class than as a blog!
Your Timeline in Color: Imagine your time line is made of colors instead of written notes. What color was your job with GE? What were the colors of dawn the day after Henry was born? What colors were you when you fell in love with Lucy…after you’d known her 8 years? Memories can be color coded in order to be retrieved in the same ways that touch and smell help us remember.
Creating a color narrative: Choose a handful of colors and start with your birth and surrounding events and move through the years, changing colors as the mood of events change. There’s no science in doing this, only your intuitive memory and your desire to connect the important parts of your life. Don’t judge what you’re. Aim to add insight and vitality to your life. There is a time to weigh and dissect what you discover but not at this moment.
2) Choose a point on your color time line and write about it for 5 minutes. Choose another point and write about it for 5 minutes. Try to use the spirit of the colors to write with. What does the Prussian Blue you used as part of your high school colors tell you about the nature of your experience during that time? Have you used the same color elsewhere in your timeline? Is there anything to learn from it?
3) Travel in your day appreciating the vividness of it and at the end reflect on its colors and title. Record that information each day this week.
4) Write 2 pages towards some part of your life story.
Assignment #3 : Listening to the Pumpkin and Taking its Temperature
A) Scan your history for memorable sounds. Traffic at 5am, the wind in the Pyrenees, the hiss and rattle of Dad’s pressure cooker. Make a list of them and then add them to your existing timeline (see timeline exercise above) or create a new timeline for sounds. Each of these sounds may be an entry into a whole set of memories opened by the sound associated by one of them.
B) Using sound to point the way to a story that may be calling to you, write 2 pages. Be aware of the contribution sounds can make to the liveliness of your writing by including it directly( “grrrrr”) or indirectly (“He growled like a bear in heat!”).
C) Consider the role of temperature in locating story memory. Think of times you nearly froze or boiled or hovered in your energy conscious wintery home at 62degrees! Metaphorically speaking, what temperatures were childhood? What temperature was high school? Your 3rd lover? Your job at Kentucky Fried Chicken?
What is today’s temperature? What memories surface when using temperature as a search concept? Add them to your timeline and note them as prompts for possible story material.
Assignment #4 : Find 10 objects that will help you write your entire Pumpkin life in an hour
- Scan your memory and living spaces for objects that may help you recall periods in your life that are signaling to you. To help frame this exercise, consider that you have only an hour to tell us your life story. Given that premise, what objects will help you tell your story? These may be literal objects (the key to your father’s old Honda) or metaphoric / symbolic (a pickle because your family always seemed resourceful when it was in a pickle but could never really hold itself together in everyday life). Other objects may just show themselves to you and you can’t quite figure out why but they’re signaling nonetheless (finding theatre tickets you never used but couldn’t throw away).
Here are my objects, the ones I choose to carry with me from the past. In them I also see the work I am yet to do, the unfinished relationships that need tending to (creative, spiritual, interpersonal) the tools for creation and resources for putting all that into play.
If you’re inspired to write one page about some incident in your life, consider going to www.arlingtonwrites.org and follow the prompts for submission. Let others read your story!