How to Create a Personal Story

Folklorists call them personal memorates. They are the stories we tell about ourselves, our heroic exploits out in the world or our relationship stories within the family or circle of friends and colleagues. We tell stories all the time—many of us dozens of times a day. Yet most of those people who frequently tell stories don’t necessarily consider themselves storytellers. That’s just the way they communicate most comfortably.

How does a natural storyteller tell a story? It’s the difference between saying, “I bought a car today. It’s a 1999 Mustang” and “I was out for a ride this morning—the sky was crystal blue, the birds were singing, there was the scent of jasmine in the air—and suddenly I found myself on Federal Highway. I don’t know how I got there; I wasn’t planning on driving through Automotive Alley, but there I was, surrounded by car dealerships. And then, out of the blue….” The first example is the transmission of information. The second helps us experience the same journey that the storyteller experienced.

When I work with students to discover their own stories, some of them say, “But nothing ever happens to me!” It is my job to open their eyes to how wrong they are about that. An infinite number of things happen to them every day. They  just don’t always notice them. Or, they see them only as disparate facts: “I bought a car today.” And where’s the story in that?

The answer is, the story is in the context. If you bought a car because your old one, which you’ve babied for 200,000 miles, suddenly broke down on the highway, there’s the seed of a story. If you were trying to get that old car to last until 250,000 miles, but your biggest client said something that made you realize how embarrassed you were to drive the car, there’s the seed of a story. If your first car was a Mustang, and you decided at age 55 that it was time to get another, it’s story time. 

It’s not always so easy at first to connect the dots to contextualize an event. But once you get the hang of it, you can see connections with events that occurred weeks or even years earlier. Connecting dots is only the first step, however. The next is to throw onto the page—or into your brain, if you’re not writing this down—all the images and facts you can think of surrounding these events. What time of year was it? What did you smell, hear, taste, see, feel? Help your listener imagine your world.

Next, take a look at your list of facts, dialogue, feelings, etc. And ask yourself, what is this story really about? Is it about a second chance at youth? Is it about realizing that public image is more important than private sentimentality? Whatever your answer, go back and figure out what of your list of details is necessary and what is not to make that meaning clear. Where does the story actually start and end, now that you know what it’s really about? What dialogue or scenes are important, and what can be run through in summary?

If all of this sounds fairly complicated, think of it this way: Most of us already do it, albeit unconsciously, all the time. The trick is to be able to do it consciously, on command. And I promise, the more you think like a storyteller, the more you will realize that things that are story-worthy happen to you all the time.

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