Time and Memory: Three Great Exercises To Find Stories

There is a seemingly brilliant book called “Your Life As Story” by Tristine Rainer, and one day I will know for sure just how brilliant it is, but for now (and the last four years, since I bought the book), I only know that the first third is great. 
 
But it is very great.  
 
The book’s subtitle is ‘Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing memoir as Literature’.  On the first page Rainer describes a story as ‘a meaningful pattern of events’.  She goes on to say ‘Through finding a story’s shape within your life’s shape, you could know what your life means.’
 
She is with me in urging people to find and craft their life events into stories, the difference is she is using writing as the process and medium,  and I use oral telling (although like many of us drawn to the ‘word arts’, I use both). 
 
Rainer also has a focus on an overall big picture life story, made up of smaller stories, but the aim seems to be to find the pattern in a book length story, whereas oral stories stand or fall as stories, usually in under 10 minutes.
 
Rainer talks about a ‘new autobiography or memoir’ and differentiates it from diary writing thus: ‘The diarist writes from an ever moving present…the autobiographic writer remembers the past to find within it thematic continuity and coherent meaning.’
 
I’d suggest this is similar to the difference between when we tell others what happened in our day, or very recent past, and when we trawl our memory bank to find a moment or series of events, that we then craft and tell as a story with ‘thematic continuity and coherent meaning.’
 
This commitment to reflection in personal story,  draws forth amazing, moving and meaningful stories, stories at the core of who we are.
 
To whet your appetitive Rainer also says story telling is orgasmic - a notion I love and will come back to in another blog.
 
For now I want to bring to you three of her exercises, which reveal a wealth of story ideas.  You will need a pen and paper.
 

  1. Carve your life up into seven year blocks e.g. 0 - 7, 7- 14, 14 - 21, 21 - 28 etc. Look at each 7 year period and give each a theme title (this can be a clue to story theme and purpose).  Also note down the pivotal events that happened in each period.
  2. Track your life to the decades.  Have a set of columns.  In one column note the significant political and cultural events of the decade.  In the next column note the significant events of your life in the same period.  The history can help us remember, but we can also find parallels from one to the other which can be great tools for crafting a story. 
  3. Divide your life by pivotal moments.  Begin with ‘I was born…’ then think of the next important turning point, and the next and the next….  Rainer suggests keeping the list to ten or twenty items.  She also suggests you track your desires over your life and map the two lists.


After doing any of these, transfer any story ideas into your Story Ideas List (as explained in this blog post).

P.S. My thanks to Tristine Rainer for responding very quickly and generously with permission to use her material - Don't you just love the internet sometimes, when you can almost touch someone you admire from afar (and then tell everyone!)

And to inspire you to pursue this thing called personal storytelling, try my latest offering, a free download 'The 12 Secrets of Storytelling Magic', which comes with a FREE subscription to this blog and weekly news and events.  A bargain!