Week 1: Your Story
stories & your stories
the raw ingredients of story
release your stories
writing exercise | week 1
What is a story?
A story is an age-old method of sharing information and inspiration. The first stories told never made it to a page. Instead, these stories lived on from one person to another, from one generation to another, through oral tradition. One individual would sit down, open his or her mouth, and let the words and message come forth while others listened.
These words were essentially a gift from the story-teller to the audience, a message that served a purpose, be it through tales of experience and learning, great triumphs and impressive failures, or wild love.
Quite simply, a story is something you’d like to share with someone else.
It was only when human beings figured out how to “record,” as in write down their stories, first on stone and later on leaves of paper, that they were able to spread their words further. Eventually this form took the shape of books.
If we take writing back to its roots, the earliest form of writing derived from where the Tigris and the Nile Rivers meet, known as The Fertile Crescent. Around 3100-3200 BC, the Sumerians and the Egyptians separately shared the first written words. The Sumerians used cuneiform (characters on wet clay to keep track of livestock and other goods) and the Egyptians, hieroglyphics (characters on stone and ivory tablets to denote order of linen and oils for the temple).
From clay and ivory tablets, ancient Egyptians graduated their written communications to papyrus scrolls, which the Romans then one-up moving from the use of cumbersome rolls to divided sheets of parchment—codexes. A lot like books. Still, the first book doesn’t make an appearance until the Diamond Sutra is produced by moveable type—the precursor to printing en masse—in the 5th Century.
“So you should view this fleeting world—
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”
↑ The most famously quoted phrase from Diamond Sutra.
It then takes about a baker’s dozen worth of centuries to bring us to the first mass produced book—The Gutenberg Bible—which, with its print run of 180 bibles, did not make any money back in 1455. However, Gutenberg set the stage for the print and publishing world as we know it today. Since then, The King James Bible (1611) remains the second most popular book printed, behind The Koran (644) which is the most popular. And Don Quixote (1512) is the most popular novel of all time.
You will find that when you look at any current Top 50 Books of All Time list, every single book has one thing in common. No matter what genre, culture, or context, it was born from someone wanting to share a tale or two.
Books are born from stories.
What is your story?
Every single author I’ve ever spoken to can agree that their book was born from a strong urge to share a story, an experience, or a journey with another person. It’s as though there is something inside of your brain—a method, a lesson, an adventure, an epic narrative—that becomes something you just have to share with someone else. True, we are not all born storytellers. Which is to say, we don’t all want to sit in the leather chair while others gather ‘round the fire for a tale. We’re not all at home on a stage entertaining or imparting knowledge to a large audience. But “storyteller” or not, you do have that one story you tell to others. I’m talking about the story you tell your best friend (before they become your best friend). Or what you share with the person sitting next to you on the 5-hour plane ride. How about those histories of your life that you share when you’re falling in love with someone and learning to trust them with your soul? Or, let’s be honest, sometimes its with the intriguing soul at the bar. Those are your stories, the ones that seem to say “you really know me if…”
For some of us (many of you reading this) there comes a point when you think maybe you ought to take your story seriously, to write down what you often tell, to keep a record for your unborn child or your family. Maybe if you share it with other people, they can feel better, learn more, or be at the least be entertained. Maybe there is a whole audience that could benefit… that’s probably why you’re here.
It was a wintry morning. I was home from New York City, sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, having coffee with my mom.
“So, I think I’m going to write a book.”
I held my coffee cup up to my cheekbone to feel its warmth. I waited for my mom’s reply, for her to turn her gaze from the tiny TV above our fridge that was showcasing MSNBC toward me.
“Mom, I’m going to tell our story,” I said. “I mean, no other kid has told it yet. It might help people, ya know?”
“Good luck with that,” she answered, laughing.
The tone in her was voice familiar. Her words laced with that same sarcasm we both infused into our conversations about what was hard, sad, and unavoidable—my father’s brain injury.
That was the moment He Never Liked Cake became real.
Any book is begins when you know you want to share your story—a tale, a lesson learned, an experience, a way of living—with others. Now just because I did, does not mean that you have to know in an exact moment that you will write a book. In fact, you don’t even need a this is going to be a book moment to become an author. And you definitely don’t have to decide that you are a writer either (more on that later).
The first step is releasing your stories. After that wintery morning, it would be six more years before I would write one sentence of my book.
So, let’s take a reading break here. Find your seat and feel supported. Then, press play.
The raw ingredients of our stories
Where the heck do these stories we speak of come from? Sure, they live in our brain and we discern what we want to disseminate when we open our mouth, but how do they form? Even I had a tricky time walking backward—metaphorically— to explore how a story takes shape. It was only when I was able to recall a conversation I was having with a good friend in regards to “when people give advice” that why we tell stories made sense.
good friend: You know, I have an interesting theory on why people give advice…
me: What is it?
good friend: I think it’s a form of nostalgia. When people give advice it’s a chance for them to relive their experience through you.
↑ how a story might originate
She and I were talking about the landslide of “pregnancy” advice I had been receiving at the time. Think about the bazillions of pregnancy books (or any topic—gardening, owning a business, riding a horse) out there. What first inspired them? Most likely a woman—or a man offering wisdom, insight, and knowledge based on his or her experience of pregnancy to someone else. And that desire to share that grew bigger. Something that I can relate to and also to the many self-help authors and memoirists I’ve worked with. We have lived through something, gained information, and formed opinion—and now we want to share it with someone else. Either in the hopes that you (dear reader) don’t have learn the hard way (like I, the author, did!) or that you (my audience) can look out for what to enjoy (because let’s all share in that).
Not all stories are advice-driven and not all books are offer advice, but for the sake of argument, let’s roll with advice. Advice, defined as “a recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct,” is the sharing of what we know, and many a story told is told from a place of “what we know.” Yet ‘what we know’ doesn’t exactly cover the nostalgia portion of advice, which brings sentiment to the situation. The advice then becomes in-part derived from the emotions that surround the experience, ‘what we feel.’
A combination of what we know and what we feel is what drives any author to write any book. Novels, fiction, fantasy, autobiography, children’s books, guide books, books of poems and verse, manuals and methods—no matter what kind of book you hold in your hand, you can trace it back to a story, and the raw ingredients of story are based off of information (what we know) or inspiration (what we feel).
You can take any single genre of book and find those raw ingredients.
a memoir: experience, feelings, relationships, facts
fantasy fiction: opinions, history, relationships
a guidebooks: facts, history, opinion
romance novel: feelings, relationships, experience
autobiography: facts, history, relationships
classic literature: relationships, lessons, experience
non-fiction: data, facts, opinions
Go ahead, go to your bookshelf. It’s a fun game.
Release your stories
Before we bring that pen to paper, that finger to keyboard, don’t get ahead of yourself. I say this because I see it happen all the time. This is when those thoughts of I can’t and how in the world and oh it’s so much work and no one will read this form. Yeah, truth may be that you are not a “writer.” But let’s be real. Earnest Hemingway is a writer. He is a pure and romanticized example of a story-teller who became a writer that shaped a generation of writers of understated and sensitive prose. As is Jane Austen, with her own style. But writers are not the only people who become authors. People learn to write so they can write books. People get so clear on their message that they can write books. People tell their stories enough so they can write books.
One of my favorite story-tellers appears on the NYT (yeah, the big kahuna!) best-seller lists of both fiction and non-fiction. If you know me, you’ll probably guess who. If you don’t, then you might be flabbergasted to learn I speak of Jimmy Buffett. Don’t let me lose you here. Jimmy is just an example. He put his pen to paper and the people showed up to be inspired to live life a bit more carefree and a little less complicated.
So, chill out, you non-writers. This month, feel free to separate having talent with words with what you are doing here. That will only get in the way. You are not even grading yourself on what you write or how. Below—before you get to Week 1’s Exercise—you will find these two tips to help you move forward as you release your story.
CREATE YOUR BLANK SLATE
on your computer: working in Word, create a separate folder on your desk top; same goes for Google Docs
by hand: buy yourself a brand new notebook, like the Decomposition recycled notebooks I can’t get enough of
interactive: get some (recycled) Post-it notes
OPEN UP TO THE REAL WORLD AROUND YOU
Immerse yourself in the information around you. Read a book, watch Netflix, get coffee with a friend, walk your dog… do what feeds your soul
Move your energy around. Your mind will be at work here, so do what you feel in your body to shake things up and circulate energy to your brain: run, cycle, box, yoga, dance, stand on your head…
Stay inspired. Books don’t exist in a vacuum. Observe your day. The weather, your conversations, your pets, the colors in nature. Don’t be the only source you have. Open up.
Now you’re ready for Week One’s Writing Exercise.
Remember those three things you want to share? Well, it’s time. Are you ready to release your stories? I’m talking about any of your tales of life and love, of adventure and challenge, of unbeatable odds or odd circumstances, or travel, teaching, learning, losing, winning. We all have something to share, and this is the week to begin.
Remember those raw ingredients to each story? Now you get to use them. Know that blank slate you’ve got? Get it out.