4 Tips for Writing Your Personal Story

Dan MillerGuest Blogger: Dan Miller

Recently at church I was introduced to a gentleman who insisted I take a copy of his brand-new book. Being a book guy, I opened it later that evening and began reading. It tells in graphic detail about a horrendous experience the author had at 10 years old that has continue to be the central defining theme of his life. As I was reading it, some points for authors came to mind:

1. Don’t assume that everything that has happened to you is interesting to everyone else. Why would something that is gross, violent, aberrant, or atrocious be interesting to someone else – other than as an unhealthy voyeur? In the age of Twitter and Facebook it’s easy to assume that people are interested in knowing you ate a Twinkie for breakfast – but frankly, I don’t believe that’s true.

2. Believe that some life experiences are best resolved in private – not spewed on the world. Maybe reality TV has made us believe that every intimate thought or interaction is fair game for spectators but I think some things are best handled in private. There is still a place for decency and decorum – and for things that are private. Technology has made our lives more transparent but we can choose what level of transparency we allow.

3. Make sure that your writing is not only “descriptive” but also “prescriptive.” Tell the reader what to do to avoid or heal from a similar experience. Screenwriters often use an inciting incident to begin the story. And yes, in your life an inciting incident could be a layoff, a firing, a heart attack or a tragic personal experience. The conflicts and challenges give a framework and direction for your resolution. But then give the recommendations. No one wants to see a movie where there is no resolution of the inciting incident. And few people will ever want to read a book where the hero is still, after 40 years, locked in the same inciting incident that began the story. In the movie of your life, you are the director, and if nothing changes people will question your movie – or your book.

4. Know that there’s still a place for writing that speaks of things that are positive, pure, wholesome and uplifting. I know the news media theme “if it bleeds it leads” but we don’t’ have to follow that sensationalist model. In Philippians 4:8 it says “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (TNIV) Reality TV is a race to the bottom in terms of what is gross and graphic. Do we as authors really want to follow that trend?

Reading this book also brought to mind a couple pertinent quotations:

“This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside. It should be hurled with great force.” – Dorothy Parker

And this one:

“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book – I’ll waste no time reading it.” – Moses Hadas

Writing a book is a big responsibility. Yes, I know anyone can knock out a manuscript and get it printed with today’s technology and I’m grateful for that. But I think we as authors bear some responsibility for being stewards of the resources required in creating a book and certainly for the focused time and energy we expect from our readers. Will readers’ lives be better – or worse – as a result of reading your book? Will they make the world a better place or will they tear down what is wholesome, pure and good?

My goals for writing are to encourage people to dream again, to instill in them the belief they can make new choices and to inspire them to higher levels of success in every area of their lives. Is that unique to me and my focused genre or is it reasonable to expect that of other authors?

***

Dan Miller is a writer and life coach living in Franklin, TN. You can read his blog and participate in the active social community at 48Days.net with others who are creating lives that are meaningful, purposeful, and profitable. His latest book, Wisdom Meets Passion, was released August 28th with Thomas Nelson.

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  • Jeanne

    Dan, you share some great thoughts here. And Philippians 4:8 is one of my life verses. Very applicable with what you’re talking about today. I appreciate your exhortation to remember the good, not focusing too much on the sensational.

    “…We as authors bear some responsibility for being stewards of the resources required in creating a book and certainly for the focused time and energy we expect from our readers. Will readers’ lives be better – or worse – as a result of reading your book?” This is a good reminder for me, as a writer, to keep my standards high. I want a reader to come away from something I write with a positive outlook, not appearing shell shocked for having read my words.

    Thanks for sharing your insights today!

    • http://www.48Days.net Dan Miller

      Jeanne – yes, I love the opportunity we have as writers to impact the world. And I take that opportunity very seriously – to use that format for sharing good and not evil. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.intheshadeofthecherrytree.blogspot.com Zan Marie

    Dan,
    You’ve said a mouthful with this one:

    “Make sure that your writing is not only “descriptive” but also “prescriptive.” Tell the reader what to do to avoid or heal from a similar experience.”

    That’s my goal and I love the say you said it. Thanks for the clear expression of what I’m trying to do.

    • http://www.48Days.net Dan Miller

      Zan Marie,

      Keep helping your readers live a better life. I cringe when I see yet another writer using paper to emotionally dump without leading the reader to any hope in a similar situation.

      • http://ftheeiwasateenagequaker.wordpress.com Helen W. Mallon

        Dan, wonderful post, and all these comments are spot on. I work with clients who struggle to tell their stories in such a way that the personal becomes universal. I think it comes down to: What MEANING did the experience have? An “emotional dump” actually has no inherent meaning outside itself, and all it can do is provoke sympathy–or disgust, because too much is too much.

  • http://www.sundijo.com Sundi Jo

    It’s easy to want to write things in graphic detail for others to read for the wrong motive, which is to help ourselves. If we’re not sharing those words to show others the growth that is possible, or the obstacles that can be overcome, then we need to put it in a journal and keep it private. Thanks for sharing.

    • http://www.48Days.net Dan Miller

      Sundi Jo,

      Yeah it’s funny how people have been willing to “share” what should have been kept in a private journal. In the old days people would guard their journals or diaries with their lives – today many somehow think that it’s part of their own healing to bare all.

      • http://www.sundijo.com Sundi Jo

        My book is actually a memoir of one year of journal entries from an experience I had while in a discipleship program. Though it’s very open and vulnerable, I know it’s a needed message to help others. But we can take to extreme too, you’re right.

        • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

          “sharing those words to show others the growth that is possible, or the obstacles that can be overcome,” is a fine rule to live by. I wonder, perhaps it is possible to go to opposite extremes and harangue or preach?

  • http://www.authorcynthiaherron.com Cynthia Herron

    Dan, excellent tips! I limit my television time, and when I do, rarely will I watch “reality T.V.” because most of it is pretty distasteful.

    And yay, for “wholesome” and “uplifting!”

    Congratulations on your recent release!

    • http://www.48Days.net Dan Miller

      Cynthia,
      Yeah I think what’s on TV should be embarrassing to us as a country. But thankfully, we can choose to not have it permeate our homes.

      Your comment reminded me of this quotation:

      “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Groucho Marx

  • http://jennym-talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

    Good morning, Dan. These are great points!

    1-oh my WORD, some people will say ANYTHING! There’s only a millimetre of water in some people’s pools.

    2-”airing your dirty laundry”. Everyone with vision, hearing, knowledge of Braille and ASL and even Google translate knows I LOATHE my husband’s beard. ANd he snores. But that’s it. When I point a finger at him, there’s more than one pointed back at me.
    Whatever we put out in public,stays out there. Petty and humourous issues such as snoring and bad beards are common. But beyond that, our personal issues are meant to stay behind the weighted curtain of intimacy and mutual respect.

    3-The only things that don’t change are rocks, and even then, they get covered in moss and lichen. No one wants to read about heavy, uncomfortable issues that weigh you down your entire life.

    4-I try to write in such a manner as to leave my reader wanting to carry the burden of someone who feels broken, as opposed to placing another brick on an already aching back.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      I find the depressing parts of life are best dealt with through supporting characters in fiction. I’m sorry about J’s snoring, but look at the bright side, it keeps bears away.

      • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

        Yuh. Thanks. ABout the snoring I mean.

        • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

          I’d have commented on the beard thing, but umm, yeah.
          Good post, btw. I always look forward to reading your comments.

          • http://jennym-talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

            Thank you Reverend, the feeling is mutual.

      • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

        Yes, those supporting characters can gently point to truth and give the support needed to the lead and the reader.

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  • http://kristinlaughtin.blogspot.com Kristin Laughtin

    I can’t really judge the book because I haven’t read it, but what I’m getting from this post is revulsion to any writing that isn’t wholesome and “nice”. There IS a place for uplifting works, and some memoirists DO use the form as an excuse to air dirty laundry, but there is a demand for works that examine the darker happenings of life. Maybe it’s because the reader’s a voyeur, or maybe they or someone they know has been through the same experience, or maybe they work with people who have, etc. There’s light and darkness to the world, and I don’t think we should try to silence those who don’t write about light, happy things. Sometimes those books CAN make people’s lives better if they end with a sense of hope, justice, or triumph.

    Still, though, I agree it’s best not to assume any random person on the street will want to read about your disturbing experience. It’s generally not a good idea to force any book into someone’ hands.

    My fear with #3 is that it will encourage writers to be didactic or preachy, which is going to turn a lot of readers off to whatever lesson the writer is trying to impart. I agree that every book should include a resolution to the conflict, even non-fiction. That’s what makes a story arc complete. But lessons have to be handled with care. Be prescriptive, yes, but show your reader how to heal if that’s your goal. Don’t just dictate the answer to them.

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      Yes, Kristin, I feel the concern about #3 you expressed in the last paragraph. I also know I needed to hear the cautions expressed in this post. A bad experience compounded for 40 years is too burdensome for any reader; but a bad experience expressed succinctly and briefly with do-wrongers juxtaposed with those who do wisely can bring insight, healing, and entertainment to the reader.

  • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

    OK…I’m scratching out the part where I ate the twenty jalapeños on a bet with John Ashcroft. I suppose the argument I had with Joe Montana over a parking space is public laundry…Hmm, I think I’ll stick with fiction. My life just hasn’t been that interesting to outsiders.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

      You mean, no one will believe you married a Danish supermodel?

      • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

        Exactly! Det er svært at tro på, at nogen, der ligner mig kan gifte sig med en smuk kvinde, der er sikker!

        • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

          Did you just copy that from a cookbook? Cuz none of us will have a clue.

          • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

            It’s Danish. I said “It’s hard to believe that someone who looks like me can marry a beautiful woman, that’s for sure.” :-)

        • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

          Now cut that out!! But I’m not using this venue to rebuild your self esteem, check your inbox.

          • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

            *Smirk* OK, will do. No worries about the self esteem. I’m cool being who God made me. As I left the warrior stage of life and entered the mentor stage, I see my value in how well I help those behind me. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • http://www.bobarron.com Bo Barron

    Dan – really good post. Your comment about not just being descriptive but prescriptive reminded me about a podcast I heard while I was driving home from your office. Mark Sanborn was describing the year 2008. It was a really tough year for him, but the message was about overcoming tough circumstances – not about the circumstances.

    I appreciate your candor! My best!

  • Corinda Marsh

    Nice to hear that someone else likes to read positive stories. My personal philosophy: Life will most certainly hand you buckets of manure from time to time. You have two choices of what to do with it. 1. You can wallow in it–thus you will stink. 2. You can grow roses with it. It makes fantastic fertilizer! I grow roses.

  • http://www.beckydoughty.com Becky Doughty

    Dan,
    Well said. I recently helped edit a friend’s book who longed to use her story in ministry. Her book, however, was simply an evisceration of those who’d hurt and neglected her and her own journey away from (but certainly not out of) her pain. I tried to help her understand that people need to read stories like hers to find ways to overcome and be victorious, all of which requires forgiveness. There was very little of that in this book but the justification was that she was telling it as it was, not sugar-coating anything.

    Simply said, an airing of dirty laundry and nothing else. The book is 17 years in the writing and still not complete, mainly because she can’t find anyone who agrees that it should be sent out into the world.

    My heart hurts for her because I understand her need to purge, but writing a memoir may not be the best option until you can look back from the other side of things. Just my thoughts.

    Blessings,
    Becky

    • http://Www.48Days.net Dan

      Becky
      I conduct a conference twice a year called Write to the Bank. We encounter a lot of “writers” who have stories like you describe. It’s challenging to encourage them as writers while gently suggesting their story has little value to anyone else. People in pain often cling to their right to spread that pain around.

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      Yep

  • http://www.skimhenson.com S. Kim Henson

    Enjoyed this post, as well as the ones I read on your blog. Thanks to you and Jared for sharing your wisdom and passion.

  • http://dianeyuhas.com Diane Yuhas

    I have long avoided TV shows that make entertainment out of people’s personal tragedies, but this is the first time I’ve thought about it in terms of memoirs. There is a place, I think, for books that demonstrate God’s presence, help, & healing in the midst of terrible circumstances, but even these must written with sensitivity. The writer must be wily as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

    • http://Www.48Days.net Dan

      Diane
      Yes I agree it’s a dicey balance to be transparent but redemptive. If we take our privilege of writing seriously we should always be seeking wisdom to convey that balance. Thanks for your input.

  • http://www.janellrardon.com Janell Rardon

    Thank you, Dan. Boy was this timely. I am currently working on a book project that has been making me think a great deal about what you are talking about. Your words are wise and cautionary. Many blessings!

  • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

    Dan, you hit the nail on the head; or rather, three or four nails on the head. Writing must be clear, discrete and redemptive all at the same time.

  • http://juliesunne.com Julie Sunne

    Bravo, Dan, for stating my beliefs on book publishing so tactfully and succinctly! Way too many simply try to get something–anything–published. There should be a purpose for writing our stories, something of value to others, otherwise why share it. And positive stories will always have a place because we were created for good and uplifting purposes. (Philippians 4:8 is a great verse to reflect on. Media seems to pull us away from the wholesome and noble. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” [TNIV])

    • http://Www.48Days.net Dan

      Julie
      You are so right. I think we have a responsibility as writers. It shouldn’t just be a free-for-all to claim our space and our reader’s minds. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.christianreads.blogspot.com Iola

    This post could also be titled “Why I don’t read memoir”. Because too much of it fails on two or more of these points.

  • http://www.perrincothranconrad.com Perrin Conrad

    In books, movies, tv, and even those awful Facebook photos of injured or sick children that we are instructed to “like” so that the doctor will give the surgery needed (ha), we are being desensitized every day to those things to which God wired us to be grieved or repulsed. You are so right about all you said, Dan. I believe our bad experiences ultimately point us to Romans 8:28. But if we aren’t able to tell the “end” of the story, so to speak, giving the resolution, blessing, or prescription as you aptly called it, then the story is incomplete and just shouldn’t be told yet. Yours is definitely one of the most valuable guest posts I have read on Rachelle’s blog!

    • http://Www.48Days.net Dan

      Perrin
      I like that perspective – “the story is just incomplete.” Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com Nikole Hahn

    That and the motivation for writing your story should be examined. :o) Good blog.

  • http://girlseeksplace.wordpress.com Brianna

    It’s a reasonable expectation, especially given how easy it is to publish a book these days. Just because you have the ability, that doesn’t mean you should do it. Not everyone is meant to be published or have a job or a relationship or anything else that people consider the status quo these days.

  • http://bellewoodfarm.blogspot.com/ Laura McClellan

    Thank you, Dan, for publishing these points, and thank you, Rachelle, for giving him your forum to do so. Vital, and well said.

  • http://Www.48Days.net Dan

    My publisher at Thomas Nelson says what they look for in good writing will have words, stories, truth and transformation. I keep that train in mind constantly as I write.

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