Do You Have a Story to Tell?

Our columnist has practical tips for getting it on paper today

By Adair Lara

If you are reading this, I think I already know something about you. You are already a writer. You wrote a sonnet about pores in high school. Your mom said, "Now I'm ironing the placket" and you stood beside her thinking, "Placket. Good word." You know where the outlets are at the coffee shop. You keep a notebook by the bed. Stories crowd your head waking and sleeping, and demand to be set down. You get an idea and stay up writing until 3am, while cups of cold coffee and bowls encrusted with cereal pile up on your desk. You close down your laptop, allow yourself to give it a small pat, and tremble into bed next to your twitching mate. You feel exultant. Dreams of chatting with Oprah Winfrey about the day you began your best-selling novel fill your head.

I didn't become a writer until I was 32. I was a magazine editor by then. One day at the bar after a long day of compiling restaurant listings for the annual August restaurant issue, my friend Cynthia and I started a writing club. The idea was simple: We'd write 500 words every weekday and give them to the other person. We'd mark the parts we liked in the other's pieces with a yellow highlighter before returning them.

The Other Half of the Process

Cynthia and I scribbled a list of topics on a bar napkin: parking, rain, first dates, father. And we were off. We handed our 500-worders to each other over the cubicle walls at work, fished them out of our purses at the bar, and brought them with us in our gym bags to our Friday night Rhythm & Motion class in the Haight. It didn't matter what the 500 words were — we could copy them from the Yellow Pages or the back of the Cheerios box if we wanted to. I'd rarely shown my work to people before, outside of school, because you only showed people stuff you thought was good. Now I gave Cynthia any old dashed-off thing — not because it was good, but because it was due.

When Cynthia gave my pages back, I'd read the sentences she'd highlighted with swooning admiration. Even if there was just one sentence bathed in yellow, suddenly my head was too big to fit through doorways. I wrote that! I could rewrite the whole piece, now that I knew I had it in me to come up with that sentence. In those dark years before I discovered writing partners — I went on to have many — I'd been missing the necessary other half of the writing process: the pleased reader. It was as if I'd been trying to convince myself I was a good cook, but without ever asking anyone to dinner.

The first writing course I taught was at a converted army base south of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I was so terrified that I spent the half hour before the first class at a restaurant across the street trying to get drunk. Today at least half my friends are people I met in my courses, which I hold at colleges and bookstores, in addition to the ten-week course I often have going in the San Francisco flat I share with my husband, Bill, a cookbook editor.

What Makes You a Writer

Linda Robinson came to my house knowing she had less than a year to live. She was 36, with thick blonde hair just growing in again, married and living with two small sons in Belmont, on the peninsula south of San Francisco. She wrote a piece about her visit to a funeral home to arrange for her own burial. Her face still puffy from chemo, she read it to the hushed room:

Joe, the manager, showed me various combinations of options, from the Lenin-lying-in-state model on down to the shoebox-in-the-backyard version. I had a pleasing vision of being buried in my jewelry box. When Joe got back, I asked him if you could provide your own container for cremated remains. He said, "Yes, but you'd be surprised how many people neglect to bring a lid." I said, "I guess Saran Wrap would be tacky?"

The laughter started when she was only halfway through, and by the time she was done the class was roaring and my dog was barking.

"You laughed!" Linda exclaimed gratefully. "I'm so glad you laughed."

In the discussion that followed, Linda's classmates suggested she drop the paragraph about driving into the funeral home parking lot; for sure keep the part where she fogged the shiny rich wood of a coffin with her breath; and asked her to make the bit about the incense clearer.

No one had the poor manners to express sympathy. Linda wasn't the dying woman here, as she was in other rooms: here, she was a writer. In this room, everything that happened, however terrible, was material. Just as the Plains Indians used every part of the buffalo, so writers, too, use everything. If it doesn't kill you, you can use it in your writing. Even, as Linda showed our class, if it does kill you.

Writing makes you a writer. Lolly Winston wrote essays for me, and then discovered she is a novelist — with two books published so far. Midwife Peggy Vincent's pieces full of blood and mucus, and babies being delivered in the backs of cars and on the floor and in waterbeds, was later published as BabyCatcher. Susan Parker, author of Tumbling After, had never written anything until her husband Ralph broke his neck in a bicycle accident while pedaling down Grizzly Peak near Berkeley, California. Ralph was a retired nuclear physicist; she was in her early forties, thirteen years younger. The accident left Ralph a quadriplegic and Susan a caregiver, with instructions to catheterize her husband every four hours 24 hours a day.

Jackie Winspear first took my essay class, then began coming to my house once a month with a new piece. One day she arrived to say she'd been stuck in a traffic jam by the Pennzoil station in San Rafael, and used the time to conjure up a character named Maisie Dobbs, investigator and psychologist, for a novel she didn't even know she had in her. She began bringing me pages of that book, which became Maisie Dobbs. All I said during those monthly meetings was, "Keep going." (At book readings she tells the story of how after she broke her arm falling off her horse, I said, "You have another hand, don't you?") She'd been a life coach, struggling to get by. Now she's living the dream life of a writer, with seven novels in her prize-winning series.

Life, With Benefits

But writing about your life has benefits that go far beyond being published.

The true benefit is what it does to the inside of your head. Becoming a writer allowed me to experience my life more fully, the way a travel writer tries to travel with all his senses alert, taking notes, asking what that arch is called, holding up a tape recorder to capture the sounds of a Mumbai traffic intersection. You have to taste the eyeball soup, identify the scent of a perfumed street, ask to see not the usual moldy sights but the tour guide's house. You're like a photographer who takes his camera with him everywhere. Because you have that camera, you see not just the houses, but the light on them. That's not a bad thing, noticing the light.

Putting words on paper charges up every part of you, makes you feel alive, important, satisfied. You feel enlarged, fed, painted in brighter colors by what you have chosen to write down about yourself. You feel lucky to be doing something so valuable, interesting, and worthwhile, if only as a private record. Writing is hard, yes, but so are diamonds. That's why they give off that unearthly light. A friend said to me, "I realized after writing my book — which took five years — that I've done what I always wanted to do."

Ready to start? Here are six quick exercises. Find a friend to write with you so you can exchange your work with each other, or just get a big empty box, and throw your stories in as you jot them down.

1. Keep a Notebook

Annie Lamott said that you must always have a piece of paper and pen to jot down your ideas when God gives them to you: "If you don't have a piece of paper to write on, God will give your ideas to someone else." Carry a daily notebook to jot things in — overheard conversations, ideas, weird signs (I passed a salon in South Lake Tahoe that said "Hair Styling, Head to Foot."). Anything that surprises you — make a note. Jot tiny "huh" observations as you go through your day — like me deciding I don't want to deal with the last fifth of the toothpaste tube, or noticing the computer screen goes blank at odd times, or wondering what ever happened to the 50-cent piece.

2. Write About a Grandparent

Gestures, sayings, what they wore, what they owned. Keep it as physical as possible, letting these details suggest the person's outlook and personality.

3. Write About the Contents of Your Closet

Who did you buy that shearling rabbit fur coat for? And those tall spiked black boots, the ones that were going to change your life? How many of the clothes fit you, or fit who you are now? Be specific.

4. A Picture Is Worth a Few Pages

Take out an old family photo and write four to six pages about what's in the frame and about what's not in the frame. What happened before or after the picture was taken? What does the writer know now that the people in the photograph didn't know then?

5. Drop and Give Me 100

Choose three items from the following list, and write 100 words on each, sharing especially what memories the smell evokes for you. Use all five senses in your writing, though.

Melted tar
Suntan lotion
Bug spray
Mimeograph page
Play Doh
Smell of burning

6. Do a Kitchen-Timer Exercise

Write for 15 minutes, starting each sentence with: I remember; I don't remember; or I wish. Or write a series of alternating sentences beginning: Once I was…; Then...; and, Now I am... Or, write for ten minutes, starting with the phrase Everything was fine until...

Author and columnist Adair Lara is also a well-known writing instructor in the San Francisco area. Her newest book is the writing guide Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay, from which this excerpt is adapted.


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