I can hear my client’s breath on the phone, and it feels like the sliding door of an elevator opening—that moment when you aren’t sure whether you’ll be alone on a seconds-long ride of life—when she exhales and says, “I’m not very good with dates and times. I can’t remember when it happened, just that it did.”
As a book writing coach, I hear this more often than not. Memory is slippery, and most of us have a hard time making everything make sense: all the scrambled pieces of life that we’ve lived through, shaken up, and tried to piece back into a cohesive shape. The problem is that memory is warped through experience. For some, the trials of life create tears in an otherwise complete story. For others, drama only enhances the mind, concretely cementing every detail, dialogue and emotion exactly as it happened.
When these moments of memory lapse occur with my clients, I try to pull them back in time. Because that’s what telling our story does. When we write, we time travel, and the only way to traverse time and space is through the senses. What can we taste, touch, smell, hear and see?
Marcel Proust says it best in Swann’s Way (I know I’m pretentiously quoting Proust, but bear with me) when he describes the sensation of memory evoked with the smell and taste of a madeleine, which transports him back to tea and cake with his aunt. In this transportation of the sensory present to the past, Proust discovers that memory lives in the body, and these bodily sensations bring us to a greater awareness of who we are now: “After the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered… the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment.” What I love about this idea is that it suggests nothing is truly lost in the crevices of the mind.
That same client on the phone with me—even though she could not remember dates the way she wanted to—was able to describe an integral day in perfect detail: the late summer heat, the sweat on her skin, the rise of fury in her flushed face. And the exact time didn’t matter anymore, because time was traveling. I was right there with her in the dead heat of summer, suffering alongside her in this threshold moment of her personal story.
That’s exactly where we need to be in the narrative.
The gift of writing down a personal narrative is more than a validation of the self; it’s a radical rethinking of who we are and who we want to become. Most of us have already become a better version of ourselves, but we just can’t see it yet. Writing down our personal narratives allows us to see that better version, to reflect a strong, gracious, generous, miraculous kind of self. Imagine what we could do—what purpose we might fulfill and personal growth we might achieve—if we truly believed in ourselves in such a way?
The Importance of Telling Your Complete Life Story
Most consider cliches useless, but I find them easy portals to enter into, so here’s one: Life is a series of puzzle pieces shaken up in a box. We must slowly and attentively find the pieces that fit together to create a whole picture, beautiful and complete, if we want to tell our story.
So why do we want to craft a complete, well-organized personal story?
Because an unfinished puzzle, presented to the world, is unsatisfactory. Worse, it provides no sense of healing, no sense of wholeness. And in a world splintered with disconnect, a feeling of wholeness is all that matters. Discovering our authentic personal story helps us identify our meaningful purpose. If that purpose ever gets pushed to the wayside, we can revisit our story to reconnect with what matters to us. Writing down our personal narratives is a form of individual branding that connects us to the deeper motivations within ourselves and the impact we can have on the world. But it’s challenging to bring all our life stories together.
Some of the most common concerns I find among writers trying to organize their story is worrying which elements of their personal narratives belong together, if they will bore the reader, or if there is some value in that moment of their life. So many of my clients fail to connect the dots between the moments in their lives that truly make up who they are and who they are looking to become.
In Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes a personal narrative of her life when she was in her mid-20s, divorced, dabbling in heroin, dealing with estranged relationships—and desperately needing to change the story she was writing about herself. Wild covers her thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, a life-altering stretch of time that allowed Cheryl to rediscover who she was. Words have so much power, especially when they are centered around our personal stories. Cheryl’s memoir challenges the notion that we can show off our messiness and still be wildly successful, empowering and whole.
Like Cheryl, we all have heroic abilities within us, lying in wait until we are pressed into a situation or circumstance that calls them forth. Most of us can recognize that circumstance that changes us or challenges us, but we don’t always recognize the inner strength that helps carry us through the change or overcome the challenge. That heroic spirit is often overlooked or outright denied. And when the heroic spirit fades into the background, connecting the dots becomes difficult because we can’t string together the complex behaviors, thoughts and feelings all heroes go through in order to end the story in victory.
We dismiss the small behaviors—the superpowers—that got us through our stories in favor of the big actions that reside on the surface. But these small behaviors (much like the taste of a madeleine) show the heart and soul of the narrative. Tiny gestures, specific details, sensory experience, and vulnerable emotions are the pieces of the puzzle we want to create. And they allow us to be more self-aware and to see ourselves as we truly are: the heroes (or the leaders) of our stories.
How to Write an Organized Personal Narrative
So how can we start writing our personal narratives, rich with details that show the core of us to others, be it for future employers, conference audience, or peers? We can start with these steps:
1. Claim your heroic nature.
We are the heroes in our own stories, which means we all have the components of a great heroic tale: our calls to adventure, our pathways through trials and tribulations, our ultimate battles and our treasure troves at the end. But we can’t begin to think of our lives in a story-like form until we think of ourselves as worthy and deserving of being the hero of our own story.
All of us have a heroic nature inside of us—which is why it’s so important to tell our stories—but most of us don’t dare to see ourselves as the hero. Maybe we rationally understand it: I’m the one that lives at the center of my life. But we don’t fully accept the honor, respect, honesty and courage that live inside of us at the heart of our life’s narrative. Therefore, we fail to see how every action, every thought and every feeling have the opportunity to create meaning in our stories. Claiming that heroic nature within us is step one in thinking of life as a full narrative that should be told.
To help uncover the heroic nature inherent in us as we write our personal stories, we can ask the following questions (remember, though, that these questions only scratch the surface):
- Where did we come from? What aspects of childhood do we carry with us today?
- What circumstances led us to choose what we wanted to do with our lives or what path to take next?
- What is our proudest achievement? Why?
- What is the biggest challenge we’ve overcome in life? Who helped us or supported us in facing that challenge?
2. Keep the details in mind.
Our unique selves are often in the little details that make up the bigger picture of our story. We need to stop worrying about just getting the facts right, reading off a resume, or making sure this happened, then this happened then this happened. This is especially true if we’re using our personal story in business settings or to persuade people to take action. In fact, using stories to deliver a message makes that message 22 times more memorable than if it were just presented as facts.
When we are immersed in a story, we are transported to that time and place. And when that happens, we view the person telling the story in an increasingly positive light and are more willing to embrace the beliefs and views that are being presented to us.
Truly powerful and engaging stories that transport an audience are built with details. The more specific and concrete we are with the images of our life (soul food, floral wallpaper, the weird metallic smell in the two-story apartment on Avonlea Road), the more immersive the story is for the audience. Those elements of a personal narrative have the power to make the impossible happen—to time travel into a new world and showcase a complete version of ourselves. Details are the little dots to connect, the pieces to put together. Without them, the narrative of life falls flat.
3. Embrace writing exercises.
Anchoring ourselves into our own personal narratives can be tricky when we can’t remember all the specific dates, times, and the like. Writing prompts that evoke sensory memory can joggle the mind and uncover the best details for a well-structured, complete story. I love asking writers to mimic Joe Brainard’s poem I Remember, which is a series of seemingly random memories, one right after another.
Snapshots of memories, including the most mundane objects, details, people or actions can evoke powerful emotional resonance. For example, white eyelet socks, Mentos, and decaf coffee in Styrofoam cups instantly transport me to Sunday mornings at the Church of God with my grandparents.
Other helpful writing exercises include making cluster maps to encourage associative leaps from one train of thought to another, free-writing exercises to get the writing muscles warmed up, and brainstorming a list of people in our lives who had the greatest influence on us and then working backward to see what scenes in our life helped form the relationship we have with them today. These prompts work to shake up and shake out the small moments in our lives—those puzzle pieces—which we can pull together to make a more cohesive narrative.
4. Listen to your gut.
Intuition is magical. When I coach a client, the most beautiful breakthrough in discovering their personal narrative often happens without me. Intuition offers a powerful sense of direction, and with only a gentle nudge or thought-provoking question, something clicks into place in the depth of the gut. My clients know what needs to be told for the story to feel complete, to reflect a deeper sense of wholeness within them.
Once that breakthrough occurs, the dots are connected, and we can see the more nuanced narratives of our lives—that nothing just happened and then happened, but that each step along the way connects to a deeper choice or desire within us as heroes of our own stories. We become more confident, more self-reflective, more harmonious versions of ourselves.
A great story is unearthed through details of the mind, sensory scenes, emotional undercurrents, and a desire to see ourselves as heroes. When we take the time to write down our personal narratives—and not just write them down like resumes, or diaries or logs of ships at sea, but to really unearth the details and emotions that make up who we are—there is a greater sense of awareness, of wholeness, of healing, of transformative self-worth.
When you feel that tiny inkling, that little flame of a story inside of you, chase after it and hold on tightly. You do have a story, and it’s worth telling. I promise.
Photo by @wilsvanzyl/Twenty20