This week, my essay “It’s all Relative” was published on The Manifest-Station. It’s all about family, and how I’ve turned a few dysfunctional situations into opportunities for growth and appreciation. (If you’d like to read it, click here!) This isn’t the first time I’ve written about my own family. Over the years, I’ve written many screenplays, novels, and memoir exploring my own familial relationships, and as you probably know from your own attempts, it’s sometimes hard to achieve enough distance to write about your own family in a way that others who don’t know you and don’t especially care about you will want to read. Here are some lessons I’ve learned about writing about my own family:
1) Dig deeply enough in your own experience to find the universal meaning. Do some journaling and think about what the moral of your story is, what a person can learn from this dilemma. Get philosophical. This doesn’t mean you should state explicitly what the moral of your story is in the finished piece of writing, but by becoming aware of your personal story’s universal themes, you’ll be able to write something that transcends the details and can move and inspire others.
2) Turn your frustration into questions. In exploring the question at the heart of your story and seeking enlightenment, you’ll produce work that others find valuable. Whatever it is that drives you to write, be it injustice, survival, or grief, shape your story in the spirit of curiosity rather than vengeance. By staying curious, you’ll automatically give yourself enough distance from the pain of your own experience to write about it objectively and universally.
3) Remember, they’re only human. Those who have hurt you come from their own unique experience. They’re probably just doing the best they can. By seeking to understand where they’re coming from and giving others the benefit of the doubt, we can develop characters who are multi-dimensional and complex, rather than flat and stereotypical.
4) Seek healing. Ask yourself, where is the common ground? Where can I (or my character in this story) learn, change and grow here? How can I reconcile the injustice, mistreatment, or tragedy and see it as an opportunity to become stronger? Just as we need to resolve conflict through growth in our own lives, so do our characters in our stories.
5) Identify your wants and your needs. After you write a rough draft, it’s a good idea to explore these two questions: What do I (or my character) want? What do I (or my character?) need? These two simple questions will help you set up your story conflict, by giving your protagonist, in this case yourself, a goal. They will also help you find your resolution, by pointing the way towards an outcome that may not give you what you want, but will give you what you need. The magic of these questions is that not only will you write a more satisfying ending, you’ll write a less predictable one. By setting up the reader’s expectation that your character will (or will not) get one thing, and then having them attain something else entirely, you can take them on an inevitable yet unexpected journey.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to learn more about Shaping True Story, you can follow me on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, follow my blog, buy the book, contact me about a consultation, or join my mailing list.