Writing Life Stories Session II: Demonstrate Your Understanding by Showing

June 16, 2015; second revision–As I mentioned in this post, We are Characters within Our Tales, I spent time this session speaking about the storyteller as a character. Some other subjects covered included vulnerability, understanding, embarrassing moments, and writing from an age perspective.

Those mischievous camp counselors. At it again.  Photo by Mike Alderson
Those mischievous camp counselors. At it again. Photo by Mike Alderson

When we allow ourselves to become vulnerable within our life stories, by showing and not telling, our readers gain a better understanding of our experiences. How important is this? To me, it is extremely important. I don’t want my readers, be they children, grandchildren, great grandchildren or someone in the general public to get the idea I’m perfect or that I exhibit any characteristic that they might feel they have to live up to.

I’m fallible. We all are.

When we tell stories that include our imperfections, we become relatable; but there is more. I get it that people want to tell (preach at) their kids and grand-kids not to do some things that could be harmful to them but I also know that there’s a rebel within me.

Someone tells me “Don’t do this” and I immediately want to. (Hey, wait . . . wasn’t that a prerequisite for being a camp counselor? I mean, it certainly enabled us all to be one step ahead of the kids we were responsible for.) * See my titles about Millersylvania for camp counseling stories.

• “Don’t run downhill or you’ll fall.”
• “Don’t smoke.”
• “Don’t drink.”
• “Don’t hang out with so and so cause they’re a bad influence.”

Ah . . . the old tell a good girl he’s a bad boy and forbid them to see each other lecture . . . yeah, we’ve seen that work just fine. Uh huh.

Let’s face it; nothing we say will hinder our progeny from making their own often times stupid decisions. It’s called the old school of hard knocks. What we can do it prove to them, by showing them, that we’ve been there and done that too, at least something parallel to their experience, and that this is, for better or worse, what we did about it at that time in our lives; how we coped, how we survived.

When a writer, especially of life stories, sits down to write, they would do well to write to the people who, like me, rebel at being “preached to” and delight and learn when someone takes the time to show us simply by making themselves vulnerable and sometimes even admitting to being the guilty party, the one who did the wrong and had to deal with the consequences.

How do we show readers? Relive it as you write it. See and feel those things again as if they are raw, tangible experiences. Let the reader learn from being there with you, inside your head and body.

Here’s something to practice.

Remember what it was like, for instance, to be small. Do you recall an instance of becoming lost when you were a little kid? How would you write that by showing the reader you’ve been there and understand and not simply writing, “Yeah, when I was four-and-a-half or five, I got lost.”

Here’s a (raw) excerpt from one of my story collections. I’m hoping it will trigger some things from your own past to write about, some lesson you remember learning the hard way.

We arrived in Alaska during late summer 1962, just two years after it became the 49th state. Soon after, we moved from Elmendorf Air Force Base to a sparsely populated area above Eagle River, within the elevated wilderness of the Chugach Mountains.

Here, Christmas never seemed far away. Mom was taking me with her shopping, into Anchorage. The radio was playing Big Bad John when she switched it off. I was afraid of bad John anyway.

She said to my dad, “Jerry, you know he fed his wife to those sled dogs. You know he did! I wish we were back in Washington D.C. instead of here in nowhere. I don’t want you to leave me here alone.”

Daddy mumbled something about everything being fine and hugged her. In protest, she donned high heels instead of snow boots, even though she was six months pregnant. I watched her as she slipped white plastic goulashes over the high heels and hooked a piece of elastic over the buttons on the side of her ankles. She was always so fancy. I wanted high heels and goulashes too.

I grabbed my twice-stuffed Mighty Mouse doll, who was my best friend and went everywhere with me, and my muff, then followed her out the front door.

The snow was sloshy and browned with mucky-muc in the city. The J.C. Penny’s building was three stories tall. Herds of grown-up shoppers jostled each other, scouring the forest of soaring circular racks hung with clothes, and shelves holding items I could not see, for the perfect gift. Music jingled over the intercom, “You’d better not shout, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why . . .”

I was only interested in things within my level of eyesight. I’d spotted a square display in the center of the aisle arrayed with beautiful white ice skates, which were set up against a pyramid of red boxes. Holiday shoppers brushed past me in a blur on my peripheral, unnoticed. I stared, yearning for the skates, as if the intensity of my longing would magnetize a pair within my reach. I turned to ask my mom if I could have a pair. That’s when I noticed she was gone.

I could see as high as a short woman’s hip and there were way too many of these sashaying obstacles. They were so thick I could see none of their heads! I had to navigate, like a salmon swimming against a tide of whales, searching for my one small streamlet. Terror grabbed me and I cried for fear of being crushed and abandoned. My whole body shook with sobs. A strange woman leaned down and asked me what was wrong. “I can’t find my mommy.”

* Special thanks to CurvyLou for helping me edit this page. You can read her blog here.

This week’s memory triggers

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