Monday, December 5, 2011

The Story Only You Can Tell: How to Use the Past

The Story Only You Can Tell: How to Use the Past

TWC workshop leader Laura Oliver's new book, The Story Within, New Insights and Inspiration for Writers (Penguin, 2011) has only been out for four weeks and has already been named one of The Writer Magazine’s “Top Ten Terrific Writing Books of the Year,” with additional buzz from The Huffington Post and Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York City. Please reading below an except from The Story Within, New Insights and Inspiration for Writers:

I was on a flight from Dulles to LAX and my plane was delayed, all of us already onboard, waiting for the arrival of 13 pieces of baggage from a connecting flight. Our pilot updated our departure status every few minutes but he sounded increasingly annoyed as the delays dragged on. Maybe someone was waiting for him in LA: a friend, a wife, a lover. Finally he reported, “Uh folks, we’re not waiting anymore.”

The cabin lights dimmed and the plane rocked slightly then began the slow push back, the careful turn, the taxi toward the runway. As the aircraft lumbered toward take-off, gathering momentum, I closed my eyes anticipating the moment I’d feel the front wheels leave the earth. It is the best part of flying--a moment of subtle exhilaration not unlike knowing a story-start is going to take flight.

But instead of lift-off, the plane suddenly decelerated and powered down to a stop. The pilot came back on: “Folks, Air Traffic Control isn’t happy about us leaving without those bags. Looks like we’re going to sit in a penalty box for a while.”

That’s the thing about baggage--about the painful experiences you’ve stuffed, the unacknowledged feelings and memories you’ve stowed. That baggage is perhaps your most authentic material and leaving it behind may cost you the stories you were born to write.

The sibling who protected you, the friend who saved you from isolation, contributed to who you became. But so did the coach who humiliated you, the girlfriend who deceived you, the parent who abandoned you. We just don’t like to think about these influences. We tend to pack them away but their impact remains, and with it the potential to serve our writing.

The stuffed experience may be a relationship or a situation, a workaholic parent, a move to a place where you had no friends. And sometimes there is only a vague feeling without a specific memory attached to it, but the feeling is no less formative and no less worthy of your respect.

If the color purple inexplicably makes you sad, there’s a reason. Explore the feeling on the page until you figure it out and are free of it. Explore contradictions—like occasions where you “should” have been happy but were not. Examine influences from your past--your mother’s loneliness, your father’s courage, and ask yourself “What if?” Asking “What if?” allows you to push beyond the subliminal limits of what really happened to invent a more imaginative or compassionate story. Maybe you’ll stumble on an actual truth or at least a new empathy.

Try rewriting the facts of your life as you would like to have seen them played out. Make people more accountable, more self-aware than they actually were. Make something happen when nothing did. Expose secrets from your past in a way that benefits a whole town. These exercises are constructive, freeing, and set a whole new energy in motion. Recognize the fact that what you invent on the page you may be able to recreate in your life because in this world you can bestow miracles.

Neuroscientists now believe that the primal brain, that ancient, reptilian, “old” brain, cannot distinguish between self and other. It sees all action as inner-directed. So when we criticize others, bizarrely, we feel criticized. When we gossip about a co-worker, we feel diminished. And as writers, when we lead a character to an epiphany, laughter, insight, forgiveness, or compassion, we feel oddly as if those gifts have been bestowed upon us. What a life-altering combination of fiction and reality! Each informs and transforms the other.

Embrace the memories you would rather avoid and tell the whole story. It’s okay if you take off late, if waiting until you are ready to write about a particular subject, person, or experience, delays the writing of your essay, story, or novel. On the wings of truth, lost time is recovered in the air.

Laura Oliver is an award-winning writer and the author of The Story Within, New Insights and Inspiration for Writers (Alpha/Penguin.) Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Franklin says, “This book will make you a better writer.” Cynthia Gorney, U.C. Berkeley, says The Story Within is “eloquent, no-nonsense, inspirational, funny and loaded with truly practical ideas.” Oliver teaches at St. John’s College. Her website is

For upcoming TWC workshops being led by Laura Oliver, please click here.

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