If you can free yourself from writing autobiographically, the whole world opens before you. But how can you do this? So often the stories that spring naturally to mind arise from personal experience. This is only natural. Our deepest emotional impressions occur in childhood.
Childhood provides a rich source of emotionally-laden story material. Often, however, I’ve found myself longing to escape the “I” voice that sounds so much like me that even I am bored of it. If we are writing autobiographically and never make an effort to “change it up,” then we risk telling the same story over and over, ad nauseum.
I would argue that there are many stories we are capable of telling, and that we should tell. By stretching our imaginations and entering the lives of others, we become better, and more truthful, writers. You may find yourself shifting to a third-person voice or employing an omniscient narrator, both time-honored storytelling techniques. And, once we fasten on a story, we have the fun of casting about and finding the right voice to tell it.
Where, exactly, do we find story material, people or subjects who do not come from our childhoods or families? We can find such stories in our writing notebooks.
Keep a Writing Notebook
To stop writing autobiographically, you will need to systematically gather material. Look out into the world. Observe other people. Eavesdrop in coffee shops. Tune in to gossip.
The great writers have all done this. Study the writing notebooks of Dostoyevsky, Joyce Carol Oates, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Anton Chekhov. Each of these writers has a distinctive style and set of preoccupations. Chekhov was a doctor. He observes the world with a clinical eye.
The others do not. However, each one has a literary eye attuned to his or her unique circumstances and to their era as well. Wars, revolutions, Colonialism, the Jazz Age, and women’s lib all provide the backdrop for the writer’s particular time and place. Centuries separate these writers. What they have in common is that they’re gathering material all the time.
Here’s an example of what Chekhov’s close observation yielded:
Vladimir Sloviov [famous philosopher] told me that he always carried an oak-gall in his trouser pocket,—in his opinion, it is a radical cure for piles.
A pregnant woman with short arms and a long neck, like a kangaroo.
You drive on the Nevski, you look to the left on the Haymarket; the clouds are the color of smoke, the ball of setting sun purple—Dante’s hell!
Notebook of Anton Chekhov, translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf, Kindle edition
Chekhov’s observations may strike you as trivial. However, there could come a time when an author needs to describe a secondary character or a sunset. Leaf back through the writing notebook, and Chekhov, undoubtedly, found plenty of fresh, description material.
What to Write Down
As part of your writing practice, strive to write down ten to twenty items a day. You won’t find much fresh or interesting around your house. Even if you did, you might not see it. What strikes us as notable are the things we see for the first time.
To give this a try, hang out in coffee shops, ride public transit, observe people in airports, or go to libraries, shopping malls, and parks.
Okay, great, you’re thinking, but what should I do then?
Observe and listen. Find words to describe what you’re seeing. One point of keeping this notebook is to free you from writing clichés. I don’t know about you, but the first thing that pops into my mind (that’s a cliché in itself) is a phrase I’ve heard too many times to count.
Here are some of the things you’ll want to write down in your writing notebook:
- Weather, birds, plants
- Details of particular places (or specific settings)
- Descriptions of people
- Anecdotes (stories other people tell; gossip; possible stories)
What Are the Benefits?
You will see the world with a fresh eye. This will make you feel good about yourself. “Gee, I am a writer after all.”
By listening for voices or stories that you wouldn’t come up with on your own, you’ll have a greater sense of empathy for the varieties of human experience.
Your notebook will yield up images, voices, and visuals for walk-on characters. One of these random people might even inspire a new novel.
Finally, you’ll discover stories you didn’t know you could tell. You will free yourself from writing autobiographically. Instead, you will take an imaginative leap and enter the lives of others.
The Joys of Eavesdropping
Above, I mentioned that eavesdropping can yield up some terrific snippets of conversation and story starters. Often, when I’m looking back through my notebooks, I can’t remember physical descriptions. The words themselves are so vivid that I could start a story with any one of these snippets:
- “And then there just some that be so full of themselves.”
- “I am waiting for the universe to tell me what to do.”
- “Look for the ding-ding-ding moments.”
- “I got me a job and it’s a good job. 12 bucks an hour. They make shower doors. Aluminum, white, left hinge, right hinge. It’s a security job. I get me on the light rail, then I’m in Mesa. It’s doable. A week after I started, I gave Cass the finger and just left. Yeah, I got the email you sent. I got them pictures. I got me a new phone. Yeah, I traded in the old beat up Obama special. They pulled off my old emails so I can just email you any time from now on.”
Father and son on a bus:
Son. “I kind of like the back of the bus.”
Dad. “I like the front.”
“What’s back there?”
“My fish died.”
“How big was it.”
“This big. Its head kind of rolled away from its body.”
“Wanna play ‘I Spy’?”
“Not right now.”
Don’t you just feel for that dad, trying to engage with his son, but not really being able to get down to his level? That’s the kind of thing you want in your notebook. Capture a feeling, a hunch that this could lead somewhere. It doesn’t have to. It could be nothing. But, chances are, among all the trivia, you will find a gem.
Observe Weather, Birds, and Plants
Here are some more examples from my journal. As you can see, I often don’t write complete sentences. A phrase will do. Sometimes, I’ll rewrite my initial observation to sharpen it, such as “the broom-swept sky.”
- Airplane contrail—asteroid plummeting to earth
- Grey clouds swept like a broom—the broom-swept sky
- Date palm—one frond, hanging like a broken arm
Details of Particular Places
When you’ve lived in a place for a long time, you may not see it afresh. However, if you make it your business to closely observe your surroundings, you’ll find moments of great clarity. These descriptive details can come in handy when you’re establishing the setting of a story. Note that you may be gathering data from your surroundings, but that you are no longer “writing autobiographically.” Here are some entries from my notebook:
- Tempe school sign: Just be kind
- Date palm—one frond, hanging like a broken arm
- B &W dog shitting on artificial turf
- The smell of freshly Clorox-wiped table
- Where are the turkey vultures? At the moment, nothing is dead in the desert.
- Violet sky behind a butte.
Ravines in Highland Park, IL
- Sharp-lobed liverwort, Hepatica quatiloba; Native grasses and flowers—bee balm, aster, goldenrod, sunflower, black eyed susan, bottle brush grass, Cana rye, sedges
- Chirp of cicadas
- Water in standing pools
- Musty smell of tall grasses
- Sycamores shedding bagfuls of heart-shaped leaves
- Bird that sounds like corduroy pants
- Deer barriers—white string from tree to tree like a cat’s cradle
- Blue toilet seat in ravine
Descriptions of People
Ah, people! In a sense we are all voyeurs. Writers must be. Generally speaking, writers must look for the particulars of someone’s appearance. We’d like to immediately grasp what makes one person different from another.
As an example of this, see the second example below. If I were writing a story set in Phoenix, I might grab the description of the rancher with his pressed jeans. If I were writing a story about a couple that rescues dogs, the fourth example would give me a starting point. In both cases, I am writing autobiographically, in that these are people with whom I had brief encounters or observed from a distance. However, what’s different is that they’re clearly not me. I’m not scraping the bottom of my soul to come up with a story.
- Parents at symphony w Down’s syndrome son; bright red hair; green jacket; squeaked when he walked like a squeaky toy
- Bent over rancher with crew cut, in blue stripe shirt, snakeskin boots, straw cowboy hat in fancy restaurant, The District; his concession to City style—new jeans, creases pressed, white line down thighs
- Woman with two bodies, thin upper body. Her hips were so wide the weight made her hobble.
- Man and woman on bikes walking their mutts. Rescue dogs? Man on recumbent bike with large dog-sized box on back. Woman on regular bike, one speed. Both Hispanic.
- Bored teen out to dinner with parents; phone dead. Before long, he turned his chopsticks into drumsticks and began banging on table.
When you overhear a story or a bit of gossip, feel free to speculate about its significance. Why did that moment strike you? Did it conjure up a particular character or set of characters? Again, these examples are from my writing notebooks. One day, I’m sure they’ll turn into stories.
- Kitchen at the bottom of Lake Powell. Table, chairs, refrigerator, stove, plates and knives and forks. (Who put it there and arranged the stuff?)
- The old coach taught her to pass the ball and wanted her to stay with the ball, and she thought she had good field sense. She was crushed when the new coach said she looked like Ferdinand the Bull smelling buttercups. Field sense, he said, was the very thing she lacked.
- Sikh man at Parliament of Religions who ran up and shouted to a woman, “I remember you, Frances. You lent me underwear when I forgot mine.” (The woman had lent the Sikh man a pair of underpants.) It turns out that Sikhs handle feeding all the people at Parliament of Religions. My friend informed me that in Barcelona, the Dalai Lama was, notably, not there.
- Birdwatcher in botanical garden—solitary man in camouflage clothing; super long lens; binoculars, sunglasses. Why are the best birders old retired guys who keep their endless bird lists? What are they trying to watch? Perhaps, it’s a way for them to still compete. Lenses, lists, places they’ve been? (Trigger for memory of birdwatcher in Bruges on his way to Africa, confused by streets. Arms thrown out. “I like the wide open spaces.” Senile. Not surprisingly, the gentleman could take in old info okay, but he couldn’t take in new. When I wrote his wife and told her of his plight, she wrote back that he was the same way at home. She was tired of taking care of him. “It’s better when he’s gone on a trip.”)
For more on writing notebooks and how they’re useful, see this post on Story Starters. You might also want to look at Lynn Sloan’s article about how a fork missing from a silver set sparked a short story.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.