On writing websites and author forums I sometimes come across lists of writing prompts and other exercises for practicing writing skills, and though they might be helpful (especially in a classroom setting), above them all there is one thing, one project any writer can do to improve his writing. The King Daddy or Queen Mama of all writing exercises is simply this: write your life story.
It’s your life, so you know the story. You know the drama, the comedy, the sub-plots, the character development, and the major and minor characters. You know many of the characters’ back-stories, you know their deep desires and motivations and fears and heartaches and regrets, you know their various levels of emotional and social skills. You even have slivers of their dialogue burnt into your heart! You already have the parts of a great story, so why not use them for something?
Now, don’t just describe a chronological list of events: doing that will bore even yourself! Write your life story as if it were a novel. (It’s your story, so you get to be the hero!) Write your life story for your great-grandchildren to read: make it so they will get to know you and your world and so they can get more from it than just the facts of family history. Make it so they can use your story to live their lives more fully and happily. In other words, write a good book.
(By the way, if you believe your life doesn’t provide enough material for a good story, you might want to (a) adjust your attitude or (b) get away from the keyboard for awhile and go get busy.)
Even if you never get to pass it on to a great-grandchild, there are many practical benefits to writing your life story. Here are the most obvious; I’ll let you discover the more subtle.
First, it allows you to work on expressing your experience, on your writing itself, instead of being distracted, hampered, and even bogged down with imagining plot twists and life-like characters. You can focus on the how and not waste many brain cells on the what. That’s the biggie.
Second, when you look back on your life so far, and when you try to show what is needed for a reader to make sense of it all and understand your life as well as you do, you have to portray all the people fairly. This will do amazing things for giving your future fictional characters a multi-dimensional reality, and it will force you to practice shifting from one point of view to another. (Incidentally, it will also help you more deeply understand and accept your family, friends, and other players in your real life!)
Third, it will get you to write about a million words. Somewhere I read, perhaps from a famous author, that a writer doesn’t really get comfortable with his writing and settle into his “voice” until he’s written about a million words. (By the way, I’ve tried copying and pasting big blocks of words, but this shortcut is proving rather fruitless . . .) The actual number doesn’t matter, but the sentiment sure seems to ring true. The more you write, the better at it you become . . . (And if you’re no good at all after a million words, uhmm, maybe you should try something else . . . )
Fourth, you can use this to get un-stuck on your “real” projects. Writer’s block? Bullshit. Just put your work to the side, open a file from your life story, and just start writing. It’s like getting out of bed in the morning: you don’t always want to do it at all, and when you start you’re a bit stiff and maybe even sore, but if you just start moving you loosen up and you get your heart pumping and before you know it, you’re being some kind of productive and you’re enjoying yourself again. So, since for your life story there is always something new to add or old to refine, just open the file and resume writing. Then, once you’re loosened up, you close your life story file and re-open your work file . . .
You can do it. If you truly are a writer, you can do it. You’ll want to revise and refine and re-do and revise some more, and every year you’ll want to add another chapter or two, or add a more mature perspective to earlier chapters . . . and you’ll always have material to work with.
Do you want to know at what point people who don’t know you will want to read your work? Well, imagine standing in the sand at the edge of a lake, a lake big enough to make you be serious if you’re contemplating swimming across it. Imagine thinking, It’s going to take work, but I can do this. I can swim well enough to make it. I can’t do it all freestyle, I can’t do it like an Olympic champion, but I can do this. Now imagine that the middle of the lake is way, way over the swimmer’s head, so he knows that he can not afford to overestimate his ability to make it across. It’s going to take work, but I can do this. Imagine the swimmer strongly wading into and through the shallows, then at waist-depth diving in and striking out for the far-away other side of the lake. It’s going to take work, but I can do this. When you can approach writing a book with the same well-found confidence of that swimmer, you’ll produce something that strangers will want to read.
So, go ahead and look for tips on how to choose the right kind of names for your characters, and how to make dialogue feel real, and all kinds of other techniques, but for a sandbox to play with all these tools? You have it already: your life story. Just wade right in . . . and start knocking out those million words!
PS – Hey, under the right circumstances, at the right time, your written life story might come in handy when dating. DO NOT attach it to your first online-dating-service email!!!! DON’T do it; don’t even think of doing it! Bad, embarrassing things will likely happen. But if you’re several months into a solid dating relationship, you’ve already been sharing your life story in bits and pieces through conversation, so why not share it as a whole? Or even just the most important chapters . . . The other person’s reaction to your reaction to life (in your most accurately-chosen written words) will either make you two closer or clear the playing field: one way or the other, in the long run, you’ll win.