Whether we write fiction or non, we need input for memorable output
I had a life-changing moment in high school, but there was a two-year delay in the life-changing part of the experience. It was one of those typical assemblies where some guest speaker shares educational slides about how bad it is to do drugs or join a gang — the kind most teenagers tune-out and the kind administrators drool-over.
I don’t remember the assembly… because of what happened.
There was a guy next to me. I didn’t know him. The auditorium was full — elbows-deep in teenagers. My high school was huge. Bigger than my first college. My class alone had twelve hundred students. So, this guy whom I didn’t know, wouldn’t stop cat-calling and two-finger whistling.
The auditorium was silent — save for Captain Whistles.
It was clear he wanted attention and had no tools beyond being a douche. I’m not a fan of confrontation and was even less-so in high school, but I couldn’t take it anymore. After ten minutes I finally turned and shushed him.
I don’t know what I expected to happen, but being choked wasn’t on the list of possibles. Whistles picked choking anyway. Nonchalant. As if he were making a sandwich or putting on mismatched socks — the guy reached over my head in a split-second and choked me until I saw stars. He whispered kind things like I’ll break your neck right here, and I should kill you for that. Maybe a nobody tells me what to do, kind of statement.
My journalism skills for remembering quotes weren’t so good in that moment. But his pep-talk went something like that.
The guy was sweaty. I could smell him too. Being that my head was cradled in his armpit like a newborn. Somehow all that trauma, no matter how old, makes a permanent, embossed notary stamp on your brain.
I couldn’t breathe. I did my best to resist. I coughed and struggled. Then — he let me go. Like it was another Tuesday. And returned to his cat-calling. As if to show me he was still in charge. Eventually, some form of authority took him away, but no one saw the choking.
So, that happened. Standard high school stuff. Kids are horrible to each other. But the choking wasn’t the life-changing bit. The part that stopped me cold — the life-changing part, was two years later. The summer after I graduated, Whistles made the paper. Turns out, in the middle of the night the same guy choked a cab driver to death. For money. Whistles went to prison. Apparently choking people was his hobby.
I don’t remember the guy’s name. I don’t feel it therapeutic to look him up either. I still think about him choking me sometimes and I’d rather not cement the memory deeper.
As crazy as it sounds I do owe the strangler a bit of gratitude.
A cab driver died and I can’t remove the weight of that incident. A young guy went to prison, because he probably led a horrible life. But I got to walk away with a strong story. The story is mine. I can package it any way I wish and re-tell it as many times as someone will listen.
Story is currency for humans.
How I use life as fuel for writing
Like my strangler story I get to keep everything I experience. These are only my stories. No one can experience them from the same angle. We all see our stories through a different lens.
Take 9/11 for example. I know exactly where I was and who I called first.
Millions of people across the United States experienced the same incident on 9/11, but each person has a unique version of that day.
If a story is compelling enough we remember the gist from one telling. This single-telling works, because our mind runs on story. Our ancestors had nothing but story to pass their history to each other. We don’t process things in facts and figures, columns and spreadsheets. That information has to be remembered by force.
But story — we remember story because we can play the tape in our minds.
If you paid attention to my story above you probably pictured the auditorium, the cat-calling, the choking, the smells, and the cab. When we attack all five senses with our story the brain has trouble understanding the difference between thought and reality (which is why virtual reality is so powerful).
Throughout my life I get to collect these stories and re-purpose them.
Maybe the cab-strangler becomes an antagonist in my novel. Could be just a whiff of the idea, but the food is there. Maybe I use how I felt on 9/11 and I take that experience and translate it into a memorable lesson in non-fiction.
When we engage our readers with a story pulled from reality, we’ve got more emotional material to work with. As we replay the tape we feel all the emotions, smell the smells, squeeze the muscles, and hear the sounds. With all the reality food baked into a story, the experience is more-compelling for the reader, versus a page of facts.
We crave story.
Just as we love watching celebrities fall from grace, we rubberneck as we pass traffic accidents, and we stay glued to the news during tragedy — we silly humans are hard-wired to crave a good disaster. Messes bring people together. We can feel the pain of others through story. If told well, we cry and want to run around hugging people once we hear a story that touches us (or we point and laugh).
How can you make your writing better with a good story
Recently I started capturing these real stories
I enjoy Seth Godin’s podcast, Akimbo. Before every episode he starts with a small story, somehow related to the show topic. Some weeks the story is obscure and Seth hooks it later. Some weeks the story is direct. Either way, he pulls me into every episode with his simple story-delivery recipe.
If Seth started with a dry list of facts each week I would’ve unsubscribed a year ago. Instead, I listen to every episode.
Thanks to Seth, I started a story collecting notebook. I’ll never forget the cab choker so I don’t need to record that one, but there are many minor stories I do capture, because they may be useful in the future.
Novels are one, giant story with sub-stories. The storytelling correlation is easy to make with fiction. But with non-fiction story is just as powerful. When I want to make a point I try to punctuate my message with a strong story. Most people won’t remember my non-fiction if I rambled a long list of things, but if I add a story to anchor my point — now we’re talking permanent memory.
So, I made a story notebook.
This notebook has one purpose. It’s a library of short, personal, real stories. I don’t carry it with me. If I encounter some great story out in the wild, I’ll capture a few quick notes in one of the pocket notebooks I make from beer boxes and copy paper stapled together. When I get a free moment I’ll re-scribe the full story in the main notebook.
Next time I hit a book chapter or article where I want to make a point, I can flip through my story book and grab one. Not only can I capture stories that happen to me, but I also collect stories from well-known figures.
If we don’t have a personal story that fits our book, we can always use Abraham Lincoln (or the like).
Compelling stories are everywhere. Daily life is filled with lessons. Instead of telling your reader to do something, share the advice through a story. We don’t like being told what to do, but we can relate to others. If you want to convince a reader to change, tell the story of someone who made a similar transformation, then give the steps the person used. We’re surrounded by great stores once we let them in.
I do the same with with great dialogue too. Here’s a post I wrote about the way I steal one-liners from real conversations:
Where to go from here?
The best part about story collecting is you don’t have to make a special trip. All you have to do is be. Granted, going outside and experiencing life will give you more story food than you’ll get eating Cheetos on the couch, but that’s a story too.
I found by opening myself up to the idea of story collecting, my subconscious presents me with more opportunities to capture.
It’s the same phenomena as buying a green car and suddenly you see green cars everywhere. The green cars were always there, but your brain chose to forget them. Now green cars are important, so the subconscious sends you a note to pay attention every time you pass one.
…same for story.
Now that I give myself permission to experience and capture great stories I see them everywhere. You don’t have to be strangled by an oxygen thief to capture a great story. Tiny anecdotes are just as powerful. Maybe you remember what it was like to hold someone’s hand for the first (or last) time. Or that one morning you burned your hand on the stove while making your favorite tea.
The content of the story matters less than the telling of the story.
If we want to use story to make a strong point, as long as we conjure the emotion we intend, the type of story we use isn’t as important. Don’t worry whether or not your story is compelling enough. Focus on telling each story well instead.
Use all five senses.
Be open to story as you exist in the wild. Capture the good ones you encounter. I like to imagine myself as a field journalist every time I go to the grocery store. I never know what I’ll encounter out there. Story hunting is fun. Try capturing some stories over the next month and see what you gather.
We’re waiting for you.
August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.