sf writer's grotto

How to Write Your Story

Course: Memoir I: Beginning Memoir Workshop

Institution: SF Writer's Grotto

Instructor: Rachel Howard

While a law student at Stanford I had the opportunity to take classes in their creative writing department. My professor, in his infinite wisdom, told me I should never write about what I know. According to him, this wasn’t “real” writing. Not sure what to do, I wrote fictional accounts of my stories. I started writing in the third person.

Ten years later, I find myself writing in the first person – a lot. Like here on this blog. It hit me, maybe it’s time to write my story, my truth; however unreal the effort. So this summer of self-actualization I decided to take a memoir class.

I walked into the SF Writer’s Grotto offices in downtown San Francisco and immediately judged the people I saw seated around the table. I guess I knew better than to expect Po Bronson, but I was a bit taken aback by my cohorts. Have you ever seen yourself in others and hated it?

I put my backpack down and surveyed the room. I immediately looked for the angry lesbian, the pampered Marina housewife, the retiree, and the whole retinue of writing class characters I have come to expect. I wondered which character they thought I was in my hideously bright pink cashmere sweater, dark jeans, and running shoes. I didn’t engage in conversation and instead discouraged would-be greeters by burying my nose in my blackberry until the instructor arrived.

The instructor, Ms. Howard glided in and began class. I listened to her opening preamble and thought, Why, Alicia, are you so god-damn judgmental?

Experience has taught me that the moment you find yourself judging someone else it’s invariably because you’re not owning up to something in yourself. It held true in memoir class. I realized that I want to tell my story but I am terrified of telling my story. I also was afraid that my story would somehow get lost in all the stories around the table. Would I be heard? And what if I am? I worried that telling my story meant laying it to rest. What happens after? I reasoned that once I put it down on paper I would then be really truly responsible for what happens next. A scary proposition.

While Ms. Howard is a delicate-featured, small-boned individual she is steely when it comes to the workshop process. She outlined her rules: we would each submit a piece to the group for critique. When reviewing the submitted pieces we were asked to read the piece two times, first for pleasure and the second with an eye for the positive.

I’ve taken a number of writing classes. Most of them have operated via the workshop method. Some of these classes were opportunities to display a participant’s utter lack of reading comprehension, others were tear the writer a new asshole sessions, but most operated under the guidelines of Ms. Howard’s class: first do no harm.

I have to admit that I struggled at first with the rules. I cringed at the idea that workshop was just going to be a love fest and I wouldn’t glean anything substantive from it. I found my first few critiques were very brief. When feedback was presented in class, I looked around and thought, How am I going to understand what people really think of my piece when we’re all forced to sit around and make nice? Are you saying anything good if you don’t say anything bad?

Still, I stuck to the rules and eventually, a funny thing happened, I started to see that every piece was actually good and the class discussion worthy of them. It finally clicked: How, really, do you judge someone’s story or their stage in the writing of it? When I made the connection, I stopped judging my own story so much and the words started tumbling out.

With every successive class, I felt my eyes and heart opening. I started to see the stories I had read in the eyes of the other students, or in the way they held their heads or shoulders. How they crossed their arms and leaned on the table or angled away from it. I begin to think, there’s so much pain in the world, and then I began to feel it. I wondered if it shouldn’t be required of everyone – to have to write your story. To face the truth as you know it.

It’s not always fun or easy, but I learned that those who are bravest – who do the work it requires to get close to their own experiences, are perhaps the finest writers. It’s so hard to do that very few people can actually do it. The rest of us? We’re learning how to write our stories. So when we’re ready and as we are ready – we can share them.