It doesn’t matter what you’re writing; fiction, memoir, poetry or even factual essay, for your piece to have a pulse you must find the heart of what you want to say.
I realized the importance of this at a workshop I attended a few years back on memoir. I asked the instructor how to find the real storyline, or theme, within my own story. He told me this:
“It doesn’t matter about the storyline; what matters is the question you seek to ask within the story.”
That question becomes the heart of the story.
I was quite happy about this, considering at the time I felt like my own story was quite run of the mill. I hadn’t traveled the world, survived a natural disaster, or been a hero in the wake of a tragedy. My life was ordinary.
Why then was I compelled to write about it?
A universal story
I think most of us struggle with how interesting our story is (or isn’t) at some point. We want to write about it because it may help others, help ourselves, or we feel we have an important message to share. But often the question arises, “is anyone really going to want to read this?”
The answer is yes. Whatever your experience, someone else—actually, many people—will be living through the same thing right now. Our stories are universal. We all struggle with the same issues. Sharing our experience of them is empowering both to the writer and the reader (tweet that!)
What are you really trying to say?
On my journey as a writing mentor I’ve met many a student who has a great story to tell but has no idea what the heart of that story is—we could also call that “heart” the theme, the central question, or the motivation.
As you explore the journey of your life through writing, you may find yourself in a writer’s fog, wondering what it all means and how to piece it together.
This is the normal process of putting together any piece of writing—exploring words and your heart to figure out what you really want to say. And much of the time the true heart doesn’t come until you’ve written around the issue for a while.
This is especially true with our own stories because we are so close to them. Often too close.
So we write all we can remember. Look for recurrent themes. We must seek the truth that lies just beneath the surface of the reality we think we know (tweet that!)
Discovering that all important question
It’s okay knowing that your story needs a key question, but what if you have no idea what that question is?
If you’re at the beginning of your story, turning over stones to see what’s underneath, you don’t need to worry about your question. You might not even know what it is until you’ve written every scene you can remember from your past. That’s okay.
As writers we must access the subconscious and find the emotional honesty of every scene we write. (tweet that!) Being vulnerable and writing the truth is essential to the process.
That may seem obvious, but actually being honest with ourselves—writing down what we truly feel about something or someone—can be like diving into an emotional wreck. Oftentimes we don’t want to face what lies beneath. But the sooner we do this though, the sooner we can find the heart of our piece and that all important question.
I asked the instructor—the one who told me about the all important question—what his own process was with his critically acclaimed memoir. He told me he didn’t set out to write about his personal life; he set out to write about tailoring his late father’s old suit. But in adjusting his father’s suit he unraveled his life.
“I didn’t realize you could figure out your life by sitting there and writing it.”
And his all important question: Could I have been the man my father needed in his life?
Writing from the heart
You could produce a piece of writing that is beautifully written and well constructed, one that follows every writer’s rule in the book, but unless you delve into your story with honesty, vulnerability and fear (yes, fear) you will never say what you really need to say. And, consequently, you won’t connect with your reader.
This means being willing to sit with the hard parts of your story—the replays you’d rather delete. It also means being honest with yourself and with your reader.
If you are in the process of writing your story, or hope to do so one day, write your answers to the following questions to help your draw closer to the truth you’d like to uncover.
- Why do I feel compelled to tell my story?
- What excites me about my story?
- What saddens me about my story?
- Which parts of my story am I afraid to explore?
Answering these questions won’t necessarily reveal your underlying question, or the theme of your story, but it will help you write to the places you may be avoiding. And these are the places where often we find the heart of what we want to say.