Briefly identify each of the following for the example below and then for your own autobiography:

1. your story’s final pivotal event–(climax).

            A turning point that could be the end of my story where something in me died so something could live or be born?

2.  the initial scene

            With what scene was I aware of the problem that would result in the final climax? 

3.         Your problem/desire

            What incited my problem, whether I was aware of it or not?  What did I want  in response to this?

 4.         Adversaries or obstacles

             Was there a person, people or factors that stood in the way of the achieving  my desire?

5.         Interim scenes  (use events/desires from Exercise 1C) 

List at least five other scenes or events that mirrored and intensified my problem in different ways?






6.         Realization

            What did you realize at the moment of transformation that made the

transformation possible?  Did something in your behavior change as a result of the realization?  

Here is an example. The conflict is over having a second child (it might be stated in mor general terms as: How do I keep the space I need to grow as an individual, yet stay close enough to my husband to keep love alive in our marriage?

1.    Richard told me when we were dating that he wanted a big family. I wanted him and that sounded romantic to me.

2.    We were both overjoyed when I delivered John.

3.    Richard was supportive when I went back to work because we needed the money.   

4.    I got a promotion.  Now I was making more than Richard.  It made me feel in control of my own life for the first time.  Richard was silent about it, except he made jokes about my being head of the family.

5.    John started begging to have a little brother or sister.  I knew Richard had been  encouraging him.  Richard reminded me that our plan was t have a big family.  I said it wasn’t the right time.

6.    I saw there was a chance to become director of the arts center and I knew I wanted this and I would be devastated if I didn’t get it.

7.    Richard joined a Christian church and started taking John on Sundays. I used the  time to catch up on work.  I felt their disapproval.

8.    Richard got a promotion at his job.  It made him more confident and fun at home.

9.    We took a long-planned trip to Europe without John. Unexpectedly it was like a second honeymoon.

10. The director of the arts center announced his resignation.

11. I discovered I was pregnant. I wept.

12. I knew if I told Richard I was pregnant he would never forgive me for not having the child.

13. I became irritable and started to have morning sickness, which I tried to hide.

14. Richard was more kind than ever, which made me feel guilt. I almost told him I was pregnant, but I lost my courage.

15. My friend took me to get an abortion.

16. If Richard ever suspected, he didn’t say anything.  But something had died between us. Trust.

17. I got the directorship.  I knew I had made the right choice. I loved my position and the power that came with it.  This was all my life, what I was meant to do.

18.  Richard and I began to live very busy and independent lives, and he never again  mentioned having another child.

19. Now so many years later when John himself has three children and Richard and I are comfortably retired, but not really close. I still believe I made the right choice for me, but I often wish I’d had the courage to tell Richard and we’d fought it out, instead of  each of us taking a solitary, silent road.

Once you have put these elements in order, turn to your own story and try to do the same.





Answer these questions for the other major character in your scene (from Exercise 2).  If you don’t know what the actual answer is, use your intuition and role playing ability and from what you do know project answers.


A.    Who is the love in this person’s life?  Think about the emotions this person has in a relationship with whom he or she is involved.  Limit your answer to a single choice. 


B.    What is this person fighting for?  What or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals.  Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be. 


C.    What of special significance has happened to this person the year before, or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year? 


D.    Describe the humor in this person’s life.  Often we alleviate the serious burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous (Hamlet has some hilarious lines).  Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something  he or she does that strikes others as humorous. 


E. What opposites exist in this person?  What fascinates us about other human beings are their inconsistencies (if there is love, there is bound to be hate too; if  there is a great need for someone or something, there is a resentment of that  need as well).  


F.    What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?  Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have?  What is it? 


G.   How does this person interact with others?  Particularly with regard to someone the subject should care about.  


H.   What is the source of this person’s importance? Reputation, money, power, title? Answer that for your subject.    


I.    With what place does the person have a close association?  It can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage, or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car.


J. What is intriguing about this person?  (When I think about my father I’m fascinated by how similar we are and how different we are.) 




by decade, 10 year increments or other intervals of time), or season–Time magazine, A Year in Province

around a key event as touchstone—(it’s like a slice of a sub sandwich)–On the Road,

embroidered thread or relationship —Fear of Flying, Bird by Bird                     

“bookends”—start in the present, go back, return to the present just before the end–Titanic.

a quilt-like pattern (such as interweaving past and present parallel situations)–Joy Luck Club


NINE ESSENTIAL STORY ELEMENTS (Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story)


            Beginning                     Initiating Incident          


                                                      Desire Line

            Middle                          Struggle with Adversary

                                                     Interim Pivotal Events

                                                     Precipitating Event

            Conclusion                  Crisis




Every autobiography is the telling of:

            1.         The story the world told me.

            2.         The story I told myself.

            3.         (The story about myself I’ve discovered through writing about it)




             Before we do the fleshing out of these scenes, there’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them further out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

            As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and my fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

            Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality.  The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  Find romance; it’s everybody’s secret dream.  Whenever you have two conflicting personality traits that cancel each other out, do both.  Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  It’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: We don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, we’re always being surprised by their doing something we didn’t expect.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like the early Marlon Brando and De Niro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

            As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.                                     


by Charlotte Nokola (Rosebud #11) 

            My mother had an old friend.  This in itself surprised me, since my mother seemed to me to have little history aside from taking me to parks and frying up bacon.  Her friend’s name was Hope West, which I knew from seeing it on the binding of one of the books in our house.  She was an anthropologist, and she and my mother had been in college together at Washington University.  In August of 1959, when I was seven, my family took a short trip to Chicago, to visit the Field Museum, to have lunch in the Marshall Field’s tearoom and to visit Hope West.  In the museum I was thrilled by displays of Kodiak bears, hunks of alabaster and chrysolite and dinosaur bones.  My other main concern on this trip was eating fried chicken as often as possible.

            It seemed a little dreary to visit one of my mother’s fiends in the middle of all of this, and the August heat was thick.  All of the old college friends I had met so far seemed to fall into one not very interesting category.  They had given up their jobs, married and had children.  They had “luncheon,” not lunch, with card parties once or twice a year, on card tables in their living rooms, were all very pleasant, and all seemed to be named Mary Helen or Helen Louise.  But this old friend had no children, I was told, was not married and worked as a writer.  Never had I met a woman like this.

            Further, she lived by herself in an apartment.  In my limited experience as a girl growing up outside St. Louis in a suburban house with a scrubby field behind it, an apartment in the city seemed to be a shrine to one’s own mind.  Especially this woman’s apartment, since she was the author of books.  As far as I knew, she and my mother hadn’t seen each other since college, and now it was more than twenty-five years later.

            So I knew, when we walked into her apartment at the end of a humid August afternoon, that some kind of moment had arrived for my mother.  Our family–my sister, my brother, my mother and father and myself–were much too large for Hope West’s apartment.  We were a bulky group that disturbed the streamlined serenity of this “modern” 1950s brick skyscraper.  My parents tried to make us look spotless and presentable, dabbing at our collars or the corners of our mouths, catching stray strands of hair.  But here was a seven-year-old with legs long like a young horse’s, with scabby knees from falling in blackberry patches.  A fourteen-year-old boy in wilted khaki pants, whose voice was changing and who was obsessed with meteorology.  And a sixteen-year-old girl with three or four crinoline petticoats and upswept blond hair so that she could look like Kim Novak in Picnic.

            My father stood slightly aside in shirt sleeves because of the heat and smoked a Pall Mall.  His social bearing was a bit confused because this woman was a scholar and a writer.  He didn’t seem to know whether to adopt the polite, deferential mode reserved for elderly maiden aunts or the bossy, commandeering mode used with business friends.  And there was my mother, a mother with white gloves, responsible for all of these children who were now either bumping into coffee tables, in danger of breaking the African artifacts or rudely staring out the window at Lake Michigan.  But I remember thinking, despite our gangliness that Hope West was certainly the one to be pitied.  She was “a woman without children”–a fate always presented in our family as a lifetime tragedy, a sadness to be avoided at any cost.

            Yet, Hope West did not look sad.  She did not look like any of the other women I had ever met, the mothers with comfortable tummies, generous upper arms, curly hair with a little breeze in it, wearing a print dress that puffed out at the waist.  Mothers who actually spent time crisscrossing the prongs of a fork on top of cookies for decoration.  Hope West was tall and wore a tubular green suit.  Her whole face gathered toward her hair, which was pulled up in a French twist, and seemed to collect what she was seeing and thinking.

            There were no cookies waiting for us on the coffee table.  One side of the living room held a wall of books, more than I had ever seen in anyone’s house.  Most important, most amazing to me, was that all of these books were hers.  On another side of the room was a huge picture window that overlooked Lake Michigan and the tops of buildings.  Not flowers and a swing set.  No one but Hope West enjoyed this view of Lake Michigan’s endless blue tabletop–hard to imagine, when the five of us crowded around the kitchen window at our house to look at rabbits or possums traveling through the backyard.  Her own view, and her own books–and some of them were undoubtedly hers, of her own writing.  How would it feel, I wondered, to have your own book on your own bookshelf: Her bookshelves, her room, her Lake Michigan.  I had never met a woman who didn’t share everything with everyone.  Who didn’t have to give up the best pork chop for the father or the children, who had more than a few private things in a bureau drawer that her children always raided.  Hope West seemed strange and monumental, standing straight and gray-eyed in her French twist, in front of her books and a long vista outside.

            Suddenly, the seemingly inevitable and unfortunate outlines of women’s destinies fell into relief for me.  You could be Hope West, alone, with your books, with no children.  Or you could be my mother with children, and no books of your own.  I felt that each of the old friends looked at the other and saw what she did not have.  It seemed that I had to choose sides, then and there.  Of course I thought, maybe in loyalty, that I would be like my mother, the one with children.  But I had always wanted to write a book, to hold a book of my own in my hand.  Did I have to choose?

            We took Hope West out to dinner with us.  I ate fried chicken again, and wondered what Hope West did for dinner, alone, on all those other nights, when we weren’t there to take her out.  My mother never did become Hope West, the writer of books, the mother of no children.  But she did bring her impressionable children across four hundred flat miles of Missouri and Illinois to visit her on an impossibly hot summer day in 1959.




The New Autobiography is a vibrantly democratic and deeply personal type of narrative writing that, while little understood, is becoming popular in our culture.  it is new because it is being written by new voices, not only those who represent the official and dominant view from the top.  It is new because it is written as self-discovery rather than self-promotion.  It is new because it beholds the individual’s life, not through Puritan mandates of moral edification, nor nineteenth-century credos of materialistic success, nor twentieth-century formulas of reductionist psychology, but through the cohesion of literature and myth. It is a way of saying, “I matter; this life I have lived has meaning!  And because I tell it from my perspective, because I frame it, it has the meaning I give it.”

            Like the New Journalism developed by Tom Wolfe and other magazine writers of the late 1960s, New Autobiography appropriates storytelling devices from the realistic novel.  It is often written in dramatic scenes with dialogue and interior monologues.  It uses novelistic devices to reach inner truths, not just the truth of facts.

            To shape an autobiographic story, in the process you recall your yearnings and dreams and their place in your destiny.  You are led away from perceiving your history as a series of accidents or calamities that wrongly formed you.  “We are less damaged by the traumas of childhood, James Hillman (The Soul’s Code) writes, “than by the traumatic way we remember childhood.” and  “We dull our lives by the way we conceive them.  We have stopped imagining them with any sort of romance, any fictional flair.”  Through the autobiographic process you restore the “romance” and the “fictional flair” of story to your own life, and you replace old stories of powerlessness with stories of consciousness and revelation in which you are the protagonist.  By applying story structure to your life you necessarily replace unconscious, unexamined scripts with consciously chosen stories…  Stories lead to a climax that is a point of transformation. 

            When I view myself as the heroine of my own story, I no longer complain about the conflicts in my life and in myself.  I am no longer a victim of circumstances…  I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas that contain hidden meaning that is up to me to discover.  I am the artist of my life who takes the raw materials given, no matter how bizarre, painful or disappointing and gives them shape and meaning.  I am within each scene and each chapter of my life, defining my character through the choices I make.  I am on my own side, rooting for myself, aching for myself, celebrating my sensual experiences, marveling in the exquisite subtlety of feeling in my life that novelists have made me aware of in their books. I am as engaged with the ongoing story in my life as is a reader who eagerly turns the page.

      In its simplest form a story is: what you wanted, how you struggled and what you realized out of that struggle.  A story is a series of interrelated events that you made happen and that happened to you, and the consequence.  The consequence is a change in you.  In an autobiographic story, change may occur in other characters, but it must also occur in you, because you are the protagonist.  The change may come form an event (you married, you got old), but it is also a moral change.  You had a realization, a shift in values or perception.  In other words, within the story you made a “character arc,” you had a change in character…  You trace this character arc in an autobiographic story by including your feelings, reactions to the events you experienced and your realizations.  You give the events of your life significance because of what they meant to you and how you changed from your engagement with them.  An autobiographic story is not just an account of events; it is the charting of your emotional, moral and psychological course, which gives meaning to those events.

                                          –Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story



             Sit in a comfortable chair with your pen and paper at hand, at a time and in a spot where you won’t be interrupted.  if it’s your office, turn off the phone.  Begin by relaxing your body and mind.  Systematically tighten and relax all your muscles, then take a deep breath, hold it–then release it completely, releasing all tension.  Close your eyes and take another deep breath.  Release the tension.  And again.  Allow your breathing to become deep and regular.  When you feel relaxed, allow that  special place to come to mind, where as a child you were most yourself.  Is it a wide open expanse or is it confined in some way?  Sense the size and strength of your body at the age you were when you enjoyed this place.  Are you moving, sitting, standing?  Are you alone or with another?

            Now begin to accumulate more information by asking yourself questions.  Each time you think “I can’t remember,” relax and invent an answer. Don’t worry if you are fantasizing rather than really remembering, as long as the answer feels plausible.

            Ask yourself and imagine: What do I see?  What do I feel on my skin?  What do I hear?  What do I smell?  What do I taste?  What is the light like here?  What do I want?  What do I think/ What feelings do I have?  In a minute you will write in the present tense what comes to you.  Allow your imagination to take over where memory stops as you write.  So far the scene you are describing is probably like a slide, full of detail but without movement.  Now add movement.  Turn it into a film.  See and feel yourself move a part of your body.  If you can, actually move as you would have then.  Ask yourself: And then what happens?  What do you do?  What do you think or say?  What changes?  Write whatever comes without censoring it.


(Option): On a large piece of paper draw the floor plan of the house or apartment you lived in when you were 7 years old, including the hallways, bathrooms, bedrooms, back and front yards.  After you have completed it with as much detail as you can, put it aside and find a quiet place to write a reverie about it.  Imagine yourself approaching this house the way you had to get there, from a sidewalk, driveway, up three steps to the door–however you entered.  Once inside, walk through and enter a room or place of your choice.

            Now imagine the details, furnish the room–where is the bed or table, is there a fireplace or cupboards, are there rugs or carpets on the floor?  Is it day or night?  Are there lamps or overhead lights?

            Place yourself inside this room and allow your writing to go where it will, exploring your feelings and thoughts at the age you were when you lived there, concentrating on your interaction with other people in the house.


image006THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL                                            John Lehman



You want to see how your life makes a story by setting it down.

You want the catharsis and self-forgiveness of an honest and complete confession.

You are in mid-life and want to gain from the life behind you the wisdom to mold the life still before you.

You are nearing the end of your life and wish to understand and share what it has meant.

You are a journalist, short story writer, screenwriter or novelist who wants to find your personal voice.

You want to find some eternal form of truth in your own contemporary life.

You are motivated by family love to leave your descendants knowledge of who you were and the life you lived.

You are motivated by desire to relieve the loneliness, fear or ignorance of others who may find themselves in a situation you’ve been through.

You have a whopper of a story to tell and you want to make a bundle by selling it.

You wish to write about your family as a way of ending destructive cycles and creating cohesion  based on truth.

You are a notable person who has been invited by a publisher to write your life story and don’t wish to rely on a ghostwriter.

You are a not-at-all famous person to whom life has given experiences too valuable to fade into oblivion.

You want to know what is true, true for you.

You never enjoyed writing in school, but you want to experience the pleasure of writing like the contemporary authors you enjoy reading.

You want to relive and relish the best years of your life.

You know that the only thing that death cannot destroy is memory, and you wish to preserve from forgetfulness those you have loved.

You can endure your life only by transforming it into a work of art.

Your way to cope with your troubles is to make yourself and others laugh at them.

You wish to celebrate the mystery and complexity of your life.

Your nature is to tell your story.




If we want to know about a person, we ask, `What is her story?’ `What is his story?’ For each of us is a story. Each of us is a biography, a singular narrative that is constructed and reconstructed continually through our senses, our actions and our words.

Biologically, psychologically we’re not much different from one another. To be individuals each of us must posses our own story—recollect (re-collect) our lives and act out their drama.

                         –Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat




PRE-WRITING. Making choices in form and content.


WRITING. Specific techniques for making what you write more interesting to readers—dialogue, introducing characters, descriptive detail—using scenes


EDITING. Clarifying, transitions, assuming ownership The first draft is always for you, future drafts direct the material at a specific audience



Part A: Stepping-stones are a list of the marker events that surface when you look over your life.  You simply put down a phrase or sentence for each significant pivotal event in your life as it comes to you.  Begin with “I was born” to get started, and then think of the next important turning point in your life, and the next, and the next, up to the present.  Your list can be any length, but try to keep it between fifteen and twenty items.  After you have finished writing your life stepping-stones, reread your list to get a sense of the continuity and movement of your life.


Part B:  This second exercise is as easy as the first one.  It is simply another list, this time of your desires as you moved through life.  Each item on this list will begin with “I wanted…”

Think back to your infancy.  What did you want? Your mother’s love and attention?  To explore a world without any limitations?  Then list the next major desire that motivated you on further.


Part C: The third part of this exercise is (on a new sheet of paper) to combine both lists by sensing which desires preceded which pivotal events.  Some desires may be followed by only one stepping stone event–for example, “I wanted to get married” by “I got married.”  Other desires may be followed by numerous events–for example, “I wanted to become an actor” might be followed by “I moved to New York,” “I enrolled in the Actor’s studio,” “I got fired from a play.” Now read your blended desires list and your list of stepping-stones as one merged list that tells a story.  What do you notice about the relationship between your desires and your actions?  As you sense a shape or direction in this combined list, play with it.  Are there missing desires or events that will create greater continuity?  Add them.  Are there clusters that seem to go together, making distinct seasons in your life, periods that were devoted to the same desire?  Delineate them.