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.


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