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Excavate the Story Gems from Your Own Experience
by Willma Willis Gore

“How do you dredge up incidents from your own past that you can turn into essays, fiction or articles?” Joan said. She is a new member of my workshop who was somewhat in awe of the fact that the article she had just written describing a previously forgotten event in her family had been dredged up from her memory when she heard another member’s little essay about a problem cat. “I remember our cat story well—but would never have recalled it were it not for hearing Virginia’s piece last time.”

We all have worthy incidents in our past that deserve setting to paper, but lie un-cataloged and un-labeled in our memories. Some of us jot an idea when it comes to us because of something we overhear in a crowd, experience in a dream, something we see on TV, an article in a magazine or newspaper or a question somebody asks us. (I keep paper and pens all over the house that can be grabbed in a moment. Among these are rubber-banded stacks of business cards and duplicates no longer current. The blank side is an excellent surface to jot a memory-jogging idea. These I keep in an old fashioned recipe box labeled simply “Ideas.”)

One of the best places I’ve found to get these memory-jogging ideas is in the writer workshops I lead. Joan’s recent experience is a prime example. Every person present who reads a piece regarding his/her own experience offers a window into a life the rest of us probably never encountered—but these can remind us of hidden memories from our own pasts.

Another member, Maureen, had told us at workshop about her excitement in moving into her new home and the challenge of landscaping it. She had read on the Home Forum Pages of the Christian Science Monitor that they are in the market for pieces on gardening and food. She put together a light-touch piece on “My Tumbleweed Farm,” and sold it to that editor. She also brought to the attention of the group a new opportunity on Home Forum pages: A short filler, up to 200 words, under the general title, “Over The Hedge” reports incidents from real life that are poignant or especially significant. Another member followed up on this and sold a short piece about finding raccoon footprints preserved in the wet concrete of a newly-poured porch—a happening of many years past. (These bring payment of $75) Send to living@csmonitor.com

One day in the grocery store I saw a man at the fresh vegetable display, trying to open a plastic sack. He blew on the arrows, shook the sack, rubbed it between his palms—all to no avail. I was amused by this and it reminded me of an exchange I’d had with a writer friend who explained how she gets these stubborn sacks to open. We had agreed that licking our germ-laden fingers to open the sack is a health hazard. “I spit on my fingers (discretely of course),” she said. This triggered my short essay “Lick, Spit Or Wipe” that became a humorous entry in my monthly Sassy Senior column for the local paper. (My solution is to wipe my fingers across freshly-sprayed lettuce or broccoli. Damp fingers open those sacks quickly.)

At meetings we heard chapters of his mystery novel from a graduate botanist. His story features a murderer who used a poisonous plant to kill his professional rival. This triggered my memory of my grandmother who refused to rear her family on the desert without their knowing the beauty of trees. She moved them to a fertile valley where trees abounded. I later wrote and sold a children’s book about the founding of Arbor Day.

I find that if I go over the list of workshop members I have known through 40 years of leading these, just their names remind me of their main subject matter and often bring fresh memory of something from my own past that I can write about. As a starter, you might make a list of all the people and relatives you know. Each is a distinct personality and each at one time or another has triggered something in your own experience that you could write about.

One member of my current workshop is always reminded of his own similar experience—and tells us about it. I discourage this as we try to confine our comments to words that will be helpful to the writer in improving what he has written. However, this also has its plus side in revealing additional experiences related to our own.

One member brought a report on his years as a missionary in Africa. At the next meeting, a much younger man who had visited the workshop the evening the ex-missionary read, brought an excellent account of his year in the Peace Corps. “Joe’s story reminded me that I, too, have past experiences I can to write about.”

Each of us has a wealth of subjects stored in memory: travel adventures (good and bad), brushes with crime, success or failure in our gardens or our kitchens, problems in our marriages, with our children, with our associates. The supply is endless. The markets are omnivorous. We just have to recognize the buried gems in our own lives.

© Copyright 2008, Willma Willis Gore

At age 87, Willma Gore is still writing daily (having sold her first article at age 19) with her most recent book Long Distance Grandparenting, released by an advance/royalty publisher in Nov. 2007. She welcomes visits to her blog and website: http://willmagore.com/blog/ www.willmagore.com

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