Stories from Your Life

Stories from Your Life: I specialize in helping people tell stories from their lives, and I especially enjoy working with older adults. I also write life stories/personal history from one-on-one interviews. I’m a member of the Association of Personal Historians, and abide by their Code of Ethics. I can coach you through the writing and editing of your stories, or help you organize photos, letters or documents to tell your story. I’m an active volunteer with the Veterans’ History Project at the Library of Congress, recording interviews with veterans free of charge. Please let me know if you are interested in any of these services. You can read an outline of my Writing A Life curriculum at the bottom of this page. A list of do-it-yourself writing prompts is here, too.

Audio recording: Some people prefer to tell their stories, rather than writing them. There is nothing like hearing someone speak their story in their own voice. I offer digital recordings with or without written transcription, and can provide CDs or mp3 files.

 Writing a Life
6 Part Curriculum

 “The beauty of memory rests in its talent for rendering detail, for paying homage to the senses, its capacity to love the particles of life, the richness and idiosyncrasy of our existence.”  – Patricia Hampl, Minnesota author

Welcome, welcome!  Reading stories – and writing them – is among the most ancient of human pleasures. When we tell a story, we’re participating in a tradition going back to the cave paintings of 25,000 years ago, and before that, to the earliest humans gathered around their fires, a warm circle on a cold night. “This is what happened and this is what I want you to know about it…”

We write to discover, to expose the unexposed, to see the story develop before our eyes in the same way a photograph comes to life.  We write knowing there will always be more to tell, more than we can hope to record, and we trust that our stories will serve to fill in the blanks for those who read them.

Ready? Set? Let’s write!
Judy Budreau

 Writing a Life

Part One                                    Beginning the Story: The One Thing You Most Want to Say

Part Two                                    People and Their Stuff: Cleaning Out the Pockets

Part Three                                 Everything Happens Somewhere: Placing Your Story

Part Four                                    Writing About What You Don’t Know

Part Five                                    “It was a dark and stormy night…” – Writing the Details

Part Six                                    Finishing the Story

General outline for each class: we’ll check in with each other, see if there’s a particular point you want to focus on. I’ll have some short passages for you to read, or I might read aloud to you something that pertains to our work that day. We’ll always do at least one writing exercise together, the results of which you can choose to share with us, or keep private. I’ll give you some ideas to keep you writing between classes. I hope you’ll schedule a half-hour meeting with me before or after a class so we can talk privately about your writing. I expect to enjoy our time together – I hope you do, too!

Writing is a scary business. When we do it well, we place a little bit of ourselves on the page, exposed and vulnerable for anyone who comes along to see, to poke at, to prod, to question. This is especially true when we are writing for family members. “That’s not the way it happened!” we fear they’ll say. Well, they may see things differently from where they stand. You can only tell the story you see from where you stand. Trust yourself to do that.

Unless you’re a pathological liar, in which case I can’t help you. But I’d still like to read your stories. So, a word about telling the truth: there are facts and then there is the truth. It’s easy to find facts like birth and death dates, who lived where when, etc. But the truth of the lives lived around those facts – including your own life – is the story you’re here to tell. Tell that truth with love and we’ll all be okay.

 Telling Your Story – Some Idea
If you’re writing about yourself, try this:
–  tell about a time you moved from one place to another. For instance, a childhood move to  another city or state, or from the farm to town, from home to college, from an apartment to your first house.

 –  write about someone or something you loved with all your heart at age 10 –  or 16, 38, 67.
–  where were you when (Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, 9-11) happened? What were you doing? When did you realize what the event meant?

–  write about a trip you took. Did it meet, or fail to meet your expectation? Why?

–  is there something you wanted but never got? What filled that space?

If you’re writing about someone else, try this:
–  who left for, came home from or stayed home from a war? What did this mean to family members?

–  did the person emigrate from another country? Another city or state? Why? What did they miss about their old home? What did they like and dislike about their new home?

–  think of an object you associate with this person, and describe it in detail. What does it say about the person?

–  what do you wonder about this person’s life? What would you like to ask if you could?

 Part One – Beginning the Story
Introductions and class overview
What do you hope for from the class?
What would you like to write about?
Anything else we should know?
You can’t be a writer and an editor at the same time. Be a writer first. Let’s talk about how and why.

Exercise part 1: my words
Exercise part 2: your words
Short break
Reading from MFK Fischer, As They Were
Another exercise: One Person, One Story at a Time
For next time:
If you like, bring a photo or an object related to what you want to write about.
Think of family sayings, regionalisms, etc. and make a list.
Decide: What’s the one thing you most want to say?

Part Two – People and Their Stuff: Cleaning Out the Pockets
Checking in, questions
How did the writing go this week?
Photo or object for today?  List of sayings?
“Madame Bovary – c’est moi!”   – Gustave Flaubert
Mirrors and windows
Exercise 1: One person, one story at a time
Exercise 2: What’s in his/her/your pocket?
Short break
The narrative arc, the story, the plot
Begin at Point A
Because of what happened, or what you did/felt/saw at Point B
You arrive at Point C.

Read short portion of “Out of Ohio”  – 3 actions of Cynthia give a small portrait of the kind of person she was – but also give us the narrative arc of the piece

You can talk about facts, certainly, but include your feelings and reflections, too:
“When we moved to New Jersey, I felt…”
“After we moved to New Jersey, I always wondered…”

Exercise 3: (If we have time. If not, I’ll tell you about it so you can do it at home.)
For next time:  Read Ian Frazier’s “Out of Ohio”

Think about the place where your story happens: your mother’s kitchen, the Midwest, the town where you grew up. What did you (or the person you’re writing about) absorb from that place? What didn’t you absorb?

Part Three – Everything Happens Somewhere: Placing Your Story
Checking in, questions
Reactions to “Out of Ohio”
The place where your story happens: What did you (or the person you’re writing about) absorb from that place? What wasn’t absorbed?
How did the writing go this week?
Scene & Summary & Musing
Reading: Andre Aciman excerpt from “In Search of Blue” in False Papers
Exercise 1: Making a Map
Short break
Reading: Michael Ondaatje excerpt from Running in the Family
Exercise: In a Place – what did you look for? Hope for? Did you find it?
For next time: Read “The Accidental Mother” by Katherine Kindred
Expand on place in your writing, if you like, according to the ideas above
If you’ve borrowed a book, or found one of your own, please think about sharing with us anything you found particularly useful!

Many of today’s readings and exercise ideas came from Sara Mansfield Taber’s forthcoming book, Writer’s Field Notebook. She is the author of Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf and Dusk on the Campos: A Journey in Patagonia

Part Four –  Writing About What You Don’t Know
Checking in, questions
Reactions to “Accidental Mother”
Thoughts on the place your story happens
How did the writing go this week?
Reading: Share work, if desired

“Writing involves seeing some people (suffer)… and finding meaning therein.”  – Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird

Exercise: Verb substitution
Short break
Exercise: “The blank page on which I read my mind.”  Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet
What is this about?
For next time: Read Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That”

Expand on what you learned in the place where your story happens – or what you learned after you left.

Part Five –  Writing About the Details
Checking in, questions
Reactions to “Goodbye to All That”
Thoughts on what you learned in the place where your story happens
How did the writing go this week?
Reading: Share work, if desired
Exercise: “It was a dark and stormy night…”  Edward Bulwer-Lytton vs. Elements of Style

Details should be “specific, definite and concrete” as opposed to abstract (liberty,contentment, happiness, candor, worry, patience)

Write a scene from this week: describe location, have people talk, tell us one thing that happens
Short break
Exercise: The rule of three

Food – cooking, eating, buying, growing, likes/dislikes, plates, pots, washing up

What did they carry?

How did they move?

How did they deal with the weather?

What would they have said about themselves?

How did they get news?

What objects were admired? Ideas?

For next time: Read E. B. White’s  essay, “Afternoon of an American Boy”
Try using the rule of three to add detail to your story.

Part Six –  Vision and Revision
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

 Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you better thoughts?
– William Stafford, from “You Reading This, Be Ready”

Checking in, questions
Reactions to “Afternoon of an American Boy”
Thoughts on seeing things in three
How did the writing go this week?
Reading: Share work, if desired
Exercise: Vision – What three things do you most want to say? Which will you start with? Which one story best illustrates that?
Exercise: Revision – A, B, C again    An outline of the incident, event or person and your reaction

Ideas to help you get to the end of your story:
Begin and end your story with the reason you’re writing it.

Write about one piece at a time – one year, or month, or day – the details of an incident, an event or trip, a person who influenced you – what you saw and heard and felt – what it meant to you then or what it means to you now.

Write about your homes in the order you lived in them – home can be a house or a town. Or begin or end with your favorite.

Write about your children or your siblings in the order in which they were born. Each person is a chapter.

Write about your jobs – or job titles – in the order you held them. Or begin with your favorite.

Divide your life into decades and write about each one. This can work well as an outline or timeline., especially if you have some photos to work with. What happened in each of your decades? What does it mean to you?

Tell the truth with love. Proceed with joy. And call me any time with questions or to let me know how it’s going!

Judy Budreau
judybudreau AT




2 thoughts on “Stories from Your Life

  1. I’ve been thinking about writing short stories as a form of memoir with titles like, The Day I Lost My Faith, The Naturalist in Me, and Pancakes in the Middle of the Night. I just wrote down the titles on a sticky note to refer to later. I will take a look at the books on writing that you have reviewed. Maybe I should take your workshop. I know I need some instruction and practice. JoAnn

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