The second week of January is at a close, and if you’re following my 4 Simple Steps for a Happy January, you’ll have sketched out a life story or two by now.
Sometimes this task can be more daunting than it seems. The famous blank sheet of paper or blank screen is no joke to writers. How do you start filling in a life story, a sketch that will be meaningful to your life and to others? I have some ideas. Here are three tips for filling in that blank page.
1.) Use the journalist’s rule: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.
Start with the basics and fill in the details later.
Here’s an example:
Who: My debate team in high school.
What: Our school bus was chased down the highway by a crazed semi-truck driver.
When: The year was 1980.
Where: The Interstate between Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Why: The trucker was amped up on meth, and our bus had turned into a giant yellow dragon that he had to destroy.
The page is no longer blank. You’ve got the bones of your story.
2.) Set the story in a time and place.
Your life is tied to your culture and times, so try to provide details about what life was like in your story. My childhood involved a yearly television viewing of The Ten Commandments at Easter, because that was the only time it was shown. My children never experienced this. They never got up early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons because they can watch cartoons whenever they want. My father’s generation didn’t have television at all. They listened to “Little Orphan Annie” on the radio, like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. So if your story is about a crazy thing that happened to you at a disco in the 70s, then explain what a “disco” was and what it was like.
Write as though your audience has never experienced the world in which your story is set. No matter how mundane it seems to you, for your reader it might be a completely new experience.
3.) Engage the senses
Put the five senses into your sketch: Sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. In my example above, I will fill it out by describing the sight of the giant headlights looming behind the bus, the smell of the diesel exhaust as the bus driver stomped on the accelerator, the touch of the cold bar of the seat against my sweaty palm as I realized that we were in trouble, and the sound of the old bus engine screaming as the driver pushed it harder and harder. You can add in these details after you’ve written out your story, and every sense you engage will bring the story to life for your reader.
If you’re following the Four Simple Steps for a Happy January, I hope you’re having a satisfying and nourishing month of fresh air, simple food, and a reflection of your life that will be a treasure for you and for others.
And if you have a life sketch you’d like to share, would you consider sharing it here?