Eating an Elephant


Last week at the Celebration library, the Celebration writers group hosted an author named Patricia Charpentier, writer of the book “Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time”. She was there to talk about how to write one’s life story. As I blog a lot about my own life — and have a not-so-secret interest in perhaps writing fiction, if only my demons would stop getting in the way — I figured this would be relevant to my interests.

And it was. “The only way to do this wrong is to not do it at all,” she said. “It’s about capturing moments, not broad panoramic views. People always go too big; broad brushstrokes are too general and aren’t interesting enough. Don’t try to tell too large of a story. It’s like pointalism artwork: don’t think about the painting; think about the dots.”

That was useful to me. I think the reason I freeze up when I try to write is that I immediately go big, think epic, and how do you write the first sentence of an epic?

“Now I have a challenge for you,” she told the assembly (about fifteen people, I’d say). “I’ve provided each of you with paper and a pen. I want you to spend three minutes writing ‘Where I’m From’.”

I froze up. Three minutes later I had a blank piece of paper and a pile of thoughts about how I was going to write about this in my blog.

She continued to emphasize thinking small. “When writing your life’s story, think in terms of volumes. Write a portion now, a portion later. What’s the difference between memoirs and an autobiography? An autobiography is huge, whereas memoirs are a slice of life, a slice of time, a slice of a certain theme. Setting out to write a book is daunting. Do your writing in little pieces instead, then you can string them together to make a book out of them. Don’t set out to write a book. Just write stories.”

She had some examples of workbooks she’s used and recommended. “This one has questions to lead you through writing your story. Your writing doesn’t have to be profound or perfect; you can write it like a letter, it’s conversational. Or take a photograph and caption it, tell what’s going on in the photograph, where it was taken, a little more information about it. Write about your hobbies! Or, here’s someone who wrote his life’s story in the form of a graphic novel! Or autobiographical poetry! I’ve even seen someone write his life in lists, one list every day: something topical, or the price of gas, or what movies are playing. Over a long period of time that paints a picture of who he is and what’s important to him.”

Her top tips:

  • Keep a notebook with you always, because memories can come back at inconvenient times. (I use the notepad on my iPhone for this.)
  • Write now, organize later. She recommends a three-ring binder with tags to divide one’s life into decades or periods; then you don’t have to write chronologically (because that will wear you out before you get very far!). “Capture what’s on your mind and on your heart. Put some paper at the start of each section and make a list of everything that happened in it, and add to that list as you go along.”
  • Set goals, like “write ten minutes every day”. Or a specific amount of time, a specific number of words, or a specific number of pages every week. “I knew a woman who wrote for ten minutes every day and she just invited me to her book release party!”
  • Get the help you need to write. Join a writing community, because it’s difficult to start writing and to stick with it without the help of other people.

She touched briefly on the other requirements of writing. “Ninety to ninety-five percent of the effort comes after a book is written, edited, and published. Marketing it is the hard part.”

At the end of the session she invited questions. I asked how to write possibly unflattering things about friends and family when I might be sharing my writing with those very friends or family members later, and they might not like what I wrote. “Just tell them,” she replied, “this is my memory, this is my story, and I’m going to write it my way! If you don’t like it you can go write your own darn story!”

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