Art of Writing: Our Wonderful, Story-Filled Pasts

by Charnell Peters

More than once this summer I was  engulfed by a crowd of five 9-year-old girls talking over each other to tell me how they got scars. I smiled and tried to listen to each girl, but they were all talking at once, their body language radiating excitement as they leaned over the table and wildly flung their hands in the air.

 I met these girls while interning for the Indiana Writers Center. I worked with students from ages 5 to 18 and helped them tell their stories, which we then compiled and published. We asked them about the best days of their lives, the worst days, their pets, their neighborhood, their family vacations, and their favorite teachers. And they told us everything from sorrow to triumph. They would beg us to write for them so we could get more down quicker. These students couldn’t wait to tell their stories.

 Like those students became ecstatic over their tales, we too can be excited to tell our stories or retell them in the form of fiction. We know our own experiences better than anyone else, and we can turn those into great stories.

 Tapping into our pasts can be as simple as asking a question. Anne Lamott tells how she gets students writing in her book, Bird By Bird: asking them about their school lunches. The students find that they have a plethora of stories about the evil lunch ladies, cafeteria war zones, and relegated detention tables. You can probably think of funny or frustrating stories from your cafeterias too. Seriously, have a conversation today about your experience with school lunches. And then write about it.

 When we reflect on our pasts, even simple occurrences like lunchtime, we find plenty of ideas for our writing. Flannery O’Conner said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.”

What are some little experiences you can use to create big characters and plots? What experiences got you through childhood?


Here are some questions you can answer in your writing today: 

  •         How did you learn how to ride a bike?
  •         What was your favorite game to play outdoors or indoors as a kid?
  •         What was the weirdest class you ever had to sit through?
  •         Describe your first school dance or date.
  •         Who was in your friend group in middle school? Where are they now?

 Not only can we get words on a page by answering these, but they can also contribute to the flesh and blood of our characters. Have they had similar experiences? What could they write about for the rest of their lives?

If you’re ever stuck while writing, think on your past: a class in grade school, a tragedy you’ve gone through, a family outing, an adventure with friends. Use your past. It’s the best tool we have as writers.

Charnell Peters is a junior Professional Writing major, and one of  this year’s Art of Writing co-moderators.

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