Leaving Out What Isn’t a Story

“The best memoirs, I think, forge their own forms. The writer of any work, and particularly nonfiction work, must decide two crucial things: what to put in and what to leave out.”

–Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

Draw a line vertically down a sheet of paper. Write “What I’d Put In” on one side and “What I’d Leave Out” on the other.

If you were to write the story of your life today, what would you put in and what would you leave out? Spend equal time on both lists.

When you’ve completed your lists, go back and check off the things on your “what I’d put in” list that you’ve already written about. Circle the things you have yet to commit to paper. These are topics you’ll want to come back to.


  1. Fran Stekoll says

    Trying to segregate what I’d put in and what I’d leave out is difficult for me as my life is an open book.

    I’ve already written a book about my life called “Reflections” in which I’ve shared everything throughout my life. This was published in 1992. Everything since that time has been written and is ready to be shared.

    In the meantime I’ve sent the transitions of my life to my family and friends through face book and e-mails, and also in person and on the phone.

    I find it difficult to leave out anything. Is that wrong?

    In retrospect, I wonder if maybe that could be the reason I sometimes feel disappointed that others aren’t as forthcoming as I sharing themselves with me.

    • Kate Samuels says

      I think it is up to us as the storyteller to decide what is best left out and what tells our story! As far as the disappointment, I hear you- I think some of us writers are just sharing by nature, which makes us good writers and our stories those that people want to read.

    • Hazel says

      I feel much the way you do, like I am an open book, but, we all have secrets, even you and I. I think when get down to writing a book, you have to focus on some part of your life, or as I have done now, focus on particular subjects and use stories in your life to illustrate or share how/or if, they relate.

      If you have written a lot about yourself or things you have done and you still have them, start to go through them and see if you can organize them into some kind of pattern. Maybe it hasn’t always been as easy to read your “open book” as you thought (from the other person’s point of view). And, I have heard the phrase: “More than I wanted to know.” more than once. lol No judgements, just some thoughts.

      Thank you for sharing

    • Lee Xanthippe says

      I like the word segregate in the opening line–it seems to invoke emotion or strong feelings. I also enjoyed the like “I find it difficult to leave out anything. Is that wrong?” Yet this is a concise piece–not overly talky at all. I was also drawn in by the end emotion of disappointment at others lack of forthcomingness–it was an interesting balance or counterpoint to the first emotions…thanks!

    • says

      Fran, I think what we leave in and leave out has a lot to do with our purpose in writing and who the writing is intended for. If it’s a record of our lives for family–I think we have a lot more latitude to include everything we want to share. But if we want to attract an audience of people beyond those who already know and love us, we have a responsibility to them to shape a story–to mold our lives into a narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end. Most people do this by choosing a section of their life of a theme and they include everything that pertains to that theme. This might mean emphasizing one thing and de-emphasizing something else. I always like to ask writers, “What’s in the foreground of your story? What’s in the background?” If everything has equal weight (and equal time on the page), the reader doesn’t know what’s important and what matters. What you want to include is what best tells the story and shows the character’s journey (in the case of memoir, the character is you).

    • Karla says

      I think it’s a challenging question, to ask if it’s wrong to leave out anything. My guess is that you have not purposely kept secrets, but some of what gets “left out” in at least some stories is what the writer thinks is unimportant. What did you eat for breakfast on December 5, 2010? What was the date of your last menstrual period? Who was your unrequited first crush and who was your last?

      Your piece was very thought provoking and your question about what gets left out reminds me of the quote I received today in my email, my weekly Pema Chodron. Now I’m not sure she was talking about creative writing here, but this is what she said:

      “Write less; don’t try to capture it all on paper. Sometimes writing, instead of being a fresh take, is like trying to catch something and nail it down. This capturing blinds us, and there’s no fresh outlook, no wide-open eyes, no curiosity. When we are not trying to capture anything we become like a child of illusion.”

  2. Lee Xanthippe says

    I am working on something like a memoir and think to quickly decide what gets left out is not helpful to me. The act of writing clarifies the project, but also I usually have a tendency to want to write about everything and from every direction. In this project, I am keeping focused on one lens or aspect of my life–which of course relates to each other aspect, but I have a focus and that focus seems to dictate what goes in and what doesn’t.

    I am trying to trust what seems like a natural but time consuming process–to write long and then figure things out–where everything goes. I want an enjoyable process overall and the process itself changes me and thrills me–and is full of discovery left and right. I am being vague again, I know. I have opened the topic up to a community that might be able to help me deepen my understandings and they have come through. It takes daring–but that is much of what my book is or will be about.
    Happy Tuesday…!
    So for now–everything’s in, until it misbehaves ; )

    • Kate Samuels says

      I love your last line: “It takes daring–but that is much of what my book is or will be about. So for now- everything’s in, until it misbehaves” This is such an important part of the creative process- to be daring enough to put everything in and then discard the pieces that don’t tell the story we want to tell. :) Thanks for the reminder!

    • Hazel says

      Thank you for sharing. I feel much the way you do and don’t want to get sidetracked by making the list at this time. But, I do think this is a good process if you used it at the beginning of a book you wanted to write but that hasn’t been worked on for a long time yet.

      “It takes daring” to write any book about ones self. Although a writer does put much of themselves in any book they write.
      “Happy Tuesday . . . ” back at’cha.

    • says

      Lee, I think what most beginning writers don’t realize is that for every hundred pages they write and rewrite–only 10 or 20% of those pages–if any–may end up in the finished book. So much of early writing is exploration and it’s not uncommon to be several years into a project and to realize that the whole first 100 pages have to be hacked off or saved for another book. We realize we started in the wrong place or that we missed the climax entirely, or that this isn’t really the story we wanted to tell after all—but we had to write all of those pages to get to our real material.

      • Lee Xanthippe says

        I think the process is the real material as much as the product is and likely more so, although the product is part of the process.

        I guess, I’ve heard of what you are saying and it has always seemed discouraging to me that so much gets tossed or that there is all that work for so little…and maybe this is just another way of looking at the same thing, but after doing painful writing processes, I want to create writing processes for myself that are enjoyable–

        to turn a phrase above, I don’t want to find I missed the climax at all, I want to work in processes where there are climaxes all over the place. And yes in the end, one has to decide where the climax in the book goes–but I want to strive to find the pleasure in each step even if I know there won’t really be pleasure in each step–or do I just need to have a bigger imagination?

        Who says there cannot be pleasure in each step of a project (at least in the beginnings)? (Perhaps because I find pleasure easy usually, this may not be an impossible task).

        Thanks much for the writing thoughts! And what you’ve learned from experience!

        I realize, part of this may be semantic, or the effect of words on me. I think wherever I start is the right place to start because it gets me started. If I chose a new and better beginning, it does not mean to me that the first one was wrong, just that found something better. Yes, likely a different way of saying the same thing.

        (Perhaps because I can get negative in writing processes–”this is wrong” or “I wasted all that time for one sentence”, I choose words like, “Ooh, this is even better” and “Wow, look at all the practice I’ve gotten. Look at how I’m honing my ear.” And “Ooh, I’m glad I did all that work to get to this one perfect sentence–yes!”

    • Sheila McGinley says

      I like the different lens you used, and I realized there was much in it that is how I feel. I like the “everything is in until it misbehavies”, but I have a different problem: I like a lot of what misbehaves, and sometimes if something makes its way to the “I don’t dare” column, I am driven to write about it! Although I always think that I won’t dare use it.
      I too have learned a lot about the difference between telling your story and telling a story that others can relate to, others can enjoy. It is a challenge but it is what makes me want to write!!

      • Lee Xanthippe says

        Thanks for the feedback–I too like the challenge…

        I’ve been in writing groups where they tell you to go where the energy is or to go where you feel the resistance (I’d add, if you feel comfortable enough or safe enough to).

        I’m imagining now a piece “I don’t dare” about that column. Now you’ve made me curious about what misbehaves and what and why something would end up in the “I don’t dare” category that had such energy. Hmm…

        And thanks!

  3. Hazel says

    Like Lee, “I am working on something like a memoir” and am focused on my outline and I do not want to go all over the place with writing everything and throwing out parts; I am in that process now. It is hard to make those decisions. That is why I have a writing partner with whom I exchange serious writing to help me edit out the things that don’t fit and to add in more where it is a bit shallow. This “writing partners” is a wonderful process as outlined in the book: Naked Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara, pages 90-95. I recommend it to all beginning writers, at least as a way to have some bit of editing and feedback, before you send it off to a “real” editor who will charge you a bunch to read it. I am sure I will have to make more changes once it gets to an editor but it is remarkably helpful in the beginnings of this book I am writing.

    I could have included my whole life in this book but I don’t have that much time left, I’m sure. So I have elected to present the parts of my life as they relate to the subjects of my letters to a granddaughter who would be around 35 years old, had she lived longer than four months. I wrote 55,000 words before I had the concept of letters so I have lots of material from which to construct the letters. I will keep trudging along, my headlamp focused on the path lest I find myself in the brambles once again. I do hate it when that happens!

    • Lee Xanthippe says

      Ooh, I like the concept of writing partners and the title of that book–Writing Drunk and Naked! Oh, and the thought of writing letters to a grandchild who would be 35 is intriguing and made me curious. I like the writing about writing–thanks!

    • says

      You can reveal everything you need to about your life by telling a portion of it…you don’t need everything from A to Z, or from birth to the present. What people want to read is about the quest the protagonist is on and her character can be revealed just as easily by deeply following one thread in her life or the resolution of one challenge.

      I’m glad you’re making good use of a writing partner. When it works well and is a truly equal collaboration, it’s priceless.

    • Karla says

      Neat ideas in this piece– I like the way you conceptualize your memoirs as letters to a granddaughter who was lost early. I remember the writing partners idea from Lara’s book (love that book, I think Laura mentioned it at my first Commonweal as well as the second) and I am so happy it has worked for you. Very brave of you to be willing to open up your writing and yourself in this way. Finally, I love that image of you with the lamp on your head, the wilderness (or bramble) all around you, finding your path.

    • Sheila McGinley says

      I too liked the partner idea, and i loved the idea of your letters as a centrifugal point! You go, writer!!

    • Hazel says

      Thank you all for your comments.

      I am so appreciative of my writing partner, she is very helpful, knowledgeable, and fun to work with. It is a joy to see that she has sent me something she has just written in my e-mail inbox. My recommendation? Try it; you’ll like it.

  4. Janet Leary says


    Los Angeles 1979. My brother Jimmy walked out the front door of the house. His brand new blue striped shirt and black jeans still hung in the closet. He also left his red and black plaid shirt on the back of his desk chair. CD’s and video games strewn across the unmade bed. New running shoes near the door.

    It was July. I didn’t know he had left. I didn’t live at home then. I’d just returned from Oregon where I’d graduated from U of O. That day I was at Santa Monica beach. It was warm, bright, and loaded with sun soakers and fun seekers. I spent the whole time lying face down, head pushed deep into my arm, waves of tears with my whole body rolling with despair.

    “Something horrible is happening but I don’t know what it is.” A dog brushed by me, I buried my head further. “Something horrible is happening but I don’t know what it is.” Kept repeating in my head.

    I had gone through a relationship breakup six months earlier but this well water was too deep to be about that.

    Looking for Jimmy became a family obsession. I remember one time, I was driving to work at a law firm on Wilshire Boulevard, in Westwood. I saw this tall, thin, blond Jimmy look-alike walking in the opposite direction on the sidewalk. Like a mother bird honing in on a falling chick, I cut across two of the three lanes of Wilshire, honking, waving, and pleading forgiveness to other drivers. I drove up onto the sidewalk and jumped out of my car. The young man was oblivious as I chased after him. I touched his elbow, and he turned to look at me. I said, “Jimmy?”

    “It’s a riot. It’s a riot” He said, making no sense. He didn’t look like Jimmy after all.

    In May 1980, it was hot when I got home to my small east Hollywood apartment. Attached to the door was a note in all caps, “BEEN TRYING TO REACH YOU. CALL ME AS SOON AS YOU GET THIS. DAD”

    The phone rang more than four times, Rita (dad’s second wife) answered, no “HI”, just, “I’ll get your dad.” She said as usual.

    “Ah, Honey, I wish you could come out here.”
    “Are you alone?”
    “I wish you weren’t alone.”
    “They found Jimmy’s. He’s dead.”
    Dad said.

    Over two years later, I could not stand to see Jimmy’s room exactly how he had left it. So while mom was out shopping I started to box things up. First, I put on his red and black plaid shirt which I didn’t take off for another year. Mom would say, “That was Jimmy’s favorite shirt. It looks good with your blond hair. I’d smile a little and say, “DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID”, quoting the title of a recent movie.


    Have you ever loved someone in your heart and soul, beyond the moon and stars? Talking to them brought you to the places where you were the most real or to where you were the most wounded? Have you ever known someone who reached you where you had always wanted someone to see you and know you? Where in their presence you opened up and shared the things that were probably best only known between yourself and God, Higher Power, Whatever? Have you ever talked with someone whose musings resonated profoundly with you?
    That was Jack………..ah, I think.

    He lived as a wounded, unaware soul. These are the hardest teachers, so hard there’s a time to retreat. I stayed as long as I could.

    The most I can say is, I came away from knowing Jack realizing I never really knew him at all. He wore so many masks that the real person was living deep inside. So did I really love anyone? I am still working on this one.


      • Janet says

        Thank you, Laura, I’ve approached this memory a few times. It touches off many other events/relationships/stories. Your comments here and to other writers of this prompt are really helpful. Much appreciated. Janet

    • Karla says

      I really enjoyed the gripping and fast-paced way you told the story of Jimmy, or introduced it. I also found Jack very intriguing, as was your choice to leave him out. I say, more, more more! Thanks for sharing this.

    • Sheila McGinley says

      Jimmy. Definitely, definitely in. Jack: you need to tell more about him. Maybe in, maybe out. And then, there is you with Jack. In. (Just my totally unknowledgable opinion)

    • Hazel says

      Thank you for this story but I wanted to know more . . . bring it on. Tell me more the circumstances around Jimmy’s leaving. And Jack, show me some of those masks.

      The story has begun . . . where will it end?

  5. Wendy says

    The one thing that kept on the list is the time I spent with horses as a child. I can still remember these horses’ names and their personalities. They were incredibly precious to me. I am excited right now in my life that I have met a colleague from my entrepreneur networking group who owns a stable. I am hoping to get reacquainted with horses again. So I would like to write about horses someday, but I don’t think that can take up a whole memoir!

    In formulating the list, I really saw how much of it was trauma, and it often involved people in the family or close to the family or people who had felt like family. I once wrote a piece that was published that included positive references to my brother’s children. That changed the connection between me and his family ever since, and I stopped writing for a long time afterward. I think if I wrote about these things in my life again, I would probably write them under pseudonym and most likely as fiction.

    Writing the list made me think of how much I feel I have been shaped by trauma, how much it feels like they’re part of my identity. What would it feel like to think of myself as someone who loves music or who likes to commune with animals? What would it be like if I could just move on?

    I am interested though in writing about people who have been wounded and how they figure out what to do, how they compensate, how to some people it may look crazy at times, but that there is a rhyme and a reason to their behavior. I am interested in that particular kind of poetry.

    • Lee Xanthippe says

      I like how this piece started with horses and childhood, and how the piece moved gently from thing to thing–both a light touch but touching on the heavy “trauma”. I was intrigued by, “What would it feel like to think of myself as someone who loves music or who likes to commune with animals? What would it be like if I could just move on?”
      I also got pulled in by that last paragraph–the things that might “look crazy at times” and “that particular kind of poetry” also gave levity to the heavy topics…thanks!

    • says

      Wendy, I think it’s a wonderful challenge you’re setting for yourself in your writing–how to reframe the lens through which you view your life. I know if I’d written a memoir in my late twenties or thirties, abuse and trauma would have been front and center (well, I did write the Courage to Heal then–and although it wasn’t memoir, all the pieces about me were about that exact subject). If were to write a memoir today, thirty years later, trauma would be far in the background and I would only include it if it were to shed light on something else more relevant to my life now. It would be in the fabric of the wallpaper, not on the center of the dining room table, and it would get very little word count.

      While many people healing from trauma want to write an account of their trauma, and doing so can be an important part of their healing process, there have been so many decades of abuse-related memoirs, that in the commercial world at least, it’s far easier to get something published if abuse is part of a much more complex picture.

    • Karla says

      I thought your “what would it be like . . ” question– I suppose my version of that would be, “when I am gonna get over it?”

      There are days when I think that I am still shaped by the traumas of my childhood to an exquisite degree, and days where I feel I have completely moved on, and probably every place in between. At least for me, there hasn’t been a magical line I’ve crossed where I’ve stopped being a survivor and started being just me. I do know, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said it here before, because I say it all the time IRL — there was a time when I stopped feeling like the book of my life was just me the survivor, that trauma and their ever-evolving resolution was just a page in the book of my life. I can look at it but don’t have to obsess over it, or I can look past it but not avoid it.

      Your idea in your last paragraph reminds me of the book, “Flipside”, which focuses on resilient people who found the “silver lining” in whatever it was that challenged them. I really like the way you ended this piece, “that particular kind of poetry.”

      • Penelope Gibbs says

        I love what you said about continuing to be the survivor in your writing. I can really relate to that. It is such a limiting feeling, being suffocated by the trials and tribulations that seem to dictate your life. Survival is great, but beyond survival is life and living it. I am not simply the events that happen in my life, or a result of them. My response to those things is more of a reflection of who I am.

    • Sheila McGinley says

      The idea of wondering what you would be like without the trauma: I totally relate. Your writing here grabbed me.

    • Hazel says

      I was impressed by your wanting to know how, “they figure out what to do, how they compensate,” in order to find that out, I believe we write our own stories and read the stories of others.

      This was very interesting and I enjoyed the reading. Thank you for sharing with us. “I am interested in that particular kind of poetry.”

  6. Penelope says

    I find that in any writing I do, I need to read and re-read my work, in order to feel like it is worth submitting. Even after I submit a piece, I find things I should have edited or added to support it. Is there ever enough editing that one can do?… I don’t remember what famous author said it, or the exact words, but it was stated that if a piece is not worth reading over and over again, it is not worth writing… That gives me a lot of food for thought in how I want to proceed on my writing path. I am writing for myself as much as I write for others to enjoy. If I am bored with my own writing, then it most likely will bore others.

    Like others have expressed here, I don’t think that you can just make a list of all the things on one side and the other in one quick sweep. There is probably a time and place for each one, in some way. I think it is more how you say it and why. If it is relevant in your life, it might be relevant in someone else’s life. But a writer has the responsibility to entertain and flow in a meaningful way if they are to publish their work. It seems like a lot of writers focus on what is popular, in vogue with today’s society. What seems to have been a lot of blood, guts, gore and sex in publications has, for some strange reason, become the norm. Hopefully people will grow tired of such nonsense and demand deeper studies.

    • Lee Xanthippe says

      “Hopefully people will grow tired of such nonsense and demand deeper studies.”–Well put!
      I enjoyed the explorations of the re-reading and the editing process and connecting that to a reader re-reading as well–interesting.
      “But a writer has the responsibility to entertain and flow in a meaningful way”–is also a really great way to capture the multiple purposes of writing–thank you!

    • says

      In my writing life, Penelope, in terms of publishing, I’ve always found it very difficult to try to anticipate what the public will want at any given time. Ultimately, I think we all have to write what’s in our heart and the stories that are ours to tell. Sometimes people get lucky (in terms of commercial success) by latching on to a current trend or starting one, but often someone sits down to write a vampire book because vampire books are hot, but by the time there book is ready, the public, and publishers have moved on claiming, “Been there, done that.”

    • Hazel says

      I like these few lines: “There is probably a time and place for each one, in some way. I think it is more how you say it and why. If it is relevant in your life, it might be relevant in someone else’s life. But a writer has the responsibility to entertain and flow in a meaningful way if they are to publish their work. ” I believe you have captured the essence of what writing is all about.

      Thank you for sharing this thoughtful response to the prompt.

  7. Karla says

    What to Put In My Memoir

    My memoir-in-progress isn’t a book about my life. It is a memoir of my work as a battered women’s self defense expert (I help defend battered women who have killed their abusive partners/spouses). As I think about what I’ve written so far, I think there are three voices that constitute the stuff that is “put into” this project.

    The first voice, the most important one, is the storyteller. If this one doesn’t adequately communicate the stories that have been entrusted to me (or maybe I’ve coopted them), then the other voices fail. The storyteller tiptoes as close as she can, with as must openness and honesty that she has, to what happened when the batterer was killed. The story of the killing cannot be disconnected from the relationship that it grew from. Sometimes the story of the killing precedes the story of the abusive relationship, and sometimes it makes sense to put it afterwards. There are also times when the story of the abusive relationship is complex, nuanced by the battered woman’s experience of other interpersonal violence, including abuse in childhood, prior dating or relationship violence, sexual assaults in adulthood.

    Whose stories to tell? This has probably been among the easiest of decisions that I have made, because they are the ones that have involved the most paradoxical or complicated issues, the light bulb moments that taught me something specific and unique about how domestic violence changes people or what self defense in a gendered context looks like. And this selection of the stories I have chosen to tell is my second voice, the one of me as an expert, or the guide to the stories that are usually so brutal and hard to hear that I apologize to my writing group before I read an excerpt to them. My voice as the expert who narrates has enough distance from the story—or so I’m aiming for—to help the reader wade through what happened. Some emotional distance naturally reveals itself as my expert voice normalizes the events of the story within a collective narrative of battered women who kill. I don’t want to traumatize or terrorize my readers in the normal course of rendering these stories, so I sprinkle in some general lessons about domestic violence or offer anecdotes from other cases that offer a version of what I’m highlighting. In this expert voice, I’m also telling the story of the person who has been transformed by doing this work. Most days, I feel so acclimated to the culture of domestic violence that the counter-intuitive behavior and jumbled up emotional reactions of my clients fails to distract me.

    My third voice is the story of me the person, navigating through doing this work within institutions that are, frankly, run with a big dollop of insanity and very little attention paid to basic human dignity. Some of what I have observed directly, the stories my clients have told, and the events that have happened along the way, suggest that who the bad guys and the good guys are can easily get flipped on its head. At the same time—although I don’t believe I’ve ever been a fan of either-or thinking—this work has been a enormous lesson that you can’t generalize, stereotype, or otherwise confirm your biases that “those people” are one way or the other. So I have marveled at the ingenuity of inmates to collaborate together to cook entire Thanksgiving meals using plasticware, their heating vents, and hot water in their sinks—or how the young inmates in the men’s pod distract the young female C.O. so that someone can run out of the dayroom, down the hall, and pass a note under the door of the women’s dayroom. I have shaken my head at a client who missed her certificate program graduation because she picked a fight with another inmate over what to watch on TV. I have despaired over the correctional officer (C.O). who routinely bought sexual favors from women inmates by giving them an Arby’s sandwich. And I teared up when I was told that after my client tamed the two feral cats who squeezed under the fence of the outdoor yard, the C.O.’s took up a collection, and paid for the cats to be neutered. They take them each year for their annual shots, and pay for it themselves.

    I am also leaving out the stories of my personal life. In this work-based story, I am “born” as a graduate student who came to this work more accidentally than intentionally. I am also leaving out the funny stories about my family and friends, in their reactions to my work, to living and being with someone who is all wrapped up in changing the world. I’m leaving out the confused day care workers who didn’t understand my 2 year old’s tears that his Mom was leaving to “go to jail again.” Same for my husband’s colleague, at a cocktail party, who leaned close to me said, “Just met your 3 year old. He told me a great story about how Donna shot her husband in the head.”

    Also excised from my writing plans are the strangers that I’ve met casually, who make intriguing commentary when I answer their questions about what I do. I no longer pay much attention to the rare snarky comments, they are so far outnumbered by people who have connected to me by telling me their own stories, and those from their loved ones. They’ve shown me how they have healed, how they’ve moved on, and how much the battered women’s movement has meant to them.

    I once thought that working in the legal profession typically involved a sort of hazing from other lawyers, judges, or at least the general public. That hasn’t been my experience. I have been doused in love and set aglow in the shadow of respect. I am so lucky.

    • Hazel says

      I’m with Laura! Waiting for the book.

      I am so glad that someone like you with so much compassion has elected to do the work you do. It is so difficult.

      You, my friend, are very strong. Thank you for what you do.

    • Penelope Gibbs says

      My guess is that when you have so many stories to choose from it must be difficult to choose the direction you want to take. I always try to look for patterns in similar circumstance, wondering if I am reading too much into it, or not enough. It seems like you are leaving out quite a bit, getting down to what you really want to say. It is hard to get to the point sometimes, with overwhelming details supporting your claim.
      Good luck on finishing. It sounds like a wonderful book.

  8. Sheila McGinley says

    I like the idea of the lists. I kind of imagine everything hanging from a clothesline on little index cards, and I can move them around. (That is what Jim Houston did and it has stayed in my mind for many years.) But I don’t feel constrained by my lists. Things might move back and forth at any moment.

    What is on my “not” list: stories about my family that are negative. Stories about my daughter that she does not want told. Those are, at least at this point, non-negotiable, unless they go into the story in some way that will not hurt those people or shame them. On the “in” list: well, I would say everything, but that is not true. There are things that are boring about my life that wouldn’t make a good story. There are things that take me off into little cul de sacs and people no longer can follow me. And, the big one: there are the things that I have done that are shameful, stupid, things I don’t believe I would ever do. Perhaps those last will find a way in. Right now, I circle them and squint at their ashes, trying to judge whether a buried land mine still rests under that seemingly burnt out fire, or whether an ethics or emotional criminal investigator will guess I am the culprit and “out” me to the world.

    I am going to make this list tomorrow. As part of my Thanksgiving.

    • says

      Sheila, I recommend that you write all the stories and then decide which are just for your private process of writing and which are meant for a public eye. You can also just focus on what you know you want to include, but you may find that one or two of the forbidden stories keeping pressing up inside you, begging or insisting that you include them.

      • Sheila McGinley says

        Yes, Laura, that is basically what I have ended up doing, even when I intend not to! And I definitely have found that the forbidden will drive me crazy until I write it!

    • Hazel says

      The lists are easy, it’s the decisions that are hard. Sometimes it is the negative stories about your family or yourself that make the best stories and if always done from your point of view can be defended as just that. It is after all “YOUR STORY.”

    • Lee Xanthippe says

      I enjoyed this piece of write–was drawn in from “I like the idea of the lists” and the image of the clothesline with the index cards. And then the “not” and “in” lists that follow. “the shameful, stupid things” and the whole assortment that range from family and branch out…and the powerful ending, “I circle them and squint at the ashes” and the fear of outing in the end of the piece. Well said.

      (I found as a reader that I wanted this person to write all the stories–even the boring ones that somehow I imagine wouldn’t be boring!)

      Thanks for the lists!

  9. MaryL says

    I wrote a memoir a few years ago which was published. There were several focal points … my spiritual development, my family experiences, my dis-connection from organized religion.

    There will be another book …. contents to be disclosed at the proper time.

  10. Terry Gibson says

    As I write this today, December 6th, 2013, I can share the following about my story.

    It is a true and accurate depiction of my life as I experienced it and came to understand it over the years. It is not a challenge of anyone’s perceptions. Life taught me long ago that people often differ in their opinions of the same events. This is especially true when we decide to filter each factor or situation through our own chosen lens.

    My goal in writing this book is not to cause harm. I do not want revenge; none could ever exist that would minimally satisfy the pain I feel. I do not want to hurt anyone; inflicting pain on people would give me no solace either. Yes, I am inside this skin. However, if this were the tale of another girl’s life, I would still be outraged, passionate enough about the injustices, and the long, scree-laden road to triumph, that I would support her in whatever she needed from me.

    At the moment, that girl is me. Talking about myself is something I hate doing. However, I do that here because I must lend you my confusion, awkwardness, shame, sadness, love, despair, ecstasy, hope and drive. Wrapping each reader in the convoluted layers of my young life, is the only way to tell this story. It is the only means I have to fulfill my life’s pilgrimage.

    This is not a easy job for me. The only way I can do it at all is to envision a much younger version of myself. A bright-eyed, eager little girl whose life began with a pristine, shiny slate. Today, as I trek this steep incline, I bestow upon her an abundance of attention, love, understanding, and compassion, her birthright from her very first howl in the delivery room. And we, together, restore her laughter and sense of fun.

  11. Sangeeta S. says

    I’d put in love, caring, kindness and consideration. I’d put in respect, adherence and dharma. I’d slash the conditional bullsh** and tell everyone I know that if someone has told you you are “less than” then they are wrong (and that is most likely the way they actually feel and perhaps are..) I’d tell them that God made them spectacular for a reason and that anyone who tries to steal that away from them much not have much of their own. I’d tell them that they can be whole despite all of the theft of soul that still occurs. I’d tell them to take all the time they need to reclaim what was taken and know that you are worthy of all you are. I’d tell them that to rise to yourself amidst the kindness of perfect strangers (as well as good friends) is about a thousand times better than falling to ashes with dysfunctional family. I’d tell them to hold tight, that winter is here but spring is soon to come. I’d tell them that you have done a lot and you have made great strides. I’d tell them that you are not falling back but discovering who you are. I’d tell them that it is a scary process and perhaps even scarier than what has already happened. I’d tell them not to be afraid of yourself.

    I’d put in the future me.

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