Life Stories

“Every life is a story. Telling the story and seeing our life as story are part of the creative process. Under the best of circumstances, the process of writing allows us to give ourselves over to the realm of the imagination, trusting that within in, we act in the best interest of self. Sometimes the simple willingness to explore story asserts the reality of the individual, and then the creative process of finding and telling the story becomes part of the way we construct a life. Our life becomes a story that we are always in the process of discovering and also fashioning, a story in which we both follow and lead.”

–Deana Metzger, Writing for Your Life

This exercise, adapted from Deena Metzger’s Writing For Your Life, is a wonderful way to remember and catalogue your life stories. When you think that your life is insignificant or that you have nothing worthwhile to say, these lists can provide you with a rich catalogue of stories that you can write and revisit, time and time again.

Put each of these headings at the top of a separate page in your notebook.

  • Stories from my childhood

  • Stories my parents and siblings tell about me.

  • Stories my parents, siblings, children and other relatives tell about their lives.

  • Stories about my children or grandchildren

  • Stories I habitually tell about my parents, siblings, children, or lovers.

  • Stories of loss and betrayal

  • Stories of love and loyalty

  • Stories about sex

  • Stories of success and failure

  • Stories of people I have deeply loved or hated.

  • Times I’ve stood at the crossroads…. Stories that reflect turning points in my life.

  • Times I stood up for myself or didn’t stand up for myself.

  • Stories of things I wish I’d never done. Stories of things I wish had turned out differently.

  • Stories of good and bad luck.

  • Stories about travel and adventure

  • Stories about my body

  • Stories that reflect life lessons I have learned

  • Stories I to tell to strangers, to new acquaintances, potential friends in order to introduce myself.

  • Stories for my most intimate associates. Stories I tell a prospective lover or potential friend to reveal myself, to see if I will be accepted.

  • Lies I tell so often they become truths.

  • Stories I will never tell anyone.

  • Other “lists of stories” I need to write

Once you have put your headings on the top of a series of notebook pages, begin to fill in lists with relevant stories. Use a phrase or a sentence to identify each story in your mind. “The time I was held at knifepoint in Denver.” “Kneeling on my hands and knees in the back bedroom at 434 Locust Street giving birth to Lizzy.” “The time I was too shy to take a golden horseshoe from the blacksmith at the Kutztown Country Fair.”

It’s okay if a story appears on more than one list. You will tell the story differently depending on the perspective from which you view it. If you don’t have anything to list in a particular category, leave it blank. Something may arise later.

These lists can be added to over time as memories and story fragments arise in your waking life and in your dreams.


  1. T Bartlett says

    Passing Messages (a story from childhood)

    The bathroom door is closed. We stand outside, listening to the shower run. “How long has she been in there?” Cindy asks. I don’t know, so I just look at Cindy who is wearing her mint green facial mask. Only her eyes and mouth show, like a mime or something. She puts on the mask every night to dry out her zits. I am only 11, but I put it on, too. Maybe I won’t get zits if I start now. Cindy is 16 and has lots of zits. We stand some more and look at the bathroom door. Neither of us knows what to do.

    Finally I go back into my bedroom to finish getting ready for bed. I take each stuffed animal off my bed and lay it carefully on the carpet floor. I save the gray snake for last. I won him at Linda Long’s birthday party, so he seems kind of special. I lay him down with the rest and cover all of them with their blanket. Then I say goodnight and go back into the hall.

    The bathroom door is still closed. Cindy comes out of her bedroom and we listen to the shower running. Tiny flakes of mask fall from Cindy’s face like green snow as she says, “It’s been over an hour.” I knock on the door and call, “Mommy?” We feel too old to call her “Mommy,” but she insists on that name. I call “Mommy” again, but there is no answer. Cindy says, “I’m going in.” She opens the door and I follow her. We don’t see anybody behind the shower door, so Cindy slides it open. Mommy is laying in the tub as if she is taking a bath even though the shower is running over her. Cindy shakes her and her eyes open a little. She looks confused and won’t talk. Cindy says to me, “Go get Daddy.”

    I run to the living room where Daddy is watching TV in his recliner. I try to get him to come, but he won’t. He hasn’t talked to her for nearly three months now. He does that when he gets very mad. But this is the first time it has lasted for so long. Usually he just starts talking again some day after, as if nothing ever happened, and we all go on as usual. I report back to Cindy. Mommy is moaning and mumbling something confused. Cindy and I look at each other. We don’t know what to do. Is Mommy faking injury, to try to get him to talk? We both silently wonder until Cindy suddenly says, “I’m calling an ambulance.”

    Cindy and I follow the ambulance to the hospital in Mommy’s blue Buick Skylark. Cindy only has her learner’s permit, but she tells me it’s okay to drive. We go into the hospital and wait. Now I notice that we still have the green mask on our faces and I am embarrassed. It’s about an hour before they walk Mommy out to us. She’s fine, they say, maybe a slight concussion. Take her home and let her sleep. On the drive home, Mommy says she fell in the shower. We don’t know if we believe her, but we don’t say that. Back at home, we walk her into our parent’s bedroom and Cindy puts her to bed.

    Daddy is in the hallway when I come out of their bedroom. “Is she okay?” he asks. I nod. “Tell her I’ll be home for dinner at six tomorrow.” He goes back to the living room where the TV is still running. I will pass the message tomorrow. Cindy and I are used to passing messages between them while they are not talking. Whatever has happened tonight, it seems like Daddy is still not ready to start talking.

    It is way past my bedtime and I am very tired. I say goodnight to Cindy and go to my room. My stuffed animals are sleeping under their blanket. I check on them before I climb into bed. As I drift off to sleep, I think about my animals on the floor. They are my family and I love them. And tomorrow we will all wake up together.

    • Ilana says

      It is startling how clear your pictures are. Your use of details made me feel like I could see it all. The simple, non-fancy language makes your story that much more effective and engrossing. I, too, will read it again. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Beverly Boyd says

    Thank you for a beautifully written story. It not only kept my interest to the end, I read it twice more to be sure I had not missed any detail. The green mask and the stuffed animals provide an almost surreal backdrop for the sisters supporting each other and acting on what they suspect may not be a true emergency or an act to get attention. “Mommy” and “Daddy” seem only invested in their dysfunctional silence than in being the parents their names imply and being the loving mates they could be to each other.
    I hope you will post more of your writing.

  3. Ilana says

    It’s all the same story…

    Stories about my body.
    It all started at 11:30pm on February 13, 2001. I had been married exactly five months, ten days, four hours and thirty minutes to the most wonderful man in the world. We were brushing our teeth and getting ready for bed. I was laughing. It was a wonderful time for me. My first married Valentine’s Day was the next day and I had just written my beloved a letter saying how excited I was to share the rest of my life with him. Then, I coughed and in one second it all changed.
    With that one jerk of my head a weakened blood vessel burst. Liquid pain dripped from somewhere in my brain to the base of my skull. Then, like a bomb exploding, it filled my head, fighting to get out; pressure, Pressure, PRESSURE! I felt my legs start to buckle and ran to the bed so I wouldn’t get hurt when I fell. One sentence glowed in my mind like a neon light.
    “Nothing hurts this much unless it is going to kill you. I am going to die now.”
    “It hurts!” I said aloud. “Oh, God! It hurts! Call 911. Call 911 now!”
    “I don’t get it, Ilana. What’s the joke?”
    “No joke, Zander. Call 911. Please!”
    It took a while to convince him I wasn’t kidding but he finally made the call. For what seemed like an eternity I flailed and moaned and wondered each second how I was going to survive to the next. “It hurts so much. When are they going to get here to help me?”
    “They’ll be here soon.” He repeated each time I asked the question. Then I stopped moving. I stopped talking. I stopped making any kind of sound. His worry intensified. “Why did you stop talking?”
    “It makes it hurt more.” I said calmly. The reality must have been that my system got worn out and I could no longer sustain the heightened responses.
    Finally they got there. The hospital did a CAT scan and found blood in my brain. They did an angiogram and found the burst aneurysm. The next day they did emergency surgery. I spent my first married Valentine’s Day and part of the next day in a medically induced coma. I had eight tubes coming out of me and for the first week I was restrained, tied to the bed. With a tube coming directly out of my brain it was too dangerous for me to have my hands free. I might pull at the tube and hurt myself. The second week, before my release from the ICU, the restraints were removed and I was encouraged to take walks around the hospital to regain my strength. The long and arduous process of learning how to open my mouth, smile, move the left side of my face would come later.

    Times I’ve stood at the crossroads…Stories that reflect turning points in my life.
    I was barely cognizant. My head hurt so much. Everything looked orange. (I found out later that I had been focusing on the orange ‘visitor’ tag on Zander’s chest.) The doctor was explaining what happened to me and what he was going to do to fix the damage. I could see his hands as he pinched his fingers to illustrate how he was going to clip the broken blood vessel so it wouldn’t bleed anymore. ‘Don’t do it.’ I thought. ‘This hurts too much as it is. Whatever else you have to do is only going to hurt more. I have found the love of my life. I know I am not alone in this world. I am satisfied. Let me die.’ Then a ray of light came to me. There was a silhouette of a man and a woman. The man was holding a baby. I realized it was my baby. The man was Zander and the child in his arms was our son or daughter. Suddenly, everything was different. The vision changed my mind. Whatever I had to suffer I would survive to meet that baby. “I don’t want to die.” I said aloud. My father responded, “I know.” and that is all I remember.

    Times I stood up for myself or didn’t stand up for myself
    For the next week I was trapped in that bed with somewhere between 4 and 8 tubes coming out of me at any given time. The pain was terrible. Every part of my body hurt. The worst of it, though, was the headache. I begged anyone who spoke to me to whisper as even the quietest sounds sent pain ramming through my head. They asked me what my pain level was on a scale of 1-10 so that they could decide how much morphine to give me. I had been taught as a child, though, to hide my pain. When my brother hurt me my complaints were belittled and I was blamed for ‘whatever you did to set him off.’ I wasn’t capable of being honest. I said I was at a three. Looking back my mind screams at me, laughing bitterly. “Three? Are you crazy? You’d just had a hole cut in your skull and your brain opened up. Why did they even bother believing you?”

    Stories of love and loyalty
    So there I lay; tied to the bed and in terrible pain. Every four hours a smiling nurse woke me up to give me a pill. Nimotop to avoid a stroke. Its chief side effects were heart palpitations and anxiety. It was a perfect recipe for nightmares. After I dreamed the nurses were trying to kill me Zander spent the whole night at my bedside. Curled up in a chair he held my hand while I slept. So many hours that man stayed by my side, holding my hand so I could sleep. I remember asking him to untie my right hand and retie it to the left side of the bed so that I could turn over and look at him. I’ll never forget watching his hands as he buckled the restraint. It was a horrifying picture but my Zander was there so I knew I was safe.

    There are a lot more categories parts of this story fit into but it appears I have gone on too long. The story of my brain surgery is a story of success, a story of failure, a story of people I loved and hated a story of bad luck… the list is endless. I will leave you with this one final chapter, though.

    Stories I tell a potential friend to reveal myself, to see if I will be accepted.
    I tell this story to anyone who will listen. It is a story of pain that I am allowed to tell; a story of anguish, fear, helplessness, courage, strength and finally triumph. I tell this story in place of the one that is a secret; the one that has screamed inside of me, begging to be told for more than 30 years. I was not allowed to tell my story of incest. I was not allowed to believe I was a victim of child abuse. At least here is a story I am allowed to tell. Thank you for listening to my story.

    • Debbie O says

      Ilana – what a story you have told! I have not been able to focus this week and finally decided to forgo the weekly writing. Your story, this story is a truly a story of triumph. Perhaps the other is as well…

      • Ilana says

        I hope you are right, Debbie. My story of healing has only just begun so I do not know the end. I will miss your post this week. I always look forward to your posts, though I understand we all need a week off sometimes. Thank you for honoring my post with your response. Your thoughts are truly appreciated.

        • Andrea Jones says

          Thank you for sharing the story of all you have overcome. Your strength (and writing) are inspiring and help me keep my challenges in perspective.

          • Ilana says

            Thank you for your response, Andrea. I am honored to learn that you took something away from my writing that you valued.

  4. Mira Michelle says

    In Bali, I would awake to the gentle shifting of light and the cooing of morning doves. I would slip from the sheets and out the front door of our bamboo open-air bungalow. I would walk to the small rectangular lotus pond at the edge of the lush rice paddy. I would wait and watch the movement of the sun across the water. The lotus buds would turn towards the light and then open each trembling white petal until a golden center was revealed. I felt like a lotus blossom opening to the beauty around me.

    Beyond the lotus pond, the water-flooded patty reflected cumulus clouds against a pale blue. The green rice stalks, spaced a palm’s span from each other, thrust up through the pool of liquid sky. Small ducks, with their wide yellow bills, paddled purposefully down the channels between the rice. At the edge of the rice paddy was a small homemade temple. On long spindly legs of black bamboo was an ornate platform of wood the size of my journal. It was draped with a checkered black and white cloth and an offering of a woven leaf filled with flowers.

    Offerings were laid each morning at the entrance of homes, at crossways and at the family temples. We even found an offering balanced on our motor scooter. The offerings were the size of a woman’s lightly clenched fist and were made by hand. To make an offering, a frond was folded back on itself in an exquisite form of plant origami and then filled with purple, pink and white petals. They were miniature works of art reverently placed daily.

    Next to my lotus pond, a plumeria tree dropped her abundance of fragrant flowers on to the moist grass every morning. I would gather up the white plumeria blooms, tuck one behind my ear and bring the rest home, inhaling their intoxicating scent.

    Breakfast was usually fresh sliced papaya, bananas and pineapple with a green wedge of a lime squeezed on top. For lunch we would take our motor scooter to the town of Ubud, past the dangling banyan trees, pass the rooster with their brightly colored tails, pass the chattering monkeys, through the thick foliage, past the shops arranged with batik sarongs and painted masks, to our favorite warung or restaurant. I would order young baby ferns with shredded coconut and rice.

    In Bali, everywhere I looked I saw art, an ornately carved wooden doorframe, a life size Buddha in stone being carved on the roadside, large modern paintings hung from trees to advertise an artisit’s studio. I saw an eight-year-old boy paint an egg with the intricate style of traditional Balinese art laying in black outlines around each tiny leaf. I saw a whimsical face carved into the base of a stacked stonewall. I saw a woman at a loom weaving a blue textured fabric.

    In Ubud, there were also frequent performances of the Balinese welcome dance offered for the tourists. The welcome dance was preformed with a full gamelan orchestra including golden bells struck with wooden mallets. A line of women in green shimmering skirts and headdresses of detailed metal would turn on exquisitely bent knees to the rhythm of the bells with their hands pressed back in a gesture of welcome.

    There was a library in Ubud where, in addition to books, they offered classes to the Western travelers in Balinese drumming, traditional dancing, painting and woodcarving. The money earned from these classes was funneled back into teaching Balinese youth the traditional dances. We saw a group of the middle school students practicing on an open stage, boys and girls together, laughing and playing around until the music came on and then their faces’ grew serious as they moved through the prescribed turns and movements with grace.

    Inspired by art that flooded our senses, my boyfriend and I started to create our own art each day. We painted watercolors that tracked the color gradations of young bamboo. We sketched in journals after delicious meals. We wrote poetry that we passed back and forth at late night cafes.

    One day we visited a permacultue farm site just south of Ubud. An articulate Balinese man named Chakra gave us a tour. He showed us their grey water treatment system made from beds of gravel, wetlands and water hyacinth. He showed us their worm compost bins and their chicken tractor, a movable chicken coop that could be relocated to different area of the land so the chicken manure could build the soil. He shared us how he was mapping out the fruit trees on the land and which trees would still be bearing fruit in twenty years. He shared with us how to harvest bamboo with the cycles of the moon when the tide was lowest so there was the least amount of water in the stalks.

    Part way through our tour, a group of thirty Balinese children in their blue school uniforms descended onto the permaculature site. Their teacher was a woman with straight shoulder length dark hair. She wore a green T-shirt that read, “Just say no to plastic”. At the farm she taught the children how to make recycled paper using a blender, paper scrapes, a screen on a wooden frame, a large bin, water and flower petals. The handmade paper was then hung out to dry with clothes pins on a string. Two boys in their matching uniforms and their red baseball caps slanted sideways chatted to us using the English words they knew.

    Another day we went to Sari Organic, an organic restaurant where they grew their food at the large plot of land next to the dinning area. To get there, we had to take a pathway through the rice paddies that was barely wide enough for our motor scooter tires. The terraced hillsides spilled out beside us like a woman’s iridescent skirt blanketing the land. A farmer in his straw hat and muddy bare legs stood knee deep in the water tending his paddy. I could hear the rustle of the fingers of the palm trees rubbing together.

    We reached the open aired bamboo structure of Sari Organic which overlooked the surrounding valley of viridian greens. Before we sat and ate, we walked their gardens. Broad banana leaves greeted us. Papaya trees with their swollen fruit hanging heavy and ripe stood beside the path. We found trellised yard long beans growing. A single bean pod stretched almost the length of my thigh to my ankle. Together we walked among the food that grew from the dark abundant earth, the food that was soon to be our dinner.

    In Bali, I found purple orchids as big as my outstretched hand with their roots exposed to the sky. I found a pineapple the size of my thumb. I found the air warm on my skin as we took a curve on the motorbike. I dangled the tender young roots of a banyan tree around my face like a wig of slender hair. I found a health food store that sold teatree oil toothpicks. I found a farmer’s market with an old gentleman displaying small red onions with green stems. I found fireflies skimming over the rice paddies at night, dancing with the reflected the stars. I found the inspiration to paint and write everyday. I found a deep sense of inner replenishment.

    • says

      Mira, you paint such a delicious picture. For me, Bali has been a bit of a fantasy, an enjoyable one, but a fantasy nonetheless. But reading your story made it real. I’m getting so excited. What started as an idea in my head is going to be an amazing, unpredictable, wonderful, transformative trip. Thanks for making it real!

    • Andrea Jones says

      I spent weeks fantasizing about going to Bali with Laura’s group when she first posted about the trip. Then I let the idea go as impossible; too expensive, too hard to be away from work, kids, my responsibilities. My life only goes smoothly when I do what I should. When I deviate from the should’s and embrace the wants, chaos ensues. Your story makes me think the peace and experience of Bali may be worth the chaos of the wants. Thank you for sharing.

      • says

        Andrea, if you’re thinking about it, I suggest you decide in the next few weeks. I’m pretty sure it’s going to sell out, and a lot of people are in the process of deciding/committing.

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