Finding the Story Under the Story

What I love most as a writing teacher is creating a sacred, safe container where people’s deepest stories can emerge. I love the synergy that happens in a room—whether physical or virtual—when one writer’s honesty cracks open the hearts of everyone there. When one person’s courage and willingness to tell the “real truth” leads the way and inspires others to find that same kind of bravery in themselves.

I remember one day in my Wednesday writing practice class, a class I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years, one woman, who’d been attending for a long time, wrote a piece about her son who’d been struggling with a heroin addiction. She wrote about his latest relapse—and the devastating impact it was having on her as his mother. We listened and held space for her while she read. There was a moment of silence as we took in the enormity of her grief. And then we moved on and listened to the next writer. And the very next time we wrote, I gave a prompt—I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t connected to what she’d just written—and for the very first time two other people in class wrote about their family members who’d struggled with heroin addiction. They’d been in class for a long time, too, and this was a part of their lives I didn’t know about. But the first woman’s courage and need to be witnessed suddenly made this topic one that could be brought to our group.

I’ve seen this dynamic play out over and over again. One writer writes about money or sex or shame or some other topic that hasn’t been broached in class and suddenly that topic gets the green light. Pieces on those topics start popping up regularly. It’s suddenly okay to write about that. To tell the truth about that. Permission has been granted. Space has opened. A deeper layer can now be shared. 

Over the years, I’ve developed many techniques for helping people access and write their deepest stories. It’s what I do best. One problem I’ve noticed that many writers have is that they get stuck telling certain stories in their life by rote—the stories become habitual, told and repeated the same way over and over again—often with little affect by the writer. We pull out the “death” story or the “funny travel experience” story or “when I ran away” and we tell it—but the life has gone out of it. It’s become more like a performance with predictable pauses and the same punchline every time.

But there’s often more to a story—particularly one that was traumatic or that evoked strong emotions at the time—than the familiar way we tell it. When I sense that’s going on, I pull out one of my all-time favorite prompts: “What’s the part you never told anyone before?”

“What’s the part you never told anyone before” is a powerful, evocative prompt. It’s a way to wake a write up from the trance of “how I’ve held this story before,” “how I’ve told this story before.” And it requires a writer to look for what I call “the story under the story.” The moment, the sense detail, the thing that was said to you or the thing you blurted out or witnessed or heard or did, that you never told anyone before. It’s often something we hold with shame—shame because we experienced or did it. It’s that one detail we’ve suppressed or forgotten or that we’ve lived with alone because we couldn’t bear to share it or didn’t think it mattered. And it unlocks the living story—the one that’s lived beneath the rote story we’ve rehearsed and carried and possibly told for years.

Give this prompt a try. When you can’t access the real story, the untold story, the unfinished story or your deeper feelings or realizations about an experience, “Here’s the part I never told anyone before,” can help you get there.

The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.



Read the rest of the posts in this series…

To receive this blog series in your inbox, subscribe here.

Scroll to Top