Telling your story

Something significant happened. Perhaps it was something unpleasant and it happened to you: maybe you were bullied or unfairly dismissed. Perhaps it was something you observed, like corruption or an environmental problem. Perhaps it was something good, such as someone doing a good turn, overcoming adversity or learning how to be a better person.

You can keep the story to yourself - or you can tell it. Why would you want to tell it?

1. It's beneficial to others, because something similar might be happening to them. Bullying for example: it goes on all the time. If your story gives insight to just one other person and helps them deal with it more effectively, then it's worth writing about. Your story of good things might inspire others.

2. It's beneficial to you. If you've been through a traumatic experience, it's valuable psychologically to write your story. It's a form of therapy, and it works even if you then throw away what you've written.

How to go about it

First, plan what you want to say. Write down an outline of points you're going to cover. For example, you might have:

1. Title

2. Summary sentence

3. Background

4. The events

5. Lessons

6. Conclusion

Under some of these headings - 3, 4 and 5 - you might have subsections, for example:

4a. The attack

4b. My response

4c. The attack, part 2

4d. My response

4e. The outcome

It's usually better to try to write a short account. You don't need to include all the gory details. Avoid blow-by-blow descriptions of events, conversations and letters. Just give a few typical examples that illustrate the main dynamics.

The background is useful for people who don't know your situation. For example, if the events happened in an organisation, say what it does, how big it is and how it's structured. Tell about your own role in the organisation. Say what country you're in and, if relevant, something about it. Imagine there's a reader with completely different experiences, for example someone from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe. You don't need to explain everything, but enough for outsiders to understand local peculiarities.

For the benefit of others, you should emphasise the lessons from the events. A lesson might be "I did this, and it didn't work" or "It was really satisfying when I persisted until a resolution was reached." Imagine you are entering exactly the same situation again. What do you know now that would help the second time through? That information or insight is exactly what others can benefit from.

To benefit yourself, tell what happened and how you felt about it at the time. That's all.

The writing process

Planning

You've prepared your outline. Next, schedule writing time over the next week or two. Write in your diary the time and place you're going to write. Aim for most days of the week if you can. Your writing time is a commitment just like any other.

Writing

When you sit down to write at the scheduled time, clear away everything except for your outline. Then start writing. Write for 15 to 30 minutes. Then finish. At your next scheduled writing time, don't read what you've written already; just continue from where you left off.

If you're writing a brief account, you might finish a first draft in one or two sessions. Longer accounts might take a week or several weeks to complete.

If you're doing this only for your personal benefit, you're now finished. But if you'd like other people to hear your story, proceed to the next steps.

Revising

When you've finished a first draft, go through it fixing your expression and adding or deleting information. Revise and then revise again. Your first draft might seem like a mess. You can turn it into a polished product if you keep working at it.

Sooner or later, you should obtain assistance from people you trust. You should show your draft to friends to tell you how to make the story more accurate. If you don't have much experience writing, you should find one or two people to help you with expression.

Publishing

Are you willing for others to read your story? You can give copies to your friends. You can send it to a magazine. You can post it on the web.

Checking

If you're saying something about others, then it's wise to check with them. Check and recheck the facts. You might also send a draft to people you've mentioned in the story, asking for comments and corrections.

Anonymising

If your story is so sensitive that you can't reveal names or the organisation, you can convert your story to an anonymous account. Change each name, including your own, to a different name (a pseudonym). Change some of the details - dates, ages, occupations, events - and remove others. Rather than talking about Ajax Chemical Corporation, refer to Standard Manufacturing Company.

Keep the essence of the story, especially the lessons.

Publishing

Get advice on where to publish. If you publish on the web - often the easiest option - try to find a site where there are similar stories.

 

Sample stories

Jane Cargill, "Citizens versus mining in Greenbushes, Western Australia": short, open authorship

Edgar Gillham, "Edgar Gillham's whistleblowing experience": short, open authorship

 "A teacher's story: a complaint and its consequences": long, anonymous

"NPWS Management - A protected species! NPWS Staff - A threatened species!": long, semi-anonymous

John Wright, "Putting a surgeon under: a personal story of hospital politics": shows the use of more than one document

"Radiotherapy underdosing at Royal Adelaide Hospital": anonymous, very effective; the author, Lotte Fog, later revealed her identity - but she now lives in Germany

Gaye Nicholls, "Children with cochlear implants: an untold story": long, well documented, well written


Reading

Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a way of healing: how telling our stories transforms our lives (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

James W. Pennebaker, Opening up: the healing power of expressing emotions (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).

James W. Pennebaker, Writing to heal: a guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2004).

 

Brian Martin
October 2008, updated April 2018


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