Turning Personal Experience Into Narrative — Personal Advice from the Best
By Judy Silverstein Gray
Special to Poynter Online
“As with so many things about writing, one has to make analogies to experiences in everyday life,” said Adam Hochschild. Using personal experience in a narrative story, can give a frame of reference, he said.
We should also ask ourselves what aspect of the story might be of interest to someone else and if we really can find really interesting personal experiences, he said.
Hochschild recommended reading authors who make good use of personal experiences in their narrative work. As examples, he pointed to James Agee’s A Death in the Family, Vladimir Nabokov’s Autobiography and Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Lantern. Clearly, George Orwell is also one of his favorites.
“Orwell,” he said, “has a magnificent prose style, utter political honesty and when he talks about personal experience, he tells you in the service of some larger point he’s going to make,” said Hochschild.
An essay called Shooting An Elephant was written when Orwell was a colonialist living in Burma.
“It’s an essay that is a subtle, complex and surprising way of describing the fear of losing face by describing a personal experience,” said Hochschild, who also acknowledged the difficulty of using personal experiences in narrative writing. It can be difficult to stay out of the story, it can seem self-centered and pointless and it can be an unwieldy form of writing. But the point of writing about meaningful experience is to examine the larger experience more carefully, Hochschild said. In other words, we should ask ourselves, “what are the lessons here?”
That, says Hochschild, is the first important lesson of writing from personal experience.
The second is that while you are in the middle of something, observe it carefully and write it down then.
He also suggested reading Primo Levi, one of the great eyewitness observers of the Holocaust. Levi masterfully reflects on history, using his own observances.
To record his own observances, Hochschild said he keeps two notebooks; one for the assignment and the other to capture details and experiences he may want to retrieve at a later date.
I tried the technique on my last day in Boston and since returning home. One was a more personalized account of events, the other more precise. I have captured impressions of my childhood town -- Boston; the other notebook was more conference-related.
Other advice included trying the story out by telling it to six or seven other people. “I’m a firm believer in using friends as a sounding board for one’s writing,” he said. “It tells you if the story works for them and where they might get bored,” he said.
Hochschild also encouraged us to have an early idea of where we want to go with a story. “The mass of raw material can be overwhelming,” he cautioned.
In writing books, outlines and rough drafts help immeasurably, he said. “See where the gaps are and see if further research is needed.”
For articles, he says as soon as an idea of a piece has emerged, it is easier to get your notes organized.
“The more you can figure out the form you want to put this in, the easier it is to organize,” he said.
Hochschild also noted it is critical let some time pass to be able to digest, absorb and fully figure out what experiences mean.
“Time allows you to peel away the layers of feeling,” he said. “Patience is waiting for the right moment to write.” He says it’s also waiting to let go of fear of the unfamiliar -- to give it time to gel.
Reading good authors, honing observation skills and practicing your craft were all part of the advice Hochschild offered.
“Take notes all the time. Any time you think something may be important or of interest, write it down. It forces you to be more observant.”
Judy Silverstein Gray is a freelance writer living in Tampa, Fla.