A writing prompt from “Your Life as Story” by Tristine Rainer

My Amazon order history tells me I bought Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature by Tristine Rainer in 2004. That makes it about the oldest book in my “write your memoir” library, and I’d say it’s the most well-thumbed, sticky-noted, annotated book in that library as well. It is one of the most complete sourcebooks for writing about a life–in a way that meets the standards of literature–that I have come across.

I remember how daunted I felt when I first read it–an experience akin to being a first grader in a one-room school, listening in on the sixth-graders’ lessons. More than half went over my head, but the less-than-half that stuck was helpful. I just kept working with an exercise or two from Rainer’s pages, then reading the book again, then working with another exercise or two, until I began to feel I understood what she was getting at and could not only apply it in my own writing, but teach it to others.

A highly useful element of Rainer’s approach is her “Nine Essential Elements of Story Structure,” which align with the narrative arc described by Jack Hart in Storycraft and the story structure recommended by Jon Franklin in Writing for Story. The nine elements will probably be familiar to anyone who has studied writing fiction. They are:

  • BEGINNING: Initiating incident, problem, desire line;
  • MIDDLE: Struggle with adversary, Interim pivotal events, precipitating event;
  • CONCLUSION:  Crisis, climax, realization.

Rainer is also excellent on portraying yourself and others. If it’s your story, you’re the protagonist, its hero no matter how flawed. The supporting characters around you fall into roles as allies, antagonists, villains. I think it was Rainer who gave a name to those complicated relationships we have with people who love us, but want for us something different than we want for ourselves: “beloved adversaries.”

I am particularly fond of Rainer’s insistence on “the telling detail,” the use of observations about an individual’s gestures and behaviors as opposed to adjectives that (whether intentionally or not) pass judgment.  “If you call a guy pretentious and uptight, it’s an open and shut case, but if you give details about him… a reader can come to that conclusion,” she writes. To identify specific gestures and behaviors to work into your writing, she offers an exercise she calls How to be… — “Make a list of gestures and indicative behaviors as if you were writing a how-to guide for the impersonation of the character you wish to describe.”

I like to combine this with the brainstorming technique of clustering (some call it mindmapping) to first get some ideas on the page, then turn them into Rainer’s “stage directions” for portraying that character. Here is an example, describing an entertaining restaurant owner I met in Vernazza, Italy.

Pick a character who will appear in your memoir and have a go at this technique–I think you’ll find it challenging but fun.

If you want to deepen your skill as a writer of memoir, autobiography, biography, creative nonfiction–even fiction!–get yourself a copy of Your Life as Story and get started on what I think you’ll find a satisfying long term relationship with Tristine Rainer’s writing advice.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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1 Response to A writing prompt from “Your Life as Story” by Tristine Rainer

  1. Sue Beal says:

    Thanks for the “heads-up” on Tristin Rainer’s book. It sounds like a book I could use as I re-write my memoir. I love using “clustering” but I haven’t used it for my characters, but will now.

    Suzy Beal


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