These quick, one-time-only exercises can teach us about ourselves and what we want—and how we can tell our story. The bonus? You might just end up with a book...
By Leigh Newman
1. Your 3-Sentence Life Story
What to write: Try to summarize your life in two or three sentences. Take your time. Think about your past. "But mostly think about who you are today and how you got that way," says Roberta Temes, PhD, psychologist and author of How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days. "Maybe you want to focus on a certain relationship, maybe a certain theme...or maybe a feeling that has persisted for years."
Consider these examples before putting pen to paper:
Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood.
Love my life, love my dog, love my kids. No room for a guy.
Finally sober. Exhausting journey. Many regrets.
Beautiful, close family. And then the accident.
Fears and phobias finally overcome, thanks to husband. Still not sure if I deserve him.
Why it helps: First off, if you want to write a memoir, this three-sentence description will form the structure of your book. In effect, it's a supershort story of your life—a beginning, a middle and the now, if you will. Even if you have zero impulse to write another word, however, the exercise can show you how you view yourself, your past and your present, all of which can inform your future. Unless, of course, you change the narrative—a privilege granted to any writer.
2. Your Crucial Incident (or Incidents)
What to write: Choose one or more of the sentences below and write a page or two that begins with that particular sentence. Don't worry about bringing up material that you are afraid might be too painful to explore, says Temes. "Please don't bother with grammar or spelling or punctuation issues. "Just write for yourself and for your clarity of mind."
Sentence 1: I was just a kid, but...
Sentence 2: I tried my best and...
Sentence 3: In that moment everything changed.
Sentence 4: It was shocking to find out that...
Sentence 5: It was the proudest day of my life. I couldn't stop smiling when...
Why it helps: Sometimes we avoid the most obvious—and complicated—events that have happened to us, events that inform our whole life story. Let's say your three-sentence exercise was Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood. Maybe you could try, "I was just a kid but..." or "I tried my best but..." Was there something else that happened that prevented you from getting over your lonely childhood? Did it happen when you were a child—or later? Did it involve parents? You don't have to know the answers to these questions. Let the pre-written prompts guide you. "Don't think and write," says Temes. "Just write."
3) Your Secret Why
What to write: Take a minute to think about the previous two exercises. Then, please finish this sentence; I'd like to really understand everything that led me to _______________.
Here are some examples (it's okay to add an additional sentence or two):
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to marry Blake. He was so wrong for me and I don't want to make another mistake.
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to choose architecture as my life's work. Did it have to do with the way we lived when I was growing up?
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to become such a good mom, considering I had no role model.
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to never get along with my step-mother. Now that she's gone I realize what a good person she was and how she tried to have a relationship with me.
Why it helps: There's no need to do the actual examination and investigation now. Instead, just focus on identifying what it is you might delve into someday—in a memoir or in the pages of a journal or just in your mind. What truth is important for you to get at? You have a structure (your three sentences), you have a crucial event (that may have caused or contributed to that life story) and now you have a purpose—a reason for writing that will let you learn, enjoy and even be surprised by the story you've been waiting to tell yourself and—maybe, just maybe, the world, as well.
Roberta Temes, PhD, is the author of How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days, which includes other exercises like these.