Three Ways to “Hold the Pen” when Writing Your Story

I love the saying, “When writing the story of your life, make sure you’re holding the pen,” because it reveals the heart of life-story writing. Sweet and simple—hold the pen. Here’s my take on what that looks like:

First of all, you literally need to be the writer. No matter if its gripping the pen, typing on computer keys, or dictating your voice; your story is best told with your hand, your fingers, or your voice. Nobody knows your life from your point of view. Friends and family might have been with you for part of your journey, but those who were there occasionally can’t know what you know.

As an example, when Sally holds the pen in telling about her forty year marriage, she is the only one who can talk about the day she met Mark, her feelings on their wedding day, the challenges and joys they faced, and the compromises they made to build a strong marriage. Her writing comes, as they say, “from the horse’s mouth.†(And yes, Mark would have a slightly different story to tell!)

Not only is it important to write the story yourself, but secondly, write as authentically as possible. Authentic writing doesn’t come as automatically as we might think. When I catch myself simultaneously writing and judging how others will respond to my writing, or perhaps using words to sway the reader to my side, I realize I’m doing more selling than telling. Authentic writing isn’t self-conscious or self-promoting. It touches on feelings as well as facts in a way that is agenda-free. 

During my years in Toastmasters, I remember speakers who would metaphorically speak down to us from a far away mountaintop, when all the audience really wanted was to have a conversation—eye-to-eye—free of platitudes and generalizations. As writers, perhaps it’s the same. Maybe authentic writing comes in layers, and with each re-write, we trust that being ourselves is enough, and peal away another layer of falsity, pomp and spin. We write, re-read and ask—really? Then we re-write until we reach the bone of our intended message.

The third part of holding the pen is to remember that you are holding YOUR pen, so make sure the stories you tell are YOUR stories. Some writers fall into the habit of describing other people’s lives and their roles as mother, father, wife, son, or sister without revealing anything about themselves. So if you’re writing about the joy of playing with your grandchildren, of course, you’ll mention a few details about those special children. It might seem selfish, yet make sure to include what you did, said and felt to make the story about YOU. 

There’s a wild freedom in writing about your own life. Others can give you tips, but the truth is—you can say whatever you like—free of many of the rules we’re normally bound to observe in most kinds of writing. These story telling sessions between your self of the past and today’s wiser self feel like a family reunion of sorts.

You’ll get into the flow of this two way conversation when you admit what happened, how you felt about it, how you got out of the rough patches and what you learned. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to make a convincing case to your younger self that what she thought was a bad thing, led to something even better. 

So pick up the pen and tell your story “like nobody’s business.†

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