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Telling Personal Stories (Without Going To the Zoo)

The secret is social distance

Fall, 2020.

After a summer cooped up from COVID lockdowns and social distancing, my husband and I broke away, with our son, to the North Carolina zoo. The exhibits there are outdoors so it felt safe enough, and we needed to do something.

The last time I’d been was at age ten, on a school field trip. I remembered miles of walking, and lots of distant animals.

A gift shop where I only had money for a tiny cheetah pencil sharpener.

Not much has changed. Walking. Heat. Way-off animals.

That’s the thing about the zoo: at any point, what you’re there to see is simply too far away to appreciate.

Not to suggest you want animals that could crush you or eat you (or both) all that close . . . but you don’t learn much at such distance.

Ever read a personal story that makes you feel the same way? No connection, skimpy detail, and—well—no point?

That author might have gone to the zoo.

But you don’t have to.

  • 🧠 Learn: the biggest pitfall of personal stories: The Diary, the Zoo, and You

  • ❤️ Love: a Stark you haven’t heard of, and wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut

  • ⍰ Curious: Perfectionism; imagining that you’re a scientist; links for the road

Distance is your friend, in personal stories.

The right distance, that is.

Let’s talk about the Diary and the Zoo—neither of which is your friend—and how to write in the sweet spot between them.

Since most of us veer naturally toward one or the other (I’m a Zoo person, myself), the best thing we can do as writers is become more self-aware.

We are now among islands in the Ionian Sea. Is not the very name an enchantment? The sea is quiet, the twilight falling. I asked the name of an island on the right. ‘Ithaca,’ says the Captain, as if the name were mere geography.

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark

There’s a Stark you haven’t heard of.

(or several, if you never watched Game of Thrones)

Freya Stark explored the Middle East from the early years of the 20th century through to the Vietnam era. After a hard childhood that included a disfiguring injury at age 13, she led a remarkable life, and seemed to approach things always with a sense of wonder.

She was known for her travel writing, and her ability to write her stories from the right distance—with empathy and emotion that weren’t hallmarks of travel writing, at the time.

It doesn’t matter how well we practice.

Just that we do.

As a writer, everything wants to get in your way, if you let it.

One of the most pernicious, though, is perfectionism. And it’s one of the biggest hurdles people feel in trying to tell personal stories.

It’s the “personal” part.

A personal story reflects on you, or your emotions. Your actions—or inactions.

Right now I’m reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, and she has this to say:

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

And if you do get hung up writing about things that feel close to you, take this unique advice from Olivia Fox Cabane (bonus points for humor):

Imagine that you’re a scientist observing a phenomenon: ‘How interesting, there are self-critical thoughts arising.’

Olivia Fox Cabane, The Charisma Myth

This book on personal stories, and homework you’ll be happy to do for life.

YouTube is a treasure trove of old interviews with personal stories. This hour with Peter Falk on Inside the Actors’ Studio is warm, funny, and worth watching.

A story in self-portraits, from age 15 to age 90.

🧠 and ❤️