Writing Prompt: Who Owns the Story, Part 1

by Matilda Butler on April 6, 2010

Writing Prompt LogoPost #37 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

by Janet Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

person-mirrorYou pick up your pen and suddenly imagine yourself naked in front of a mirror that magnifies the bumps and bulges you’ve done your best to hide. It’s like one of your worst nightmares that leaves you shaken when you wake up.

Why would we want to do such a thing? In Life Writing we reveal ourselves and others through our work. In this post we’ll talk about two different forms: family stories and memoir. 

Family Story

Family Stories

 
In family stories the main character is the arc of family identity and myth. What makes us—us?  Sometimes even simple stories reveal characteristics and values we were not conscious of. On an historic scale, a broader picture of time, place, and events can emerge within the context of a single family.  

My father, now 94, and I work together to document family stories, letters, and farm logs reaching back to his grandfather’s time. The purpose of our project is to pass on legacy and heritage. Our audience is generations of family, local and major libraries, plus historical societies.

Memoir

Memoir

In family stories, your personal story is only one part of a larger one. In memoir, you are the main character. Your story is the lens through which you view your history. Memoir is the focus of both external and internal worlds, filtered through perception of place, time, period or theme. 

The audience for any memoir varies. Are you writing it only for yourself? Friends and family? Perhaps you’re writing it for the wider public, people you don’t know.  

Currently I am working on a memoir—Finding My African Heart: A Village of Stories. It’s a coming-of-age story that wends its way through the multiplicity of cultures that shaped me. I’m writing it for myself, of course. But, if it’s to go beyond just myself, I need to be clear who else would be interested—and why? How can my story help others understand their own better?

Who Owns the Story? 

What to include? What to omit? What’s at stake in telling our stories?  In simplest terms, this decision boils down to a greater question: Who owns the story? 

“Owning the story” doesn’t refer to legally defined real or intellectual property rights. It’s about ethical ownership. Whose story is it? Who has the right to tell it? Any time a group of Life Writers gathers, this issue generates discussion—sometimes loud and animated discussion! 

In Part 2, we’ll look at four questions we need to ask ourselves when we undertake family stories or memoir. They’ll help us decide who owns the stories we share.

Writing Prompts to Give You Clarity about Your Story

1) What are the bumps and bulges that you’ve been trying your best to hide?

2) What would you title your memoir or family story?

3) Write copy for a book’s jacket flap to draw in readers. Write the bio for the author who would’ve written this book.

NOTE: Be sure to check back next Tuesday, April 13 when I’ve got a special Writing Prompt and Taxes treat for you. It’s hard to find anything creative or fun about taxes. However, I think I had an idea for you that just might give you a little writing inspiration. Then Janet and Stephanie return on the following Tuesday, April 20 with Part 2 of Who Owns the Story and another great writing prompt. — Matilda

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Janet Riehl April 6, 2010 at

Thanks Kendra and Matilda for posting our thought on “Who Owns the Story?” as that question relates to memoir and family stories.

Stephanie and I enjoyed writing these two posts. In our conversations about this topic we gradually clarified our ideas.

My favorite part of our writing prompt here is: Write the bio for the author who would’ve written this book.

This one helps me as I consider revealing my wild youth in my memoir. As I write the bio of the person who might have written this book, I begin to find a persona who wouldn’t care a whit. That helps to put my fear into perspective.

Janet Riehl

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