Writing down your kids’ stories: One mom’s approach

This picture was taken many years ago, when my daughter was active on the storytelling circuit.

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Storytellers travel from festival to festival crafting a bridge of communication to recreate the vision held in their brains within yours. One storyteller told me, “I have a picture in my brain. It’s so vivid. I want you to see it the way I see it.” Then he told the story.

You can see how this idea is key to writing stories, as well. As a writer, I have a vision of a world or an experience I want to share with you, my reader. I use all the tricks I know to make this image vivid and lively, drawing you into my brain so you can see it as I do. Those are the books we readers love to read the most, right?

Olivia was an oral storyteller. The stories my daughter told were sometimes folktales (The Barking Mouse and Martina the Beautiful Cockroach were two favorites), but Olivia mostly told personal tales. In the storytelling world, a personal tale is based on the teller’s past experiences. It can range from completely truthful to downright tall tale-ish. I already told the story on this blog of how I wrote the first story Olivia told. Today I’d like to help you explore ways you can capture the experiences of your own children in writing.

I thought about capturing my own stories in writing so that my kids would have something to read about my childhood. I have struggled writing down my own story since it seems necessary to start at the beginning and work my way forward. I tried this once. I got to the elementary school part of my timeline and stopped. It was exhausting trying to remember everything in order, and I noticed my memories from back then were fuzzy at best. My sentences ran along the lines of: “I remember switching to a new Kindergarten sometime mid-year. They were having a cool snack that day. It might have been ice cream.” These images are disconnected and not vivid. I decided that capturing moments of times in my kids’ lives was easier somehow. So I started writing their stories, instead.

So how do you capture a moment in your child’s life in a story? Here is one path to writing a captivating tale:

  1. Write a list of moments.
  2. Think of a theme.
  3. Tell the story.
  4. Write the opening with a compelling hook.
  5. Loop back to your opening hook in the closing.

1. Write a list of moments.

Are you like me? Do you have trouble calling up memories from your childhood or that of your child? Here’s one thing I did when I needed a new theme for a story for Olivia to tell: I sent out a request to friends on social media to help me remember some of the crazy stuff that had happened to Olivia. Any memory at all. The time she got an ice cream cone and the dog ate it. The time she left half her overnight items at a sleepover. Any little memory has the potential for story greatness. My friends and family came through!

For one story, I ended up choosing to tell about the time Olivia banged her nose on her knee when trying out a trampoline for the first time. It was sad at the time, but hilarious when we thought back on the events of the day. Great fodder for a story!

2. Think of a theme.

With a list of memories, you can ponder which ones you’d like to turn into a story. In the storytelling world, a personal story has an overarching theme. A theme is some sort of lesson or deeper truth that the listener can hear and agree with, nodding his head enthusiastically and feeling a connection  with the teller. The overarching theme is a nice way to begin framing a tale.

When I thought about Olivia’s time on the trampoline, I imagined the middle-aged listeners who would hear the story and I tried to think what they might be interested in hearing. I knew they would have fun traveling down their own memory lanes as they heard a story of kid high jinks.  It’s always thrilling to remember being a kid. But I wanted something else for them in this story. I realized the theme of this story wasn’t “Kids will do silly things sometimes.” It was really about me. I was one of those overprotective mothers who didn’t want her kids on trampolines. At all. The theme of this story quickly became “Overprotective parents can let go of their worry. Sometimes.”

3. Write the story.

I milked my overprotective nature for all it was worth as I wrote this story. I called on every memory of picking child-safe dishware, installing protective car seats, and worrying over scary news reports about the dangers of ______ (fill in the blank with your worst parental fear).

Moms today have lots of fodder for a story about being overprotective, don’t we? We are under such pressure to micromanage our kids’ lives. A recent article about parents being visited by Child Protective Services for letting their kids walk to the park alone illustrates my point. Storyteller Andy Offut Irwin speaks of growing up as a “free-range child.” In this day and age, we’re expected never to let our kids roam free. No free-range chicks in our yard. We need to build those coops sturdy and tall with lots of wire fencing. The pressure is intense!

So I told the story of the time my daughter begged me for a chance to jump on a friend’s trampoline. I finally agreed. And wouldn’t you know it? She tried to do a flip on the trampoline and gave herself a bloody nose. Typical. Ha. I filled in the details with all the reluctance I felt and all the cajoling my daughter had to do to get me to agree. It wasn’t all true, but the general theme was spot on. I was an overprotective mother, and I had to find a way to get over it. This trampoline experience helped me do that!

4. Write the opening with a compelling hook.

If you’d like to make your story even more exciting, perhaps worthy of sharing at your next family reunion, talent show, or even a storytelling gig, then you can spice it up with a compelling opening. Openings for stories are hard. “Once upon a time” may work for fairy tales, but it doesn’t usually grab the listener’s attention (Well, perhaps if you say something like, “Once upon a time, I died.” That would certainly make your listener sit up and take notice.) For my audience – the middle-aged listeners at a typical storytelling event – I tried to pull on our common experience from childhood in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when coming up with an opening to draw listeners in. In stories over the years I have used references from television; old-fashioned video, board  and outdoor games; movies; memories from dining out or shopping; and more. What I try to do with listeners is give them a flashback to childhood in their time and then contrast it with my kids’ childhood. The contrast is often funny and sometimes poignant.

For my trampoline story, I could have referred to the hands-off way our parents let us play as kids (“Be back home by sundown! Bye!”). I could have referenced the relative lameness of toys back then (“Kids today have trampolines and airsoft guns. We had a jump rope and the ring with a lemon attached to it you could swing around on your ankle!”)

[Note: Remember that one? It was called the Lemon Twist. Here’s a trip down memory lane for you.]

For this story, I chose to evoke a familiar scene: the opening credits from Little House on the Prairie. The way the girls in pigtails careen down a steep slope while their parents look on fondly from the wagon stood in sharp contrast to my parenting style. I would imagine my child cracking her skull in three places on that grassy hill of doom and I would tell her to “Slow down!” With this opening, I let listeners remember that iconic scene and then I brought them into the theme of my story. Opening hook. Kabam.

5. Loop back to your opening hook in the closing.

One way to close your child’s story is to wrap back around to the opening hook. I might have chosen to relate the time in Little House when the “Great Gambini” tried a magic trick and ended up dying in the burning box. Sometimes it pays to be overprotective, eh?  That would have cemented my theme quite well, although it might have been a tad depressing for the audience. Tying back to an opening gives a story a rounded out feeling.  In the end, for the trampoline story, I went a different way. Listen below to hear what I did!

I hope you all will think about telling some of your children’s stories. They make wonderful keepsakes and it’s an easy way to dip your toe into the writing pool. We all love telling stories about our kids, right?

Here’s the trampoline story for those who’d like to hear it.:

 

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