In his free-wheeling essay, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir,” writer Harrison Scott Key describes his reluctance to write life stories, afraid he might be considered a narcissist or a bore— “I mean, who did I think I was? Who would want to read about me? . . . How do I map the expressionist strangeness of my inner life in a way that invites others to sit in the cockpit of my soul and soar through the atmosphere of me, which is the only me I’ve ever been and the only unique thing I possess anyway?”
Such lyrical self-doubt is fun to read, creates a bit of tension, and makes the narrator seem like a real person. The author seems to be full of ironic self-doubt.
One great benefit to writing life story is that—unlike real life—your imperfections and peculiarities improve you.Your quirkiness makes your character interesting, knowable and believable. What you do, what you say, what you wish you had said. Yet, too often first drafts contain a narrating protagonist cast as hero or victim—a flat character without conflict, irony or the potential of change.
Why is it so difficult to create a complex character that is actually YOU? Maybe you rarely see yourself clearly. Or you aren’t confident that particular habits, thoughts, experiences or guilty pleasures will interest anyone. Or maybe it seems unnatural to chronicle and describe ordinary human foibles.
”You need to have or acquire some distance from yourself . . . to see yourself from the ceiling . . . to assess accurately when you are charming, and when you seem pushy, mousy or ridiculous,” says essayist Phillip Lopate in his craft essay, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” Lopate believes it essential to “maximize that pitiful set of quirks, those small differences that seem to set us apart from others.”
How to begin? I recommend a day of focused self-discovery. Keep a pocket-sized notebook and pen at your side. Keep track of your own thoughts, actions and words as you live an ‘ordinary’ life. Choose a day when the places you visit differ widely. Take notes. What do you do with your hands when you are nervous? Where are you when you feel most annoyed? What foods do you refuse to eat? How far will you go to avoid something you dislike? On what do you binge? What body part do you try to disguise? Do you have contradictory ideas and values? Nagging self-doubt or overconfidence? Are you superstitious?
Stop to record details of your observation. Take some time to think about what you learned, then sit down for a timed writing session, with pocket notebook at your side— Create a character sketch of YOU, using the third-person pronoun if that makes the task easier. Later, try to weave at least one element of quirkiness into a draft of a story in progress. Or, begin a new story today!