Gathering Lived Experience Narratives

Len runs a small coffee house and offers a range of eclectic collectables in a historic building in a small Central Victorian town. When I called in for coffee we talked about the writing courses that I offer and he invited me to bring my coffee to the kitchen and observe some ‘performance art’. As he prepared a batch of his very popular scones we chatted and he told me that if I hadn’t seen the work of Agnes Varda then I really needed to check out her award-winning documentaries that focus on the lives of ordinary people.

Who will you interview? Who will you develop a portrait for?

Let Your Fingers Do The Talking

Old Grumpy’s fence was right behind the cricket wicket and when the balls flew over the fence he sliced them in half, so the bad deeds gang came up with some inventive revenge tactics.

Originally I applied an exercise that involves tracing around both hands and creating fun characters on each finger tip with young students in the primary schools.

Initially, we read the classic short story, ‘The Bad Deeds Gang’ and extracts from ‘The Body’ by Stephen King. Time permitting we watched the movie, ‘Stand by Me’ which was based on King’s, ‘The Body’.

Inspired, students loved creating opposing gangs, with gang leaders not to be messed with, weaker characters who could be manipulated and so on. They loved developing stories about the characters in each gang, the family dogs who followed them and writing detailed accounts about some of the altercations that took place.

Not to miss out on all the fun I have found that adult participants in a Lived Experience Course enjoy remembering the gangs that existed in their school days. Similarly, they find it cathartic to recall the bullies who led some gangs that existed back in the day and the long term impact that some of the schoolyard relationships had on their lives.

In a recent Writing for Wellness course, this exercise was applied to effectively draw out material that could be included in any Lived Experience Memoir.

After tracing their hands I asked participants to identify, on five fingers of one hand, the people who had a positive impact on their life (living or dead) and then to identify five on the other hand (living or dead) who had created some issues for them.

James explored the famous literary figures who had impacted on his work.

Once you have identified these people you may spend some time interviewing them, writing unsent letters to share with them the influence they had, engage in dialogue (active imagination) with them, create detailed portraits or fit them into a piece about a pivotal time.

Little Red Suitcase of Memories

Having shown the group my little red suitcase, filled with a lot of photos and ephemera that was on my fridge in the house I left two years after my husband’s death, I asked them to bring along a case or a shoebox full of bits and pieces. We will randomly draw something out, spend some time closely examining the photo or item, dig deep into the well of memory and write freely for twenty minutes.

Mirabai Starr and Natalie Goldberg have documented guidelines for this kind of writing.

  • Set a timer and write for twenty minutes without stopping or censoring yourself.
  • Lose control. Allow yourself to be naked! Follow your heart and write without restraint.
  • Be quite specific. Stay as grounded as possible and use expressive language.
  • Don’t think! Thinking is the enemy! Just take off the leash and go for broke.
  • Give little thought to punctuation, spelling, grammar, sentence construction. Liberate yourself from any constraints.
  • Remember that this is not about being published. This is compost! You can write absolute twaddle if you like. There will be more than enough time to edit later.

Autoethography of a Writer

Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.

One way to get into writing about your lived experience is to begin by writing about something as simple as the story of your life as a writer. When you tackle this task write creatively, focusing on as many concrete events as you can. Give your story a beginning, middle and an ending. Make your story interesting rather than telling about it in ‘this happened, then this’ fashion. Make sure to include memories of childhood and adolescent writing experience.

Here are some questions to consider as you begin to work.

Do you remember being taught how to write?
What principles were you taught?
By whom?
Where did you write?
Do you recall any products of your early writing experiences?
What made you like or dislike writing?
When you write now, how do you feel?
What emotions circulate through your body?
Do you feel as if you are a subjectively or emotionally different person when you are writing? Characterize these differences?
Is writing a rational, emotional or spiritual experience for you? Explain or specify.
Do you feel compelled to write or do you avoid writing as much as possible?
Describe the best and worst writing experiences of your life. What made each memorable? How do you write?
Where do you write these days?
Is writing integrated into your daily routines?
Do you write every day or only when you must?
What are your work habits as a writer? How do you get started?
From what sources do you draw inspiration to write?
How many drafts do you typically write?
Do you write with the door open or closed?
In restaurants, bars, or coffee shops?
What is your ideal writing environment?
How do you organize your space for writing?
With whom do you share what you write?
What are your revising or rewriting habits or patterns?
Do you have someone to rely on as an editor, critic or writing buddy?
How do you know when you have finished writing a particular piece?
Do you act “professional” as a writer?
What does “acting professional as a writer” mean to you?
What forms of writing are you engaged in, e.g, poetry, journalism, short stories, memoir? Which do you enjoy most? Why?
What are your hopes and aspirations as a writer?
What are your fears and apprehensions?
What kind of future do you envision as a writer?
What would you like to accomplish?
What will you need to do to achieve this goal?
What obstacles are in the way of your writing?
To what extent do you get distracted by social media, e-mail, text messaging and phone calls?
How can these distractions be overcome?
Do your family members and/or friends understand the importance of writing to you?
Are you able to keep them from disturbing you while you are working?