“Questions are open doors. They move you away from the stagnation of certainty into the openness of wonder.”
~Laraine Herring, On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block
I think of the brave souls called to write creative nonfiction as questers.
What we seek on each new quest is the truth of our stories. Setting out to draft a new tale, we begin an archetypal hero’s journey.
What initiates the quest are questions—about the memories that haunt us, no matter how many years have passed.
We proceed by doing our best to articulate the moments that shaped us, acknowledging the limitations of our own memories and perspectives.
The reward of our brave truth-seeking quests—even if we can never know all the answers—is deeper understanding. Greater self-awareness.
In any archetypal journey there will be challenges.
Just as our story characters face conflict but eventually experience some kind of resolution, we, the storymakers, may struggle at times in the writing process.
Just as questions initiate the quest, questions can help us along the way when we feel stuck or unsure of our next move. The questions we ask empower us with the answers we need to propel our stories forward.
We can ask questions that help us go deeper as we try to get closer to the truth.
We can ask questions to understand what might be getting in our way as we try to make progress with our work.
Different questions asked at different stages of the writing process can help us write the stories that matter to us most.
Questions that spark the story:
Why did that thing happen? Why did it matter so much? How did it change me?
There are few hard and fast rules for storytelling, but for a story to engage and satisfy a reader, some kind of transformation must take place—even if it is simply a change in perspective by the last paragraph.
Taking a curious approach to the moments that changed us and their impact can help us identify our most potent material before we start the drafting process.
“Find the points of change (turning points, learning points) in your life, and you will find your material.”
~ Adair Lara, Naked, Drunk and Writing
An awareness of what Adair Lara calls “turning points and learning points” can help save a lot of time searching in the dark for a moment of change that didn’t take place.
I recommend writers keep a journal where they can write about their writing.
Your processing journal is the place to freewrite answers to the questions that spark your story quests—and reflect on the answers to new questions that emerge as you write.
Questions that shape the story:
What is the best form to contain the story I feel called to tell?
Structure may not be where your head is when you set out to write a story, but there are many advantages to being mindful of form early in the process.
If you find the volume or emotional weight of your material overwhelming, structure can help frame your story, eliminating excess by showing you what fits and what you can leave out.
Implementing structure sets some parameters that will literally help your story “take shape.”
Some writers begin with structure as an experiment to see where it leads; others just start writing, then decide later how to shape their material.
Asking the question “What happens if I try this form or structure?” can invite some truly creative possibilities that improve your piece.
There are many options for storytelling—including segmented structures like the braided, collage, list, or photo essay.
Don’t be afraid to be playful with form, trying different options until you land on the most powerful vehicle for telling your story.
Questions that move the story forward:
Why do I feel blocked? What is creating the resistance I feel?
Writer’s block usually occurs when we come up against powerful feelings of vulnerability. Fear and self-doubt are to be expected when we do the brave work of questing for truth.
Resistance can point to the uncomfortable feelings that come up when we are on the brink of a new awareness.
Laraine Herring, author of On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block, tells us that breakthroughs are often just on the other side of our resistance.
You reach a point in your story where you have to cross into psychological territory you may not have ventured before. Asking yourself why you are feeling afraid, filled with doubt or resistance can trigger the answers you need to make your next move.
Ask your story what it needs, addressing it directly in your journal, and pay close attention to the answer. You might have to work through some feelings, or find the answers to new questions, before you can proceed.
But those new revelations and insights initially met by resistance may just point the way to the elegant pathway out of your story—offering the transformation your readers were faithfully hoping for.
Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara
On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block by Laraine Herring
The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith