Updated: Sep 4
Most of life is characterized by tiny moments that add up over time but don’t necessarily seem dramatic when they happen. In many instances, we may know that we’ve achieved something significant, but we also know how gradual that success was and that it came in stages without any one obvious turning point that seems worthy of a story.
Likewise, there may be events that stick out in our memories as monumental, but when we try to figure out how they relate to a larger narrative running throughout our life, there isn’t always a clear connection.
And that's okay really. Even a chain of events that seems dull at first can be livened up if you start looking more deeply at what happened.
So how do you do it? How do you turn a whole lot of nothing into something that engages people’s attention? How do you make a steady progression of small changes seem dramatic? In screenplay terms, how do you find the beats that make up your story?
In my experience, the most reliable solution is to just start talking. Find someone who wouldn’t mind learning a little more about you – it could be a friend, colleague, or partner - and ask them to listen as you rattle off some of the ideas floating around in your head. Then ask them what they hear and, even more importantly, which parts they’d like to hear more about.
While no one knows your life better than you do, you’re also often the person least equipped to pick out the interesting bits. Try this out and you’ll be surprised how often someone wants to hear more about some small detail you'd previously overlooked.
I was recently asked to develop a personal story about a surprise. I thought it would be easy; after all, I frequently exclaim out loud that “life is full of surprises.” And yet, when I looked at the important moments in my life, nothing seemed adequately surprising.
The truth is, as an excitable person prone to being overly dramatic, when I say “life is full of surprises,” I’m usually talking about getting an email from someone who I thought blew me off or a right wing politician acting with even more cruelty than I thought possible. Having low expectations means I’m regularly astonished by reality – just not in ways that change my life. Instead these are the kinds of ordinary surprises which can brighten my day or leave me disappointed in humankind.
So I asked my man Marc if he’d listen to me talk about some of the times I’d been surprised and tell me what stuck out. I started with some obvious choices, went a little deeper, and then, with a little prodding, hit on an epiphany I once had while driving north on Interstate 5 (beats aren’t always events, they can be realizations too).
Had anything actually happened on that drive? No. Not exactly. But a lightbulb went off which changed the trajectory of my life forever – and I was truly surprised. On the surface, it was way less dramatic than an unexpected pregnancy (the surprise with which I’d started) but in terms of impact – it fit the bill. Stories are about change and I could honestly say that the person who had left Olympia on that fateful drive was not the same one who arrived in Tacoma.
Stories are meant to be shared. They build connections between people, they strengthen bonds, and they inspire movements. But you don’t have to wait until your story is complete to let someone in on it; in fact, letting them in on the creation stage, may give you what you need to find your story in the first place.
The mission of Represent! Editorial is to support global majority activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and artists committed to sharing their stories, their expertise and wisdom.