How to become a storyteller

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

To write a memoir, you must evolve from someone who randomly remembers bits of life to someone who purposely turns them into a story. This shift is revolutionary.

Picture yourself as one of those travelling storytellers who come to the local library. With dramatic voice and exaggerated gestures, they establish rapport with their wide-eyed audiences. Sometimes these charismatic tellers dress in costume or paint their faces to help usher their listeners into an altered state. That primal relationship between teller and listener evokes images of aboriginal rituals, in which the roots of courage and identity are told around campfires. Storytellers hold an almost mythic place in our collective imagination.

All memoir writers attempt to inhabit that sacred space. When we translate our mundane memories into the magical language of stories, we gradually come to realize that these details are, in fact, the stuff of life itself, overflowing with universal, idealistic, and glorious principles. It’s the storyteller’s job to reveal the universal contained within the mundane.

So the journey to write your memoir is not simply looking backward to remember the past. You also look forward to your own creative metamorphosis, to deepen your skills as a culture warrior, as an innovative truth teller, as an interpreter of the daily grind, and a hero of the long view.

When you first remember the facts of your life, the sequence might sound flat. When you add emotional swirls, you offer a more humanized view. As your collection grows, you increasingly visualize a story, and begin to imagine how to lead your future readers on the journey storytellers have been leading you since your parents read you the first tale. From that vantage point, you transform the bits of life into a link between one individual and all of humanity.

Bestselling memoir authors like Frank McCourt have climbed into that ethereal space at the pinnacle of civilization. He spent years as a school teacher, telling stories to his students in order to keep them entertained. From that experience, he gained the skill to write a best selling memoir.

John Grogan spent years as a newspaper columnist, scanning the world for a good story. Thanks to the skill he developed at work, he transformed the family dog into the world famous star of Marley and Me.

Dani Shapiro has written something like nine books, four of them memoirs. In her latest bestseller she mentions that she has done thousands of readings to audiences all over the world. What better way to inhabit the sacred space of storyteller than to see the faces of your listeners as you tell them your story?

These extraordinary individuals achieved expertise, but how about people like me? I had been shy most of my life, and had almost no practice telling a story about anything, let alone myself.

During the years it has taken me to learn to write my story and teach others how to find theirs, I have become increasingly aware that we all have storytelling burned deep in our souls. And so, becoming a storyteller is a journey to discover what you already contain.

Of course, with practice you will develop literary microskills, such as scene building, chapter construction, and character development. But the most important skill of all is your willingness to inhabit the role of a storyteller. Like much of the memoir writer’s journey, it requires that you reach higher than you thought possible.

You can only achieve that goal when you believe in your ability to do so. Like Tinker Bell tells Peter Pan, he can fly if he believes. So can you!

Register for a free online discussion about this state of mind I will be having with Linda Joy Myers, founder of National Association of Memoir Writers.

Trusting in your ability to stay in a storytelling frame of mind will help you write a strong story that will sustain an emotional connection with your future readers. And after the memoir is complete, you will have grown from your effort to see life as a story.

While I can urge you to find your own storytelling knack, I can no more teach it to you than Tinker Bell could teach Peter how to fly. Once you realize that it’s attainable, you will embark on the adventure yourself. And like all storytellers you will eventually return from that adventure and tell us what you found.

Linda Joy Myers, another champion of the storytelling knack is hosting me for a discussion about this topic. As president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, she has been encouraging people to follow a similar path, for years. Together we will explore the vantage point of the storyteller, and offer tips that help you achieve it.

The session, typically for members only, has been opened up to anyone. And if you can’t make it to the live interview, you will be able to listen later.


Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

2 thoughts on “How to become a storyteller

  1. This is my first time on this site and this was the first thing I read and I have to tell you, it was really encouraging. I appreciate the way you describe the metamorphosis one goes through as they discover what was in them all along. I have to be honest and tell you my story frightens me. I came out to my family at 14 and two days later I was disowned and committed to a brutal mental hospital in Toronto. No one in my family ever spoke to me again. I ran away to New York where prostitution and drugs played their parts in my survival. I’ve been clean for 20 years now and have a very deep need to tell my story as a way of releasing it’s power over me. I feel in my heart I will be free from some of the painful residue that has shadowed me for so long if I tell the world what happened to me. I’m scared people will judge me and of course that’s death to a writer. I know commercially my story will resonate, but my emotions are what cause me so much apprehension. There’s so much pain I need to cleanse and I can’t begin to do that until I purge what haunts me…the truth. My truth has to become my power so I’ve set myself a the end of the coming winter I will be ready to let my story fly. This is a wonderful site and I am going to access it as I work on my book. I’m going to register today. Thanks for this little blurb about motivation and the intricate details that go along with the realization of one’s truth, it’s a complicated journey but sites like this one are really helpful and I can’t wait to dive in.

  2. I’m glad you found the blog helpful, Cyrus. I have posted more than 400 essays here as a way to pass along my insights into the memoir genre. I hope you keep reading and learning!

    Your comment is a wonderful testimony to the healing power of writing memoirs – in your attempt to share your story, you will be forcing yourself to construct a framework that helps you make sense of the whole journey. In other words, as you seek to share your truth with others, you will be seeing it more and more clearly. It’s a wonderful process.

    Best wishes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.