Listening to Ghosts: Picking the Topic for a Personal Narrative

ask a writer

Recently, one of my blog readers wrote to ask me the following question (paraphrased):

Subject: How do you choose an autobiographical incident?

I am a student of a creative writing class and my professor assigned us to write a 5-page autobiographical incident. I don’t know what to write about. I know you have your expertise on this and I’m hoping you could suggest something.

My Response

Thanks for reaching out to me! I’ve certainly written many personal narratives. Choosing which experiences to talk about is tricky to explain. For me, the stories almost feel like they choose themselves. They are stories that feel important somehow, and telling the story is often my way of coming to understand that part of my life better. The experience often feels like it’s bouncing around inside me. When I first noticed this, the stories felt like restless ghosts unwilling to let me sleep. Then I learned they were just asking to be spoken. How do you speak your ghosts? How do you figure out which ghosts to speak? Well, since you’ve been given a narrow scope, you have both an advantage and disadvantage. You can feel your way through those experiences in your life during those years and ask yourself a few questions. There are questions to ask yourself later that will matter as you write the story itself. At some point, you will need to ask, “Will anyone but me like this story? Will anyone but me get it? How can I make this interesting? How can I make this universal?”

But those are questions for the future. For now, the question is how to listen to ghosts. How can you tell the difference between a creaking door and a true specter? And here are my thoughts:

  • Listen memory by memory. Searching through your memories can be like sifting through dirt and grit while panning for gold. You can’t see the glimmer until you roll it around for a little while. So find a way to sort through the memories (chronologically, by category, by free association) and start going through them one by one, without trying to pre-judge whether a story is worth telling. Just let yourself roll the memories around for a little while.
  • Listen to the usual suspects. Some stories are told over and over, and for good reason. Look for stories of personal failure, loss, or victory; embarrassment, growth, or discovery; facing heartbreak, death, or despair; times your beliefs about yourself or the world changed; major milestones in your life; the best days and the worst days of your life.
  • Listen to the unusual suspects. The situations listed above can be great stories, but don’t assume good stories are only found in such extremes. Some of the best stories I’ve read have been about seemingly mundane topics. If you have a vivid memory about cleaning the house or shopping for groceries, there’s probably a reason that memory stuck. The real story comes from helping us understand what makes that mundane moment so significant for you.
  • Listen for what interests you. If you’re bored, your readers don’t stand a chance.
  • Listen for what scares you. If the possibility of writing about a topic is frightening to you, it’s almost certainly a worthwhile story.
  • Listen for questions. If your experience is troubling you because it feels unresolved, it’s probably a good story. Often, the best stories aren’t answers but questions. Why does this still hurt? Why did I laugh when I should have cried? How could he do that? How could I do that? Why didn’t we see it coming? Writing is a venue not only for expressing what we believe but for figuring out what we believe.

Best of luck in finding and writing your story.

Write on,


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Note: This post was originally published in February of 2014.