Writing Practice Prescription

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Writing Your Story from True Life Experiences

February 5th, 2008 · 24 Comments

Here is the handout used for a recent 1.5 hour workshop:

Learn to write your story for healing and helping

Handout for January 31, 2008 workshop


Ellen Taliaferro, MD


The stories you hear and observe each day weave the rich fabric of your work and personal life. No wonder that at least one friend or relative has no doubt said to you, “You should write a book.” If so, did you want to faint at such a daunting thought? Or did you just wish for more time to write a book while at the same time harboring a secret knowing that there would never be enough time.

Think again. You do have enough time. This workshop shows you how to:

  • Develop a writing practice in the middle of your busy life
  • Turn your life experiences into rich, captivating stories
  • Decide to self-publish or find and work with a publisher

Discover the benefits of writing your story from true life experiences

The unexamined life is not worth living.

When you begin to write and immerse yourself in the writing process dedicated to relating your life experiences, you begin to live an examined life. Living an examined life provides insight and the healing effects of disclosure. Moreover, as reflected in Eastern philosophy, when you heal and help yourself, you heal and help others.

Dr. Robert Sommer, in his 2003 article “The Use of Autobiography in Psychotherapy,” notes that a recent explosion of published memoirs reflects the “public hunger for authenticity, a preference for the real over the fictional life.” (J Clin Psychol. 2003 Feb;59(2):197-205.) When you walk into a bookstore, you will find that nonfiction memoir books compete with novels for front-row billing.

Dr. Sommer notes that the benefits of memoir reading provide the reader with:

  • An inside view of the issues and challenges of the author
  • Personal and strong story lines that pull the reader through the book
  • Identification with the author

I think that the compelling narrative of memoirs gives readers safety through distance. As they read about the struggles of the author they can see with clarity some of the struggles in their own lives and they have hope when they rejoice with the successes of the author. Such vicarious victory may be the next best thing to “being there.”

What a gift you bestow on the reader when you undertake the challenge of capturing your own stories and turning them into compelling memoirs.

Develop a writing practice to write your book

People working in the healing and helping professions refer to their professional activities as practices. What makes their work a “practice?” A practice implies a set of activities performed often and repeatedly to set the stage for habitual engagement and proficiency.

Make the practice of writing your own

To add a writing practice to your routine, take my 90-day WellWriting® challenge:

  • Write 32 minutes every day at least three times a week
  • Write fast, without thinking or editing
  • Write about emotionally charged experiences
  • Every 3 to 7 days read and reflect on what came out of these writing sessions–jot down any insights that arise from your review and reflection

Supplement your writing practice with writing your book exercises

On the days that you are not writing about emotionally charged experiences in life, write 32 minutes each day about your book:

  • What is your life story about?
  • How will writing your life story help you?
  • What benefits will your readers reap from reading your story?
  • What 10 to 15 points do you want to make in your book?

How to turn life experiences into rich, captivating stories

Writing for story marks the beginning of your successful writing journey. The trip doesn’t end until readers are interested in reading what you write.

The difference between a written memoir and a written-and-read memoir rests lin good storytelling. A good story draws readers in, challenges them, and then provides resolutions to the conflicts put forth in the story. Successful stories:

  • Have a beginning, middle, and end
  • Are rich with details that call forth the five senses of the reader
  • Are fueled by conflict and resolutions

While bringing all of this together might seem overwhelming, don’t fret. Start with baby steps. Here’s how you do it:

  • Outline your story
  • Draft your story
  • Craft your story

When I listen to successful writers, I often hear them refer to outlining as the “O” word. Once they introduce the concept of outlining, different writing styles emerge. Some writers outline in great detail, others start to outline and faint along the way, and others just plunge in with no outline. Each approach provides advantages and disadvantages.

One simple five-step approach has saved my writing soul and serves me best when it comes to story writing.

Every step consists of three-word sentences, each consisting of a noun, verb, and predicate. The first three-word sentence introduces a complication to set the stage for conflict. The last three-word sentence proclaims the resolution of the conflict. The three sentences in between detail the route the protagonist’s journeys between the first step and the last step.

Write the five steps in this exact order:

  • Step one–complication
  • Step five–resolution
  • Step two
  • Step three
  • Step four

The inherent wisdom to this approach is that you set up your story by introducing the conflict. Next you decide how your story will end. From there, you fill in the middle.

Here is an example of this five step, three-sentence progression:

  1. Boy loves girl
  2. Boy charms girl
  3. Girl charms boy
  4. Boy loses confidence
  5. Boy loses girl

Steps two, three, and four would have been quite different had the author of the outline decided that the story would end with “boy gets girl.” The charm of this approach is that it is easily remembered and that it gives the writer a compass and map at the beginning of the journey.

How to decide whether to self-publish or work with an established publisher

Pros and cons exist for each publishing process. The following guidelines can help you choose.

Choose to self-publish if:

  • Your book is a nonfiction book
  • You want to revise it often
  • You want the book to come out sooner rather than later
  • You want complete control of the book from content to cover and from marketing to distribution
  • You don’t have an agent and don’t want to undergo the expense of time and money to get one.
  • You are working with a small niche market

Choose to work with a publisher if:

  • Your book is a work of fiction or poetry
  • You have a wide audience and want to reach as many readers as possible
  • Your main concern is the content of the book. You are happy to leave cover and related details to an experienced publisher
  • You are new to the book writing business and want the guidance of an experienced publisher
  • You already have an agent or want to work with one

Today’s technology for publishing changes from day to day. As the technology changes, so do the cost and benefits change. Your best approach is to research the decision to work with a publisher or self-publish as much as you can before you make your choice.

Ellen Taliaferro, MD, has written three books and given numerous presentations on the healthcare aspects of family violence prevention and intervention, WellWriting® (a form of expressive writing aimed at healing), and stress management. She is the Medical Director of the Keller Center for Family Violence and Intervention at the San Mateo Medical Center in San Mateo, CA. Dr. Taliaferro is the co-founder and former executive director of Physicians for a Violence-free Society. In 1998, she founded the Violence Intervention Prevention Center at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, TX, and served as its first medical director. Dr. Taliaferro invites you to visit her website at www.healthaftertrauma.com and sign up for her free newsletter.

Tags: healing · helping · writing

24 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sushant // May 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    this small content has given me a spark to write a book based on my true life incidents.i dont know whether it will benefit the readers or not but one thing i can assure that every page of my book will keep my readers immensely imerged into my book.

  • 2 Sary // May 30, 2012 at 3:24 am

    My experiences with life in my own words in the making. would be happy to have some helpful inputs and guidelines.


  • 3 Ellen Taliaferro, MD // May 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Thank you for your comment.

  • 4 merini // Aug 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    i am trying to write book about my stormy marriage life. I had no idea where to start until i found out about this web.I believe theres a lot of women out there that are going through what im going through, and i want to reach out to them by telling my story on how I managed to have the courage to walk out of a very abusive marriage telling myself that enough is enough.I would really like to get more help as well in completing my book if possible.Thank you

  • 5 monica florence // Nov 21, 2012 at 2:40 am

    I really want to write a book about my true life experiences. i haven’t had a good life but have managed to achieve in life,I wish to inspire somebody whop is going through what i went through and encourage them. am glad I got this basic advice

  • 6 Ellen Taliaferro, MD // Nov 23, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Go to every writers conference that you can. I recommend San Francisco writers conference if that location works for you

  • 7 Bekele Mekonne - Rabo // Dec 1, 2012 at 2:04 am

    Dear Ellen,
    I want to write up my journey in life. I found your advise on this website so useful and to the point. It gave me the energy to start writng right now. Please send me some ideas on how to format my life expierence book. Is there any software that I can purchase?

    With kind regards,

  • 8 Bekele Mekonne - Rabo // Dec 1, 2012 at 2:09 am

    Dear Ellen,
    I want to write up my journey in life. I found your advise on this website so useful and to the point. It gave me the energy to start writing right now. Please send me some ideas on how to format my life experience book. Is there any software that I can purchase to help me format my book?

    With kind regards,

  • 9 Davi Damson // Jan 5, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this knowledge, It’s instructive and beneficial. I like the 5 steps point

  • 10 Davi Damson // Jan 5, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this helpful knowledge

  • 11 Jack Singh // Jan 10, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    An excellent article.

  • 12 Luraine // Feb 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Dear Miss Ellen,

    Thanks for the advise. Today Feb 14 is my first day to write my own story. This is one of my goals for this 2013. I hope to get more advices to you after these. Thank you. God Bless!


  • 13 smilia // Feb 18, 2013 at 3:49 am

    I just wanted to find out how I can write about my experiences and how i can inspire others in similar situations.

  • 14 nate // Mar 10, 2013 at 8:55 am

    this site is motivating. growing up in a remote community in Ghana where there was just enough or none at all to depend on, i have been able to cross the mountains, hills and seas and thick forests where dangerous wild animals dwell, i have come far and believe if i put my experiences into writing it will help others. thanks for this info.

  • 15 lorna // Apr 22, 2013 at 7:14 am

    i have found your advice real helfful, as i have started writing my book and it already on chapter five and i think am on the right track and gains new insight. thank you

  • 16 Ellen Taliaferro, MD // Apr 23, 2013 at 6:12 am

    Thank you for letting me know about your progress. Keep writing and do not give up, no matter what!

  • 17 Cher // Apr 26, 2013 at 1:36 am

    I found your 5 step process extremely interesting, especially since it’s the process I used writing a book I just completed. It was based on a true story in my life ~ where I nearly committed suicide. It’s not published yet. Your advice to self-publish is what I was looking for. Thanks!

  • 18 Ellen Taliaferro, MD // Apr 26, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Right now I recommend going with Kindle direct publishing. I know several folks who have gone this route in the past four months and they are very pleased. Please keep us up to date on your progress.

  • 19 Emmanuel Suyum // May 3, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Hello, I am Emmanuel Suyum, am sixteen years of age. I have a very pathetic childhood experience from my parents when I was a kid, my pathetic experience was almost affecting my life growing up. But God made it in such a way that I met some people who always encourage me, take me to leadership and lifeskills training seminars and also advice me to be reading inspirational books which now I can’t do without. I want to write a story about my experience in order to encourage, and inspire young people like me to read inspirational books which will help them in their personal growth and developement and see the hope and possibilities in life.

  • 20 Patricia // May 9, 2013 at 2:45 am

    very inspirational I just have to get going. Need to write a book to held other women before it’s too late. Most of all to heal myself

  • 21 Patricia // May 9, 2013 at 2:48 am

    Hi sorry I do naot have a website. I want to give women who love too much my story to help them early enought to save themselves lots of unnecessary pain and wasted years holding on to someone that will never change.

  • 22 Katrina Schenfield // Jun 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Dr. T, thank you so much! This post is so valuable for me! I love the way you broke every aspect of writing down; the steps of writing, examples of those steps, how often to write and what to write about. You did a beautiful job! Thank you!

  • 23 Donita Rensberger // Aug 6, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Hi Ellen,

    My life was great until I hit 21. I had 9 different pregnancies & 1 live son who died 29 min after birth. From then on there have been so many ups & downs, my life is unbelievable. I used to journal daily just to get my feelings out. I have MS, Sjogren’s Syndrome & lots of other problems. My experience would be related to help others with their faith in God. Any help you would give me will be so appreciated I can’t even begin to tell you how much. I’m still married (38 years now) to my high school sweetheart so you can imagine some of the things we’ve gone through. We do have 2 adult children of our own & 4 grandchildren so far. I’m almost 57 & really want to write something people desire to read & talk about or even study some of the situations I’ve gone through. I live in Northern Indiana & have limited energy. Please help me. Thank you so much! Yours truly, Donita

  • 24 Ellen Taliaferro, MD // Aug 6, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    I suggest you go to writer conferences or book signings where you can ask the writers questions after they present.

    Start studying and start writing!

    You tube searches for authors also offer much. I follow Sue Monk Kidd.

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