Survivors, How To Write Your Personal History

By Jill Winkelstein
Napa Writing Retreats

“So from the wise old pinnacle of my 49 years, I want to tell you that what you’re looking for is already inside you. You’ve heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it. You can’t buy it, lease it, rent it, date it or apply for it. The best job in the world can’t give it to you. Neither can success, or fame, or financial security — besides which, there ain’t no such thing. J.D. Rockefeller was once asked, “How much money is enough?” and he said, “Just a little bit more.” In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and says, “Yo!” – Anne Lamott

I love this quote because it so succinctly defines what I do as a creative writing workshop leader – I help people uncover the holiness that is already within them. People say to me, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write, but I don’t know how …” My eyes light up when I hear people say this, because the truth is that we all have a story within us, and if we can talk about it, we can surely write about it. In helping people get started and express themselves on paper, I have realized that each of us has a unique vision, a unique way of expressing ourselves and a very distinct, clear writing voice. It has been my privilege to assist people and bear witness to people’s creativity, passion and pain. Accessing your own voice is an incredibly powerful tool for healing. In this article, I hope to help you begin uncovering that voice as a way to write and record your own stories.

I first came to uncover my writing voice in a workshop that used the Amherst Writers and Artists method – a gentle, supportive and safe method for writing alone and in groups. After years of involvement in various creative writing groups and classes, I had finally stumbled upon a method that helped me discover what I truly needed to say and helped me to recognize my truest, strongest writing voice. The reason I was so affected by this method, I believe, is because I was finally freed from trying to “sound” like anyone other than myself. The Amherst method stresses anonymity – never assuming work is autobiographical – so writers feel free to write whatever they need to. It also never puts a writer “on the spot” – meaning that in a group setting, you are never forced to read what you’ve written. As writers, if we write with the idea that we must share this work, it can alter and block the creative process. We must write in complete freedom that our writing will be shared if, and when, we are ready to share it. The last, and I believe, most important part of this method, is the feedback given once a writer has presented his or her work – listeners say what they liked and what is strong in the writing. Often, critique of our writing can come too soon and block our creative flow. Pat Schneider, the founder of the Amherst method, uses an example of how we know intuitively how to encourage children – by giving them positive feedback on what they’ve created. Somehow, as adults, we feel that we no longer need this protection. What we often fail to recognize is how much we too need encouragement on what we’ve written, and how helpful it is to know what is strong and what is working in our writing. This is especially true for first draft writing, writing that the writer has barely had time to review before sharing with others.

This article is about beginning writing your personal history. For those with personal, and often difficult subject matter to write, it’s often difficult to know where to begin. What do you want to say? Where should you begin? What will you accomplish by writing it? For many, the act of even beginning to write can be intimidating process and our minds become flooded with fears about writing, such as: What if my writing isn’t any good? What if I don’t know what to say? What if people don’t like what I’ve written? What I hope to do is to help you to get started, stay focused, and discuss next steps once your work is finished. One of the most important things I’d like you to walk away from this article with is that creating your personal history will be (hopefully) the reward in and of itself. After all, it is the journey, not the destination that matters, and I hope to help you uncover your story with all of its richness, complexity and passion. Everything that has happened in our lives is ours to claim on the page – every experience, every sight and every sound are yours to take in, to create with, and to rearrange as you see fit. By claiming yourself as a writer – the writer of your experience, you take your power back and use it for your own creation.

Each of our motivations for writing our personal histories will be different: some will want to do it just to get the story out, others may wish to share their stories with chosen friends or family, and still others may seek publication for their work so it will reach a larger audience. What is important to remember is that all of these choices are valid: there is no “one way” to do this work – and the act of writing is a healing and therapeutic process – the closing of the gap of silence between the writer and the world.


Often, we do not know what we need to say until we begin – the act of writing (of communicating with ourselves) helps us to know what it is that we need to say. Still, each of us must find a place to begin our story. Where should you begin? Where each of us will begin will be different, and it’s important to honor that difference in ourselves. There is no “formula” for doing it right. Below are a series of exercises from the Amherst Writers and Artists method that can help you begin to uncover your story.

Remember that the follow exercises are only suggestions – potential launching points to begin your writing. I suggest you read through them and pick one or two that appeal to you and follow their lead. After you read the exercises and give yourself an assigned writing time (I suggest 20-25 minutes for each exercise initially), you can then share them with a group or re-read them and note what stands out for you in the writing.

Exercise 1: Write in response to a poem.

Take a few minutes and read the following poem. What memories, images and associations are sparked for you after you read this poem? Take whatever comes up for you, even if it feels difficult or you are resisting it. Write freely in response to this poem, letting your writing take you wherever you need to go. Feel free to abandon images as they come and go; follow the path that leads to your most powerful writing. Begin writing when you are ready. When 20 minutes have passed, find a place where you can stop your writing. If you are writing in a group, you may go around and share your work, if you choose, responding with what is strong in the writing. If you are alone, take time to re-read your work, noting the places that are fresh and that surprise you. You may wish to underline those parts that stand out – whether you are alone or in a group.


You work with what you are given the red clay of grief, the black clay of stubbornness going on after. Clay that tastes of carelessness, clay that smells of the bottom of rivers or dust.

Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live, each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table. There are honeys so bitter no one would willingly choose to take them. The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity, honey of cruelty, fear.

This rebus – slip and stubbornness, bottom of river, my own consumed life – when will I learn to read it plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire? Not to understand it, only to see.

As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty, we become our choices. Each yes, each no continues, that one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.

The ladder leans into its darkness. The anvil leans into its silence. The cup sits empty.

How will I enter this question the clay has asked?

– Jane Hirschfield

Exercise 2: Remembering a photograph.

Find a place where you can get quiet and relax. When you are ready, and if you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes. Let your body relax; take a few deep breaths in and out and let yourself get comfortable where you are sitting. When you are ready, invite your mind to bring up images of photographs. It can be a recent photograph or one from long ago. Let your mind bring up a series of photographs, until you settle on one photograph. When you are ready, I invite you to begin writing with this phrase: “In this one you are …” and speak to someone directly in the photograph. Remember: this prompt is only a suggestion; you can begin your writing in any way that you choose; using any of the images or associations that come up for you.

Exercise 3: Use a quote to begin your writing.

I suggest the following quotes as ways to begin your writing. Pick one that has energy for you and use it as a “way in”. Often a quote is an effective trigger for us; it gives us a definite starting point, but then allows us to go where we need to go.

Suggested quotes to begin your writing with:

“I am missing you …” “This is the one thing I could never tell you …” “A woman stands in the doorway…”

All of the above exercises are from Pat Schneider’s book, “Writing Alone and With Others” (Oxford University Press). This book is an excellent resource filled with dozens of exercises to spark your creativity.

Exercise 4: Remembering family.

Write down your father’s age when you were born. Then your mother’s age. Then write a brief description of the house where you were born, as you remember it or as you imagine it. Then write a letter to one or both of your parents, or about them.

Exercise 5: Using details.

Write in great detail about something you do often (shaving, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, folding clothes, driving to work, cooking a favorite dish). Use as much concrete detail as possible – let us into this world that only you know and experience.

Letting the Content Decide the Form

In her book “Writing and Alone and with Others,” Pat Schneider’s talks about the fact that we must never sit down and say “Today I am going to write a poem, or a short story or a novel.” These suggestions can overwhelm us and stop us in our tracks. She suggests beginning with one small, concrete detail and allowing ourselves to be led by our own imagery. Staying true to the content – what we need to say – will help us to decide what that writing will eventually become. In this beginning process, feel free to abandon the form – don’t worry about what the writing is about – so you can stay true to the content, the heart of your own story.

Resources to Consider

Once you begin your writing, you will begin finding your way. Because there is no exact formula for what you are doing – after all, no one has ever written the story of your life – you may decide that you want to build some structure around your writing practice:

  1. A good way to keep yourself “limber” is to write every day, so I suggest journaling every day. Find a time when you can have absolute quiet, or at least enough quiet to sit down and write. Give yourself a prompt or a topic to write about. A good way to begin is to pick up an object in your home that has meaning for you, preferably something you can hold in your hand. Get in close, examine it, and begin describing it in extreme detail. Let your description flow and take you on a journey; take the images as they come to you and write until you have exhausted all of your images.
  2. Find a supportive writing group – a group of other writers who want to support each other in their writing lives, in telling their stories, and moving forward with developing their skill and craft. For a list of Amherst Method led groups, go to
  3. Find supportive academic classes that help you develop and deepen your craft. Although these classes aren’t always the best place to spark your creativity, they can help you with the “nuts and bolts” of mechanics, structure and piecing together your story.

In Closing

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from doing this work is that what we are doing is brave – stepping into that unknown space where we don’t know what we’re going to say and then we find out is an act of courage. Listening to each other and sharing our writing with each other is a healing and intimate experience. As you move forward, I encourage you to find places and situations that help your writing to flourish. Trust yourself. Trust your writing. Below are some resources that can hopefully help you on your journey of discovery.

To find groups that are led by Amherst Writers leaders, check out For more information about the retreats I lead in Napa, go to Please contact me with any questions or comments at Good luck!