I got divorced today. Well, by the time you’re reading this, some time will have passed. But probably not much, because it took nearly two years for the divorce to go through.
It is such a relief for the divorce to be over, because it means I can blog again. I don’t have to worry about saying something stupid that will affect my settlement, because when my ex-husband was trying to convince me not to go through with the divorce, he printed off and sent me past blog posts. Maybe he thought my past self could convince my current self to stay. I’m not sure.
Since I am allowed to tell personal stories about myself again, I’ve been thinking about how most bloggers skew to one side or the other, either over-sharing and making their blogs too personal, or making their blogs all about a specific topic and never putting much personality into what they write. There is a middle ground, but most bloggers don’t know how to get there. Here is my five-step process to becoming a better storyteller on my blog:
Step 1: Stop lying to yourself
I am fascinated by how much we, as humans, lie. We lie to manipulate, we lie to protect, we lie to be right, and a lot of the time, we lie with good intentions.
When you think about how much we lie to each other, it’s no surprise that we lie to ourselves the most. In his new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely explains that we have two opposing motivations, one in which we want to be good people, and one in which we want to get ahead in life, achieve our goals, and (often) make more money. In an experiment with a refrigerator, a bunch of college kids, Coca-Cola cans, and dollar bills, Ariely found that college kids had no problem taking free Coke from the refrigerator, but left the dollar bills sitting on the counter.
What this tells us is that truth is a spectrum, not a binary value. It’s gradable. And we often convince ourselves that we are truthful when we’re not through rationalization of where we are on the spectrum.
That we rationalize our actions to make ourselves look better is well documented. So here is one truth that’s hard to argue with: it is very hard to stop lying to yourself about what your story really is.
The divorce took so long because my ex-husband kept arguing with me over money, even though it was so little money that we probably paid 3 or 4 times it in lawyer fees arguing over it. But in the end, the crux of his settlement offer was not about money, but rather that I admit in the settlement papers that I borrowed money from his parents to pay off a loan on our condo.
I didn’t. At the time, I told him there was no way in hell I was going to take that much money from anyone, on a loan or as a gift. I tried to borrow it from the bank instead (and we got approved). But I know why he wanted me to say it. Because he knows that he took the loan from his parents without telling me and lied to his parents that I had agreed to it. That’s how controlling and manipulative he was.
So if he admits that he took the money without any sort of agreement from me, he has to admit to himself that he’s a control freak and it ruined our marriage. If he doesn’t, he can tell his next girlfriend that I’m the crazy one for leaving him.
Once I figured this out, I agreed to his terms immediately, on the condition that I pay him very little of what he actually wanted. As Han Solo said, “Words are cheap.”
Gulnara Karimova, who looks like the Ivanka Trump of Uzbekistan, has been covered in The New Yorker and The Atlantic in the last 6 months for her excessive tweeting that doesn’t amount to much substance. There are so many interesting things to say about this story, but what I find most interesting is how this woman is absolutely delusional about who she is. In Gulnara’s mind, she is the hero of the story, even as Americans are trying to persecute her. In The New Yorker article, in particular, I think she didn’t respond to the emails from reporters because they conflicted with the story she tells herself every day, about how she is a great person doing great things for her country.
When we lie to ourselves, we don’t see all the pieces of our story, which means we tell very bad versions of it, as in Gulnara’s case. I think the first step to telling a story is to be able to lay everything out on the table and choose the best stuff. But you can’t do that until you start telling yourself the truth about your life.
Step 1b: Get an outside perspective
Realistically, you will not be able to see your story clearly, because you are lying to yourself so much. This is why people hire resume writers and suddenly land the job, because other people can see your story so much better than you can, because they are not occupying its space all day.
So the first step is to admit to yourself that you are probably lying about a lot of things. My favorite example of getting a reality check is MaryEllen Tribby’s infographic about success:
Everyone who thinks they are successful can look at this list and find at least three things they are doing wrong. One of mine was saying I kept a journal and not actually doing it; after reading it, I immediately started a new moleskine. (Side note: Yes, it’s ironic that she can’t spell “successful.” Which maybe proves that perfect spelling, punctuation, and grammar are not an indicator of success.)
The second step is to form a hypothesis about what you might be lying about. If you are smart, you’ll write these down in your moleskine and hide it away so that you can look back on them when you’re stuck.
The third step is talking to others to see if your reality really matches with reality. For this, you’ll need to talk to your close friends and family whom you trust to tell you the truth. You know exactly who these people are, because they constantly give you a gut check when you get out of line.
For example, I love this article where Mark Bittman calls out Beyonce on endorsing Pepsi on his NYT blog. He’s right, but who cares? Beyonce killed it at the Super Bowl. Still, she should know that her brand is misaligned.
If all else fails, you probably need to step away from the story to get a better perspective. Around Christmas of last year, I was writing an article about the signs of alcoholism for a client and realized I had missed a very big piece of my divorce story. Because as my marriage was ending, and as I was trying to decide whether my marriage was really ending or not, I was also drinking vast amounts of alcohol 6 to 7 nights a week. If I wasn’t out at a bar with my co-workers, I was making a trip to the grocery store across the street for a magnum bottle of merlot. 1.5 liters, one night. Every night. If that is not a sign of alcoholism, what is?
Anyone looking at this story from an outside perspective would take one look at the timeline and say, “Monica, your marriage was turning you into an alcoholic. Why did you let it get so bad?” But I couldn’t see that at the time. I couldn’t see it afterwards, a year later, when I was trying to figure out what had happened during that time period. I only saw it long afterward when I was not doing anything related to my personal life.
It’s only from the outside that you can see these things. For example, anyone reading this story about how Lindsay Lohan did in the upcoming, much-hyped, and NC-17 rated movie The Canyons could tell Paul Schrader that he is an idiot for even thinking about working with her again. But he is blissfully ignorant.
By snatching up every reality-check you can find, you’ll automatically be able to tell better stories about yourself because you’ll be able to see all the pieces instead of just the ones you want. The more information you have, the more honest you can be, and the more prepared you will be to tell your story well.
Step 2: Learn how stories are told
Our brains are wired for story; so much so, that some scientists believe story was a greater evolutional advantage than opposable thumbs. Once you have all the pieces of your story, you can slot them into the right spots in your story structure. Which means you need to know a bit about story structure for your chosen medium.
The common knowledge about stories in the written form is that they have a beginning, middle, and end. But actually, this is a terrible definition because it’s so meaningless. And I have read what feels like a million books about story structure, and the only rule seems to be that if you are writing a book about story structure, you can’t use the same framework some other guy did and still sell your book.
That said, here are a few concepts that, if included in your blog posts, might help you tell better stories about your life:
1. A climax
The climax of the story of my marriage is not when I decided to get divorced. It’s when I was drunk at a coworkers house because I wasn’t eating and I wasn’t sleeping and thought I was a frat boy and could drink about 100 beers in a row and still walk afterwards. I couldn’t. I started walking, and then I blacked out for a second, and the next thing I remember is being flat on my back on my coworker’s really expensive glass table with at least 50 bottles ranging from full to empty knocked over onto his hardwood floors.
Someone helped me up, but I can’t remember who. No one laughed, because the situation was bad. Somehow, the glass table didn’t break, but probably some of the bottles did. I honestly can’t remember.
The climax of a story doesn’t have to be as dramatic as this. It can be any part of your story because its job is to anchor your story. Stephenie Meyer, while writing Twilight, arguably wrote the climax of her story first. But this defining scene, the one where Bella and Edward meet in the meadow and he finds a way not to kill her, ended up somewhere in the middle of the book by the time it was published. Meyer wrote a new climax scene where a tracker vampire nearly kills her, and that became the anchor for the story.
Either would have worked though. And, if you read that book carefully, you’ll notice that there are maybe two stories there, and that there is an uncomfortable shift from romance to thriller somewhere around 60% of the book.
I used to think there was only one “right” climax for every story. I’ve since learned that since the climax is the anchor, you can pick almost anything interesting to be a climax and build a story around it, as long as you answer the burning question before the story ends.
2. A burning question
The climax is what, I think, best defines the burning question of the story. Which is why I like to pick the climax first because it anchors the story and tells me what the burning question is. Once I have the burning question, I can work my way backwards.
In Twilight, the tracker vampire scene is the climax, so the burning question is, “does she die?” If the non-death meadow scene were the climax, the burning question would be, “do they get together?” Once you know what the burning question is, you can work your way backwards and figure out where all the other parts are. But if you start the story at the beginning, you’ll probably have to go back. That’s why pantsers do a lot more rewrites than plotters.
A “burning question” blog post would be stuff like sharing the results of an experiment in the form of a case study.
The burning question in my story about my divorce is, “did she finally end her marriage?” But actually, you already know. Because I told you at the beginning of this post. And if you are a long-time reader, I told you eighteen months ago when it first happened.
3. An inciting incident
The truth is, no one cares about the ending of a story. If you don’t believe me, watch reality TV. Watch any episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and you’ll notice they tell you what’s going to happen at the end of the episode about 50 times before they actually show it. But people still watch, because they want to see how the drama unfolded. That’s the good stuff. The outcome is just icing.
For my divorce, the inciting incident wasn’t the alcoholism. It was that my ex-husband was graduating from optometry school and wanted to keep making me work at jobs I hated. For a long time, my career was supposed to be a temporary means of money and I was supposed to switch to freelance and fiction writing once my ex could support us. As he got closer to being able to support us, it because clearer that he wasn’t going to let me make the switch.
I couldn’t possibly know this before the story unfolded for me, which is why I think for blogs, inciting incidents should be written about last, like a flashback. This allows you to talk about the transformation you experienced.
If you are confused about inciting incidents, Eric Bork has created an awesome list on inciting incidents that could easily apply to someone’s real life.
Step 3: Show your work
Now that you have a story structure in place, you need to fill in the details. This is a good time to tell you how all that math homework matters to you even if you are a writer and will never do algebra again in your life. Do you remember how teachers would mark the question wrong, even if you got the right answer? It was usually because you didn’t show enough work. You didn’t show how you multiplied by two, divided by 27, and ended up with a fraction.
I vividly remember a test I took in my advanced statistics course in college. The test had four questions, and I got almost every question wrong. But I still got a 96%, because the professor didn’t grade us on getting the right answer, but rather on doing various steps of the problem correctly.
In the blog post, the guy is complaining that the math he is doing, that his teacher wanted him to spell out, is second-nature and completely obvious. I agree with him, to an extent. But really, complaining about it does not help him in the real world, where people’s expectations are going to be vastly different from his own.
Writing fiction has helped me learn so much about character development, particularly because people constantly complain I haven’t done a good job at it. And I bet this is a big problem for bloggers too; they are writing decent content, but they suck at character development of themselves, so they become a “me too” blog. They are in such a rush, that they forget to do that last 10-20% to inject their own personalities into their work.
On a blog, the way to show your work is by getting very specific and sharing the extra details that no one shares. Think of how different this post would be if I didn’t have links, for example. If I didn’t have personal stories. It would be another “Five Steps to Writing a Blog Post” post that everyone else is writing, and you would be bored.
But details, surprisingly, make your work more universal. Carrie Brownstein credits the specific details of Portland for the universal appeal of her hit show, Portlandia, saying, “If you capture something in such detail, even though the occurrence may take place in Portland, I think you have a better chance of appealing to a bigger audience.”
You can’t always take paragraphs to do this if you are writing a blog post, so you have to get your stories down to a few sentences each. The master of sharing specifics in sound bytes is Taylor Swift, who is so good at giving explicit details in the lyrics of her songs, that the entire world can use her latest album to chart her love life.
Step 4: Cut out parts that are boring, obvious, extraneous (10-20% if you can)
Then again, you can over-share on details. Earlier I said stop lying to yourself, right? What I’m not telling you about my divorce is that I am so stubborn that I didn’t pay my ex-husband off years ago when I should have, just to end it. I would have saved money, but I didn’t want to give in to someone else’s delusion. Which maybe makes me as crazy as him.
But actually, I don’t need to tell you that. You can read between the lines and recognize that everyone in a divorce settlement that doesn’t involve kids but does drag on for two years is crazy.
You can figure out from the subtext of this post that I didn’t handle the divorce negotiations rationally. And I think this is where bloggers go wrong again—they think the secret to gaining an audience is to spill your guts. It’s not. It’s to be as useful as possible, while injecting small personal details that help people relate to you. This elicits empathy, which is what sets you apart from the millions of other “me-too” bloggers who are writing about a similar topic to you.
Don’t believe me? “Spilling your guts” on its own is so boring that 6 of the 12 annoying habits of therapists, as cited by their clients, have to do with a therapist being bored during client sessions.
So cut mercilessly from your blog post. That doesn’t necessarily mean write a short post; I cut 40% of this post and it’s still 3,000+ words. If you can’t figure out what to cut, ask someone to help you. And if you are worried that you are going to cut something good, take note that abstract art came about primarily because people are good at filling in details themselves. As Peter Schjeldahl writes in this article about “Vertical-Horizontal Composition” by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, currently on exhibit at MOMA, “the simpler the art, the more elaborate the rationale.”
Step 5: Remember that the ability to tell stories is ingrained in us
To tell a good story about yourself on your blog, you need to see how stories are typically told and then fit your life into a story structure. I’m not convinced there is a right story structure, though. I think, in general, that story structure is like money, and sometimes throwing structure/money at a problem helps you make progress, even if it’s a temporary solution.
So here is the last rule: I could give you a million more rules about writing your story, but the truth is that we all already know how to tell stories. We stop practicing storytelling when we are kids, though. So maybe the best way to tell better stories about yourself is to practice.
Also, no one can tell your story but you. I tell all my editing clients this: that if one of my critiques doesn’t feel right to them, they should just ignore it. Because it really doesn’t matter if I’m right if they end up hating their work because of it.
Likewise, if your gut tells you to break these rules, you probably should. You’ll be much happier. Plus, you can tell yourself you are taking an artistic stand, which always feels fun.
Like Meyer’s first book. I think it could have been two separate novels: one about hooking up with a vampire, and one about the perils of hooking up with a vampire. Then again, I have not sold half a billion books, but I know that’s the next story I want to tell.
And ultimately, that’s why I’m happy my divorce is over. I can write again, publicly, which is what I need to be doing every day to reach my publishing goals. Then, maybe by this time next year, I’ll be able to tell you what I’m struggling with today, and how I overcame it to publish more stories to you.