Getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes us tick is not something that comes easily, even for those who are inclined to want to do it. It seems we naturally resist examining why we are the way we are; we want to avoid looking at our contradictions, the places where we don’t make sense. That, however, is exactly the place we need to write from in order to arrive at insight.
I have my memoir students in the UCLA Writers’ Program do this as a beginning exercise: As quickly as possible, write fifteen sentences using this construction, “I’m the kind of person who________ but ____________ .” For example, I’m the kind of person who votes democrat but hates to pay taxes. Think first about actions in the world, rather than thoughts or beliefs—the tangible as opposed to the abstract.
After they have done the fifteen, I ask that they observe the list, think hard, then choose one of those sentences to expand upon for a 20-minute timed writing. The structure of the sentence usually ends up falling away like old scaffolding. What emerges is insight—the key to making any narrative more finely layered, more profound.
Biography of Samantha Dunn Camp: Samantha Dunn Camp is the author of several books including the memoirs, Not By Accident, and, Faith in Carlos Gomez. Her essays are widely anthologized. For more information visit her website at http://www.samanthadunn.biz.