Brainstorming My Backstory

I attended Donald Miller‘s Storyline Conference in Portland on Monday and Tuesday. Paul told me to forget all responsibilities and go.

So, I went.

The title (like many of Donald’s titles) is confusing. It implies that the conference is for writers, but it’s not. The goal of the conference is to use what writers know to write a good life. We started by defining story, which is the account of a series of events. But a story can be hopelessly boring when it doesn’t go anywhere or we don’t like the characters. As the main characters in our life stories, we need to desire something enough to work to get it and take some risks to get there.

My next few blog posts will show my working through these exercises. If you want to join me — great! And post it so we can all map it together. That’s how the big-wigs do it — everything goes up on the whiteboard and they begin to work out the plot points with everyone pitching in to help.

EXERCISE ONE/Your Backstory

This exercise is to list all my “story turns.” A story turn is something that happens to the character which cannot be reversed. Positive or negative, life will never be the same. A person between 30 and 40 experiences between fifteen and twenty story turns. This is not a list of happy or sad events, it’s a record of Rubicons: points of no return.

Some questions that might help me reveal my story turns are these:

1) What three or four people have had the greatest effect on your life? Do you remember them saying or doing anything that changed your life?

* My mother gave me a strong moral compass, a sense of right and wrong. Her sixth sense (which she called The Lord) caused her to catch me whenever I did wrong. Her strong intuition made me afraid to cross her advice. She was smart and convicted. I wanted to forgo college for awhile and travel — either work as a nanny in Europe or on a Mercy Ship. She convinced me to go away to college. No one knows what would have happened if I followed my own wants, but my going to college definitely set me on a course that changed my life.

* Pil was my “tico” boyfriend in Costa Rica while I was on an exchange program. By that time, I had left behind my childhood faith, enamored with some sort of All-knowing Being or Unified Spirit in the world. I enjoyed learning about the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan religions and about anything that wasn’t familiar. With Pil, I had a strange spiritual experience that brought me to a crisis of faith. The experience was so powerful that I accepted my childhood faith and have no reason to doubt it.

* I returned home and got extremely sick. My first day feeling well (about a week later), I met Paul. Though I had sworn off relationships, I fell head-over-heels in love. I still hoped to travel, but I got married and helped Paul finish college. Then, I went back to college. And he continued college. Elsa arrived a month before he received his master’s degree.

* My sister Elida caused me to go to Europe twice more after going with my parents. The first was sort of a bachelorette party before I married. The second happened a year ago September. I turned down two full-time jobs, started a blog, and left for Italy. Somehow, gutsy moves are accompanied by Elida.

* Our best friends, Robin and Jason, have chiseled our dreams with us. These past two years, Robin helped me to stay firm in my decisions to turn down the full-time jobs to write. Both of them have encouraged me to write and helped me to set goals.

* Peter Thomas accepted my first magazine article. He said, “Well, it’s obvious you can write.” Those words meant the world to me. Regardless of his ability to judge, I took those words as a confirmation to follow my dream. Between nursing babies and homeschooling and chauffeuring and being in love, I kept writing.

* When I was pregnant with Elsa, I thought I’d stick her in daycare like everyone else was doing. I had a great job. Paul just got his teaching degree. We had school debts to pay. It was my mom who said, “Danielle, you’re not going to stick her in daycare.” She says things like that — just sort of speaks things into existence. I knew I couldn’t do it. And when I saw Elsa, when she was there, I didn’t want to. Elsa started me on a whole new course in life — homemaking.

2) What is your single greatest accomplishment? I think of a school I started with Heather. Facing teacher cuts, we decided to found a school based on Charlotte Mason method in the middle of a recession and in a town that was hard hit by the recession. It was a brazen thing to do. We actually succeeded. Everything was ready. The rest is a sad story. The plan was hijacked by the administrator we chose. Even though it wasn’t a lasting success, I feel like the fact that we got it to the point we did was a huge accomplishment. Other things that come to mind are my blogs which were written under extreme financial difficulties and pressure. We risked a lot for me to stay home, home educate, and write rather than work. And my family. I am very proud of who we are, how close we are, the things we find important. Growing a family requires sacrifice and love and courage. I think we have that.

3) What was the saddest day of your life?I was really broken up when I thought I had a path to run on (Bend in the snow) and it turned out to be a disappointment. I was really sad and scared when Greta had some unexplained health problems as a baby. I shed some bitter tears with my sister over the things she’s experienced with the breakup of her family.

4) What were the educational milestones of your life? I graduated from college in 1994 with a B.A. in writing and lit. I went back to school to get my teaching degree and received it in 1996. I wish I’d never done that. I wish I had the courage to pursue the writing. It didn’t seem practical back then. I was making nothing at the newspaper. Still, I wish I had stuck it out.

5) What was your first real job? I worked at a bookstore when I was a teen. When I was in college, I worked three jobs one summer to buy a car — babysat, washed dishes and bussed, and worked on an assembly line at HP. My first real job was a paid internship at the Graphic newspaper as a writer. I worked a bunch of temp jobs before landing my first teaching job as an ESL teacher in Hillsboro.

6) What are your greatest relational memories? Meeting Paul. Marrying Paul. Honeymooning with Paul. We camped all over Washington and Montana and slept in the back of a little pickup. I love traveling with him. We have so much fun. We hike and explore and there is no friction. Everything is so easy. We had our girls, each in a new place: Elsa in Portland, Greta in Kennewick, Ingrid in Vancouver, and Dagne in Prineville. My grandparents took all the kids and grandkids to Chile. That was pretty amazing. Speaking of that, it was the traveling that made my favorite memories. My parents took us on a trip around the states. We backpacked in Europe for a month. Paul and I took the kids to South Padre Island, Texas on an epic trip around half the states. Anne went with us.

7) Have you lost somebody you love? No one to whom we’re very close. Paul’s grandmother just passed away. We were lucky to have just visited her and see her in good spirits. My grandfather died a few years ago. I spent time with him as a child but we weren’t very close. I miss him though. We’ve had loved aunts and uncles go, but they were not sudden or unexpected.

8) What was your greatest mistake?I wished I would have traveled with Paul after getting my B.A. and started straight into writing. I wish I would have believed in myself then. I wish I didn’t feel conscience bound to be “practical,” but just forged ahead with my passion for words.

This was just a brainstorming session. I’ll make the actual list another day. I’d love to read other readers’ answers to these questions. Please share.


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