How to Think Big About Your Story

                                                                                                                            Photo by Steve Pereira

                                                                                                                            Photo by Steve Pereira

I have a client named Crystal Chin. She first started writing her memoir in one of my classes at UCLA, where she said she wanted to write about her life in dance. She began writing, and went around and around about how to frame her story – which in her mind, at the time, was simply about where to start. Should it be her first dance class, her first dance competition, her most wild dance moment, her darkest dance moment, that time she danced on that well known TV ad we’ve all seen with that big celebrity we all know? She tried on all these first chapters for size, the way you might try on a coat, then picked the one she liked best and began to write forward.

Crystal’s story is very interesting. She is a Chinese American who was abandoned by her parents at the age of 11, so her life had some built-in themes and tensions. One of the obvious sources of conflict was the one between a culture where being sexy on stage often leads to success, and a culture where sexy on stage offends.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Crystal gravitated towards a form of dance called Latin Ballroom, which is built around moves that might make any mother blush. Some of Crystal’s chapters were poignant and moving. Others were a little plodding and dull (“and then this happened, and then this happened” – the curse of any narrative), but she kept writing forward.

As she got towards the end of her first draft, new idea began to emerge in the writing – or at least new to me. Crystal began to write about panic attacks during performances, her body breaking down, and moments when she thought dance might actually kill her. We stopped and went back to the beginning to consider the story in light of these ideas, and the story began to deepen. It began to be not just about a Chinese girl who danced a sexy kind of dance in America. It began to be about identity and wellbeing. Those changes rippled through the manuscript.

Crystal was panicked about where to end her story (a sure sign that you don’t know exactly what your story is about) and then something fascinating happened.  She was filming a commercial out in the desert, where she had been hired, as is often the case, to be the “hot Asian girl.” As part of the production, the dancers did one-on-one interviews.  Crystal’s interviewer asked her, “What tribe do you belong to?” When she said that she belonged to a tribe of dancers, she answered one of the fundamental questions of her life, and also found the ending to her story.

She was a dancer. She just needed to find a way to dance in a way that was true to herself.  Her story wasn’t, in other words, about the idea of being Chinese American. It wasn’t about the fact that sex sells in America. It was a story of a volatile love affair between one young woman and a way of moving through the world.

In order to tell that story, Crystal bravely ripped apart pieces of her manuscript. She trimmed and cut and re-thought and re-jigged. The opening scene of her memoir is now a powerful frame for her story. It begins with this resonant line: “I fell in love one hot summer in Beijing when I was 21 years old.”

Around the time Crystal was asked about her tribe, she began working with Dan Blank at wegrowmedia.com. Dan is a colleague and friend of mine who specializes in helping writers connect with their audience. (In a perfect world, this alliance would have happened even earlier. It’s never too early start thinking about reaching your reader.) Crystal and Dan did some excellent work defining and refining exactly who Crystal’s book would speak to, and when it came time for Crystal to start working on her book proposal (the document you need to pitch a book to agents), she was able to write this line about her book:

How I Learned to Dance Yellow follows Crystal’s journey as she falls in love with dance, embraces it, rejects it, and finally finds a way to come back so that she can remain true to her heart. It is a memoir meant to inspire young women of all races, shapes and sizes to dance their true colors no matter what expectations and pressure society or family put on them.

Crystal’s memoir is no longer just a small story of her own life, or even a small story about dance. It is a big story about a big idea.  It is the kind of story that has a superior chance of finding readers.

What about yours? What can you do to make your story bigger today?