Self Matters, Dr. Phil (Phillip C. McGraw) writes that each of us has ten defining moments in our lives that have greatly influenced who we are and what we think about ourselves.* While his book guides readers toward valuable self-discoveries, my muse encourages me to use my recollection of defining moments--along with other strong memories--as writing prompts.
All of us can recall moments that brought us great joy, pain, embarrassment, excitement, love, humiliation, and, perhaps, an epiphany or two. While Dr. Phil urges us to find and acknowledge these moments so that they no longer control or bias our lives outside of our conscious control, I like going a step further and exploring them through story.
Even after acknowledging these moments for what they were (and are) I find that there is still a lot of energy attached to them. When I go back in time, I feel what I felt when the moments happened; these feelings can bring great passion and strength to a short story or novel. The point is not necessarily a factually true rendition of your life's best and worst moments, but rather a harnessing of their energy.
Memories as Catalysts
I have come to terms with those moments by using them as springboards to fiction that may, when all is said and done, look nothing like the actual events. The sense of the moment is what I'm looking for, and because my feelings years later are still very strong, I have within my history the components for writing stories where the angst, wonder and essential truth shine through.
Even our less volatile memories can become the stuff of fiction. I'm currently writing a series of short stories set in the Florida Panhandle. Few of them match anything in my parents' Christmas letters or what I might say if I were hypnotized and ask to relate what happened on a family cookout, day trip, or memorable afternoon in the back yard.
To some extent, my love of nature is "ramped up" when I combine the memories of a childhood trip with the adventures of my fictional characters on the same beach, river or piney woods trail. Sometimes "first loves" play a role; or, perhaps its the crazy antics of others during a high school band trip or my memories of my grandparents funerals or a fishing trip with a friend that, while not funny at the time, becomes a charming tall tale years later.
My novel The Sun Singer arose out of a family vacation to Allerton Park in Illinois when I was in grade school. Garden of Heaven leans heavily on my experiences in the Navy. Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire relies on stories I heard as a child from reporters who were friends of my father..
Perhaps your past is a gold mine of writing prompts waiting to become stories. The stories are likely to have a lot of spunk and grit in them because at one level of reality, parts of them will be true. Happy or sad, they will flood you with memories that will infuse your stories with the well-defined characters and compelling plots readers like best.
* You may also like: Discovering your deepest story through writing, my review of Riting Myth Mythic Writing, by Dennis Patrick Slattery