I tell my classes they can find sources for their stories in their own lives and in the lives of others. But that will only take them so far. As John Irving says, “A writer uses what experience he or she has. It’s the translating, though, that makes the difference.”

Chances are the piece of your own life you want to use (or the one you stole from your co-worker, Jason), isn’t going to make a great story in and of itself. It might, but probably not. Your job as a writer is to discover how to tell this story so that it provides some kind of meaning, some purpose.

You do this by finding a theme for your story. For example, you remember when your mother, a strict Southern Baptist, made an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner for all of her siblings – in fact, it’s the first time you remember seeing all your aunts, uncles, and cousins in one place. And just as the sweet potatoes were making their way around the main table (or the children’s table, which is where you were placed, even though you were 14, for heaven sakes), your Aunt Emily suddenly got up and started doing a modified strip tease with her husband, your Uncle Sam. Great story, right? Full of tension, humor, conflict. But really, what is the point of this story? Why would someone want to read it?

That’s where the translating comes in. Is the story about your mother being shocked by her sister’s behavior and how she has to find a way to reconcile her religious views with the love she has for her sister? Is it about how your aunt seems exotic to you and makes you understand you don’t always have to always follow the rules – your mother’s, your school’s, or your church’s? Is it a story about why this is the first time you remember the whole family coming together – that maybe they didn’t really get along all that well, even though your mother had always pretended they did? Why did she do that?

You have to get to the meaning behind the events.

Now, the good news is that fiction lets you take the original story and make it about whatever theme you want (which is lucky when you are using your co-worker’s story; you can camouflage it enough so it doesn’t appear to be just a shameless ripoff of his experience.) In your family, maybe Aunt Emily’s dancing was just one of those crazy things your mother’s siblings were known for doing, and it was no big deal. But in your story, you can make it a big deal; you can make it into whatever you want, as long as your reader understands the meaning you are pursuing.

It may be a different than translating French into English, but it is alchemy – you are turning an anecdote into a purposeful story.

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