Starting with Story

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 25th Annual Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery Conference in Illinois.  One of the sessions I attended was led by the brilliant and endearing Christopher Lehman.  His session centered around using our stories to generate topics for information writing.  It is a unique approach to a genre that can sometimes feel cool and unemotional.

We began by making a list of the things we carry with us: the worries, the celebrations, the experiences, the hopes we carry in our hearts.  These are the things we think about when someone asks, “How are you?”  These are the things we long to say, but don’t.  These are our stories.

My list was:

  • working on my book
  • Jerome
  • starting a new job
  • my relationship with my mom
  • Maddie & Katie, always with me

Next, we chose an item from our list and took several minutes to write a personal story. Christopher reminded us to write a story, not facts or information.  Here is what I wrote:


My notebook

I sit in a darkened coffee shop, but I don’t order coffee.  It’s too late, and I will need to sleep soon.  I wish it were quieter – that the people sitting near me would hush their conversation.  After all, I came to write.

It’s strange how I want to be here and want to be anywhere but here all at once.

As I sip my hot chocolate, I question myself.  Self-doubt settles over my keyboard.

My fingers push through the cloud of doubt and strike thekeys.  My hot chocolate cools. 

After several hours, I head home in the darkness.  The kids are asleep and maybe my husband too.

Next we read through our story, looking for possible writing topics.  The topics could be directly or indirectly related to our story.  Anything that sparked an idea was worth noticing.

Skitch Story

  • I was sitting in a coffee shop (and frequently do)… so maybe I could explore Starbuck’s business model.  I bought one cup of hot chocolate and stayed for hours.  How is that profitable?
  • I didn’t order coffee… so maybe I could explore the effects of caffeine on a person.
  • I wished it were quieter… so maybe I could explore different writing styles and preferences.
  • I didn’t get to see my kids that day (or any Thursday when I’m writing)… so maybe I could write about the different pressures placed on women versus men.


From this short exercise, I had generated four possible topics I could explore further in an information piece.  In the past, I have had students generate lists of possible topics, usually by prompting them to think of things they are curious about or by making an ‘expert list.’   Starting with story felt more personal, more intimate.

Most importantly though, this session confirmed for me what I always knew to be true: our stories matter.