How Do You Mine Your Life For Stories?

Hi, Michael Jamin. So recently I had a post that talked about why I think it’s so helpful for new writers to write personal essays. And the reason is, you’re mining stories from your own life. So you’re just taking something that happened from you, some small little thing, and turning it into a story. And because it really happened, you don’t have to create characters and you don’t have to come up with a plot. It already happened. So you’re removing already the two biggest obstacles when it comes to writing something, a good story, right? So now you have to get it out of your head and read it and engage in ways that people want to find out what happens next. So I talked about that in my class.

Laura Godly had a question. It was such a good question. I gave it on a purple card. She wrote, regarding personal essays., how other than channeling Robert Altman, can you weave a lot of these stories into a movie with only a few characters in one storyline? Okay. So first of all, I probably wouldn’t, I probably wouldn’t turn it into one giant movie because, with the exception of indie movies, which I really know very little about those types of movies, studios don’t make those movies anymore. Okay. The movies that they make now are Transformers and they make Jurassic Park and all those Marvel superhero movies, they don’t make small movies, character-based movies, they just don’t. So no one’s going to buy that. It’s sad, but they don’t all that work. All that really good character study has moved, has migrated to television and Netflix and Amazon and streaming services. And that’s where all the good creative work has been done.

It will be very easy to turn any of my work, I think, into a television show. You can go Michaeljamin.com and you can read any of these personal essays. I’ve published maybe about 10 of them and the rest I’m saving for my book, but you’ll see how they’re just small little moments from my life. And that’s interesting. So I examined something small, the specifics happened to me, but the emotions happened to all of us. I’m not telling my story. Just the details are mine, but I’m not telling my story. I’m really telling our story and making it relatable and universal. Again, you can go to my website and read a bunch of them for free to get an idea and how I would transform it. The goal, my goal right now is not to do that. I just want to write, and get this book out.

Then I talked about in my course, how I would transform one of those stories into either a short or an episode of television. And I really break it down. I called the module “mining your life for stories”. Actually, it turned out I think pretty well, cause we all have stories in us. And that’s what’s interesting. That’s way more interesting than coming up with stuff that you make up. Just if you can be truthful, that’s way more interesting, I think. And so that’s what I would do. I would probably sell it to a streamer. And it would be episodic the way The Wonder Years was with a narrator or like, The Princess Bride, where it’s told from the point of view of, a grandpa telling you the scraps of the story of his life and then flashing back. 

And so when I write these stories, I break them down into four groups, my childhood, college years, because I think the colleges are so formative, and then my post-college years is like out into the real world and like, before I made it and I was like, oh, so that’s really interesting. All that struggle is really interesting. And then of course, adulthood raising children and, you know, watching your parents get older, all that stuff is something we all can relate to. And so that’s what I would do. I’d probably break it down like that. So I can pitch this to Amazon. You know, I dunno probably next month if I really wanted to, but I’m not working on that right now. 

You’re in a different boat. If I were you, I would start learning how to write personal essays. And then I would consider shooting it as a short, just to get the word out there, make a splash, put it on YouTube, and put it in a film festival. Then you have a calling card. You can send it to agents and managers and industry people to get more work and say, look, look what I would do. And I wouldn’t spend a lot of money for sure. I would spend like, no second mortgage on your house. I wouldn’t cash in your IRA. Forget about that. I’ve done projects in the past and those are also on my website where I’ve spent literally $1,400 for one of the cheaper ones. So how did I do it? Well, I hired high school kids. You could hire college film students as well. These guys will work for free. They want to build up their resume. For the high school kids, all of them would have worked for free but, I wanted to pay them. I prefer to pay. And that’s how I wound up with $1,400. Most of that money was salary, which is only a couple hundred dollars. And then you got to buy everyone lunch, right? And you have snacks on set. So people don’t get cranky. And I rented only a couple of things, but that was not a lot of money. One of the things was a cake. It was a prop that was $40. Oh, $40. 

And of course my editor, I paid him a little bit more cause he had to work on it a lot more, but that was 1400 bucks. As long as the script is good, people will come out of the woodwork to be in your project. But the script has to be good. The writing has to be good. And then in the acting, of course, you have to hire good actors. But again, those people will work for free. You can audition and find people just like that and then shoot it the quality you want to make sure you have good sound. If people can’t hear your project, you know, that’s almost more important than how it looks. You could shoot it on an iPhone. A lot of times you hire somebody, even a young kid, they’ll have more, of the equipment. And so you could shoot on that and then maybe give them another 25 bucks. But again, I like to pay people because then you can order them around. You can say, Hey, you’re not doing me a favor here. I’m paying you. Even though I’m not paying you a lot, just get back to work. So I find that actually paying people actually works out better for everyone. So 1400 bucks is not a lot of money to invest in. Even if you’re struggling, you could save that in six months or a year. You can put that together. But again, the important part is the script. I don’t care how good it looks or how bad it looks. If the script is not compelling, it’s not gonna do anything for you. You’re going to have to have good actors of course, as well. The lighting is really not that important.

I did a show a couple of years ago called Maron. It was a really low budget. My partner and I ran it really, really low budget. It was so low budget, people thought we couldn’t get it done. And we had to shoot real fast and there are times that some scenes were not lit well. We didn’t get all the shots that we wanted. You know, we had to shoot it in the wide cause we didn’t have enough time to go in for close-ups. And guess what? No one cared. The reviews were always glowing on that show. The reviews were never like, Hey, the camera was shaking in this shot. You know, as long as someone’s thumb wasn’t in front of the lens, we’re good.  

The writing is critical. That’s what I talked about in the course in a module, basically how to like edit one of your life stories. Cause we all have them. You just need to pull it out. I believe that personal essays are examples of a bunch of stories, you could read and turn into something. The one I’m thinking of was called a paper orchestra. And again, all these are true. I just typed them up, making them a little more artful.

Let’s go back to Laura’s question. She says, how do you do this in only a few characters? Well, you only want a few characters, like think about any television show. You only want to have four or five, six characters tops. You don’t want to have all these things. And I wouldn’t have all these stories crossing storylines. I would just pick one and just do one simple. Do one before creating the great American novel. How about writing a good American novel? You know, start something you don’t have to be so ambitious. You don’t have to have multiple crossing storylines. I just wouldn’t rush all those moments. I would block everything in act one, two and three, which is how the story is told. But I would just take my time with some more of those moments. And then maybe I would weave in what we call the b story. So I have a story that is the main plot, then maybe some other weave in some smaller B story to involve a couple of other characters just to fill it out. I talk about this in the course as well. I do a segment on Amelie, which is one of my favorite movies, just a beautiful, beautiful movie. And it’s not a difficult story to tell. It was actually a very simple story. Uh, but the execution was brilliant. So I always say, don’t try to tell crazy complicated stories. Tell stories that are simple but are executed brilliantly.

If you want to learn more, just click on the link and I can send you three free lessons about stories. And you can click on that on the website. All right. Hope that helps anybody have any more questions? Send it along. Okay. Good luck.

Author Details
For the past 26 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.