This is what I’m on about! ‘It Happened to Me’

whats your story 4I always read the Guardian’s Experience page. Thousands, maybe millions of people buy real life story magazines each week, and internet publications are filled with first person stories.

But there’s a cost.

There’s a cost to the person who exposes their self to the media, and in this article, Mandy Stadtmiller, a ‘former first-person human trafficker‘ – also known as an online journalist for website xoJane –  talks about how easily it all gets out of control.

Mandy’s conclusion is that first person pieces have helped: “These squirmy, awful, brilliant pieces have encouraged us all to be a lot more honest about the human experience. A lot less afraid to be honest.” My feeling after reading her article is still shaped by some of the experiences she explores, where people have been attacked online, have had to withdraw from the online world altogether after sharing their story. Mandy explained her pitch to people: “I ran into Sonja Morgan from Real Housewives at a party the other day, and she reminded me of what I told her before I profiled her in the New YorkPost. I told her that the headline would likely humiliate her and she would be positioned in a way that was making fun of her, but that it would be terrific, wide-ranging, must-see press. So — was she in? ” This rings of a world where we have becomes so sucked in by the desire to be seen that we will accept being made fun of, accept humiliation, just for the clicks, for the exposure. Thinking about exposure in another context, who wants to be exposed? There’s something out of balance in these real life stories, whether you are hungry for exposure of self, or whether you are the editor, feeding your ravening audience a diet that has to be ever more shocking.

We no longer know what is normal, what is private. ‘It Happened to Me’ stories do play an essential role in helping people process their own experiences, but they also chew people up and spit them out in pieces.

In another piece, I write, as writer, as story teller: “I am hungry: tell me a story. I am never satisfied.” Do you want to be fed to the beast?

Exploring the transition from experience to story

whats your story 4I struggled to walk during my third pregnancy because my pelvis separated too far, too soon. At the age of 39, I became reliant on a mobility scooter. Pregnancy hormones helped me cope, the nine months during and after the pregnancy where I could only walk a few feet with crutches are a blur. Despite that, I finished a book and won an award for it in the 6 months after K’s birth. And while promoting the book, I told my story. I spoke it, I wrote it, I turned it into a press release, articles, blog posts. And what happened to me ceased to be simply my experience, it became a story, a thing itself, seen on paper, online. I no longer needed to be there for it to exist. In print, replicated, communicated, my story became something else.

This research project examines the transition, the leap, the moment where experience becomes something separate from the person, a story.

Exploring the transition from experience to story is important because we live in an age where our lives are not private in the way that they used to be. There is a compulsion to share, to have our fifteen minutes of fame, or simply to update our status on Facebook. Whether it is writing a blog, or appearing in a tabloid, or self-publishing a book, publication is now accessible in a way it has never been.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????People who have life changing experiences feel compelled to share, but rarely understand fully what will happen once they have shared. In sharing, you become vulnerable as you expose key parts of what makes up your life, your story, your self. Once your story is out there, you have limited control over the results.

This study will help increase our understanding of the act of sharing a story in the 21st century. In particular, it will focus on the moment when the person’s life experience separates from them, of the feeling it has become something else, a fiction, a story.

Through this study I will interview people to explore the transition from experience to story. Beyond that, the approach will be cross-disciplinary, bringing in my experience in creative writing, journalism and healthcare. I will use autoethnography, writing my own ‘experience to story’, and as I interview people I will write an online journal of response to the experiences / stories. I intend to publish all the material on a blog, provoking the feeling of an experience, a verbal description, a retelling, becoming something else.

Every day, hundreds of journalists interview case studies. Thousands of people write and share their own stories on blogs and in memoirs. This study will help the journalists, case studies, bloggers and writers understand more about what they are doing. On a secondary level it may help health and social care professionals advise those who want to share their story.

Writing about being a hostage #whatimwriting

I’ve been side-tracked! An idea for a novel bit me while I was in the middle of the final term of the MA. I wrote 25-30,000 words, then finished the first draft last November. This all took me away from working on first person experiences for a while … but now I’m back, although mainly as part of the research for the second draft.

Spinning off the Blindsided work I created last year, the novel addresses sight loss and disability, aid to the third world, and issues of empowerment and control, self and identity. Adam, an ophthalmologist, goes to West Africa thinking he can make a difference, but struggles as he is overwhelmed by the extent of the need for eye care. Mid way through his time in West Africa he is taken hostage … so I’ve been reading ‘hostage literature’ and checking out information from organisations that specialise in the field too.

In this post I list the books I’ve found, and I’ll add thoughts as I read them. If you spot anything relevant that I’ve missed, let me know.

Middle East – Beirut

Long, meditative writing where Waite looks back on his past, interspersed with details of the kidnapping.

Africa – Somali Pirates

A well written account, mainly focussed on the day to day life as a hostage, with a  couple of diversions looking at Somali politics, as well as the story of a sea captain also captured by pirates. A good quick read – you can tell it is written by a journalist. Freeman draws out key issues for hostages, looking at Stockholm syndrome, the issue of boredom on one hand while being on edge on the other, the way he began to appreciate it when nothing changed from day to day.



Grief, loss and writing for strangers

I was talking to a friend last night, and we moved from real life trauma that seems like it is something out of a movie, to why people write to process grief. Today I came across an article from Kristi DiLallo who runs a site called The Grief Diaries,  which shows that the need to write and create to process feelings of loss and grief is common to many of us. She says, “I started The Grief Diaries because there is no “right” way to lose someone, and grieving through art means there are no rules or restrictions.” In the article for Guernica she details her own journey of loss and grief, and her struggles to communicate an experience that often leaves people feeling that no-one hears what they are saying, no-one wants to listen. She also looks at how it is sometimes easier to share this sort of therapeutic writing and art with strangers.

Workshop: How to Tell Your Story, 10am Saturday 12th September

Belles LettresIf you have a story to tell, life experiences to share, but have said, ‘I’m not a writer’, come to this introductory workshop with Antonia Chitty and learn ‘How to tell Your Story’.

Antonia will show you different ways people tell their story, you can try out different exercises to help you put pen to paper, and come away with ideas for different outlets to help you tell your tale.

10am, The Hastings Engine Room, St Leonards-on-Sea. Part of Belles Lettres
and Coastal Currents.

Your life, my life, story

I haven’t worked on this much recently, I’ve been writing a dissertation instead! If you’re looking for some great reading on life stories, a friend sent me this, which is all about how you arrange your life as a narrative.

My dissertation is about writing trauma. Right from when I worked at RNIB and had to carry out focus groups with people taking about sight loss, I have been inviting people to tell me their trauma. Examining this in detail makes me think about how I tell my own story. I think a lot of the time, I don’t. When I told my story as a child it was rejected too often, and in becoming an author I have the perfect excuse to listen rather than tell. I’ll be working on this… My life’s work is my story.

Using real people’s stories in PR

This is adapted from a piece I wrote for Dispensing Optics


If you are thinking about how to raise the profile of your practice, your charity, you may want to use real people’s stories. In this article you can learn more about how and when to use case studies.


A case study is a story, and people love to read stories about other people’s real life experiences. If you look at newspapers, magazines and websites, they are full of true life stories. The reader may feel empathy, ‘That’s just like what happened to me,’ and that their own experience is validated by reading the story. Alternatively, they may feel shock and horror: ‘How awful, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me,’ and although those sound like negative feelings, they can in fact reinforce a sense of well-being and ‘I’m all right’. People’s true stories and experiences are a powerful way to get others to take action. While it is easy to say ‘an eye test can save your sight’, it is far more powerful to read a headline in a newspaper about a specific event happening to a real person, such as: ‘Eye test saved Jane’s sight’ or ‘The Optician discovered my brain tumour!’ People reading any newspaper, magazine or website have a degree of trust in the publication. Readers usually regard journalists as independent which is another reason why this type of story can have added weight.  And again, there is an ‘it could happen to me’ factor. A story about a young woman who has a brain tumour detected at an eye test makes compelling reading for other young women, for example.


Beyond the media, real life stories can be valuable additions to your print literature – leaflets, magazines –  and websites. Whether it is a short quote as a testimonial, or a full page story, true stories can help you communicate important messages. The fact that the person in the story is independent adds weight to their words in a way that it wouldn’t if you told the story yourself as the practice owner or manager, practitioner or member of the charity’s staff.


Using case studies isn’t always straightforward, however, which is probably why we don’t take action even when someone has a life changing experience in the practice/as a result of the work of the charity. Read on to find out some more of the issues and how to address them.


One of the first issues about using someone’s real experience is that you need to ask their permission. This can seem awkward at the time: if an optometrist has detected signs that might indicate a brain tumour, the last things a patient needs is for you to appear with a consent form and ask them if they would mind appearing in the local paper. If your charity is working with someone on a complex personal issue on an ongoing basis, it may not be the right time to discuss PR. At this point, just note what has happened. Often patients return after a hospital visit and are keen to update practice staff on what has happened to them: they have returned because in some way they want to tell you their story. People who have worked with your charity may want to express gratitude. This is a better time to discuss whether they might be interested in being a case study. Alternatively, after time, you could phone up to find out how the person is getting on. Some people won’t be interested in being a case study at all, which must be respected. For many, though, talking about their own experience can be a positive thing. They may be motivated by the thought of seeing their story in the newspaper, or perhaps they may want to help other people who could be going through the same experience. Someone who has had their life or sight saved by an eye test may feel that telling their story and helping others gives them a reason for having gone through trauma.  Understanding more about what motivates people to tell their stories can help you to ask for their consent in a sensitive way.

It can help if you prepare consent forms in advance. You need to have space to write the person’s details, and how their story might be used. Would you use it only on a practice publication, on the website, in advertising, on social media? A written consent form with a list of possible outlets can help the person think about where they might be happy to see their story, and what might make them feel uncomfortable. Allow them time to read the form and discuss how they feel. You could also discuss and list on the form whether the person is happy to speak to a journalist, whether they would appear on TV or have their photo taken.


You need to keep the consent forms and any details of the person’s story, remembering your data protection responsibilities. A consent form doesn’t give you carte blanche to share the person’s details. If, for example, they have had a story in the local newspaper and then the local TV new show wants to cover it too, call them and check they are still happy to speak if. A consent form is also necessary if you want to use shorter quotes, perhaps alongside an image, as testimonials on your website or leaflet.


Images are a key element to any story. A picture of the person is a great start. It can also be good to have a picture that shows how their issue was detected: the doctor and patient in consultation, for example. People always like to see action shots, and it can be good to show the person doing their favourite activity, something they might have struggled with if their problem hadn’t been detected and treated, if the charity hadn’t helped them.


If you are using the story for your website or magazine, you may need to interview the person yourself. Here are a few tips. First, think about recording your discussion. Ask the person if they mind it being recorded so that you can check facts and quotes. Explain that you won’t share the recording with anyone else. Set up a quiet room where the person feels comfortable: ask if they would prefer to speak to you in practice or in their home. Provide a drink and tissues: retelling a story can sometimes be traumatic. Have a notebook and pen with you to jot down key parts of the story. Remember that people don’t always tell a story in a logical order so you may need to piece the story together afterwards. When writing up the story check back using the notes and your recording to make sure it is accurate. After that, it can be good to read the story back to the person to check that it sounds correct to them before you use it.


If you are hoping to get some media coverage for the story you will need a different type of write up. Journalists will want to see a few short facts about the story: what happened, and why is it compelling and unique? Real life magazines are often looking for stories that focus on ‘triumph over tragedy’ so emphasise the strongest points of the story, the real highs and lows for the person. Remember that it may help make a compelling case for the story if you tie your case study into an event like National Eye Health Week, or a relevant disease focussed day/week. Draft an email to the journalist, and then check back and make sure that you have covered the ‘who, when, what, why and how’ of the story too. Remember that you always need the person’s permission before passing the story on. If the journalist feels that the person’s story is a good fit for their programme or publication, they are likely to want to interview the person concerned as well as the practitioner who made the discovery or the charity worker who helped them. They may want to take photos or film in practice and/or in the person’s home.


Once you have generated some coverage for your practice using a case study, remember to follow up. You may want to thank the person, either in person or by sending a small gift. You should also make sure that patients and the wider public know about the coverage: you could mention that you have been part of the person’s story in the local media on your blog and in the newsletter, with a link to the article. Finally, always stay on the lookout for compelling stories taking place as they are a great way to communicate about issues that might not get raised otherwise, and reach new media.