Thoughts on Finding a Memoir’s Narrative Arc
February 19, 2008 § 10 Comments
From Gary Presley, author of the Brevity essay Proselegy and Coda
I’ve been banging my head against a memoir for two or three years – a book that’s only now crossed the copy-editing stage at the University of Iowa Press on the track to Fall 2008 publication (Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio). As with most things written, the book went through more drafts than I wanted to make – from connected, related essays into a chronological narrative.
During the last state, I told a writer friend, unless you’re famous and can sell a gaggle of essays, a memoir writer may not think he is living a life with a rational, non-repetitive narrative arc, but he best find one if he wants to be published.
She replied with a question, “How would you explain narrative arc?”
She asked me that because I’ve never studied creative writing. I doubt I’ll ever be as famous as Grandma Moses – the famous folk artist painter – but I use her technique, which might be called primitive.
With that in mind, I told her I think a chronological narrative would have a “time arc.” When I wrote 100,000 words as a “memoir in essays,” I would pick a subject about disability, look at it from every direction, and write about it. I had essays about the disease; its treatment; the hospital environment; the rehabilitation environment; isolation upon my return home; about education and employment; and some discussing the nitty-gritty of disability.
The editor first said “Masterful essays, but there’s too much repetition. Try a chronological narrative arc.” I tried, but I felt too close to the material. Then the editor said “It’s lost some of its passion. Make the chapters more like the essays.”
There was the rub. It took me a long time to understand that if anger and frustration occurred when I was in the iron lung at age 17 that I did not need to re-state the origins of that anger and frustration when I brought up an anecdote later.
If I could put the effort in the Wayback Machine, I would outline anecdotes on index cards. Then before I began to write, and I would shuffle the cards around and play with their order – both in theme and in time.
Within the terminology of “narrative arc,” I think, is the idea that we build our lives around themes. My theme was living as a person with a disability in 20th USA, but the sub-themes are anger, and duality (the idea that a virus killed then-17-year-old-Gary and created crip-Gary, who is an entirely different bag of tricks) and a prosaic existentialism.
How that might translate in another writer’s life I cannot say, but I know this: we are different people to each individual we know, both because of their perceptions and because of the way we reveal ourselves to them. With that, there are an infinite number of stories to weave into any narrative arc.
___Further discussion can be found through Google with the search words “creative nonfiction” and “narrative arc” alone or together, including A Conversation with Rebecca McClanahan in the Kenyon Review and a nidus Roundtable Discussion — The Age of Creative Nonfiction.