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.

 

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§ 10 Responses to Thoughts on Finding a Memoir’s Narrative Arc

  • dogfaceboy says:

    I’m having a similar problem now—or will, once I get my book to Simon & Schuster sometime this year. I’ve written an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink look at cake, and I can’t do a damned thing to organize it. My entire life is a series of anecdotes, and I’m dreading the number of drafts it will to take to get it right. Getting a life is going to take a lifetime.

  • sarah morgan says:

    This is such a helpful post. Thank you for your thoughts.

  • when I hear the words “narrative arc” I leave the room. don’t try and make a life fit into a piece of academic jargon, becausethat’s all it is,jargon. nothing to do with life or living.

  • Tim Elhajj says:

    figuring out how to organize a novel length work so that it’s enjoyable to read AND still resembles the experience you had (or at least the one you remember having) is just plain hard.

    I am in love with the idea of interconnected stories, with no real emphasis on chronology, but where the reader never feels lost in the story’s timeline. Tim O’Brien’s _The Things They Carried_ pulls this sort of thing off nicely. This kind of organization is better for someone with a story like mine because there is less of a need to do the big Hero’s Journey, with an equally big Redemptive Ending.

    I may have to try the trick with the index cards. I’ve got a bad habit of dismissing ideas like this out of hand (that’ll never work!), only to discover years later it’s exactly what I needed to do to make progress.

  • dogfaceboy says:

    My mentor, Phil Gerard, had me do the index cards thing. It’s something I always recommend to beginning writers and students, yet I considered it somehow beneath the experienced writer I am. But dang if it doesn’t work even better for the experienced writer than it does for the student.

  • Michelle Wardlow says:

    So what exactly is this index card idea? It sounds like something that could get me a jumpstart on my own memior.
    Thank You!
    Michelle

  • John says:

    I’ve been working on a manuscript and struggling with similar issues. On one hand, I like the idea of individual essays and stories that each stand alone, like snapshots from the time period in which I’m writing. On the other hand, the stories do tend to interweave and rely on each other. If that connection is present, then I feel there should be some sort of narrative arc present to tie them together. I’m working on that as I revise and rewrite the manuscript. Thanks for the post.

  • Gary Presley says:

    I love Abigail’s comment ” … when I hear the words “narrative arc” I leave the room … ” but maybe the unschooled amongst us (the Grandma Moses memoir technique) should think of the term in the same fashion as we think of labeling the guy who picks up our garbage as a “sanitary engineer.”

    It’s cool. Simply turn down the taking-it-seriously meter a notch. I think “narrative arc” means “find the story.” No more; no less.

    And once the story is “found,” the writer is obligated to plug in the word-GPS and carry the reader from the beginning to the end of the tale.

    That ain’t saying a writer cannot take the scenic route. It simply my opinion that any scene should add to rather than divert from the story.

    So if my memoir is about event/angry reaction/duality of perceptions, I should not be looking for anecdotes about my love for Dylan’s music or my constant desire to have a dog around *unless* either of those elements are part of the story.

    I like Bob Seger too. And he has a few relevant words — “What to leave in, what to leave out.”

    Know that, and I think we understand the specific narrative arc.

    ~ Gary

  • The narrative arc is certainly a useful practice (if not a useful term), but it’s not the only way to write. I absolutely love reading essays from more than a century ago. By and large, these have no narrative arc and barely any narrative. And people loved to read them in their newspapers and journals. So maybe there are still some people who love to read essays, or might, if they were given the chance. But book publishers print so few essay collections nowadays. This seems like a complicated cause-effect relationship. I wonder if oversaturation with television (sit-coms, dramas, etc.) has deadened us to any way of exploring experience besides the “narrative arc” (with commercials!).

  • […] But more importantly, in writing those essays, I hadn’t even begun to think about stuff like narrative arc and character development and overarching themes in a book-length […]

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