Light A Candle: On the The Alchemy of the Narrative Arc in Memoir

December 23, 2019 § 2 Comments

circlingBy Susan Tiberghien

Writing the afterword for the 20th Anniversary Edition of my spiritual memoir, Circling to the Center: Invitation to Silent Prayer, I uncovered the alchemy of the narrative arc.

When first working on the book, I realized how each chapter brought more light into my life. I saw this as alchemy, almost magic. I saw how the first chapter circled around a small five petalled flower, a cinquefoil. And how the fifth and last chapter circled around a double buttercup, a renunculus. My little wildflower had become the golden flower of innumerable petals. Alchemy!

Memoir is story-telling, telling the story of one facet of our life. In every story there is a beginning, a struggle, the narrator (in memoir, the author) wants something. There is a middle, the narrator encounter difficulties which lead to a climax.  And there is an end, a resolution, the narrator has a transformation, however small. We are story telling creatures. When we relate an experience to a friend, we tell it in story form. Otherwise the friend may lose interest. When we remember our dreams, we are telling ourselves stories. And best to write them down lest we forget.

When I would sometimes take care of a few of our grandchildren, and when they were being rambunctious, I would ask them to sit still just a moment. Then I would say, “Once upon a time…” Two or three pairs of eyes would latch on to mine. All was quiet, attentive, expectant. And I would relate a fairy tale, a folk tale, a tale which has withstood the centuries. Or I would make up a new one, remembering the climax.

In my memoir. I was writing about darkness in my life, about deeply difficult experiences. As I I progressed, I saw the three steps of alchemy. First, putting the base metals into the furnace to burn away the dross. I would go into the dark to relate stories of adoption, of anorexia, of Alzheimer’s – nigredo, the blackening. Then the second step, washing and distilling, looking for the gold. I would come to grips with each ordeal– albedo, the whitening. And finally polishing the bits of gold and bringing them to the light. I would claim my own transformation – rubedo, the reddening.

I saw that these three alchemical steps are the three parts of story. The alchemy lies in the story arc. Without it, our memoirs may be beautifully written but they are flat. As memoirists, we are sharing not only a busy profile, a heart-breaking profile, or an attention-grabbing profile. We are sharing part of our being. We are pulling back the curtain and saying this is how I survived, this is what it felt like. Or this is how I stood up for justice, this is what it felt like. This is the narrative arc that pulls the reader to the climax. How we overcame, or did not overcome, the odds.

This is the sharing that readers are looking for. We are all interconnected, writers and readers. We learn from one another. In writing memoir, we share an experience. It lights a candle in the darkness for the reader. We remember the metaphor of Indra’s net. How over the palace of the great God Indra, there was strung a net of thousands of jewels. They were arranged in such a manner that if one of them caught the light, it was reflected in all the other jewels.

Let your memoir catch the light by shaping its story arc. Be an alchemist!
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Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, is the author of four memoirs, two writing books, One Year to a Writing Life and Writing Toward Wholeness, and most recently the 20th Anniversary Edition of Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer. She teaches at C.G. Jung Societies, the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in Europe and the U.S. She founded and directed the Geneva Writers’ Group for 25 years. Recently she did two master classes for the Jung Society of Washington,.

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