Choose Your Own Adventure

July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments


A cover of a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, the Cave of TimeOne of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.

That’s the end of the story.

The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.

Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.

Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.

Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?

If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.

Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.

Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.

We get to choose that, too.

Looking for your ending?

Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:

  • Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
  • Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
  • Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.

Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.

  • Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
  • Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
    Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
  • List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
  • Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.

Yes, this is a lot like therapy.

But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?

You really do get to choose.

____________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!

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§ 12 Responses to Choose Your Own Adventure

  • jhonrobinson1577 says:

    Hi, I hope you are in great health. I find your article very helpful keep up the good work.

  • joellefraser says:

    I really enjoyed this–and in addition two choosing your adventure, the idea that you can, in a way, choose your own ending. That’s inspiring for writing and life both!

  • Michael Lewis says:

    Thanks for this, Allison. I am not writing a memoir but I think there are techniques here that could help writers of fiction find new ways of entering into their characters…particularly when we feel stuck. Great essay! Many gratitudes.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re welcome! I think novelists can also be helped by figuring out where the story starts and ends – I’ve seen quite a few books that start too early, and there are pages of backstory or extraneous info before the story really starts. Back-tracking from the climax can help figure out where to actually start the story!

  • This is where I feel fiction is so much easier. I think it’s difficult to tell where one story starts and ends in a life. (Or maybe that’s because I’m not a memoirist.) I just read a memoir, which I enjoyed, but which didn’t feel finished. The story wasn’t over. And other side-stories were folded in to make up for the lack of length. I wished she’d waited a good 10 years, finished the one story. But then, it wasn’t my story to tell–or direct.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      But you’re entitled to your reading opinion! Yeah, I think there are some memoirs that just aren’t resolved yet, so there’s not enough *there*.

  • stacyeholden says:

    Words to write by… I am posting this above my desk. Thanks for these words of good counsel, Allison.

  • lgood67334 says:

    Good job! Love those steps. Thanks for confirming that I did many things right in Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62.

  • This is so helpful!! Thank you!

  • Diane Vacca says:

    Words to live and write by… So many valuable insights and sensible advice. Thank you, Allison.

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