The Memoirist’s Dilemma

January 10, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Beth Kephart

If she writes the story the way she wants to write the story—the guttural cry, the injustice exclamation mark—someone will get hurt. Broken, even. Things break.

If she lays out the plot lines in the order of their occurrence—the momentum building, the inevitability rising, the just before and all the moments after—what will she have? The truth, and also the lie. There are multiple plot lines. They tangle.

Better to tell the story as allegory or camouflage, where x never precisely equals y, and the facts collide until there are no facts, and innuendo might be accusation (but if it is, the camo will contain the secret), all of which, come to think of it, is the stuff of auto fiction. Though she’d like to write that the paint was blue and not red, because red is a completely different story, and not to use the proper pronouns will confuse the pronouns, and weather is ultimately both temperature and mood, so she’ll have to keep the weather.

Better, then, to go with comedy—to turn the whole blare of the incident on its waggish head. There’s the chance (give her a few days) that she could find some humor in it. That she could render the day itself a circus then lean on circus metaphors—the big rent-a-tent where the scene went down, the daring trapeze (flyer, catcher), the clown that she imagines she was in the moment between the before and the after, with her tripping slap-slap of shoes, and her arms flapped out (flapping flapping) for the balance that does not come; she is still, now, on the short stone wall flapping her arms searching for balance, and the bone has not yet cracked, she has not yet heard it cracking—but maybe the circus metaphor is overdone, and besides, comedy is a truther’s stretch—inaccurate, bungling, and boggling.

Probably best, then, to go with grace. To write of how, now, she lies on the couch at night while her husband lies in the room above her, a boot the size of an elephant leg encasing the bone that broke and slowly is healing. She lies there, alone, and the night breezes in, the end-of-summer cicadas, the hoof beats of the deer near the hosta they have, stem by stem, been stealing. She lies there listening to the dark, and the ways of the dark, sounds she otherwise would not be hearing. So that this is the new, here, in her world. This is the new, yet still dawning.
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Beth Kephart is a writer, teacher, and book artist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays and We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class. Her website is bethkephartbooks.com

How to Know if Your Memoir Is Boring

November 17, 2020 § 12 Comments

What happened to you was powerful—but will anyone else want to read it? And which events from your life go in the book, anyway? Do you need more backstory? Or more action? Is the reader going to get it?

The foul-mouthed creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon know the answer. You might not love their sense of humor, but Matt Stone and Trey Parker are story-structure geniuses. Every set-up pays off. Every scene is necessary to understand the whole story. Every action is motivated—often by hatred, selfishness, egotism or pettiness, but viewers never wonder “Huh, why’d he do that?”

A couple of years ago, Stone and Parker visited NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to speak to a Storytelling Strategies class.

(Here’s a great two-minute video of the below, including additional f-bombs)

They tell the students:

Trey Parker: We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it.

We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.

What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’

Literally we’ll sometimes write it out to make sure we’re doing it.

…And there’s so many scripts that we read from new writers and things that we see…

Matt Stone: …you see movies where you’re just watching, and it’s like this happens and then this happens, and this happens—and you’re going what the fuck am I watching this movie for? This happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a story. It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.

Revisit your manuscript. (This is a particularly good exercise if you’re stuck on your middle or ending.) List the scenes. What happens in each one? Can you connect each scene to the next with But! or Therefore… ? Do any of them connect with And then… ?

If a scene isn’t a “but” or a “therefore,” that still doesn’t mean cut it right away. Take another look. What’s literally happening in the scene, that you’ve written in the text as Then-You experiencing action and dialogue in the moment? What’s emotionally happening in the scene that’s clear in the subtext, or that you’re adding in the reflective voice of Narrator-You writing the book? Are both of those things fully present in what you’ve written?

My mom pulled out my drawers and dumped my clothes on the floor because she said they weren’t folded right.

And then I folded them all and put them back.

And then I went out and lost my virginity in the back seat of Susie’s car.

Or

My mom dumped all my clothes on the floor.

Because I was afraid to defy her, and I still wanted her to love me, I folded them all the way she wanted and put them back.

But I wanted to show her she didn’t own all of me, therefore I went out and told Susie I wanted to lose my virginity now, and could I borrow her car?

Stilted as this is, isn’t it more exciting already?

The actual “therefore,” of course, doesn’t belong in your narrative. But each scene should imply that connection to the next, causation showing this scene could not have happened without that scene, therefore that scene is necessary to my story. This scene is that scene’s But or Therefore.

Then try working backward. Is each scene a specific result of something that has happened earlier? Is the end of your book the biggest Therefore of all?

Your scenes may not be in the exact order of causation—your timeline may show that long-past events were the “Because” of a present action, or Chapter 3 establishes a set-up that pays off in Chapter 9. But your conscious awareness of these connections will help you determine both if a scene belongs—and what the reader needs from this scene to move forward in your story.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story as a live webinar December 16th, and the recording will be available to anyone registered.

 

Review of Sejal Shah’s This is One Way to Dance

August 6, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Sonya Huber

shah danceDear Sejal,

The evening I finished your essay collection, This Is One Way To Dance, I couldn’t go to sleep afterward. The structure of the book was buzzing in my head. Does this ever happen to you? (I love that one of your essays is about postcards and correspondence, so I thought I’d write to you.) Your essays span such a wide range of time, and yet you did the most brilliant thing: rather than smoothing them out to make them all “contemporary,” you added notes at the end of each to denote when the essay was written and then when you updated it. One of the opening essays, “Matrimonials,” about Indian weddings and language, movement and return, family and translation and diaspora among so many other topics, provides a kind of map and timeline for the essays that follow. And then each essay is ended with a year for when it was written, and sometimes a second for when it was revised. And then “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me” has a postscript! I had never thought to do that before. You leave the essay as it is, a moment in time, and then enter a correspondence with the essay itself.

(And we, too, have been in a regular correspondence about the essay, emails and hellos on social media. And is it true that we’ve really only been in the same room a handful of hours in our lives? This is one of the ways that our small community of creative nonfiction writers was knit together, through the first few NonfictioNow conferences in Iowa decades ago now, in unassuming function rooms. I seem to remember talking with you before or after a panel about travel writing, where postcards had been put on the various chairs, in the same room where I sat down the aisle from gangly smiley Phillip Lopate and gawked at him as though he were a rock star. The moments of being that Virginia Woolf talked about, and how one of them was with you. And then maybe a decade later, a similar bubble. We talked for just a moment, stolen in time, about our shared experience—which I knew would come up in the book—of marrying a man with a dead brother. How that is such a thing, the presence of an absence, a man you both know intimately who is a version of your love played in another key, and yet a man you will never know.)

What is fascinating to me about your book is exactly that: how you handle the oddness of the experience of time itself, what it hides from us and what it reveals. The individual essays each present two timelines, one of your life moving forward and one of when you sat down to recall those moments. I think this is what created the mind-blowing yet subtle effect of this collection: the essays are ordered not by “when stuff happened” with the childhood stuff first. They are ordered based on when they were written, so that we are tracking your consciousness as it unfolds through time, as it loops backward and returns to previous themes and changes perspectives. The effect, for me, was of a kind of writing intimacy that one feels in reading letters or diaries: there’s a sense of being in the head of the writer as they have a conversation with what they are writing. It’s like turning over a needlepoint to view the back. But then—whereas a needlepoint’s reverse is often a mess of threads—what you do is you make the back of the essay beautiful. You tuck the ends in and connect them. That’s the image that I keep getting when I think about your book: a flower with many small petals in rings, like a zinnia or marigold or chrysanthemum (and I thought you’d like a colorful metaphor since this book zings with color, the color of saris and weddings and skylines at night and food and sepia memories). The loose ends of the essays all curve and dovetail toward a larger design, making something beautiful, and it wasn’t through forcing them to align. It was through exposing the pattern of their making.

The book is full of returns that nonetheless carry the reader forward, like the “Ring Theory” that is another essay. Even your “Acknowledgements” section at the back is a return, full with the people and places that come up in the essays and notes on process. And then the very last section, “Notes,” offers a series of tiny essays on process, so that the reader ends with the seed of each essay, its inspiration and additional moments and texts that prompted it into being.

What a brilliant and subtle design. I look forward to the time when we can be in a room together somewhere, on the other side of this terrible virus, so that I can hear you talk about process and writing and putting this together, adding yet another ring of petals around your beautiful book.

xoxox

Sonya

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Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance MemoirHer work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program.

Wild about Wild and Close Reading

July 20, 2012 § 3 Comments

Richard Gilbert presents an exceedingly intelligent and detailed discussion of how reading a particular book closely, in this case Cheryl Strayed’s acclaimed Wild, can help writers work through structural problems in their own books-in-progress.  Gilbert is always excellent on craft, but may have outdone himself here, in the best way. Here is an excerpt, but take the time to read his entire post over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour:

In June I threw out the first act of my memoir—it was too slow to start—which helped me cut forty pages, and I broke up two chapters on my father and threaded him throughout. That project took the entire month. I felt I was seeing my material with a colder eye, and placing it or cutting it for effect, not using it because I loved it or because I hoped it was working.

At the start of July I printed out hard copy of my manuscript and also began rereading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. My morning practice was first to read some of Wild, my morning book, and then to read and edit my memoir printout. Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit of that concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. As a memoir, Wild truly cooks, that much was clear from my first reading, and in the way I needed my book to cook.

…  As I write this, I’m halfway through the memoir again. But the day I read Chapter Five looms in my mind like a bad day on the PCT, like a landslide. I felt a doom-laden insight creep upon me as I read the chapter, so recently reworked on my computer, a leaden despair and a roaring in my ears. Chapter Five was a mess. The through story had collapsed, and the chapter’s various sections seemed like just a bunch of this ‘n that—useless rubble, even though as individual pieces they read fine. I might have felt the earth fall away on my own, but the contrast between my effort and Wild’snarrative probably was what gobsmacked me.

And yet, despite the fact that seeing such a problem was a gift, I melted down for a day or two. Fear and confusion riddled me. Could I dig out of this one? How?

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