Looking Backward

October 20, 2020 § 17 Comments

So what?

It’s the key question for all memoirists: Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them?

Autobiography and biography have the shortcut of fame. What’s in it for the reader is finding out more about someone they’re already fascinated with. But for those of us not (yet) famous, our memoir must have a takeaway for the reader. Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader.

What gives the reader a chance for personal growth while reading our self-history?

Reflection.

Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

Biographies recite facts, hopefully told in an interesting way. Memoir creates meaning, and a key technique for creating that meaning is reflection, using the retrospective voice.

The retrospective voice is different from “the past” or “the past tense.” Past-You reacts in the moment, and you show it in action, in a scene, and in whatever tense you’ve chosen for your narrative. Here, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson writes about her childhood:

By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.

There’s thinking in here, yes, but the author is thinking as the child she was, processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time. We’re staying in the child’s time period. The narration is simply phrased and focuses on the immediate feelings and reactions of the child. The reader’s engagement is in the humor and pathos of the situation, without commentary from the adult narrator.

Using the retrospective voice, Narrator-You juxtaposes events to create meaning—meaning that brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader.

Jenny Lawson again, later in the book and in her personal timeline:

The skating rink was shuttered and abandoned, the sign filled with empty birds’ nests. The bookstore where I’d met Victor was gone now, and my grandparents’ home sold soon after they died…My sister and I walked through the aftermath of the playground together and I took a small piece of the rubble to remember it by. Now when I pass by the school I look away and remember it the way it was, with the dangerous metal seesaws and merry-go-rounds that eventually disappeared all over America. All that remains of it today is the memory, still echoing in my head, of the sound of my favorite swing, squeaking rustily and comfortingly, over and over, back and forth.

The language isn’t any more complex, but the sentences are longer and contain more images than actions and feelings. There’s a deliberate rhythm in the end of the last line that lingers for the reader, allowing them a moment in their own thoughts of what, for them, has passed.

You can blend the retrospective voice with a past scene, and the contrast is often poignant or funny:

[My mother] gave us a look that my father always seemed to interpret as “How lucky you girls are to have such an adventurous father,” but which I always read as “One of you will probably not survive your father’s enthusiasm. Most likely it will be Lisa, since she’s smaller and can’t run as fast, but she is quite good at hiding in small spaces, so really it’s anyone’s game.” More likely, though, it was something like, “Christ, why won’t someone hurry up and invent Xanax?”

Most of the paragraph is Past-Jenny, but the last sentence is Narrator-Jenny, wryly assessing the moment as her adult self.

Take a look at a memoir you admire. Where is the writer their past self, thinking and feeling and experiencing? Where are they the narrator, making meaning from those moments, maybe even straight-up telling what they know now? And more technically, where has the writer put events and scenes physically next to each other on the page, so that their juxtaposition itself creates meaning for the reader?

Ask those questions of your own work, too. Chances are you’re already using the retrospective voice instinctively; now apply it deliberately. Where do you want the reader to stay with Past-You, reacting directly to the action? Where do you want to share Narrator-You’s discoveries, so that the reader can reflect themselves, feeling the resonance of your words in their own life?

The retrospective voice dances on the edge of being the moral of the story, but allows the reader room to complete the thought themselves. It’s telling just enough. In the main narrative, show them what you did. In the retrospective voice, show them what you know.

_______________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tomorrow, she’s teaching the webinar, Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s just over an hour and a steal at $25. Recording will be available but you must register in advance: sign up here.

 

Everybody’s Doing It

October 25, 2016 § 22 Comments

Knock, knock...

Knock, knock…

Blogging is dead.

Blogging is not dead.

More accurately, as Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) puts it,

The only thing that’s dead is the possibility of making a million bucks on blogging, which honestly never existed as an attainable goal for any of us in the first place.  If you’re blogging to make a million dollars you should probably switch to something more lucrative, like…I dunno…making a sex tape.  But not with a dead person.  I’ve been very clear on this, y’all.

(go read the whole post, I promise those last two sentences make total sense in context)

None of us are going to make any money blogging, unless our blog is part of a global, social-media-exploiting, traffic-driving, email-collecting, drip-campaigning, algorithmic, Twitter-metric, SEO-conscious plan. And in that case, we wouldn’t actually be writing very much, because all our time would be spent driving clicks.

Blog anyway.

Years ago I kept an old-school Blogger blog. I wrote 3-5 days a week for two years. I linked to other bloggers and participated in “blog carnivals,” which is how we shared links to stuff we enjoyed reading, back when Facebook still insisted on an “is” at the beginning of your status and Twitter didn’t exist. I posted regularly enough that if I missed more than a couple of days in a row, readers emailed to ask if I was sick.

That’s the first value of blogging. Connecting with your audience, and with other writers. Not “building platform,” although that’s a nice side effect, but genuinely interacting with people who care about what you say, and finding out what they care about. To learn what you, as a person with the ability to write, should be examining about yourself and putting into the world on behalf of every reader who has the same story and needs to tell it, but doesn’t have the words, or the bravery (yet). Jenny Lawson’s vivid, hilarious, brutal posts about depression got her a book deal, yes, but she also let thousands of readers know they weren’t alone, that they were allowed to tell what they were experiencing, too.

Blogging taught me to put out work regularly without being precious about it. I blog here for Brevity most Tuesdays and Thursdays (sometimes I’m sick). I keep a list of topics to write about, scribble down ideas when I have a great conversation about writing in person or on Facebook, copy-paste when I get over-explain-y about writing in an email and think, this could just be a blog post and I’ll send them the link. There are still mornings I wake up without the faintest idea of what to write. There isn’t time to wait for inspiration–as it is, I’m daily thankful I live 8 time zones ahead, so I have my morning to figure out a topic before the Brevity HQ’s 7AM. Sometimes I look at the literary news and see if there’s another essay to respond to. Sometimes I remember the theatre director Anne Bogart saying,

If what’s on stage in rehearsal isn’t working, I shout ‘Stop!’ Often I have no idea how to fix it, but I always sit in the very back of the house, and by the time I’ve walked all the way down the aisle to the stage, I’ve usually figured out where to start.

Then I open the New Post window and hope my fingers will figure out where to start. There isn’t time to agonize over every word–thankfully, readers don’t have the same literary expectations of a blog as they do a book. A blog post should be the best we can do, but it’s just as important to get it out there on time. Blogging regularly increases your speed, and your ability to turn an idea into words by force of will, whether ‘inspiration’ has graced you that day or not. Blogging doesn’t replace long, slow, thoughtful pieces that coalesce from many drafts, but it keeps us in the habit.

Blogging gives us something to share on social media. We contribute positively to our civilization by sharing an idea instead of a meme, starting a discussion about a book we liked or an essay we read or an experience we’ve had. It lightens the heart to care passionately about a subject that might stir disagreement but is unlikely to dredge up hatred.

You might like Medium, or Tumblr, where Roxane Gay keeps her blog, or a curated site like The Manifest-Station, which is a little more like submitting to a literary magazine. You might like to write long posts on Facebook, like sex-icon/disability activist Erin Clark. I use Instagram as a place to post micro-essays, because carefully crafting words for 20 minutes in an airport lounge makes me feel like yes, I wrote today, and the little hearts popping up on my phone remind me, someone’s listening. Someone likes my words. I should keep doing this.

_________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, the host of the Brevity Podcast, and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with the bloggess at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: