A short while ago I thought it would be nice to share a weekly post about how the memoir writing was going.
I expected new focus from a course I’ve started and also perhaps writing exercises that would be interesting to share. Well.. It just isn’t turning out like that. Some aspects of the course are really valuable – the other writers and their writing, but unfortunately there’s been little instruction.
However, merely mentioning the idea of Memoir Monday set a couple of other excellent bloggers off on a path of providing a few lessons! If you’re also grappling with a work-in-progress please do check out the discussions and back-catalogue of memoir writing posts by Jeanne Lombardo and Irene Waters.
This week Irene has been exploring the Experience of “I” in a memoir – what sets a context for the reader including language, culture, self-reflexivity, ownership etc whilst Jeanne explains in some detail how she tackled a manuscript re-write – as well as why it was a re-write and not simply a re-draft. I realise I’m somewhere in this zone. And it’s daunting.
Jeanne explains the use of two columns to divide up key elements in her manuscript:
one showing the positive events that had supported my client’s journey toward self realization, and one listing the negative events or moments that had blocked the attainment of his goals or wishes.
This works nicely for much of my material although perhaps not all so I’ve tinkered with it.
But first a bit about structure.
I’ve been aware that simply telling a chronological story doesn’t make for the best read.
I read Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir” after reading Sherri Matthews enticing review. In fact, I skipped to page 147 to read the chapter “On Book Structure and the Order of Information” which is a disappointing 29 lines of text. I then went off to read “The Liars Club” to see her in action. OMG – Amazing book. Now I get it.
As she quotes in “The Art of Memoir”
I start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally for me over the course of the book, then tell the story in straightforward, linear time.
It’s a sitting on the coffin, telling the tale of a death – or rebirth..
This isn’t really the stuff of epiphanies when you think of the many good books you may have read and now I have identified a critical event part way through my story to open the book with, tell the story and also come back to at the end.
More importantly I realised I’ve been using the term structure, when actually some of my issues are “all the other stuff” that isn’t the basic story arc. What do I do with that?
So using Jeanne’s idea of columns I can easily break down my story timeline into positive and negative events – the bones of my structure.
I’ve then added more columns to help with the process of completing this book. I realise now weaving in the other things I need and want to say – that don’t follow the story arc – are messing with my notion of structure. This may be A-B-C stuff to some of you and automatic to others but I was failing to see it. (A huge thank you to my resident man of numbers, Simon who is much better at seeing ‘patterns’ than me.)
(I will tag this post Chemobrain for any other cancer writers out there, because I feel like a muppet now. Some of this is so simple – once you can see it. I knew it was there but it has been like playing cards blind-folded.)
In working further to categorise the “other stuff” around writing a memoir – or writing mine anyway, I’ve come up with a few more columns to keep track of the shape.
This includes a column for ‘Reflections” after another discussion with Irene on what memoir is all about and after Simon asked me to tell him in one sentence, what outcome I wanted for the reader.
My gut reaction was
I want you to understand what this life is like.
That in turn led to another column currently titled “All the Other Stuff” – except it isn’t all the other stuff – it’s a few thoughts and scenes that convey some key parts of my life – like how surviving a terminal diagnosis has perhaps ‘informed’ my parenting and what associations are attached to events on the calendar etc. This is perhaps some of the good and bad consequences of the main story but they don’t necessarily have to fit into the timeline. And I can work that bit out later.
So I now have structure and process mixed up on a big piece of paper but it can now be used as a tool to help me hold the thing in my head.
Might not sound a lot but it’s feeling good! It feels like the big picture I’ve been after.
What about you? Do you have trouble seeing the big picture? What tips can you pass on that have helped you?