Tell Me a Story

In a previous post, I wrote that a “memoir is a story.” Here’s what I meant.

When you’re writing a memoir, or doing most types of creative writing for that matter, you’re not just presenting a collection of facts or opinions. Not if you want anyone to read and relate to what you’ve written. Not if you want them to care enough to follow your retelling.

Sometimes when boomers and seniors in my classes write about a period in their past, it turns into a paean to the great outdoors (very often in Vermont).

By writing about this period in their lives, my students are re-imagining a carefree portion of their past. So, they write lengthy—and I mean lengthy—descriptions of the fields, mountains, and the gorgeous glare of sun on snow. They might include generalized activities they pursued, or briefly mention a picnic in that pastoral setting.

But, real people—individuals—are missing. It’s as if en masse, everyone (who are they?) left the house, skiied down a mountain, or rolled in a field. There are no incidents: no one fell, got cold and had to go home, reached for a sandwich, or spoke.

Despite the use of imaginative language and a lot of adjectives, these are reports, not stories.

A brief definition of a story is “a sequence of events, one leading to another.” More specifically, the events need to show cause and effect. And they need to convey meaning.

Since it’s so challenging to define “story,” I’ll address it again in future posts—specifically as the term applies to memoir and autobiographical writing.

In the meantime, here’s a kernel from Ira Glass, the marvelous storyteller-host of public radio’s This American Life.

According to Glass, the writer has two essential “building blocks” for stories. One is the incident. The other is the reflection.

Reflect on that for a while. Or read (and see) what Glass actually says.

Now that you’ve got the basic idea down pat, take a look at Tell Me a Better Story.

For more tips on every aspect of writing, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.

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7 thoughts on “Tell Me a Story

  1. Interesting comments. Very helpful, too. Tell a story, rather than recount facts ad nauseum. Thanks!

  2. Hi Lynette,
    I like this essay. I’m just starting to write memoir myself and I do find bringing emotion into the work is essential for readers to truly connect with the writer. Memoir is not a dry field guide but about conveying all of human experience, which includes emotional and spiritual experiences. Thank you. Jessica

  3. Love this post; probably because I love Ira Glass! He is SUCH a great story-teller. Thanks so much for the links to his videos. Your tips are so great because they boil stuff down to understandable components. Keep ’em comin’!

  4. Hi! To answer your question, my memoir is a little muddled right now. I’m not sure what kind of time line or narrative I’m working with, just a general theme. I’ve decided for the time being to not worry about all that, and instead write unsent letters to “characters” in the memoir. I’m not sure what will come of that, but it has been an interesting exploration of emotional memories, and other ones have come to light. Thanks for asking!

  5. Pingback: Memoir Writing Tips, 2

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