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.
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