I often use Lisa Dale Norton’s gem of a memoir-writing book in the memoir and life story writing classes I teach. Her small book, Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir (St. Martin’s Press), leads writers along the pivotal path to the heart of our personal stories.
In her guest post below, Lisa explains the critical relationship between the structure of memoir and its meaning. (And don’t forget to check the bottom of this post so you can tune into her AuthorChat on November 10.)
Memoir: Let Your Story Tell You Its Structure
I work with a lot of writers on their stories, and one of the hardest things for most to accept is that the shape of their memoir will not reveal itself until they know what they are trying to say. It’s counter intuitive and certainly not what we are taught in school where there are tidy formulas, all of which are useless when you are pushing forward the fragile idea of a memoir: you live your life, you remember your life, you attempt to make a story out of parts of that life. But quickly, questions plague the would-be memoirist: What do I use? What do I leave out? Should the story be chronological? How much background is necessary, and how do I make it mean something?
Structure follows meaning; it rises out of meaning. You can’t get to one without the other.
So what’s a writer to do?
I advise writers to keep writing the memories, or shimmering images as I call them, those shiny moments you remember above all others. You remember them because there is a key inside them that is a clue to what you are trying to say in the manuscript. If you allow those memories to articulate through story they will help you figure out the meaning of your memoir. In that organic process the inevitable structure will reveal itself.
Here’s an example. In my new book of narrative nonfiction I combine the story of my experiences in Europe with tales of my parents’ travels there shortly after World War II. But that’s not a story.
Somewhere inside those various tales of travel and discovery there has to be something bigger. It’s taken much work to reveal what that something is. How did I get here? I kept writing drafts of my parents’ stories, my stories. As I researched locations, studied ephemera, searched maps, and hunted my heart for hot points of sadness and joy, I began to understand why those parallel journeys rivet me.
In other words, I have figured out what they mean to me; I know what my story is about. And now I know its shape.
The only way to get here, and it’s a stretch in our control-oriented culture, is a leap of faith. You have to let go of the notion that you know what your story is about, and let it tell you.
Lisa is also the author of the memoir, Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (St. Martin’s Press). You can follow her memoir-writing tips on Twitter. http://twitter.com/lisadalenorton
Writing a memoir and need some tips? Ask Lisa Dale Norton Live!
We all have great stories to share about our lives, but how many of us could translate our life experience into something more permanent…say a memoir?
Join bestselling author Lisa Dale Norton for a live front-row seat as she shares her insights and writing techniques regarding the difference between memoir and autobiography, how to claim your voice, and the art of storytelling.
Lisa Dale Norton is the founder of the Santa Fe Writing Institute and teaches writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
DATE: NOV. 10th, 2011
TIME: 5:00PM Pacific / 8:00PM Eastern
How to join in:
- Click widget link: http://t.wbx.me/gb45q
- Use the guest tab (not registered users tab)
- Enter your name in the guest field
- Click the enter button to join
Jana Eshaghian says
Lisa, you are always inspiring. Thank you for your work and for teaching others to examine their stories in hopes of finding a key to their treasures.
I always find memoir writing fascinating, but I’ve never tried it before. Not sure I have enough experiences yet. 🙂
Lynette Benton says
Well . . . for the time being, just enjoy reading them!
Linda Gartz says
I’m getting to this late, but so glad I found it. I’ve been working on these very issues: structure, finding the bigger picture–what my memoir or essays as I write them, are really ABOUT. This brings me to Vivian Gornick’s essential “The Situation and the Story,” and William Zinsser’s advice, so similar to Lisa’s above — write what you remember and after you’ve written a bunch of memories — take a look at them. The memory is telling you there’s a reason you remember that incident/event- an underlying emotional meaning. Then look at all the pieces and see what emerges. Maybe a theme will arise — and you can then strive to pull it together. That’s the leap of faith, I believe Lisa is talking about. Thanks for this inspiring post.