Friday, August 21, 2015

It May Be Real, But Is It a Good Story? Traveling the Crucial Distance between Reality and Narrative

Years ago, in a fiction class, a writer was defending his work.  "It really happened," he kept insisting to the feedback group who wanted to suggest a few changes.  "Yes, it probably did," our instructor finally said.  "It's real.  But is it a good story?"

Fast forward to a memoir group I taught this past spring.  A woman writing her first memoir was concerned about leaving anything out.  "It all really happened," she kept telling me.  "It's my life!"  And it was quite a life, full of challenges and crises.  I remembered that fiction class long ago.  "Yes, it is your life," I told her, borrowing from my long ago teacher.  "But can you find the narrative within it?  What parts of your life would make a good story?"



Abigail Thomas, author of two wonderful writing books and the memoir Three Dog Life, talked about what we leave out being as vital to our narrative as what we include.  Both writers above were caught in that terrible place of deciding what to say no to.  A life is huge, too big for a book.  Selecting the narrative out of the life is the biggest work of a writer.

Selecting the Narrative
For me, sleuthing a good narrative often starts with a freewrite.  Freewriting, or stream-of-consciousness writing, allows me to get beyond the linear, critical mind.  I choose a prompt, begin to scribe the details, then set it aside to let it "cook" into a possible narrative. 

Recently, following a class assignment, I wrote from the prompt "glasses."  The freewrite was about my terrible years of taking ballroom dancing when I was a preteen.  My mother firmly believed in dancing class as part of a young girl's education, so I attended each weekend.  But I had also gotten my first glasses in fifth grade, and my mother thought I looked better without them.  Before I exited the car to climb the church steps to my dancing class, she'd relieve me of my glasses.  She folded them carefully and promised to return them when I came out of class.

I was blind as a bat, as the saying goes.  I struggled to the rec room and  danced in a daze, each face blurry.  A miracle I made it back to the parking lot, where my mother waited in our station wagon.  "How was the class?" she'd ask me.  "I don't know," I always said.

A somewhat painful memory.  I scribbled it down and set it aside, mildly intrigued.  I knew there wasn't a story there yet.  I knew I'd do more with it. 

Weeks later, I wrote another freewrite from the same prompt, "glasses."  This one came from a memory about ten years ago.  One winter night when I lived in Minnesota, my dog had knocked my glasses off the nightstand.  I panicked when I had to get up in the dark and couldn't find them.

Two pieces, very different.  Still not a story, but now there was a parallel.  To me, parallels hint at narrative.  I thought about them and realized they both described an experience of blindness. 

My third freewrite came soon after.  Instead of "glasses" as my prompt, I used the image of "blindness."  I wrote about scratching my cornea and being patched for twenty-four hours.  Led around by my husband, I felt very fragile without my precious eyesight.

Soon, with thought, and ruthless editing, I birthed first a short memoir piece, then a short fiction story.  Some other pieces got added on, the narrative rounded out, and I was very pleased with the result.

I built the story from three disparate pieces, and I looked beyond the actual real-life details for the narrative. 


A former student from New England happened to send me this link to an excellent article about the difference between life and narrative, published recently in the Atlantic Monthly.  Although it focuses on memoir, it's also applicable to anyone writing autobiographical fiction--fiction that stems from a real-life experience.     

It forms the basis for this week's writing exercise.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Read the Atlantic Monthly article.  Link is above.
2.  Comb your half-written pieces, especially memory (real-life) freewrites or journal entries.  Select two that have disparate details but some cross over:  maybe a common theme, as blindness was in my pieces above.  Or maybe a common location, era, or person.
  3.  See if you can take these two pieces forward into one, by finding the narrative thread in both real-life stories.