Posted by Kathleen Pooler/@kathypooler with Janice Gary
“Plot is what happens in your story. Every story needs structure, just as every body needs a skeleton. It is how you ‘flesh out and clothe’ your structure that makes each story unique.~ Caroline Lawrence
I am thrilled to feature memoir author and teacher Janice Gary in this Halloween-themed guest post on memoir structure. I met Janice at the IWWG Annual Summer Conference where she presented memoir writing workshops. Janice is the author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance
Welcome , Janice!
The Lovely Bones: Structure in Memoir
You could say I’m a ghostwriter. All memoirists are. We commune with the spirits of the past, inhabit old haunts, sift through the bones of the people we once were (and once knew) in an attempt to reanimate what was and illuminate what is.
Our ghosts are real. Or at least as real as we remember them. One thing we cannot do is make stuff up. And we don’t need to. We have more than enough material to conjure life on the page. But that’s part of the problem. What do you do with it all – all that experience, all that emotion? What spooks those of us who write from life the most is this dilemma: how to wrangle this vast, unwieldy life of ours into a well-shaped story.
Fiction writers have the old tried and tr ue (and yes, trite) basic plot triangle to turn to for structure. Conflict leads to a crisis/climax point which forces the protagonist to confront something (either themselves or a foe). The outcome of this changes everything and leads to resolution.
While narrative nonfiction writers can borrow from fiction and use some of the same techniques, the very nature of the material we are working with dictates we approach storytelling in a different way. Fiction writers start with nothing and create a world. Memoirists start with an entire universe that already exists. We are more like sculptors than painters, relying on the advice of Michelangelo, who supposedly said he made the statue of David by taking away everything in the stone that was not David.
We create story by carving and cutting to the bone.
That means deciding who and what we want to pull out of the block of stone. When I sit down to tell a story, I have to ask, whose story is it — the child who longed to be accepted? The young woman who stood up to her fears? And what is the heart, the very essence of the story I want to tell? The answer to that question leads to structure.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Just a slight shift in the emotional center of a story can influence not only the “how” (order, time, chapters, sections) but the “what” (the scenes, the dialogue, the people, the experiences) that will become the bones of the narrative.
I suggest my students answer the question “What is it about?” at least five times and keep asking it until they understand their core theme. There can be many answers to this question – and many things a story is about –but it’s essential to identify the overriding theme at the center of the story that connects everything.
Once we have a sense of this core, we start to impose limits, a backdrop for the play to play out against. We inhabit so many worlds in a lifetime. For the purposes of structure, we need to ask which one of these worlds contains the most dramatic instances of conflict and crisis, moments that would make good storytelling – and even more importantly, still call to be unpacked, laid out end to end and examined.
A good place to start is time and setting. Deciding on a fixed time or place does not mean you cannot write outside of that time or place. What is does do is provide an anchor for flashing forward and back. This is important because a memoir needs a structure that will support time travel. We live our days wandering back and forth between past, present and future. Life does not unfold in a neat triangle of conflict, climax and resolution but is more like a ragged ridge made of many triangles, with some crisis/climax points not occurring until years after the inciting incident.
The challenge of memoir is to shape the fluid nature of existence.
We start by understanding what story out of the many stories of our life we want to tell. Then we assemble the skeleton, working outward from the spine, the very core of what our story is about. As the hip bone connects to the thigh bone, the connective tissue of memory and meaning begins to form. And the story takes shape.
Thank you Janice for sharing your pearls about memoir structure and the importance of being clear on the story to tell. Shaping a slice of life into a story that will connect with others is a memoirist’s challenge. I appreciate your tips!
Janice Gary is the author of the award-winning book Short Leash: a Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance. She teaches nonfiction for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Arts Program and conducts memoir workshops around the country.
Website: Janice Gary
Synopsis of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance
It’s hard to believe that a walk in the park can change a life – let alone two – but for Janice Gary and her dog Barney, that’s exactly what happened.
Gary relied on dogs to help her feel safe when walking on her own ever since being attacked on the streets of Berkeley as a young woman. This solution worked well for years until her canine companion passed on. Grieving, and without the benefit of a guardian, she encounters a stray Lab-Rottweiler puppy in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot and falls for his goofy smile and sweet nature. With his biscuit-sized paws, Barney promises to grow into her biggest protector yet. But fate intervenes when Barney is viciously attacked by another dog just before his first birthday. From that time on, he becomes dog-aggressive. Walking anywhere with Barney is difficult. But for Gary, walking without him is impossible.
It’s only when she risks taking him to a local park that both of their lives change forever. There, Janice faces her deepest fears and discovers the grace of the natural world, the power of love and the potency of her own strengths. And Barney no longer feels the need to attack other dogs. Beautifully written, Short Leash is a moving tale of love and loss, the journey of two broken souls finding their way toward wholeness.
How about you? How do you find the structure for shaping your life stories into a memoir?
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Monday, October 30, 2017:
October 2017 Newsletter: Updates, Memoir Musings, Max Moments:
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Monday, November 6,2017:
“Digging Deep in Memoir”