by Jerry Waxler, NAMW Advisory Board Member & Upcoming Roundtable Guest on Thursday February 10, 2011
Beginners often fear their lives aren’t important enough to write. But the reason their tales lack intrigue is not because of the subject matter but because of the skill with which the material is crafted. The journey of a memoir begins with memories. The next step is to learn the skills required to make them compelling. One way to develop a deeper understanding of these
strategies is to pick apart memoirs that have made it to the bookstore. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, learning not only how memoirs are written, but also getting to know a wide range of life situations I would not have been able to learn any other way.
Another way you can learn these techniques is by attending Creative Nonfiction classes. Creative Nonfiction courses teach you how to apply the craft of storytelling to your actual life experience. These courses have only been around for a few decades, so when I was in high school and college in the 60s, there was no such thing as Creative Nonfiction. But the concepts they teach are not new at all. They are as old as civilization.
Here is the key to any story: a protagonist wants something and must overcome obstacles in order to achieve it. Along the way, the character grows. This structure is well known in literature departments that study the way other people have written stories. As memoir writers we need to apply these rules to our own experience.
External desires are easy to see. You wanted to be the star of the show, or wanted to get into a certain college, or wanted a particular mate. But internal drives are subtler. For example, if someone close to you died in a devastating accident, your initial desire was wishing it had never happened. But that’s not an option. The next wish is to reclaim poise and dignity. In my opinion the evolution of desire fuels the most interesting memoirs. After the setbacks, how did you cope?
Because memoirs are so psychologically oriented, readers are curious about inner challenges. What moods, fears, or beliefs stopped your forward motion. What strengths helped you overcome these obstacles? These internal conflicts create subtle dramatic tension.
By the end, your reader wants to know how your initial desire worked out. There are various ways to reach a satisfying conclusion. You might actually achieve the original goal. More subtly, explore the way you changed while pursuing it. Often, your own inner development provides even more satisfaction than achieving the goal you wanted.
Writing a memoir requires time and skill to knit these pieces together into an artistic whole. And for many people, it takes years to achieve a noteworthy book. Along the way, you acquire many skills. Whether you learned them in Creative Nonfiction classes or through less formal channels, by the end you will know how to turn facts into a story. And then, the
skills are yours, to apply to other topics. Anything you write will benefit from this ability to find the story within the facts.
Instead of a beginner who complains that you don’t have an interesting life, you become a storyteller, to whom people turn when they want to learn what makes life interesting.
Read more of Jerry Waxler’s essays about reading and writing memoirs and join Jerry at our next Memoir Writing Roundtable Tele-conversation on Thursday February 10, 2011. Sign up at no cost to discuss Creative Nonfiction