Discovering how to tell the story

Author Dani Shapiro said something in Monday’s interview that struck a chord with me:

The art of memoir isn’t in discovering what happened, but rather, in how to tell the story.

If she’d told me this before I wrote my memoir, I wouldn’t have believed her. Memoir is largely about recounting what happened during a life span. In my case, my travel memoir recounts my experiences over a six-month period. How many ways are there to write about what happened during those six months?

But as I moved forward with this project, the more I wrote and revised, I watched my book turn into something I didn’t expect. The premise — a woman traveling solo through Africa — hasn’t changed; it’s still what I envisioned from the beginning. But where it begins, how it ends and the parts I decided to leave out — most of that was unexpected. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know how I would write the story. I had to get it down on paper to see where it took me.

I remember walking in the woods with a writer named Andrew during my residency at Hambidge. He told me that he had sat in front of his computer the night before to rewrite a chapter, and his character did something he didn’t expect. The surprise had something to do with death — the character had died one way in the first few drafts, and then, suddenly, it seemed he wanted to die differently.

This was all fine and dandy, but Andrew was writing fiction. That will never happen to me, I thought. I’m writing memoir. I always know where the story’s going.

But the next morning — the very next morning — it happened. I typed on my keyboard, trying to figure out how my second chapter would begin, and out spewed a scene that I’d never considered including in my book. It’s about my sister and I, looking at a map of Africa in her apartment, the first time I told her exactly where I planned to go. “What if you get malaria again?” she asked, reminding me of my bout with the illness during my first trip to Cameroon.

That scene works. It still opens Chapter Two. (Although I can’t promise an editor won’t nix it along the way.) And I had no idea it would be part of my manuscript.

Other things reveal themselves through memoir, too — things that are bigger and more important than a scene. While writing this book, I’ve made connections, had realizations and drawn conclusions about my trip, the people I met and myself, ideas I never would have come up with had I not taken the time to reflect with purpose.

Writing a memoir is a journey of self-discovery. You may already know what happened, but in discovering how to tell the story, you’ll also discover pieces of yourself.

What have you discovered through your writing?

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9 Responses

  1. Talk about synchronicity. I’m learning this as I’m taking that essay writing class. It turns out that no matter what my initial intention when I write about an experience, even to the moment of publication, I’m always learning from the experience and how I reacted to it, and that new knowledge could affect the story and how I tell it.

    • That’s totally true — that new knowledge can affect the story. Sometimes it MAKES the story, ya know? Can’t wait to hear more about what you’re learning.

  2. Writing my memoir was like making a giant jigsaw puzzle of my life, fitting the pieces together and making sense of it. It is a glorius journey of self-discovery. So glad you discovered that, Alexis.
    Karen

  3. this is totally true! i have a hard time writing essays because i often want to force a certain voice/opinion on the piece. i need to learn to just write and see what wants to be said 🙂

  4. Very true and very well said. When I first heard my agent talk about my manuscript I realised that there were truths about my life revealed in the story that I hadn’t even realised were there. It was unsettling and yet reassuring that the story was working, that I had given it enough space to find it’s own shape.

  5. Excellent post – very insightful.

    I think that it is true not just for memoirs, but for fiction and other genres of non-fiction as well. How many times have you read something where you really want to find out what happens, but can barely force yourself through the way it is written? Likewise, I have read quite a few novels where I would have found the story unappealing, but was captivated by how it was revealed to me.

  6. Sojourner Truth, it is said, used to start her speeches with this line, “Like you, I came here tonight to find out what I have to say.” I have always loved that line and think it applies to memoir writing also.

    I watched a Biography channel show on Barack Obama as I was working out this morning. It confirmed something I sensed during the campaign and wrote about in my blog–that Obama’s memoir, written in his early ’30’s, was absolutely crucial to his identity, which had been constructed, in part at least, through the process of writing. Mary Karr wrote a NYTimes essay defending the charge of his being a “mere memoirist” and explained how difficult and deep such work is when done with honesty and integrity.

  7. I have been a reader for a long while, but am a first time commenter. I just wanted to say that this has been / is my favorite post of yours! Keep up the good work and I’ll keep on coming back.

  8. Superb post! I agree what you wrote in the post. I have understood myself a lot better since I started writing my memoir. And I jeer at my stupidity, a woman without enough guts, shackled by the cultural taboos. However, I am wised up now. I think it will be hard for somebody to trap me now. I hope many women would learn from my mistakes.

    mita

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