Memoir and Story

One of the common problems I see in writing workshops is the memoir writer who is struggling to tell his story. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I recognize it, and I think that’s important.

Fiction writers in particular can often have some distance from their story. For example, the princess that is using her magical amulet to force her step-brother from the throne is a great story, but is not an issue most of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

By contrast, the memoir writer will often be confronted by other members of the workshop about his writing, and throw up his hands, saying, “but that’s what happened!”

The point is this: writing is a craft, and you’ve got to be able to use all of your characters to great effect. You’ve got to allow them to make terrible choices, step into peril, fail to see important details. All of the people in the memoir, including the narrator, are characters. And if you don’t treat them that way, it is going to be a much less satisfying experience for the reader.

Put another way, and bluntly, nobody really cares about you. I mean, unless you are president of a large country, why should I read about you? You’ve had struggles? I’ve had struggles. So what?

What people want is a story. They want to be taken on a journey. So the memoir writer sometimes has a bigger challenge than other writers. For starters, this may be one of their first serious attempts at writing. They haven’t yet perfected their craft. But now they have to try to develop their craft not with a princess, but with themselves, their mothers, their broken childhoods. It’s a lot harder to be objective about that.

I welcome advice from others who have successfully navigated this labyrinth. I don’t know the answer, but I think that recognizing the challenge is an important first step.

One Armed Dancing

OK. I need some advice. I love to waltz. But I have an injury to my right shoulder.

How do I lead?

For you non-dancers (and you are really missing out on one of life’s most exquisite activities here), it goes like this. The man takes his partner’s hand in his left, extending them out from the body. These hands are beautiful and graceful, like an elegant masthead. But the truth is, they don’t do much.

On the other hand (ahem) the man’s right arm is the rudder. It goes around his partner. Her arm lays across his. These arms form a semi-rigid structure. This is called frame. He uses this to steer them across the dance floor. Subtle shifts in the right arm queue your partner whether to turn, or step back, or pull in close. It’s the critical arm.

Except I don’t have one.

At least, not right now.

I keep it in a sling while dancing so some yahoo showing off (which more than once has been yours truly) doesn’t yank it into some unnatural angle.

So, the question is, how do I lead with only one arm? Surely someone out there has solved this problem.

Help me! I’m adrift.

Dynamic Range

One of the key elements that gets overlooked by new writers is what I think of as dynamic range. This is a concept that is used to great effect in other art forms like photography and music.

You’ve got a limited frame in which to work. In photography that’s the border of the image. In music, it’s the length of the piece. And of course you want to deliver some excitement, some payoff. After all, that’s the whole point of the piece. The payoff. But to get there, you have to leave yourself somewhere to go.

If your whole image is bright and exciting, what’s going to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular spot in the photograph? If your entire musical performance is thumping away at eleven, well, there’s really no where to go from there.

Instead, you want to have plenty of calm spaces in your work. Areas where the pacing, color, and detail are relaxed, or different in tone, compared to the climax.

This can be purely manipulative, and is really not fair to the reader. But heck, they’ve bought a ticket, and chances are they are just as much a thrill junkie as anyone else. Don’t be afraid to take them on a ride.

For example, one of the most effective ways to get to a real tear jerk moment is to lull the reader with a sense of the mundane for quite some time. Get them used to the idea that things are plodding along in a particular direction. Then shift into your emotional content. Brevity can be a virtue here. The emotional content can cause the reader to see the scene in a different, more serious, light.

The opposite works as well. You can be serious, serious, serious, funny.

You should actually be able to graph the energy of your scene. This will make you conscious of the movement and energy in your work.