Identify Your Journey Take Your Story Apart
Keep your, I used to but now I, ah list right next to your handy obsessions' list. Okay, we're gonna take your story apart. You've got, you've identified what you wanna right about. You've identified a journey that has motion and change. Where do we begin? Point of view. Um, if, if I were giving a class in novel writing, um, and, and I could cause I sometimes write novels. Um, then, then there'd be a big issue here. Who's point of view am I writing from? Which character in my story, am I going to stay with and ask you to, to follow? Who's head am I gonna inhabit? When you're writing memoir, that one is solved for you. It's gonna be you. (laughter) It is definitely you. It is not your heroic father or your terrible mother. It is you. But there is still a point of view issue, which is you when? Are you writing as you now, looking back on your childhood? Is Nathan talking about 40 years ago when you left Vietnam? Or is Nathan inhabiting a child Nathan getting of the plan for the first tim...
e in San Francisco or wherever you landed? There, you have many choices and each one carries advantages and disadvantages. Big surprise. If you write from the point of view of now looking back, then you have access to all the knowledge that you've acquired in between. And you can draw from it. But it many have less immediacy than that present tense. If you write in the present tense, however, and At Home In The World at book that, that covered a pretty substantial number of years from about age 12 to 44, um, I chose, I made an interesting point of view choice that I've never made before. I wrote in the present tense of whatever age I was at that stage in the story. What does that mean? It means that you're right there with me. You are me as you're reading. At least that's my goal: to make you know what it was like to be me at that moment. What do I forfeit? I do not get to say. Later, I, I thought this man, this man seemed to adore me and treated me like the most perfect girl in the universe. Later I would find out that he was writing letters to many other girls at the same time. I don't get to say that. When I get to my 44-year-old self, meeting a woman at the party who says Oh by the way, somebody I know has these letters. Then I can tell the story. But I want to replicate the experience of what it was being me at that time and I want you to learn news like that in the way that I learned the news. So you, you identify what piece of ground you were standing on and you hold to it, you stay there. Point of view.
Point of entry. Where does the story begin? And it probably begins before the story begins but not 30 years before, not with your birth. It begins with the context. The things that you need to know to understand this story. There are a whole lot of things you don't need to know. Which details, What circumstances, will inform our understanding of the story you're about to tell? I call it the curtain goes up moment. The world before the world changed. And I'm gonna take a few points of entry from some essays that I've worked on recently with students and again, I'm not trying to shame anybody. They, they hadn't worked with me for very long at the point that, that they wrote these. First one, every morning we say the bizarre parade assemble. Women in burkas shuffling behind raw boned men in crisp white robes and kefias. I hope I'm pronouncing that right. Africans in bright caftans and matching hats, designer-clad Asians, short Mexicans, and tall Texans, both in cowboy hats and pointy-towed boots. That's the first sentence. What's missing from that sentence?
The narrator. The narrator is actually doing a great job of describing everything she sees, and we even know there's a we in there. It's not, every morning I saw, it's we. There are two people who are going to be pretty important in this story. And we don't know one thing about them, and look at all the description we've had of the people they see. No context. I can't place myself, I am wandering in the wilderness. Next one, grief depression and strokes chipped away at my mother's mind and spirit over her lifetime. Be honest, do you wanna read that story. I don't mind that it's a downer. Downers are okay, as far as I'm concerned. But it's abstract, it's non-specific, Um, it's, words can, can I draw a picture of grief, depression, strokes plural? Chipped away at my mother's mind. Once again, we're hearing about the mother before we know about the daughter. And it's the daughter's point of view. Over her lifetime, mother might have lived 70, 80, 90 years. That' a pretty big story to take in one gulp. Next one, yes sir that's my baby, no sir I don't mean maybe. It's a song. We know that song, people who are of a certain age know that song. (laughter) It's a cliche, basically. And once again, I don't think I need to say much about that. The narrator is missing. I don't know where she is in the world. And here's a classic, Webster's Dictionary defines love as a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person. Don't tell me what I know. Tell me what I don't know. Tell me what I wanna find out about. Tell me what it is to wanna be a nun and then decide no I think I gonna get married instead. You know, um, give me some news here. You know, every moment in my writing life I have been aware of the fact that my reader could always close the book, put the magazine back, now, you know, go to the internet, order something on Amazon. There are a million options, besides continuing to read your work. You have to win that reader. And you have to, in the modern world, you have to win that reader pretty fast. I don't think Charles Dickens, as great a writer as he was, would have been able to do today what he did in those days when we had no TV and people were going to be ready for a much more luxurious entry to a story. Right now. You know, I've written for my living and I knew that if my children were gonna have a roof over their head I had better keep you interested. I was singing for my supper. And you could always go away. And the way to do it, the first way, you could loose them at any point but you could really loose them at the beginning, is with a strong point of entry. So here are some that work. The trick in foraging for a loose tooth in coffee grounds is not to be mislead by the clumps. (laughter) I dunno what that story's gonna be about. It happens to be an essay called making toast, by Roger Rosenblatt, ran in The New Yorker. Um, but am I curious? Yes I am. This one's mine. Seven years after I separated from my children's father it was still hard going back to our old house. What do you know is gonna happen in this essay? I'm gonna go back to my old house and something is going to happen there. This one's little nostalgic. When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, my 13-year-old daughter Marissa was so angry that she stopped wearing shoes. (laughter) She's naked now. (laughter) Is this going to be a story about politics? No it is not. It is going to be about Marissa. Am I going to keep reading? Yes I sure did. This was a Modern Love column by a woman named Betsey McQuinny who I'd never heard of before and I haven't read anything by her since. But it's just a beautiful essay which is one of the great things about memoirs. Sometimes a person you've never heard of tells the most wonderful story. I was the one who insisted on body glitter. And this was a beautiful writer named Marjorie Williams. Died, not long after writing this piece, and that's what the piece is about, actually. It's about, a Halloween with her nine-year-old daughter and we learn very swiftly in this piece that Marjorie Williams was the kind of mother who was a no nonsense mother and she didn't really believe in her daughter wearing fancy, you know, provocative things. But that particular Halloween, she really got into dressing her daughter up. And even putting on makeup on her. She describes her as making her like a little hooker. And letting her wear these high, high shoes and these short, short skirts. And the last image in the piece, which chokes me up still when I read it, and we, by this, by the time we get to the end of the piece we have learned that Marjorie Williams is not gonna live very much longer. Um, she describes watching her daughter go down the steps to trick-or-treating, and she says, I realize what I was doing. I was giving myself a glimpse of watching my daughter go off to a prom that I would never be there to see. I was getting a little taste of the life of the 52-year-old mother, I would never be. And that is a point of entry for that story and it's not a story about Halloween. Six months after I met, this one's mine again, six months after I met the man who would become my second husband, after 25 years spent as what I used to call a solo operator, he announced that he was signing up for motorcycle school. It's obviously not a piece about motorcycle school. And I'll tell you, this one speaks to one of my obsessions, which was the loss of my husband. And I've tackled that one in a, an 800 word essay and a 400 page book. And this particular time, I tackled it through the small lens of a summer that we spent on the motorcycle. A very happy summer of a very short marriage. In the summer of, this one comes also from wonderful writer called Jonathan Lethem, it was in The New Yorker. In, in the summer of 1977 I saw Star Wars 21 times. Mostly by myself. (laughter) Why? There's gonna be a death involved in that one too. But notice how specific. It is not the big global topic of death. It is death as experienced by a 13-year-old boy who watched a whole lot of Star Wars that summer. The house where I grew up, and this is the first sentence of A Home in the World: The house where I grew up in Durham, New Hampshire is the only one on the street with a fence surrounding it. I coulda said, I was a loner. My family were different from everybody else. Abstract, abstract, abstract. I wanna give you a picture of what that looked it. I could have do, our house had a yellow door. I did. Our house had blue shutters, our house had a brick walk. Is that gonna inform you about what my family was like? Only one with a fence. Jim died, this is mine again. Jim died in the middle of a June night. And this is the first sentence of my book, my most recent memoir, The Best Of Us. Jim died in the middle of a June night four days after his 64th birthday, 19 months after receiving the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, three weeks short of our third wedding anniversary. Curtain goes up. And here's one I love. This is from my friend, Ann Hood. It was in Modern Love column. Also about a loss. Loss features prominently in memoir, not surprisingly. It's difficult to hid from The Beatles. And that was an essay about the loss of her daughter Grace at the age of five to a virulent infection. She was fine one day, dead the next. Um, that story is so huge. And this happens to many of us, when we have had catastrophic events. How do you contain them? How do you not go crazy? And that is one of the great gifts of writing to make sense and order out of something unimaginably painful. To give structure to something that could be just random chaos of grief. Ann chose to write about her daughter's love of The Beatles. And not just her daughter's love of The Beatles because it's Ann's story. So Ann wrote about sharing The Beatles with her daughter and how she now cannot listen to The Beatles. And it's difficult to hide from The Beatles. The stakes. There's got to be a problem. First you've got a character, you've got a point of view, you know there's gonna be a journey. A character better come up against something. I had a really cute kitten. My kitten got older and she was still really cute. She got to be a cat and just a wonderful cat, um, and finally she died and I missed her a whole lot. Not a big problem, in fact you're yawning Diane. (laughter) And you're even an animal lover. (more laughter) We need to know that the narrator wants something and that's called the stakes. And we need to know that there's something getting in the way. And that's the problem, the conflict.
Can I forgive my sister? Will I get the job? Will I make it to the top of the mountain? Will I marry him? Will my friend admit she stole my necklace? Big or small. Can I learn to play the ukulele? It doesn't have to be, you know, will we live or will we die? Are we going to make it across the Pacific Ocean in our little row boat. The stakes, actually, this is one that I'm dealing with right now. I really wanna play the ukulele, and of course it's not just about the ukulele, it's about playing the ukulele signifies for me. Okay, um, who's got some stakes going on in their life right now? Who's got a problem? And something they want and something that's getting in the way. Oh this is a problem free group. You can all go home now, yes. You're, remind me your name.
And that was my problem for years I didn't know how to say my name. So now I do.
Didn't know how to say your name.
Why was that Jasmine?
Didn't know who I was.
Oh, my goodness. And something happened that told you.
Um, some people always know who they are but something happened and that's absolutely a story. Oh, did my cat come home? I did this for all the cat lovers. I'm not one of them but... (laughter)