Deb: Life into Story

“All of our lives are narrative.”
~Jon Franklin
When a certain politician released her autobiography a few
years ago, a mock cover circulated: All
About Me
, by Me, Me, Me. The Seusslike rendering generated laughs because
it captured the narcissism of this particular individual – and perhaps of
politicians in general.
Laugh as we may, the truth is that nearly everything a
writer creates is at some level All About Me. The first rule of writing is to
write what you know, and unless we suffer from narcissism or other delusional
disorders, what we know best is ourselves. So how does something so personal
and seemingly egocentric get spun into writing that’s meaningful, true, and of
interest to readers?
Start with your motivation. If you’re bent on showing the
world all the ways you’ve been wronged, shut down your laptop and a join a
support group. As author Steve Almond points out, writers should at all times
love their characters, and that’s tough to do when you’re bent on revenge
Then push beyond what you know. Discover what only you can
write, the experiences and perspectives that not everyone has. Go beyond
stuff that happened to you and probe the things you got yourself into. So you were raised by a pack of
wolves. Readers want to know what happened when you challenged the alpha or
failed to howl like the rest. “Good stories show how people survive,” Almond
says, adding that a “character in a hole” is only of interest when you probe her unbearable feelings and the thwarted desires.
Should you tell your truth straight or slant? Both, if you’re honest. In nonfiction, there’s always a slant, and that
slant will be all about you, the truth that you’ve lived and the truth you’re
discovering – and that’s without even venturing onto the slippery slope of remembered
or emotional truth. If you write fiction, go ahead and tell yourself you’re
making everything up, but the truth that you’ve lived and the truth you’re
discovering will creep in regardless.
Still, there’s the question of form. In Turning Life into Fiction, Robin Hemley advises writers to consider how wedded they are to the
facts. If you’ve chosen fiction as your form, you mustn’t cling to what “really
happened.” Memoir, on the other hand, frees you – somewhat – from the expectations of narrative; in
memoir, writer David Shields notes, issues of identity take center stage, and revelations can be more episodic than in a novel or short story. At the
same time, if allowing artifice or recreated memory into your memoir feels
wrong, you’re better off sticking with fiction.  The material is basically immaterial, Hemley
says. The most fascinating life events handled badly by the author make for
dull reading, while a strong rendering draws interest in what might otherwise
seem a dull life.
In both fiction and memoir, strong narrative structure
transforms your life, or parts of it, into story. “All of our lives are
narrative,” says author Jon Franklin. “Story is something else: taking select
parts of a narrative, separating them from everything else, and arranging them
so they have meaning.” Follow Chekhov’s advice, Franklin
suggests, and look for points of character complication, where characters are
forced into action and transformation. You should be able to identify the
points of insight, the moments that lead to these transformations. Building on
the theories of neuroanatomist Paul MacLean, Franklin
contends that every narrative should also work on three levels: what happens on
the surface, what happens in the emotional landscape, and the universal, evoked
by the narrative rhythms.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that since it’s your story,
either you or a character like you must tell it. Decisions on point of view are
more complicated than that. Consider both perspective and psychic distance.
“What matters is the emotional posture you’ve taken toward your characters and
what short of narrative latitude you desire,” Almond says. “The trick to
finding the right POV is striking the right balance between intimacy and
Yes, it’s all about you. But the world only cares if you
invest yourself in the details of form, and if you’re unwavering in your
commitment to truth. As Almond says, “A big part of writing is about developing
the capacity to expose yourself on the page, if not your life story, at the
very least your prevailing anxieties and the people who caused them.”
Try This: Robin Henley suggests taking a family incident
from your childhood and writing it exactly as you remember it – no
embellishment. Then query someone else who was there to discover how they remember
it. Transform this memory into a fictional scene, strengthening the story with
decisions on structure and point of view. Finally, write the story again from
another character’s point of view.
Check This Out:  Whether you write nonfiction or fiction, you’ll appreciate Telling True Stories, a collection of thoughts on craft from writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Jon
Franklin, Tom Wolfe, Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, and Nora Ephron.  Worth the cover price alone are Jack Hart’s
discussion of narrative distance and his chart showing the distinctions between
summary narrative and dramatic narrative.
Deb cross-posts at

2 thoughts on “Deb: Life into Story”

  1. Thanks for this one, Deb. I've spent some time struggling with the idea of narcissism in memoir, and have gotten to a place of understanding that my narrative is what I have to share, but that it can be told in a way bigger than myself, that allows others to connect and reflect on their own experience. At least, that's what I hope.

    I'm SO very excited to learn from you and everyone else at North Words this week!

  2. Glad it was helpful, Tele. Excited to see everyone at North Words…tomorrow!

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