Find the Story

“Find the story” or “Where’s the story?” References to finding the story have been staring me in the eye in blogs, books and articles on a regular basis for weeks. There has to be a message here, something I need to learn.

I know about story. A story narrates action and has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a element of suspense, and it is told from someone’s point of view. Those are the basics. That element of action is what differentiates story from mere description.

It’s simple enough to write a short piece that qualifies as a story. You can see the development of the action in a short story. You can put your finger on the drama and conflict, whether it is between people, a person against outside forces, or a person battling her own inclinations.

When you write a book-length memoir, the challenge increases exponentially. To keep readers interested, a memoir needs to have an ongoing thread of conflict and development, similar to the plot line in a novel. This story line laces the string of component stories together into an integrated whole. It is crucial in determining which experiences and elements of life to include, and how to arrange them within the memoir.

Finding that story line, especially in your own life, can be an agonizing experience. Many would-be memoirists become gridlocked in their thinking, suffering paralysis by analysis. They don’t find much help in books on writing memoir. All of the many books on my shelf are heavy on memory retrieval tips, and most discuss how to juice up your writing, but none tell you how to pull together a major project. If it’s mentioned at all, it’s with a vague “start writing and the structure will emerge” type of statement.

In The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, I do describe tools for compiling random vignettes into a finished project, but I have not provided a recipe for selecting the best tool. Even I, a nuts-and-bolts person, have to agree that “start writing and the structure will emerge” is Truth.

But that belief just softened. A few days ago I found a tool that should work for people who want to get a grip on the overall stories within their lives. Serendipity led me to a post in the Philosophy thread on the phpBB Arts and Humanities bulletin board. This post poses the question, “What’s your lifestory? Just the long and short of it?” It urges people to write something like the thirty second “Elevator Speech” that sales people contrive for networking. You may find the posted stories instructive. The longest takes fifteen seconds to read aloud.

Only a couple of the posted replies show enough thought to make an overall life theme clear, but don’t let that throw you. This is powerful. I tried it. I picked up a pencil and pulled over the scrap of paper I'd been using to jot random notes. These words poured out of the pencil with no preliminary thought on my part:
Raised as a geek. Stood outside the window looking in at life. Discovered real life is on my side.
How about that? That's free writing at its best. I do not recall ever having that thought in my life, and simplistic as it is, this sums things up rather well. I never cease to be amazed at the insights my subconscious mind, aka my Muse Sarabelle, will send my way if I simply pick up a pencil and scrap of paper and start moving my hand, ala Natalie Goldberg's advice in this terrific interview.

I could take this one more step and indulge in the Six Word Memoir rage, distilling it down to

Felt alone. Discovered love surrounds me.

Hmm. I think I’ll go post that one on the Smith Magazine Six Word Memoir site or NPR. Who knows? I might make the next NPR Six Word Memoir gallery.

Write now: the long and short of your life. Write the first thing that comes to mind, and sweep over your whole life. Keep it short. Keep it very short. Sum it up in six words, and post on Smith Magazine or NPR. Please also share the long or short version in a comment here!


Linda Austin said...

That is an interesting concept, thinking of your life story as an elevator speech. I prefer your philosophical approach to it rather than what-specifically-happened, but either way it provides a focus to base your book on.

I'm working with my dad to write his story and I'll be interested to hear what his elevator speech is!

Pat's Place said...

Mmmm! I really enjoyed that! I am toying with putting together a collection of my stories, but organization is a BIG stumbling block.

Ritergal said...

Linda, don't be discouraged if your dad's story line doesn't gush forth like mine did. It may take time, and you can help him with it. You may even be able to find it for him. Sometimes it's easier to take a bird's eye view of someone else's life than your own.

How beautiful that you are honoring each of your parents by writing about their lives. :-)

Ritergal said...

Pat, the "long and short of it" may be the key. The challenge is that each story probably relates to several others, and we can only print things in linear fashion rather than jumping all around like we do in our heads.