Story Album to Memoir

chili - fixAdventures of a Chilehead initially began as a simple story album – a term I use in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing to describe a collection of free-standing short stories. But a funny thing happened as I began assembling the loose stories into a document: they evolved into a memoir. Here’s how.

I began with three stories, two of which appeared in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. I’d already written the third back then, but decided to save it for later. Through the years I wrote other stories on this theme. When I put the collection together for this album and arranged them in chronological order, I thought of a couple more. As I wrote and edited, I shared each story with a writing group.

“Great story, but tell us more about this, this and that,” they said. “This line would sound smoother like so.” I love my writing group. My writing is always better with their help! Although they hadn’t said it in so many words, they wanted more reflection, They wanted to know what I was thinking, what the experiences meant to me. They wanted reflection. Oh, yes! That’s something I teach and advise others to include. But it’s easy to overlook in my own stories.

Adding reflection forced me to explore simple stories and memories more deeply, to dig for more significance. I had to confront the key question: why do I love chile so much? Why do I keep scorching my mouth? And what else was going on that made those stories stick in memory? The answer was a little different each time, and it made the stories richer.

Another aspect of the collection the group didn’t see was overlap among the stories. Some stories have short flashbacks to previous memories. In a collection, such shared stories should be told in full only once. Later stories can refer to them in passing as “the time my father …” without repeating the details. I pruned that overlap and tucked in a few mini-memories to add further insight and interest.

As I continue to fine-tune those stories, working on the reflection and thinking from one story to the next along the time line, a story arc gradually emerged. My thoughts and preferences have evolved over time. I have evolved from girl to grandmother with the perspective of several decades. With no specific intention, this project has organically morphed into memoir with continuity, focus, and evolution of the story.

At first I was reluctant to add much reflection. The original stories were funny. I often read the unpublished third at public events and it’s hard to keep from laughing myself. Would I lose that comic edge?

Simple story albums need no conclusion, but an integrated collection or memoir needs resolution. That concluding chapter gave me fits. Then I had one more adventure that I would never have recognized as such if I hadn’t been working on this chapter. After a dozen false starts, a very different story emerged. Meaning became laser clear. Whether anyone ever reads this memoir or not, my life is richer for that.

More work remains to be done before the project is finished. I’ll keep you posted.

Write now:  select an assortment of stories you have written and assemble them into a story album. If you have several on a theme, so much the better. Or maybe you have several from the same time era. Read through them all at one time and see what else comes to mind. Perhaps it will remain a simple short story collection, but you may find it becomes something more.


Linda Thomas said...

Thanks for sharing the process you have gone through. I'll share it with others because it's so insightful and practical. I'm looking forward to reading your memoir when it's finished. :)

Samantha White said...

Thank you for this, Sharon. I've sworn I'll never write another book (the first one was so much hard work!), but I don't think I can really stop myself from writing. I love learning how your free-standing stories are coming together into a book. Breaking life down into stories, aiming only for them at first, is more inviting, and who knows . . . . maybe eventually they just might come together . . . . and fit . . . and be (dare I think it) a book! I'm so happy to learn how this evolved so naturally for you (although I'm also sure it was a lot of work, too.).

Sharon said...

Thanks Linda.
Other writing buddies have mixed reviews. Further edits are under way. I'll soon have more to say about this subject!

Sharon said...

I am entirely surprised by the evolution of this project. A simple collection of stories is a perfectly satisfactory result. Go for it!