Memoir Writing: How to Know Where Your Story Begins and Ends
One of the questions I get asked often by women writers, whether they’re writing short memoir stories or a book-length memoir, is
How do I know where my story begins, and how do I know where it ends?
It’s an excellent question because when we write memoir we are writing from our life experience. And our life is a continuum—it was unfolding before the story we are telling begins and it continues to unfold after that story ends.
Every memoir story, regardless of length, consists of what Vivian Gornick calls a situation and a story. The situation is the surface story or horizontal plot, the sequence of events, the “what happened”: this happened then this happened then this happened.
The story, on the other hand, is the meaning beneath the surface, or the vertical plot. It is the emotional truth of the author’s experience and the sense she makes of this experience. Think of it as the “take away” or the “aha.” I often refer to the story as the “real story” or the “deeper truth.”
In her seminal work The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Gornick puts it this way, “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
The question, Where does my memoir story begin and where does it end? requires that you back up a step and answer the question, What is the real story I’m telling?
Every memoir at its core is really about the transformation of the Self. That’s the real story: how the narrator changes internally from the beginning of the story to the end.
The “real story” in memoir, then, derives from the narrator’s transformational arc (sometimes referred to as the narrator’s emotional arc or internal arc).
The transformational arc consists of the narrator’s internal challenges and growth.
Every event, or scene, that you include in your memoir illuminates and drives forward the transformational arc and ultimately brings it to a resolution.
So the real question becomes, Where does my narrator’s transformational arc begin and end? In other words, What event(s) set into motion the internal journey—the transformational arc—that the narrator is about to embark on? What event(s) bring that arc to a resolution?
Identify the events that set those changes into motion and bring those changes to a resolution, and—voila!—you’ve got the beginning and the end of your memoir story.
Where does your transformational arc begin? Where does it end? Let us know in the comments below!