I have recently returned home from the 26th annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where I participated in Hope Edelman’s memoir writing workshop with nine other women memoirists. Hope, author of The Possibility of Everything, Mother of My Mother, Motherless Mothers, and New York Times bestseller Motherless Daughters, is a savvy memoir teacher. All writing instruction, no fluff, she focused on the bones of memoir: narrative structure.
Why begin with structure? As Hope put it (and I’m paraphrasing here), life sometimes hands us a perfectly shaped story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story that follows the traditional “backwards check mark” that some of us learned in high school English class, a story that moves linearly from the inciting incident through the thicket of complications to the dramatic high point before closing with its resolution. A story with a ready-made shape.
More often, though, the job of the memoirist is to lift her story from the messy, winding flow of a life rife with experiences and themes—i.e., numerous stories—that circle back on each other, overlap, blur and blend. The particular story that the memoirist comes to the page to tell at a given time is a portion of this life, a single gem among many that the memoirist must excavate, polish, and shape. Without realizing her story’s structure, the memoirist might find herself throwing everything onto the page, thus obscuring the story she wants to tell now, blurring its edges, diluting its unique narrative arc. As Hope pointed out, putting everything on the page leaves your story shapeless. To my mind, a story without a shape is like a glass of spilled milk: it seeps all over the place, leaving the proverbial glass “half empty.”
Hope’s suggestion for realizing the underlying structure of your memoir? Make your story visible via a narrative timeline. Begin your narrative timeline by drawing a horizontal “neutral” line through the center of a piece of paper. The space above the line represents the “high points” of your story; below the line, the “low points.” By charting the events of the story in relation to the neutral line, your narrative timeline will begin to move forward not in a straight line but rather in a kind of mountain range of peaks and valleys, or the story’s “highs” and “lows,” that reveals the shape of your story.
One of the memoirists in the group took her narrative timeline a step further. She etched her timeline with colored markers on a scroll of art paper that was roughly six feet in length. As she unscrolled it across the floor in the center of our circle I thought of the intricately embroidered tapestries I’d seen across Europe years ago, tapestries embroidered by women that told a history, a story. How appropriate, I thought, for a group of women memoirists to visualize a portion of a woman’s life as a narrative tapestry. Indeed, as she talked us through her narrative tapestry, tracing with her finger the peaks and valleys of her experience, I could visualize the story she was coming to the page to tell. I could see its shape. This woman’s narrative tapestry was a beautiful document that made visible the bones of her lived experience and doubled as a blueprint for her manuscript. It was worthy of display, like art to be hung on a wall.
What is the story that you ache to tell? Whether you have already started writing it, or you are itching to begin, take the time to make your story visible. Create a narrative tapestry that helps you to identify the contours of your story, its peak and valleys, its shape. You can buy a roll of art paper at an art supply store. I like the 18” width, but rolls of art paper come in many varieties, including 12-inch, 24-inch, and 48-inch width. (The plain, backside of a length of unrolled wrapping paper can also serve as the canvas for your narrative tapestry.) Tape a length of the paper to your office wall using a non-damaging adhesive, such as poster putty, artist’s tape, or painter’s tape. Or stretch your paper out over a table or floor surface. Using a straight edge, pencil a horizontal “neutral” line along the center length of your tapestry. Then plot the events—the touchstone moments—of your story in relation to the neutral line. These will become the key scenes of your memoir.
Once you have charted the “surface” events of your memoir, use a different colored marker to plot your narrator’s emotional timeline, her thoughts, emotions, and interpretations in relation to the key events. Your narrator’s interior story line contains your memoir’s deeper meaning or, as Vivian Gornick states so eloquently in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” By charting both the interior and exterior story lines of your memoir, you make visible the intricate interplay between the events that drive the narrative forward and the deeper truths that infuse it with meaning.
Take your time to chart your narrative threads, then step back and take in the texture of your story, its structure rendered visible in a narrative tapestry: a beautiful document worthy of display (ideally, above your desk) that doubles as a blueprint for your manuscript.
Here’s to making your story visible, and then to your writing it!
P.S. Hope Edelman teaches memoir writing workshops periodically throughout the year. As it happens, her next memoir workshop will be in Paris in early October. While this workshop will not be exclusively for women, I know from personal experience that Hope is deeply tuned to women’s stories and emotional truths. She is sensitive and encouraging, and she teaches the craft of memoir writing in a direct, tangible style that delivers the nuts and bolts of her trade. I highly recommend her. Find out about her Paris workshop here.