Thursday, October 31, 2013

Structuring your memoir: Are your vignettes defying you to organize them?

“Now comes the hard part: how to organize the … thing,” says William Zinsser.

Perhaps that’s where you find yourself today, wondering how to structure—how to arrange—your vignettes into a pleasing order.

Vignettes: Assorted memories written as stand-alone accounts. Essays, each related to your memoir’s theme .

When structured well, your collection of vignettes will tell a complete and satisfying story.

“Most people embarking upon a memoir,” Zinsser continues, “are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never written at all.” (William Zinsser, How to Write a Memoir; emphasis mine)

Zinsser nailed it. My pile of vignettes has been lingering for too many years. Recently I’ve worked on several old pieces, revising, polishing, and trying to organize them, but stringing them together—finding just the right arrangement for them—is puzzling. Zinsser nailed it again: So far, my vignettes are defying me to impose on them some kind of order. How about you?

Let’s take a closer look at structuring. (Don’t miss Your memoir’s structure: think of it as your helper.)

Structuring is creating a framework for telling your story so it will have maximum impact on your readers.

"Structure is a selection of events from the character's life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life." (Robert McKee, Story; emphasis mine)

Finding that strategic sequence—that’s my quest. Yours too.

OK then, what are your choices for assembling your vignettes into a strategic sequence?

Perhaps the most obvious choice would be arranging them chronologically. See my previous blog post, “Where are you from” and your memoir’s structure.

Assembling your vignettes chronologically, however, might not be the best way to tell your story. For example, you could organize them by themes. If you choose a non-chronological structure, be sure to read Your personal timeline will help your memoir’s readers.

I found a helpful blog post written by PJ Reece entitled How to Create a Story Structure to Die For.

PJ writes fiction and screenplays, but her technique works for memoir, too. Jon Franklin presents a similar structure idea in Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.

Over the past twenty years, PJ has discovered that “a conventional story is actually Two Stories. In the gap between the two lies the Heart of the Story.” And “in that dark heart of the story, the hero will experience a death.”

“Death” can be defined in various ways: failure, despair, loss, disappointment, betrayal, or an obstacle, among others. “…Failure and disappointment are integral” to stories, PJ says. “Loss and disenchantment are central to a good story.”

Story One comprises all the action leading to the hero’s disillusionment,” she explains.

Story One is about a person’s desire for something: a life-long dream, an expectation, a goal—but a complication throws up a roadblock. It can be something internal or external, and it makes fulfilling the dream seem impossible. It’s an obstacle that threatens the hope of achieving the goal. PJ describes it as “.… the chain of events that brings a hero to his knees.” (This unresolved problem supplies the all-important tension and suspense that keep readers reading to discover the problem’s resolution.)

The Heart of the Story comes next. It lies “between the failure and redemption.…” PJ describes it as the “death of the old belief system accompanied by insights into one’s higher nature.” This is where the person recognizes his hopes and expectations were unrealistic. Maybe his dreams were misguided. The time has come to challenge his assumptions. It’s where, PJ says, “most protagonists would straightaway fall into the dark heart of the story and wake-up to the facts of life.”

Story Two is about the resolution. Story Two is the new person that emerges on the other side. He has recognized his delusions and misconceptions and has made corrections. He has dealt with his failure or loss. He knows himself better. He sees his life and his place the world more accurately than before. The process was painful, but he has come out a better man, a stronger, more mature man. He now pursues the right dreams and goals in the right way.

Jon Franklin calls that progression “the odyssey from complication to resolution.”

A story that works, says Franklin, “will consist of a real person who is confronted with a significant problem, who struggles diligently to solve that problem, and who ultimately succeeds—and in doing so becomes a different character.”  (Writing for Story)

So, PJ and Franklin have shed light on the bigger picture when it comes to structuring our memoirs, but the day comes when you must pin down a specific order for your vignettes. 

If you want to arrange them according to theme  (rather than chronologically), William Zinsser suggests that once you’ve written a number of vignettes, “spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursuing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take. Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.” (How to Write a Memoir)

You might be saying, “Yeah, right, all I have to do it put the pieces together. Easier said than done.”

If you struggle to find the structure, “you must rely on blind faith that sooner or later it will appear,” says Judith Barrington. “You may need and enjoy the freedom of relative formlessness for a while—but not forever.”

And even when you think you’ve discovered the right structure, “You must be willing to adapt it, revise it, tinker with it, or entirely rethink it.” (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir)

“Entirely rethink it.” That’s a good point. Maybe you’re like me: My vignettes don’t fit into just one memoir. I am dividing my stories into two or three memoirs, each with its own theme and message.

Related posts:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Two resources for you!

Today I have two resources for you.

Here’s your first, good this week only: Angela and Becca at Writers Helping Writers are offering you—yes, you!—help with your story!

They’ve rounded up what they call “a ton (and I do mean a TON!) of fantastic writers” to answer your questions about how to get published, help with a query, first line hook, pitch, platform, online visibility—“with ALL THE THINGS,” they say.

Check out this link at Writers Helping Writers for info on professional advice from a fine group of celebrity authors and editors. But hurry. This offer is good for this week only.

Your second resource is Melanie Faith's Essay Writing with Ease. This five-week course begins Friday, November 1, for people like you writing true, personal stories. (Melanie uses the term “essays” to describe what we here at SM 101 call vignettes or chapters. Bottom line: this is about writing true stories.) Melanie holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, NC.

According to the website, in the workshop:

“… you'll explore your own true stories in prose. You'll study the elements that make great (and publishable) essays, find inspiration in a weekly spotlight essay and prompts, and write and revise your own essays. Enrollment includes e-mail critiques and positive feedback on student writing.”

Click on this link to look into Essay Writing with Ease, an opportunity offered by WOW! Women on Writing.  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The clock is ticking. How is your memoir coming along?

“An unfinished manuscript cannot change lives.”

Lee Roddy wrote those words.  He continues:

“Even a finished one cannot minister in a drawer or filing cabinet.
Only in published form
can a book go where you and I will never go,
to people we will never meet.”
(Lee Roddy in the Foreword, Write His Answer, by Marlene Bagnull.)

For over a decade Lee’s words have run through my mind on a regular basis.

Recently they were so noisy and persistent that I got out—not just one but two—unfinished manuscripts. I’d stuck both of them in the drawer—on disks and flash drives. I’ve been working on them the past week and it feels good. It feels like the right thing to do. The task is daunting, but I’m persevering.

So the big question is: How are you doing on writing your memoir?

Do you have a manuscript or two in some drawer or filing cabinet?—maybe on an old floppy disk, an old CD or DVD, an old hard drive, a flash drive?

If so, congratulate yourself on what you have already done.

But don’t be content with that because if you leave your stories hidden and dust-covered, they will do no one any good.

Give yourself permission to start with easy topics.

I’ve seen too many people tackle a traumatic story, only to have their still-raw emotions sidetrack them. Inevitably, discouragement leads them to abandon that story and give up on writing their other stories too.

Don’t let that happen to you! Instead, start with accounts of joyful events, delightful people, and the beauty of God’s creation. Include humorous stories.

Gradually move into stories about your harder experiences—how God helped you find a job, for example, or helped you make an important decision. For now, avoid traumatic stories because they tend to slow down your onward momentum.

Give yourself permission to start small.

The thought of writing an entire book can easily overwhelm. Instead, focus on writing short stories— vignettes—aiming at two to five pages each.

Get started on more than one vignette, and tell yourself they’re rough drafts. Knowing they are rough drafts—merely works in progress, for your eyes only—frees you from thinking you have to write perfect, publishable stuff the first time.

As you receive inspiration, over time, you can revise, edit, and polish. If you keep at it, step by step, before you know it you’ll have written a number of stories and you can compile them into chapters or sections—into some logical arrangement.

Lee says, “Only in published form” can your stories have impact, but don’t let that word “published” intimidate you. “Published” can take many forms, and nowadays publishing is easier than ever before.

Start small: Here’s what I recommend (I’ve done this several times): Create your first edition of your memoir by snapping a collection of vignettes into a three-ring binder or scrapbook.

Make your stories the very best you can through good writing and editing (preferably with help from other writers).

Hand your book to someone to read.

When you do that, you will have succeeded in “publishing” your stories. (You can always publish big-time later if there’s a market for your memoir.)

At that point, paraphrasing Lee: your memoir can change lives.

Your stories can go where you will never go, to people you will never meet.

So here’s the deal: You and I must want to write our stories. We must want to invest in our kids and grandkids.

We must see writing our stories is a ministry, not a hobby!

In most cases, if you and I don’t write our stories, no one will. They will go to the grave with us because, after all,

Remember … your children were not the ones
who saw and experienced … the Lord,
… his majesty, his mighty hand.…
It was not your children
who saw what he did for you
in the desert until you arrived at this place.…
Deuteronomy 11:2-7 (NIV)

The clock is ticking. We must be intentional about finishing our memoirs.







Thursday, October 3, 2013

Memoirists want to be noticed, right?

Let’s be honest: Memoirists want recognition for not only our struggles and victories, but also for the effort we put into writing and publishing our stories.

Memoirists dream of book signings, TV interviews, newspaper reviews, blog tours, and speaking engagements. We seek affirmation, admiration, and applause.

But if we are serious God-followers, is public acclaim our primary goal?

In her Bible study, Gideon, Priscilla Shirer helps clarify the answer for anyone called to a “spotlight” ministry—not to just writing, but also to music, drama, leading Bible study, teaching, preaching, blogging, speaking, and so many others.

Abraham, the founding father of the Jewish faith and nation, led God’s people to the promised land. He inspires us still today as the father of all who believe and live by faith (Romans 4:11-12, 16; Galatians 3:7, 9, 29).

God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, as countless as the sand on the seashore (Genesis 13:14-17; 22:17-18). God also promised that all nations on earth would be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 18:18).

Simply put, Abraham was a giant among the heroes of faith.

Priscilla points out that before Abraham would see God’s promises fulfilled, before he would become a celebrity in the realms of faith and obedience and leadership, he had to concentrate on something not so much in the spotlight.    

God said He had chosen Abraham to teach his children, family, and household to obey Him, to live the way God desired, to live in ways that are right and fair. “Then,” God said, “then I, the Lord, will do for Abraham what I have promised him” (Genesis 18:19, NIRV; emphasis mine).

In other words, God told Abraham to focus on his own children and household prior to getting involved in the world-changing stuff recorded in history.

Gideon had a similar experience. God told him to save Israel from the seven years of severe oppression they’d endured from the Midianites. God said, “Go! I’m sending you, and I’ll be with you” (Judges 6:14-16).

Gideon probably envisioned himself setting out to save a prominent nation. Maybe he dreamed of getting his name recorded in history books. After all, God called him a “mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12). Instead, God told him to start at home.

God told Gideon, like He told Abraham, to focus on his family before getting involved in the world-changing stuff recorded in history. (See Judges 6:25.)

Similarly, Priscilla challenges us to focus on people closest to us and to listen for what God is asking us to do with and for them.

“Choosing to do our primary work in the smaller, less noticeable spheres and devote our best gifts there is often a foreign thought to us,” writes Priscilla.

Our “innermost circles are often the ones that offer the least amount of recognition,” she says. “This is why so many people try to circumvent them.” (Gideon; emphasis mine) 

Ouch. Priscilla nailed it, didn’t she?

She continues, “God had strategically set Gideon in this family, in this tribe, and in this valley for a reason. He fully intended to call and equip Gideon to affect his closest relationships before moving on to something and someone else.”

Isn’t that an affirmation of what Spiritual Memoirs 101 is all about?

“Always remember what you’ve seen God do for you,
and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!”
Deuteronomy 4:9

My God and King,
… Let each generation tell its children
of your mighty acts;
let them proclaim your power.
Psalm 145:1, 4 (NLT)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your strength.
These commands I give you today are to be upon your hearts.
Impress them upon your children.
Talk about them when you sit at home
and when you walk along the road,
when you lie down and when you get up.
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them to your foreheads.
Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6:5-9 (NIV)

God might indeed call you to a prominent ministry in which you’re acclaimed for your memoir.

God might call you to book signings, TV interviews, newspaper reviews, blog tours, and speaking engagements.

Perhaps God is calling you to that larger ministry in the same way He called Abraham and Gideon: to start with those closest to you, to nurture them toward becoming people after God’s own heart.

Priscilla’s charge caught my attention. I need to make changes. I want to cut back on activities (like Facebook) that distract me from what really matters—in this case, compiling God-and-me stories for my kids and grandkids.

From two professional circles I’ve been urged to get involved in Pinterest, but now I wonder if that, too, wouldn’t distract me from focusing on those closest to me. I’m praying for God to lead me.

What about you? 

God has strategically placed you in your family, in your tribe, and in your "valley" for a reason.

Have you pinpointed your most important audience and activities? What changes do you need to make so you can focus on what really matters?