"All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was."
- Toni Morrison
If only. If only we authors all carried perfect working memories, particularly when it comes to writing personal narrative.
One of my latest projects involves a sizable memoir piece, something outside of my comfort zone. Fiction and poetry are familiar. But as I've hopped into the time machine to revisit the past - five years from my adolescence - I've been reading every book, article, and relevant meme that I can about the do's and don'ts of narrative nonfiction.
While many of the things I've gleaned are fairly obvious, I wanted to compile a helpful quick guide to the basics.
1 - Don't use real names. Even if you initially obtain permission, it is touchy airing your (and others') dirty laundry in a piece that could be republished, shared, and essentially made permanent to the world. The only person you can really vouch for in that sort of a scenario is yourself.
2 - Interview others involved. You may think you remember exactly what happened the day you were asked to prom by the captain of the football team and won the science fair and saved a kitten from a tree, all while acing your chemistry final. But the reality is we are terribly biased beings, and recording different perspectives will help you flesh out the story - as long as you remember that all the other sources carry biases as well.
3 - Start where the reader will be invested. Avoid dumping the who what where when why how in the opening paragraphs. Your reader doesn't harbor the same interest that you do until they've found a point of action to hang their hat on.
4 - Avoid the five paragraph essay like the plague. Nonfiction is not inherently boring or mundane unless you treat it as such. Try to view the details with fresh eyes and give them all the sparkly new life they deserve. Figurative devices and gorgeous language should not be reserved for fiction and poetry.
5 - Speaking of boring and mundane, ask yourself this question. Does anyone need to hear this story? Boiled down, the reader ought to walk away with something. There is a radical difference between what goes in your diary and holds sentimental value to you and what goes in your blog or on a written page that others will scavenge for their own good.
6 - Find critique partners who don't know the story. Editors privy to the story can't be true editors.
7 - You are awesome. Remember that when the honesty train hits you particularly hard and your essay has sauntered across the line from therapeutic to therapy. Be sincere and genuine, but never throw yourself under the bus.
Hopefully these bits of wisdom will help you on your nonfiction path or even inspire you to start a personal essay or memoir project. Happy writing!
A mother, teacher, and writer who enjoys all good stories and believes in the magic we can make every day by telling them.