Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Life into Story

When a certain politician released her autobiography a few years ago, a mock cover circulated: All About Me, by Me, Me, Me. The Seusslike rendering generated laughs because it captured the narcissism of this particular individual - and perhaps of politicians in general.

Laugh as we may, the truth is that nearly everything a writer creates is at some level All About Me. The first rule of writing is to write what you know, and unless we suffer from narcissism or other delusional disorders, what we know best is ourselves. So how does something so personal and seemingly egocentric get spun into writing that’s meaningful, true, and of interest to readers?

Start with your motivation. If you’re bent on showing the world all the ways you’ve been wronged, shut down your laptop and a join a support group. As author Steve Almond points out, writers should at all times love their characters, and that’s tough to do when you’re bent on revenge

Then push beyond what you know. Discover what only you can write, the experiences and perspectives that not everyone has. Go beyond stuff that happened to you and probe the things you got yourself into. So you were raised by a pack of wolves. Readers want to know what happened when you challenged the alpha or failed to howl like the rest. “Good stories show how people survive,” Almond says, adding that a "character in a hole" is only of interest when you probe her unbearable feelings and the thwarted desires.

Should you tell your truth straight or slant? Both, if you’re honest. In nonfiction, there’s always a slant, and that slant will be all about you, the truth that you’ve lived and the truth you’re discovering – and that’s without even venturing onto the slippery slope of remembered or emotional truth. If you write fiction, go ahead and tell yourself you’re making everything up, but the truth that you’ve lived and the truth you’re discovering will creep in regardless.

Still, there’s the question of form. In Turning Life into Fiction, Robin Hemley advises writers to consider how wedded they are to the facts. If you’ve chosen fiction as your form, you mustn't cling to what “really happened.” Memoir, on the other hand, frees you – somewhat – from the expectations of narrative; in memoir, writer David Shields notes, issues of identity take center stage, and revelations can be more episodic than in a novel or short story. At the same time, if allowing artifice or recreated memory into your memoir feels wrong, you’re better off sticking with fiction.  The material is basically immaterial, Hemley says. The most fascinating life events handled badly by the author make for dull reading, while a strong rendering draws interest in what might otherwise seem a dull life.

In both fiction and memoir, strong narrative structure transforms your life, or parts of it, into story. “All of our lives are narrative,” says author Jon Franklin. “Story is something else: taking select parts of a narrative, separating them from everything else, and arranging them so they have meaning.” Follow Chekhov’s advice, Franklin suggests, and look for points of character complication, where characters are forced into action and transformation. You should be able to identify the points of insight, the moments that lead to these transformations. Building on the theories of neuroanatomist Paul MacLeanFranklin contends that every narrative should also work on three levels: what happens on the surface, what happens in the emotional landscape, and the universal, evoked by the narrative rhythms.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that since it’s your story, either you or a character like you must tell it. Decisions on point of view are more complicated than that. Consider both perspective and psychic distance. “What matters is the emotional posture you’ve taken toward your characters and what short of narrative latitude you desire,” Almond says. “The trick to finding the right POV is striking the right balance between intimacy and perspective.”

Yes, it’s all about you. But the world only cares if you invest yourself in the details of form, and if you’re unwavering in your commitment to truth. As Almond says, “A big part of writing is about developing the capacity to expose yourself on the page, if not your life story, at the very least your prevailing anxieties and the people who caused them.”