Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker. I went inside for lunch, surely, and at night, of course, but otherwise remained flat on my back on the table. The subject was the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. I had spent about eight months driving down from Princeton day after day, or taking a sleeping bag and a small tent. I had done all the research I was going to do—had interviewed woodlanders, fire watchers, forest rangers, botanists, cranberry growers, blueberry pickers, keepers of a general store. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it. The piece would ultimately consist of some five thousand sentences, but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one. If I was blocked by fear, I was also stymied by inexperience. I had never tried to put so many different components—characters, description, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science, and so forth—into a single package.
It reminded me of Mort Sahl, the political comedian, about whom, six years earlier, I had written my first cover story at Time. The scale was different. It was meant to be only five thousand words and a straightforward biographical sketch, appearing during the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential campaigns, but the five thousand words seemed formidable to me then. With only a few days to listen to recordings, make notes, digest files from Time correspondents, read morgue clippings, and skim through several books, I was soon sprawled on the floor at home, surrounded by drifts of undifferentiated paper, and near tears in a catatonic swivet. As hour followed hour toward an absolute writing deadline (a condition I’ve never had to deal with in fifty years at The New Yorker), I was able to produce only one sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” So did this citizen, and from all the material piled around me I could not imagine what scribbled note to take up next or—if I figured that out—where in the mess the note might be.
In my first three years at Princeton High School, in the late nineteen-forties, my English teacher was Olive McKee, whose self-chosen ratio of writing assignments to reading assignments seems extraordinary in retrospect and certainly differed from the syllabus of the guy who taught us in senior year. Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them. But we wrote three pieces a week most weeks for three years. We could write anything we wanted to, but each composition had to be accompanied by a structural outline, which she told us to do first. It could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs. Mrs. McKee liked theatrics (she was also the school’s drama coach), and she had us read our pieces in class to the other kids. She made no attempt to stop anybody from booing, hissing, or wadding paper and throwing it at the reader, all of which the kids did. In this crucible, I learned to duck while reading. I loved Mrs. McKee, and I loved that class. So—a dozen years later, when Mort Sahl was overwhelming me, and I was wallowing in all those notes and files—I thought of her and the structure sheets, and despite the approaching deadline I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes, and arranging them in an order that seemed to hang well from that lead sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” Then, as I do now, I settled on an ending before going back to the beginning. In this instance, I let the comedian himself have the last word: “ ‘My considered opinion of Nixon versus Kennedy is that neither can win.’ ”
The picnic-table crisis came along toward the end of my second year as a New Yorker staff writer (a euphemistic term that means unsalaried freelance close to the magazine). In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed. At last it occurred to me that Fred Brown, a seventy-nine-year-old Pine Barrens native, who lived in a shanty in the heart of the forest, had had some connection or other to at least three-quarters of those Pine Barrens topics whose miscellaneity was giving me writer’s block. I could introduce him as I first encountered him when I crossed his floorless vestibule—“Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in”—and then describe our many wanderings around the woods together, each theme coming up as something touched upon it. After what turned out to be about thirty thousand words, the rest could take care of itself. Obvious as it had not seemed, this organizing principle gave me a sense of a nearly complete structure, and I got off the table.
Structure has preoccupied me in every project I have undertaken since, and, like Mrs. McKee, I have hammered it at Princeton writing students across four decades of teaching: “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.” Et cetera. Et cetera. And so forth, and so on.
The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper. To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not. Where you have a free hand, you can make interesting choices. Three years after “The Pine Barrens,” for example, I was confronted with an even more complicated set of notes resulting from twelve months of varied travels with the four principal participants in “Encounters with the Archdruid.” The simplified, conceptual structure ABC/D, which I described in these pages in November, 2011, now needed filling in. There would be three sections narrating three journeys: A, in the North Cascades with a mining geologist; B, on a Georgia island with a resort developer; C, on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with a builder of huge dams. D—David Brower, the high priest of the Sierra Club—would be in all three parts. Biographical descriptions of the others would, of course, belong in the relevant sections, but in the stories of the three journeys the details of Brower’s life could go anywhere. When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece. I didn’t stare at those cards for two weeks, but I kept an eye on them all afternoon. Finally, I found myself looking back and forth between two cards. One said “Alpinist.” The other said “Upset Rapid.” “Alpinist” could go anywhere. “Upset Rapid” had to be where it belonged in the journey on the river. I put the two cards side by side, “Upset Rapid” to the left. Gradually, the thirty-four other cards assembled around them until what had been strewn all over the plywood was now in neat rows. Nothing in that arrangement changed across the many months of writing.
The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon had several rapids defined on our river maps as “cannot be run without risk of life,” Upset Rapid among them. We were in a neoprene raft with a guide named Jerry Sanderson, and by rule he had to stop and study the heavier rapids before proceeding down them. For several days, Brower and the dam builder—Floyd Dominy, federal Commissioner of Reclamation—had been engaged in verbal artillery over Dominy’s wish to build high dams in the Grand Canyon. They fought all day and half the night, while I scribbled notes. Now,
We all got off the raft and walked to the edge of the rapid with Sanderson. . . . The problem was elemental. On the near right was an enormous hole, fifteen feet deep and many yards wide, into which poured a scaled-down Canadian Niagara—tons upon tons of water per second. On the far left, just beyond the hole, a very large boulder was fixed in the white torrent. . . .
“What are you going to do about this one, Jerry?”
Sanderson spoke slowly and in a voice louder than usual, trying to pitch his words above the roar of the water. “You have to try to take ten per cent of the hole. If you take any more of the hole, you go in it, and if you take any less you hit the rock.”
“What’s at the bottom of the hole, Jerry?”
“A rubber raft,” someone said.
“What happened two years ago, Jerry?”
“Well, the man went through in a neoprene pontoon boat, and it was cut in half by the rock. His life jacket got tangled in a boat line and he drowned. . . .”
We got back on the raft and moved out into the river. The raft turned slightly and began to move toward the rapid. “Hey,” Dominy said. “Where’s Dave? Hey! We left behind one of our party. We’re separated now. Isn’t he going to ride?” Brower had stayed on shore. We were now forty feet out. “Well, I swear, I swear, I swear,” Dominy continued, slowly. “He isn’t coming with us.” The Upset Rapid drew us in.
With a deep shudder, we dropped into a percentage of the hole—God only knows if it was ten—and the raft folded almost in two.
As we emerged on the far side, Dominy was still talking about “the great outdoorsman” who was “standing safely on dry land wearing a God-damned life jacket!” Abandoning my supposedly detached role in all this, I urged Dominy not to say anything when Dave, having walked around the rapid, rejoined us. Dominy said, “Christ, I wouldn’t think of it. I wouldn’t dream of it. What did he do during the war?” Brower was waiting for us when we touched the riverbank in quiet water.
Dominy said, “Dave, why didn’t you ride through the rapid?”
Brower said, “Because I’m chicken.”
That was the end of “Upset Rapid,” and it was followed in the printed story by a half inch or so of white space. After the white space, this:
“A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra” (Sierra Club, 1954) lists thirty-three peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower. “Arrowhead. First ascent September 5, 1937, by David R. Brower and Richard M. Leonard. . . . Glacier Point. First ascent May 28, 1939, by Raffi Bedayan, David R. Brower, and Richard M. Leonard. . . .”
The new section went on to describe Brower as a rope-and-piton climber of the first order, who had clung by his fingernails to dizzying rock faces and granite crags. The white space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things that I would much prefer to leave to the white space to say—violin phraseology about courage and lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast. In the juxtaposition of those two cards lay what made this phase of the writing process the most interesting to me, the most absorbing and exciting. Those two weeks on the picnic table notwithstanding, this phase has also always been the briefest. After putting the two cards together, and then constructing around them the rest of the book, all I had to do was write it, and that took more than a year.
Developing a structure is seldom that simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected. They want to draw themselves together in a single body, in the way that salt does underground. But chronology usually dominates. As themes prove inconvenient, you find some way to tuck them in. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, you can move around in time, of course, but such a structure remains under chronological control and can’t do much about items that are scattered thematically. There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure. On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now. After ten years of it at Time and The New Yorker, I felt both rutted and frustrated by always knuckling under to the sweep of chronology, and I longed for a thematically dominated structure.
In 1967, after spending a few weeks interviewing the art historian Thomas P. F. Hoving, who had recently been made director of the Metropolitan Museum, I found in going over my notes that his birth-to-present chronology was particularly unaccommodating to various themes. For example, he knew a whole lot about art forgery. As a teen-ager in New York, he came upon “Utrillos,” a “Boudin,” and a “Renoir” in a shop in the East Fifties, and sensed that they were fakes. Eight or ten years later, as a graduate student, he sensed wrong and was stung in Vienna by an art dealer selling “hot” canvases from “Budapest” during the Hungarian Revolution. Actually, they were forgeries turned out the previous day in Vienna. In later and wiser years, he could not help admiring Han van Meegeren, who created an entire fake early period for Vermeer. In the same manner, he admired Alfredo Fioravanti, who fooled the world with his Etruscan warriors, which were lined up in the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries until they were discovered to be forgeries. Most of all, he came to appreciate the wit of a talented crook who copied a silver censer and then put his tool marks on the original. At one point, Hoving studied the use of scientific instruments that help detect forgery. He even practiced forgery so he could learn to recognize it. All this having to do with the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life. So what was I going to do to cover the theme of art and forgery? How was I going to handle, in this material, the many other examples of chronology versus theme? Same as always, chronology foremost? I threw up my hands and reversed direction. Specifically, I remembered a Sunday morning when the museum was “dark” and I had walked with Hoving through its twilighted spaces, and we had lingered in a small room that contained perhaps two dozen portraits. A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself (Fig. 1).
Hoving had been, to put it mildly, an unpromising youth. For example, after slugging a teacher he had been expelled from Exeter. As a freshman at Princeton, his highest accomplishment was “flagrant neglect.” How did Peck’s rusticated youth ever become an art historian and the director of one of the world’s greatest museums? The structure’s two converging arms were designed to ask and answer that question. They meet in a section that consists of just two very long paragraphs. Paragraph 1 relates to the personal arm, Paragraph 2 relates to the professional arm, and Paragraph 2 answers the question. Or was meant to.
Other pieces from that era were variously chronological, none more so than this one, where the clock runs left to right in both the main time line and the set pieces hanging from it (Fig. 2).
Written in 1968 and called “A Forager,” it was a Profile of the wild-food expert Euell Gibbons, told against the background of a canoe-and-backpacking journey on the Susquehanna River and the Appalachian Trail.
“Travels in Georgia” (1973) described an episodic journey of eleven hundred miles in the state, and the story would work best, I thought, if I started not on Day 1 but with a later scene involving a policeman and a snapping turtle (Fig. 3).
So the piece flashed back to its beginnings and then ran forward and eventually past the turtle and on through the remaining occurrences. As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you were free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story.
Each of those ancient structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. I used an Underwood 5, which had once been a state-of-the-art office typewriter but by 1970 had been outclassed by the I.B.M. Selectric. With the cassettes, I used a Sanyo TRC5200 Memo-Scriber, which was activated with foot pedals, like a sewing machine or a pump organ. The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.
The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common. They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative. So I always rolled the platen and left blank space after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology. After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood. If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.
Cumbersome aspects there may have been, but the scissors, the slivers, the manila folders, the three-by-five cards, and the Underwood 5 were my principal tools until 1984, a year in which I was writing about a schoolteacher in Wyoming and quoting frequently from a journal she began in 1905. Into several late drafts of that piece, I laboriously typed and retyped those journal entries—another adventure in tedium. Two friends in Princeton—Will Howarth, a professor of English, and Richard Preston, one of his newly minted Ph.D.s—had been waxing evangelical for months on end about their magical computers, which were then pretty much a novelty. Preston put me in touch with Howard J. Strauss, in Princeton’s Office of Information Technology. Howard had worked for NASA in Houston on the Apollo program and was now in Princeton guiding the innumerate. For a couple of decades, his contribution to my use of the computer in teaching, researching, and writing would be so extensive that—as I once wrote—if he were ever to leave Princeton I would pack up and follow him, even to Australia. When I met him in 1984, the first thing he said to me was “Tell me what you do.”
He listened to the whole process from pocket notebooks to coded slices of paper, then mentioned a text editor called Kedit, citing its exceptional capabilities in sorting. Kedit (pronounced “kay-edit”), a product of the Mansfield Software Group, is the only text editor I have ever used. I have never used a word processor. Kedit did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, WYSIWYGs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts. Instead, Howard wrote programs to run with Kedit in imitation of the way I had gone about things for two and a half decades.
He wrote Structur. He wrote Alpha. He wrote mini-macros galore. Structur lacked an “e” because, in those days, in the Kedit directory eight letters was the maximum he could use in naming a file. In one form or another, some of these things have come along since, but this was 1984 and the future stopped there. Howard, who died in 2005, was the polar opposite of Bill Gates—in outlook as well as income. Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around. One size fits one. The programs he wrote for me were molded like clay to my requirements—an appealing approach to anything called an editor.
Structur exploded my notes. It read the codes by which each note was given a destination or destinations (including the dustbin). It created and named as many new Kedit files as there were codes, and, of course, it preserved intact the original set. In my first I.B.M. computer, Structur took about four minutes to sift and separate fifty thousand words. My first computer cost five thousand dollars. I called it a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.
I wrote my way sequentially from Kedit file to Kedit file from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of those files created by Structur could be quite long. So each one in turn needed sorting on its own, and sometimes fell into largish parts that needed even more sorting. In such phases, Structur would have been counterproductive. It would have multiplied the number of named files, choked the directory, and sent the writer back to the picnic table, and perhaps under it. So Howard wrote Alpha. Alpha implodes the notes it works on. It doesn’t create anything new. It reads codes and then churns a file internally, organizing it in segments in the order in which they are meant to contribute to the writing.
Alpha is the principal, workhorse program I run with Kedit. Used again and again on an ever-concentrating quantity of notes, it works like nesting utensils. It sorts the whole business at the outset, and then, as I go along, it sorts chapter material and subchapter material, and it not infrequently arranges the components of a single paragraph. It has completely served many pieces on its own. When I run it now, the action is instantaneous in a way that I—born in 1931—find breathtaking. It’s like a light switch. I click on “Run Alpha,” and in zero seconds a window appears that says, for example:
Alpha has completed 14 codes and 1301 paragraph segments were processed. 7246 lines were read and 7914 lines were written to the sorted file.
One line is 11.7 words.
Kedit’s All command shows me all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next. It’s sort of like a leaf blower. Mercilessly, it will go after fad words like “icon,” “iconic,” “issues,” “awesome,” “arguably”; and it suggests how much of “but” is too much “but.” But its principal targets are the legions of perfectly acceptable words that should not appear more than once in a piece of writing—“legions,” in the numerical sense, among them, and words like “expunges,” “circumvallate,” “horripilation,” “disjunct,” “defunct,” “amalgamate,” “ameliorate,” “defecate,” and a few thousand others. Of those which show up more than once, All expunges all.
When Keditw came along—Kedit for Windows—Howard rewrote everything, and the task was not a short one. In 2007, two years after he died, a long e-mail appeared in my in-box addressed to everyone on the “KEDIT for Windows Announcement list”—Subject: “News About KEDIT.” It included this paragraph:
The last major release of KEDIT, KEDIT for Windows 1.5, came out in 1996, and we are no longer actively working on major “new feature” releases of the program. Sales have gradually slowed down over the years, and it now makes sense to gradually wind down.
It was signed “Mansfield Software Group, Storrs CT.”
This is when I began to get a true sense of the tensile strength and long dimension of the limb I was out on. I replied on the same day, asking the company how much time—after half a million words in twenty-three years—I could hope to continue using Kedit. In the back-and-forth that followed, there was much useful information, and this concluding remark:
If you run into any problems with KEDIT or with those macros in the future, let me know. You will definitely get my personal attention, if only because I’ll be the only one left at my company!
It was signed “Kevin Kearney.”
Driving to Boston not long ago, I stopped in at Storrs, home of the University of Connecticut, to meet him and show him some of the things Howard Strauss had done. In this Xanadu of basketball, I found Kearney and his wife, Sara, close to the campus in a totally kempt small red house previously occupied by a UConn basketball coach. From my perspective, they looked young enough and trim enough to be shooting hoops themselves, and that to me was especially reassuring. He was wearing running shoes, a Metropolitan Museum T-shirt. He had an alert look and manner; short, graying dark hair; a clear gaze, no hint of guile—an appealing, trusting guy.
Before long, Sara went off to an appointment, leaving us at the dining table with our laptops open like steamed clams. I was awestruck to learn that he had bought his first personal computer only two years before I had, and I was bemused to contemplate the utterly disparate vectors that had carried us to the point of sale—me out of a dark cave of pure ignorance and Kearney off a mainframe computer.
He grew up in New Haven and in nearby Madison, he told me, and at UConn majored in math, but he developed an even greater interest in computer science. In those pre-P.C. days, people shared time on the university’s mainframe—a system that was, in its way, ancestral cloud computing. By 1982, he still did not own a personal computer and could not afford a five-thousand-dollar pair of anything. Apple II had been on the market since 1977 but did not interest him. It was “too much of a toy”—its display was only forty characters wide. The displays on I.B.M. P.C.s were eighty characters wide. His father helped him buy one. Five thousand dollars in 1982 translates to twelve thousand dollars now.
On the mainframe, everyone from undergraduates to programmers used an evolving variety of text editors, most notably Xedit, which was written at I.B.M. by Xavier de Lamberterie and made available in 1980. Kevin Kearney was so interested in Xedit that he bought forty manuals out of his own pocket and offered them to students and faculty. Then, after the new I.B.M. P.C.s appeared, and he had bought his first one, an idea he addressed was how to achieve mainframe power in a P.C. editor. “Xedit was in a different language that only worked on mainframes,” he told me. “Xedit was in mainframe assembler language, almost like machine language.” What was needed was a text editor that mainframe programmers could use on their P.C.s at home. So Kearney, aged twenty-eight, cloned Xedit to accomplish that purpose. Moreover, he said, “You could do some nifty additional things that didn’t exist on the mainframe. On the mainframe you couldn’t scroll. You couldn’t word-wrap to a new line.”
Writing the initial version of Kedit took him about four months, in late 1982. Like a newborn bear cub, it amounted to the first one per cent of what it would eventually become. “There are two kinds of editors,” Kearney continued. “One sees things as characters; Kedit sees it as a bunch of lines. It’s more primitive, in a sense, like keypunches. Each line is like one card.” He said he started with “some things from Xedit plus suggestions from others,” and his goal was “convenient text editing.” After a pause, he added, “I’d rather have Kedit be a good text editor than a bad word processor.” He asked me to take care not to create an impression that he invented much of anything. “What I did was package in a useful way a number of ideas. I.B.M. seemed happy enough with the cloning. There was no hint that they objected.”
At a conference in Boston in March, 1984, Kevin and Sara met Howard Strauss, showed him Kedit, and sought his advice. A month or so later, Strauss telephoned Kearney for more talk, and the upshot was that Princeton bought Kedit’s first site license.
I asked Kearney how many users, nationally and globally, Kedit has now. “Fewer than there used to be” is as close as he would come to telling me, but he said he still gets about ten e-mails a week asking for support.
“Are they essentially all from programmers, or are there other users in the ignorant zone like me?”
Kedit did not catch on in a large way at Princeton. I used to know other Kedit users—a historian of science, a Jefferson scholar. Aware of this common software, we nodded conspiratorially. Today on the campus, the number of people using Kedit is roughly one. Not long ago, I asked Jay Barnes, an information technologist at Princeton, if he thought I was enfolded in a digital time warp. “Right; yes,” he said. “But you found it and it works, and you haven’t switched it because of fashion.” Or, as Tracy Kidder wrote in 1981, in “The Soul of a New Machine,” “Software that works is precious. Users don’t idly discard it.”
Kevin Kearney, who says he is “semi-retired,” hopes not “to see a bunch of orders showing up,” and he asked me to make clear that Kedit was “very much a thing of its time,” and its time is not today. I guess I’m living evidence of that.
When I would thank Howard Strauss for the programs he wrote and amplified and updated, he always said, “Oh, it was no trouble; there was nothing to it; it was all simple.”
For many years in my writing class, I drew structures on a blackboard with chalk. In the late nineteen-nineties, I fell off my bicycle, massively tore a rotator cuff, underwent surgery, spent months in physical therapy, and had to give up the chalk for alternative technologies. I was sixty-eight. Briefly, I worked things out with acetates and overhead projection. Enduringly, I was once again helped beyond measure by Howard Strauss.
Yesterday’s post covered how to begin writing a book. Today, we discuss one particular type of book: memoir. So many people feel they have a personal story worth telling, and often those stories do, indeed, sell well in book stores. Readers will purchase books they resonate with emotionally.
Memoir offers nonfiction writers a particularly challenging type of writing form. While it falls within the realm of nonfiction because it is based on facts—the facts of our individual lives, it must be written much like fiction because it must read like fiction. Therefore, it must have plot, scene, turning points, timelines, and character development. These are things some nonfiction writers find a bit alien.
No worries. If you would like to try your hand at memoir, Linda Joy Myers, the president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, an instructor at Writers Digest, and author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story and Don’tCall Me Mother, has some great tips on how to do so.
Plot, Structure, and Theme in Your Memoir
By Linda Joy Myers
When we begin writing a memoir, we find ourselves travelling down bumpy roads and misty memory paths as we search for our story. We feel the urgency to capture a place, a time, people, and special moments, somehow gathering a time that is forever gone and creating it again on the page. Every memoir writer is writing for a reason, and often a passionate one. It might be to bring someone they loved to life again, as I did with my great-grandmother Blanche when I put her back in the garden to swear at the weeds or feed me a ripe strawberry right off the vine. Or the memoirist is writing a memoir try to find words to explore shock and grief, as Joan Didion does in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, or as Isabel Allende does in a different way in Paula, the book she wrote as she tended her dying daughter. Michael Chabon explores fatherhood in his memoir, and Ruth Reichel entertains us about her family and food in a series of memoirs.
A memoir might be a gift to a child or grandchild, a legacy that is supposed to tell some of the tales of the past, as Dorothy Allison does in Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, and many war memoirs do. Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth chronicles the sleepy villages in England before all the young men eagerly enlisted in WWI, young men like her brother, her fiancé, and many of her friends. Her memoir shows as nothing else could the intimate experience of growing up with boys who turn into men, all of whom are killed before their 20th birthday.
Most memoirists that I meet have stories roiling around in their heads, but they find it difficult to set them, to locate the story in the world of black ink on a white page. Over the last few years of memoir writing and teaching, I have found that certain techniques are helpful in grounding the story enough to get hold of it. The stories that roam about in our minds are fluid and tricky things, hard to pin down, and they keep changing like images in a kaleidoscope.
Turning Points and Timeline Exercise
There is a great technique that helps you locate the main spine of your stories for a longer memoir. Think about the turning point moments in your life, the special times that changed you profoundly and altered your life in such a way that it was never the same again. Make a list of the 10-15 most significant moments that turned your life path from one direction to another. These might be very different kinds of moments, some ecstatic joy and soaring happiness, and others profound sadness, confusion or grief.
Now draw a timeline on an 18×24 sheet of paper—a long horizontal line to represent time, and mark your birth about ¼ of the way along that line. This way you can note the events that you might want to write that occur before your birth. You might want to write the stories of family, parents, or grandparents—some of the lore that you listened to during holidays or family picnics.
Divide the horizontal line into sections that represent decades, and set out the dates of your life, beginning with your birth, including the year and the date along the horizontal line. Begin to locate your turning point events along the timeline.
In my workshops, there is always an “aha” when doing this exercise. First, thinking about the significant turning points can be illuminating and provide new insights, but then when people see events on the timeline, inevitably they start murmuring about how the events clustered, or how they’d thought the event was closer or further away from another significant event. The emotional impact of the timeline exercise can the powerful, as there is nothing like an image to illuminate the important moments of our lives to offer new insights.
A memoir is a focused story about a theme—a topic, an angle the story will take to show important changes in the protagonist—you—and the reason that the story is being told. When we start writing, we often don’t know our theme, we are still marinating in the memories and details of our stories. When we explore the turning point moments and muse again about why we are writing a memoir, theme begins to rise up like mountains at the edge of the plains. This is often an unconscious process, and we need to write some stories before theme becomes clearer.
An example of theme: Lit, by Mary Karr, is the third volume of her trilogy of memoirs. This last book is about her descent into and her recovery from alcoholism through finding religion. It’s about many other things too—her early literary life, her husband, son, and friends who helped her. It’s about her mother and her family and her deeper reflections on material she wrote in The Liar’s Club. But the arc of the story takes us from her being lost in using alcohol to numb herself, to becoming sober and finding herself again.
Most of you know that Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is about his poverty stricken childhood in Limerick, Ireland. The arc of his story begins with his earliest memories and ends with his leaving his home to come to New York. There are other themes and topics too—the Catholic Church, death, his mother Angela, his abandoning father, and dying, starving siblings. If you look at the book in terms of turning points, you will see that he includes what he considers significant events that shift the plot into new directions, each one adding force and direction to the trajectory of the story.
That brings us to Plot
What is a plot: a plot is a series of dramatized events that show how characters encounter obstacles and challenges, and how they solve their problems. The protagonist is different by the end of the book than he is at the beginning.
The arc of the narrative can be divided into Act One, Two, and Three, the usually invisible structure of a book, play, or movie—though in a play this structure is overt. In Act One, the characters are introduced, the story problem is set up, and we are drawn into the world of the story.
In Act two, all the problems of the characters become more muddled and complex, and there are a series of actions and reactions that show the development of the character’s journey to change and transformation, all the while trying to solve the problems that were delineated at the beginning. Since real life does become more complicated, the way that plot works is imitated by life. Or is it the other way around?
In Act Three, the threads and layers of development reach a peak at the crisis and climax of the story. Here the character is tested, where the true depth of learning and transformation is revealed. The crisis may be thought of as a spiritual challenge or a “dark night of the soul” where the deepest beliefs and core truths of the character are tested. The climax is the highest level of tension and conflict that the protagonist must resolve as the story comes to a close. There’s an aha at the end, an epiphany when the main character has learned her lessons, and can never return to the previous way of living.
Dramatic structure, the narrative arc, is a mythic structure, a deeply satisfying resolution that fits with our need to create pattern and perspective in the midst of chaos of real life. That is why memoir is so challenging—we are trying to create story out of chaos, to make sense of the irrational and nonsensical impulses that drive all human beings. When you lift your own significant plot moments out of the confusion, you will have the basic spine of your story.
A memoir brings the light of our own consciousness and our reflections to the simplicity of “this happened and that happened” episodic structure that is often the first draft version of the memoir. When you create your plot and become aware of your themes, you offer readers your unique perspective, shining your creative, artistic light on “reality” so they can be inspired and transformed by your story.
About the Author
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT, is the president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, an instructor at Writers Digest, and past president of the California Writers Club, Marin branch. Author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, and the award winning memoir Don’tCall Me Mother. Through her workshops, coaching, and speaking engagements, Linda inspires people to capture their stories.
Linda will be teaching a workshop in the San Francisco Bay area on November 6 called “Truth or Lie: Writing on the Cusp of Memoir & Fiction.” For information and to register, click here.
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