Fiction writers know that plot and character drive their stories. Well developed characters and interesting plots, with twists and turns and subplots, engage readers. How do I, a memoir writer, compete with the imaginary worlds of fiction? Certainly, life provides bizarre and interesting characters. But it doesn’t give me a nice, tidy plot, a story arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Life is messy. To write about it requires the equally messy process of sorting it out, identifying themes, finding truths, and uncovering some kind of order in the midst of chaos. In Your Mythic Journey, Sam Keen wrote, “Each person is a repository of stories. To the degree that any one of us reaches toward autonomy, we must begin a process of sorting through the trash and treasures we have been given, keeping some and rejecting others.” And because the writing itself is a journey of discovery for memoir writers, we may not often know the end of a story until we write it; rather than create the conclusion of a story, we recognize it. A memoir writer looks at what she’s written and, if she’s lucky, says, “Yes, that’s it, I’ve arrived. That’s what I needed to say.”
Instead of plot, memoirists and personal essayists most often have what Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola, in Tell it Slant, call “The Quest Narrative.” Quest narratives are mythic journeys driven by questions of meaning toward a transformation of some kind. The author wants to know: What are the reasons for my life experiences? Who are the heroes and villains? Who am I supposed to be? What is the purpose of my life? Because writing is the means of travel, the protagonist (i.e., the author/narrator), doesn’t know where she’ll end up. She may start with a particular goal in mind—a desire to understand and forgive someone in her life—and end up somewhere unexpected—unearthing a family secret, for example.
The memoirist’s job is to make of this journey a story so compelling that readers will want to continue reading. We must borrow from fictional techniques and invent a plot for ourselves, we must let our memories bring forth themes, and we must, as William Zinsser recommends, rearrange and compress our stories for dramatic shape while remaining loyal to the truth.
How do we do this? How can I do this? By writing, by experimenting and practicing, by learning to trust that my life is worth telling, and then by writing some more.