Focusing on persona, scene & structure.

They say the best is still yet to come
but the taste of you is still on my tongue.
I can’t forget and I won’t even try
to erase your image
and the way you made me cry.
I’m learning how to live.

—Lucinda Williams, “Learning How to Live”

For my second year, I’m teaching “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” to a class of college juniors and seniors. There are 19 students this year, only one a writing major, though several others are declared artists—of music, theatre, ceramics, film—among the future nurses, veterinarians, and teachers. In short, this is creative writing for non-majors. For the seniors, it’s their final semester. Their last chance to take a “fun” elective. Perchance to reflect, to second guess, to move forward.

I loved last year’s class, but feel I’m doing a better job this time. I’ve codified everything learned last time—and from many other journalism, memoir, and cnf classes I’ve taught or taken over the years—into a focus on three essential elements of personal narrative nonfiction. In practice, I know, you must teach much more than that at once. I harp on sentence diversity and rhythms from the start, for instance. Writers must learn to do so much at once, which is what makes writing challenging. Some talents do burn bright and quick, but I think of writing as a comparatively late-blooming art. Though I may change my tune by the end, for now I love the focus provided by telling the kids from the first day that our three big tools for reading and writing memoir are persona, scene, and structure.

Persona

In an essay, I’m always interested in the opening to see what the writer wants me to pay particular attention to, and often that ends up being the layers of the persona which are in conflict with one another.—Lee Martin

Martin: memoir master
[Lee Martin: jedi memoir master.]

I can’t remember where I ran across this comment by Lee Martin, probably on his excellent blog, “The Least You Need to Know,” but it seems so acute. It points to the fact that any persona (the self the writer creates on the page) is only so cohesive—and that personas from different time periods are likely to be totally different and even interestingly hostile to one another.

Martin, through his craft essays and memoirs, has taught me more than anyone about the use of persona. Point of view, voice, and tone all arise from or are inseparable from persona. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the richness for readers in the fact that at least two distinctive and different voices from the same writer can tell the story in memoir: you “then,” mired in the action, and you “now,” the wiser person telling the tale.

Surely this reflective narrator is embedded in our DNA. After all, we first must have received stories of epic hunts, gory battles, or wild berry bonanzas from those who survived them or witnessed them from close at hand. Martin is a master of setting an essay vividly in the past but occasionally commenting on the action from his desk—“All these years later . . .”—and he can do it even in the midst of a dramatic scene set far in the past. Hence I first have my students read his masterpiece “Never Thirteen” from his collection of memoir essays Such a Life.

(See my interview with Martin and review of Such a Life, or my post on his visit last year to my class, “The Artist Must Risk Failure.”)

Last Wednesday night in my memoir class, I overheard a student say to another in workshop, “I think you could really use the retrospective narrator here.” Hark—a comment as thrilling as spring’s first daffodil! None of this is rocket science—then why is it so hard?—but I’ve given them a vocabulary at least, and by gum they’re using it.

 Scene

If you resist making a scene, don’t write a memoir. Sit quietly in a church instead. Memoirs are made up of particulars and scenes, in which people speak and act. We need to find the moments from our lives that affected us in some way, and we need to dramatize them on the page. This scenic writing allows readers to feel as if they’re participating in your life rather than merely watching from the audience.—Lee Martin, in a recent post “Ten Thoughts About Writing a Memoir

When I first taught long-form narrative journalism, I emphasized persona and scene. I threw in persona because I was influenced by a teacher I’d known who was obsessed by persona, probably because the teacher’s own prose persona was relentlessly opaque. I soon realized that, in journalism, persona should be present—that is, the story should somehow acknowledge that a person working as a writer made it—but that persona’s apparent relevance and the freedom to make it relevant are usually severely constrained by various forces. In contrast, as Vivian Gornick says in The Situation and the Story, “From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.”

Scene is the main tool a journalist has going for her, but I’ve noticed that journalism students resist the hard work of scene-by-scene construction, while they grasp quickly the quick-and-dirty scenic lead, the false promise of shared experience. (Let’s face it, though: scenes you witness and certainly those you must report for are harder to write than those you can summon and spotlight in the theatre of memory.) And by the same token, dramatized action often is subtly or overtly dissed by reviewers of literary memoirs. Thus my love for Martin’s fierce comment above.

It’s been interesting this semester to see which students seem naturally to write in scenes and which ones tend to tell the story. Scenes seem like hard work to me, much as I love them, but some students the other night said they find them easy.

Whereas Martin’s work is beautifully (and powerfully) balanced on the continuum between scene and exposition, our reigning Scene Queen model writer is Jo Ann Beard in her memoir collection The Boys of My Youth. What an amazing writer—whose use of the retrospective narrator is rare and exceedingly subtle. (We’re also reading Sarah Vowell’s amusing Take the Cannoli, which is highly expository and told exclusively by the retrospective narrator.)

 Structure

It is basic, our need for story, perhaps because it is such a handy way to carry our experiences around—story as container, so to speak. But the shape can be anything at all. So you can think of your memoir as a soup pot, or a trapeze, or a funnel, and if this helps you, great. What helped me was deciding what my memoir wasn’t going to be—it wasn’t going to be shackled by chronology.

My advice is to start writing and continue writing. A shape will eventually suggest itself to you. . . . [Y]ou must trust the writing and the shape will appear.—Thinking About Memoir, Abigail Thomas

jo_ann_beard_by_jennifer_may_hires-2_custom-6484bd5ed781cc63d4563d4a8cef2690039829a4-s6-c30
[Jo Ann Beard: scene & structure queen.]

 I added structure as a stated focus this year because I tried to kind of build up to it last year, and one student said he wished I’d done more from the start. The only structure I’m delaying this year is the segmented.

When I started teaching creative nonfiction, I thought students first should learn to tell a story traditionally, by which I suppose I meant chronologically. Now that’s not so clear to me. Since art announces itself in form, making a chronological account scream Art—therefore answering the mulish doubt Why should I read this?—means that every aspect, from words to sentences to punctuation to paragraphing, must work at a high level. Without that, caught in chronology’s trap of telling too much, the story will plod.

Yet Martin’s Such a Life showcases one chronological gem after another. I try to show students how his flowing memoir essays achieve their effects. Such as starting in the midst of action, riveting us with scenes, deploying the dual narrator, and stoking the narrative’s fire with rising action while artfully withholding certain aspects till the right moment.

Having said this, I’m getting results with two other forms that students find exciting and that they instantly grasp. First, there’s the framed structure, which draws on the power of scene: embedding us in a dramatized moment at the start, it flashes back and picks up the action, moving us toward the essay’s close in which the opening scene is resumed and resolved. Often I have them read Carrie Hagen’s “Game Night,” published by SNREview.

Second, there’s the braided structure that alternates between two or more related stories, sometimes happening in different time frames. An example in film is Sean Penn’s wonderful adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s deft personal-journalistic inquiry Into the Wild. In that case, one thread is the 113 days Chris McCandless spent living in the Alaskan bush and the other depicts the roughly two years of wandering that culminated in his northern adventure.

Jo Ann Beard loves braiding and uses it in several essays in The Boys of My Youth, most famously in “The Fourth State of Matter,” which was first published in the New Yorker. (There’s a thrilling explication of this essay by Jill Christman at Essay Daily. ) I’ve written a lot about the braided structure here, including about my essay “Wild Ducks,” which appeared in River Teeth.

I’m still trying to figure out how to teach the segmented structure. Last year’s results were encouraging, but some students got confused by my main prompt. Maybe I’ll do better this time. Among other models, students really like the flash essay, though should this short form be called a structure? Anyway, such lyric moments—whether pure scene or reflective exposition—live close to poetry, blurring the taxonomy of genre.

And students this age are still flaring with poetry. What joy to help them find it. Yet seeing college careers end with my class is always so poignant. When the glory of late spring comes at last, there they’ll go, flying like valiant sparrows into their futures, into the storm’s very teeth.

He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles.
He used to talk about it.
He’d just go on and on.
He always said Louisana
was where he felt at home.
He was born in Nacogdoches.
That’s in East Texas,
not far from the border,
but he liked to tell everybody
he was from Lake Charles. . . .

We used to drive
through Lafayette and Baton Rouge.
In a yellow Camino,
listening to Howling Wolf.
He liked to stop in Lake Charles
’cause that’s the place he loved.

—Lucinda Williams, “Lake Charles”

22 Comments

  • Dear Richard, I’d never realized how challenging memoir writing is, how effortless it must appear versus how complicated it is to put word after word on the page, with all parts leading one into the other. Thank goodness, you sound like a very committed, dedicated, and enthusiastic teacher, who is leading his students forth into the adventure of non-fiction personal writing. Keep those essays on your blog coming, too! Even though I write fiction, fiction often mimics (I suspect) the tactics of memoir in order to get its points across, though I always thought it was the other way around before I read your blog. Or maybe they simply mutually inform each other in their techniques. At any rate, I always find your blog worthwhile and interesting.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Victoria. I do see a fair number of novels, including some modern classics like Heart of Darkness and Great Gatsby, that present themselves as memoirs, whether imitating the genre or simply oral storytelling.

  • Fabulous post, Richard. Love Lucinda Williams, btw. John finished reading your memoir … he really enjoyed it! I’m tackling it now, so will be getting some interview questions to you in the next few weeks. Memoir is a curious genre. I’m hoping to transcend genre in my book; trying to merge nonfiction and memoir in a unique way. I think we need to remember that we are artists … not literary robots. I’m not a believer in the need to dramatize our lives per some approved format, in other words. Authors should also listen to their internal wisdom; and if the world doesn’t like it, that’s fine. Just my two cents. (I should add that I have a guest author, Katrina Kenison, in SunnyRoomStudio this week who is also addressing memoir.) Enjoy the weekend; spring is near … with luck!

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Daisy. Your book project sounds interesting! Will stop by Sunny Room soon and take in your guest’s thoughts. Memoir as a topic seems almost an inexhaustible as memoirs themselves.

      • Recently, Richard, I have run across a few literary journals interested in cross-genre work … but if you have any experts out there reading this … I’d love to know if any of them have any tips on transcending genre. There is literary memoir, of course, and that is one way to look at modifying structure for a book. I believe it is the popularized version of memoir that bothers me — the soap opera in a colorful book jacket.

        Yes, you are so right … memoir is a topic that gives and gives; we are somewhat mesmerized by our life stories (how to capture them) it seems. But in the spirit of Eckhart Tolle, we are all much more than our stories. The story merely the ever-swaying ladder that supports spiritual inquiry, expansion, realization, and ultimately, transcendence.

        Fortunately, it’s all good in the end, I suspect, because we’ll never know if it was the chicken or the egg …

        • Richard says:

          Daisy, are you familiar with the work of Lisa Knopp? She writes beautiful and interesting essays from the upper midwest, lives in Lincoln, I believe? There are many others who break the overly dramatized mode; not that they don’t use scenes, but a scene can be a calm or revelatory moment, not necessarily an ugly or violent one. Actually Martin’s Such a Life is my touchstone for this, but of course many essayists who write about the life of the spirit pertain.

          • Thanks, will explore, Richard. I understand a scene can be many things … just trying to go beyond them, to the extent possible. The scenes in so many books seem contrived to me … you can almost see the author working to bring the strings together … if I were a painter, maybe this will help, I would be an impressionist. Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir …

            • Richard says:

              Rebecca Solnit is another one to look at, Daisy, She uses some scenes but is more essayistic and impressionistic. I find her work impressive, if a little hard for me to follow sometimes!

              • Thanks for the Solnit suggestion. I’m currently reading Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. Her scenes are more tolerable … not drawn in concrete, plenty of space for the reader, and so on. I love the book description from her website: a memoir about parents, the world of science, and consciousness.

                Have a good week …

  • I’m working on a collection of memoir essays. One will be published by Hippocampus Magazine in late May. The essays are from early childhood and will span into my teens.

    It takes a long time to uncover early memories, but I have learned to remember in scenes. If I can write down a scene, I can build around those moments, and everything else will flow from there.

    When I can’t find a scene, I get stuck. I’m stuck right now. So later today, I’m driving across town to park on a street where we first lived in Lafayette. I’ll go back to that street every day until I uncover a memory vivid enough to write a scene. If not, I’ll move along in time. But I have found the memories that give me the most resistance are worth excavating (painful as that can be).

    Btw, I live in Lafayette, Louisiana, but I was in Lake Charles last night. Love Lucinda’s lyrics and finding them here on your blog.

    • Richard says:

      So interesting, Darrelyn. It would be interesting to know, for me and my readers, and especially Daisy above, books that have influenced and helped you.

      Lucinda is one of my favorites, and “Lake Charles” may be my favorite song of hers – I identify with it so.

      • Like you, Richard, I continue to go back to Lee Martin’s Such a Life and Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. Also, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. Oh, and a novel in stories by Rebecca Barry called Later, at the Bar. Even though Barry’s is not memoir, her characters were so real to me, it read like one.

  • Ron D. White says:

    Thanks for the information of how you teach the class along with references to the points you make.

    In “The Love Of My Life” Cheryl Strayed recalls listening to one Lucinda Williams CD “that I could not ever get enough of….”

    I can’t imagine that there is only one.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Richard: Your blog has been taken to a higher level. They are little gems of wisdom and entertainment. Thank you so much. I’m thinking it might be worth it to get a facelift and try to sneak into one of your classes. -John

  • Richard, thanks for a highly informative post and a look at a memoir guru I had not encountered until reading your thoughts above. I will definitely be taking a look at Lee Martin”s site and devouring some of his posts on memoir writing. Until I began my own memoir drafting, I never imagined how complex and removed from other genre memoir is. It is not as easy to write as it appears on its face when you’re reading it or thinking about writing it. My understanding and appreciation for what goes into the life story of another has grown immensely in these past few years.

    Thanks for always bringing so much to the table. I will forever be indebted to Shirley Showalter for directing me here.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Richard, I love reading your words and searching for my own while listening to Lucinda Williams’ mournful, passionate music. Having taught one memoir class (and having found Lee Martin’s Such a Life with your guidance –thank you!), I agree that the three foci you landed on each deserve attention and have the added value of being subjects students can locate in their READING before they attempt their own WRITING. I have not studied structure the way you have, and I offered students simpler forms than these, but I was honored to walk with students on the journey to know the self “then” and know it “now,” while recognizing that self itself is not completely knowable: we are much more than our stories, as Daisy (above) and Eckhart Tolle remind us.

    My favorite paragraph of this essay is, of course, the last one: “And students this age are still flaring with poetry. What joy to help them find it. Yet seeing college careers end with my class is always so poignant. When the glory of late spring comes at last, there they’ll go, flying like valiant sparrows into their futures, into the snarling storm’s very teeth.”

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      Thank you so much, Shirley. It’s a great irony to me that story is so important, especially to storytellers, yet clinging to our Story can be so wrong!

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