Focusing on & teaching persona, scene & structure, the Big Three.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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”