The Story Circle Network Conference in Austin, Texas was an amazing gathering of women eager to help one another write their stories. From April 11 – 13 we gathered to learn from each other.
It was a rich three days of conversations, workshops, and celebrations centered on memoir and personal stories. We shared the challenges and successes of the writing life, as well as supporting each other in developing our skills.
I played two roles at the conference – as a coach assisting other writers with specific issues or questions about their work. And as a facilitator, a role I joyfully shared with dear friend and fellow Dream of Things author, Madeline Sharples.
Our workshop, “Telling Healing Stories: How to Write a Compelling Memoir,” attracted 35 women to learn more about how to take a life crisis and turn it into engaging prose.
We addressed two important aspects of compelling storytelling – plot and theme.
These two aspects are interrelated – the yin and yang of an effective memoir.
Plot is the yang, active aspect – what happens in your story, or as author Vivian Gornick calls it, “the situation” you are describing.
To help tease out your key plot points we talked about a concept introduced by Amber Starfire at her excellent workshop “A Legacy of Story.” She encouraged participants to make a list of their “Burning Moments,” those events with the greatest emotional impact.
Linda Joy Meyers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers teaches a similar technique: the Turning Point exercise. List the 10-20 most significant and memorable moments of your life and begin to write them one by one. Linda advises, “Write these moments in scene with sensual details, and you will be well on your way to writing your memoir!”
Madeline shared how she structured her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On and offered prompts to help participants write about their burning moments or turning points.
Flowing beneath the surface of the plot (or situation) is what Gornick refers to as “the story” – the emotional heart or theme of the memoir. It is as she puts it, “The thing one has come to say.” The story is not the same as the situation, but knowing your situation or plot really well can lead you to the underlying story, or theme, of your book. This is the yin, intuitive aspect of your story.
When I was writing Swimming with Maya it took me a very long time to tease out the real theme of the book. Gornick’s excellent book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative helped me understand the difference between plot and theme, and make my memoir more unified and coherent by weaving the theme throughout the entire book.
The situation in my memoir is the sudden death of a gifted young woman on the cusp of realizing her dream of becoming an actress, and her mother’s profound grief over the loss of her daughter. But the theme is about the enmeshment of mother and daughter and how the two fight their way to separate identities while at the same time remaining united. This is why the metaphor of water resonates throughout the book, leading the reader on a journey of deeper, symbolic understanding of how the mother and daughter continue to “swim” in their love and shared dream.
In exploring the situation underlying the story with participants, I also offered writing prompts to help them get to the heart of their themes. A manuscript that focuses only on plot, no matter how well it is crafted, will leave the reader unsatisfied. As writers, we have to dig deeper to find the real gold in our stories. Searching for our themes and clarifying them is the work that leads to the creation of a page turning story.