Readers of my memoir, Swimming with Maya, often approach and say something like, “After reading your story, I feel as if I know you as an intimate friend. Wasn’t it hard to be so open about your life?”
I readily admit that yes, it was hard – the striptease of writing an honest account of my daughter’s life and death, and of my grief and ultimate recovery, was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And then I add, as diplomatically as I can, that the “me” the reader thinks she knows is a version of me that I created to serve the story.
The distinction is subtle but important. It is what writer Vivian Gornick calls the “narrating persona,” a speaker the writer creates to tease meaning out of her messy life. Gornick’s brief but powerful book on the art of the personal narrative, The Situation and the Story, is an essential tool for any writer wishing to create a page-turning memoir. Until I found this little gem, I was floundering through countless revisions of my own story.
I had the difficult job of being both the teller of the tale, and a character in it. Gornick showed me that I needed a way to relate that character’s experiences and reflect upon them with a wisdom born of experience that far exceeded the character’s. I felt a key had turned.
I was able to create a narrating persona, an “Eleanor” that was me but also not me, who knew things I could never have known at the time the scenes I related occurred. Only this “me/not me” voice could hold the tension of the opposites she embodied with enough grace and detachment to tell the story honestly.
Gornick makes another important observation. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
This distinction – between the plot (what happens) and the theme (the meaning of what happens) helped me enormously. The situation in Swimming with Maya is this: A young woman dies in a tragic accident, her promise evident but unfulfilled, leaving her mother in a state of perpetual grief. The “story” or underlying theme is how the mother comes of age as her own person, no longer dependent on the reflected beauty and brilliance of the daughter.
Suddenly, I found new ways to foreshadow my themes and reflect upon them, creating a richer, more textured narrative. The book’s closing metaphor captured in a dream where the mother imagines herself swimming eternally with the daughter was born from this awareness of my theme.
In my upcoming class, “Plot and Theme: Foundations of Memoir,” we will explore these topics in depth. Students will have a chance to experiment with these concepts through in class writing and workshopping in a safe and supportive environment. To learn more, please visit https://www.sfgrotto.org/events/plot-and-theme-foundations-of-memoir-with-eleanor-vincent/