The Situation and the Story
This central question is clear throughout the full length text, and speaks to the first aspect of memoir writing -- to know what it is you’re writing about, and why you are writing it. This was our first task as we approached our own work, to assess the situation and the story in our work, as defined by Vivan Gornick, to define what happens (the situation) and then explore its meaning (the story).
In Ward’s text, this is the situation: “From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths.” (7) The story is the search for why “this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully I’ll understand why my brother died while I live…” (8)
I-Narrator versus I-Character
A couple of weeks later, we discussed the unique challenge memoirists face. That is, in telling her story, the memoirist is both a character and the narrator. Both voices need to be present on the page, as the person the story is happening to and the person who is making meaning out of the events from a distance. My instructor taught us to examine Ward’s text in order to identify where she switches from one voice to the other and how she does it without confusing the reader. This technique allows the reader to appreciate the story with the perspective of being years removed from it. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the writer is remembering what she knew then, versus what she learned along the way. We understood that this is necessary work, though, because the interesting part is in the change.
Use of Time
In another session, we examined Ward’s use of time, and how she slowed or accelerated time in order to draw the reader’s attention to a certain event or to move the story along to the next pertinent scene. We talked about how this makes the experience more interesting for the reader because it adds what my instructor called “narrative dynamism,” that is, a way of expanding the story or a particular problem the characters face, as Rowan Fortune discusses in the Medium article of the same name.
The following week, we discussed the ABC’s of storylines, as defined by David Mura in his essay “The A-B-C of Multiple Story Lines” (from his compilation text A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing). He defines the A line as the pursuit of the main goal, and is generally told linearly. The B line is a subplot or other background information, perhaps a past narrative. The C line is deep background information and usually not a large part of the text, but it can contain information the reader needs in order to put the A line in context. In terms of Ward’s book, I identified the A line as the author’s goal to understand why her brother died when she lived via the story of her childhood and family. The B line includes chapters detailing the lives of other boys she knew who also died in that community. The C line includes the community and distant family history that contextualizes the world of the character.
In another session, we talked about how building attachments between characters can actually serve to help a reader build an attachment to the story. We discussed how Jesmyn Ward creates complex characters out of her family members, her friends, and herself. My instructor pointed out that just because someone is real won’t necessarily make them feel real to a reader. Round, real characters have particular mannerisms or gestures. They are flawed and unpredictable but convincing as they change over the course of the story. Above all, they have desires that prompt them to act or not act, desires that can be concrete (like becoming a kung fu master) or abstract (like love or control).
Use of Imagined Space
The following week we talked about how Jesmyn Ward uses her imagination to expand her narrative. We reflected on how this is helpful when we weren’t present for a particular scene or when we don’t remember something well. We learned how imagining a scene or a character’s motivation can deepen the emotional journey or flesh out the story. We discovered that sometimes it’s even interesting to read about what we didn’t know about a certain event or person.
Writing into the World
In one of our last sessions, we identified sections where Jesmyn Ward moves from her personal story to larger social issues without losing the urgency of her lived experience or the uniqueness of her voice. She includes statistics and summary sentences, but the writing is never dry. Using her techniques as a guide, we brainstormed the larger topics of our stories, like the history that was unfolding at the time or the ideas that were being discussed or the issues that the reader might identify with. All of these can transform the story from a solely personal tale to a more universal experience. We looked at how other writers have done that in essay form, such as Incubator graduate Patty Mulcahy with her essay in Cognoscenti, and we were challenged to write our own essays, to look for ways we might publish pieces that dovetail with our stories.
And finally, in our last class of the summer, we discussed endings. We identified techniques such as the returning to key images and repeating them in a new way, and searching for a way to let the conflict culminate and then continue beyond the final words, ideas that Jennifer De Leon writes about in The Literary Life. We read the ending of Jesmyn Ward’s memoir as well as several others. We were encouraged to pick one and use its structure to write the ending of our own material. Some of us balked at the idea, wondering whether this might be plagiarism, but we were assured that it was an accepted technique to help writers think about their material in a new way.
By the end of our ten week session this summer, we had covered a lot of ground. I found it all fascinating but told my instructor that I would know I had learned something when I had a chance to incorporate these ideas into my own material. That is a task for now through the fall, to generate and revise and reshape and see what emerges, all in pursuit of telling the clearest, truest, best story I can tell.
I’ll let you know how it goes…
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.