People often enter The Writer’s Center “Memoir and Story Construction” workshops concerned that sticking to the facts will interfere with producing a compelling story. There are many definitions floating around, but most agree that a memoir is a record of events based on the writer’s personal knowledge. The writer does have an obligation to report what really happened; however, it’s possible, and even fun, to turn that record of events into a great story by manipulating the reader’s mood.
With setting, for example, make a list of the available props, the nouns, and then add adjectives. Items with sharp angles and bright, contrasting colors give readers a sense of apprehension or excitement. Think of Halloween – the black cat with pointy fangs and arched back, a jack-o-lantern with triangular eyes and jagged, asymmetrical teeth. Pastels, earth tones, and curves are more soothing. As the scene unfolds, simply weave in the setting details from the list that will help instill the desired mood, and omit those that do not.
Language is another valuable tool. It’s important to use words with the correct meaning, of course, but we have choices here, too. Words that begin with or contain a lot of vowels or quiet consonants (f, h, l, m, n, r, v, w, and y) promote a calmer mood than those with harsher sounding consonants and consonant blends such as c, g, j, k, q, s, x, ch, ck, sp, sq, and st. You may call the floor covering a carpet or a rug, refer to the cat’s claws or her fur.
The Pearl, by John Steinbeck, is fiction, but a memoir with the same setting would offer the same options. The story opens with a young father waking to a pale wash of light, the dog curled up on the dirt floor, waves lapping the shore, and his wife, Juana, humming. She makes a hammock of her blue shawl and places the baby close to her breast. (Do you feel the love?) Then two roosters begin a clumsy fight and a scorpion enters with his stinging tail straight out, the thorn on the end glistening. The reader is lured into the story not by just visualizing the scene, but by feeling the domestic tranquility and the threat the scorpion represents.
Stick to the facts when writing a memoir? Yes, please do, but be selective with the details and creative with language for a tale we’ll all want to read.
Lynn Stearns enjoys leading “Memoir and Story Construction” workshops at The Writer’s Center, and serving as an associate fiction editor for the Potomac Review. Her poetry, personal essays, and fiction have appeared in Bitter Oleander, descant, Haight-Ashbury Review, and other literary magazines, and in several anthologies, including Gravity Dancers, New Lines from the Old Line State, and In Good Company. She is currently at work on a novel in stories, a personal narrative, and a piece of flash fiction.