Lisa Dale Norton is an author and memoir editor. She works on manuscripts with writing clients and teaches at conferences nationwide.

Find the Heart of Your Story, Part 3

August 31, 2020
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Authorlink—September 2020

Lisa Dale Norton

Title: How To Find the Heart of your Story and Structure Your Memoir (Third and Final in the Pandemic Series)

            When the pandemic started, I wrote about using stay-at-home time to work on your memoir, and then followed up with a column on the basics of organizing your shimmering images—the vivid memories you’ve been writing.

            With back-to-school mentally kicking in (even if current back-to-school is unfamiliar), it’s time to find the heart of your story and map out a structure for your memoir.

            By now you should have an array of memories written down. But they don’t make a story until they’re connected. How do you get from general remembering and writing to a structured memoir?

            You narrow. You say to yourself: “I’m going to write about the summer I was 12,” or “I’m going to write about those three years I lived with my grandmother,” or about “my experience as a newly single mom helping my son pay for that horribly expensive art school,” or “the year I traveled the South in my cranky old van.”

            Whatever it is, it needs to be a tight subset of your whole life. You can’t write about your whole life in a memoir. (That’s an autobiography, and it’s a different form.)

            So, go through the shimmering images you‘ve written and pull out all those that pivot around the time period you’ve chosen, heap them into one file, and stash away all the rest—they are for another memoir, for another time.

            Repeat: Put all the other shimmering images away.

            As you work with this winnowed chunk of life, more moments will jump into memory—some joyous, some the color of dirt. They are all important, especially the ones that come roaring back. They are the scaffolding of your memoir—the key memories upon which you will hang the story line. They will lead you to heart of your story.

            Heart of the story is always something ephemeral, some idea or notion larger than the details of daily living. It’s a concept, like:

  • the summer I was 12—discovery
  • those three years I lived with my grandmother—patience, or acceptance
  • as a newly single mom helping my son pay for that horribly expensive art school—discipline, or fear, or perseverance, or faith
  • the year I traveled the South in my old van—trust

            Once you’re focused on a narrow period, your work becomes naming the essence of that time.

            How do you do that? By reviewing the shimmering images you’ve written, by writing new ones, by feeling your way back into those days and looking at them with the eyes of the person you are now. What did you end up learning? What were you seeking? What did you find? Was it a time of discovery, or patience, acceptance, discipline, fear, perseverance, faith. Trust? Or . . . ?

            Each of these ideas is central to the human experience, and once you identify the issue that suffused your experience, you will have a principle that can guide the way you craft your memories.

            This is a wholistic process: reading the memories you have written, writing new stuff, and trying out concept words to see if they capture the heart of your experience. Back and forth you go: memories and concepts, memories and feelings, writing, saving, writing, dumping. This is a time of great trust in yourself, because you can’t get to a tidy outline for the memoir until you figure out what idea the memories are illuminating. Writing a memoir is not just about the events; it’s about what they mean.

            I know this is an untidy process, but writing is untidy, and vexing, especially when writing about your life, which you are still living and still figuring out.

            But bottom line, follow these steps:

            1) write a bunch of shimmering images that are catching your attention, just to explore

            2) after awhile stop writing broadly and choose a narrow period of your life that feels full of juice

            3) put all the other shimmering images—that are not from that slim period in time—into a SAVE file and leave them alone

            4) focusing on the designated time period, let more shimmering images come up, write them, ask yourself what they mean to you. Get back to the feelings and concerns of the time. What did that time teach you? What did you had to accept, or overcome?

            5) give that lesson a name: humility, courage, unconditional love

            6) line up chronologically, in a new word processing file, all the shimmering images you’ve written that fit the time period chosen, no matter how clunky they are sitting next to each other

            Now, get to work crafting your memoir: rewrite those first-draft shimmering images making sure each one, in some way, furthers the concept you’ve named. Let your narrator muse about what you struggled with, what you were pushed to confront. Write connecting passages to link the shimmering images, fill in gaps, add new insights, throw out what no longer fits, and always allow the heart of the story to drive the material.

            And if you get lost, come back to these steps. Once into the process, the steps will make a new kind of sense to you and help you harness your love of back-to-school—whatever its shape.

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