Narrative Non Fiction: Reading Beginnings

September 29, 2009
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Lisa Dale NortonLisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction
Reading Beginnings

October 1, 2009 column

By: Lisa Dale Norton

"One of the best ways to decide where to begin your story is to read a lot of beginnings."

How should a story about your life begin? It’s a question writers ask again and again. Sometimes it even keeps you from writing, because you can’t figure it out, or you start in one place,  and then rethink it and start in another, and another. This leads to the chronic problem of rewriting the beginning of your story, and never getting past that beginning.

One of the best ways to decide where to begin your story is to read a lot of beginnings. Go to the bookstore; sit on the floor in front of the memoir/biography section, or travel writing and adventure writing often have much narrative nonfiction in them, too. Surround yourself with books, and read only the beginnings, maybe a few paragraphs or pages. Make some notes to yourself you can take home and look at later about where each writer begins his story in space and time, and listen to the voice of the narrator, the person telling the story. How would you characterize the voice: chatty, secretive, formal, angry, funny? Do you like the voice? Is it boring?

"All you have to do is read beginnings, for now. "

All you have to do is read beginnings, for now. Then after you get home and go over your notes, clarifying any half-thoughts while they are still fresh, you can begin to see your own life story with new eyes. Try using one of the approaches you’ve seen in another writer’s story. Remember: You are not copying or stealing. You are simply learning from how these other writers use the form.

Try this technique, too, which is quite common and can work nicely if managed carefully: the present moment beginning. Here the narrator opens the story by speaking to the reader from where she is now in her life, setting the scene for the story of the past that will soon be told. For example, in The Glass Castle Jeannette Walls begins with a scene where she is hiding from her homeless mother who she spies on the street. Walls, the narrator of the memoir, is successful. She lives on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Her mother chooses to be homeless. With this kind of beginning readers are ready to learn about how this unusual situation could have come to be; we are primed for a journey through the past

". . . childhood memories consider starting in a moment closer to the age you are now. . ."




  If you are working on a story built from childhood memories consider starting in a moment closer to the age you are now as a way to set up readers for what is to come, to spark their curiosity and make them eager to read about your history, just as we are eager to enter the tales of Walls’s childhood after we see her hiding in that opening scene of the book, and her mother digging through garbage cans on the streets of New York City.



Lisa Dale Norton


Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR (St. Martin's Press), is in bookstores now. Lisa is the author of the acclaimed memoir HAWK FLIES ABOVE: JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE SANDHILLS, a work combining memoir and nature writing. She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the process of memoir. She lives in Santa Fe.





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