Writing Narrative Non Fiction: The Process of Crafting a Story from Life

June 28, 2010
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Your Life as Story: Writing Narrative Non Fiction

Lisa Dale Norton

July, 2010

The Process of Crafting a Story from Life



". . . the stories my parents told of that adventure laced my childhood with meaning."


My mother died swiftly from cancer this past spring. Days later my beloved kitty was killed. It was all too much for me, and I set out on a journey walking through Europe tracing the spine of a trip my parents had made almost 60 years earlier, right after the Second World War. Their hitchhiking adventure was not a common thing for the everyman of early 1950s America—although it did become common in the 1960s and 70s—and the stories my parents told of that adventure laced my childhood with meaning. They shaped who I have become.

But why take such a journey at such a point in my life?

Prior to the losses of spring 2010, I had been working on a new book of narrative nonfiction. At the heart of that book were the stories my parents told of their European adventure. When so much was lost and my heart was bursting with sadness, it made some kind of visceral sense to me to set out on the path of their footsteps, stand in distant places they had stood, claim the landscapes that had generated their tales and taught me about the meaning of life. With both parents dead, and my best friend kitty companion gone, it was in some mythic way the only landscape big enough for the grieving I needed to do.

One month after my mother died I boarded a plane for Rome with a backpack and a railpass, the modern-day, single woman’s alternative to hitchhiking. I chronicled much of the six-weeks that followed in my blog Memoir-on-the-Road at http://www.lisadalenorton.com.

"Just how do we turn experience into compelling stories?"

But now I am home and faced with the writerly task of taking raw experience, turning it into prose, and figuring out how it fits with the material I wrote earlier. And this is the very process we who write from our lives are faced with every day: Just how do we turn experience into compelling stories?

With this artistic concern in mind, I have shifted the focus of my Memoir-on-the-Road blog. Instead of recording the daily experiences and thoughts evoked while traveling my parents’ path, I am writing about the process of creation, the process I go through to transform experience into a book-length story. Obviously, every writer’s approach to this task would be different. Still, I think it will be instructive to see inside one established writer’s process, to watch her find her way from memory and notes, ideas and inklings to stories that fit into a narrative arc, that make some larger point, move characters through space and time, share intimacies, crack open meaning.

With that in mind, I have decided to share here what I have done so far. Perhaps it will aid you on your journey to turn your life into story:

I have read through each of the three Moleskin journals I wrote in while traveling. (I compiled many pages each day, notated with time and place, recording what I saw, how I felt, what I thought, remembered, wondered.) As I have read, I have watched for anything that seemed pertinent to the larger idea I was working on before I left for Europe, in my case the power of story. (In my book Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, I call this Heart of the Story.) I highlighted those sections with yellow marker. I also highlighted anything that seemed on the surface unrelated but which was surprising to me, fresh, well-written, shocking, or embarrassing. Along with each daily journal entry I have revisited the photos I took on that day, which I uploaded every night I was on the road from my camera to my laptop.

This I know about these two process choices: These two tasks have allowed me to solidify inside myself the memories before they escaped. I think of this as learning my research, studying my material, you might say, lodging it inside myself so that it might bubble around, churn, work on itself, on me, on the energies that drive creation. I have not hurried this process. I have re-experienced the journey at a leisurely pace, replaying the mind movie of my travels, the emotional states that accompanied them and planting all in memory. Beyond this, little else do I know at this point.

"There is no magic, correct, way to do this."

Here you see a writer at work. Let this be a way for you to be gentle with yourself as you too find your way into your story. There is no magic, correct, way to do this. It is simply a willingness to explore and see what might be there. I will chronicle the on-going process of finding my story in my Memoir-on-the-Road blog at http://www.lisadalenorton.com.

About 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. www.lisadalenorton.com


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