Lisa Dale Norton

Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Non Fiction

By Lisa Dale Norton

January 2010

"It is easy to forget . . . that as a memoir writer it is your responsibility to rethink the old truths. . ."

Happy New Year: Out With the Old Memories, In With the New Meanings

There is a huge difference between living a daily life and crafting from that daily life the arc of a story.

It is easy to forget that the meaning you derive from events is assigned meaning and that as a memoir writer it is your responsibility to rethink the old truths, to re-see your sacred memories of past events and weave more complex interpretations as you draft a manuscript that will engage readers.

What does this mean on a practical level? It means that when writing stories drawn from life material you are obligated to inhabit those memories in new ways, to search for meanings that did not occur before.

I’ll bet this holiday season there have been many events to which you have already assigned a meaning you are sure is the truth. It’s the story you are already telling your buddies—about family gatherings, journeys to see old friends, shared dinners, and private moments with siblings. If I asked you to write the proverbial What-I-did-on-my-holiday-vacation story, you would have a neat and tidy rendition to what happened, who the heroes and villains were, and where you sat in the midst of the unfolding saga.

". . .tell the story from a new angle ."

As a writer and teacher of memoir, what I am asking you to do is tell the story from a new angle. Imagine how it all came down for someone else in the room. Then work that new meaning into how you write your What-I-did-on-my-holiday-vacation story. Watch how your writing deepen, takes on a more sophisticated, humane texture.

As writers we must remember that the reader of memoir is looking for a story that will surprise and awaken his besotted and over-revved American psyche. When you are able to show that reader you can consider layered interpretations to your experiences, you can win his trust, and respect. Plus, you have the chance to release the old and welcome the new in your own life—to jettison stiff interpretations of the past and beckon flexible possibilities for the future.

Try it this new year. You may just feel lighter about a whole lot of weighty stuff.

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.