Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction
Crafting A Narrative From Life Experience — Part I

by Lisa Dale Norton

May 2007

Authorlink is proud to welcome Lisa Dale Norton as a regular monthly columnist. She is nationally recognized as a writing instructor with a passion for story. Read more about Lisa.

Reader Note: This column is the first of a two-part series to be completed with the June column.

". . . you have to limit the material
you cover. . .to create a story
that rivets readers to the page."

When you first step up to writing a story about your life, it can feel pretty overwhelming because, well, there's just so darn much material! Where do you start? This conundrum is what keeps most people from even trying.

Part of being successful at memoir writing is realizing from the get-go that you have to limit the material you cover, not only to keep the composition of reasonable length, but to create a story that rivets readers to the page. Too much wandering through stuff that isn't interesting, or doesn't contribute to dramatic pull, is a quick path to unsuccessful memoir–that is, a story that cures insomnia.

"Start with an event after which everything was different. . ."

A first and simple step to combat this problem is to begin your story as follows: Start with an event after which everything was different, some event that changed the course of your life. And I¹ll bet there are a bunch of them. Some are big and unpleasant, some are smaller and more subtle. Just be very clear that the path you walked after the event went in a new direction. (Sometimes you can only see that new direction from the long view of hindsight.)

Much of contemporary memoir goes for sensationalism–the bigger more unpleasant events–and that choice has a lot to do with the marketplace. But quieter stories can be far more rewarding, both for writer and reader: dealing with job loss helping an aging parent starting a business building a boat creating a garden from ravaged ground

"Simply look for events that have changed you."

Heck! the list is as endless as life experience. Simply look for events that have changed you. Change is important, because it implies dynamism, and dynamism is what stories are about, characters acting to deal with change.

The events from your life after which everything was different don't need to be death, divorce, or the affects of drugs and alcohol on a family system, but they can be. Big changes imply big stuff to deal with, and that can make a good story.

A way to get started crafting a narrative from life experience is to spend some time reviewing your life and making a simple list, like a grocery list, of these events. They then become potential beginning points; each event represents the possible beginning of a separate memoir.

"The body of the story
becomes the journey."


The body of the story becomes the journey the narrator (you, the hero of your story) goes on to come to terms with that event.

It's that simple!

Next month, with June's column, I'll continue this discussion with how you craft a narrative, after you have chosen one of those life-altering events as the beginning of your memoir.

Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton is the author of Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (Picador USA/St. Martin's Press). She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program, the Gotham Writers' Workshop, and the Whidbey MFA Program. Lisa speaks nationally on her passion: the power of story to transform lives. She lives in Santa Fe.