Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story:  Writing Narrative Nonfiction

Creating a Narrator Readers Love ( Part I of II, Continued in October.)

by Lisa Dale Norton
September 2007

". . . if you can't create a voice people want to hang out with, your story will never be read."

I just keep hammering away at the topic of narration in memoir. Several times I've mentioned how to use the craft of narration, and just last month I suggested you experiment with different narrating voices in a piece of memoir: the voice of adult you are today vs. the voice of the child you once were.

This month I continue focusing on narration. Why? Because it’s just so darned important in Narrative Nonfiction. You might have a fabulous story, but if you can't create a voice people want to hang out with, your story will never be read.

"What are qualities readers love in a narrator of memoir?"

So, let's begin with some simple lists. I suggest you print these out and post them near your writing table. Make your own, too, adding to these suggestions from your experiences as a reader and writer:

What are qualities readers love in a narrator of memoir? spunkiness emotiotional honesty–clear-eyed vision of what happened, how it affected the narrator's emotional life, and the lives of others willingness to look behind events into meaning willingness to make meaning that is substantial and transformative willingness to accept personal responsibility in life events can-do spirit joyful attitude authenticity, or walking no one's talk–SHOWING a life lived that mirrors opinions, attitudes, and values expressed sense of humor vulnerability about still not understanding events fearlessness lust for life/adventure willingness to try against the odds silliness willingness to make mistakes es

"What are qualities readers dislike in a narrator of memoir? "

What are qualities readers dislike in a narrator of memoir? victim mentality blame–pointing fingers at characters for things that have happened in the narrator's life refusal to accept responsibility woes-me attitude arrogance–untransformed holier-than-thou attitude narcissistic behavior–no consideration of other players in the story; they exist only to prop up the narrator's dissertation unwillingness to make meaning from events that teaches something bigger than small-spirited personal obsessions. (Readers don't come to literature to hear a reiteration of their own crap.) dishonesty about events critical to the heart of the story. If a writer is making a larger truth that resonates for the story as a whole, and he has changed details of the life experience, most readers will overlook this in the name of story/literature/art. But if you say you survived an airplane crash in the Andes, go on to write a story about the power of faith, and you've never even been out of Memphis, hmmm…readers aren't going to be too happy. long-winded, boring iteration of material only marginally pertinent to the story action–but then that's just bad writing….

"How do you avoid one of these voices and beckon the other?"

How do you avoid one of these voices and beckon the other?

You get honest with yourself. You do the hard work of looking inside. You stand in the place of compassion. You get over having to be right.

This is work that has little to do with the craft of writing, but for the writer of personal stories, it must be done to find an authentic voice readers will return to again and again.

More next month on the personal work a memoir writer must do– alongside the writing practice–in Creating a Narrator Readers Love #2.

Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR, will be released by St. Martin 's Press in Spring '08. She is the author of Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (Picador USA/St. Martin 's Press), a work combining memoir and nature writing. Lisa teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the power of story and the process of writing your own. She lives in Santa Fe.