Writing Narrative Nonfiction: Creating a Narrator Readers Love (Part II)

September 28, 2007
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction

Creating a Narrator Readers Love ( Part II of II, Continued from September.)

by Lisa Dale Norton
October 2007

"As a writer of memoir you have to get inside your experience
and come to terms with it. . ."


Last month in this column I offered some lists of qualities readers like and dislike in a narrator of memoir. Those qualities rise in large part from the personal work we must do as writers of memoir. This month I continue talking about that personal work:

Everyone has a story. This is true.

Everyone thinks they can write their story and get it published with a big New York Publisher. This is fantasy.

One of the things that makes makes memoir such a hard form of literature to write is that the author must do personal work in addition to learning the writerly craft to create a narrating voice that doesn't turn readers off, either with immature behavior, like blaming everyone else for his sorry life, or woes-me/victim mentality, both sure ways to lose an audience.

As a writer of memoir you have to get inside your experience and come to terms with it, see other people with compassion and accept responsibility for your part in the larger drama called your life.

". . .learn to communicate . . .in such a way that the reader opens his eyes
to the world new ways. "


When really horrible things happen, we are challenged as writers of memoir because they force us to find deep, soulful ways to come to terms with how we may have participated in the event, or what that event means in the larger picture of who we were, who we have become. We are pushed to write in ways that pull back the facades and expose the rawness of humanity.

This is hard work. In addition, as writers of memoir we need to: lighten up where possible and make fun of ourselves find meaning in random events and learn to communicate that meaning in such a way that the reader opens his eyes to the world new ways

The most important lesson for the writer of memoir, hoping to create a narrator readers love, is to remember that readers automatically identify with the protagonist, the key character, of a story. It's part of the fundamental role of story in the human psyche. By identifying with the protagonist, we have the opportunity to live events outside our own experience (or sometimes events that mirror our own experience) and grow in ways guided by the writer's wisdom, illumination, and direction.

"As writers of memoir. . . we have the responsibility to help readers transform their own existence. . ."

That's why it's critical that the writer of memoir be authentic and emotionally honest. As writers of memoir, as artists, we have the responsibility to help readers transform their own existence, whether it be with laughter of pathos. When the protagonist of a piece of memoir the narrator is someone NO ONE would want to be, the reader immediately turns off, closes the book and takes a hike to…the Laundromat, for gawds sakes! Anywhere but here with this whiny, blaming, pitiful, weak-spined crustacean…mumble, mumble, mumble….

Readers want heroes to identify with, people who overcome the odds, so when you cast your life as story, you will need to step up to the task of casting yourself as the hero of your life. That is the kind of narrator who will win readers allegiance and love.

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. www.lisadalenorton.com



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