Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction Following the Passion
by Lisa Dale Norton
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. This is the first article in her series for Authorlink.com. Read more about Lisa.
"If you want to capture your personal stories, do this: Follow the passion. —Norton
I am on the road right now, teaching a workshop in Tucson, Arizona, and last night as we gathered in the seminar room of this cozy resort, I was once again reminded of the bedrock of writing about your life.
It does not matter who you are of how much experience you have with writing. If you want to capture your personal stories, do this: Follow the passion.
Behind the most troublesome and the most happy memory-pictures are the most powerful stories. I call them Shimmering Images–those memories that have never diminished over the years. They exist like photographs in your memory banks, popping up at the most unexpected times–walking the dog, washing the dishes, playing golf, taking a shower. These memories come back because there is some kind of unconscious energy associated with them.
"Behind that door lies
an entire world of story."
Behind them, as I told my students, is a story waiting to be told. It’s as if the memory-picture is eager for you to open the door and walk through into the richness of the event. Behind that door lies an entire world of story.
". . . the energy of the story, which is just
holding its breath waiting for you to pay
attention to it, sends out subtle shimmer."
That’s why I call them Shimmering Images. I swear the energy of the story, which is just holding its breath waiting for you to pay attention to it, sends out subtle shimmer (It’s trying to get your attention!), and if you squint when you look at that memory, if you really pay attention to it–not just let it float by like the 101 other times in your life that memory has shown up and floated by–you will sense that energy, see the shimmering story poised within grasp.
Last night as I worked with my earnest group of writers, I sent them into a ten-minute exploration, on paper, of one of those images. They stared at me blankly for a moment–put to work on a Friday evening on a vacation that’s meant to be soothing!–but soon enough they were scribbling furiously, hands racing across the page.
". . . if you open the door
and walk through it,
something surprising greets you."
These kinds of memories are the engine that drive a piece of Narrative Nonfiction. They are most often allied with intense emotion. If the memory is old enough you may not even be aware of that emotion…the picture having appeared so many times, it’s like a comfy sweater to you now. But if you open the door and walk through it, something surprising greets you, some passionate response to the world and your experience in it.
When we finished the writing exercise last night, one young woman shot her hand into the air.
“Why I couldn’t believe it,” she said her eyes big, round and honest. I wrote about an encounter I had in a restaurant years ago…it affected me profoundly, but….”
“You’ve never forgotten it,” I said.
“And did you discover why you’ve never forgotten it when you wrote this?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice rising at the end. “Yes, I can’t believe it.”
"A writer finds the heart
of the Shimmering Image,
the source of passion waiting."
It was just the sort of victory I love to witness. A writer finds the heart of the Shimmering Image, the source of passion waiting behind the door.
That’s where the good stories hang out, and that’s why all those little memory-pictures, those Shimmering Images, have come back all these years. They are guideposts to your most passionate responses to life.
And that, of course, is what writing Narrative Nonfiction is all about: Living passionately, and then writing about it.
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). Her new book, Claiming Your Voice: Writing Stories That Make A Difference, a quick and dirty guide to the writing of life stories, is seeking a home. Lisa teaches for the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program, the Whidbey MFA Program, and has just joined the faculty of the Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York City. She speaks nationally on her passion: the power of story. She lives in Santa Fe. www.lisadalenorton.com