Writing Narrative Non Fiction: Finding the Structure of Story in Daily Events

February 25, 2010
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Lisa Dale Norton

Lisa Dale Norton

 

Your Life as Story: Writing Narrative Non Fiction
Finding the Structure of Story in Daily Events

Lisa Dale Norton

March 1, 2010

"Somewhere in the back of my mind I try to make a story from this. I try to take notes during my more lucid moments . . ,"
—NORTON

My mother is dying.

I write those words, and they are devoid of feeling. I am a robot going through days helping my mother manage her pain, cooking light meals, watching movies with her as she lies ensconced in pillows in her big bed.

My mother is dying from terminal cancer. The days are chronological. We go from Monday when the bath aid comes and the Hospice nurse calls to check in and order more medicine, to Tuesday when I get time off, to Wednesday, a repeat of Monday. Thursday is “our vacation,” we call it when no one comes to the house, no poking and prodding. We celebrate like children on a snow day staying in our PJs until late in the morning, sitting at the Queen Anne table in the kitchen eating Red River cereal. Friday, we are back to our Hospice schedule, good girls following the prescribed regimen of visits and naps and raised feet, and cocktails of narcotics.

 

Somewhere in the back of my mind I try to make a story from this. I try to take notes during my more lucid moments, but I am just writing a journal, diary entries of details, shock and denial. The writer in me knows this is not a story.

On our good days we tells stories, conjure the memories—some she remembers vividly, others I pull out of the ethers. Some she swears to; I don’t recall them. Others are just the opposite, me carving the memory deeply in shared ground, her questioning brown eyes snapping with the newness of what I insist did happen.

What causes humans to store some of the shimmering moments of experience, to let others go? I have asked this question repeatedly as a writer and teacher of memoir. What I know intellectually is that we store memories based on what is of value to us.

"We remember that which moves us, touches some code of meaning deep within."
NORTON

We remember that which moves us, touches some code of meaning deep within.

What is not apparent in this process is where the “story” resides in those stored memories. Certainly, the recording of details alone, a mere compilation of moment-to-moment events is not a story. It is a log, like that a ship’s captain might keep on a long voyage.

As I sail through these days with my mother, I look for landfall, the place where I will come to know the meaning of all this, where I will be able to do more than record details, where I will instinctively combine them with reflection and meaningful perspective. That is what writers of narrative nonfiction do for readers. We writers of life-based stories are not simply recording the events as they fall on the ticking calendar of a time-obsessed culture. We are weaving meaning—by connecting event to history.

"Herein lies the complex structure of memory-based writing. It exists in a place of unplanned worship. . ."
NORTON

Herein lies the complex structure of memory-based writing. It exists in a place of unplanned worship—where art is made, where details give way to insight. It’s a place of letting go and letting the details of daily experiences teach us what they mean. Each story’s structure lives in that blinding place of learning.

What that means for these days and weeks spent with my mother is that I must accept that I am not crafting a story at this moment. I am simply gathering the details I will use later when the true structure of narrative reveals itself.

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. www.lisadalenorton.com

 

 

 

 

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