Writing Narrative Non-Fiction: Making Memoir from the Unexpected

July 29, 2008
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction

Making Memoir from the Unexpected

by Lisa Dale Norton
August 2008

"I was in LA this past week, to record a TV show. That was the up side of the trip."
—NORTON

I was in LA this past week, to record a TV show. That was the up side of the trip.While I was there a dog decided to wrap its jaws around my leg and gnaw on it. That was the down side of the trip.

Yet still, while standing there blocking that dog from my face with my arms and shaking my leg to remove it from my calf, I remembered a whole cavalcade of childhood moments with dogs: Our German shepherd, Hildy, circling me whenever she thought I might be up to something I shouldn't be. I was about 7 years old at the time, and Hildy would bump her way around me holding me in place until I had time to decide against some impending choice—climb a tree too tall for me, slide down a muddy bank toward the raging torrent that was our town creek in spring. If she held me there long enough, maybe I would come to my senses, and often I did. If I didn't, I heard about it: Bark! Bark! Bark!

In that same moment, dog bothering my leg in L.A., I remembered Dutch our dachshund who eternally positioned himself nearby, the moment I sat down, and  dutifully placed his paw on my foot. That's all. He didn't bark. He didn't lick. He just silently and consistently made contact.

And then there was Adelheit ("Ad" for short, another German shepherd) who ruled the Ridge where we lived in Osceola, Nebraska. All other dogs bowed down to her, rolled over and revealed their tummies. She had her counterpart in my best friend,Terri Howe's, German shepherd, Pi, named after a tray of printer's type. (The family she lived with ran our small town's newspaper.) Pi never bowed down. Ad and Pi simply touched noses and gamboled down the street.

All these dogs were friends of mine. I had never once been afraid of a dog, never doubted my ability to communicate with any animal—raccoons, dogs, birds, rabbits, horses, cats. We had raised them all—my mother was the Florence Nightingale of animals in our town—and I considered myself animal savvy.

But this L.A. dog did not like me.

"Why do I tell you this story? To illustrate that any personal event can be shaped into a piece of memoir writing."
NORTON

Why do I tell you this story? To illustrate that any personal event can be shaped into a piece of memoir writing. Just look at what the chomping of the jaws of that dog in L.A. brought back for me—memories of dogs through the years who have shaped me and taught me about the interconnectedness of our world.

Besides, I survived the dog attack and am here to write about it, so why not turn it into story? Some hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin were all I needed to recover.

As for the TV show—the real purpose of the trip—it all went off without a hitch, which doesn't make for nearly as good a story!

". . . check your local pubic TV for "Connie Martinson Talks Books." My segment will begin airing on August 22."
—NORTON

If you want to catch it, though, check your local pubic TV for "Connie Martinson Talks Books." My segment will begin airing on August 22. Perhaps it will turn up in your area, or you can stream it on the web at www.conniemartinson.com. Imagine yours truly in the blue suit, later encountering the jaws of a disgruntled canine. It should heighten the drama of the segment!

 And now, your memoir assignment for the month: Using this example, go forth and turn your daily events into story.

About
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 Sand hills (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 432-362-1723

 

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This post was written by Lisa Dale Norton