Writing Narrative Nonfiction: The Longer Memoir: Getting Past “Go!”

June 29, 2007
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction

The Longer Memoir: Getting Past “Go!”

by Lisa Dale Norton
July 2007

"Writers get hung up at all stages
of the process."

—Norton
Completing a long piece of memoir can be daunting. Writers get hung up at all stages of the process, but one of the more classic hitches is the beginning itself—those first three chapters.

Too often I’ve met writers who have started their projects five or six times, each beginning beckoning more exotically than the last. Yet each time these writers peter out before they get to the center of the story. They keep at it, though, new beginning after new beginning. They ARE writing, it’s true, but the project never gets done, because they keep reinventing the opening. Over, and over, and over.

"One of the things I help clients do
is commit to a beginning
and push forward realizing that vision."

—Norton

One of the things I help clients do is commit to a beginning and push forward realizing that vision. The beginning they settle on may not be the perfect opening; it may need to be retooled…at the end of the project, but that’s the point. AT THE END. The time to work on that beginning is after the narrative arc is complete, after there is a beginning, middle, and end to the memoir. Then it is easier to go back and see what needs to be changed. Then, at least, you have a finished project to massage instead of the eternal fresh start, which never allows for deepening or development.

". . .ultimately you must choose;
you must commit to a singular
beginning for the story."

—Norton

I say to each of you: There will always be a new, more seductive way to begin your story, a better scene to capture the people and setting, more compelling language to spin out the core concepts. But just as it is with people—always a fresher, younger, prettier, more handsome, richer, version around the corner—ultimately you must choose; you must commit to a singular beginning for the story. Only then can you get on to developing its complexities and surprising turns.

"One way to commit
to a singular beginning
is to hire someone
to help you clarify the storyline . . ."

—Norton

One way to commit to a singular beginning is to hire someone to help you clarify the storyline and the creative process, someone who will be your conscience, who will drive you forward with questions and support, by pointing out the very things discussed here, and then getting you to laugh at your own procrastination techniques. Another way is to work with a small group of writers invested with that same responsibility: keeping you on track, while you do the same for them. Whatever style works best for your form of creativity, find it and stick with it until you have completed your project.

"So get help, if you need it,
to get your life on the page."

—Norton

And remember: On this journey of writing about your life, there can be no reverse. It’s like a car that won’t back up; it only goes forward, and so must you. You must drive forward, all the way to the end of the trail. Then you can hit reverse and inspect the path you’ve traveled, edit the tale. Reshape it. Revise.

If you can not do this, if you continually reinvent the opening, you will suffer the fate of too many memoir writers: You will never finish the story. So get help, if you need it, to get your life on the page. The world is waiting!

   
About
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). She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program, the Gotham Writers' Workshop, and the Whidbey MFA Program. Lisa speaks nationally on her passion: the power of story to transform lives. She lives in Santa Fe. www.lisadalenorton.com

 

 

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