Thoughts on Process

There’s no denying it any longer. The memoirs I read are simply not the type of memoirs I want to write. When I struggled with this last semester, I looked to fiction for an answer. In the short story form I was faster to find the quiet story that ran 8-30 pages, something more akin to what I write when I write about my own adolescence. “If you can master the quiet story,” my advisor told me at the last residency, “then you can write.”

What is a quiet story? I can tell you first by saying what it is not. For me, it is not the memoir that has the constant narrative tension of an evil stepfather lurking in the room, the threats of alcoholism or drug abuse, murder, rape, incest, war-torn countries, or severe violations of human rights. The quiet story has something to say, but must use a distinct, consistent voice and characterization to guide the reader through the story and it must pay unique attention to descriptive detail. In the quiet story, it matters not so much what happened in the story, but how the story is told. My gut tells me that what I’m trying to write is more akin to personal narrative, but I’m composing it in a modified short story form that makes use of re-creating dialogue and other techniques employed by memoirists and in the end, reads like something in between it all.

I LOVE Judy Blunt’s memoir, Breaking Clean, and if I had the advantage of age and experience that she has, her narrative structure is something I’d proudly shoot for. Haven Kimmel has become another favorite, namely, A Girl Named Zippy. Kimmel has indeed mastered the quiet story, and her main craft trick is the clever, consistent, and tasteful use of humor throughout her memoir. Humor is one of the quickest ways to win the trust of your audience, but again, I’ve got to find my own gig.

That said, we learn by imitation and we grow stronger by borrowing. If faith is what we think it is, in the end we’ll come out stronger and smarter for it all but we’ll still wreak of our own, individual writing voices. We pull from the best to make ourselves better but we can never escape ourselves, thank goodness—otherwise the literary world might be a world of copycats.

So I’m digging down. I’m narrowing the field a bit in the hopes that, paradoxically, the salient aspects of my own writing will open up, full bloom.

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