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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives

Blog # 25

Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives
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Even thinking has—or is—a story. The right voice can reveal what it’s like to be thinking. This is memoir’s great task really: the revelation of consciousness.
--Patricia Hampl

Recently, at a writer’s conference, I was conducting a manuscript critique with a former (adult) student, a very fine writer and someone I’ve known for many years. She’d submitted a chapter from the middle of a memoir-in- progress.

In her abstract she writes,"When Kennedy was assassinated, I had a moment of clarity where I saw that no one is ever safe and secure one hundred percent in this world, no matter who they are, and the most important thing is to remain whole, literally and figuratively... That was a turning point in my life when my perception of “safety” changed forever. "

Having read that abstract in advance, I knew what her intent was. And in the chapter’s next-to-last paragraph, she writes about the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination; specifically how, when she was younger, the event effected her.

As compelling, as strong as the writing was, however, it left me with the feeling that something was missing. When I reread the chapter, I searched for but couldn’t find anything in the previous pages that foreshadowed this end-of-chapter revelation. For the most part, the first two thirds was about the narrator’s childhood and her adolescent struggles to overcome a congenital disability.

The problem, I discovered, was that I never really got an overall sense of the how the narrator’s inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions led her to what, on a second reading, seemed more like an epiphany than an emerging discovery. As a teacher and editor, I’ve been privy to these kinds of omissions before. Usually, they occur in rough drafts. And often they emerge from a carefully constructed sequence of events rather than evolving from some deep inner confusion or uncertainty. As a practicing memoirist myself, I’ve been guilty many times of the same oversights.

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The essayist gives you his thoughts and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them
--Alexander Smith

One of the qualities that distinguish a skillfully rendered personal essay or memoir from other literary forms is that throughout the narrative the "I's" thoughts and feelings are inherently transparent. Consequently, readers ought be able to track the evolution of the narrator’s thinking. In works of literary/creative nonfiction, it comes with the territory.

“Memoir, like fiction, writer Sue William Silverman maintains, “tells a story which needs an over-riding struggle and conflict. What does the author want? What is she struggling toward? Something also must be at stake. What are her inner struggles? Her longings, her fears."

The narrator of the chapter we're discussing does indeed suggest that something important is at stake. “That day {Kennedy's assassination},” she writes, “ I....knew for sure, that nothing and no one could protect me… because nobody, not even the most famous, important and guarded among us, were ever one hundred percent free from harm…Anyone at any time was liable to lose their balance, fall hard, and be swallowed up.”

It's a significant, powerful discovery, to be sure. And as I said above, the writing is compelling and skillfully wrought. Consequently, the reader in me badly wants to identify with and/or understand the impact of that discovery. To be more specific, I believe that what's been omitted from this segment is what Sue Silverman calls the narrator's “inner struggles... her longings, her fears.” In order then, for readers to enter the writer's thoughts, the narrator has to let us in on how, in retrospect, she's arrived at this life changing insight. Has it been percolating, or incubating, maybe even rattling around inside for a long time?

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“…{In} an essay” Phillip Lopate writes, “the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.” I agree with Lopate. And so I advised the chapter’s author to allow herself more permission to make her internal thoughts and feelings more apparent, more evident. And I also made a mental note to do the same thing with a piece I was currently writing.

And I concur with the late critic/memoirist Alfred Kazin when he says that “an essay is.... an expression of the self thinking.... it is not the thought that counts” Kazin says, “but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.”

I’ll add a final thought to the mix. In this genre, the subject or the events are less important than the writer’s internal struggle to make sense out of some pressing question, confusing experience, and/or perplexing situation. As a result, the connections between writer and reader (that is, between one human being and another) depend on our knowing how, where, and why the narrator locates and reveals his/her most urgent thoughts and feelings.

This is of course a matter of strategy and approach. But, I believe, it's a necessary, even an essential part of writing authentic personal narratives.
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