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

Blog # 38, Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs

Note: This month's guest is Meredith Hall, who, to my mind is one of our finest literary memoirists. Her emotionally powerful, beautifully rendered memoir, Without a Map, is one of the few literary books to be both a critical success as well as a New York Times best seller. Meredith's craft essay below was originally part of a recent AWP panel entitled, Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.

MJS

Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs
-Meredith Hall

When I give readings of my memoir, an audience member invariably comments, “This must have been such a catharsis for you! Writing this must have been so therapeutic for you! It must have felt so good to get this all out!” My response is always something like this: We cannot write memoir as catharsis, or for its therapeutic effects. Before we are writers, we are human beings living a life. Before we write, we must have worked our way to the deepest parts of our experience. All artists are guides. We are entrusted with walking one step ahead of our readers into the depths. It cannot be our first scouting. We must live inside the inquiry of past events honestly and courageously before we ever offer ourselves as guides. We do not need to be wise. But we do need to have understandings and insights sufficient to ask the most difficult questions. Without that process, which can take years before we are ready for the role of guide, we face two problems: we are writing for ourselves and not our readers; and we are not yet ready to make story of our pasts. It is this idea I would like to explore today: We all come to understanding through story. If we cannot yet control that vital line of communication, we are not yet ready to write our book.

The most dangerous territory for us when we write about intimate events is in exposition—when we say what happened and why and what we think and believe and understand. The problem is that expository writing—this summarizing and explaining and examining—tends to be our go-to place when we write. It is writing that arises from our memory, from our thinking and our feeling about memory. It is intuitive and automatic. And it is satisfying to the writer because we get to set up our story, complete with its history and place and context. We get to explain exactly what happened, and best of all, we get to say how that all felt, and what we now understand about it.

But I am going to suggest that choosing instead the strategy of using “the camera” causes us to rely on the scenes we carry in memory. If we imagine ourselves filmmakers, we find our tool box filled with the specific and demanding tools of the craft of rendering story. But we also earn great freedom from our struggle to make meaning.

We are all adept at watching a film: It opens with a scene—perhaps a young man and woman are leaning against a kitchen counter. We watch them and listen to their small conversation carefully, working at building an understanding of who they are and why we should care. And then the camera lens closes, and reopens—but now we are in a car. We don’t flinch at this. We are absolutely ready for this shift in scene, character, emotional mood. We recognize the driver—the husband we have met. The passenger is an elderly woman. This is his mother, we realize, and they are covering some old emotional territory between them. Then the camera lens closes, and reopens—and we are at a large family gathering. We are ready for this next scene. We are gathering clues. The wife is here, and the husband. There is a lot of laughter. But the camera lens watches the face of the wife, and so we do, too. Why is her expression so tight? What threatens or diminishes her here? There is another burst of laughter, they sit to their meal, and the camera lens closes.

And so the filmmaker constructs, scene by scene by careful scene, her story. And the amazing and beautiful fact is that we “get it” when a good film closes! The “camera” allows us to understand what happened, what motivated the characters, and how we might feel about the story. What an exhilarating art form! The writer can rely on the filmmaker’s camera. But luckily, we are also able to step in periodically and provide our own understandings, to reflect. To offer ourselves as guides, leading our readers to understandings and questions earned through time.

What happens when we don’t trust the camera? Imagine this: We pay our money and sit down in a theater and the film starts. But instead of that man and woman leaning against their kitchen counter, we see the filmmaker, sitting in a chair against a white field, looking directly at us. Instead of a series of scenes to convey the story, he tells us all about the story—he introduces the characters and he describes them and their physical environments and their backgrounds, the history of each character and their interactions. He summarizes—because without the tools of the camera, the ability to make scenes, he has no other option than to summarize. And then he tells us what it all means, because he has no other tool to convey meaning. There our storyteller sits, facing us, earnestly telling us ---everything.

Which film would you rather watch? And the larger question, which film leads you to a deeper and more personal understanding of this story? Read More 

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