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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.


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?

We can be that guy. Writers often are. We sit on stage, facing the reader, and we say everything we know—what happened, who the characters are, why they did what they did, and how we feel about all of it. Or, we can be the filmmaker who dares to rely on camera work, dares to rely on our scene-making skills. We can write a scene, and then the lens closes and we write another scene, and then another, and the reader’s understanding starts to accrue. The reader becomes present to the characters and the events. When we dare to trust scene-making, dare to hush the explainer and summarizer, our readers become collaborators in understanding events and characters.

So what does this have to do with this issue of “therapeutic” or “cathartic” writing? If we take that chair center-stage and tell our stories, we are giving ourselves permission to say too much, to explain too much, to reveal too much. If, instead, we trust the camera, the writer becomes invisible. The story takes center-stage. The writer is faced with the imperative of choosing exactly which scenes really convey the story.

Writing good scenes, relying on the camera, is hard work. It requires that we are in full charge of our story. This is not a preliminary investigation. We must be beyond that work. We must be ready to control our story through the craft of writing scenes, be ready to devise strategies that allow our characters to show the reader what happened, and then, finally, be ready to step into that narrative flow and offer ourselves as guides. If we trust the camera, memory delivers itself to the page. Then it is our turn to step in with lines of reflection, thoughts and questions and understandings that invite our readers to follow us into the depths. Trust the camera to materialize your memories. Then step in, a guide worth listening to.

I want to leave you with an example of how this can work:

In my memoir, Without a Map, there is a chapter about my divorce. I had all sorts of things I wanted to say—what kind of rotten person my husband was, what the effect was of all the terrible betrayals, how guilty I felt at the thought of breaking up my family and hurting my children, how frightened I was… But does the reader really need to hear all the dirty secrets of my marriage in order to understand the emotional effect of this divorce? I don’t believe good readers really want to see our guts. They want to be provided with clear, effective evidence that supports the writer’s understandings. So I devised a strategy of scene-making to convey my larger experience. Pay attention to where I rely on the camera, and where I resort to exposition, and where I step in and offer to guide my reader’s understandings with lines of earned reflection.

From the chapter titled “Killing Chickens”:

“I tuck her wings tight against her heaving body, crouch over her, and cover her flailing head with my gloved hand. Holding her neck hard against the floor of the coop, I take a breath, set something deep and hard inside my heart, and twist her head. I hear her neck break with a crackle. Still she fights me, struggling to be free of my weight, my gloved hands, my need to kill her. Her shiny black beak opens and closes, opens and closes silently as she gasps for air. I hadn’t known this would happen. I am undone by the flapping, the dust rising and choking me, the disbelieving little eye turned up to mine. I hold her beak closed, covering that eye. Still she pushes, her reptile legs bracing against mine, her warmth, her heart beating fast with mine. I turn her head on her floppy neck again, and again, corkscrewing her breathing tube, struggling to end the gasping. The eye, turned around and around, blinks and studies me. The early spring sun flows onto us through a silver stream of dust, like a stage light, while we fight each other. I lift my head and see that the other birds are eating still, pecking their way around us for stray bits of corn. This one, this twisted and broken lump of gleaming black feathers, claws hard at the floor, like a big stretch, and then deflates like a pierced ball. I wait, holding her tiny beak and broken neck with all my might.

“I am killing chickens. It is my birthday. I was awake through the night, reckoning with a terrible decision. When I woke this morning, the next path was finally, achingly clear. After breakfast I sat with my children, Alex and Benjamin, and struggled to ease the news that their father and I are divorcing. They were stunned into silence. Now, as I crouch over my quiet hen, my sons are making a birthday surprise for me at the kitchen table. ‘It’s okay, guys,’ I had said as I gathered my gloves and went outside, trying with my voice to pull them back to safety. ‘I won’t peek.’

“I carry Bertie’s warm, limp body outside and lay her on the grass. Back inside the coop, I stalk my hens and come up with Tippy-Toes. I gather her frantic wings and crouch over her. My husband normally would kill off my beautiful but tired old hens, no longer laying, to make way for the new chicks that are arriving tomorrow. I don’t know how to do this. But I am going to do it myself. This is just a little thing in all the things I am going to have to learn to do alone. I have five more to go. Tippy-Toes tries to shriek behind my glove. I clamp my hand over her beak and give her head a hard twist. I feel her body break deep inside my own chest.”

Be a filmmaker. Trust the camera! Get out of the chair we like to hold court in and grab your camera. Believe in it and in your reader’s ability to “get” your meaning from the film you have made. Relieve yourself of saying it all. Your reader may not come away knowing every detail of what has happened to you, every secret, every intimate moment. That is probably a very good thing. But she will use your camera work and your reflection to build a deep understanding with you, in that beautiful process of collaboration writers hope for.

Meredith Hall’s memoir, Without a Map, was a New York Times bestseller. Her awards include the $50,000 Gift of Freedom literary award from A Room of Her Own Foundation and a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre and many other journals and anthologies. She has just completed her first novel, The Senters. Meredith is Emeritus Professor in the MFA program at UNH.

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