At the Northwestern Summer Writer’s Conference today, Michele Weldon, in Your Narrative: Writing Your Story, gave us a nearly three-hour pep talk on why writing our personal stories is important. With a Power Point presentation, she addressed memoir essentials, starting with how to narrow down our ideas, then walking us through craft elements such as use of the senses, and ending with ideas on how we can promote our resulting books.
What I liked especially was the stress on asking ourselves, so what? I’ve heard it before from Carol LaChapelle in a Newberry Library course, but the reminder kicked the memory awake. Memoirs can’t be just a chronology of events: no one wants to read, “I went to the store today, bought slippers, and got home in time for the news.” If I write that kind of sentence, I must ask myself, so what? Why is that important for the reader to know? Why should they care?
Now, and these are my own examples, if I write, “With my fresh ankle sprain from tripping over the shredder, I limped to Walgreen’s next door to buy elastic wrap to support it over the weekend, and then limped some more, four blocks to be exact, to my condo just in time to hear MSNBC announce my stocks plummeted today.”
That’s a bit overdone, but you get the point. Was there anything in the first sentence that jerked your tears loose? That made you care? That had “universal” meaning? By contrast, what went through your mind while reading the second sentence? How did it make you feel?
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of an unwanted, inconvenient pain, compounded by having to function at work only to hobble home and feel more pain when you watched the news. So what? That’s what: you could relate; you felt some pain. And (I hope) you cared. My story, my “truth” was bigger than just mine; it could also be yours.
And, when you read further to see how I handled the piercing physical and emotional pains (took to bed and covered my head, or iced my ankle and aced a crossword puzzle), you may learn something about your own responses to upsets. Is there a pattern? Is there a better way?
Now, I should have you invested in my story. And my story would have been worth telling. Fun, right?
(Note: Michele Weldon has taught at the Medill School of Journalism for 15 years. Check her website to read more. And, results-oriented, she challenged us to take an action on what we learned today. I said I wanted to write a blog post, so I have, and I have eight minutes yet until midnight! Thanks, Michele, for the inspiration.)