Episodia 1.16: How to Structure Your Memoir

LouieSometimes memoirists can feel as if we have very few choices about our stories. Bound by truth and memory, we can often conclude there’s not much room for our creative selves to have a say. But here’s a secret—we don’t have to pin down a narrative in the order that events occurred. We can switch things around, pair things together, and work associationally. Isn’t that exciting?

The key to memoir is finding the right “slant” from which to tell your story, as Louis C.K. has found in the hit series based on his life, “Louie.” Using what I’d call an “episodic” structure, each installment revolves around some kind of narrative punch-line that’s funny, sad, troubling, insightful, or all of the above. By fashioning his life into episodic nuggets (much like memoirists Nick Flynn and Anne Lamott), Louis C.K. gives writers an example of how we might find a possible structure out of the mess of stories that make up our lives.

In fact, there are so many options for “memoiristic” structure, it can get overwhelming. So let’s consider a few of those choices to help you think anew about how your story might best be told.

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Writing Lessons: David Bersell

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from David Bersell, a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire. David’s work has also appeared in Soundings ReviewVolume 1 BrooklynThe Good Men Project, and Carry On. You can follow him @DavidBersell. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

David Bersell_HeadshotAfter “Same Again” from Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Fynn.

What’s working? we say. Voice we say. Attitude. Wit. Image. Description. Physical description. We say killed me. Punched me in the face, then hugged me. Literally cried. Beautiful, I mean it. I’m jealous. I’m in love. I want to know more. Laughed so hard my stomach hurt. A jump. A step. We say genre. Memoir. Essay. Literary Journalism. Lyric. We say post genre. Collage. Montage. Braid. Quilt. I don’t know what it means, but I like the way it sounds. Gross, but not too gross. The goat. That lip ring. I hate him, but that’s a good thing. What if we didn’t know your background? Sorry, what if we didn’t know the writer’s background. It reminds me of something we say. Didion. Woolf. We say Fourth State of Matter. Like a song. A fairytale. A dream. We say what’s not working? We say I know it must be hard to write about. We say but. Maybe. Unbalanced. Undeveloped. Uneven. The title. The section titles. I don’t mean to sound mean. A moment I wasn’t sure what to do with. Too many trees. We say unearned. Twee. Ham-fisted. Beach read. Blockbuster. Racist? American clown. It begs a question we say. It made me work for it we say. Not in a good way we say. What’s another way to say it? Break it down. Structure. Square one. What’s the word? I don’t think I’m explaining myself correctly. A quest. A journey. A shift. A change. Unresolution is resolution. Everything is a choice. You can’t go wrong with a list. We say cut. We say rework. I know it’s not the way it happened but. Don’t apologize. Don’t try to write pretty sentences. Character we say. No villains. Love him like a friend. We say dialogue. Action, action, action. What if? Another way to take it. Add on. Or. And. Also. It’s a fine line. Wait, I changed my mind. Just an idea. An option. One last comment we say. Don’t fall in love with the semicolon. Publishable with revision. Six more hours. A few more days. Keep pushing. We say bar? We say happy hour. The cheaper the better. The waffle fries. Not the place that smells like feet. We say pitcher? We say what do you have on draft? That’s what I needed we say. Ahh we say. What did you think of class? What did she mean? What’s your revision plan? We say last writing question. Submission. Query. Elevator pitch. One more we say. Success we say. One day.

To submit your own essay to Writing Lessons, read our guidelines here.

Roundup: We Are Family

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

Summer is here, and it’s the perfect time for family picnics, family barbecues, family visits, family… Writers, needless to say, have a long history of being inspired by family in many glorious and terrible ways. Here are some insights to remember (and some families to compare to) when you find yourself sighing heavily at the umpteenth outing.

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I Am Not the Actor; This Can’t Be the Scene: Quadrophenia b/w Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments

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photo by Emily Zieg

I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater, the long arm of the light crossing the darkness and spinning my eyes, fixed on the screen.
Delmore Schwartz, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

There’s truth in patterns of nature that endlessly replicate, like the Fibonacci spiral, the syntax of language, the simple act of sexual reproduction. With so many recurring patterns in our world, only a lack of overlap, or coincidence, would be remarkable. The best overlap occurs when artists translate the invisible—pain, joy, loneliness—into a book or song or film. We take that art, superimpose it on ourselves, and suddenly it belongs to us.

0Here is a scene: a girl, 16, lies on her bed, eyes closed, in a house alone. Music plays at an ear-splittingly high volume on her brother’s stereo. She gets up only when the needle scratches the center. When the song ends, she plays it again. When it ends, she plays it again.

A good question to spring on friends is this: at 16, what was your song—the one you listened to lying on your bed, eyes closed? The one you blasted when it came on the radio while you drove aimlessly through the night? It’s a knee-jerk kind of question—instantly everyone has an answer.

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Literary Boroughs #54: Boston, MA (Part 1)

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the fifty-fourth and final post on our hometown, Boston, Massachusetts, by the entire Ploughshares staff. Part One of this post will run today; Part Two will run later in the week; and, also later this week, look out for a bonus Boston Literary Borough walking tour by Emerson professor Megan Marshall. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

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When Boston was first settled back in the 1630s, it wasn’t much more than three hills on a tiny peninsula—Sentry Hill, Cotton Hill, and the charmingly (and aptly) named Mt. Whoredom. These three hills gave the city its original name, Trimountaine, but all that’s left of them these days is Sentry Hill (now Beacon Hill), and the street running along the east edge of the Common that takes its name from the original settlement’s: Tremont.

The other two hills, along the way, were leveled to make way for residential development, and to provide part of the landfill that now makes up the Back Bay. Indeed, thanks to aggressive land reclamation, by 1890 Boston had tripled in size. Walk down to the Charles Street edge of the Common and you’ll be standing on what was once the Boston waterfront; cross over to the Public Gardens and you’re being supported, in some small part, by the earth that was once Mt. Whoredom.Continue Reading

Literary Boroughs #5: Brooklyn, NY

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the fifth post on Brooklyn, New York by Melissa Sandor. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Valentino Pier

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
– Elizabeth Bishop, “Invitation to Miss Marianna Moore”

 

Born and bred Brooklyn – U.S.A.
They call me Adam Yauch – but I’m M.C.A.
– Beastie Boys, “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn”

With 2.5+ million residents, Brooklyn is New York City’s most populous borough. Larger than Philadelphia and almost as big as Chicago with 71 square miles in total and 30 miles of waterfront, Brooklyn is a city unto itself and one with a rich literary legacy. Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed both Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, considered the latter to be his “masterpiece.” Today, the borough boasts more than 700 arts and cultural organizations and a multitude of events from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Roulette to the home grown famed Brooklyn Flea, Coney Island’s annual Mermaid Parade, and open studio tours along Red Hook’s historic piers.

City:  Brooklyn

What the City is known for/what makes it unique:  The “If you believe that, then I have a Bridge to sell you” started in Brooklyn with the 8th wonder of the world famously sold many times over – The Brooklyn Bridge; Junior’s Cheesecake, The Cyclone, “Da Bums” Brooklyn’s heartbreakers, the Dodgers, Nathan’s Famous, Saturday Night Fever, DiFara Pizza and we can’t forget the world famous accent… fuggedaboutit!

A Sampling of resident literati (…easier to compile a list of writers who don’t live in Brooklyn.)

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Gatekeepers Part Four-point-Two: in defense of “telling” and sentimental preachiness

Two winters ago, brand-new to the creative writing community of Madison, Wisconsin, I was at ground zero of the national debate on union rights, caught in a throng of 70,000 protestors marching around the State Capitol, screaming “Whose Streets? Our Streets!,” “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!,” and “It’s Not About The Money, It’s About The Rights!” while a choir of scarved-and-mittened “radical grannies” belted “We Shall Overcome” through a PA system on the Capitol lawn, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson milled about, waiting for his time on the microphone.

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May 22nd in New York: Spring 2012 Issue Celebration

Join guest editor Nick Flynn and fifteen contributors to the Spring 2012 issue of Ploughshares as they read from their writing and celebrate the new issue! The event is free and open to the public, plus the first ten guests get a free copy of the issue.

WHEN: Tuesday, May 22nd, from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

WHERE: The Woods

48 South 4th Street (between Kent and Wythe)

Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211

SUBWAY: L Train to Bedford Ave

Nick Flynn will host the event, and there will be readings by Mary Morris, Maria Venegas, Eric Fair, Kelle Groom, Melissa Sandor, Danielle Blau, Patricia Caspers, Michael Dumanis, Monica Ferrell, Michael Klein, Eileen Myles, Gregory Pardlo, James Tolan, Suzanne Wise, and Ronnie Yates.

Many thanks to Maria Venegas and Melissa Sandor for organizing the event. We hope to see you there!

The Woods, via Plate of the Day

The Embodied Poem: On Writing “Palace” by Hadara Bar-Nadav

Hadara Bar-Nadav‘s poem, “Palace,” appears in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “Palace” opens with these lines:

When they run out of meat

men disappear. I chew
my hair, a kind of fullness

that is kind, a thread

soup. A nest gathers
its strands inside me.

Here, Bar-Nadav describes her process:Continue Reading

Beth Bachmann

Beth Bachmann’s poems, “(why your room has a door),” “(ode),” and “energy” appear in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “(why your room has a door)” opens with these lines:

It’s not the shore; it’s the ocean that opens. Devil, make a mountain

of me for the water to dwell     against. I become aware of my
methods, and the methods

changed me. Soldier, you make my body a map on the floor

Here, Bachmann discusses her inspiration for “(why your room has a door)”:

We pulled up to the Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys in a big, red truck. I love it when proportions go crazy and this was one drink me and then the other, inside, among the dollhouses and the tiny things they hold: miniature boxes of cheer and joy and all and poison, ninety-nine bottles to kneel before, and one empty house we studied the way you do the last time before you move. What I hadn’t expected to find were the soldiers close enough for reentry. Back at the hotel, the tv encouraged freedom and privacy with the words, it’s why your room has a door, and I wondered, is it? Later, we played a game and there was my father’s name, my maiden, written out under half a body and the hangman’s noose.

I am fond of the soldier’s brute strength and vulnerability and of writing in a mode of female war lyrics, though Wilfred Owen remains my favorite poet of PTSD. Owen writes, “Always they must see these things and hear them;” Marina Tsvetaeva (via Ed Hirsch): “the wave always returns, and always returns as a different wave;” Muriel Rukeyser: “Women and poets see the truth arrive.”