Friday, December 14, 2018

Nobody’s Life Fits In Three-Hundred Pages

A lot of my fellow writers carry at least one project that involves documenting someone’s life – their parents, grandparents, a special friend or maybe their own. A part of that adventure involves discovering all the facts and details, and also all the stories and hearsay about that person. That alone is a lot of fun, and a worthy adventure. Then the writer in them steps in to put all of this stuff into narrative form; telling these things as stories. Whenever someone takes on this huge task, I support them 100%. However, I also remind them about the difference between those crucial things that turn the process into a journey, and the other parts that don't need to go in.

Documenting someone’s life is the first step to writing someone’s story, but it is not an end in itself. More importantly, a lot of any person’s life does not need to be documented on its own because its most important part is being a descriptor for other sections. Think about all the time you’ve spent sleeping, quietly enjoying a meal, reading the newspaper (back when there were newspapers) or watching something mindless on Netflix. These moments would never make it into any memoir on their own, and if they did, they would only be there to support some part of the real story. “I tried to enjoy my dinner while bingeing on episodes of The Office, but my thoughts always returned to that one night in 1986…”

Anyone who knows me, knows that during the winter, my bad knee gets stiff and I drag one leg a little. That’s how I am, no apologies. What any author of my life story must decide is whether or not it is important to tell all the stories behind that habit: blowing out my knee playing football, the lack of proper care that allowed the injury to become a chronic problem, and how I am now fifty and what little cartilage I have left in my bad knee is just for decoration. Is all that important? Or would it be easier to just point out the dragging step as I walk and mention how it was the lingering effects from a cheap tackle back in school? The decision about how to write that will define the shape of the story.

Next, life isn’t just one story, so don’t try to put everything into one story. Rather, look at one critical turning point in that life, and start writing about everything that led up to that point. If someone’s greatest moment in life is their fiftieth wedding anniversary, then the stories about their first job, the neighbor’s oak tree getting hit by lightning, or that time they saw a dog in the alley eat a rat are not important. All that matters are the stories that contribute to that one magical day – stories that build up to it, strengthen it, or even threaten it. That’s the real story. Save the thing about a rat-eating dog for another discussion.

(The rat-eating dog was kind of true -- I couldn’t tell if the rat was eaten by a dog or just by a much-larger rat.)

Now, going back to the fiftieth-anniversary story, the choice of stories leading up to that point determines what the whole thing is about. If the supporting stories are all about the adversities that couple faced on their way to that day, that’s one thing. A different route would be with all the stories about why that marriage was so strong. How about all the stories of humor and mirth that made those fifty years just fly by? Stories about the family they made, the lives they led – these all create a different environment for the memoir about that fiftieth anniversary.

There is more to it than just the story choice. There is creating the place and setting, which will be discussed in the next post.

(and to a certain couple – happy Fiftieth and may the next fifty be even better!)

No comments:

Post a Comment