The process of creating a memoir or family history, when done well, is one of telling stories. Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing by telling stories well, offered an excellent into the process in a recent interview in Mother Jones magazine.
Said Weingarten: “Basically, I think the art or craft of [story telling]mostly boils down to figuring out internal kickers—how each section will end. Then you need to build the section to justify the kicker, to make it fair, and clear, and earned. I never start a section of the story without knowing how it will end. I also consciously try to shape the story as though it were a movie. I really try to think cinematically, because that’s how people read. They create a theater in their minds.”
If these ideas appeal to you, let me offer you a couple of tools to help you employ them in your own memoir or family history.
Let’s begin, as Weingarten suggests with the end. What’s the point of the story you want to tell? Here’s a simple exercise to clarify the meaning in your stories.
Children’s stories often end “and the moral of the story is…” We can draw conclusions about the meanings of our stories the same way, by making a simple summary statement about its meaning. Think of a story or two you want to include in your book. Write one sentence summarizing the meaning of the story.
The exercise should help you to determine the insight, wisdom or lesson that will serve as what Weingarten calls your “kicker.”
If the idea of a theater of the mind appeals to you, here’s another exercise you will find useful as a tool in organizing your material.
My Life as a Movie: You are a director in Hollywood and you have been hired to make a movie – of your own life (or your family’s life). Your film must be limited to only two hours of screen time, so you must identify only the most essential elements of the life (lives) it will portray. As you know, movies often jump from scene to scene. And in some films, the scenes are not in chronological order. On a blank piece of paper, list the ten to twenty scenes from you life (your family’s life) that you think are essential to include.
Click here to read the full Mother Jones interview with Gene Weingarten.