Tag Archives: nonfiction structure

Begin at the Beginning: Thoughts on autobiographical material and story structure

30 years worth of diaries, 1979-2009

30 years of diaries, 1979-2009

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Hile, contributed a very insightful essay to the inaugural issue of The Revolving Floor last month—one that touches upon a number of issues that writers of nonfiction, particularly those who write about their own lives, deal with when working on a story.

The article, “Ab Ovo, or, How Not to Begin a Story,” is worth reading in full. Rachel has an interesting perspective on the personal-writing topic, as she works as an assistant professor in the Department of English & Linguistics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. She’s also has edited a collection of essays, Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career, which, by their very nature, touch on autobiographical topics.

In her Revolving Floor essay, she begins by challenging the storytelling advice that first-century BCE poet Horace famously gave to begin in media res, in the middle of the action. For Rachel, this can present a problem, as she has a sharp interest in finding out what happened at the start (ab ovo, Latin for “from the egg”), or even before the start, a given story.

“Horace seems not even to consider that someone inquisitive like me, someone more interested in excavating beginnings than weaving an action-packed plot …

“I’m surely not alone in finding value in all this egg and pre-egg business, in believing that examining origins leads to worthwhile insights about motivations, people, as well as the ways people use religion to explain the inexplicable.”

She discusses the different literary formats and their structures in regards to how they view story beginnings.

“In what sort of alternate literary universe would starting at the beginning be prized, and what values would it express? … It didn’t take a new world, but a new genre, which Michel de Montaigne kindly invented for us at the very moment that some historians have dated as the genesis of the private self. The essai—an attempt, an effort at understanding that uses a different kind of thinking than plot-driven narratives, is well-suited to the practice of going back to the egg to try to understand oneself.”

I asked Rachel to share a couple of thoughts about autobiographical writing after the “Ab Ovo” story came out. Here’s the transcript of our (electronic) conversation.

Rachel Hile

Rachel Hile

Write Livelihood: You’ve kept your journals from the past 30 years and in your essay you address the concept of self-shame and its role in writers destroying their letters/journals. How does shame about past attempts at self-expression inhibit finding one’s narrative?
Hile: I distrust personal narratives with a triumphalist arc, and that’s what you get when you steer clear of the memories and events that give you that feeling of shame. On the other hand, I also distrust personal narratives that try to excise pride and always instead take an ironic, deprecatory stance toward the actions, thoughts, and motivations of the self.
I don’t think that the answer is for writers to attack moments of shame head-on, self-consciously and for their own sake, because memoir is not just about rehab, rock bottom, etc. I think that if you discover a memory that fills you with shame while you’re in the process of working out your ideas in writing, if you work around that memory, a note of falseness will enter the piece.
Easy to say, hard to do. This week I abandoned an essay I was writing because I remembered something that was key to the point I was trying to make, but that I am still not ready to write about publicly.

Write Livelihood: One of the things that I found interesting about “Ab Ovo” was that both your parents had a dream before you were born about who you would be. Do you think a parent’s prenatal dream about their child, if communicated to the child, shapes the young one’s narrative in the same way a culture’s “creation myth” shapes the way a society conceptualizes its beginnings?
Hile: Yes—not just dreams, but birth stories, stories from infancy, etc. My children love to hear the stories of their births, stories of how I knew (without sonograms) their genders before they were born (and I use the word “gender” advisedly, because it really was a sense of gender), stories of what I noticed first about them. I think children are hungry for details and stories that will make them feel that they know who they are. I think children need stories about identity from adults who love them. The power to shape a child’s sense of self is, of course, a responsibility that should inspire caution.

Write Livelihood: Any thoughts on the best way to mine one’s journals and letters for autobiographical  or memoir-related material to write about?
I only sat down with my diaries one time with the idea of writing a memoir, and it was a non-starter. I was going to write about my experiences with depression, (yet) a little voice was asking me, “Don’t we have enough serious, introspective memoirs already about ‘Times When My Life Sucked’?”
I have found my diaries most helpful when I am writing about an idea, not an experience, and a memory or personal anecdote seems like it will be effective in illustrating that idea. Then I go back to read what I wrote at the time in order to strengthen my memory and create a more vivid impression.

Write Livelihood: What advice would you give to a writer interested in writing memoir?
I myself feel more comfortable writing essays that draw upon autobiographical material than writing actual memoir, and that’s because of a basic distrust of self-revelation for the sake of self-revelation.
The memoirs I most enjoy reading are the ones in which I believe that self-revelation is in the service of illuminating important ideas that are broadly relevant: I’m thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as memoirs I’ve read recently that did a great job of finding this balance.

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Do-It-Yourself Story Coaching (II): Two essential keys to coaching


Image courtesy SXC.

One of the main differences between “editing” a piece of writing and “coaching” a story is the attitude toward the process of revision. When you’re in a purely edit mode, revision is interventionist, something that’s done after the writing—the “real” work of creating. Approaching your work as a story coach calls for an attitude of collaboration between the part of you that’s writing the piece, and the part that will polish it.

To become a good self-coach, there are two skills that you will want to acquire or improve upon to get the most out of the process: learning to speak the language of structure and learning to frame (and ask!) useful coaching questions.

Becoming a story architect

It seems like common sense that a writer should be able to explain how he or she has built a story, but many very competent writers, even ones who have degrees in journalism or creative writing, struggle with this.

Writing a story that doesn’t fit the inverted-pyramid news style, and can’t be sliced into a series of tips or how-to points, requires a familiarity with the structure of narrative. Nonfiction writers have a number of sources they can tap to learn the lingo of fiction-like storytelling:

Coaching Writers by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry devotes an entire chapter to building a structural vocabulary, explaining their take on terms such as “scene,” “characterization,” “cinematic reporting” and so forth.

Clark continues the structural education in Writing Tools, in which he devotes an entire section of the book to learning how to develop “blueprints” for your stories, with tips on how to use dialogue to advance the action, how to work from an outline or structural plan, etc.

The journalism program at the University of King’s College Halifax in Canada has a neat checklist page related to structure, which outlines a number of key elements to using narrative structure in nonfiction writing.

Why is learning structural language important if you’re self-coaching? Two reasons, really: one, if you do choose to discuss your work with another writer or an editor, you’ll be able to ask for feedback on the structure in a more precise way; and two, it will improve your understanding of how you build stories and allow you to rework stories in a way that preserves the integrity of the overall piece.

Questioning the answers

If I were to teach only one skill to would-be self-coaches, it would be the ability to frame relevant questions about their work. Questions outstrip criticism (even constructive criticism) in their power to improve a piece of writing because they draw the writer into the process of looking at their work from the outside, rather than placing them in the position of defending their choices (as often happens when our editor is in a “critic” mode).

There are three criteria for crafting coaching questions, whether aimed at one’s own writing or that of someone else.

  1. Coaching questions should be constructive. (e.g., “What other approaches did you consider for the lead?” not “Don’t you think leading with this quote is a little weak?”)
  2. Coaching questions should be aimed at generating insight. Again, the idea is to generate options and consider alternatives, not to spark a defensive battle about existing choices employed in the story. A good example of an insight-generating question might be, “What surprised you the most when you were researching this story?”
  3. Coaching questions should be forward looking. After answering a series of well-designed coaching questions, a writer should have some idea how to revise his or her work.

Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute has written a series of brief articles about framing excellent coaching questions. His “big 2,” applicable to just about every writing situation imaginable, are these:

  1. What works?
  2. What needs work?

His order on the big 2 list is also important. By starting with an inventory of your stories assets, it’s much easier to determine which of them you can use or retain as you work on the aspects of your story that aren’t quite there yet.

Putting the 2 Keys to Work

Once you’re able to sharpen your use of structural language when thinking or talking about your story and you are able to get in the habit of shaping useful coaching questions for yourself as you move through researching and writing your piece, it helps to have a framework from which to view the story-creation process itself. Just as learning the structure of story will make you a better writer, learning the structure of story-creation will make you a better self-coach and ultimately a better self-editor.

I’ve studied a number of models for coaching the writing process and developed a six-step model that I think covers the most important moments in the writing of any type of nonfiction piece, from a brief anecdote to a book-length manuscript. Next week, we’ll introduce this six-step coaching model, and discuss the first two parts of it—the assignment and the research phases—in depth.

Next Week: Self-coaching the assignment and story research phases

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