Tag Archives: personal writing

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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The Writer’s Bookshelf: Writing Tools and Storycatcher

The end of summer is approaching, and I’ve been using theme “summer reading list” to corral and write reviews of a number of books that are influencing my thinking. As far as writing and editing books go, I’ve been focusing on two books by authors who are already familiar to me: “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark, and “Storycatcher” by Christina Baldwin.

Both are great reads and can improve your writing, by the end of this summer or any time of the year.

Writing Tools” is written by Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute (a Mecca for working journalists who care about their writing, by the way) and co-author of another of my favorite books, “Coaching Writers: Editors and Writers Working Together Across Media Platforms.” Roy’s always had a wonderful way of explaining writing techniques in a straightforward, cogent manner, and this book is no different.

The subtitle of the book is “50 essential strategies for every writer,” and that is what it delivers: focused instruction on how to improve one’s writing, starting with “micro” issues such as word choice and sentence structure and moving to broader areas such as structure, imagery in writing, and building constructive writing habits.

One of the great strengths of Roy’s approach is that he avoids being pedantic. He notes in his introduction that he is aiming at reaching “a nation of writers,” professional or not, and asserts that the struggle involved in writing that writers moan about is mostly “a con game.”

He says to would-be writers,

“Imagine the act of writing less as a special talent and more as a purposeful craft. Think of writing as carpentry, and this book as your toolbox. You can borrow a writing tool at any time, and here’s another secret: Unlike hammers, chisels and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened and passed along.”

Roy also includes plenty of examples, both from his own writing and the work of others. Each chapter ends with a brief “Workshop” section, with several exercises intended for the reader to try to assimilate the point of the lesson.

Whether you’re just starting out as a writer, or have been around for a long time and need some instruction that really helps you find new places in your craft to refine and master, “Writing Tools” is a dandy book to have on your reference shelf.

If “Writing Tools” focuses on how to write once you have something to say, “Storycatcher” focuses on looking deep within one’s self and finding out what it is you have to say. Christina Baldwin, a pioneer in the personal writing movement, has written a lyrical book about the place of “story” in one’s life, and how to mine personal experience for narratives that can heal, connect, enlighten or challenge.

She makes clear her book’s theme in the first sentences of her introduction:

“Every person is born into life as a blank book—and every person leaves life as a full book…Story is the narrative thread of our experience—not what literally happens, but what we make out of what happens, what we tell each other and what we remember. This narrative determines what we do with the time between the opening of the blank page the day we are born and the closing of the book the day we die.”

Drawing heavily on her own experiences, as well as those of her students and colleagues, Christina covers a wide range of topics in this book, illuminated by chapter subheads such as “why we make story,” “creating a story of the self,” “how story heals family heritage,” “the map of a story-based life” and “how story shapes the spiritual dimensions of our lives.”

“Storycatcher” has helpful end-of-chapter writing and conversation prompts. It’s an excellent reading choice for people wanting write their memoirs or other types of writing grounded in personal experience, as well as for writers probing the underlying themes of their work, which are often grounded in personal story, either explicit or implicit.

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