Curious about writing creative nonfiction? Get started with these pro tips from Woburn, MA tutor Belynda C...
Creative nonfiction is a difficult genre in terms of development and writing, and yet it is one of the fastest-growing segments of the market in recent years. Memoir and personal essay were once limited to the rich and famous. These days, the Internet has made everyone a potential essayist. If you have a fascinating story to tell about your own life, you may feel daunted by the enormity of the task. Surprisingly, one of the best cures for writer’s block (in my experience) is good organization!
When I think about the structure of a manuscript or essay, I often consider the analogy of cleaning house. I’m not talking about a quick dust or vacuum. I’m talking the take-no-prisoners, deep-clean, three-trips-to-Goodwill type of house cleaning. Your work deserves the same treatment as your home—it should be free of clutter, have enough rooms for everyone, and be impeccably decorated. With this analogy in mind, here are three valuable tips to structuring your memoir or essay.
Keep, Throw Out, Donate
Sentimental attachment is tough, whether you’re cleaning up a house or editing a manuscript. You have to be in the right frame of mind to do the needful. With a house, the best approach is often to haul out the big cardboard boxes and decide what goes where, turning a critical eye to each item. The same is true for your writing. You only have so much square footage, and likewise have only so many words or pages to express your story. Pare down your story arc and your word count so that each anecdote, phrase, and plot progression truly moves the story to its ultimate conclusion. Aim to keep your story within the word count guidelines for its form. Be decisive, and you will be successful.
To begin this process, decide what you really want this memoir or personal essay to reflect. Are you writing about a difficult time in your life? A big lesson learned the hard way? Organize your thoughts around a central theme, and from there it becomes easy to determine what stays or goes. Keep the best elements of your story, and weed out the parts that don’t serve the central theme. Also, keep anything you love (but don’t love for this manuscript) in a separate document. You never know when those parts will become useful for your next project!
Only So Much Space for Guests
You wouldn’t try to sleep 15 people in your two-bedroom apartment. Likewise, your story only has room for so many characters. They have to serve the plot in a meaningful way. You might feel inclined to give Aunt Lila some space in your story, but unless she was a real catalyst for change or obstacle to success, she has to go. There is no hard-and-fast rule on how many characters to include in your story. Just be sure those you include are vital to the plot. If you can remove someone without impacting your narrative, they most likely weren’t a key player.
Once you know the scope of events and the cast of characters, you must return to the idea that creative nonfiction succeeds by evoking emotion. Memoir is not autobiography. Emotional investment is achieved through great narrative, exquisite prose, and deep, unselfconscious examination of the theme you set out to explore. Those who enjoy memoir and personal essay want to be transported, just as they would when reading a work of fiction. The major difference in creative nonfiction is that your story actually happened.
Once you have worked out your cleaning and organizing, decorate with abandon. Write your heart out, make it beautiful, and take your reader with you on an emotional journey. Use the devices found in fiction writing to create a setting for your real-life experience. Lastly, leave your reader with a sense of longing that stays with them beyond the final page. Like handsome decorations in an ordinary home, transformative prose can turn a humble story into an irresistible escape.
For more help starting (or finishing) your memoir, here are some resources:
- How To Write A Memoir – essay by William Zinsser
- How To Structure Your Memoir – essay by Wendy Dale
- Appeal of Writing Memoirs Grows, as Do Publishing Options – NY Times Online
Belynda C. teaches writing and knitting in Woburn, MA. She earned her Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University. She holds a Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University, and has extensive experience in writing fiction, literary non-fiction, and freelance writing for clients. Learn more about Belynda here!
Photo by Rubin Starset