Whenever I sit down to write a personal story, I have grandiose ideas that I can’t wait to tell. But what comes out is an essay full of broad opinions, not a story. How do I get my writing process to shift from exposition to narrative?
Trouble with the Narrative
Dear Trouble with the Narrative,
You have a story burning inside of you. I can tell just by the way you are compelled to put your pen to paper over and over again. And yet, some ethereal force is mysteriously guiding your pen toward grandiose opinions and away from your story. That force is fear.
Writers are plagued by all sorts of fears, but one of the biggest is the fear that readers will not want to read what we want to write. When what we want to write is a story about our own lives, the fear is even greater—we imagine readers criticizing not just our writing style but also our main character: us.
So the first step is to face that fear. It may help for you to read books about how other writers have faced their fears. The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes is one of my favorites. When I’m feeling especially vulnerable as a writer, I remember the words of Tom Spanbauer, teacher of the ever-popular Dangerous Writing workshop in Portland. During a panel, I once heard him say, “When you’re writing, it’s between you and the page.”
You know this to be true, don’t you, Trouble? So put that imaginary judgmental reader out of your mind and focus on the story burning in you. It’s just you and the story now.
The second step is to narrow your focus. One of your goals may be to convey your grandiose worldviews to the reader, but it can’t come at the expense of your goal to write a story. So tell the story in the details and let the reader extrapolate your larger views.
Try this: Write one of your defining opinions. Rather than asking why you want your reader to know this, or even why it matters to you, consider the first time in your life when this opinion started to take shape. What was going on? Who was there? How did this opinion benefit you? What was at stake for you if an alternative opinion took hold? Include descriptions of the world around you as well as snippets of dialogue. Now consider the first time this opinion was deeply challenged for you, and explore the same details. Lastly, think of a time when you felt compelled to pass this opinion on to another person. Write the whole scene, including the who, what, where, and when.
The third step is to read literary magazines featuring narrative nonfiction. Three of my favorites are Hippocampus Magazine, Work Literary Magazine, and Creative Nonfiction. Examine how these writers present a scene that immediately engulfs you and subtly, or sometimes overtly, reveals details that influence you as the reader to empathize with their worldview.
The fourth step is to revise your work based on what you’ve learned from studying other writers. Repeat steps three and four at least three times.
All the while, be courageous, dear Trouble. E. B. White once wrote, “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”
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Ali McCart’s genre of choice, for both editing and writing, is memoir. She leads a writing group in Metlakatla, Alaska, and her story “Bubby” will be featured in this month’s issue of Hippocampus Magazine.