I used to think that talent and technical ability were the most important thing in writing. That was when I was writing primarily science fiction and hiding behind abstract ethereal poetry. Now that I have plunged headlong into the creative non-fiction deep end, I am finding that I can't fall back on technical tricks anymore. Because the stories I am writing are taken from my own experiences, readers can pick out a technical maneuver used to avoid being completely honest in a minute.
Since I do want to find the most honest point of origin, I thought I'd share a list of questions I am beginning to ask myself before I even think about putting anything on the page. This is certainly not an exhaustive list just a few things I try to think about as a first step.
1. Why do I want to tell this story now?
If the story is purely for a cathartic experience I may not be able to get out of my own way in order to make this a really good story. Although a well written story can be cathartic for the writer, there needs to be more than just a big emotional spew in order to make it a well-written, interesting story that accomplishes something.
2. Is this a story that is only about a raw emotion that still stings?
If this story is still such an emotional hot-spot, I may not be able to see the whole picture. If I can't see the whole picture, my reader will be left out of the most important parts of the story and just won't get it. In cases like this, I may have to write a complete emotional spew, set the draft aside for a while and then revisit it when I have some perspective. This could be a day, a month or, sometimes, even years before I am able to approach it in a way that will do justice to the story.
3. How is this story relevant to me now, as an adult?
While stories about childhood memories or past traumas can be enlightening, emotionally charged or entertaining, there must be more to it than merely recalling a memory. There must be some lingering quality to the story. Some sort of impact on my current adult life in order for it to be a story that is relevant to me now. There must be distance and an arc of understanding or some sort of wisdom to set against the initial story in order for it to remain relevant, not only to me as a writer, but to the reader as well.
4. Is this a story that I can be completely honest about?
This may be the most important question I ask myself when dealing with memoir, because if I can't be honest about all phases of the story, including my own character or actions, then the story won't ring true and readers will be running around screaming that my narrator is "unreliable" and not to be trusted.
5. Can the narrator in the story stand back far enough so that the reader can make up their own minds about who the protagonist, antagonist or anti-hero might be in the story?
If I cannot create a narrative voice that can allow the reader to make up their own mind about all of the characters in the story, my story will have one-dimensional people that just lie flat on the page. Any drama, tension or hint of an arc of understanding or wisdom about why I wanted to tell the story in the first place may be lost on everyone.
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