Tips for Self-Editing Narrative Nonfiction

OWC header
OWC header

A few weekends ago I attended a workshop on “Creating a Movie in the Reader’s Mind: Self-editing for Narrative Nonfiction Writers.” The workshop was sponsored by Oregon Writers Colony with C. Lill Ahrens serving as workshop leader.

Initially the title for the workshop left me wondering what I would hear, see, learn in this single day. When I left after seven hours, I carried away a more information than I imagined possible.

Ahrens came ready to teach, and we came to learn.

I’ve impatiently waited to share some of the tips I learned. These may seem obvious to some readers, but often they slip my mind while writing.

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  • Attention to chronology. While your plot in narrative nonfiction may leap back and forth in time, a scene should roll in linear fashion like a movie from beginning to end. The use of chronology lends itself to the continual construction of tension. Something like a large rock gathering moss as it rolls downhill, or a skyscraper reaching into the sky.Once completed, your finished work provides effortless reading for the reader. Don’t make the reader continually back up to make a sense of your story.
  • Attention to Story Information. The writer’s goal is to keep the reader engaged in your movie (turning the pages) until the credits begin to roll. Misplaced or missing information important to the story confuses and distracts readers, and they may wander off to see what’s in the fridge or pick up another book.

Important components to check:

Transition Back story Back fill Inner monologue/running thoughts Setting/visual imagery Mood

Emotional truth: This component is so important, especially to those of us writing memoir, it needs to receive special attention. First of all, don’t confuse emotional truth with “emotional.” In a movie, emotional truth travels through the methods of the actors. In the written word, everything can have emotional truth–weather, setting, animals, inanimate objects, everything. The POV character’s thoughts and actions will be the most psychologically complex of all emotional truths shared.

Bottom line: Emotional truth gets stories and books published.

  • Attention to Theme. Have you ever walked out of a movie theater feeling, “Huh?” Do you ever wonder why? Likely, because that movie didn’t end on theme. Unfortunately, “theme” can be a problematic word with many definitions. In writing narrative nonfiction, theme is not the motif, not the moral, not the message. The theme in this case is the major emotional issue of the story.

Caution: Theme is not to be confused with genre. Any love story can be classified true story, memoir, fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction, etc.

Using narrative nonfiction, your true story can explore different aspects of theme, most importantly its opposite. Think of your theme paired with its opposite. Using my memoir as an example, my theme is forgiveness; therefore, I pair my theme of forgiveness with childhood cruelty inflicted by my mother.

Theme in any writing is with you in the beginning of your story, then is sprinkled throughout, and your story closes with your theme.

Of all the writing tools we have at our disposal, theme is likely the most important. Theme adds depth to our stories. Theme is the connector in our stories, tying all the parts together. In this way, our readers come away from turning that last page feeling satisfied.

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Represented here are just a few of the most important ideas covered during this daylong workshop. I hope that something here has resonated with you in respect to whatever project you are working on currently.

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Biography for C. Lill Ahrens:

C. Lill Ahrens is the contest director for Oregon Writers Colony, an editor for Calyx Journala creative writing instructor for Linn-Benton Community College in Linn and Benton Counties, Oregon, and a freelance editorial consultant and writing coach with award-winning, published clients and students. Her own award-winning stories are published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Best Women’s Travel Writing(Travelers Tales).

Ahrens’ website is brand new and still a work in progress, but you can still visit at C. Lill Ahrens.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Writing Memoir

On Tuesday evening, my husband and I attended a simulcast of a talk presented by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The event, sponsored by Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, was held as part of the library’s Everybody Reads 2014 program. Justice Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, was the choice for this year (my review here).

Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to the live event (total of 2,776 tickets), but thanks to Literary Arts and the Portland Art Museum the simulcast was arranged to accommodate an overflow of 1,000 attendees.

Justice Sotomayor’s talk on Tuesday was the culminating event of this year’s Everybody Reads project. Although the thrust of the project is “c]elebrate the power of books in creating a stronger community,” Justice Sotomayor’s topic was not announced.

Imagine my thrill when she began with a discussion of the power of words. Her words still resonate in my ears: “Words have power to paint pictures.” She then went on to share why she wrote her memoir. I want to share those reasons with you here, although they may sound somewhat familiar to you:

  • To not forget self. Justice Sotomayor shared that she never wants to forget her own experiences growing up in the most negative of environments, the self she was at that time or in that place. Nor does she want to lose the ability to picture the place and circumstances where she came from. Her goal in writing My Beloved World was to write a narrative preserving her family’s story as well as her own experiences.
  • To document the community. In her community in the Bronx, Justice Sotomayor explains that living in that most negative of environments, first and foremost there were people with aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes. People with simple values and yet these aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes like everyone else.
  • To value the aging. Justice Sotomayor confesses she became afraid to wait too long to write her story of her family and herself. “I was afraid I would not have them around to help recap my family history.” She interviewed family members and in so doing learned from an uncle of the romantic relationship her mother and father shared and how her father had loved her mother. As a child, Justice Sotomayor did not think they were a happy couple; there was so much arguing and fighting. A few days later her uncle died. Her advice? Encourage family members to share stories with you every opportunity you have.
  • To have the chance to tell my story candidly and honestly. According to Justice Sotomayor, and I think we all realize this if we’re writing memoir, readers cannot be fooled. She drove home that telling your own story is far better than having someone else tell it. But above all, in telling your story she urges honesty and genuineness. Be who you are and have been.

As I said, most of these comments we have all heard before. However, to hear them from someone who has lived through a poverty-stricken childhood, struggled to receive the education needed to become who she wanted to be, fought stereotypes and sexism, and now sits on the highest court in our land was inspiring and motivating.

I enjoyed the Q&A, especially because some of the questions came from among many high school students in attendance. One of them asked the Justice for an explanation of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Roughly quoting from my shorthand notes, Justice Sotomayor explained that “a memoir is a description, with emotions, cataloging your life from within, not without,” and “an autobiography is told based on fact cataloging your life from without.”

At the end of a long day speaking to high school assemblies and various civic groups, Justice Sotomayor presented her talk with ease and without notes–you felt you were chatting with a friend. Her wit is contagious and spontaneous. Her command of the language is awe-inspiring. Her generosity with people humbling–over 100 students wrote her letters before she left Washington and she told them last evening each of them will receive a personal reply.

I came away feeling I had sat at the feet of a woman who has great things yet to do, and she will without fail.

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One last quote from the Justice:

“Until we have equality in education, we cannot have equality in society.”