Story and Narrative Structure in Memoir
We as human beings almost always know the truth about ourselves and our relationship to the world—to those around us, to our past, to what we have done, to what we have experienced. Sometimes that knowledge is hovering there just at or below the surface. But sometimes that knowledge is deeply buried in our psyches and resides in the unconscious, that is, clouded over by a variety of factors, by fear, denial, and resistance. In those instances, we must work to look deep into the abyss of ourselves, see ourselves for who we are, and recognize the truths of our past.
The memoirist’s investigation into the past, then, is often difficult and can run into numerous blocks. For instance, in cases of trauma, what allowed the younger self to survive that trauma is psychological repression or denial. Without such repression, the terror and constant reminder of that trauma, the child’s knowledge that she does not have control of what is happening to her, would have been too much for the child to endure. As Mary Karr writes in The Liars’ Club: “When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out.”
Thus it is only as an adult that the author possesses the resources, maturity, strength, and freedom to access the truth of the past and survive. Obviously, this search for the truth entails a struggle within the narrator’s present self; this struggle occurs between the part of her that resists and fears the truth of the past and the part of her that seeks to tell the whole of her tale, to understand and express as fully as possible the reality of the past. Often this telling is spurred on in various ways by the current life of the present narrating self—a series of failures, breakdowns, psychological problems. To put it in the terms of Campbell’s mythic hero, her kingdom is fallow, is not flourishing.
In confronting the past, the present voice of the memoir’s narrator is engaged in a search for language. Here it’s useful to recall my previous definition of creative writing: Creative writing is the search for and creation of a language that will express what the writer unconsciously knows but does not yet have a language to express. The voice of the present self struggles to journey from denial to the truth, from incomprehension or repression to expression and understanding.
Thus the majority of literary memoirs relate the story of the past and at the same time reflect on that story. In such cases, it is often essential for the reader to be given a portrait of who the past self has become, an image of the self who is telling the story now. To understand the story of the past self, the reader needs to know the fate of that past self, which can only come from a portrait of the present self. To understand why this is so, consider the following example: Say the memoirist is writing about being caught up in the juvenile justice system at age sixteen; it makes a difference whether the present narrating self is telling her tale from a prison or as a teacher or public defender. Who the present self is tells the reader the fate of the past self (whether that fate is revealed at the start of the memoir or in the middle or at the end is a question of a narrative strategy).
At times, though, the portrait of the present self may not come easily at first. Often, as the writer starts a memoir, the voice remains a bit too anchored in the earlier consciousness, the earlier self. The writer has not quite developed a voice that delineates things the earlier self does not see or understand, particularly the lies the earlier self is telling himself, the gaps in his consciousness.
At the start of the writing, then, the firmness of the present self is often far less established than that of the younger self. It is in the writing of the memoir that the author finds the voice of the present narrating self.
The raw materials of memoir are the events and experiences of the past self. Many successful memoirs take these events and experiences and shape them into a story.
If both fiction and memoirs tell stories, the difference between the two is that in fiction, the writer creates the story; in memoir, the writer discovers the story.
To discover how to shape the events of the past into a story, it is useful for the memoirist to understand the temporal perspective that the writer of memoir shares with all storytellers. As I’ve said earlier, a storyteller knows what happened and what the outcome of the story is. That is why the storyteller can see what happened as a narrative with a narrative structure—a beginning, a middle, and an end. The storyteller apprehends or discovers this structure and understands it in a way the characters in the story cannot. This is true even when the story is autobiographical, since in that case the writer is looking at himself as a character from the point of view of the timeless, of one who knows what happened and the fate of the protagonist or main character.
Generally, the ending of a story occurs when the protagonist either succeeds or fails in the pursuit of his goal. Thus, the present older narrator self knows—if he is clear about the goal the younger self was striving toward—whether the younger self succeeded in his goal and how he accomplished it (that is, the means by which he accomplished it). He also knows which were the crucial turning points, which were the false leads and dead ends. He knows when the younger self failed and why, and he can articulate that in a way that the younger self could not. He knows too how even those failures shaped the younger self and taught him about himself and his world, and therefore, in a dialectic—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—helped forge his journey forward.
In memoir, it is most often the writer’s past self who serves as the first and most obvious protagonist. In constructing the story of her past as a narrative, the memoirist must confront the first rule of story: A protagonist must have a goal or a desire. If there is no goal or desire, there is no story.
If readers do not know what the goal or desire of the protagonist is, they will have difficulty understanding what the story is about—and thus they will not perceive the structure of the story.
In order to write about her past as a story, the memoirist often must discover the smaller day-to-day goals of her past self. On a larger level, the writer must discover the overall goal of her past self for the time the memoir covers.
Once the memoirist discovers the goal(s) of her past self, the pursuit of the goal(s) can be structured as a story.
In order to do this, it is useful to remember how the discovery and pursuit of a goal in story can be broken down into three acts.
Act 1 involves the eruption or intrusion of the goal or desire (or mission or journey) in the protagonist’s everyday life. Act 1 ends when the protagonist takes up or realizes the goal or desire.
In act 2 the protagonist struggles to achieve that goal or desire (struggle and doubt, as Mamet puts it).
Act 3 is the final battle in the protagonist’s struggle to achieve that goal or desire.
What then are the crucial events in act 1? In terms of story structure, they are the eruptions or intrusions of the goal or desire. Joseph Campbell says that in myths there are often two calls for the hero’s journey.
In many instances, there may be a change in outward circumstances that seems to bring about this acceptance of the second call. In classic detective stories, the detective often refuses the call to the case and then his partner or friend takes the case and is killed. In the first Star Wars movie, Luke has been obligated to his uncle and aunt and so cannot leave his home planet. But then he returns from discovering Obi-wan Kenobi and finds his aunt and uncle have been killed.
I think it’s useful to understand that these external events can be read as metaphors for what is happening in the psyche of the protagonist. This is true both with the specific protagonist of the story and with the universal hero’s journey of which the protagonist is a particular manifestation. In other words, the events of the story are literally the events of the story. But the events of the story are also metaphors for the journey of the psyche.
The call and initial refusal of the goal by the protagonist often illustrates another basic principle of story: conflicting desires.
In the detective case, the detective has some reason for not wanting to take the case—he’s got other cases, it doesn’t pay enough, he doesn’t take this sort of case, he doesn’t like the client, and so on. Whatever the client is offering—for example, money, emotional appeal, sexual allure—is not enough to set up an irreconcilable desire. The detective can refuse easily.
But as so often happens in detective films, once the detective’s friend or colleague has been killed, the ante has been raised; the reasons for taking the case are greater—love or affection or admiration of the friend, duty, revenge, and such. Thus the way that the protagonist looks at the positives and negatives of the choice—that is, the conflicting desires—has shifted. The equation of conflicting desires has become more irreconcilable; the protagonist is under more tension. And as a result of that pressure—of the new incentives or desires—the protagonist takes up the case.
It is when the protagonist takes up the quest that she makes the transition from the old world into the new world. This is the end of the first act and the beginning of the second act.
In the mythic journey, there is obviously a physical correlative to this transition. In Star Wars Luke enters the bar with all the strange and dangerous aliens. He then leaves the planet where he has been stranded.
But all this again can also be seen as a metaphor. Luke is now willing to enter strange new dangerous places because his psyche has entered a new place.
In working with students trying to structure their memoir as a story, I’ve found that often the goal or quest itself has not been clearly stated.
To resolve this problem, the writer of memoir needs to understand some aspects of the goal—or what David Mamet calls, quoting Hitchcock, the Mac-Guffin. In Three Uses of the Knife, which analyzes the three-act play structure, Mamet writes: “That which the hero requires is the play. In the perfect play we find nothing extraneous to his or her single desire. Every incident either impedes or aids the hero/heroine in the quest for the single goal.”
Mamet goes on to discuss ways the goal is defined in politics and classic cinema and plays. He finds that the goal often has two qualities: (1) the goal is often left conceptually vague, which allows more of the audience to identify with it; (2) the goal is often concrete and generic. The concreteness allows the person to take actions toward achieving the goal. One can take specific actions to search for the Maltese Falcon or letters of transit, as in the classic Humphrey Bogart films. The generic nature of the goal again allows more of the audience to identify with it:
Peace with Honor, Communists in the State Department, Supply Side Economics, Recapture the Dream, Bring Back the Pride—these are the stuff of pageant. They are not social goals; they are, as Alfred Hitchcock told us, The MacGuffin. This was, of course, Hitchcock’s term for “that which the hero wants,” and his devotion to the concept explains much of his success as a film director.
He understood that the dramatic goal is generic. It need not be more specific than: the Maltese Falcon, the Letters of Transit, the Secret Documents. It is sufficient for the protagonist-author to know the worth of the MacGuffin. The less specific the qualities of the MacGuffin are, the more interested the audience will be. Why? Because a loose abstraction allows audience members to project their own desires onto an essentially featureless goal. Just as they do onto the terms Americanism, or A Better Life, or Tomorrow.
It is easy to identify with the quest for a secret document, somewhat harder to do so with a heroine whose goal is identifying and understanding the element radium. Which is why in dramatic biography writers and directors end up reverting to fiction. To be effective, the dramatic elements must and finally will take precedence over any “real” biographical facts.
Here Mamet runs us right into the tension or problem of memoir. In drama you can alter or create the goal to create a quest and a situation that can be embodied in actions and dramatic events. You can alter or create a goal that the majority of the audience can identify with.
You do not have this liberty to fictionalize in a memoir—as opposed to a Hollywood “bio pic.” The events of the story have occurred. You cannot make them up.
But Mamet is speaking of the dramatic needs of a screenplay or a play. A memoir can certainly possess narrative and dramatic elements even if the story it tells is not as vividly and concretely dramatic as a Hollywood film. If a memoir is not a screenplay, that doesn’t mean the writer must simply give up and say, “Well, then, there’s no need to try to find a narrative.” The choice is not between a Hollywood narrative or none at all.
Moreover, it’s interesting what Mamet says subsequent to the remarks above:
We viewers don’t care—if we wanted to know about the element radium, we’d read a book on the element radium. When we go to the movies to see The Story of Marie Curie we want to find out how her little dog Skipper died.
In a drama, as in any dream, the fact that something is “true” is irrelevant—we care only if that something is germane to the hero-quest (the quest for a MacGuffin) as it has been stated to us.
The power of the dramatist, and of the political flack therefore, resides in the ability to state the problem.
I would submit that the power of the memoirist also resides in the ability to state the problem, to articulate the quest.
So at some point in the writing process, if the memoir is to be structured as a story (and granted not all memoirs are), the writer must answer certain basic questions:
1. What is it that the protagonist wants? What is her goal?
2. What actions does the protagonist take to pursue her goal?
3. In taking actions to pursue her goal, does she face irreconcilable conflicts?
4. How does she resolve these irreconcilable conflicts? Has she convinced herself that she has resolved an irreconcilable conflict by lying to herself about the irreconcilability of that conflict?
5. What are the lies the protagonist tells herself? Does she lie to herself about the irreconcilability of two conflicting desires? How do those lies eventually lead to further difficulties, complications, or even punishment?
The writer of the memoir must ask these basic questions to understand how the story in her memoir is to be structured. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that finding the answers to these questions requires thinking, a deeper understanding of the material.
Beginning writers, both of memoir and of fiction, often do not do this thinking; they do not attempt to reach a deeper understanding of the narrative structure of the material, partly because they don’t know which questions to ask. They don’t know the structures of narrative or understand how they function.
But I believe this resistance sometimes occurs because the beginning writer doesn’t conceive such work as part of writing. Writing for many is the working on a particular passage, on a sentence or a description or a piece of dialogue. It becomes defined as work with a micro perspective. The macro perspective, the questions of such things as overall story structure and basic premises and problems with story, are not defined as essential. Or the writer doesn’t feel that they are part of the real work of writing.
But I would submit that they are essential, to fiction and to memoir.
At a certain point, in trying to gather the draft or drafts of a memoir, the writer will be faced with the question, Do I put the events in temporal order—as in a standard story—or do I use some principle other than temporal order to organize the material?
One advantage of setting the events in temporal order is that the story as a journey toward the goal becomes clearer. One disadvantage is that it becomes harder then to organize the material thematically.
An example of a memoir that sets its events in temporal order would be Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life. An example of organizing the material thematically would be Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. In the latter, there’s a certain semblance of temporal progression to the sequence of pieces and within the individual pieces, but in the end, the book seems more organized by theme.
A temporal order tends to make the memoir read more like a novel and thus possesses the attractions of the novel for general readers. A thematic organization is obviously less like a plot-driven novel and, in successful memoirs of this kind, makes up for that lack with depth of perception and analysis.
If the events of the author’s life are recognizably dramatic, the temporal organization will generally be a more effective means to highlight such dramatics because it makes the story of the dramatics more accessible and clearer. By dramatics, I don’t necessarily mean only events such as say escaping from a country at war or serving as a child soldier or winning the Olympics. Dramatics can also occur in a clear struggle between the protagonist and an antagonist. In This Boy’s Life, much of the drama involves the struggle between the young Toby and his stepfather, Dwight. Moreover, young Toby is constantly getting into trouble and lying to both his mother and Dwight. In The Woman Warrior, there is certainly tension between Kingston and her mother, but it’s not a clear protagonist-antagonist relationship; in the end, the events surrounding Kingston’s life as a child are not particularly dramatic, though those of her mother’s past life are.
In my first memoir, Turning Japanese, I used a temporal narrative structure like that in This Boy’s Life. In my second memoir, Where the Body Meets Memory, I used a more thematic structure, though that book has a certain temporal order too.