11.27.2018

A Need for Perspective

Writing a memoir can involve a number of different narrative approaches. Most good ones depend on the graceful wordplay of the writer. Yet even if you are not gifted, you can still captivate readers if you’ve had interesting experiences. The key is to recall scenes with enough vivid details that the reader feels like he is participating. A personable style, such as that of a blithe California commentator, can also go a long way toward encouraging this sort of intimacy.

Stringing together a series of focused vignettes can make for a riveting memoir. You just pick all the highlights of your life. The problem with merely lining up well-recalled scenes, however, is that a reader can become lost along the way. Say, you are describing a decline into teenage alcoholism. After a while you run the risk that all of the scenes of stumbling and laughter will start to seem the same. The memoir will feel like it is spinning its wheels. Even worse, the reader may start to become disgusted with you because the debauchery is so relentless.

A little perspective is in order. Since people begin life in a state of innocence, that return to the garden can always be hoped for. In practical terms, you might want to use representatives from a more wholesome period to provide perspective. Let’s say you were a straight A student in school until your parents split up. Your friends were your fellow smart classmates. Dumber kids looked up to you. If you take the time to sprinkle in encounters with these members of your former set once you start drinking, the reader has a benchmark to gauge how much you are declining.

That is the key. You don’t want to return to the garden too soon, because that would be boring. You need to keep pushing along the road you’ve staked out. So you create perspective, usually by featuring other people that are established in your life. One good choice is your mother. Where was she when all this drinking was going on? What did she do to try to stop it? Did those efforts become increasingly desperate and, in the end, hopeless?

By means of perspective, you create progression. You start at step A and proceed downward to step Z. You insert paragraphs or passages of perspective so that the reader not only enjoys participating in the well-drawn scenes but also knows where you are along your road.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for where each vignette stops. You have to create a bridge to the next scene anyway, and that gives you an opportunity to pull away the camera lens and provide an overview: This is where I stand now. One gap in particular where such inserts can be placed is when you are jumping a significant period of time between scenes.

“Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs.”
― Confucius

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


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