Colin Harrison was one of my writing professors at Columbia University. He’d held me after class one day and told me that I “had the sauce,” but that I “just need to learn how to spread it.” Not only was he spot on, but he spoke to me in a language I could digest: food. One of my strengths as a writer—I don’t know how to finish that. I used to know. For a long time I believed it was my ability to tap into the smaller truths, to which we can all relate, even if our lives are poles apart. But is that a writing skill or just a personal trait you’d see listed in a book of astrology? “Perceptive and insightful, this sun sign…” Whatever those writing strengths may be, I for certain know what they are not: structure.
Knowing that I struggle with the anatomy of a story, I study it. I listen for plot twists in audiobooks as I clean the kitchen. When I watch films, I know the exact moment we launch into Act II. I’ve learned the “formula,” but applying it to memoir writing doesn’t come easily. Even without “truth” as a restriction, even if I gave myself the freedom to fictionalize, I’d still struggle with setting specific, true, plot points. Or at least struggle to make the ride fresh and exciting despite knowing all the formulaic story points. Can’t someone do it for me? That’s the question I’d pose to a writing coach. Can’t someone else guide me in terms of how to structure my material?
“Chronologically” makes the most obvious answer, without any confused flashbacks. Or put a stake in a timeline and say, “this is where we begin, writing from this exact date.” Say, the story begins when I decide to become a leader in the Girl Scouts, when my kids are toddlers, and we’re living in Texas. I meet the girls, take all the necessary training and explore all the insights I have, include all the obscene irresponsible mistakes I make, and how I eventually thrive, but then… then something major and unexpected… like for example, having to leave Texas and move to the New York suburb of Florida. See, that’s a true plot point, a turn no one is expecting that changes everything. But in a movie, you can’t really do this because the audience is already invested in this world and these characters. So what’s the true plot point? Do you see how it’s not about fictionalizing but about how to structure your true story and true events? It’s all about how you spread the sauce!
See, it’s not the actual writing that holds me back—okay, that’s a total lie most days—it’s how I write myself into corners, with sharp, yet interesting diversions. One writing teacher told me that my tangents were sometimes as compelling, if not more so, than the main passage, and that I should get in the habit of copying, cutting, and pasting them into a second document. Here’s an example of writing that I’ve recently copy, cut, paste:
When I walked across a friendship bridge and turned my trefoil pin upside-down, signifying my graduation from Brownie to Girl Scout, my mother brought her camera and wore a skirt. It was an event worthy of balloons and light refreshments. All to honor our eventual emergence from scouting as young girls of the three C’s. “Building girls of Courage, Confidence, and Character, who make the world a better place.” It’s the mission of all Girl Scouts. But after hopscotching my way through college, career, and a cushion-cut diamond ring, my girly C’s matured into something, someone, new: a close-minded, compulsively judgmental cow, allergic to the phrase, “I can do it.” To my credit, at least I know how I got there.
By airplane. My decision to book a one-way ticket from New York to the foreign country my friends called “Texass” wasn’t fueled by my childlike spirit for adventure but by my insatiable need for more. More space and more house. With more room for entertaining, I’d have more friends, and with warmer weather, I’d be more fit, so I could wear far less, which would result in far more sex. And this all would’ve been true, had I not been married.
It’s all summary. I need a plot spot, someone who can look at a pile of index cards, each listing a story or major scene, perhaps with each one sighting the insight or emotion or “reason for committing it to the page” or what the wisdom learned is, and organize them in a way that won’t confuse the reader in terms of timelines. The problem, I’m finding, is that once I start a story thread, like driving myself to the hospital in labor, is that you cannot tell that heavy story all in one shot. You break it down into scenes to keep the reader in a heightened state of suspense, but while keeping that suspense, by spreading the story up across several chapters all in flashback, you probably shouldn’t reveal in the interwoven “present storyline” that you have kids, that they were, indeed born. Step-by-step, the scenes can be broken down to create cliffhangers between chapters:
- Driving myself to hospital, getting lost unable to find the hospital, being scared but mostly excited, unaware of the real implications of pre-term labor.
- Finally arriving at the hospital, my reactions, the facts, what was actually happening, was I truly in labor or was it a false alarm?
- The actual delivery, will they live, wait, it’s a boy and a girl?
- Life as a mother to a NICU child. The nurses are better than I’ll ever be, life in the lactation room with other NICU moms. And just when we think it’s all over, and we’re finally all happy at home, Lucas needs emergency brain surgery… and so the suspense continues.
And then Phil’s heart, nurses crying, then Phil’s stroke. All of these monumental moments, dealing with big questions and hard truths, all while ordinary life is happening, the culture shock of a move, a tarantula on my window, scorpions in my closet, fights over my homemade tomato sauce (but really his being utilitarian and my being experiential), trying to make new friends, going on friend set-ups and to nude-beaches. Leading a troop of Girl Scouts, baking a cake in a cardboard box. Fleshing out the dynamics of my marriage. What goes where? Not to mention wanting to include stories from Florida and from now, living back in New York!
I guess I need to take the advise I’ve strung up in this post? To begin by naming all the moments I want to include, each on an index card, and see which events can be summarized (told) vs. which should be shown (creating a scene with dialogue, in the moment). Then figuring out where a true plot point exists.
I’m officially asking for suggestions of either other movies or books that skillfully tackle the lighter funny moments while also dealing with the heavier moments… all with a long ass timeline and across several different states? Anyone? It’s hard! Especially when you think of it as a film.
The audience invests time in getting to really know, let’s say, the main characters, the girls and other leaders in a troop. And then, what? You up and move and we never see them again? See why that doesn’t work? And how would I include stories from now, like Phil’s stroke? Have an author’s note stating that timelines have been compressed, and have the stroke happen in Texas?
Must include why Texas of all places? The hilarious culture shock moments, which eventually lead to my missing NY. Trying harder than ever to make friends. Awful friend dates, not bonding with anyone. But then, when I least expected it, I made a new friend, and I love her. And another friend, love, love. Then you introduce them to each other and it all goes to hell. But you learn to take it in stride. But when all this is happening, you’re a new mother arguing with your husband about differing parenting styles and division of labor. So where do the NICU pre-term labor stories go?
Must also include why I join the Girl Scouts, what was the catalyst? The doubts, then meeting the girls and attending leader meetings and training! The absurdities of camping and what I learn about my marriage and parenting skills as a result. How are the stakes raised, making quitting scouting more appealing than ever? And why do I stick with it? But then what’s the next plot point? I’m finally thriving, no longer the naive newcomer, and then THIS HAPPENS, changing everything. That’s a plot point. That’s what I need a plot spot for!
As confusing and tangential as this post is, all over the place, a sloppy mess, that’s where I am in this process. Universe, please send me some answers, or a tribe member who’s fcuking rockstar at plot and structure.
Writing Exercise from the book 642 Things To Write About Me
“Write a letter to the teacher (or coach) who made a difference in your life, asking him or her for help. What are you asking for? Why?”