Some storytellers work like mad scientists as they piece the story of their lives with a brain here and a piece of plumbing there. Finally, they search for the ever-needed bolt of lightning to spark the creation to life.
Our lives have so much adventure to them that rarely should we exaggerate our experiences. Yet, some people feel that is exactly what they must do. Perhaps they would change their minds if they attended “The Fertile Field of Memories: A Panel on Writing the Memoir” as part of the 9th Annual Great Salt Lake Book Festival on October 28, 2006.
All four people on the panel—Phyllis Barber, Betsy Burton, Rev. France Davis, and Rita Williams—published their own memoirs and shared insights so that others could delve into their own experiences. (See bio info on panel members below.)
Phyllis provided a structure that the others could comment on. The three most important concepts I received:
2. Remember the Senses
3. Create Distance
Look at an Angle
Often storytellers are tempted to share everything about their lives. The descriptions of a particular chair sometimes last for minutes and the listeners have not connected why this chair is so important. The glazed-eyes look could indicate the listeners’ boredom.
Rather than sharing everything, come up with one to two angles. Anything more could confuse—or worse—bore your listeners.
Phyllis says a question she asks herself is “What do you want to gain in writing you story?” This question can also apply to performing. If you can answer this question, then you may have a better idea of what angle you should take.
Or you may be like Rev. France Davis where he takes chapters 62 and 63 of his book “France Davis: An American Story Told” to go over the same incident through two different pairs of eyes.
Could you see this as an interesting storytelling technique? Rita prefers to “write for the voice that couldn’t speak.” Usually we know what happened to us, but what would a family member, a friend, a stranger, say about the same incident?
Remember the Senses
This step you may be pulling your hair out of your head if you have a bad memory. As for me, rarely do I remember anything beyond the action.
One must almost run their life’s history as if it was a movie. Can you remember the weather? Lighting? Landscape? Phyllis says that, whenever possible, try to visit the place involved with your story. Space can affect your feelings and landmarks can influence you.
Due to my frustrations of my puny mind, I asked this question of the panel: How much do you leave to your memory for the story and how much do you research to aide your personal story?
Rev. France Davis said that he trusts to 95% of memory. For his book, he had someone interview him, had it recorded, and then transcribed. The interviewer could ask questions to delve into the details so that the interviewer’s experience would interface with that of the Reverend.
Betsy also said she mostly wrote from memory while Phyllis shared that she would check newspapers to check on details. Phyllis noticed that she would get some things wrong. She then had to decide which “truth” to go with—hers or the newspapers.
Rev. France Davis said he had “memories that didn’t happen when it actually happened.” He remembered his parents running a store while he was a kid. He discovered through his siblings that this store was out of business before he was born. He smiled and said, “There are always others who help you on the way.”
Rita had an amazing resource to jumpstart her memory: her diary. She had written in it since she was 11 years old. Some sentences were a little confusing and had to be interpreted such as “wore new socks to school” or “the dog got hit by a skunk.”
Usually, if we still cannot seem to shape the story, it is probably because we are too close to the story. Phyllis warns, “Truth disappears when too close to it.”
When you have control of your emotions, then you can look at the surroundings of the story. A line in a journal could really be referring to something else. Look to the background of the story for, as Rita says, “Truth lies in the background.”
You may want to write the thoughts you remember in a notebook/journal and then come back to the story a week, a month, a year, or even a decade later. Your mind will be clear and you may remember things you did not remember the first time.
Regardless of the results, Phyllis knows you “can chase your story for years . . ..” Mad scientists are able to shout victory and laugh uncontrollably when, after much struggle and experimentation, the creation comes.
Your personal stories can come to life, too.
Meet the Panel:
Phyllis Barber—author of “How I Got Cultured: a Nevada Memoir”, which won the 1991 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Prize for Creative Nonfiction and the 1993 Award for Best Autobiography from the Association of Mormon Letters. She can trace her family history to Nevada to the 1860s.
Rev. France Davis—pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church of Salt Lake City and creator of “France Davis: An American Story Told”—He calls himself a storyteller, especially since his book came from an interview that was recorded and transcribed.
Rita Williams—author of “If the Creek Don’t Rise: My Life out West with the Last Black Widow of the Civil War”. When she was four, her mother died in a Denver boarding house and the author was left in the care of her Aunt Daisy, the last surviving African American widow of a Union soldier.
Until we tell again,
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance