I have crow’s feet, age spots, and routine colonoscopies, but inside I’m a baby. Let me explain.
As many of you know, I’ve been working on a novel-length memoir for three years now, and I don’t get why it’s so hard. Bookstores are brimming with titles, and new books are being published every day. If all these people can do it, why can’t I?
I’ve written boxes of articles and oodles of poems. I’ve studied personal essay, workshopped prose-poems, and published enough flash memoirs to fill a book. By now I should be able to write a novel.
One thing I still haven’t done, however, is composed an old-fashioned story. A memoir, even though it’s factual, is a story, and has all the same elements of a novel: plot, theme, dialogue, narration, and characterization. When had I devoted myself to learning those things?
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Bradbury and dozens more learned to write by writing short stories, says Jon Franklin in Writing For Story: Craft Secrets Of Dramatic Nonfiction. Only after they mastered the short form did they tackle the novel.
Over the past 3 weeks, I tried Franklin’s step-by-step approach to short nonfiction stories, baptizing myself in the laws of storytelling as I attempted to recount our trip to Italy. Did my story’s complication and resolution match? Did actions lead to change? Did each scene establish time and place and build toward a climax? I began to understand the inner workings of storytelling and how to turn the dials of tension and release.
It was then that I understood why I had struggled so much with my memoir. I was a baby trying to skip from kindergarten rhymes to college-level composition. I assumed that because I was old enough to have gray hairs and arthritis in my big toe that I should be able to do what other people my age do.
A writer is no different than a carpenter or a flute player, a mechanic or a chef, Franklin explains. There are skills, principles, and tools that can be taught and learned. My struggles to write a book didn’t signify some inherent lack in me. It signified that I needed a good teacher and a lot of practice.
Starting out with baby steps — shorter pieces and simpler stories — eases one into small successes, which in turn build confidence for larger strides. Starting out with baby steps means when you fall, you don’t fall far. If a short story is not working, you haven’t wasted 5 years.
From now on I’m going to think of myself as a baby writer. Seeing myself this way invites patience and a spirit of play. I’m on the ground with my aching knees, and there is a whole world out there to explore.