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Let Me Tell You About the Time…
Some Notes on Writing Your Memoirs with an Eye on Writing Fiction and History


A young writer I have spent some time with was asking me over a few beers, how an aspiring writer might better develop their ability to write fiction.

In my opinion, most folks have a limited number of speculative or narrative or historic settings or themes they can generate and that these take a lot of energy. Some, like Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs could come up with many settings and themes, but others like Tolkien, Peake, Rice, Brooks and Martin have a more normal limit to the bifurcation of their imagination. So, unless you are in the first group, and even if you are, you will best be served by practicing your narrative form by writing your memoirs. This was my only means of learning this, as I did not and do not understand the English language, but rather use it like some savage who has found an Antedeluvian sword, with no understanding of how such a thing is made.

The first key is to break away from standard lame storytelling, which most people raised under Modernity have absorbed unconsciously from news media and movie trailers, two forms of writing which summarize the story in the lead-in text, either the title or subtitle of a newspaper article or the opening sentence of a news report or in the 2-minute summation of a movie that is a trailer. This is reflected, for instance, in a person stating, “Let me tell you about the funniest panhandling experience I had,” when he would be better served as an entertaining yarn spinner by saying in a tone of dread laced with menace, “Dude, there was this sinister looking guy on Pulaski Highway that saw me and turned, and then came towards me…”

Even worse than the giving away of the type of story ending, is the actual giving away of the specific ending of the story, by saying something like the following:

“Let me tell you about these evil hippies that picked me up when I was hitchhiking.”

No, tell me about the hippies, letting me discover their evil through your narrative, or better yet, put the listener in your shoes and say, let me tell you about hitchhiking to Asbury Park and let the listener or reader discover the evil of the hippies next to your narrative voice in real emotional time not as a summarized, then retrieved and then quoted artifact.

This is the best writing exercise I know of for developing narrative skill, as you do not have to spend any energy at all creating a setting, making up a character, charting a plot or developing the scene. You simply recall an event in your life and then use the words and language formatting at your command as your tools for:

-sketching the setting

-describing your plight

-developing the scene

-describing the previously unknown [or incompletely sketched, if this is a recurring person in your life story] character

-developing the interaction, consisting of dialogue and action

-wrapping up the story abruptly at its apex, or like a parable, with a retrospective observation of 1 to 3 sentences, one being the best.

Be cautious in following the form of a masterwork, such as Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, in which he tells the ending in the beginning. This was done as a challenge by the author to himself, to be able to engage the reader despite spoiling the ending. The result in Wolfe’s case was only pleasing to thinking men, not actionists or women.

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