I’ve been a teacher my whole adult life. At eighteen I was teaching Sunday school. Then I went to college and got a B.Ed in English and theater. I taught ESL for eight years, high school English for two, several college classes in various institutions, community education, seminars for clients, etc., etc. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t teaching SOMETHING.

But it is in teaching writers of memoir to tell their own stories that teaching becomes everything it is meant to be, in my opinion. I adore teaching and coaching writers to get their stories on the page.

Why? Because it is a wonderfully complex expedition to find truth! Just this last week I worked with three critique groups—nine authors—as they did the work of telling truths they don’t even know yet. Each time we meet, we wrestle together over each piece to help the author find how to convey a scene’s details and meaning so they braid together in that satisfying way every writer is striving for. Weaving all of the necessary strands so they intertwine seemlessly is not straightforward, not simple.

You see, in writing memoir, you have to stay anchored to the essence of “what happened” while inventing scenic details you might not even remember.

  • You have to decide in what order to put events which may have happened out of order in the first place. So many things in life happen out of order, don’t they?
  • You must constantly ask, “What am I really trying to say through these characters on the page?” while listening deeply to who the characters want to be. Characters are not the people you remember; they are entities unto themselves and many of them have minds of their own.
  • You will find yourself dividing yourself into three parts just to stay sane: Author at the keyboard wanting to tell a compelling story, narrator on the page striking a tone of voice that is capable of telling said story, and character in the narrative that may be too young or too scared or too arrogant to tell the story honestly but must show up to take the actions that allowed the events to unfold in the first place.

And you must do all of these things while wondering if anyone cares about your story anyhow.

As the container for the authors I’m working with, I hold them in all these tasks which divide their psyches into small pieces and threaten to make them believe they are diagnosably crazy. They are not! Not crazy at all. In fact, they are the brave ones, willing to dance with the past until it agrees to follow instead of lead.

Memoir is creative nonfiction. Writers of creative nonfiction are not REPORTERS of events. We are not about documenting and listing what people did, when they did those things, and where they did them. NO! Notice how the word “creative” comes before the word “nonfiction.”

Our first commitment must be to CREATING. We are artists. We chisel away for truth out of the hard granite of history.

And let me be clear here. There is a difference between “truth” and “fact,” to be sure. Consider the great religious art of the world. One of my most favorite pieces of art is Munch’s Madonna. This painting (actually series of paintings) is like no other painting of the Holy Mother.

Notice the audacity of it! When I stood before her in the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, my breath left my body. There is something so truthful and poignant in her pose. Her almost rapturous but slightly tortured expression captured me. Here she is no girl; she is a woman surrounded by darkness with no hands or legs—suggesting (to me, at least) that she is bound, shackled by something we cannot see. This is not the sweet virgin of the Bible, joyfully submitting to the will of the God. But there is submission in Munch’s version, to be sure.

Do you see the truth in her? Deep truths that perhaps the young woman on the donkey would not have had the freedom to utter? Though there is nothing of “fact” in this image at all, the truth is here.

So we, writers of creative nonfiction, must paint truth with our words. If you do not remember the dialogue spoken in the event you are writing about, or you do not know the color of the walls in the room where your painful moment took place, CONJUR the ESSENCE of it.

Tell a truth deeper than the facts. Tell it creatively. Tell it scenically. Tell it with the Madonna’s mix of rapture and torture.

And be brave as you do. Facts are easy to “record” but truth-telling is not for the faint of heart.

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