I was coming out of a Target store yesterday, when the scent of discount store popcorn immediately took me back to my childhood in Oak Forest, IL. Saturdays, I’d go with my parents to Markham to shop. We’d get groceries at Jewel Foods and sundry items at Zayre’s. I remember the smell of the popcorn in that store, and recalling that scent invites me to remember the aroma of pepperoni pizza slices being kept warm, the slush on the floors when it was snowing outside, the cold air rushing in each time the doors slid open. At the time I’m recalling, I was in the third grade. We’d just moved from our downstate farm to the southern suburbs of Chicago.
A friend of mine, an excellent poet, was talking to me recently about plot. He didn’t understand, he told me, how we fiction writers did it. It was beyond him how we string a series of events together into a story.
So here are ten tips for constructing a plot.
1. Plot always begins with character, and the two can never be separated. Henry James said, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” In other words, people make choices. They create actions based upon their own characters—what they want, what they fear, etc. Those actions—events, if you will—put pressure on the people who created them. Put enough pressure on a character and some aspect of that character that maybe he or she doesn’t even know, rises to the surface and becomes a memorable shift in the plot.
In the aftermath of the recent presidential election, much blame has been put on the voters from the rural Midwest, my native land. I’ll admit this is a complicated time for me. Like many of you, I’m angry about a Trump presidency and fearful for what lies ahead. The election has made it clear how difficult it can be sometimes to identify with a place that often doesn’t share your values. I live in an urban area now, but those small towns and farming communities of southeastern Illinois will always be home to me.
Let’s say you’re at a public event and you run into a couple, who also happen to be your dear friends, and let’s say you look at the man and then say with great solemnity, “You have my condolences,” and the woman says as a joke, “Why? Because he’s with me?” And let’s say the man thinks that’s what you mean, too, and let’s say you don’t respond. You just turn and walk away, leaving the couple to think what they think. Actually, you’ve been offering consolation because you know the man is a Cleveland Indians fan and they’ve just lost the World Series. You’re as surprised as the couple. You have no idea why you’ve chosen to let the miscommunication stand.
Over twenty-five years ago, I was working on a story that ended up being called “The Least You Need to Know.” I’d reached a point in the composition of the story where I didn’t know what would come next. This happened to me often in those days and still does to a certain extent. I’ve reached a place where I’m comfortable with this uncertainty. If we can get comfortable with not knowing, and with not settling for the simple moves, some wonderful things can occur.
When I was in the third grade, I went trick or treating in a Bullwinkle J. Moose costume. You know the kind. It came in a box, and my mother probably bought it at a Zayre department store. It was a thin, rayon suit with a plastic mask, the kind with the elastic band that cut into the sides of my face. It was hard to line the mask’s eyeholes up with my own eyes, and as far as peripheral vision. . .well, there wasn’t much. What I saw, I saw straight ahead.
Our lives are made up of many strands—some of experience, some of memory, some of meditation and reflection, some of ongoing action. Those who write memoir must find the appropriate forms for ensuring that the textures of life will have their full expression.
What we know about the braided essay offers us a plan for making sure that we put a fully lived life on the page. Taking our cues from this form can invite us to dramatize important moments from our lives, blend the past with the present and the future, and find a place from which we can reflect, meditate, think, and make meaning.
Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Granted, there’s probably more than a nugget of truth in what O’Connor said, but this quote has me thinking of the teaching of creative writing and what I can offer my students, or the people I meet in any of the workshops I teach at writers’ conferences in the summers. It’s not my job to be discouraging. My job is to find something positive in everything I read, something I can point to and say, “See, right here? That’s where you’re a writer.” Then I owe it to each student to be honest about what I see as his or her shortcomings. I offer the caveat that opinions about one’s talents are often subjective, and the writers should feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt. I make clear, though, that from my perspective here are a few things they need to work on if they decide to keep writing. I want people to feel confident enough to continue to work at their craft if they’ve decided that it’s important enough to merit their further efforts. Let the process itself determine whether they should be discouraged. Who am I to crush anyone’s spirit or call into question the validity of the work they’re trying to do? I want them to listen to me with the thought that, if they do, they might become better.
I’ve often reported a saying of my father’s: “If if’s and but’s were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” For a man who didn’t read any book but the Bible, he had a way with language. His saying takes me into the land of if-only’s, and I start to think about how we might use a trip there to help us think about the different aspects of our persona when we write a memoir. Too often, memoirists concentrate on the person they’ve decided they were—the cad, the victim, the scamp, the whatever—at the risk of making their characterization of themselves one dimensional. In addition, memoirists often write from a position of self-pity that ends up suffocating the reader.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about memoirs that don’t tell their stories in traditional narratives. Maybe they shake up chronology. Maybe they fragment it. Maybe they let it spin off into patterns of association. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call these lyric memoirs, though I suppose we could just as easily call them mosaic memoirs, or collage memoirs, or segmented memoirs. There are many ways to tell a story other than the traditional causal chain of events that drives a more traditionally structured memoir.