We all have moments from our pasts we can never forget. Memoirists tap into those moments when constructing a narrative. Dramatization allows us to find a causal chain that perhaps didn’t exist in real life. When we write memoir, we strive to document, but we also try to give some shape to experience. If we string together enough significant scenes, we can enhance our readers’ participation in the narrative while also creating an artful arrangement that will enable us to make meaning from what previously may have been puzzling. We aren’t merely reporting or recreating. We’re also interrogating and interpreting our experiences.
When I was about to begin the third grade, my parents moved us from our farm in southeastern Illinois to Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago. I went from a two-room country school to a large urban grade school. We left our farm behind and entered a new way of living. My mother told me years later that it had been my father’s idea that she take a teaching position up north after losing her job downstate. “He thought we needed the money,” she said.
I remember the drive we made to Oak Forest, so my mother could interview for the job. When I wrote about it in my first memoir, From Our House, I began this way: “We drove through the night, and the next morning it was raining so hard, my father had to pull off the highway and wait for the weather to clear.” This is a statement of fact, but it’s also a scene-setting sentence that has narrative momentum: “We drove through the night.” It also quickly presents a complication in the narrative: “. . .and the next morning it was raining so hard. . . .” Complications in narratives usually require actions: “. . .my father had to pull off the highway and wait for the weather to clear.”
So here we are, three people in a car, waiting for the rain to let up. Not much room for narrative action, but plenty of room for characterization. I recall where we were, and I focus on a single image that’s never left me: “We sat in the parking lot of a hardware store, and through the rain sheeting down our windshield, I could see a sign—“Pittsburgh Paints”—the neon balls of red and blue and green fading behind the gray curtain of rain.” Again, these are all facts. The question is what I can make of those facts. In order to move to Oak Forest, we had to leave my grandmother, who’d lived with us on the farm, to the care of my aunts. My grandmother was nearly blind with cataracts, which I’ve dramatized earlier in the memoir. So when I’m writing and I recall that sign for “Pittsburgh Paints” and the way it looked through the rain, I think of my grandmother, and I write this sentence: “I imagined that was how the world looked to my grandmother—gray and watery—and I thought of her waiting for us to come home.” Then I let the scene continue:
“Look at it come down,” my father said. “It’s raining like pouring piss out of a boot.”
“My mother had a road map spread out on her lap. “We’re close,” she said. “About twenty miles.”
My father yawned. “Relax. We’ve got plenty of time.”
I sat in the backseat, lulled by the sound of the rain and the fact that we were dry and warm there in the car. My mother took her compact from her purse and powdered her nose. My father sighed, and then he said, “After this lets up, we’ll find someplace where we can get some breakfast.”
“I don’t want to be late.” My mother snapped her compact shut. “You brought us all the way up here. You can at least make sure we get there on time.”
This exchange of dialogue allows me to discover what my mother would tell me after my father was dead. She didn’t really want to go to Oak Forest. She didn’t want to leave her widowed mother behind. She didn’t want to leave our farming community. The snapping shut of her compact dramatizes what she must have been feeling. Her line of dialogue cements it.
Don’t be afraid to use action and dialogue to make moments come alive for your readers and for you. Dramatizing leads to discovery and to the making of meaning. It puts you back in the moments in a way that invites you to see and to know all that you were incapable of at the time.