Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir

By Sue William Silverman | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
Plotting Your Life

Plot is as important in memoir as it is in fiction. In fiction, plot is invented; in nonfiction, it is discovered.

In a novel, you invent each scene, each episode, fabricating all sorts of trouble for your main character in order to thwart her or his wishes and desires. You create antagonists with whom your protagonist engages in conflict. You concoct roadblock after roadblock that your protagonist battles in order to reach the end of her or his plotted journey.

In nonfiction, we scrutinize our lived lives to discover our plots. We select only those significant, relevant details that enhance them. Memoirists erase extraneous people and events from that fully painted canvas of their lives, anything that doesn’t reveal the plot. As we erase irrelevant moments, we’re highlighting and emphasizing relevant ones, those that best propel our plot forward.

There is, however, an important similarity in terms of plot between these two genres. The novelist John Gardner, in his book On Becoming a Novelist, emphasizes the need for immersing the reader in “a vivid and continuous dream.” In memoir, plot must likewise engage and mesmerize the reader. While life has down time (say when we lie around channel surfing), a memoir doesn’t! As you ponder which events best illuminate your story, try to identify your most acute moments in order to hold the reader’s attention. This doesn’t necessarily mean a constant flood of blood, sweat, and tears. Rather, what this means is that you, the author, must feel a strong sense of urgency that must be vividly

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