We are certainly lucky to have Bucks County author and editor Kathryn Craft sharing her expertise with Philadelphia Writing readers.
by Kathryn Craft
One of the challenges of writing a compelling story is deciding what to include. This is particularly true when writing memoir, where the author is also the protagonist—the person who lived, day by day, through the trying circumstances that inspired the story.
Not all of those days belong in your book. My father died last year as the memoir I’m about to share with you heated up, for example, but as author, I must decide whether his death is germane to the story I want to tell.
Truth is, only key elements are needed to tell a good story, and the memoirist is free to skip through time to choose those that are relevant. The elements of classic storytelling can be your guide.
It all began with an ending: the suicide of my first husband (inciting incident: something happened that tipped the protagonist’s world out of balance). Even with nerves buzzing from the horror and while scared senseless of my future, I was still an optimist by nature. I couldn’t understand how his life had lost all meaning.
Since I was already a writer—a dance critic to be exact—I instinctively felt the call to write about it. I had to seek meaning for my own life (providing a premise for this memoir: “Writing will lead to meaning”). I couldn’t accept that chaos rules—not if I was to carry on as my children’s sole parent (dramatic imperative: in order to heal, my writing needed to begin).
To assuage my anger I had to find empathy for my husband as a character. What external and internal pressures might make a woman like me so desperate that she might consider suicide?
I created a dancer, Penelope Sparrow, unknowingly at war with her body. To force her to face that I took away her main support systems. Like her parents, and friends. Her beloved mentor. That one choreographer positioned to make her career dreams come true? I made him her lover, too, then took him away. All Penelope had left was the one power she’d always had—the muscular contractions that moved her through space. In that I still found hope, so I took movement away as well.
I could now relate to this woman who thought life was at an end—and I decided to write her story all the way through until I came to a place of hope (our memoir protagonist set a story goal). You may wonder: “Could Kathryn write about suicide in a way that could offer hope?” (This story question allows the reader to assess progress toward the protagonist’s goal. It also helps the reader define what story events are relevant. Note this question does not involve my father.)
Achieving this goal wouldn’t be easy. Writing a novel is more difficult than one would first think, and time consuming. Others needed that time: my two sons, my business, our small farm (complications to the goal).
Did I mention a new husband? I told him I’d quit and get a “real” job if I couldn’t sell this novel by the time the boys left high school (thus adding a crucible—a time element that adds pressure).
I failed to do so. I knew I should quit; I’d always been a woman of my word. But I could see the magic this story was working in my own life, and if I could get it published, I felt it could do the same thing for others (the personal stakes have spread). Of the agents who ultimately rejected, many took the time to write encouraging personal notes. A few even called me. They said the story was important.
I couldn’t stop.
Then, the economy collapsed. Major publishing houses laid off editors and became even more selective. Bookstores closed. Opportunity dwindled, even as more and more of the unemployed decided to try their hand at writing. Many of those, burdened by their own time elements, embraced self-publishing. Because some of them did well, several once-supportive colleagues now turned on me: You’re a fool to stay on this path. Agents aren’t taking new clients. Book deals only exist for top authors. Fate itself mocked my perseverance: I had been born at the wrong time to achieve my publishing goal (dark moment, when all seems lost).
Convinced my novel would need the wider distribution that traditional publication allowed, I continued on, batting away rejection. I pulled out all the stops (the climax, where the protagonist goes to the wall to fight for her goal). Having volunteered heavily in the writing community through the past decade, I called in favors. Asked for referrals. Networked more than ever before. Continued revising and submitting. To find the meaning I sought, my book had to find readers, and as long as there was an agent out there I hadn’t approached—I was only at 112!—I would carry on.
Last December these efforts led me to Katie Shea, the agent who was the perfect advocate for my work.
And at the end of her first round of submissions one of the publishers, Sourcebooks, made an offer on my novel. (Check out how I found out, in pictures!: http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2012/09/saturday-brags-kathryns-book-deal.html)
My story would, indeed, become a book. Joy and meaning flooded into my life. While the deal was being negotiated I had time to reflect on this journey (the denouement, in which we find out how succeeding or failing to achieve the goal affects the protagonist). I did some math—within one week of my book deal, I crossed an amazing threshold in my life’s timeline: I have now been alive for more days since my first husband’s death than the days that numbered our marriage (just shy of 15 years). In so many ways, I feel I am emerging from the shadow of his suicide (the protagonist learns an important lesson tied to the premise of “Writing leads to meaning”).
Creative writing has indeed healed my soul (protagonist motivation—the story satisfied a deep need from the protagonist’s past). Will it do the same for my readers? Another time gap will be needed to complete this denouement: the book won’t be out until late 2013.
One last thing. Where’s my dad in all this? Still in heaven, I suppose, perhaps kicking back with my first husband. While his death strongly impacted me, those events—while sharing the same timeline in my life—are not relevant to the structure of this particular story.
So my dad got booted from this memoir. But he’s reason enough to write another, though—and someday soon.
Kathryn Craft writes women’s fiction and memoir. She specializes in storytelling structure and writing craft as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, helps run two Pennsylvania writers conferences (The Write Stuff and Philadelphia Writers’ Conference), leads writing workshops, and hosts writing retreats for women.
For more on Kathryn:
To read the first chapter of Kathryn’s memoir, “Standoff at Ronnie’s Place,” go to: