Sunday, January 8, 2012

Use the algorithm. Use the what?

In Marion Roach Smith's fourth new years writing resolution she tells us to use the algorithm - a step, by step procedure for solving a problem. The problem is this. What is your memoir about? The answer could be "This is about personal success as illustrated by my return to my home town told in a series of vignettes comparing what I was to what I became. Or "This is about being a care receiver instead of a care giver as illustrated by our family's experience with our daughter's cancer told by chronicling her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery."

The answer is never "This is about me." That could be quite boring, lacking universal appeal. Here is Marion's fourth resolution:

Eschew writing prompts. Be hospitable. Ask Amy. Those are the three previous new year resolutions I’ve asked you to make. And today? What could it possibly be today?
Use an algorithm.
Here’s how this works. Merely plug in your coordinates to the algorithm I’ve devised for writing memoir. Here it is: This is about x, as illustrated by y, to be told in a z.
Use this, and watch how you are no longer the center of your own tale, but rather the illustration of some larger, universal theme. Understanding the need for this change of emphasis is the difference between writing good memoir and boring our socks off. And the key to making this shift? Simply accepting that you are not the story. Repeat that to yourself: I am not the story. Exactly. You are the illustration. You are the picture in the frame, the lozenge in the wrapper. Get that, and when you do, you will see how your story—the illustration of the theme—gets shifted to the y, or second phrase, of this sentence, and by extension, to its proper place.
Use the algorithm.

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