Story-a-Week #9: Memoir and Monsters

For last Tuesday’s Café Stories I put together a lesson that combined memoir writing and plot types. There are umpteen theories on the range of narrative structures, but to keep it simple I stuck to the one that holds there are only 7 Basic Plots, and that all creative texts – films; novels; short stories; ballads… – fit in to at least one. They are:

1. Overcoming The Monster – you have a demon to battle. This doesn’t have to be a dragon or an archetypal villain, but can be a horrible boss, a narcissistic mother, an addiction… Indeed, you yourself can be the monster you overcome.

2. Rebirth – stories of renewal, such as It’s a Wonderful Life.

3. The Quest – where the hero goes on a mission from point A to point B (or Z!), this can be anything from saving the planet to searching for your granny’s lost gardening gloves to getting fit enough to compete in a cross country egg and spoon race.

4. Journey and Return – the hero sets off on a journey, often, but not always, reluctantly, and eventually returns a changed – stronger, more flexible, better – person. This doesn’t have to be a long journey, or even a physical one.

5. Rags to Riches – once you had little now you have enough. Again this doesn’t have to be the boringly obvious grew up poor now you have a three car garage. It could be about knowledge: once you knew nothing of town planning, now you’ve been awarded Town Planner of the year; or relationships: you move to a new town, you know no one, you make new friends…

6. Tragedy – you crash your mother’s beloved convertible…

7. Comedy – you crash your mother’s beloved convertible into a mobile cheese van, and her Orla Kiely upholstered seats get swamped with Stinking Bishop. It is 32°c.

But before I told them any of this we talked about the difference between memoir and autobiography. Which is that while autobiography is about a whole life, memoir focuses on one slice of the pie of that life. You choose one event, incident, interest, relationship… that is in some way important to you. It doesn’t have to be hugely dramatic like a death or big loss, but it does have to be something that you feel shaped you in some way. You could have lost a shoe and, in the process of looking for it, found something you didn’t know you needed, something about yourself, someone close to you, or even about humanity.

Here are three examples of memoir writing:

I have a history of making decisions very quickly about men. I have always fallen in love fast and without measuring risks. I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential. I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.

(Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert)

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

(A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

(Walden by Henry David Thoreau

After a brief chat about what made these interesting I gave them an exercise:

Beijing, China: The Labyrinth – an art installation by Michelangelo Pistoletto comprising 2,100 metres of cardboard – at Galleria Continua
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Take five minutes to brainstorm as many significant events from your own life as you can. For example: the birth of my oldest child; the time we went to Brighton; the book that changed my reading habits; when my best friend at school didn’t return after the summer holidays; the day I lost my left shoe…

We all tell stories about things that happen to us, and sometimes we carry stories inside us that we don’t tell, or tell to only a very few people, because they’re too complicated, or too sad, or too difficult to tell in a few minutes. So just jot down anything that comes to mind, don’t try too hard, just let them come. 

We then shared our lists and had a wee chat about them, before I took them through the list of basic plots and said a bit about those (see above).  I asked them to pick one of their story possibilities and we talked about which of the basic plots they might fit into. Here’s my list:

The time I came home after being out in nothing but a bikini and my mother went bonkers

The time the very popular new girl in school defended me against a group of boys calling me WOG (‘does that mean wonderful original girl?)

The time I got an email from my husband’s mistress

The time I went to ‘women’s returner’ classes and found out I wasn’t as stupid as I’d been led to believe

The time my mother turned into a film star as she was handed a cup of coffee at aunt Elsa’s.

I chose the last one. It seemed easiest, especially as I’m currently writing an essay about my relationship with coffee that includes this episode, so it’s been on my mind anyway. But I didn’t actually write it then as a deadline was looming,* so while my students created I polished and emailed out another project.

I dashed this off when I had a moment later in the week. 

Myrna Loy via this place.

I was eight years old the day my mother turned into a movie star.

Sleep shadowed in the kitchen of aunts Elsa and Marge – sisters rendered single by the war – I watched my father pour coffee into a tall mug from a dyspnoeic pot. One sugar, plop! Two sugars, plop! A lick of milk. He stirred until every grain had dissolved and turned to the window, his face bright as a chocolate moon.

Before the French windows, open to a small filigree-railed balcony and the hum of London, my mother stretched out her arm to receive his offering. She leaned back on her stool, raised the cup to her lips, sipped, closed her eyes, and sighed. Wreathed in back-lit smoke from the smouldering cigarette she held like a note, dressed in visiting clothes, framed by breeze-puffed curtains, my mother atomised and reformed like a perfume-hologram of Myrna Loy.

Obviously it needs a bit more thought, but perhaps you can help me by suggesting which basic plot fits it best, and why. I can then construct the story based on your ideas. How’s that for collaboration? 

*Those tender evaluations I mentioned on Friday.

Header image from guess where!

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