The Mindset of a Storyteller

I have been working with a writer for many months on a memoir that is slated to be published in 2015.  It is the gut wrenching and riveting story of the four years she spent trying to crack the case on her mother’s murder, of how she went from being an Orange County soccer mom to being a woman who a famed FBI profiler called a gifted investigator. Her (real name!) is Lauri Taylor, and Lauri is nothing if not a stickler for detail. She can tell you the name of the woman who worked at the front desk of the hotel in Mexico where her mother was last seen. She can tell you how much the cold beer cost at the little café where she and her sister ate the day they had to go identify their mother’s body. She can tell you the exact words she said to the first television reporter who called about the case. It is this dogged determination to know everything, to remember it, and to file it away in both a real metal file cabinet and the file cabinet of her mind that made Lauri the kind of person who, in the end, solved the mystery of her mother’s death. But it also happens to be exactly the kind of thinking that makes it hard to write a good memoir.
 
            A good memoir is not the definitive record of a life. A good memoir does not recount in exhaustive detail every last little fact of what happened. The job of the writer, in fact, is to leave things out so that what is on the page can better illuminate the story you are trying to tell. In order to crack the mystery of her mother’s death, Lauri had to hold in her head every last little agonizing detail. In recent weeks, she was trying to do the same thing with her memoir – trying to cram in every person she met, every report she read, every agency she dealt with, every emotion she felt at every turn -- as if a flawless recollection of the facts would make a good story. It was paralyzing her. Her writing had come to a screeching halt – and the deadline from her publisher is looming.
 
            And so on Tuesday, Lauri and I sat down with several big piece of cardboard, a bunch of pens and some Post It Notes (what on earth would any of us do without office supplies?) and we plotted out the parts of her book she still had to write. She KNEW these plot points. We had already outlined the book. But what she needed was to see what WASN'T there. She needed to remember that she was not trying to prove the case again. The story she was telling in this book was different from the story told in the piles of notebooks back at her house. The goal here was not to get in every last little detail of the case, but to give the reader the experience of what it was like to lose her mother in this way, and what it was like to have to face it the way she did, and what it was like to live through, and what the experience taught her about life and death and love and mothers. In order to do that, Lauri needed to let go of her detectives’ mindset and take on the mindset of a storyteller.
 
            We sat with the timeline of the story. We made little dots to represent key moments, erased them, made them again in a new place. We wrote out the scenes on Post-It notes, slapped them down, moved them around., trashed them, started again. She spoke her story out loud, spoke the truth that was bigger than the facts. By the end of the day, Lauri had axed at least four chapters she thought she had to write. She decided that she could dispense with an entire year in just a few paragraphs – it was a slow year, a year of mostly frustration where not much happened in the case. And suddenly, the story she was trying to tell became crystal clear again.
 
            This kind of work takes a certain kind of bravery. It forces you to realize that your life as you lived it is not what your readers are coming to your story for. They are coming for the meaning you took from your life, the lessons you learned from it, the sense you made of it. If you don’t reveal those things, you are merely writing journal entries, and journal entries almost always make for really dull reading. I say that it takes bravery to leave things out, because it’s one thing to simply recount a harrowing experience -- this happened and then this happened and then this happened. There's a comfort in setting down the "facts" of your life. But to pick and choose what you decide to tell so that you make a point -- so that you say something real and true -- is to share what it really felt like, deep down in dark recesses of your soul, where the lies hide and the shame lives and where it might be easier to just never go. There's no comfort there. 
 
            On Wednesday, I taught class #1 of a six-week workshop on memoir at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and having just had this experience with Lauri, I was struck by how far these brand new memoir writers had to go in separating out their story from their life.  They all have tales of harrowing experiences, miraculous recoveries, brutal losses, poignant love – and they think that's all they need: the facts of their life. It's not so. They all have to figure out what, exactly, the story is, and what, exactly, it isn’t. They have to develop the mindset of a storyteller. That's the hard work.

             Can all of them do it? I believe they can. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I didn’t believe that. But will they all get there? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no. Becoming a storyteller takes time, patience, courage, a tough skin, an open heart, and all kinds of Post-It notes. Many writers give up before they get there.
           
            Will you?