Thursday, January 15, 2009

Writerly Assignment: Six-Word Memoir

What would you write if you were asked to share the story of your life in a single sentence? The online magazine Smith asked its readers this question. The result is Not Quite What I Was Planning, a collection of six-word memoirs by famous and not-so-famous writers, artists and musicians.

According to National Public Radio, the "stories are sometimes sad, often funny - and always concise." I agree. The sentences left me laughing out loud, pensive, and wondering about how this technique might be applied to the hard work of writing a novel.

In the inspirational phase of novel writing, we don't always know what our main characters want or how his or her story will end. This is the great mystery of the process. We follow a whisper or a snippet of dialogue in search of a six-word memoir for each main character, and somewhere along the way we hope to find motivations and goals worth pursuing.

During the next phase, we explore our discoveries. We walk our characters across the story stage, allowing them to interact with one another, and we experiment with pacing, throughlines and setting. This is where the hard work of writing begins, and where, I'd wager, many aspiring novelists give up.

The truth is that if a main character's main goal isn't compelling enough to carry a story--if his life in a sentence doesn't make you want to read more--then it's time to revamp the character's deepest desire or dump that story idea and start again.

Letting go of the characters, scenes and diaolgues that don't support our story is never easy. But every seasoned writer knows it's a necessary part of the process. As many times as I've done it, I never get used to the queasy feeling I experience when it's time to relegate another 60, 100 or more pages creative to my clips file.

The only thing that keeps me going at this point is knowing that those pages weren't wasted. Inevitably, in writing through my story yet again, I've deepened my understanding of my characters and their motivations and the story that must be told. In essence, I'm in search of their six-word memoir.

Note to self: Hmmm. I wonder how the six-word memoir might be applied to stalled projects or those pieces to which I throw up my hands and blame writer's block. In light of the six-word memoir, I wonder if the reason the pieces aren't working is because I haven't yet defined the main characters' six word memoirs. *Tapping one's chin.* I definitely plan to explore the idea.

No comments: