In honor of Valentine’s Day and the end of Desirée Magney’s tenure as publisher of the Little Patuxent Review, we’re republishing her advice to memoir writers. There’s still time to submit your own memoir or personal essay to LPR–we’re accepting submissions through March 1.
LPR’s publisher, Desirée Magney, offers some insight on writing narrative and memoir.
Little Patuxent Review is always searching for captivating true stories. But having a great story to tell is just the first step to writing a compelling memoir or personal narrative. What makes a memoir stand out? What gives it appeal? What makes it relatable to a larger audience? How does a good story become a work of art?
Elements such as a narrative arc, character development, dialogue, incorporating sensory detail, scene writing, and musing all contribute to making a good story a work of art, just like in fiction. But in memoir writing, the narrator is you, and the story to tell, uniquely your own. And in telling the story, a good narrator shows the reader how events created a conflict, a change, a transformative moment. We see the narrator grapple and muse and come away with some kind of reckoning of the situation. And even though the reader may never have experienced circumstances like the writer has gone through, the reader can relate to it at some level. The reader is on a journey with the narrator and sees the bigger picture.
The relevance to the reader may occur in myriad ways. For example, there may be a commonality in circumstance. In, “White Shoulders,” a story I published about my mother’s lifelong favorite scent and her decline and passing, readers may be able to relate to the link between scent and memory, to the illness or death of a dear one, or to a daughter’s guilt as she sees her mother slip away. In circumstances where a reader may not be able to relate to the specific story, there may be a larger relevance or lesson to learn. For example, perhaps not many readers of “Taking Flight,” a story I wrote and published about my daughter’s decision to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan, soon after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, could relate to those precise circumstances. But anyone with a child can relate to the struggle of parents to let go of their young adult children, especially when fear for the child’s safety feels overwhelming.
“Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events…What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
In a class I teach at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I delve into more of the elements that make a story engaging to a reader. My other favorite books on craft are: The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers by Laura Oliver; Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz; Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg; and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Our editors are looking for stories that are true, well written with all the elements mentioned above, and that connect, as memoirist Cheryl Strayed says, “to the greater, grander truth.” Send us your story.
Desirée Magney is a former practicing attorney who writes narrative nonfiction and poetry. Her nonfiction has been published in bioStories, Bethesda Magazine, The Delmarva Review, The Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine (Washington Voices column), and The Writer’s Center – Art Begins with a Story. Her poetry has been published in Jellyfish Whispers and was included in the Best of Anthology, Storm Cycle, published by Kind of a Hurricane Press. She is the former publisher of Little Patuxent Review and teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.