I've read numerous books on various genres of writing: some I've finished, some I've left off, for a variety of reasons, after a partial reading. There are many books out there that address all genres, all topics and many of the questions and insecurities of both the new and the seasoned writer. I'd have to say though, that I've not found as satisfying and useful a book on life writing as this one by Lisa Dale Norton, who details in this new book, her technique for writing and developing memoir.
The book is divided into several well-defined sections. The first is a discussion on writing memoir in general: what it is—"narrative nonfiction"...telling or narrating a story about something that actually happened. Norton moves on to the idea that as a memoirist, you must be sure to "claim your own truth, to accept responsibility for your actions, and to make sense of the actions of others in the context of a story." She explains the importance of looking at our stories in a larger context, with some balance and with new insights that have revealed themselves since the events occurred. The reader/writer recognizes the need for a broader view of her subject matter: to see a particular recollection through the eyes of others involved and perhaps from the vantage point of greater wisdom and a better sense of the time in which the event took place.
Following sections relate to Norton's actual process of writing memoir. This includes focussing on the stories themselves and how to bring them out in a deeper way. She begins with the "shimmering image, one of those memory pictures you've had for years.....a memory that rises in your consciousness like a photograph." Norton urges the reader to take note of these as they are the source of stories waiting to be told.
Finding satisfying ways to tell these stories is dealt with though exercises in subsequent chapters. One such exercise, The Mountaintop, helps with story structure and is "a way to find a beginning from the imaginary view of a mountaintop." It helps us define significant, even life-changing moments in our lives. Norton advises the reader to list these events for use in her next exercise, the Memory Map. Here we select one of our Mountaintop images and proceed to map it out, drawing detail of the physical reality of the event so that it takes on dimension and a life. As we create the map, other images—"shimmering images"—may come to mind and they in turn may be instrumental in bringing our stories out. Additional elements in Norton's overall process include collecting and sorting through personal mementoes or "stuff" such as diaries, calendars and newspaper clippings, all of which stimulate our ability to recapture images and to find meaning in them. Another part of the process is to recognize the need to research around the event: what was going on at the time, politically, culturally, etc. All of this embellishes the story and will bring interest to the reader. Finally, in this section, we learn about structure and how to get to the "Heart of the Story," how to portray our story and its meaning in a universal way so that our readers can identify with our experience.
The final section of the book is dedicated to crafting the process and deals with voice and perspective. Are you telling the story as it happened or in hindsight: are you the ten-year-old girl in the story or the fifty-year-old woman recounting it? Norton also talks about imagery, setting the scene and the use of cliché in writing.
Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memory completely lives up to its title. I found it to be informative, absorbing and extremely readable. Norton writes with great enthusiasm and made me feel as though anything is possible, that, yes, I can definitely do this and do this well. Her book is a must-have reference for anyone interested in writing memoir.
Lisa Dale Norton is the author of Hawk Flies Above. She is the founder of the Santa Fe Writing Institute and teaches writing at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit her website for more information. You can hear her excellent reading of her third chapter, on her website.
Check out our interview with the author of Shimmering Images.
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