Is It a Great Story?

judging one’s own story

Dutifully as any writer worth her salt ought to do, I regularly read reams of advice on how to become a better writer. Recently, I got zapped with this statement by Maggie Langrick, publisher at Wonderwell Press, in her guest post On Jane Friedman’s newsletter.

All this goes with the caveat, of course, that nothing will help if it’s not a good book. Foremost, your narrative must “tell a great story rich in insight, color, drama, sparkling dialogue, and satisfying character development.”

combating the inner imposter syndrome

That last sentence of Langrick’s post immediately set off the live wire response of my inner imposter syndrome. That’s the part of me that hesitates to call myself a writer at all, let alone be willing to claim that my book could have all the sterling characteristics Langrick claims it must. Is my memoir all those things? I want to answer with a resounding “yes,” but hesitate. So, let’s apply the criteria to my memoir.

My initial interest in the post was to discover if, indeed, I could position the memoir as a narrative that blends the story with self-help. Before I could analyze this aspect of the book, however, the first imperative would be to begin where Langrick ended-with the caveat.

penetrating the inner nature

To be “rich in insight” a creative work needs to shed light on the inner nature of our life experience, offer discernment into underlying truths of relationships and events, and provide an understanding of the motivational forces behind people’s actions, thoughts, or behavior. At its core, insight is deep self-knowledge.

The memoir abounds with such moments of insight. As our family grows and contends with increasing challenges, our emotional and psychological motivations become increasingly complex, as do the barriers thrown in our way by the medical, educational, and governmental structures of our society.

all five senses of the rainbow

Color in writing is both about actual visual color (description in terms of hue, lightness, and saturation) but more broadly refers to all the elements that an author uses to help the reader visualize the characters, the place, and the event all at once. The best writers do this by crafting descriptions that call on all five senses.

My memoir could, perhaps, be richer. All five senses are engaged as well as many interior emotions throughout the book, but the narrative rarely relies on in-depth description of a given moment. Cumulatively, however, I’m willing to say, the story is rich in color.  The book takes readers on a rollercoaster ride of wins and losses by bringing them along on the family’s journey. They hear lullabies and sobs, see sweet toddler smiles and contorted seizures, feel a husband’s strong arms and a son’s limp body, smell crisp sea breezes and old cigarettes, and taste the sweetness of a child’s kiss and the copper bitterness of her blood.

all the world’s a stage

Ah, drama! The first concept that springs to mind when we hear that word is actors on a stage of some sort, be it live theater or a movie or TV set. So, what can it mean for a memoir to have drama? It goes back to a rule that writers hear all the time, “Show don’t tell.” Like a dramatist, a memoirist can use dramatic techniques to increase the emotional, intellectual, and moral engagement between the audience and the narrative.

Several techniques or devices combine to add drama to any narrative, and memoir is no exception. The story needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Relatable, complex characters interact directly with one another through engaging dialogue and physical action. Essential to the dramatic element, conflict must fuel the narrative. And most importantly, the story’s power lies not only in its ability to entertain but also in its capacity to engage with issues that resonate deeply with the human condition.

tragedy and triumph

In my memoir, drama and dialogue are interdependent. Both the character’s actions and their words bear witness to the story’s tragedy and its triumph. Almost immediately, the young couple’s happy complacence shatters and years of struggle ensue. We hear them try to map a path through previously unimagined challenges, making decisions no parent should ever have to make. We see them take risks for the sake of their family, but also to protect their own sanity. And we see them stagger through mazes of institutional bureaucracies in their fight to make a good life for their children. Their path may be uniquely convoluted, but their goal with which any parent can resonate.

the developing self

Finally, the essence of memoir demands that the author experiences a transformation. The reader expects all the characters to develop over the course of the narrative, but this is most important for the first-person narrator. The memoirist cannot simply relate a chronology of life events, no matter how unusual or interesting. She needs to share with her readers how her experience changed her. What has she learned? How does she understand life differently? Are there profound truths she now knows that she might not have known if the circumstances of her life had been different?

a different me

No doubt most parents begin the parenting journey rather naïve about what lies ahead, but I’d be willing to say that the young woman who blithely receives the news of her first pregnancy at the beginning of my memoir becomes wiser, more caring, more determined, and unbelievably resilient as the story moves forward. She is, indeed, transformed.

This essay also transformed me. I’ve moved from a writer overwhelmed by Langrick’s criteria for a good book to one who feels certain her memoir stands the test. Now I’m ready to tackle , Langrick’s central question, “Is it crafted as a memoir with a message?”

“It’s always painful when you’re writing memoirs because you’ve got to go through the dark places, but it gives you a chance to find out the person you really are, not the person you thought you were.” ~ Neil Simon

Interview with Charles Flowers, October 1999

2 Replies to “Is It a Great Story?”

  1. Thanks, Jule. It makes me wonder if I should start writing a memoir, but the comments by the people you quote make me wonder if I has the hutzpah to make it a good yarn.

    1. I believe in you! You have a great story to tell. And remember, the first draft is the “vomit draft.” Just get it down. Then start to write it. Think about reading George Saunders’ “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.” He’s great on the joy of revision.
      Best Luck,

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