Stories express the struggle (success or failure) of someone or something to meet a need.
Without going into too much detail (and, let me tell you, there is detail to be gone into!), let me just say that, in my experience, it all boils down to that struggle. Even non-narrative books, if they are to gain acclaim, must somehow address this issue. Want examples? I certainly would if I were reading this assertion for the first time. So see them toward the bottom of the post.
The question is, though, is there a place for this struggle in your memoirs, and how do you find this struggle in your own story?
Yes, there is definitely a place for it in your memoirs (scroll to the bottom of the post for some guidance), and you start finding its place there by starting to find its place in the first of your stories.
To find the struggle in your story, answer these questions:
- What is the overwhelming emotion of your story?
- What specific incident/observation has provoked you (or the central character) to feel that way?
- What need are you trying to meet that has caused this emotion?
- How are you trying to meet this need?
Let's try working it through first with an excerpt from a great piece of literature that we will not try to rewrite:
"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt."
~ Lee, H. (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. Chapter 1, paragraph 1. http://www.wssb.org/content/classrooms/tate/content/sophomores/stories/to_kill_a_mocking_bird/Chapters/1.htm
Now let's answer the questions:
- What is the overwhelming emotion of your story?Relief. We know because "Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged." In addition to being directly told, we are also shown; "he could pass and punt" even though "[h]is left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh."
- What specific incident/observation has provoked you (or the central character) to feel that way?"Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."
- What need are you trying to meet that has caused this emotion?Jem wants to meet the need to fit in (I am assuming) and to be physically whole in his own eyes (we are told, "he was seldom self-conscious about his injury" and "[h]e couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt").
- How are you trying to meet this need?In this case, he just has to wait and see. We know he has to wait because we are told "[w]hen it healed," indicating that a time period passed in which Jem presumably could not do anything. We can assume he had to "see" in the more active sense because "[h]is left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh" so he probably needed to adjust his prior throwing motion. The adjustment worked, however, because we are told, "he could pass and punt."
Now, we're not all Harper Lees, and even Harper Lee was so intimidated by her first novel that she never wrote again. So how do we proceed with our imperfect stories?
Well, I'm going to show you through example. After a brief brainstorming session on the smells, activities, sights that represent childhood in our minds, we each wrote briefly about these childhood memories (myself included). Here is my first draft from our writing time in the first session:
"August was Bandaids and Bactine, no shoes in the backyard even though my father constantly warned us that we would step on a bee and I actually did once. It was throwing all caution to the wind and doing summer till it hurt because there were only seventeen-and-a-half more days until school started.
"Every morning was dedicated to filling the wading pool with icy hose water and changing into our swimming suits even though we knew we couldn't get in before lunch or risk chattering teeth and blue lips. It was the promise of swimming that was important--that and the sunscreen which really turned us into greased pigs and made it impossible for Mom to actually catch us by the upper arm. I'm sure she knew this every morning as she slathered us with Johnson & Johnson's, but she must have figured preventing skin cancer was more important than discipline--or maybe she decided to
So now I answer those questions myself.
- What is the overwhelming emotion of your story?I'm not sure I have only one "emotion" here, and you may not know in your story either. But I feel fun, carefree-ness, whimsy, and a certain wildness/urgency.
- What specific incident/observation has provoked you (or the central character) to feel that way?I think it's a few things. We are told wildness with "August was Bandaids and Bactine" and "doing summer till it hurt" and shown with "we would step on a bee and I actually did once." We are also told urgency with "only seventeen-and-a-half more days until school started." The fun, carefree-ness, and whimsy aren't shown yet. I will need to add to get this done.
- What need are you trying to meet that has caused this emotion?The need for rest and relaxation, particularly before school's structure is reimposed. We are told this with "only seventeen-and-a-half more days until school started."
- How are you trying to meet this need?
By cramming in as much fun as possible. So far all I've shown is filling the pool and alluded to running from Mom.
1. What emotions have you not revealed through showing?
My first draft, initial write, above did not reveal these emotions:
2. What other aspects of these memories will bring out/illustrate these emotions?
So now I remember back to those August days and look for other aspects of them which show fun and whimsy. I remember and could write about:
- the dog in the wading pool during dinner
- Queen Anne's lace wedding rings so my sister could repeatedly "marry" our neighbor to the tune of "Roly Poly Fish-heads"
- Becoming butterflies with beach towels
- going house to house to get popsicles, claiming each time we hadn't gotten any before
- catching butterflies
- the agony of wasting precious time at the grocery store in the morning (and the coldness of the freezer section when you're wearing shorts)
Before I move on to tomorrow's work of revising, I am going to need to write more. Between now and then, I need to commit to putting at least some of these reminiscences into words.
Examples from earlier:
Let me give you some recent/popular examples of the struggle to meet a need:
- Harry Potter: The sacrifices of earlier generations pay off as Harry succeeds in providing peace for his world by consistently choosing mercy (which ends up backfiring on the bad guy). (Need: peace)
- The Hunger Games: Katniss succeeds in aiding the rebellion and securing freedom for society at-large through sacrificing her own personal freedom and those she has loved. (Need: food, belonging, freedom)
- The X-Files: Mulder and Scully occasionally save the world as they satisfy their need to know in their search for the truth. (Need: knowledge, truth)
- The Beverly Hillbillies: The Clampetts amuse us as they carve a place for their kind of people in Beverly Hills. (Need: authenticity, belonging)
- Roots: The family of Kunta Kinte attempts to regain their freedom and secure their dignity. (Need: freedom, dignity)
- The Diary of Anne Frank: A young girl struggles to come of age while growing up under extraordinary circumstances. (Need: security, mature identity)
- Black Boy: Richard Wright struggles to overcome discrimination by rising through his own intellect. (Need: authenticity, respect)
- Walden: Thoreau seeks peace and enlightenment through solitude and rustic life. (Need: authentic peace)
- And the Band Played on: As the conflict over morals wages on a political front, Shilts captures the struggle of marginalized populations to combat AIDS while the government looks the other way. (Need: life, moral sense)
- Dr. Benjamin Spock's New Baby and Childcare: Spock plays on our desire to protect our offspring as he shows us how to successfully raise our children. (Need: generativity, security for the young, confidence for parents)
- The Odyssey: Ulysses seeks his way home despite a curse. (Need: home, family)
- Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth Bennett seeks to order her surroundings (and her future) in spite of vexations and limited control. (Need: security, belonging)
- Jane Eyre: Jane seeks love and belonging despite all (numerous) obstacles. (Need: love, belonging)
- Frankenstein: Dr. Frankenstein seeks the secrets of life before realizing that they only bring death. (Need: knowledge, empathy, love, safety)
- The Complete Sherlock Holmes: The hyper intelligent Holmes unravels mystery after mystery while secretly seeking a true challenge to his wits. (Need: order, understanding, challenge)
Finding purpose in a memoir:
If you are looking for this direction in a larger work, which is essentially a collection of incidents which are all smaller stories, I would suggest listing between ten and twenty of these incidents and going through the same questions to help you find purpose in stories. As you complete these questions across your stories, you should see a pattern. This pattern will help you find the purpose of your story.
Once you find the purpose, I find it helpful to look to other unifying theories, such as genres of fiction, Blake Snyder's beat sheet, or the Snowflake Method to help you collect and organize your work. Even though these theories are primarily designed for fiction, they also simply describe the types of narratives that we tend to understand and expect as a culture. By structuring your stories or telling your memories within structures that are already understood in your community, you make your stories more accessible to your audience, and I, personally, find this to be a worthwhile goal. I have also found that the more I am able to conform to a narrative pattern, the less my readers can "put down" my story. I think that this interest is caused in part by meeting expectations which leads to a built in suspense ("Oh! The girl has met the guy! When is the kiss? What problems will they have with the parents? Will they get married?" or "The crime has been committed, and they've questioned the first suspect. What are they missing? When will they strike again?").