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Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays
The comment I find myself making most frequently to my students and to many of the writers who submit personal narratives to Fourth Genre is, "The main thing that's missing in this piece is your story." You're probably thinking, here comes another endorsement of those confessional narratives—the ones that give creative nonfiction a bad name. Actually, one of the reasons why I think we're seeing too many of those pieces is because a lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the "inner story"; that is, the story of their thinking.
Let me give you a personal example. A while ago, I wrote a memoir called "Trading Off." It was about a four-year struggle I had with a high school coach who might or might not have been anti-Semitic. While I was writing it, I was trying to recall the shame I felt and the humiliation I allowed myself to put up with—both of which, I discovered, were the price I paid for wanting to play baseball for this punitive coach. At readings, whenever I introduce the piece as a baseball memoir, I watch the expressions on the faces of several of the women in the audience. Some roll their eyes, some cross their arms, some even grimace. To them, it's another a baseball story, about some poor kid's bad experience with a mean-spirited coach—the kind of jock story their boyfriends or husbands may have told them over and over again.
It doesn't always happen that way, but often enough by the time I've finished reading the piece, the audience's body language has changed. Some people, men and women alike, have figured out that the memoir isn't really about baseball. Baseball is the setting, the stage for the conflict between the young boy and the coach. The coach is the gatekeeper and the narrator wants more than anything else at 13 to pitch for the high school baseball team. But the more interesting and important story is what goes on in the mind of the [End Page 185] narrator as he agonizes over how badly he wants this, at the same time as he's questioning his decision to put up with this coach's tactics.
What he repeatedly asks himself throughout the memoir is "Why am I doing this?" Indeed, why is he doing it? What makes him so determined, and so desperate? And how much humiliation is he is willing to put up with in order to make the team? Quite a bit, it seems. That's why I titled the memoir "Trading Off."
Often, during the question-and-answer period, or after the reading, some of the same people who initially resisted the piece will tell me their own stories about humiliating experiences they've had with similar kinds of gatekeepers: punitive teachers, abusive parents, cruel childhood friends, and so on. A woman once volunteered that the memoir reminded her of her own teenage struggle with a harsh and demanding ballet teacher.
That's exactly the kind of response I hope for. I don't want the reader to come away from the memoir thinking that it's another "poor, poor, pitiful me" story. I want the reader to feel the humiliation and shame that I did, as well as to understand that I willingly chose to make this tradeoff in order to prove myself to this hard-nosed coach.
But, I doubt that readers—especially the skeptical ones—would have been able to make those personal connections had I written only the literal "here's what happened to me" story.
In her book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick makes this same point when she writes, "Every work [of literature] has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance...