Carleena is an MFA Creative Nonfiction candidate at Goucher College. This is her second semester craft paper.
How do nonfiction writers organize anecdotes and reflections in such a way that a story emerges? How do we write a story that is more than a sequence of events? How do we write a story that is compelling to readers who do not know us? These were the questions I hoped to learn answers to as I researched this craft paper.
The story I am writing is a hybrid, part first person memoir and part third person profile. My challenge was to figure out how to use material from two people to create a story that would emotionally engage a reader. My first question was – what is a story?
According to Wikipedia, “A narrative or story is any report of connected events, real or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, and/or still or moving images”.
That’s great, but how does a writer create story, specifically? What are the tools? What are the components of story?
According to The 90-Day Novel, by Alan Watt, “In story, we’re looking at a larger meaning. What is our story about? What are we attempting to express?”
Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, uses humor and narrative drive to keep the listener engaged, evoke emotion, and want to know what happens next. According to Ira, there are two basic building blocks in storytelling, “the anecdote, which is a sequence of actions; and the moment of reflection, where the storyteller defines: What is the key point? What does this all mean? The anecdote and the moment of reflection are interwoven to make a story.”
For this craft paper, I will look at two books that successfully used the tools in the narrative tool box to create compelling stories with universal narratives.
The first book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is a memoir about Cheryl’s solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail plays a backdrop to the thoughts that went through her mind as she dealt with and made amends with a dark past: the death of her mother, drug abuse, and the loss of home.
Wild is narrated by the author, several years after she completed the trail. The narrator’s reflective voice comes in sparingly, but enough for the reader to know that she survived the trail and is writing about her journey in a state of peace. I first read this book two years ago and knew there was something about it that made me compelled to turn the page and read to the end. It also made me think of my own life and feel inspired in a way that some other books hadn’t. Why was that? Back then, I didn’t have the writer’s vocabulary of story structure and universal narratives to understand the tools Strayed used to write a book that resonated with so many people.
The second book, Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, is a literary work of fiction, but the main character’s thoughts are so personal, it feels like a memoir. The story takes place in 1964 when the main character, Eileen, was a 24 year old woman who doubled as a caretaker for her alcoholic father, and worked as a secretary in a prison for boys. The narrator, a seventy something Eileen, interjects herself in the story several times, so the reader is reminded who the story teller is – someone who has had time to think about the story she is telling and look at her younger self more objectively.
“It is unlike anything you’ve ever read,” David Sedaris said of Eileen on his book tour this October. I sat in the audience as he held the book up for everyone to see. He said he had copies of the book in the lobby for sale and invited the author to join him on tour later that year. I was curious and once I started reading Eileen, just like David Sedaris said, I couldn’t put it down. Why was this? What tools did the author use to write a book that created a narrative drive? How did she use those tools to make the reader feel emotionally connected to its main character? How did she employ this character’s transformation from beginning to end?
In a Guardian article, Paul Laity wrote, “(Ottessa) is candid about Eileen being a deliberate exercise in playing with the format of commercial fiction to get the attention of a big publisher.” In the interview, Moshfegh said, “I went out and bought a book called The 90-Day Novel, by Alan Watt. It’s ridiculous, claiming that anybody can write a great book, and quickly too. And I thought if I were to do this, what would happen, would my head explode?” She followed the book for 60 days, then “Eileen took a life of its own”. She wrote the first draft in six weeks and spent ten months rewriting it.
I was curious, so I read The 90-Day Novel too, not to discover a story telling formula, because formulas could make stories predictable and were associated with plot driven genre fiction. I hoped Alan Watt’s book would give me insight into other ways of thinking about my project.
As we go through the components of story, I will reference Alan Watt’s and Ira Glass’ story tools and unpack how those story tools were used in Wild and Eileen. I will also meditate on how I could use those tools in my own project.
“Story structure is a way of organizing our thoughts, conscious and subconscious, into a coherent narrative.” (The 90-Day Novel)
In Wild, chapter one begins at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail in California and ends at the Bridge of the Gods, in Oregon. Cheryl uses the trail as a structural tool to move the reader chronologically from point A (California) to point B (Oregon). The secondary story, and really the main story, are the thoughts she confronts while she’s on the trail. She threads those into the present narrative of her hike. Her thoughts are non-chronological and the author goes deeper into her subconscious the further she gets on the trail.
In Eileen, the chapters in the book are divided into the seven days preceding Christmas. Actual text devoted to those days is quite minimal, however, because the narrator uses the framework of the week to thread in backstory. We learn about this backstory through the character’s thoughts about prior events. The reader senses conflict from the beginning, and feels an emotional connection to this seemingly complex, disturbed main character. There is a sense that the events that happen at the end are a focal point of the story, and the story moves the reader in that direction, alluding to what is going to happen.
On Story Beginnings
Wild starts with a prologue, a scene in which Cheryl is thirty-eight days into her solo hike and is sitting on a mountain ledge to rest her feet. She accidentally knocks one boot over the ledge and watches it tumble away from her until it is swallowed up in a canopy of trees. Since the second boot remains useless, she picks it up and throws it. There is mystery, tension, and a sense of conflict. The reader wonders what she will do without her boots. The reader wonders what led her to be on a mountain top by herself, days away from another person. The reader senses an anger and sorrow in her and wonders what that is about. The first couple pages create the narrative drive and the reader wants to know more. The prologue is short, and followed by chapter one, which takes place several weeks prior to the boot incident. The reader is compelled to turn the pages and read to the scene with the boots, to find out what happens next.
Ottessa begins her book, Eileen, with a brief description of how the main character felt about herself at 24. It is clear to the reader that this was a young woman who did not like her appearance and had a destructive sense of self-worth. Eileen is an unusual character and the reader wonders what is the point of this self loathing. At the bottom of the second page, the narrator answers that question. “My last days as that angry little Eileen took place in late December, in the brutal cold town where I was born and raised.” The reader knows something is going to happen later in the week that will change Eileen’s current circumstances. The implication is that the “something” will be transformative.
As I think about creating a narrative drive for my book within the first couple pages, I think about using the tool Cheryl did, which was to pull a dramatic scene from the middle of the story to the beginning. Or, I could do what Ottessa did, which was allude to something that is going to happen later in the book, and create suspense from the first or second page. It is also possible to begin with an inciting incident of historical context. In my case, that would be the attacks of 9/11, which play a central role in the timeframe of my story.
According to The 90-Day Novel, “An event is irrelevant without context. We provide context for understanding what we are attempting to say through the event.” If I were to use 9/11 at the beginning of my story, my job as a writer would be to find out why this historical event is important in the context of my project.
“Character is revealed through conflict. We understand our hero in relationship to others and his environment. His responses reveal character.” (The 90-Day Novel)
In Eileen, the reader is led into the internal life of this self-loathing character, in relationship to her environment. She describes the house she shares with her father, an alcoholic who sleeps in a lazy boy chair pushed next to the stove for heat. Their house is dirty and collects dust. The author doesn’t have to tell the reader that the main character’s life was miserable. The reader can draw their own conclusions through vivid, disturbing scenes. The reader learns about Eileen through her interactions with her co-workers at the boys prison. To her co-workers, she is a nobody, like fading wallpaper behind stacked filing cabinets.
We learn about Cheryl’s character through the memories she has of family members and friends. Her environment, the trail, is a backdrop for those memories, but offers a glimpse into her transformation. Through her relationship to the environment, the reader sees her learn trail skills as she goes along. We can see her going through the process of healing as she confronts and comes to terms with each past trauma.
“Story isn’t about a (character) pursuing his goal and succeeding. Nobody would care. We are interested in how our (character) shifts in perception.” (The 90-Day Novel)
In both books, the story moves through anecdotes of events that happen, and reflection. In each scene, the character wants something, and hopes that it will come true. Each time, something gets in the way and challenges them. Through that, the character has a shift in perception and learns something new about themselves and what they want.
“As a result of the journey our (character) knows something he did not know at the beginning. The story involves a journey of reframing an old belief in a way that supports our (character) in his life.” (The 90-Day Novel)
In both books, it seems clear that the author had a sense of where they wanted the book to end. They had a clear idea what the main character’s life looked like at the end of the story. The reader feels they are moving toward that moment, because of the way the stories were structured. With Wild, as Cheryl moves North along the Pacific Crest Trail, the reader senses the story is getting closer to the end.
In Eileen, the story is structured in the seven days leading up to Christmas. The reader knows they are getting close to the end as each chapter and, hence, another day comes to an end. We know, because the narrator tells us, that something is going to happen and the book will end with Eileen leaving the town and her misery behind.
In an interview with the Guardian, Ottessa said that when she first sat down to write the novel, she wrote the ending first. The character of Eileen came later, after she developed the premise of the story.
In both books, neither character was the same at the end of the book as they were in the beginning. Both characters experienced transformation. They were empowered, they were on their own and liberated. At the end, they didn’t depend on anyone, and no one depended on them.
“Humor connects us. It makes us care. Humor is about writing truthfully. There is humor in our desire to be good, in our fear of being left out, our embarrassing need for connection, our need to be acknowledged.” (The 90-Day Novel)
I trust a writer more when they don’t take themselves too seriously, and use humor to offer moments of levity. Humor in this sense is not slapstick, or jokes, or puns. It’s not the character trying to say something funny. So, how does a writer write this type of humor?
According to the Hidden Tools of Comedy book by Steve Kaplan, the comic equation is, “An ordinary guy or gal, struggling against insurmountable odds, without many of the required skills and tools with which to win, yet never giving up hope.” Both Eileen and Wild used humor to allow the reader breathing room and to root for the character in the absurdity of the situation they got themselves in.
In Wild, there is comedy surrounding Cheryl’s backpack and her idea that she can hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, without prior backpacking experience. Let’s break down the comic equation: “An ordinary guy or gal…” Cheryl is just a young woman with a crazy idea. She’s not an Ironman athlete or park ranger who could more easily navigate a 1,100 mile trek alone. “Struggling against insurmountable odds…” She has to adapt to a backpack that is too heavy, and a trail where she encounters snakes, bears and insufficient water supply. “Without any of the required skills and tools with which to win…” When she starts her hike, she doesn’t know how to pack things she actually needs, or put up a tent, or filter water. “Yet never giving up hope…” Despite all her obstacles and lack of knowledge, she has hope and determination that she can achieve her goal. Even when situations challenge her, she keeps up hope that she can overcome them.
In her writing, Cheryl, the narrator, isn’t trying to be funny or make herself say funny things. It’s the situation that she puts herself in that makes the situation humorous.
“There is humor in our rage. There is humor in our fragility. Humor keeps drama in check.” (The 90-Day Novel)
For Eileen, there is humor in her self-deprecating sense of self and the things she does to cope with life. There is humor in the end when she tries to make a new friend at work and is called to answer a preposterous challenge.
In a Guardian interview, Ottessa said, “Defective people are more interesting. Nobody wants to be bossed around by somebody claiming to be perfect. When you read a book, you are letting somebody else’s voice boss you around. Everybody is defective but if someone reveals their vulnerability, I trust them more.”
Speaking With Authority
Cheryl didn’t write her book with the point of educating someone about the Pacific Crest Trail. She saw nature writing as a hobby men of privilege were granted, who had the leisurely time to wander their properties and write about it.
In a Vulture article, Kathryn Schulz writes, “Strayed is not in the business of introducing herself or her readers to the outdoors. When she was writing the book, Cheryl says, “my editor would always come back to me and say, ‘I want to see this, what are the plants, what does it look like?’ And I’d be like, ‘It’s just, you know, wilderness, okay?’
“That is the difference between their voice and mine,” Strayed said, “I make no attempt to be the authority.” Cheryl was, however, uniquely qualified to tell the story of her experiences along her hike and the transformation that happened internally.
Meanwhile, Ottessa grew up the daughter of an immigrant family and always felt like an outsider. Her family lived in a wealthy community, but her parents were not rich and drove a rusty car. In an interview with the Guardian Ottessa said, “I think growing up in Newton is responsible for my obsession with the oppressed, defective psyche because that was my experience.” Because of this, she is interested in writing about people who don’t fit in, who are repressed, and on the margins of society. She can imagine and write about such a person’s point of view because she grew up in that environment.
Betrayal of the Status Quo
“There is a ruthlessness to the creative act. It often involves a betrayal of the status quo, we must give ourselves permission to write the forbidden.” (The 90-Day Novel)
Ottessa received mostly positive reviews of her book, but some criticized her for writing such an unlikeable character. In response, Ottessa said in a Guardian interview, “Eileen is a character that makes people uncomfortable. She is not going to, you know, cheer you up. But might it not be liberating to hear the thoughts of someone who is completely ignored by society? Eileen is not perverse. I think she’s totally normal … I haven’t written a freak character; I’ve written an honest character.”
Although Cheryl deployed traditional narrative tools of storytelling throughout her book, one component that she did not follow is the traditional ending. In traditional endings with a female lead, the woman finds a man at the end, and the relationship is expected to complete her. At the end of Wild, Cheryl makes it to the end of the trail, and onto the Bridge of the Gods, her final destination. She only has a couple coins to rub together, and is alone. The ending is successful anyway, despite a traditional Hollywood ending.
I am aware that I may be breaking a status quo by writing two people’s stories side by side, a memoir and third person profile. Usually, a book is a memoir, or it’s a third person profile, but usually they aren’t written together.
“Story is an investigation into some primal aspect of humanity. It’s about respect, ambition, power, vanity, justice, equality, honor, jealousy, shame or freedom.” (The 90-Day Novel)
In an interview with Longform Podcast, Cheryl said,
“No good memoir is really about the writer, and yet, it is deeply about the writer… When writing, remember the ancients. Nobody wants to read a book about your little tale. Nobody should read my book because I took an interesting hike and I love my mom a lot and she died. That’s a small insignificant story to anyone but me. My job as a writer was to make it about other people. That’s the writer’s work, is consciousness, it doesn’t happen by accident that you learn how to use your life as material for art. This is what we talk about when we talk about having to apprentice yourself to the craft of writing…. You have to do the deep sea diving, going deeper, and once you do that, when you speak in the truest most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”
In an Electric Literature interview, Ottessa said, “I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves, and how they may conflict with other people’s stories about the world, and how, if we’re operating under a delusion, we might make really weird decisions. So I wondered, what would it be like if I exposed what happens in a person’s mind when she is being conspired against, held hostage to society?” Ottessa makes her book universal by creating a character who feels like an outsider.
“As writers, we are seeking to understand something that we don’t yet fully comprehend. (The 90-Day Novel)
And finally…What is the Purpose of Story?
In a presentation, Ira Glass says, “The power of narrative, it’s a back door into a deep place inside of us. In a place where reason doesn’t necessarily hold sway. When a story gets inside of us, it makes us less crazy. There has to be a person’s story that you hear, where finally you get a picture in your head of, this is what it’s like to be this person. Until that moment, you know nothing and everything about you as a person deals with the information that you’re given in a flawed way.”