July 24, 2024

The Clarifying Power of Choosing a Lens for Your Memoir

Camera and film metaphors are quite helpful for writers embarking upon the journey of writing memoir. Such visuals can help writers understand where they’re supposed to be in a given scene, since when you write memoir, you’re both narrator and character. In our six-month course, we have a class dedicated to “writing your memoir like a movie” for the sake of beckoning memoir writers to enter into the scene they’re writing at the age they were then, with the experience they had then, even though everything they know today infuses meaning and insights into any scene from the past.

To write like you’re the director of your own movie is a helpful way to think about memoir writing since memoir is a slice of life, not your whole story. As such, you’re choosing bits and pieces, certain parts of your story to tell. You’ll also inevitably create composites—scenes, characters, experiences. You’ll also, by necessity, recreate dialogue and reimagine what happened (even as you retain the emotional truth of your life story). So in many ways you are directing the movie of a portion of your life, with all the requisite sensual details, character descriptions and interactions, and plot which that requires.

Your lens, therefore, is how you choose to see, and therefore tell, your story. Consider great film masters like Federico Fellini and Quentin Tarantino, Ava DuVernay and Chloé Zhao. What makes their films so memorable is their unique lens. One film critic wrote of Fellini that he “turned movie-goers on to an entirely new way of seeing.” Of Duvernay, an industry watcher wrote that she developed a voice and vision that flowered into a reality that combined her art and with her activism across forms.

Just like these directors, you can choose how to tell your story with the many tools available to you as a memoirist. You choose your structure. You choose your scope and your narrative style. You tell your story in your own voice, one that will invariably make itself better known to you the farther into your writing you get.

Importantly, a lens—your lens—is singular. A reader can only experience one scene at a time, so to think of your role as guiding your reader to see what you want them to see, to understand the message or messages that are central to that scene, is the work of being a good guide. Great filmmakers transport us to other worlds. They make stories that are universal, that make you feel intimacy with their characters, that invite you to understand your own existence through the story that’s unfolding on the screen. Great memoirists do the exact same heavy-lifting. Your job is to transport your reader into your world, to show them what’s universal—ie, what matters to them—about your story. To do this well, you must be in control of your camera. You must know what your lens is trying to capture, and whatever that moment might be, so too you must know why it’s significant.

A filmmaker would never shoot a scene “just because.” It has to matter to the story. Memoirists, too, must make their scenes matter. That it happened is not a good enough measure. Practice seeing your life as if you were a director, choosing what to include in the film of your life, always asking yourself rigorous questions—Why does scene belong? How does it further my story? What does this scene have to do with my themes? What message do I want to share with my reader through showing this scene?

Being behind the camera is empowering, and it can support you, too, by giving you a bit of distance, some much-needed focus on what’s unfolding, and some discipline around what you’re charged with, since you’ve tasked yourself with the hard work of sharing your story. Make it matter. Be a visionary director. Step behind the lens of your own story—and make memoir magic.

We invite you to join us for THE MAGIC OF MEMOIR, starting April 5, 2022, and going 6 consecutive Tuesdays. Your teachers will be:

• Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy, teaching on YOUR CAST
• Ashley C. Ford, author of Somebody’s Daughter, teaching on YOUR PROTAGONIST
• Joshua Mohr, author of Model Citizen, teaching on YOUR ARC
• Anna Qu, author of Made in China, teaching on YOUR CONFLICT
• Linda Joy Myers, co-leader of this program and author of Song of the Plains, teaching on YOUR MESSAGE
• And me, Brooke Warner, co-leader of this program and author of Write On, Sisters!, teaching on YOUR LENS

The course is $249, everything is recorded.

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