Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
Thank you Judith Barrington, for this invaluable suggestion.
It was my turn to come up with a prompt for our small writing group. Since we’re all working on family stories, I turned to the six pages of notes I took while reading Barrington’s Writing the Memoir nearly three years ago. I didn’t get past the middle of the first page when this one jumped out at me.
I gave a sheet like the one in the picture to each of my friends and read it aloud. They stared at me for a few moments, brows furrowed.
“This is hard,” Michelle said.
I set the timer for 30 min.
When time was up, Michelle had a wonderfully expanded version of the family story that her great-great-grandfather was the Irish landowner’s son who ran off with the gate-keeper’s daughter. Love gave them the strength and courage escape the rigid class boundaries that kept them apart and the devastation of the potato famine that was bearing down on the entire country. She painted a wonderfully vivid picture of the dark night when they stole away on horseback and rode to Galway to board the ship that would take them to America.
Suzanne devastated us with an account of the seemingly ordinary afternoon when debris from a sudden tornado struck her street-car conductor great-grandfather in the head as he was walking home from work. He was confined to an insane asylum for the rest of his life. She depicted authentic details of 1890’s St. Louis to give us the full impact of how lives can be shattered in a single, surprising moment.
Both of them used setting extremely well to bring us into the moment of events that happened more than a hundred years ago and to brilliantly illuminate their themes.
I see that I must apply this guideline to every chapter of the fictionalized family stories I’m writing now: strip away prosaic detail; use setting, action and inner thoughts to get to the significance of what my characters experienced.