Recently I gave a talk at Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation in Colma, California. Like many of the cemeteries south of San Francisco, Cyprus Lawn offers events and the lectures to the community.
About 14 people had come to listen to me talk about how to write one’s life story. Just one enthusiastic group and they seemed quite motivated to continue their manuscripts on their own.
But I became conscious of a gap in my instruction that I intend to amend from now on. Frequently I have given my workshop participants the instruction to write in class a scene from their lives. But as it happened Sunday, I instead drew from participants a compressed review of their life stories, a kind of telescoped summary.
So I’m taking this opportunity to describe what a scene is and should consist of in a manuscript .
Just as in a movie or in the theater, a scene in a manuscript is a narrative of a specific time and place with specific people interacting and exchanging dialogue.
People who write their memoirs without writing experience or consultation tend to want to write a summary of their life experience, avoiding whether consciously or not any dramatic interludes they may have experienced.
For instance: instead of telling me, the reader, that your parents were strict disciplinarians, describe to me the conversation you had with them about your dating behavior. Answering questions such as: Where did it take place? How old were you? What were you each doing at that time? Were you eating dinner or washing the car? Describe the surroundings and the weather if that’s pertinent.
What was your parent’s tone? How did you feel and express yourself to your mother or father? What limits did they insist you adhere to? How did you react? How did the activity that you were engaged in change because of the tone and content of your interactions? Did you throw the sponge down and walk away? Did you slam the door? Did one of you give the other an ultimatum? How did the interaction end?
The permutations are infinite, limited by only your personal and particular life experience in this situation.
The people who read your memoir want more than a synopsis of your life. They want the drama of your life. They want the emotional life you and those around you experienced. And the best way to do this is by being really specific about key interactions and events in your life. Don’t forget the feelings!
If you want more experience, practice or instruction writing scenes of your life, come to my workshop starting July 9 running for six Saturdays. Every class is two hours long and you get one hour of private consultation with me.