“The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and lastly, the solid cash.”
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
This lesson is about one aspect of writing: narrative. Narrative is the core of writing what you want to write. By definition, narration puts a succession of events into words. Narration’s main concern is action; it moves your story. Simply put, narrative transforms past incidents into a carefully selected order giving momentum and suspense to all prose.
What is Narrative?
In your writing so far, I suspect that the majority have given descriptions: a window into the world of your Peace Corps experience. When done well, descriptive writing can give the reader the opportunity to see and understand unfamiliar objects, experiences, or perceptions. You have also taken familiar Peace Corps experiences and made them new and interesting by writing about them in a fresh way.
While description shows us people, places, events, etc., narrative takes the material to the next step. It forms the spine for your book on the Peace Corps experience. Without narrative, your prose would be a cluster of images that had no purpose.
The purposes of narrative are:
• To tell an entertaining story;
• To interpret an event that has significance to the writer;
•To support a thesis (a governing idea).
Narrative usually includes these elements (but not always) either in a novel or creative non-fiction:
• Characters: the person (or people), either real or imaginary, whose actions set the story in motion. In your memoir this ‘character’ is YOU!
• Setting: the place and time of your Peace Corps experience;
•Situation: the carefully ordered sequence of happenings that involves the characters and settings;
• Conflict: the struggle that the main character wages: against himself, against another person, against nature, against convention, against society. (Any conflict that arises in your writing will be intensified by the striving of you or who you are writing about. That’s what narrative conflict is - movement toward a goal in spite of barriers, handicaps, drawback, and delays. As suspense builds, the reader wonders, “Will the character achieve his goals?” “Will you survive the Peace Corps?”)
• Climax: the point of highest interest in the story, leading to the resolution of the conflict. (And it might even happen in your COS session.)
How Narratives Work
Biography, autobiography and memoir are filled with narration that tells a good story. Narration is the rhetorical mode that allows us to make sense of our personal experience. We choose an event of particular importance and we interpret its meaning for ourselves as well as our readers. It doesn’t matter really whether the incident is funny or poignant, uplifting or disturbing. Any moment in your life can form the stuff of powerful narrative.
How many of your have read Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen? There is a chapter in that wonderful book of her life in Kenya about an earthquake during the author’s years as a plantation owner. The first half of the chapter tells the “what happened,” and the second half is the “psychological and spiritual impact of the event.” You can look it up easily under the chapter heading of “The Earthquake” in her book. (But you would be wiser to read the whole book.)
What’s Dinesen does is not just give the factual account of the earthquake, but personalizes it, sharing with us her innermost feelings. She transforms the experience.
In Dinesen’s piece, after the third and last shock, she writes, “the last shock of it came, it brought with it such an overwhelming feeling of joy that I do not remember ever in my life to have been more suddenly and thoroughly transported.”
In interpreting the events of the narrative you have to realize that all details are not equally important. Analyze them in terms of: who, what, when, where, and how, and as you write, you’ll learn which events need to be dramatized and which need only be summarized.
You need - besides the personal experience in the narrative - a thesis, a governing idea. This governing idea is the umbrella over your whole book. It need not be stated, but it must be understood by you. For example, look at what Sarah Erdman has to say about the “governing idea” of her book, Nine Hills To Nambonkaha.
“I wanted it to be about my community - how they lived, what they believed, how they viewed life and the outside world. I knew that in order for it to read more like storytelling and less like an anthropological study, and for it to have a broader appeal, I needed to tell the story. What was crucial to me was that the reader not be forced to understand and love this village right off, but that they start out as bewildered as I was, learn about its quirks and qualities and foibles, slowly start to see them as not really as different as the reader had perhaps imagined, and eventually grow to love the village as I did. So I chose not to include stories about my trips to other parts of the country, or about the other volunteers I was with. And I didn’t talk too much about my own physical and emotional state very much.”
Your Governing Idea
Don’t try to do too much. I believe that if you tell your story, it will come together to make a point, and if you can make just one point in your prose, you have been successful. Just remember that narrations are not epic in scope. They usually deal with a single situation whose DETAILS are presented in a logical, understandable sequence. You will have many narrations in your story, and each will tell a different story, but all in the end will support the central theme of your book, and your experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
In telling your story it is important to know your audience. At the moment, here in 2015, less than 260,000 Americans have been in the Peace Corps. But many more have heard about “the Peace Corps” and have some notion (however limited) of what it is. These groups are your audience, and if your story is told well, it will be well read.
But how do you write for all of them? You don’t. You pick the person you want to whom you want to tell your story. That person could be yourself, a friend - whomever. What is important is having the “idea” of the ideal reader in your mind as you write, as you tell your story.
Next lesson we will look at two other elements of narrative: pace and dialog.
At the moment, I’m sure, all of these terms might appear to be too confusing. Don’t worry. Soon the separate elements such as pacing, selection of details, time compression, and dialogue will become second nature, and you’ll incorporate narration in every piece you write - without knowing you are doing it. One thing about anyone who joins the Peace Corps: They Learn Fast!
Write a brief summary stating the governing idea for your book and post it where you will see it every morning of everyday that you are writing your memoir or novel.
Keep writing! And always remember. Once you write it down, it belongs to you.