by Jerry Waxler
Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness is a treasure trove of lessons about memoir writing and about life. In the previous posts, I wrote about the “nonfiction bonus” — gifts of knowledge about the world. In this post, I write about gifts of knowledge about memoir writing. What can we aspiring memoir writers learn from Surrounded by Madness to help us turn life into memoir?
Coming of Age Provides the Suspense of a Ticking Clock
Pruchno’s memoir is a pageturner. How does she achieve the effect of getting a reader to want to know what happens next? I once heard a great tip from author-turned-literary-agent Marie Lamba who says that good stories contain ticking clocks.
The ticking sound conjures the image of a sweating man with wire clippers urgently trying to stop the explosion. However, almost any dramatic tension can be elevated by the pressure of time. When you are racing to a job interview, a traffic jam can create a thudding heart and a hand slammed against the steering wheel. This awareness of the importance of time can help you generate forward motion in your story.
Marie Lamba says that a good story contains at least two ticking clocks. To understand this notion, I read her young adult novel Over My Head. The teenage heroine is often worried about time, for example, hoping to get home in time for her curfew. On a slightly longer timeframe, in a few more weeks, the summer break will be over. Will she get together with her guy before he leaves for college? Turn the page to find out. And on a longer timeframe, a beloved uncle struggles with a dire medical condition.
Rachel Pruchno’s memoir about her daughter’s coming of age builds suspense with clocks ticking on every page. In the shorter time-frame, each crisis causes tension as the parents try to get to the bottom of the daughter’s latest mishap, hoping she didn’t sabotage herself, hoping there is an innocent explanation, hoping the next psychologist will provide the solution.
In addition to these immediate pressures, there is another underlying sense of urgency that stretches across the entire period of growing up. Every parent knows that a child must achieve a sense of personhood and in general understand the rules of adulthood before going out into the world.
In the Pruchno family, this ticking clock takes on increasing urgency, because after their daughter reaches legal emancipation, they will no longer be able to restrict her self-destructive behavior. Instead of the joy of coming of age, that legal boundary between child and adult sounds to the Pruchnos like the threat of a detonating bomb.
The notion of the ticking clock provides a great model of how any memoir writer can enhance suspense and give readers incentive to turn pages.
In your memoir, what must happen by what deadline? Consider the natural time-frames built into life: the school year, the duration of a pregnancy, the length of a journey. Or the plans and expectations. Will I get the promotion? Will I be laid off? Will he propose? Will she accept? Money is often associated with time. You can’t find a job, and the mortgage is overdue. Or you are in school, but if the money doesn’t hold for another year, you will need to drop out. List the deadlines in your story.View Post
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.