Write On! Roundup #3
Finding your Narrative Structure and Purpose
Welcome to MFA Lore’s third Write On! Roundup.
This is where you get to ask the questions that are currently vexing you in your writing life and I try to answer as best I can.
This week, thanks to, , , and , we’ll be talking about narrative purpose, braided structure, topical v. evergreen memoirs, and memoir v. creative nonfiction.
In other words, how can you write what matters most in your writing?
Let’s get to it!
I wonder if you could address the topic of the narrative purpose. What if we have complex layers of purposes? How do we handle the POV then? For example, I want to tell my own perspective of how it's like to be born in Mao's China, grow up in British colony Hong Kong, and then migrating to the West. While the inner psychological world would be the focus of my story, I also want to layer it with external historical events that shaped my family's and my paths. For that outer layer, I don't necessarily have a bird's eye view, but to limit that to my limited understanding (as told in 1st person) would make the story deprived of rich, factual details (as told in 3rd person) that may draw the readers in.
I’d wager that most of us believe we’re writing “about” one thing when we start, only to realize late in the game that we’re writing about something else entirely.
Narrative purpose is such a great phrase! I use it often. But it’s not an “official” term of art, and that makes it tough to pin down. I use it to mean the internal purpose of the story, the heart of the matter. What is the emotional truth or revelation that the whole work is driving toward? That, to me, is its narrative purpose.
Make no mistake, we all have many goals and intentions when we launch a new piece of writing. We may want to open up an obscure piece of history. We may want to explore a web of family secrets. We may want to share a unique personal perspective that deserves to be explored. We may want to write something that will lure millions of people and make us rich [Haha!]. But none of those quite fit my definition of narrative purpose.
A better guide may be found in Vivian Gornick’s framework of The Situation and The Story:
“The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
The thing one has come to say. In this lexicon, the story embodies the work’s narrative purpose.
It can take many, many drafts to identify, refine, and embrace your narrative purpose. I’d wager that most of us believe we’re writing “about” one thing when we start, only to realize late in the game that we’re writing about something else entirely. I’ve spent years working on a memoir about the secrets my father carried to his grave, only to figure out late in the game that I’m really writing about the intergenerational effects of shame on my family’s dynamics and on my own identity.