A writer friend has a blog entry about “narrative arc,” in memoir. While I am not writing memoir (at the moment) I do see what he is angling after when talking about writing essays that string together to tell a linear story.
His point was, I think, that when events cause us to change at a certain age we do not need to remind readers of these events in every essay throughout the book, but, rather, we need to see growth from that starting point to a completed person or, at least, a more reflective person by the end of the book. That is the difference between stand-alone essay and narrative arc essays.
I am reading David Sedaris’ Naked at the moment and I think the same could be said of that memoir. Each essay can stand alone, but all link together to form an amalgam of the person as he grows up.
The other interesting thing I have been thinking about recently, and this reflects back to one of the best books written on the subject of story as far as I’m concerned, Jon Franklin’s, Writing for Story, is backstory and story. In it, Franklin talks about backstory, or what the piece is really about, which can be quite different than the surface story.
So, if we want the reader to connect the dots of the backstory we must carefully draw them in a pattern that can be easily followed. But whether the reader interprets the message the same way we intended or not would be up to each individual. To me this makes for a much more fulfilling essay than one that is a clear message, tidily wrapped up with a bow on top.
As my UCLA instructor, Gordon Grice, recently said: “And here’s an interesting phenomenon: Sometimes a reader sees a meaning in your work you didn’t know about at all, but which immediately strikes you as true. This is possible because the story itself knows more than you do, contains many possibilities.
Sometimes the reader discovers things in your story that strike you as great revelations about yourself. This is perhaps the biggest pay-off a writer ever gets. And it can only happen if you haven’t closed off the discussion in advance by nailing the meaning down to your own special theory.”