Turning Personal Experience Into Narrative — How Not To Be Boring
By Joe Marren
Special to Poynter Online
We’ve all had the experience and dreaded it as much as doing our taxes. We welcome it as much as root canal. That’s right, I mean being stuck sitting next to that most reviled of all species: the compulsive talker. As much as we want to tell them that we don’t care about their Aunt Betty or how she was cheated out of the Blue Ribbon at the county fair for her chocolate chip cookies, the bumpy plane ride and the fasten seatbelt light spells our doom.
Mother Jones magazine co-founder and writer-about-the-world Adam Hochschild wasn’t at the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism to teach us how not to listen to such people, nor how to block out their disturbing noise Zen-style. No, he was there to tell a crowded session how to not be like those people. In short, how to win readers and influence editors.
Let’s start with the basic assumption that anyone attending his session has a healthy self-ego and is chock full o’stories to tell. The problem is how to turn personal experiences into compelling narrative that would make not only the person seated next to us on the plane listen in rapt awe, but also touch the emotions of everyone within earshot. A good storyteller can not only make a listener care about Aunt Betty, but embolden an audience to write strong letters of protest to obviously ignorant and incompetent chocolate chip cookie judges.
Novelist George Orwell could do that. His personal experiences were told to make a larger point. For example, in his Spanish Civil War book of essays, “Homage to Catalonia,” he uses experiences to show the larger picture. (Note: The good writing was his, the cliches are mine.) A passage about getting shot explains not only what it feels like but also allows him to step back and examine himself and what he’s doing there. Few other people could turn a bullet wound into a political treatise.
Orwell also uses that same wound to explore social issues. Going to another hospital on a troop train, he and his battered comrades pass a fresh division going up to the front. Amid the cheers, Orwell uses his experience to raise a larger point for him: That, in the end, “War is glorious after all.” We don’t have to agree with the point, Hochschild said, but we can marvel at how Orwell could focus on the larger part of a personal experience.
So that means all narrative journalism has to be about gloom, despair and misery, right? Hardly, Hochschild said. The subject can be sad or glad, the point is to make it meaningful to the reader.
“Examine things carefully and determine what are the larger implications,” Hochschild said.
Also, when you realize that such an experience could be made more interesting, treat it respectfully. Whip out your pen and paper and write it down. Take careful notes that look at everything. Use your senses to see and feel the event or moment.
“When I’m out on an assignment I usually keep two notebooks,” Hochschild said. “One notebook is for the story I’m working on and the other is for the other stuff that I find, even if I don’t know how or when it will be used.”
What also helps is to create some distance from the raw material. Let some tempus fugit before you try to write about it because you may need that time to absorb the experience or moment to figure out fully what it all means. That could also mean talk about it with your friends and see if their reactions are the same as yours.
Two notebooks may be too many and a reporter could feel intimidated by the material. Cheer up, Hochschild has a solution. Early on in the process he looks to get an idea of the “containers into which I’m trying to fit this experience.” In other words, figure out the form and see what to pluck from the file before or after the first draft.
Do all that and your stories will be the literary equivalent of Aunt Betty’s soon-to-be award-winning cookies. Speaking of which, pass the plate this way, please.
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at email@example.com.