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Place to Hang a Narrative

Draft Memoir Outline, March 3, 2020

While Super Tuesday elections and caucuses happened I was working on an outline for my nascent memoir. It’s one of many drafts.

As readers may have noticed, I’m posting almost every day on this blog. What’s lacking is getting a grip around my personal history so I can finish a longer autobiographical piece. With the recently discovered trove of letters I wrote to Mom, a lot of pieces from college until moving back to Iowa in 1993 are coming together.

I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know, so whatever I produce should have application beyond family and friends. I plan to tell the story as best I can once determining what it is.

That last part is important. I’m not used to telling my story other than recounting brief incidents in a long life. More thought about what my story is will be in order.

Some decisions have been made.

As far as length goes, 70,000 to 100,000 words. I have a 25,000 word fragment from a few years ago, and that will be edited down to fit the new narrative. There are many fragments in my files.

There will be two parts. The first part will be a chronological story that sets my life in a context of family, education, and public events. I don’t know the breaking point but it will likely be one of three: Father’s sudden death in 1969, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1975, or finishing graduate school in 1981. I’ll write about all of those. Depending on the narrative, emphasis will vary.

John Irving is the model for what I want to do in this book as a writer. I plan to begin with the last sentence of the book and write toward that end. In coming weeks I plan to work on that last sentence.

Material for research seem abundant. Mother and her mother took a significant number of photos during my earliest years. There are enough to help remember what happened and when I gained awareness of a world outside myself. Likewise the internet is a resource for old clippings, genealogy, photographs and maps to fill in some of the gaps. Much of this early section of the book will be based on memory, which while fading, remains strong in many areas.

School life was important although aside from some of my undergraduate work there are not a lot of remaining written documents or artifacts. There aren’t many photos either. The focus here will include the few documents that survived coupled with memory. I attended five different schools in K-12 and each will have a place in the narrative. I’m most sensitive to the closeness I felt to grade school friends and how that changed when the nuns split some of us off in a separate class because they felt we were “college-bound.”

After undergraduate school I began writing journals and there is a continuous written and photographic record beginning 1974-1975 until the present. At that point the narrative will turn to what I’ve already written for source material. There is a lot of it.

The second part of the memoir is up in the air. The idea of the first part is setting a context for actions in the second part. A key event in Part II was my return to Davenport after military service and the brief time I lived near “Five Points,” the intersection of Division Street, West Locust Street, and Hickory Grove Road. I plan to write in detail about those months from November 1979 until summer 1980. It is a good fulcrum on which the pivot the narrative.

Part II will be more thematic, centered around family, work, travel, politics and intellectual progress while writing. How did I become a person who spends a couple of hours writing before beginning each day? While I disliked President George W. Bush immensely, I liked the format of his presidential memoir “Decision Points.” Perhaps something like that, but as I said, it’s up in the air right now.

There is an impetus to write this memoir now and while not close to final, yesterday’s work on an outline moved the enterprise forward.

2 replies on “Place to Hang a Narrative”

Isn’t it remarkable how what you see as the primary question, “What the story is” is often so allusive. No easier when it’s non-fiction, hardly any easier when the subject is one’s own life.

Here’s another best wishes on your endeavor.

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