Welcome to week two of our class on first-person writing. In this week we are going to talk about the journey. How does a writer survey her material and determine the way a narrative will unfold when a material is her own life? How does she know when and where to start and finish her story? This week, we will explore the relationship between theme and chronology instruction. When do we organize based on ideas, and when do we organize based on time sequence. We will examine what options are available to us in a given story for unspooling a plot on the page. So, first of all, let's think about where to begin. When the curtain lifts, and the first flash of your story and your narrator are unveiled for the reader, you obviously want him or her to be drawn in immediately. But you also want to set-up what's to come, the tone, the concept, and the point. We talked earlier about Bill Clegg's memoir, A Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. If you recall, the first scene of his book takes place in a crackheads apartment at daybreak. When the dealers have all shut off their phones and gone to bed, and Clegg and his crack buddy are out of drugs, and Clegg is starting to freak out. He can't concentrate on what the other guy is saying, he's distracted by this empty plastic bag that was full of crack when the night started out, and Clegg pulls us in with him to the frantic desperation that's overcoming him. I,ve never been addicted to a substance, but I feel like I know exactly what it's like to run out of the thing I need to live when I read this. Clegg writes, "Morning glows behind the drawn blinds. Minutes pass and nothing but the low wine of the garbage trucks outside cuts the quiet. My neck throbs and the muscles in my shoulder feels thick and tight. The throbbing keeps time with my heart, which slams in my chest like an angry fist. I cannot stop my body from rocking. I watch Mark get up to begin sweeping the glass and notice how his body rocks with mine, how our sway is synchronized, like two underwater weeds bending to the same current, and am both horrified and comforted to recognize how alike we are in the desolate crash that follows when the drugs run out". So, Clegg has accomplished several things in that paragraph. He brings us in to the physical sensations of withdrawal and the ominous psychological state of crashing. We are there with him in this very immediate way. He lets us know that he's become just like the crack head, Mark, who he sees is pathetic and wrecked, and who he also sees is no different than he is at this moment. The fact that he recognizes this is important. It makes him once again reliable for us. If we could see that he was as abject as Mark, but he couldn't, that would be a real problem, unless that was a temporary state and he was going to come to the realization as we watched that happen, as we saw the progression. But there's still this floating suggestion that maybe, he's a little different from Mark. After all, something has changed to enable him to write the book we're reading. The guy shivering at Mark's house couldn't possibly write a book, let alone a good one. So, there's obviously a story coming our way. In the very next paragraph, we get a sense of what preceded this incident, that will have to read the rest of the book to find out what happened subsequently. Clegg writes, "The creeping horror of these past few weeks, relapsing; leaving Noah, my boyfriend at the Sundance Film Festival nearly a week early; emailing my business partner Kate and letting her know that she can do what she wants with our business, that I'm not coming back ;checking in and out of rehab in New Canaan, Connecticut; spending a string of nights at the 60 Thompson Hotel and then diving into the gritty crackscape of Mark's apartment with the drifters there who latch on to the free drugs that come with someone on a bender. The awful footage of my near-history flashes behind my eyes, just as the clear future of not having a bag and knowing another wont be had for hours rises up, sharp as the new day." Okay. So, now we're starting to get a sense of the bigger picture here. Clegg was obviously successful in various ways. He had a business, he had a relationship, he had enough money to check into a hotel for the first part of his vendor. There's been a vertiginous descent into the crackscape of Mark's apartment as he calls it. Clegg has gone from being someone who can run a business and go to Sundance, and have a boyfriend, to someone who was really among his peers in this crack den full of drifters. The great thing about this as an opening scene is that it's vivid, it's an incident he can viscerally bring the reader into, but it also lends itself to this flashback, which allows him to bring us up to speed. We are with him both in the moment in this vivid sensorial way, and now we are starting to be with him in terms of comprehending the situation more generally. So, a lot has to get accomplished right up front. It needs to be a scene or idea the reader can really feel immersed in instantaneously. But it also needs to be grounding and informative for the reader. We want him or her to be brought into the circumstance with some grasp of what's happened or what's about to happen, as quickly as possible because above all else, we want the reader to feel included in our experience, or why would we be bothering to write about it in the first place? There's something dramatic about starting at the bottom, the way Clegg did. It draws you in like, this guy is really in trouble. It's an extremely convenient starting point because it allows a writer to build suspense from two directions at once. How did he get here? How's he going to get out of here? I'm partial to this approach myself. I used it in my own memoir. On the very first page, I wrote, "In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house. Every morning I wake up and for a few seconds I'm disoriented, confused as to why I feel grief seeping into my body, and then I remember what has become of my life." So, I put that right at the beginning because I want to draw the reader in and make her wonder how did all that happen? I try to bring the reader into the visceral physical experience of grief seeping into my body, because I want to include the reader. I don't want to seem too incomprehensible or foreign to the reader, which is also why I wrote entirely honestly by the way, that every morning I woke up and felt disoriented. Because I want to share my experience with the reader, I want to tell the reader that if he or she feels overwhelmed by what I've just said, so do I. I want the reader to empathize with me, but I also am trying to empathize with him or her in terms of what it's like to read my story. So, again, we're connected, narrator and reader. Or anyway, that's my intention. I don't proceed from there chronologically in my book. After that first chapter which occurs in a state of crisis, I zoom out to the bigger picture of my life and hint at the overarching ideas of the book, because I want the reader to have a sense of what led up to this crisis. I started by offering a preview of what was to come all the bad things that happen, because I thought that was important context. You read that first, and it colors the way you read what comes next. From there, I went back in time to a more placid, less fraught period, because I wanted the reader to get to know me, to get to know this narrator and care about her, so that when her losses happen, they matter to the reader. Now, I may have succeeded or I may have failed, but that was my strategy when I crafted the structure of my memoir. First, a preface that said, I've lost almost everything in my life that's important to me in a very short period of time, and this is my daily physical and emotional experience. I also grounded that first bit in a scene, the way that Bill Clegg offered us that first scene at his crack dealers house with the light rising in the sky along with Clegg's desperation. The great thing about a scene is that it can be like a little story all in itself with a feeling of a beginning, middle, and end. In Clegg's scene, he starts with them scraping the residue off their crack pipe in desperation. Then Mark, the crack-head, drops the pipe and breaks it, and then he tries to scrape the residue off the glass shards, and all the while, Clegg, our narrator, is getting more desperate and we are getting to know him better through his description of what he's feeling, and is asides like the paragraph in which he tells us what's happened in his life in the last few weeks during this bender. The scene ends when the phone rings. The dealers have awoken and ostensibly, Clegg will get his hands on some more crack. It's its own little story with its own resolution. So, in my memoir, in the first scene, I'm lying on the pavement of a parking lot in the pouring rain looking up at the underside of my Jeep, trying to find the key that my former spouse was supposed to have left for me taped there. But she didn't. So, I feel desperate, and it feels like one more thing I've lost. Its right there, but I can't get in. Sort of so close but no banana. Which I'm telling the reader is the story of my life at that moment. I was so close to having this family and a normal life, and then all at once, I lost it all. So, if I've done my job right, the reader is then curious about how that all happened. If the narrator is sufficiently compelling, the reader will then start to care about how she gets herself out of this state of abject grief.