Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guest Blog:Your Family Stories by Ellen Cassedy

Thank you to Ellen Cassedy who reminds us to use fiction craft elements to write successful creative non-fiction.

Ellen Cassedy is the author of  We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press), in which her personal journey to connect with her Jewish forebears expands into a larger quest, into how people in Lithuania – Jews and non-Jews alike – are engaging with their Nazi and Soviet past in order to move forward into the future. Ellen’s award-winning play, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, celebrates the spare beauty of a small but important life. Based on the diary of an actual elderly woman, it was adapted into a short film that qualified for an Academy Award nomination. Ellen’s Yiddish translations appear in Pakn Treger, the magazine of the National Yiddish Book Center and in Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories (Warner Books). She is currently at work translating fiction by Blume Lempel.

Your Family Stories

This year’s Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago was jammed with more than 10,000 participants.  The panel I was on, called “Your Family Stories,” drew an overflow crowd.  

In my presentation, I said that although memoirs and works of fiction are two different animals, we memoir writers need to make use of fiction techniques – including these three:

1) Scenes

Just like a work of fiction or a play, a memoir needs vivid scenes – places where the narrative slows down and draws the reader in close – close enough to see, hear, smell, and taste whatever there is to soak up.

When I was gathering material for We Are Here, I kept a diary – nine spiral notebooks – and took pictures with my camera.  Later, at my desk, when I was conjuring up, say, the old Lithuanian man who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died, I could recall his green cap, his aluminum cane, and the blood-red gladioli that framing the door of his cottage in the town of my ancestors.  

2) Characters

A memoir needs characters, too.  And in the case of a first-person narrative, that means creating yourself as a character.  Ellen Cassedy, the reader’s trusty guide, has to be as vivid as Uncle Will with his grizzled chin and his secret past, or Ruta, the passionate young woman driving a Holocaust exhibit around Lithuania in her pickup truck.

3) Suspense  

In my first draft, I revealed Uncle Will’s fearsome secret on page 3.  Now I make the reader wait till page 51 for even the first clues.

What makes you care about someone else’s family story?

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