Spoiler alert: Country wins. So often, when writing memoir, writers around me at writer’s conferences ask, How do I make my memoir less boring? What I hear time and time again is that to write your own life, you almost have to be better than a fiction writer because you have to blend your real life incidents into fiction like prose. Story. Plot. Character. They all apply deeply to memoir.
Laura Shaine Cunningham has got the proverbial key in her novel “A Place in the Country.” I study her light hand because my memoir continues to stop me at junctures with leaden sentences. My stomach aches like I’ve eaten every last bite of a meatball sandwich. I want my prose to stay with the story goal, but move to the overarching theme. How to do such an elusive act?
Cunningham’s chapters begin like an arty essay thesis because the rest of the chapter continues the posed question. In chapter six she begins:
An “out-of-town” college. The expression lured me as “sleepaway camp” had–another pull north toward the great unknown of the country. I didn’t quite grasp the distinction of an Ivy League college, but I wanted the Ivy. I was determined to outdistance my fellow high school graduates, at least geographically. Most of my friends were set to attend City–City College, a short subway ride away, in Harlem. I longed to go farther.
This particular chapter, after our main character, because she is only a hyperbolic hybrid of herself, grows debilitating poison Ivy welts and goes back to the city, defeated. Country 2, Cunningham Zero. This passage shows us the goals, and unfolds a character who’s ideals burst over and over. Theme is continued in physical manifestations. In this case, the ivy league turns into poison in her hands. The city is her home.
I can only aspire to such a light hand. When each chapter asks a gripping question, and then sticks to answering with imagery and action, I’m hooked. Through studying Miss Cunningham’s scenes, I’m getting closer to that elusive hand. I’m learning to leave half the meatball sandwich on my plate.