Faye Rapoport DesPres

Scene, Summary, Reflection

My MFA Alma Mater, Pine Manor College, is holding its 10-day writer’s residency this week in Newton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Because I live relatively close to the campus, I have the option to take classes at the residency that are open to auditors (alumnae in the area, or any interested writers from the community).

This time around I signed up for a class titled “Reimagining Memoir,” taught by writer and educator Mimi Schwartz. Schwartz, according to her site, “is the author of five books, most recently, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village, a winner of the ForeWord Book of the Year Award in Memoir for 2008 and of the New Hampshire NHWP Outstanding Literary Nonfiction Award.”

Schwartz discussed three tools that are important to writers working with first-person narrative: scene, summary, and reflection. Some writers are comfortable writing scene-heavy prose, others gravitate toward reflection, and my guess is that most writers wrestle with how and when to use summary, usually to build the “back story.”

Among her many interesting and useful suggestions (such as: challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and work with reflection if you’re comfortable with scene, etc.) was one idea I especially liked. A lot of creative nonfiction writers struggle with reflection. Some feel strongly that essays, for example, must include reflection, so that the reader can enter the mind of the narrator and be taken along on the narrator’s internal journey, usually toward a surprising revelation. Others believe in the classic writing directive, “Show, don’t tell,” and tend to write more lyric pieces that leave a greater amount of interpretation to the reader. Some writers try to find a balance between the two, or experiment with both forms.

Schwartz’s suggestion, if you have trouble with reflection, is to switch into boldface type and then just write away, reflecting, and thinking, and working your way toward an understanding of the meaning of your story. Later, you can go back and delete most of that, and keep maybe just a few jewels, sentences that say what you need them to say. By freeing yourself to over-reflect, you can silence the critic on your shoulder for a while (tell him or her, “Don’t worry, most of this will be gone later, just leave me alone for now,”) and allow your mind, and your writing, to lead you to new places.

I think I’ll try that interesting technique. Thanks, Mimi.