Back Story Does Not Go in the Front

  • 2009-2010 MEMOIR CLASS BEFORE THEY ALL GOT FAMOUS
  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
    –Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • I had a lot of fascinating back story in Lagunitas, my childhood memoir not-in-progress. My father was on Hawaii when the Japanese attacked, and eight months later sent to Leavenworth for desertion. My mother had danced for a Sally Rand, who hired pretty girls for her shows in Las Vegas. When my sister and I were born, they were written up for having five children under the age of five. Then my mother got TB.
  • “We don’t need any of that,” Laura said in the workshop. after I made everybody surround the ping pong table to be taken through the interesting beats of my back story.  She bikes over from Berkeley, and arrives in colorful outfits topped by special bike raincoats that shone fluorescent green.  Today I decided her raincoat was stupid. Her remark was so hurtful! If I’m interested in how my parents met, and the even more, now that I think about it, compelling facts of my own birth, so I can hardly deny my readers the chance to hear all about them.
  • She said it nicely, and goddamn it something didn’t finally clock. Although I’d obsessed over that back story for years, I swept the contents of the Ping-Pong table into a box (promising myself that I could shoehorn in flashbacks later.).
  • Try hard not to fill us in. People who are now married must once have met. Adoptive parents can be presumed to have first tried to have their one child, and to have wanted to be a mother or father. No explanation necessary. The mother of a two-year-old must have given birth. That a person about to set aside everything in her life to spend a long-dreamed-of year in France may be assumed to like the idea of France.
  • That’s my student Shoshanna Kirk. Her story, briefly, is this: she and her husband find themselves between jobs, and they can rent their house in San Francisco for enough to finance a year in France. Voila! Before they go, she finds she’s pregnant, and decide to go anyway. She’ll have the baby in France, with the help of the excellent and progressive French medical system.
  • She started out as we all do, wanting to include all she knew about her love of France, and dream of living there for a year, including taking French in high school, and marrying a young Frenchman, and the stretch in San Francisco. Chapters of that!

We don’t need it. Just get your damn self to France.  She cut it all out (painful, I know) and now her very funny book, for which she is currently seeking a publisher, shows our French-struck narrator colliding with the reality of living in France:

  • I had a vision of waking up each morning, throwing open the shutters, taking a deep breath, and, as the morning sun hit my cheeks, wondering aloud, “Ah, what shall I do today?” Then, I would enjoy a croissant and a jus d’orange in town as I skimmed a French news.
  • At first, this formula worked well. The bedroom windows did, in fact, feature shutters that I would throw open as if I lived in a Merchant Ivory film. Or at least, I would throw the right one open and curse the rusty hinge on the left one, shoving it hard until it suddenly gave way, scraping my hand on the stucco as it banged clumsily against the outside of the house. Then, I would brush the errant millipede, disturbed from his morning slumber, from my hair, peer down at the scrubby looking bushes home to no small population of insect life, and waddle off to pee.

We don’t like being given a lot of background about someone we haven’t even met yet. The author is the one who wants the back story in. This is why we have to keep shooing the author away. Fiction writers don’t start with their character’s childhoods – memoirists shouldn’t either.

Sometimes I think that back story is a rest stop for the writing. It’s tiring to keep driving a story forward –it takes energy, imagination, grit. How much more pleasant to pull into the equivalent of the rest stops that dot the highways, stop the car and write about something you already know well and feel comfortable yammering on about.  Just today, as I write this, my student Melody read a scene from her memoir -n progress that opened on the waiting room of the welfare office, where our cash-challenged young mother of three is applying for food stamps, though accepting charity makes her feel like crap.

Great first paragraph: Then comes the rest stop:

I missed my friends in Germany then…I missed Kirsten who spoke fluent German, and Heidi – and all my friends.  I missed the life – what was I doing here anyway?  Robert, Kirsten’s boyfriend, had warned me about this and I should have listened, yes, I should have.  But I didn’t believe Robert.  I was working the Monte Carlo nights dealing black jack at the NCO/EM and Officer’s Clubs – mainly because I was Kirsten’s best friend, not because I was an experienced black jack dealer or anything.  It was fun and Kirsten had even found a lovely older German lady to watch my kids because their father couldn’t be trusted to take care of them, and he hated me working those Monte Carlo nights.

 

What has this to do with applying for food stamps? Nothing. It’s a rest stop in the demanding task of writing a scene. Staying in the room – that’s one of the hardest things, isn’t it?

Of course, you’ll need flashbacks

The emotional back story is vital to understand why the character makes the choices he does. By “emotional,” I mean we remember the turning points: a time, say, when you were lost on the streets of Hong Kong, it was cold and dark and very step seemed to lead you to a stranger, more dangerous-looking cul-de-sac. Worse, you don’t know the name of your hotel. Then you forced yourself to calm down and think back through the turns you’d made, and realized you had a darn good visual memory of the rights and lefts you’d made.  Then years later, you are lost again –let’s put you in the twisting roads of Rome this time, a place with no high landmarks to guide one. Also, no cabs, and you don’t have your phone. This time you are calm from the get-go. You trust yourself to find the way back.

The excellent Story Genius by Lisa Cron has a lot of illuminating things to say about back story.

“It’s remarkably easy to overlook the fact that everything about your protagonist stems from her past.” The past, she explains, determines what will happen in the plot because the narrator’s reactions are driven by how she sees her world. She says, “You can’t write about how someone changes unless you know, specifically, what they’re changing from.”

One way to look at it: What does she come into the first page already wanting? It’s not the first page for her, after all.


 

Try this: Suspect that you have been taking those rest stops? Mark up three of your scenes in two colors: one color when we are in scene, the other color for when we are romping in the fields of yesteryear.  You need the flashback only when eliminating it injures our understanding of the unfolding story. 

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About Adair Lara

Adair Lara 95 Scott Street San Francisco, CA 94117 415-626-9157 Adairlara.com Adair.lara@gmail.com Adair Lara is a writer, teacher and author in San Francisco. A former magazine editor, she wrote a popular, award-winning personal column for the San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years before leaving the paper to write and teach full time. She has appeared in dozens of national magazines. She is the author of 12 books and is a popular voice on Facebook, with 5000 friends who are mostly writers and teachers of writing, many well-known. Her most recent book, which has become a cult favorite in the writing blogsphere, is Naked, Drunk and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essays (Ten Speed). She is at work on another, with the working title Make Your Memoir Suck Less, on voice in the memoir. She holds sold-out workshops in her house on writing essay and memoir and other forms of autobiography, and consults with authors individually, in person or long-distance. Her essays appear in many national magazines, and have been anthologized in dozens of textbooks. • BOOKS • • Naked Drunk and Writing (TEN SPEED) 2011 • The Granny Diaries, Chronicle Books (2008) • The Bigger the Sign, the Worse the Garage Sale, Chronicle Books (2007) • You Know You’re a Writer When, Chronicle Books (2007) • Oopsie! Ouchie!, Chronicle Books (2004) • Normal is Just a Setting on the Dryer, Chronicle Books, 2003 • Slowing Down in a Speeded-Up World, Redwheelweiser (2002) • Hold Me Close, Let Me Go, Broadway Books (2001) • The Best of Adair Lara, Scottwall Associates (1999) • At Adair’s House, Chronicle Books (1995) • Welcome to Earth, Mom, Chronicle Books (1992) • History of Petaluma, a California River Town Scottwall Associates 1982 • Anthologies (a sampling) • Over the Hill and Between the Sheets Springboard (2007) • The Secret Lives of Lawfully Wedding Wives Inner Ocean (2006) • Too Young to Be This Damn Old by Inc. Sourcebooks (Paperback - Mar 1, 2006) • The Thong Also Rises: Further Misadventures from Funny Women on the Road (Travelers’ Tales Guides) by Jennifer L. Leo, Ayun Halliday, and Laurie Notaro (2005) • A Sense of Place Shapiro (2004) • Sand in My Bra & Other Misadventures: Funny Women Write from the Road, Travelers’ Tales (2003) • Coming Alive From Nine to Five in a 24/7 World: A Career Search Handbook for the 21st Century by Betty Michelozzi, Linda Surrell, and Robert Cobez (2003) • The Nine Modern Day Muses: 10 Guides to Creative Inspiration for Artists, Poets, Lovers, and Other Mortals Wanting to Live a Dazzling Existence by Jill Badonsky (2003) • How to Say It Style Guide by Rosalie Maggio (2002) • Romancing the Ordinary by Sarah Ban Breathnach (2002) • Paris: An Inspired Anthology and Travel Resource Three Rivers Press (2000) • Simple Pleasures of the Home: Cozy Comforts and Old-Fashioned Crafts for Every Room in the House by Susannah Seton (1999) • Mama Get the Hammer! There’s A Fly On Papa’s Head! by Barbara Johnson (1994) • A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit (Chicken Soup for the Soul) by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (1994) Awards: • 1990: Associated Press, Best Columnist in California. • 1997: Humor Columns for Newspapers over 100,000, National Society of Newspaper Columnists • 1998: First place, general interest columns, National Society of Newspaper Columnists. • 1999: Second place, commentary, American Association of Sunday and Feature editors contest, competing against papers with circulation over 300,000. • May 17, 2002 was declared Adair Lara Day in San Francisco by proclamation of Mayor Willie Brown Book consulting My students also include Robin Wolaner, founder of Parenting Magazine and author of “Naked in the Boardroom” ; Terry Gamble, author of several novels including “The Water Dancers”; Susan Parker, who wrote columns for the Chron and came out with “Tumbling After,” Peggy Vincent, author of “Babycatcher,” David Gottfried, author of “Greed to Green,” and James Frey, whom I told not to worry about making stuff up, no one would notice. (Ok, made up that one). JT Leroy may have taken my class, who knows? John Brooks The Girl Behind the Door The Girl Behind the Door (Simon & Shuster 2016) Without Adair's guidance, sharp wit, coaching, seasoned interviewing skills, succinct editing and experienced counsel, there is no way that my memoir would ever have been published. David Gottfried, author of “Greed to Green” Adair's keen editorial eye and sharp sense of story arc helped me pare a 500-page manuscript into a tighter, plot driven read. Her coaching and enthusiasm opened doors to locating an agent that had previously been bolted. Mary Patrick, author of Family Plots The Upside of Down -- will be published in September by a Melbourne publisher called Transit Lounge. Adair, I would not be in this position were it not for you. Your support, comments, feedback and encouragement were critical and came at a time when I was wondering why I was staying up late at night working on this book. Susan Biggar The Upside of Down -- will be published in September by a Melbourne publisher called Transit Lounge. Adair, I would not be in this position were it not for you. Your support, comments, feedback and encouragement were critical and came at a time when I was wondering why I was staying up late at night working on this book. Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs series When I first met Adair, I wasn’t at all sure where I ultimately wanted to go as a writer – although I did, and still do, harbor a deep wish to be an Adair Lara. Joining her personal essay workshops opened so many avenues of possibility, although Adair kept suggesting I try my hand at fiction. Eventually, I took the leap, sharing the first chapter of my novel, Maisie Dobbs with Adair, who pushed me to continue. Without her insightful guidance and encouragement, Maisie Dobbs might be just a couple of chapters collecting dust in a drawer.” Sunshine Mugrabi Based on your suggestions. I’ve cut the manuscript by about 20,000 words and three chapters. It’s down to about 93,000 words, 35 chapters. I’ve cut pocket bios, tightened dialog, looked for inconsistencies, listened for clinkers, tried to strip out redundancy and make the narrative taut and linear, while retaining the lyricism and improving pacing and rhythm. Your critique really helped me see how to cut and focus. I’ve carried your printed suggestions around for the past three months, the pages now tattered and coffee stained. I’m grateful for your thought- provoking suggestions and encouragement. Hey Adair: Hope you got my gushing call the other day. I LOVE what you've done for my book in too many ways to mention. Peggy Kennedy When I first met Adair, I wasn’t at all sure where I ultimately wanted to go as a writer – although I did, and still do, harbor a deep wish to be an Adair Lara. Joining her personal essay workshops opened so many avenues of possibility, although Adair kept suggesting I try my hand at fiction. Eventually, I took the leap, sharing the first chapter of my novel, Maisie Dobbs with Adair, who pushed me to continue. Without her insightful guidance and encouragement, Maisie Dobbs might be just a couple of chapters collecting dust in a drawer.” Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief This was my first writing workshop and it snowballed on me. First you talked about needing conflict/struggle in your story and I thought, "Well, crap. There goes my non-fiction piece about living in an RV for ten years. No conflict. Won't work." (I know - these are my thoughts and they're supposed to be italicized but the email font won't do it!) After the first day I was thinking maybe I should just try essays and forget my project. Then, on the second day, you honed in on specifics and I got inspired. I'm just going to write. I don't care if it gets published. I'll have my story and it will be mine to keep. Thank you for your humor, your insight, your warmth and your knowledge of writing which you so willingly Peggy Kennedy author of Neverland Hey Adair: Hope you got my gushing call the other day. I LOVE what you've done for my book in too many ways to mention.
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