Playing with Story Structure

Nancy McCabe, author of Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, coming out in September, gives the 30-year backstory on the creative process of writing of her newest book in the Spalding University School of Writing blog. Below is an excerpt and link to the full blog.

Fig_10 leaving the wedding

My forthcoming book, Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, took me thirty years to write. I’m not kidding. It’s not like I was working on it every day for thirty years; I put it aside for long periods. But it didn’t fully take off for me until I embraced approaches I had long resisted, playing with extended metaphors and borrowed forms as shaping devices.

The writing process really started way back when, at the age of nineteen and engaged, I wrote a short story about a young woman’s marital ambivalence. My own fiancé was a sweet persistent guy who’d pressured me to date him, then got it in his head that he wanted to marry me, and though I had none of the requisite romantic feelings, I agreed. Marriage seemed like a chance to reinvent my life, to find safety in a dangerous world, to find certainty in an uncertain one.

It turns out that you can leave a marriage you’ve entered into foolishly at a young age, but the questions that take hold of you as a result of it may never let go. I was twenty-five when my husband and I split up. By then I was writing in earnest about that part of my life, both trying to make sense of it and resisting the notion that such a formative experience should be written off as a shameful mistake, best forgotten. I finished my MFA and started writing a novel about a youthful marriage.

Fig_15 styrophoam noses

My early writing mentors had been traditionalists who raised their eyebrows at experimental work, pounding into me the importance of keeping the story, not tricks or gimmicks or cleverness or pretty language, at the forefront—and no more than three metaphors to a page, roared one professor. Most of that grounding has been valuable to me throughout my writing career. It ignited my own passion for storytelling and taught me about the power of the narrative arc. But it also made me wary about the fine line between structural experimentation and sloppiness for the sake of novelty. And as a reader, I’m still often drawn to straightforward, chronological structures, appreciating their ability to emotionally engage me and take me along on their journey.

The marriage novel I wrote never quite gelled. And eventually, lessons about the power of storytelling to move and engage readers led me to creative nonfiction; I discovered that the most straightforward and powerful way to tell some stories was to acknowledge that they’d really happened. Some stories didn’t need embellishment. By then, the marriage material was feeling like someone else’s life. I felt increasingly detached from it. But I thought that parts of it were funny, and parts had some wisdom, and I liked some of the sentences, and I thought some of the decisions I’d made were worth examining, and so, after I had shifted to writing creative nonfiction, the novel evolved into a memoir.

Continue reading about Nancy McCabe’s writing development and process at The Spalding School of Creative and Professional Writing blog.

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