Adair Lara on collage, narration & scene

Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.—Adair Lara

Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara. 247 pages, Ten Speed Press.

Lara on collage:

The risk with collage is that while it looks temptingly simple—much as an abstract expressionist painting might to a student painter—it is not. An intuitive calibration of effects must supply the sense of unity that would otherwise be supplied by story. You must repeat images, colors, patters—something for the reader to recognize and track. And the less headlong narrative there is, the more engaging the voice must be, the more arresting the images.

Lara on narration vs. scene:

You’ll notice that I often refer to the “events” in your book when talking about the arc. These events can be dealt with on the page in one of two ways: in narration, or in scene. Some memoirs, such as Angela’s Ashes, are almost all scene; others, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, are almost all narration. More and more, however, modern memoirs use scenes to make a book lively and readable.

Lara on scene:

So your first step is to identify which events are important enough to go into a scene. In the last chapter, we saw that each emotion that’s acted on to move the story forward is a beat. Beats are changes, thus they are dramatized: All important changes must be dramatized in scene. If we see you doing something you would not have done before, we want to be there with you when that change occurs. If something happens one night to make you realize that you are not the freak you took yourself to be, show it. If you feed your once-scary father yogurt with a spoon in the hospital, and feel a new kind of love for him, show it. . . .

Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.


Filed under essay-collage, narrative, scene

7 responses to “Adair Lara on collage, narration & scene

  1. Very helpful. I just finished drafting Chapter Four and sent it to my memoir group. It starts with a scene, narrates, injects recipes/with mini scenes, and then ends with narration that recalls the original theme. Not yet sure if it’s working, but my group will help me. I liked this piece of advice especially: “Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.”

  2. I recall reading Lara’s piece in Writer’s Digest, ‘Elements of an Effective Arc’. Her work is highly reminiscent of the screenwriting bible ‘Story’ by McKee— ‘beats’, ‘arcs’, ‘desire lines’, etc. which I will admit, is sitting on my desk opposite a draft of my book. Applying the screenwriter’s tips
    to memoir is rather fun, (I’ve used her article in CNF workshops and it’s nice for students to have a recipe to follow. I’ve been using it to flag/organize turning points), but for those with a strong voice or wide-ranging mind, the scene/scene/narration/scene framework can be limiting. David Lazar delineates between the personal essay and the memoir by saying the latter ‘unfurls scene after scene for its audience of voyeurs’. Sounds like the movies, and as Annie Dillard said, why would anyone try to woo people who would rather watch a film? An essay interrogates memory as much a performs it.

    • Thanks, Christin. Per Lazar: Wow, I didn’t know the split in literary cultures had gone quite that far! So scenic memoirs are for voyeurs? I beg to differ, having read good, bad, and great ones—but maybe I’m a voyeur. Does he mean nonfiction that conveys experience should instead be fictionalized and made into short stories and novels? Oh, the rule-makers are hard to please, but then things are in flux.

      I love that Dillard quote, too, but never have viewed it as an attack on any technique. Rather, my take was her contempt for thin, high-concept, basically illiterate stories that functioned as treatments for hopeful screenplays. Maybe she was referring to a lack of reflection, I don’t know, but she’s so astringent with her own musings that I wonder if that’s what she really wants more of . . . people telling, telling, telling. And reflecting on what they shouldn’t have written about in the first place, not because it’s too intimate, in its own way, but because it’s irrelevant or boring. I just think this comes down to personal taste and preference, not Right or Wrong. It should not become political but, apparently, has.

      • The Lazar essay I lifted the quote from is called Occasional Desire: On the Essay and the Memoir, in Truth in Nonfiction, ed. by Lazar. It’s a polemical piece which seeks to draw a line between the personal essay and memoir, and it succeeds by using desire as a wedge to pry the two apart. A great read…and a worthy teaching tool, as the personal essays I see from undergrads are often scenic memoirs with little reflection/interrogation.

        I’m a little obsessed with this topic at the moment, (not the classification of this vs that, but the preponderance of scene) as an editor recently told me to ‘sharpen the narrative arc’. Hence, me pulling out the screenwriting book 🙂

      • Thanks for the followup cite, Christen. I think I have that book around here somewhere. An example of a writer who takes both approaches, depending, is Barry Lopez. He can by totally scene with zero reflection or almost all reflection.

  3. Thanks, Shirley. It sounds like you are chugging right along!

  4. I hadn’t heard of this book (and I’m not crazy about the title) but I’m going to order it — sounds worthwhile. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Richard.