Planning for Surprise: Writing and Teaching Personal Narratives

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

As a teacher and writer of literary nonfiction and as a former editor, I see a good number of personal narratives. I’ve noticed over time that many of the essay/memoirs, including those written by adult MFA students, tend to be linear, chronological narratives that all too frequently follow a “this happened, then this, then this . . . ” blueprint.

Straightforward chronology is a good fit for, say, a family story or a reminiscence; narratives, in other words, the writer knows and understands.

As essayist Scott Russell Sanders writes:

Too often students think of the essay as a vehicle for delivering chunks of information or prefabricated ideas. I want them to see the essay as a way of discovery. I push them to take risks on the page, to venture out from familiar territory into the blank places on those maps. [And so] I get my students thinking about puzzles, questions, confusions, what excites and bewilders them.

By “familiar territory” Sanders is referring to the kind of work I mentioned above, writing that sticks to already known facts and events. In addition to flattening out the narrative, the work is frequently unsurprising and repetitious.

But what about the personal narratives that Sanders talks about, the ones that begin in “not knowing,” or uncertainty—the kind of writing, in other words, that grows out of an exploratory impulse, an impulse that, to my mind, is closer to the intent that produces lyric poetry and prose (as opposed to subject- or story-based narratives). These more expressive works invariably steer writers into unfamiliar territory. And the writers, in turn, must learn to follow where the writing leads them.

Simply put, we’re talking here about two different sensibilities, two different approaches to writing literary nonfiction.

* * *

I am, by nature and disposition, a personal essayist/memoirist. And it’s true that most of my narratives begin in doubt and confusion. Often they start out as a nagging itch, a persistent question, a baffling feeling, or a perplexing problem: something I can’t articulate except through the writing.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Because years ago when I started working on my first memoir, Still Pitching (2003), I fell into the same trap that so many of my students do.

What follows, then, is not a very pretty story, but I hope it’ll be an instructive one.


I try to let pretty much anything happen in a first draft. A careful first draft is a failed first draft. . . . The real trouble: the piece [draft] hasn’t yet found its subject; it isn't yet about what it wants to be about. Note: what it wants, not what I want.

—Patricia Hampl

Originally, when I began writing Still Pitching, I wanted to explore what, back then, was an elusive feeling, a vague sense that my adolescent dream of becoming a baseball pitcher was somehow connected to my midlife struggles to become a writer.

My first misstep (besides beginning with a preset plan) was convincing myself that I needed a framework, a launching pad. So at the beginning, I sketched out a tentative outline. In addition, I decided that the narrative structure would, like a nine-inning ball game, be composed of nine interrelated chapters.

If you’re thinking “how unoriginal, how derivative,” I’ll have to agree with you. But, at the time, that’s how the book got started. Stubbornly sticking to my fixed plan, I wrote some 300-plus pages that (you guessed it) turned out to be a linear, chronological narrative, a story than ran from adolescence to midlife. Even at the time, this was an approach I’d never recommend to my students—or to anyone else, for that matter.

I was in trouble and I knew it. When I asked my colleague, the poet/essayist Syd Lea, for advice, he cautioned me not to let the pitching-writing connection or the nine-inning structure direct the narrative. “It’ll shut down your thinking,” he said. Makes sense, right?

Syd was being polite, but I knew he was right. It’s what I would have said to any would-be writer. Why, then, couldn’t I take my own advice?

After months of despair, a condition that’s probably all too familiar to most of us, I took a step back and reread the entire manuscript, this time with different eyes. It didn’t take long before I realized that the narrative was too diffuse and covered far too much ground. And that’s when it began to sink in. How could I have missed it? All along, I’d been writing a rough draft.

I’d like to be able to say that this long-delayed understanding solved the problem. But that wouldn’t be the truth. What it did do (as Syd Lea had predicted) was let me know that if I had any chance of finding the heart of this memoir, I’d have to scrap the pitching-writing connection (which by then had become a thesis) and the nine-inning structure (which had become a template). I’d also have to start over again. This time, without a plan.


Your poem [essay or memoir] effectively begins at the first moment you’ve startled yourself. Throw everything away that proceeded that moment.

 —Stephen Dunn

While slogging through those 300-plus pages, I came across a surprising number of previously overlooked images and mentions of a former high school baseball coach. I also began to notice that his name (Kerchman) kept appearing and reappearing every dozen pages or so, along with several incidents and events that were directly connected with him.

He was a gatekeeper whom I’d written an essay about several years ago. But I hadn’t thought much about him since. “Why this guy—again?” I wondered. “And why now?”

I had no answers, but an increasingly persistent feeling was urging me to cut virtually everything in those 300-plus pages that didn’t, in one way or another, relate to that coach and to those early years when the two of us were fierce adversaries. So, I halfheartedly made the cuts.

That left me with 50 pages and nowhere to go. But when I went back through the writing, I found an abundance of references to Jackie Robinson, as well as to the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and New York Giants, the professional baseball teams I’d grown up with. These were also things I’d touched on in the essay about my struggles with the coach. At the time, I thought I had put all of that other stuff to bed. Apparently not.

As I started to mine those 50 pages, instead of trying to steer the memoir where I thought I wanted it to go, I surrendered (willingly, this time) and followed where both the writing and that pesky, insistent feeling were leading me.

From 1947 to 1959 the three New York teams dominated major-league baseball, alternately winning the World Series ten times in eleven years, an achievement that, even to this day, has never been repeated. Moreover, it wasn’t lost on me that this time period included the last few years of my childhood and my entire adolescence. All of which confirmed my belief that this was as far as the narrative needed to go.

Working without a predetermined plan, I’d found what I believed was the memoir’s core, its emotional center—the struggle between my adolescent self, the kid who was so obsessed with making the high school team, and his perverse, willful coach.

Once I’d figured that out, only then did I begin thinking about how I might structure or shape this material. In time, I decided that I’d set the memoir between two historical/cultural events: 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier, and 1959, when the Dodgers and Giants moved their franchises to California.

For me and others like myself, the move west was a wake-up call. Because along with it came the realization that, while to us, baseball was a game, to both team owners that “game” was more of a business than a sport. In retrospect, the Dodgers’ and Giants’ move would become a harbinger of the greed and excess that, over time, would come to rule the entire culture.


 Knowing your story is the enemy of the developing narrative.

 —Patricia Hampl

It’s true; we all do know our own stories. But in my case, what I didn’t know was which one to choose, and then, how to write it, and then, what it meant. And when you think about it, isn’t all that what writers hope to discover through writing?

As I kept going, there were times when it felt like I was taking dictation from my mind. And yet, I still wasn’t sure where all this was taking me. But then there were moments, when I’d be out jogging or taking a shower, or even on the verge of sleep—moments when I wasn’t even thinking about the memoir—when a sudden, unforeseen image and/or idea would come to me. To my surprise, many of those unexpected arrivals seemed to fit the developing narrative. To a large extent, then, my paying attention to those revelations is what guided me the rest of the way.

* * *

Years later, it has become clear to me that there is indeed a connection between baseball and writing. The narrator in Still Pitching was, of course, a younger version of my adult self. And it’s my belief that he became a capable pitcher because of his tenacity, resilience, and determination—and also because achieving that goal was crucial, even urgent to him. Likewise, in midlife, my aspirations to become a writer, it seems, were governed by a similar, single-minded, sense of urgency.

In writing Still Pitching, I also discovered that I’d just begun to scratch the surface; that there was still a lot more to uncover, to pursue. And yet, each time I begin a new piece or a new manuscript, I still experience the same confusions and doubts, the same sense of not-knowing, I felt as a first-time memoirist. But, in my best (not all that frequent) moments, I’ve learned to trust my subconscious.

I’ve also learned to be more patient, to recognize that the early stages of writing are where we’ll likely find the raw materials that (hopefully) will help us to better understand what we’re searching for and how best to put it into words.

* * *

In rereading this piece, it occurs to me that this essay is a linear, chronological explanation of, among other things, how I wrote my first memoir. I have to own up to the truth, then:that, as a writer, I am also a continuously evolving work-in-progress.