As I bundled up my 225-page memoir manuscript and mailed it to editor Jane Rosenman, I hoped she would reveal the magic formula for transforming my pages into a book. I’d received glowing rejections but still no takers for my story, The Inheritance, about how, six weeks after my mother died, I discovered that she had disinherited me, and my quest to understand why.
Although Rosenman found much to praise, some aspects of my story still weren’t working, including a whiff of bitterness on the page. Yet who wouldn’t be bitter after being blindsided from beyond the grave? But the problem with bitterness, I later discovered, is that it lacks drama.
As I was revising the manuscript, I received an invitation to perform a 10-minute story with Portland Story Theater in Oregon, where I live. When I walked onto the stage, into the pressure cooker of live performance, something happened: my bitterness transformed into humor, and I discovered a liveliness and emotional depth that had not been as evident on the page.
Was I onto something that could help me crack open my story? To find out, I enrolled in a solo performance class with Seth Barrish at New York City’s Barrow Group Theatre, who I then hired to help me craft a performance of my story. With script in hand, I secured a director—Lauren Bloom Hanover—and performed the 50-minute, one-person show, retitled Firstborn, at Performance Works Northwest in Portland, as part of the Fertile Ground Festival. My minitour culminated with my off-Broadway performance at the United Solo Theatre Festival last October, where Jane was in the audience. (She even wrote a blog post about it.)
By telling my story on stage, I found not only its through line but also its beating heart. Writing for performance also gave me more to work with than just the words. Now I had my body, voice, lighting, and music, plus props and images. Also, I could take shortcuts: a transition could be made with a turn of my body or a look to the audience. As Jane said when I spoke with her afterward, the demands of performance helped me get to the “nub of the story.”
Jane recommends that memoir writers try other narrative forms to “jump-start their story and to get to the essence of it.” In a book-length narrative, the challenge is to construct a world made up only of words. “You have to get everyone in and out of the room, mention the weather and all the years that pass by,” she says. But with performance, “you don’t have to check all these boxes.”
If you’re tempted to create a performance version of your memoir, here’s how:
● Hide your manuscript. To create a script, tell your story, from memory, aloud to an audience of at least one other person; do this several times and record your story each time you tell it.
● Notice your audience. You’ll sense parts of the story are working—you’ll hear a laugh or the silence of your audience really listening. If you notice you’re losing them, adapt your story and get to the point more quickly, just as you would in everyday conversations.
● Transcribe your story. Telling a story aloud encourages you to emphasize, exaggerate, remember details, and discover absurdities that didn’t occur to you in the writing process. Transcribe your many tellings and use the best material to create your script.
● Stick with action. If your story gets bogged down, look for the action and expel anything that slows it down. Seth prompted me to excise ruminations or explanations, because, like bitterness, they lack drama.
● Find causal links. To build a dramatic narrative, every story you tell needs to link to the one before and after it. By emphasizing the causality between them, all the stories build upon one another. Ask yourself what instigated a series of events or caused a character to take a particular action. If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, cut it.
Walking onto the stage to perform a story was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But there’s nothing more exciting than stepping into the spotlight in front of a roomful of people waiting to hear a true story. And it may be just what you need to find the essence of your memoir, whether you go on to publish it or not.
Gigi Rosenberg is a writer, performer, and public speaking coach in Portland, Ore.