Nutgrafs for Memoirs and Personal Essays

widemanA nutgraf is a journalistic term for the paragraph that houses the editorial heart of the story, that tells why the story matters. A nutgraf at the start of your personal essay, memoir, or book proposal is certain to improve your reader’s experience. This nutgraf “trick” is simple when you’re ready to write this summing up paragraph and infuriatingly difficult when you’re not. Often with memoir and personal essays, we must do a lot of exploratory writing before we understand the essence of our stories.

Here’s the exercise I did with my two memoir classes this week to help them produce nutgrafs, and their results were fantastic. I hope it works as well for you. 1. Understand that every work of literature has both a “situation” and a “story.” A situation is your subject matter (You got a divorce, you lived in Thailand, you had cancer, etc) and the story is, at essence, the meaning you made, your particular take on the experience, or possibly the lesson you learned. This idea is not mine; it’s from Vivian Gornick’s excellent book The Situation and the Story, in which she wrote: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” My students would be happier if I stopped reciting this quote, I’m sure. However, I’m convinced that this quote contains the secret to good writing. 2. Read the following paragraph from the first page of John Edgar Wideman’s brilliant book Brothers and Keepers, picking out which lines identify the “situation” and which identify the “story”:

I heard the news first in a phone call from my mother. My youngest brother, Robby, and two of his friends had killed a man during a hold up. Robby was a fugitive, wanted for armed robbery and murder. The police were hunting him, and his crime had given the cops license to kill. The distance I’d put between my brother’s world and mine suddenly collapsed. The two thousand miles between Laramie, Wyoming and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my years of willed ignorance, of flight and hiding, had not changed a simple truth: I could never run fast enough or far enough. Robby was inside me. Wherever he was running for his life, he carried part of me with him.

3. Once you recognize how Wideman is telling us the situation in the first three sentences and summarizing the story in the next four, try copying his format. In dramatic terms (notice how he uses the phrase “license to kill”), describe your situation in three or fewer sentences. Then, in three or four sentences, say what you derived from going through that situation, as Wideman does. It is perfectly okay to learn how to write by copying the structure of the masters. The content will be very much your own.

4. If you were unable to do Step 3 because you couldn’t say what you derived from the experience, you are in good company. Keep exploring your topic, asking yourself, “How was I changed by this experience?” Eventually, you will either come up with the story or drop this book/essay idea in order to write about a situation for which the meaning is clearer to you.

If you were able to write a nutgraf like Wideman’s, find a home for it somewhere near the beginning of your book or essay.

Want to learn more from me about writing personal essays and memoir? You can find information about my coaching and webinars here and about my upcoming teleseminar How to Write a Modern Love with Modern Love Editor Daniel Jones here.

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