Is My Story Dramatic Enough?

  • By Annette Gendler
  • May 30, 2014

Finding the mesmerizing amid the mundane.

Is My Story Dramatic Enough?

“All these stories are so dramatic! Where is the drama in mine? It’s just about a cat!” wailed one of my students after our memoir workshop at StoryStudio Chicago had wrapped up. Granted, we had just workshopped manuscripts about a sister’s suicide, a patient’s death, and a mother’s mental illness. How could she compete with that when her drama “only” involved the anguish of her cat gone missing?

Are all stories worth telling, worth investing the time to write as memoir, worth trying to get published? Definitely not. That’s where a lot of boring autobiography comes from. The stories that are worth telling, however, do not have to involve high drama — as in death, illness, divorce, or some other traumatic event.

Rather, the stories that are worth telling are those that are transformative, that show the writer faced a challenge, learned something, and was transformed by dealing with it. That challenge can be as mundane as moving to a new city, giving up a beloved car, or communicating with an employee who doesn’t speak your language. Anything that changed the narrator, that gave the narrator an insight he didn’t have before, is worth a story.

So, if your cat missing was transformative and brought up all kinds of questions about how you live your life, then, yes, even the story of a missing cat is worth telling.

So I told my student, “You have to find the drama in your own life, and by ‘drama,’ I mean transformative experience.”

Even the everyday is worth telling if it is told well. I personally love more pedestrian, quotidian memoirs like Ted Kooser’s Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, which offers beautiful meditations on everyday life in his corner of Nebraska. It lets me inhabit his life for a while, which is another raison d’être of memoir: A well-written memoir, even without high drama, lets us in on someone else’s life and expands our understanding of life on this planet and, if we’re lucky, illuminates our understanding of our own life.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a prime example of an ostensibly un-dramatic memoir, and yet it is critically acclaimed. The narrator purposefully omits from the narrative the higher drama of her life, namely her struggle with a debilitating illness that has left her bedridden. The illness is only mentioned in order to explain why she is bedridden, and the memoir is focused on her observing a woodland snail that a friend brought her in a pot of violets.

Observing this tiny animal going about its life keeps this narrator, who is too weak to leave her bed, connected to life; in fact, this pursuit ignites a whole new interest in life. Granted, I was grossed out by some of her investigations (there is a whole chapter on slime, for example) and yet, this book charmed me and taught me something about the world I did not know before, something that, without its beautiful presentation, I wouldn’t even have cared about.

This brings me back to my earlier point — even an uneventful, low-drama story can be engaging and worth telling. It can transform the narrator, and thus the reader, as it expands our understanding of the world we live in and hands us little lessons that might just make our own life a little better. It can even teach us how the minute and mundane can enrich our lives in the face of high drama.

So, when writing memoir, the question is not, “Where is the drama?” Rather, the question is, “Where is the transformation?”

It might just be in losing a cat.

Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago.

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