Keeping Readers Engaged on a Journey Through Time

You make the path by walking on it. — Antonio Machado

A pathway through the woods

In writing Newcomers in an Ancient Land – the story of my youthful quest for adventure, love and self-discovery in 1960’s Israel – one of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to keep readers engaged through all the twists and turns of my journey. After all, every journey has its share of doldrums as well as excitement. So if I wanted to my readers to live and breathe my experience at a visceral and emotional level, “just the facts, ma’am” would not be enough. First, I would have to find the language and structure to recreate the scenes, sights, sounds and smells that first captivated me in Israel. Second, I’d have to excavate and communicate the meaning of my experience in a way that would resonate with my readers.
At first, the task felt overwhelming. After producing far too many piecemeal scenes, my chapters still felt like a bundle of patchwork pieces waiting to be sewn into a cohesive quilt. Slowly it dawned on me the writing was leading me on a new odyssey, one that would require just as much faith and perseverance as my original adventure. Without a clear roadmap, I’d have “make my path while walking on it.”

Find Your Turning Points | Set Your Compass

But once I finally decided on a manageable timeframe – a single pivotal year – to serve as a compass – my job got easier. From that fixed point, I could use flashbacks to my life’s turning points to provide context and motivation without losing the main thread of my story. Like the North Star or a Mother Ship, readers could return to the original impetus of my story while still following its twists and turns.

The Time Machine Technique

Next, I needed a vehicle to retrieve my long-ago memories. Two tools emerged as my best allies: Meditation for clearing my mind; and guided imagery, for accessing my memories. Imagining myself as the pilot of a time machine, I could zoom back to the very time and place I wanted to write about, there to be greeted by the young redhead who still lives inside me after over half a century. The sound of her welcome “Shalom!” immediately reconnected me with the bravado, passion and naiveté of my youth. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to write her story with all my five senses. (Another lesson: I had to take that first flight of imagination completely solo. No inner critic or editor allowed, lest they undermine my creativity.

Get your Metaphor Mojo Going

For better or worse, my love affair with metaphor has led some to call me the Queen of Metaphor! Their power to signal connections far deeper than their literal meaning is phenomenal. In one of Sue William Silverman’s memoirs, a purple scarf becomes the symbol of all she longs for but cannot have with her married lover. Yet she admits to writing several drafts before realizing the scarf’s greater meaning. This felt encouraging, along with her urging to “write from a very sensory space using the five senses” in order to access the power of metaphor. I’d add intuition and poetry as sixth senses because what can’t always be captured in prose may germinate from a seed in the womb of poetry. (Now there’s a metaphor.) But here’s another lesson learned: too many metaphors can be too much of a good thing. One per paragraph is probably enough.

Themes – Connecting the Personal to the Universal

If metaphor can serve to bridge time and space, readers respond most strongly to themes that evolve from the personal to the universal. In Newcomers, I discovered multiple meanings within the recurring images of water and ships, symbolizing not only my own turbulent passage from adolescence to adulthood, but also my mother’s experience as an immigrant. What began as my personal journey came to include hers. Then our individual stories joined the larger universal narrative of immigration, displacement, and the longing to belong – themes whose poignancy resonates today.

Structure – Linear, Circular, Patterns and More

When it came to structure, I learned that not all memoirs need to be logical or linear. Sheryl Strayed’s seamless interweaving of action and flashback in Wild is a great example. Narratives can also swirl from a multi-faceted center like the whorls of a nautilus, offering more paradoxes than answers, as in Things Fall Apart, another of my favorite books, by the African novelist and poet Chinua Achebe. But even a convoluted structure needs recurring themes to keep readers on the path. Like a tree, my story needed a foundational trunk and roots to support its leaves and branches. (Oh-oh, two metaphors in a single paragraph.)

In short, bushwhacking the writing path by walking on it taught me many lessons. The most important? Learning to trust my own internal compass when I got lost in the weeds, so I wouldn’t lose my readers too!

What fresh lessons await me now, as I embark on the next leg of my memoir journey, this one set in France?

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Paula Wagner

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