Turn Memories into Scenes: Roslyn Nelson Shows You How

by Memoir Mentor on March 13, 2009

Show–Don’t Tell! It’s a maxim preached in most writing books. Show–Don’t Tell!! Stories, people, places and more become more real and evocative if you SHOW what you’re trying to communicate rather than merely telling about it.

How do you show? One of the best ways is to turn your experiences into scenes–re-creating them for your readers as they happened, complete with dialogue, if applicable. Scenes put your readers in the moment, transporting them to the time and place where the incident took place, letting them visualize the incident the way you experienced it. Novelists do this well. The same technique works equally well for memoir writers.

In the story below, my student Roslyn Nelson crafted a scene to re-create a memory of a time she was disobedient to her parents’ command to stay away from a valuable mirror. Observe how she does it–putting us in the scene first, THEN giving us the backstory.

The Mirror
by Roslyn Nelson

I lay on the floor, miraculously unscathed, amid the glass icicles of the shattered mirror. It had been a favorite possession of my father’s, the last remnant of the glory days, before the Great Depression, when his tailor shop had been modestly successful and he could afford such frills. With the coming of hard times, he had to move the store from its tonier street to a working class neighborhood and his family from a steam-heated apartment building to an unheated cold-water flat behind the store.

roslyn-nelsonThe rest of the store was shabby, the flowered wallpaper faded, the scarred counter a bilious green, the sewing and pressing machines old and worn.

There was little money to spare for luxuries and my commercial playthings were few, but I found plenty of ways to amuse myself. Empty shoeboxes joined together formed a dollhouse. Cutouts of clothing manequins from newspaper advertising pages became paper dolls, and the brown paper that my father used to wrap customers’ clothing afforded endless opportunities to create tabbed costumes for the dolls by tracing around them and decorating the resulting outlines with pencil and crayons. I could occupy myself for hours.

My favorite plaything when I was seven was that mirror. It was a handsome affair, six feet tall, framed in rosewood and severe in style, except for its lion-clawed feet and a small bit of scrollwork near the top on either side. It could be tilted forward and backward and moved left and right with the rotating mechanisms that allowed it to swing largely free of its frame. I would play dress-up with clothing from the store, moving the mirror this way and that, up and down, completely engrossed for hours at a time.
_______________________________
I had been strictly forbidden to play with the mirror. It was for the customers’ use and was far too valuable and irreplaceable to be a toy, but whenever nobody was around, I’d head for the looking glass. I could make myself a queen, a ballerina, or a movie star. I could primp and pose. There was no limit. Until . . . one day, as I tilted the mirror forward, I somehow moved it too far or perhaps too quicly. All I know is that it suddenly pitched forward on top of me, pinning me down and splintering all around me. By some miracle, I was unhurt, but I sat amid the needle-sharp fragments, stunned by the enormity of what I had done, guilty and afraid of what my punishment would be.

At the far end of the house, my parents heard the crash and came running. “Are you hurt?” asked my father, looming above me.

“No,” I answered in a small quavering voice.

“Are you cut? Are you bleeding?” My mother’s face was a mask of concern.

I examined my arms and legs for signs of blood. “No,” I don’t think so.”

My father reached out and carefully plucked me from among the knife-edged slivers. He held me close for a moment, then handed me to my mother.

I waited, dreading the punishment to come, but he only said, lapsing into the comfort of the familiar Hebrew, “Nu, Mazeltov!” which can only translate as, “Well then, congratulations,” or “What luck!”

My parents didn’t punish me or admonish me for playing with the mirror. There were grateful I had not been hurt, and my own guilt was punishment enough. But I remember promising myself at that moment that if I ever had children and they accidentally broke something in the house, I wouldn’t be upset, and I wouldn’t punish them for it.

Harsh retribution might have relieved my guilt and allowed me to be angry at my parents instead of blaming myself. Though they may not have realized it, allowing me to experience the consequences of my disobedience had a far more sobering effect than punishment, and I think their kindness bred in me a sense of responsibility for my own behavior.

Incidentally, the frame had not been broken, and the mirror was replaced, but I never played with it again.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jane March 14, 2009 at 12:34 pm

I like the advice and the story. We follow the same rule in our video biography work. People have a natural urge to explain and contextualize. The best stories usually start right in with the event. Often, once that is taken care of, there is no further need to explain – leave it to the audience to do the rest of the work!

2 Ivan Courtright April 13, 2009 at 3:39 pm

I also enjoyed Roslyn’s story. For me, her descriptions conveyed a very real sense of that time of her life.

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