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Narrative Tools: Old Newspapers, Private Records, Implicit Structure

By Bill Mitchell

Chip Scanlan has help for colleagues who are writing memoirs -- or are using the techniques of the memoirist in pursuit of stories of all sorts.

For openers, he quotes Patricia Hampl's observation that the real power of the memoir is not so much for reminiscence as for exploration.

For example, Scanlan says, "Old newspapers give me a window into my life when i was too young to understand it."

He has used the microfilm edition of the Greenwich Time, his hometown paper, to recreate the day his father died -- March 25, 1960. And he has used the microfilm editions of New York City newspapers to recapture his grandfather's role in the Tammany Hall scandal in May of 1932.

See also Scanlan's discussion of the ways private records can fill in the gap of a narrative. Example: his Dad's report card from 1933.

If all this research generates so much good material that you're struggling with its structure, Scanlan suggests looking within the material to see if "there is a structure implicit in the material itself."

Example: He used such newspaper section heads as Weather, Real Estate, Personals, Classifieds and Obituaries for his Reading the Paper piece.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in memoir & personal essay, sessions.Reporting the Past, speakers.Chip Scanlan on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink