However, if you’re of a more adventurous turn of mind, you might consider presenting your subject discursively, as a sequence of thematically related anecdotes, reflections, interpretive speculations and commentary. It’s a more demanding approach, but it can yield a richer reading experience.
The discursive literary technique replicates the associative way that the human mind works. It’s a mental chain reaction. For instance, if somebody casually mentions “September” in my hearing, the word spontaneously calls to mind a whole series of associations. It works something like this: September; hurricane season; sitting out Hurricane Donna with my mother, back when I was ten; in the aftermath, seeing a 15-foot high neon sign in the form of a bowling pin bent in half, etc. These memories in turn trigger other memories and images from other periods of my life.
By way of demonstration: suppose you’re writing a memoir of your life. Suppose your life experience includes various encounters with bosses who were difficult to deal with. In a linear narrative, you’d describe each encounter in its proper place in your personal chronology. In a discursive narrative, by contrast, you might start up a chapter with a statement on the theme of “little tin gods”: No matter who you are or what you do for a living, sooner or later you’re going to have to contend with a Little Tin God. Some small-minded fathead of an office manager who likes to throw his weight around when he thinks he can get away with it.
This paves the way for you to present portraits of the various “little tin gods” you’ve encountered throughout your life. Detached from temporal chronology, you can give the chapter forward momentum by starting your reminiscence with the least obnoxious “little tin god” and working up to the one who was the prize arsehole of the lot. You can then cap off the chapter with an insight based on experience: A Little Tin God can only get the better of you if you let him.
The discursive approach also affords ways to make elegant transitions from one chapter to the next. One tactic is to pick up on some word or phrase or image in your summation paragraph, and employ it in the opening sentence or paragraph of the next chapter. In the above example, you might usher in a related category of your life experience by picking up on the motif of not letting X get the better of you in the first line of the follow-on chapter: If it’s not a good idea to let a person like X get the better of you, it’s a worse idea to allow yourself to become your own worst enemy.
Admittedly, using the discursive technique to good effect taxes the imagination. But the end result is well worth the extra effort.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.