Lately I’ve been calling for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Meanwhile I’ve been reading Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron. Yes, dear reader, I look everywhere for fresh insights to bring you, including in the world of fiction-writing.
This morning it struck me that Cron’s advice is highly relevant to writing that “inserimento” episode of your travel memoir. Her key point is that, based on the science of what our brains are wired to crave in every story, writers must not start by plotting the external structure of their work (whether fiction or nonfiction). Rather, we must blueprint the inner struggle of the story’s protagonist. What do they want? What do they believe will help them achieve that aim, and why? Where is a mistaken belief thwarting their progress?
Or, to let Lisa Cron say it:
How do you isolate and identify your protagonist’s inner struggle, so you can then develop it? By laser beaming into his specific dueling internal duo: what your protagonist wants (his desire) and the misbelief that keeps him from it (think: fear). It is from these two small, burning embers that all stories grow and flame. It is this struggle that becomes your story’s third rail.
The opening of a travel memoir is the perfect place to explore this starting place. Before the external events get underway, the trip to the airport, the jet-lagged “inserimento” in some strange new now, the protagonist wants something and believes something.
- She wants to arrive in a novel, exciting, delightful experience.
- She believes she knows enough / has trusted the right advisors / to lay plans that will deliver that surprise and delight.
Here’s a little example from my 2008 trip to Italy–
“Cena? Non ce stasera,” the barrista tells us. Dinner will not be served tonight. The little restaurant of the Torre Cambiaso hotel is closed, because this is a Monday.
This means there really WILL be no dinner, because the nearest restaurant is so far down the mountain that the cost of the taxi alone would equal a dinner.
We have arrived at this baronial-estate-turned-hotel high on a promontory overlooking Genoa, and we are in the kind of personal low that predictably overtakes anyone who’s been in transit more than 24 hours and has been told there will be no dinner.
I had wanted to cushion the landing from a transatlantic flight, and (mis) believed that my knowledge of Italian culture trumped the several negative reviews on Trip Advisor of the Torre Cambiaso. And I got what I deserved… a good story (which I’ll publish here in a few weeks) and a comeuppance for my hubris.
Back to Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. As I read, I am finding my approach to memoir writing undergoing a deepening in appreciation for the emotional beats of the story, brought on by the shift from a focus on external structure to internal struggle.
The book itself is annoying for its padded, joke-y style. I’ll end with a quote from GoodReads reviewer Rebecca Renner: “…a little bit of really stellar advice almost eclipsed by the rest of the junk surrounding it. My advice? If you read this, check it out from the library. Read pages 35-123 and skip the rest.” That’s what I’m doing and hey, it’s working for me.
Writing prompt: Send me YOUR stories of inserimento! Submission guidelines here.