Documentary filmmaker Zeva Oelbaum was in Kansas City yesterday for a screening of her new film, Letters from Baghdad. She answered questions afterward, including mine about how she and fellow filmmaker Sabine Krayenbühl created the structure to tell the life story of Gertrude Bell, the film’s subject. Her thoughtful response pointed out a few ways in which we as personal historians can steal from documentarians, and a few ways we should not.
This was the big takeaway for me. The film deals with the whole of Bell’s life, and Oelbaum said they knew from the start that they wanted to open with a scene showing Bell at the height of her powers: an intrepid adventuress and Arabist who helped redraw the map of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Big stuff, indeed.
It’s a common tactic: Start a story at its climactic high point, then go back to its beginning and work your way chronologically to that point and beyond. In her book The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story, Linda Joy Myers cites this strategy, noting that “where you start is extremely important, because people tend to stop reading a story if it doesn’t grab their attention right away.” Can we, and should we, use this device when structuring a life story for our client?
I’ve tried this on a couple of projects. In all fairness, maybe I chose the wrong climactic scene to begin with; at any rate, it didn’t work either time.
One was about a man who had died decades earlier, and the family wanted a book based on interviews with friends, family, and colleagues. The focus was on the man’s career (the success of which had provided his grandchildren, young people who never had the chance to know him, a materially comfortable lifestyle), and I thought starting with a highlight from his career would make a good opener. But there was little conflict in the story of how he built his company, so as a dramatic device, the opener flopped.
In the other instance, the storyteller experienced and overcame a great deal of conflict in his life, and I felt like the opening scene/flash-backward worked well. He disagreed. In his mind, his book needed to proceed just as his life had, starting with a “I was born in...” (Luckily, I convinced him that we could change it up just a little, and we began with an interesting origin story about his grandparents).
This brings up a few things to keep in mind when we talk about structure and story arc for life story projects.
1) The audience.
The books we write are typically intended for a narrow audience of family and descendants. Readers hungry to know details that wouldn’t interest the wider public. They’re not looking for entertainment as much as they are the roots of their own identity. Keeping the structure simple by hewing to a straightforward chronology may serve best.
2) The budget.
It takes more time to write a story out of chronological order. Time to play with scenes, find the best to highlight, weave them together and build transitions. The more time it takes, the more it’s going to cost your client. Make sure you’re giving them what they want for the money they’re spending, and not trying to satisfy your own creative impulses.
3) The storyteller.
In the end, as I remind them often (and you should, too), it’s my storyteller’s story, not mine. My job is to bear witness to their memories and write them in a way they would do if they were a writer. Yes, I bring my knowledge of creative writing to the task. But their vision of the book takes precedence. Always.
If time and budget permit, go ahead and try changing up the routine chronology. But before you do, make sure you’re writing chops are up to the creative task, and that your client is open to the idea. Otherwise, stick to the tried-and-true structure of telling the story the way it happened in real life.
Oelbaum explained that for Letters to Baghdad, she and Krayenbühl created the narrative first, then searched for the archival material to bring that narrative to life. They restricted themselves to primary source material—letters, documents, archival film footage. Tilda Swinton narrated much of the film, speaking as Gertrude Bell in words taken directly from the copious collection of letters Bell left behind. Characters from Bell’s life are portrayed by actors who likewise are given dialogue pulled directly from source materials. In other words, the filmmakers did just what we do: they let the storytellers tell their own story, without any invention on their part. Interpretation, yes. Invention, no.
While many of our storytellers won’t have been big players in the public arena like Bell, we can give their stories a richer context by searching out archival materials. These can be of two sorts:
Primary source material that pertains specifically to the storyteller
Most people will think of the photos they want to add to their book, but make sure to ask them if there are any old documents such as letters, journals, diaries, or anything else penned by them or their family or friends.
Material that pertains to the historic era
The storyteller doesn’t have images or documents? Try searching for them based on the time period in question. I’ve included photos and sidebars on everything from President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats to the history of marbles (much more interesting than you might think!). Remember, you’re building a portrait of a person, and that includes bringing to life the setting in which they lived. Not all of the words of their story have to come directly from their lips. Just make sure to ask if the new material fits with their perceptions and memories. If not, strike it.
The filmmakers of Letters from Baghdad included portrayals of Bell’s famous acquaintances, people like Lawrence of Arabia. But even if your storyteller didn’t rub elbows with the famous or the infamous, you’d be wise to adopt the documentary’s practice of including secondary characters in the story. Even having the storyteller recount anecdotes about the people in their life will give more depth to the tale. Better yet is if the anecdotes “rub” in some way against what the storyteller has told or believes. Are there letters written to the storyteller from others? Is there anything that contradicts the storyteller’s view of things? Multiple viewpoints can offer counterpoints that capture layers the storyteller isn’t even aware of.
We live in a golden age of storytelling. Some of it can be adapted to our uses, and some not. The next time you sit down to a good documentary, reserve some of your brainpower for analyzing the elements used to tell the story. Can you implement them in your personal history projects? If you have ideas on how to do so, share them in the comments or drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.