• Brooke Warner
  • 5 Things I Learned from Rebecca Skloot about Structure
This blog was featured on 04/25/2017
5 Things I Learned from Rebecca Skloot about Structure

I teach structure to memoirists, so I confess that I went into Rebecca Skloot’s She Writes University class thinking I didn’t have much to learn. Wrong. Rebecca’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (coming to HBO—Oprah! Rose Byrne!—this weekend, April 22), is a masterful structural event. Rebecca wove together three timelines in that narrative, tracking the evolution of Henrietta’s cells, the Lax family, and her own involvement in this amazing story. Here are five things I’m taking with me from her class, for myself and my students:


1. Exposition is okay, and should be outlined or mapped along with everything else. Although I’ve never been of the mind that exposition is a dirty word, Rebecca’s framing of it as “telling” (vs. showing) and “necessary” to the point of needing to be tracked deepened my appreciation for the maligned approach to writing.


2. You have to have some sort of organization system. In my own teaching, I’m practically obsessed with a process of outlining I call “scaffolding.” In her class, Rebecca reiterated the importance of any kind of organization system to avoid overwhelm. She said she wished she’d started this sooner. Take it from an expert, folks. It’s never too soon to start organizing your ideas, materials, timeline, scenes, etc.


3. Don’t worry if your writing doesn’t look like writing. This was a great tip. Rebecca shared that she often uses voice dictation and does other kind of writing and creating that’s not about sitting at the computer and executing long-form writing. So permission-giving. Love this!


4. Sometimes you may need to back out of your narrative and try a new approach. Rebecca shared how, at some point in her process, she had to stop her braided structure (in Henrietta Lacks) and just write each narrative individually. This required attention to segue later, but what a valuable lesson for writers. It’s okay to pull at your chapters and timelines like taffy when you need to. 


5. Start at a point of high tension. You see this as an increasingly common trend for stories, novels, and memoirs alike, and that’s because high tension draws readers in. Rebecca talked about picking a moment—and you may be picking one moment from among many. But choosing that moment gives you a jumping-off point, and is the beginning point for choosing the structure that follows. Super helpful suggestion.


We at SheWrites.com want to thank Rebecca for teaching for She Writes University’s inaugural spring “semester.” It was fun to have a structure master speak about a tool she’s wrestled with and mastered. And we wish Rebecca the very best with the release of the movie, which we can’t wait to see!


Please be on the lookout for more posts in the weeks to come about what I learned from hosting She Writes University. And please weigh in. What do you know about structure? If you attended Rebecca’s class, what did you get out of it?

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