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This blog was featured on 08/16/2019
Keeping Your Readers Engaged on an Odyssey Through Time
Written by
She Writes
July 2019
Written by
She Writes
July 2019

This guest post was written by Paula Wagner, author of Newcomers in an Ancient Land.

“You make the path by walking on it.” – Antonio Machado

 How do you create enough cohesion to keep your readers engaged in the twists and turns of journey through time? That was my challenge in writing Newcomers in an Ancient Land, the story of my youthful quest for adventure, love and self-discovery in 1960’s Israel. But over time two main goals emerged: 1) To recreate the scenes, sights, sounds and smells that first captivated me; and 2) to excavate and communicate the meaning of my experience in a way that would resonate with my readers.

At first, the task felt overwhelming. After producing far too many piecemeal scenes, my narrative still lacked cohesion. It took time to realize that writing this memoir would lead me on a new odyssey, yet require just as much faith and perseverance as my original adventure. Instead of a roadmap or GPS, I’d have “make my path while walking on it.”

Find Your Turning Points | Set Your Compass

But once I finally decided on a manageable timeframe – a single, yet pivotal year – to serve as a compass – my job got easier. From that fixed point, I could develop context and motivation through flashbacks to my life’s turning points and family history without losing the main thread of my story. With a north star for guidance, readers will follow a narrative whether it encompasses a day, a year, or a lifetime.

The Time Machine Technique

But I still needed a vehicle to retrieve my long-ago memories. Using meditation to clear my mind and set the mood, I imagined myself as the pilot of a time machine. Strapping myself in, I could then zoom back to a place where a young girl with curly red hair greeted me on the tarmac. The sound of her voice shouting “Shalom!” immediately reconnected me with the bravado, passion and naiveté of my youth. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to write her story with all my five senses. Of course, as the writer in real time, I reserved the right to edit later. But that first flight had to be solo  with no inner critic or editor allowed lest they dampen my creativity.

Get your Metaphor Mojo Going

Metaphors are another great tool with the power to signal connections far deeper than their literal meaning. In one of Sue William Silverman’s memoirs, a purple scarf becomes the symbol of all she longs for but cannot have with her married lover. Yet she admits to writing several drafts before realizing the scarf’s greater meaning. Silverman urges us to “write from a very sensory space using the five senses” in order to access the power of metaphor. To that I would add intuition and poetry as sixth senses. What can’t always be captured in prose may germinate from a seed in the womb of poetry. (Now there’s a metaphor.) But as much as I love metaphor, too many can be overwhelming. I’ve had to learn that one per paragraph is probably enough.

Themes – Connecting the Personal to the Universal

Just as metaphors can bridge time and space, themes can evolve from the personal to the universal. For me, the recurring images of water and ships in Newcomers came to contain meanings within meanings: not only my own turbulent passage from adolescence to adulthood but also my mother’s experience, two generations of immigrants longing to belong. What began as purely personal grew into a universal theme about displacement and searching for home.

Structure – Linear, Circular, Patterns and more

In Wild, Sheryl Strayed seamlessly interweaves an action-packed tale of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail with long flashbacks of a painful adolescence. Before we know it, we are so engaged in both past and present journeys that we empathize with its emotional turmoil as well as its physical challenges.

However, not all narratives need to be logical or linear. Like the whorls of a nautilus, Things Fall Apart, by African novelist and poet Chinua Achebe, cycles back and forth, toward and away from a multi-faceted center where paradoxes prevail over answers. But even a convoluted structure needs recurring themes to keep us on the path. Like the leaves and branches of a tree, a story still needs a foundational trunk and roots to support it.

In short, if we want readers to enjoy the journey as well as the destination, then we must trust our own internal compass to guide us on the odyssey of writing.

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