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Adding Action to My Memoir

In my Incubator class, I was introduced to Matt Bell's "Novel-Shaped Story" exercise and discovered where the action was missing in my memoir.

By Elizabeth Jannuzzi

July 07, 2022

Recently, our co-leader Shanda introduced us to a writing exercise from the newsletter Writing Exercises from Matt Bell. Write 40 action-oriented sentences that describe your story. If you succeed, you can take your 40 sentences and turn them into a 40-scene novel or memoir.

Shanda discussed the concept during class and shared it on Slack, the messaging app we use to communicate in between classes. She pledged to give it a whirl for her own memoir-in-progress and encouraged us to do the same.

I churned out some good sentences until I hit number 12. At that point, my sentences devolved into bullet points of events instead of an action or a choice as Bell suggests. This helped me see where the action lags in my story, the dreaded muddy middle.

We also discussed on Slack how this exercise might be more challenging for us memoir writers because our transitions are often internal psychological shifts, rather than physical actions. For example, one of the shifts in my memoir is that I learn to stop caring about what other people think of me. The Bell exercise got me thinking about how I can show that internal change as action in a scene.

I’m so glad Shanda led us to this exercise. That’s how our Incubator community works. One person finds something that has helped their writing and shares it with the group. I look forward to learning from the next shared writing exercise.

Elizabeth (Liz) Jannuzzi, Project Write Now’s operations and communications manager, is a mother and writer living in New Jersey. Her work has been featured in Counter Clock, Off Topic Publishing, HerStry, and Pangyrus. She is currently working on a memoir about recovery.