I have a lovely story to tell as a way of ushering in for us all a creative and productive new year. In early 2017 I worked with a writer living in Portland, Oregon named Gigi Rosenberg whose 50,000 word memoir, THE INHERITANCE, had received what she called “glowing rejections” from literary agents. It was the story of what happened six weeks after Gigi’s mother’s death; Gigi received a letter from her parents’ executor informing Gigi that her mother had disinherited her. Understandably shocked and devastated, Gigi decided to write a memoir that would seek to understand the legacy of family secrets and banishments.
We worked together—using all the tools of successful memoir writing—to craft a story that would feel fully sustained and worthy of a book-length narrative. We talked honestly about the challenges of Gigi not sounding overly bitter towards her mother (with whom she had had a strong relationship). I realized Gigi has a marvelous sense of humor, an ability to see the bright side that was not always clear on the page. I knew Gigi had done a lot of performing and had a busy career as a public speaking coach, and I wondered if her thespian skills could bring this interesting family material to life in a different form. But Gigi had worked long and hard on THE INHERITANCE and her focus didn’t waver from the written form.
Flash forward to the spring of 2018. I received an excited postcard from Gigi informing me that her one woman show, based on the memoir, was going to be performed at the Fertile Ground Festival of New Work in Portland. In short order, I received another postcard. The show, now called, Firstborn, had been accepted into the off-Broadway United Solo Theater Festival. In October of this past year, almost two years after working with Gigi, I found myself on West 42nd Street watching a fantastic one-hour, one-woman show. With props and photos, Gigi brought her 1960’s and 70’s NYC childhood in an artsy, bohemian family to life. Gone was the bitterness we’d struggled with. What had made the memoir compelling—a charismatic mother, an interesting milieu, the bittersweet nature of familial relationships—had been drilled down into a play that was delightful, rueful in good ways, and most of all, funny.
I met Gigi for breakfast a few days later and I marveled at the metamorphosis from memoir to play. She explained that shortly after we had worked together, she had performed a few more stories from the material. She was surprised to discover that there was far more humor in the thespian version than she previously understood. She took a class via Skype with a well-known dramaturg in New York named Seth Barrish. As Gigi talked, I asked her if I could interview her directly on the process that took her from a deeply discouraged writer of memoir to a playwright whose work has been performed off-Broadway.
Jane Rosenman: Did you gauge audience reaction that helped you see the humor in the readings you did?
Gigi Rosenberg: The audience reaction was easy to gauge: it was the laughter I heard in rehearsals from my director, Lauren Bloom Hanover, and during performances from the audience.
But before I even knew I was going to turn the memoir into a solo show, I was invited to tell a story with Portland Story Theater in Oregon, where I live. That invitation came at a time when I was struggling with the memoir, still determined that this story would be a book. I took a break from the manuscript and started performing the stories aloud from memory.
Suddenly, the stories felt more alive. I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh so having an audience helped me find the humor. Also, live storytelling became its own editing process: you discover ways to condense, you remember details and forge transitions. With each telling, something new and often better emerged. As an extrovert, I also thrived within the collaborative process of creating live theater and having both a dramaturg and a director to experiment with.
Jane Rosenman: What did you learn from the dramaturg that would be helpful for a reader of this blog post?
Gigi Rosenberg: Seth Barrish, the dramaturg, encouraged me to focus on action and how one action leads to the next action so that I found the causal links between events. For example, I might ask myself: what was the last straw for this character that caused them to act in this way which set off this chain of events?
I have a tendency to explain more to the audience than is necessary. Any mention of feelings or commentary or ruminating, which I love to do, was cut. Because it’s not dramatic.
We were ruthless about making sure every word in the script was there for a reason. If it didn’t support the larger story, it was excised.
This is just good writing advice but it’s not easy to apply to your own writing. We writers get very attached to phrases, characters, stories and it helps to have someone else, like a dramaturg, director, editor or coach, be vigilant about ensuring that every word feeds the engine of the story.
Jane Rosenman: Also, do you have ideas for how memoir writers who are not performers might find other creative ways to change the form of their stories?
Gigi Rosenberg: You don’t need to be a “performer” to tell a good story to a live audience. In fact, not being a performer may make you a more authentic storyteller. The best storyteller sounds like this is the first time they’ve ever told this story. If a performance feels overly rehearsed or pre-planned, it’s less interesting for the audience.
If you’re a writer you would never perform your story in front of an audience even with coaching, what other form could your memoir take that puts it out into the world? Here are some ideas:
Publish a chapter on your own blog (or as a guest blogger on someone else’s blog) with photos or illustrations, if possible. (I published several stories about living in Siena, Italy on my blog and received more feedback from readers than any feedback I’ve ever received from publishing in a literary journal.)
Print a few copies of a tiny book you create of one chapter or a complete story. You could do this at your neighborhood copy shop. (I did this with a speech I gave once and everyone got to take my story home with them).
Read a few pages of your story wherever you can: at your next dinner party, coffee date, open mic. Stay attuned to audience reaction.
The goal is to get your work out however you can. If one door shuts, find another crack somewhere else. Be flexible to form.
When I first set out on this project, I wanted to have a memoir in book form that I could hold in my hands. But after years of rewriting, I finally surrendered. And in doing so, I found the beating heart of the story. It wasn’t the story I set out to write but it was the story form that had more life in it—which in the end is what matters.