Just finished reading two memoirs – Piper Kerman’s account of a year in the grips of the federal prison system, Orange is the New Black, and Tori Murden McClure’s story of her two stints in solitary, as she attempted to become the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Contrary to what you might expect, the rower survived more dangerous encounters than the inmate, but both women endured more deprivation than most of us will ever be capable of. (Today, for example, I abandoned my office and hightailed it to the air-conditioned public library just because the temperature climbed above 90 degrees.)
Ultimately I found the “woman-against-the-elements” narrative more compelling than the “woman-loses-all-power-but-still-survives” story – but the key to both books is that the writer grew as a result of her experiences, and not in the perfunctory “I’m a better person now than I was then” manner that seems de rigeur for memoirists.
And that, I think, is the key to the power of a good story. Whether it’s something that has actually happened to you or a story with a good moral that you’ve plucked from history or literature, it has to have some real, tangible impact on you – the speaker – if it’s going to have an impact on your audience.