Climbing the Swiss Alps: 7 Steps Toward a Narrative Arc

Events in our lives happen in a sequence in

time, but in their significance to

ourselves they find their own order . . . the

continuous thread of revelation.

—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

Writers find real life images to compare what happens as they mold life events into stories:

  • To fabric (thread and weaving)
  • To clay (molding a lump into a recognizable form)
  • To construction (building a house from the foundation up)

Finding the right shape for telling our story is a critical step in the memoir writing process. Writers call it the narrative arc.

Paging through a photo album of my trip to Switzerland, I have found another metaphor for structuring my memoir: Contours of the Swiss Alps

All photos: Marian Beaman
All photos: Cliff and Marian Beaman

Climbing the Alps fits with the theme and title of Journey of Memoir by Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner. “One of the most challenging aspects of writing a memoir, which of course is based on true and real events in your life, is to create a plot out of what happened.” (104)

I know my life story. I don’t have to make up events and characters. Through trial and error, I have decided that my theme is the quest for my true self as a sheltered Mennonite girl growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Still, I have to mold my tale into a story of transformation, one that will grip readers’ imagination and keep them turning the pages.

* * *

Aristotle affirms that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end: Act One, Act Two, Act Three.

Stories that intrigue have conflict too. For example, when you saw a play like Our Town or Macbeth, you were transported into another world through exposition, rising action (the story builds), a crisis, a climax, and finally a resolution.

Crisis (all seems to be lost) Climax (major conflict narrator must resolve) Conclusion (epiphany - so that's it!)
Crisis at midpoint (all seems to be lost) Climax (major conflict narrator must resolve) Conclusion (epiphany – Ah,  so that’s it!)


My 7 Steps . . .

  1. I created a timeline of vivid memories in my life. This is how I hoped to arrive at my turning points, moments of significant change. As I drew, I thought in terms of chronology. What is my first memory? What stands out in elementary school? What family events pop up? Who looms large as a mentor? Answers to these questions could become turning points, I believed.

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  1. Then I thought about scenes. On colored stickies I randomly wrote phrases that came to mind. For example: The phrase “Daddy yodeling” could turn into a scene about my sisters and me taking turns singing with Daddy at the piano, relating to the impact of music upon my formative years.



3. Next I gathered random scenes into a sensible order.  Writers choose scenes based on how well they relate to their theme, the message of their memoir. For example, a theme can be traveling and what you learned on the journey, recovering from a challenging situation like an illness or abuse, or the struggles of becoming a chef. My own theme can be stated as a question: How can a girl from a sheltered and restrictive Mennonite culture find her place in an emerging new life?

A memoir is not an autobiography. I couldn’t include every detail of my entire life. I selected only those scenes that related to my theme. I write about this in a previous post.

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  1. Sometimes I felt stuck. Fatigue sets in on a long climb. Air is more rare as one moves into the higher altitudes (Alp-titude in Swiss terms). Sometimes I felt faint-hearted.

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  1. I constructed a narrative arc composed of scenes relating to my theme. A narrative arc can take several forms: curvy like a hill or jagged like the Swiss Alps.

The core of mine turned into an upside-down V-shape, rather like a peak in the Swiss Alps


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The sticky notes make it possible for me to move ideas around easily. In fact, I’ve moved some notes into a different order since the photo was taken.

6. I’ve printed out copies of drafts. As I’ve progressed, I’ve stored manuscripts in labeled folders on my computer desktop. But I’ve also printed out copies of my drafts from my laptop because I find it helpful to touch the pages and make marginal notes in colored ink. Pages in the binders feel book-like, real.

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7. I try to overlook messiness in my work space. Generally, I’m a neatnik, but worries about order, except in my writing, distract from my creative process.

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So, that’s where I am now!

I began with an impulse to tell my story which progressed from

Journals –>  Blog posts –>  Memoir Drafts

At the moment, I’m in the muddy middle, aiming to complete the journey across the Alpine-scape of memoir.

More to come . . .


How about you?

Have you made a similar journey with memoir? How would you chart your narrative arc? 


Coming next: Moments of Discovery, a Bubble, a Dome, a Mirror


Another Valentine, a Different Romance

Valentine’s Day conjures up images of hearts, flowers, and boxes of chocolate for most, but not for Yost. Yost is the father of Valentine Metzler, an ancester on my mother’s side of the family, born on Valentine’s Day, 1792. This past weekend, nearly 500 Metzlers from far and  wide gathered near Ephrata, Pennsylvania to celebrate this special Valentine. He, like many of his descendants, was in love with God’s green earth, a grateful steward of fertile land where his roots grew deep.


Valentine Family Crest: all green background mid-left

The Attraction

Born in the Canton of St. Gallen, Switzerland, young Valentine with his family, left the homeland. Bearing the memory of earlier religious persecution during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s and needing more land, the Metzlers, Anabaptist Mennonites, emigrated from Switzerland to the Palatinate of Germany with the promise of religious freedom and fertile farm land.

Bumps in the Road

Caught between the warring French and German troops in the early 1700s, Anabaptists and Mennonites from Switzerland, who settled in the Rhine River region, left Germany. They had had enough. Tired of being caught in the cross-fire between the warring French and German troops, they looked to the New World. They packed up, floated up the Rhine to Rotterdam, Holland, where wealthy Mennonites assisted them with money and provisions to set sail to America via Cowes, England. Exposed to rats, disease, thirst, and starvation, many did not survive the voyage across the Atlantic to Philadelphia.


The Courtship

In 1677 William Penn had visited Germany to entice people to come to Pennsylvania, assuring the Swiss transplanted to Germany that there were many similarities between Pennsylvania and Der Pfalz including the beauty of the Poconos and Alleghenies.

Later, the family of Yost Metzler, Valentine’s father, along with others, responded to the lure of freedom to worship freely and own land, become successful farmers and make Lancaster County blossom.

Marriage: Struggle and Prosperity

The 275th anniversary at Metzler Mennonite Church (June 14-15, 2013) commemorated the young Valentine’s immigration in 1738 to America.  He married Anna Nissley in 1749 and prospered on a 90-acre farm in Manheim Township, raising an exemplary family of nine. Along with other peace-loving Mennonites, Valentine had a non-combatant stance during the Revolutionary War. Thus, he was viewed with suspicion by both Patriots and the British. Yet early Pennsylvania records show that he donated horses and wagons to the colonial army.

Valentine, nicknamed Valti, was a weaver, farmer, and in the 1760s he was ordained a minister in the Mennonite Church, later becoming a bishop.


Fraktur by Henry Metzler, Artist  . . . . .  Birds,  I imagine, symbolize loving symmetry of faith & family

Henry Metzler, Valentine’s fourth son, was a Pennsylvania farmer with an artistic flair. The homestead is now a dairy farm operated by Amish near Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Henry Metzler Farm_6x4_180_3294

Anniversary & Rejoicing

At the 275th Anniversary Celebration, plain and fancy Metzlers from Lancaster County, all over eastern United States, Wisconsin, Oregon, and even two provinces in Canada met, visited, ate, and sang together.

Metzler Reunion_Marian_Janet_6x5_180With my favorite cousin Janet Metzler Diem

Voices blended in 4-part harmony, erasing the boundaries of time and distance. “Faith of Our Fathers” at Metzler Mennonite Church:

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it never fails to fascinate.


“The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.”   Psalm 16:6