5 things I learned about writing from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

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Fun Home

I bought Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home right away when it came out in 2006. I was in the middle of writing my memoir about being a gravedigger’s daughter, so a memoir that featured a father who was a part-time funeral director? I had to have it.

The book blew me away. The writing, the illustrations, the story, the poignancy–it was everything I wished to emulate (except the illustrations). At readings people often ask what my favorite book is, and I do not hesitate to say Fun Home.

It quickly became apparent that this was a book I needed to deconstruct. Why did it work so well? If I pulled it apart and really analyzed it, I hoped to learn something that would benefit my own writing.

I basically summarized every page of the book.

I basically summarized every page of the book.

What did I learn? Read on!

* The end of each chapter should circle back to the beginning. The end of the book should circle back to the start of the book.

Fun Home is probably the most tightly woven book I've read. The story circles of each chapter fit so well with story circles from other chapters.

Fun Home is probably the most tightly woven book I’ve read. The story circles of each chapter fit so well with story circles from other chapters.

* How to use metaphor. The metaphors are thick in this book. One example: artifice. The way the outside of a house looks perfect but masks dysfunction inside. The way people craft public personas that hide their true identities. Creating the illusion of something that is not there.

* The importance of imagery. Bechdel has an advantage that many of us don’t have: she can draw. She can literally illustrate her scenes. Writers often hear the adage “show, don’t tell.” Bechdel can get by with exposition in the text because she has images that do the showing for her. But even if we can’t draw, we need to think visually. If we could draw, how would we illustrate our scenes? Once we know that, we can paint a picture through words.

* The balance between rumination and scene. Bechdel does a lot of telescoping in and out between present and past. She gives us a scene, then ruminates (as an adult) what that scene meant. I find this particularly tricky to do myself, so I appreciated having this model to follow.

* Keeping a tight focus on what the story is. At the heart of Fun Home is the story of a daughter and father. Of course there are other characters and scenes that don’t involve the dad, but everything is in service to the daughter-father story.

I typed up my handwritten notes into handy tables for each chapter.

I typed up my handwritten notes into handy tables for each chapter.

Every time I read this book I’m still in complete awe. I consider it a perfect memoir. I haven’t read it for a while. I figured now that I’m done with the memoir, I can find other books to serve as models for my current project, a biography. But now that I read my notes again, I realize that it’s time for another Fun Home read. It’s a perfect memoir, yes, but it’s also a perfect story, and that’s what I’m still doing — writing a story.

P.S. Fun Home the musical tied for the most Tony nominations this year! I’m not surprised because a great story in a book will also be a great story on stage.

Me being all fan girl! I was so honored, I mean incredibly honored, that Bechdel blurbed my memoir.

Me being all fan girl! I was so honored, I mean incredibly honored, that Bechdel blurbed my memoir.

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