Alps and Arcs by
(89 Stories)

Prompted By Children's Books

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I still have a stack of some of the books that sat on my shelf as a child. I just can’t part with them. My very favorite was Heidi by Johanna Spyri.

There are a few others I no longer have but still remember vividly…a Hopalong Cassidy book that you read while listening to the 78 RPM record, and whenever his horse, Topper, would whinny, that’s when you’d turn the page.

Another book that’s missing that I wish I still had is The Ugly Ducking. Because I just discovered something about it that makes it particularly interesting to me.

I’ve been working on my memoir for years…not so much with the expectation of getting it published but to help me make sense of my topsy-turvy life. I just wanted to write it. But I also wanted to write it right. I’ve participated in workshops, read countless memoirs and how-to books (surprisingly, at least to me, Stephen King’s On Writing being one of the best!), visited innumerable websites to that end, and the one thing that has eluded me is my ability to nail what’s known as the “narrative arc.” As we Retrospecters all know, a well-conceived arc is what makes every story ultimately satisfying.

A typical arc looks like this:

Try as I might to squeeze my story into that shape, it was impossible. There are a few variations but still, no dice…until I found this. Turns out my arc most closely resembles the Hans Christian Andersen classic, The Ugly Duckling. written in…1844! Here’s what that looks like:


Now that makes a little more sense! There’s even a name for it: The “double man-in-the-hole” arc. Whatever. But now I have faith in what I’m doing. My arc does make sense…as proven by millions upon millions of readers!


Studying fairy tales reveals pretty much every arc there is…seems there’s nothing new under the sun.

Speaking of which, here’s what Kurt Vonnegut has to say about one of our old favorites, now thankfully out-dated.

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Khati Hendry says:

    I have held onto old books too. Heidi didn’t make my list (I don’t still have a copy), but was also deeply affecting. I wonder if the double arc is the same as the classic movie plot of “ boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl”, with an extra “boy loses girl, boy gets girl” thrown in. Anyway, navigating the the ups and downs of the sea of life is always a challenge, and bringing the shore into sight satisfying. Writing seems to help bring perspective and maybe make the shoreline more visible.

    • Khati, you are so right about the process of writing! My own arc was really more about figuring out who I was and why than it was about finally finding the right partner. As actors are wont to say, “What’s my motivation?” Once I figured that out, everything fell into place…in the writing, and in real life.

  2. Marian says:

    Fascinating, Barb, now I will pay closer attention to the narratives of both children’s and adult books that I like. The Ugly Duckling story sure looks like a roller coaster to me–maybe that’s why it resonates so much with the pattern of your life.

  3. Suzy says:

    Barb, I love that Heidi was your favorite book. It is certainly right up there for me too. I wonder what you would think of Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children. I’m fascinated by your discussion of story arcs, and will try to pay attention to those in my future reading (and writing). But I would not have thought that The Ugly Duckling had an intermediate upswing. In my memory of the story, his life is all bad until the end, when he finally discovers that he is a swan.

    • There are entire books and classes devoted to story arcs. I had a rude awakening when I couldn’t tell someone what my memoir was about in a succinct way. Over the last few months, in focusing on and honing the arc, I’m finally able to define it.

      As for The Ugly Duckling, there are some flashes of light along the way. He is late to hatch but finally does (yay!), he swims better than the other ducks, and then there’s his rapture the first time he sees swans flying overhead.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    I loved Heidi and read it to my kids, and I share your love of Fairy Tales, even though they can be pretty cruel in their original version. For some reason, I was obsessed with The Little Match girl. Thank you for sharing that Kurt Vonnegut clip. It was wonderful! And keep plugging away on that memoir, no matter what arc it assumes.

    • Thanks, Laurie. It’s interesting that most fairy tales are actually kind of dark, but I guess that reflects the times in which they were written. So much hardship. Things are easier now, though we have our fair share of darkness these days. It will be interesting to see how it’s reflected culturally in terms of films and books…even children’s books. It can be very subtle (or not), but it has to be there.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Barb, as you say, many of us have well-worn, well-loved children’s books on our shelves (or some we wish we’d saved). I LOVE the Hopalong Cassidy book with the record that whinnies to signal a page turn. How clever and engaging.

    And now I understand why you’ve been MIA from Retro for some weeks – you are writing for yourself. I like the way you define the arc of a typical story, but not yours. Yours is more like a fairy tale, as described by the YouTube clip – so great! Whatever helps you make sense of your life. You have shared so many intimate stories with us. They deserve to be put together into a great format. You have lived some life, my dear. I can’t wait to read the whole thing!

  6. I really enjoyed the way you made creative use of this prompt and allowed it to meander over to the arc of your own memoir. I found myself quite engaged and happy to meander with you–and then was enthralled by the Vonnegut lecture. Thanks for that-but I kept thinking the finished drawing on the board was supposed to represent something visual that I am unable to decode?

    • Thanks so much, Dale. I don’t think the finished Vonnegut drawing was meant to represent anything, although this video was put together from snippets of a longer presentation so who knows. He sure had a very appreciative audience…they laughed at everything he said.

  7. Bebe,
    Heidi was a favorite of mine and remember reading it to my kid sister.

    I’m delighted to hear you’re working on a memoir altho I understand it can be a struggle finding the right arc.

    But, like the little girl in Kurt Vonnegut’s priceless lecture, we know you end up with your own wonderful Prince Charming!

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