How to Read Like a Writer: Alchemy of the Afterlife by Linda Kinnamon
Where do we go when we die? While no one has the complete answer to this question, Linda Kinnamon offers a few clues in Alchemy of the Afterlife. She shares her experiences with death over decades as a hospice nurse and in her personal life. She often introduces her memoir with the line “What if the sixth sense were real.” Whether you believe in life after death or not, Kinnamon’s story is an excellent example of a compelling, story-based, theme-oriented memoir.
Story, Fiction, and Memoir
Alchemy of the Afterlife is a memoir that embraces the story techniques used in fiction. Kinnamon’s book has a definite plot arc, solid pacing, and fully developed scenes. She is not talking at the reader but revealing moments in her life to the reader. Even her first paragraph is designed to hook like a good novel:
One eye fluttered, opening only enough to allow a view of my own eyelashes. Slowly, like doors rusted on their hinges, I opened both eyes, ready to slam them shut if anything or anyone was looking back. This peebkaboo technique has always served me well when watching horror movies. I’ve just never needed it first thing in the morning, in my own bedroom (1).
These lines create tension and suspense while grounding the reader in Kinnamon’s bedroom. Beginning in the middle of the action – waking up – is common in fiction, so is starting with a bang – being afraid someone is in your bedroom – and quickly setting the scene. By doing this, Kinnamon immediately draws the reader in.
Experiences Shared Through Scenes
Readers can empathize with waking up in the early morning, afraid to open their eyes. This is something most people have felt. Being pulled into a shared experience right off the bat, readers feel sympathy for Kinnamon and are on her side. While it’s not quite a “save the cat” moment, it is humanizing and grants Kinnamon the trust of readers.
The first paragraph also demonstrates how Alchemy of the Afterlife is told through scenes. Instead of listing what happened to her or explaining her past, Kinnamon shows the reader. She uses the five senses to describe her settings, reveal what she was feeling, and call attention to sensations that were out of place. Each chapter has its own mini-story arc, and each experience is given the time and space needed to allow the reader to vicariously live a moment in Kinnamon’s life.
Memoirs focus on a single chapter of a person’s life. Alchemy of the Afterlife focuses on Kinnamon’s time as a hospice nurse with occasional flashbacks to her childhood. Normally, covering childhood and adulthood would push a non-fiction novel into autobiography territory. Kinnamon avoids this by sharing parts of her childhood that are relevant to the theme life after death and what lead her to become a hospice nurse. Her aging grandmother lived with her until she passed, which probably lead to Kinnamon’s comfort and desire to work with the elderly. She also had the misfortune of losing both her parents in childhood. These early experiences with people passing on inform how Kinnamon interacts with her patients and what she believes happens when we die.
Alchemy of the Afterlife does not conform to a single religion. Instead, Kinnamon shares her experiences with death. The moments just before, during, and after a person’s passing can reveal a lot about the person who died, those around them, and Kinnamon herself, but more importantly, her experiences show people do move on. They don’t simply end. While Kinnamon invites people in and reveals her own thoughts and feelings about her experiences, she does not push any beliefs onto the reader. Instead, she allows the reader to make up their own mind, like when she knowingly accepts a new widow’s admittance:
“At night, when I put on my nightgown and get ready for bed, an indentation shows up in the bed just where Henry used to sit. I don’t see him or hear anything. I just see a rounded dip in the covers on his side near the foot of the bed. Henry died. I know that, but he’s still with me” (184).
Kinnamon does not call the elderly woman crazy or go into a long list of her own personal experiences. By not judging, she allows the woman to share her secret and lets her keep the comfort of believing her husband of sixty years hasn’t left completely.
By sticking to her theme and message, Kinnamon is able to bend the rules of memoir and show a bit more than a chapter of life. It’s like her childhood is the epigraph to her hospice memoir.
In order to show episodes from her childhood and her adulthood, Kinnamon wove two timelines together. One shows her interactions with death as a child; the other is a snippet of her time as a hospice nurse. Each timeline is itself chronological; even though the book as a whole is not. This is another reason Alchemy of the Afterlife still qualifies as a memoir. Despite the wide age range, Kinnamon is zeroed in on specific, pertinent experiences and dates in both timelines; she is not covering her whole childhood and her many years as a nurse.
When Alchemy of the Afterlife jumps back to Kinnamon’s childhood, the month and the year appear at the beginning of the chapter to let the reader know the story has shifted to the second timeline. This is key in any book that jumps around in time. Authors must clarify where and when the characters are; otherwise readers become confused and frustrated and may stop reading. By making both timelines chronological, Kinnamon helps combat some of the confusion present in non-chronological stories. Readers know when they are in the “present” everything they have been told has already happened, and when they flashback to the “past” everything they know about Kinnamon’s childhood has already happened. This grounds readers in time and space.
Why an Editor Recommends Alchemy of the Afterlife
If you are thinking about writing a memoir, I highly recommend reading Alchemy of the Afterlife and studying how Kinnamon pulls readers into her story while still delivering the knowledge she felt compelled to tell. Look at what moments she shared from both her childhood and her adulthood and how they come together to convey her truth. What moments from your life can do the same for your story?
Alchemy of the Afterlife also has some unique marketing opportunities authors may want to consider when creating their own marketing plans and designing their memoirs. Kinnamon’s story brings comfort to grievers and is often given as a gift book to people who have recently lost someone. By not conforming to a single religions’ or group of peoples’ beliefs, it appeals to a wide range of readers. The theme of life after death is universal, afterall. Even if your book doesn’t fit neatly into such a broad category, it still offers something to people: comfort, thrills, escape, etc. Think about how you can market your book in a similar way.
Linda Kinnamon’s book Alchemy of the Afterlife shows how fiction techniques like scenes, using the five senses, and suspense can enhance the themes of a memoir. She uses two timelines to tell her story, but does not stray from the message she is trying to share. By studying well-written, compelling stories like this, you can learn how to use similar techniques to Ignite Your Ink.
What are your thoughts on Linda Kinnamon's memoir? Have you had any similar experiences? Let me know in the comments, and if you haven't read Alchemy of the Afterlife, click the image on the left.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.