A Major Blind Spot for Memoir Writers: Are You Guilty?

blindspot1It’s a mistake that’s so darn easy for memoir writers make: we assume our reader knows what (or who) we know.

We know the people and subjects about which we’re writing so intimately that we might leave out important details that our reader needs to follow along.

For example, we might write that we went to dinner with Thomas, but failed to tell the reader who Thomas is.  Maybe we wrote a paragraph introducing Thomas in an earlier draft, but that passage was cut.  Somehow, we’ll have to find a way of letting our reader meet him again.

As memoirists, we need to make sure everyone gets a formal introduction.  Otherwise, our reader may be sitting there with our book, saying, “Wait – who the heck is Thomas?”

A writer who’s been engaged in a particular career, hobby or other activity for years needs to be especially mindful of being too vague.  Have you ever met someone who, in ordinary conversation, threw out technical jargon and other terminology with which you were unfamiliar?  It might be like going to dinner with a world-class chef and hearing him use culinary terms that many of us wouldn’t use in describing food.  For him, talking about the umami quality of a sauce, or dropping phrases like bain marie or à la Crécy is perfectly normal.  To someone who doesn’t cook at all, those terms are completely alien.

blindspot3Years ago in a college creative writing class, we students read an excerpt from a fellow student’s memoir.  She was older than the rest of us by at least thirty years.  She wrote about participating in a civil rights march – a lesser-known march, one that took place in the small town where she grew up.

In her story, she dropped names of people, places and events that were unfamiliar to me, my classmates, and even our instructor.  (None of us had even been born by the time this march took place, and it wasn’t significant enough to make it into a mainstream public school education.)

The student acted shocked when the rest of the class confessed to being confused by her story.  There was so much background information that we needed to know in order to follow her tale – information that she failed to give us.

If we’d been told a few simple facts about the people involved, and some background leading up to events, we would’ve understood what we were reading.  But somehow, this student forgot that the rest of us did not live in her head.  We didn’t have automatic recall of the events she’d witnessed.  She failed to paint a complete enough picture.

When writing your memoir, remember that we, your readers, weren’t there with you – we only know as much as you choose to tell us.  Make sure you tell us enough so that your story makes sense. There are two effective ways of doing this:

blindspot2Have someone else read your memoir.

Once you’ve finished your first draft, give a copy to at least one friend you trust.  Have her read it and make notes about anything she doesn’t understand.  Make sure she knows you’re not asking for feedback on spelling or grammar – just on the clarity of the story you’re telling.

You’ll know you have some revising to do if:

 

  1. She has tons of questions. This might mean you left out key information, or that you need to elaborate.

 

  1. She gets confused. You might need to focus parts of your work more tightly, or add or subtract details.

 

  1. You ask her to summarize all or part of the book, and she can’t. You might have bored her, in which case maybe you didn’t use enough detailed description.  Alternatively, maybe she gives you the wrong answer.  Maybe you’ve written a memoir about raising alpacas, and she tells you, “Obviously, this is a book about divorce.”  You might be writing too much about the wrong things.  Or, maybe you should be writing about divorce.

 

Read your memoir as if you’re a stranger.

When you’ve finished your first draft, try reading it through from beginning to end, imagining you’re someone else. Read it through the eyes of someone who has never heard your stories before, has never met you. Does everything make sense?  Then, read it again – out loud.  You might be surprised by how much you missed.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

 

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Does Your Memoir Have WAY Too Many Characters?

wtmcharacters1In your life to date, you’ve likely encountered thousands of people.  Maybe hundreds of thousands.  The kids down the block you pummeled in snowball fights.  Your teachers.  Co-workers. The guy who used to cut your lawn.  The lady who delivered your pizzas in college.

You’ve crossed paths with a lot of people when you think about it, especially if you’ve lived in more than one place.

Do you plan on mentioning every single one of those people in your memoir?

Of course not.

But who you leave out is worth discussing, because many first-time memoirists fill their books with unnecessary people.

Character Clutter

I like to call it “character clutter.”  Too many characters can be distracting and confusing.

When the narrator of a story takes the time to name a character, or at least provide memorable details about him, your subconscious takes note.  Somewhere in your brain, you’re thinking, “I need to pay attention to this person, because he’s going to come into play in this story, sooner or later.  If he didn’t, then the author wouldn’t have mentioned him.”

Read this example of a character being introduced in a memoir.  It’s from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson:

In the late 1950s, the Royal Canadian Air Force produced a booklet on isometrics, a form of exercise that enjoyed a short but devoted vogue with my father.  The idea of isometrics was that you used any unyielding object, like a tree or a wall, and pressed against it with all your might from various positions to tone and strengthen different groups of muscles.  Since everybody already has access to trees and walls, you didn’t need to invest in a lot of costly equipment, which I expect was what attracted my dad.

What made it unfortunate in my father’s case is that he would do his isometrics on airplanes.  At some point in every flight, he would stroll back to the galley area or the space by the emergency exit and, taking up the posture of someone trying to budge a very heavy piece of machinery, he would begin to push with his back or shoulder against the outer wall of the plane, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths before returning with quiet grunts to the task.

Now, imagine you’ve finished reading that entire book, and the character of the author’s father never shows up again.

That would be weird, wouldn’t it?  You might close the book and feel uneasy for a minute before you say, “Hey, wait a minute – what happened to the dad with the isometrics obsession?”

When an author takes the time to introduce a character, the reader expects that character to play some important role.  It doesn’t mean the character will appear on every page, but we know we’ll see him again, or we’ll at least see the effects of something he did off the page.

That’s why it’s important to keep your cast of characters “lean.”

wtmcharacters2Why Go Lean?

Just because you have ten brothers and sisters doesn’t mean you have to bring every single sibling into your memoir.  That might be tough on the reader – too many distinct people to keep up with.

However, there’s a good chance that not every one of your siblings plays a major role in the stories you’re telling.  In life, people in big families usually develop closer relationships with one or two siblings in particular.  If that’s true for you, there’s no reason you have to tell us what every child in the family was doing during every story you tell.  Focus on the people who were directly involved in each tale.

Sometimes it makes sense to exclude a person from a story, or even an entire book.  You might be tempted to write them in for the sake of accuracy.  After all, aren’t you supposed to be telling it as it really happened?  Telling the truth?

Yes.  But you’re not writing an article for the newspaper — you’re writing a memoir.  A memoir calls for good storytelling, even if the stories are true.  And good storytelling sometimes calls for leaving things out.

Combining Characters

Another way to deal with “character clutter” in a memoir is to combine characters.

Suppose you’re writing a memoir about the years you spent writing copy for large advertising agencies.  Imagine that your career spanned at least five decades.  That’s a lot of years on the job, and certainly you worked with a lot of different people in that time.

wtmcharacters3And suppose that early in your memoir, you mention some casual conversations between you and your first office mate – a guy named Harvey.

But then suppose Harvey was only your co-worker for a short time before he moved to New Zealand.  A new person took his place – a guy named Ted.

And you and Ted became pals, much like you and Harvey were pals.  But let’s say Ted was your office mate for only 18 months before he got shipped off to a facility upstate to “get some rest”.

Six more friendly office mates followed before you eventually earned your own office.

Maybe only one or two of those office mates played a truly significant role in your life – the others, not so much.  Are you going to take up space in your memoir naming every single office mate, details of their lives, why they came and went?

That might be a mistake.  It could amount to character clutter, distracting the reader from what’s key to your story.

That’s not to say you can’t relate different conversations you had with these minor players.  You might tell an anecdote here or there about what happened to them.

Instead of giving significant space in your memoir to so many insignificant characters, you might consider combining those office mates into one or two characters.  This is sometimes referred to as creating a “composite” character.  Maybe one represents your office mate at your first job, and the other represents the office mate at the second firm you worked for.

We don’t need to know that, technically, you had three different office mates at your first job.  What we really need to know is that you had an office mate you could confide in – someone who made your days easier, maybe provided some much-needed comic relief.  So provide us with that character.

This technique can work well in party scenes (do we really need to be introduced to every guest at your wedding, or will one rowdy uncle representing most of your mother’s side of the family suffice?), and in simplifying childhood friendships (if Mindy, Lindsay and Coco were your best girlfriends over the years, can they be combined into one girl who worshipped Paul McCartney and collected S&H Green Stamps?).

Please note that the memoir police will not come after you for combining characters.  This, like changing names, is commonly done.  In most cases, it makes for better, cleaner writing.   Don’t fret because in your memoir, you gave yourself two fewer nieces than you really have, when Alice is the only one you really talk to anyway.  There’s no law against saying you worked for a personal injury attorney instead of a maritime law practitioner.  These are common and valid ways of tweaking reality to either protect someone’s privacy or create a smoother read.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

Memory & Perception in Memoir: Is One Person’s “Inaccuracy” Another Person’s “Truth”?

wtmrn1Funny things, memory and perception. They can make a single event seem like three completely different experiences to three different people – all of whom were at the same place, at the same time.

When I’m teaching groups of first-time memoirists, there’s always someone who fears being accused of lying. And yes, there’s always a chance that someone might read your finished memoir and say, “Hey, that’s not exactly how it happened!”

Naturally, I encourage you to tell the truth. You certainly shouldn’t be fabricating anything; that would be fiction, not memoir.

However, after your sister reads your memoir for the first time, she could point a finger and say, “Hey, you wrote that Uncle Jerry’s 40th birthday barbecue was on a Saturday, but I know for a fact it was on a Wednesday. I know because when we came home, we sat on the family room floor and watched The Facts of Life, and that was always on a Wednesday. And by the way, Mommy was not wearing her culottes that day. She’d already ripped them by then, and recycled the material for a throw pillow for my bed.”

Even if your sister’s 100% correct, that doesn’t necessarily mean your writing is untrue.

So you remember that day differently than she does. So what. What’s important is that your entire family was together when Uncle Jerry got that chicken bone wedged in his throat, had to be rushed to the hospital, and lost the ability to speak forevermore.

Over time, small details can blur and merge in our memories. What’s more important in a memoir scene is what transpired and how you felt.

Here’s another example. You and your brother could’ve had an explosive argument, during which he confessed to kissing your wife on New Year’s Eve when you were in bed with the flu. If we were to ask you about it ten years later, you might remember the room being ice cold, your brother sneering in arrogant satisfaction, a feeling of impending nausea lurking at the back of your throat.  But if we asked your brother about the same argument that same ten years later, he might remember the room feeling uncomfortably close, his own heart racing and a dew of hot dread forming on his forehead. He might recall your strange indifference, the way you sat there staring at the wall, as if you didn’t care at all. He felt a pang of pity for your wife and disgust for your apathy and let out a bitter, ironic laugh.

Same scene, two perceptions.  But can we honestly say that either of you are lying about what happened?  No.

Want to have a little fun with this? Write down a memory of a time, place, or situation from your past. Next, interview someone who was also there. Without giving away anything you wrote, ask him or her to detail the event. Compare your recollections. I guarantee the results will be fascinating.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).