It’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.
Years 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:
Have 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:
- She has tons of questions. This might mean you left out key information, or that you need to elaborate.
- She gets confused. You might need to focus parts of your work more tightly, or add or subtract details.
- 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).