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). 

Who Cares About Your Life Story? Why the Scope of the Memoir You’re Writing Matters

wtmrnnarrow1I’m going to take the risk of sounding like a jerk.  But I’m not trying to discourage you from writing.  On the contrary, I want you to take the smartest possible approach to writing your memoir – the one most likely to fulfill your personal goals.  So hang in there with me and see if what I have to say makes sense.

Consider for a minute that there are billions of people in the world.  And most people think their own lives are pretty darn interesting.  It’s human nature.  We’re all biased that way.

And most people like to read.  But people also have limited time and energy.  Few people – if any – will read every book ever written.  We’re selective about what we read.  We choose what we expect to enjoy the most.

So if a reader is going to choose to read a broad, chronological account of someone else’s life, chances are, they’ll pick up an autobiography about someone they’ve heard of before.  A celebrity.  An actor, chef, politician.  Maybe the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company that’s a household name.

The average person doesn’t know why they should care about your life – the house you grew up in, your favorite teacher, your crazy college days, your first career, your second career, your first marriage, your third divorce.  To most people on the planet, you’re a stranger.

But remember, a memoir is different from an autobiography.  It represents a small portion of a person’s life.  A particular period of time, a challenge overcome, a lesson learned.

If you want your memoir to be read by lots of other people who don’t already know you, you’ll have the best chance if you write a memoir and not an autobiography.  Narrow your focus and you’ll broaden your appeal.

summerattiffanyAn Example of Focus in Memoir

For example, you might decide to write an entire memoir about one summer of your life, like Marjorie Hart did in Summer at Tiffany.

As an Iowa college student in 1945, Hart took a summer job at Tiffany’s in New York City and passed the sweltering months going out on the town with handsome young sailors and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.  Yes, she filled an entire book with tales from one summer of her life – and it’s delightful.  It also attracted many readers among people the author never met.

Why did a memoir about one summer have more appeal than a book about Marjorie Hart’s entire life, from birth to the present?

The audience for a Hart autobiography would be rather small, consisting of her family members and close friends.  They’re the people who love her; they have the most interest in reading about her whole life.

But when Hart went into detail about her whirlwind summer in the big city, she touched on thoughts, feelings and experiences that many readers could relate to.  That’s a memoir.

A Narrower Focus Gives You Freedom!

Here’s how narrowing the focus of your book can actually give you more freedom.  The idea might seem limiting at first, but think of all the details you’ll have to skip over or rush through if you’re trying to cover all the major events of your life in one book.

Besides, your memoir might convey a lot more than just your story.  It might also be a valuable chronicle of history, detailing what it was like in a particular time and place.  Summer at Tiffany, for example, actually does double-duty.  Not only is it an entertaining read, but it also serves as an historical account of young women living and working in New York City in 1945.

wtmrnnarrow2When you focus on one aspect of your life, you can afford to take your time and richly convey details to your reader.  You can delve into your feelings in the moment, and share your insights after the fact.  And when you recall your experiences through all five senses, you deliver a product that resonates with the reader and is not soon forgotten.  These are the kinds of books people want to tell their friends about.

So, in short, you can’t expect legions of perfect strangers to care about your life, from soup to nuts.  But you’ll increase your chances of capturing the interest of strangers with a more specific story, lesson, or message.

Another Good Example

Here’s another example.  We already know that Joe Schmoe doesn’t have a great chance of selling his entire life story to a bunch of readers who’ve never heard of him, and are too busy to care.  But what if Joe Schmoe was diagnosed with a rare, fatal disease – a disease that no one survives for more than a few months – and he defied that illness to live a robust thirty years, post-diagnosis?

Joe has a great story to tell.  Joe’s memoir won’t spend much time on his childhood (unless he was diagnosed as a child).  He won’t talk much about his years following the Grateful Dead on tour (unless it relates somehow to his disease – maybe the fact that he was able to follow the band, despite doctors’ warnings that he wouldn’t have the energy).  Joe won’t write much about going to law school (except maybe to say that he withstood the pressure despite his disease).

wtmrnnarrow3Joe’s story now appeals to lots of people.  It appeals to people with his disease, and people who love someone with the same disease.  It appeals to anyone with a fatal illness looking for hope or encouragement.  It might appeal to doctors and scientists with an interest in disease.  It might appeal to anyone facing a great trial in life, looking for inspiration in a story of unlikely triumph.

Your Focus Doesn’t Have to Be Earth-Shattering

A memoir can be about more commonplace experiences, too.

Maybe Jane has a great sense of comedy and tells her friends hilarious stories about surviving her divorce.  Jane might have a humorous memoir in her – one that will appeal to millions of other women facing divorce.

Perhaps Anne-Marie had a long history of car trouble, and decided once and for all to become the master of her vehicle.  Maybe she spent three months taking automotive classes and was the only woman in a class of guys at least forty years younger than her.  And maybe Anne-Marie transformed in multiple ways through her experience – not only did she eventually build an engine from the ground up, but she found herself in a love triangle with two handsome young bucks.

That could be a memoir, too.

wtmrnnarrow4EXERCISE: Find Your Focus

So, if you’re going to narrow the focus of your book, how will you decide what the focus will be?

It can seem overwhelming.  But following are some questions you can ask yourself that may help you zero-in on the best idea for you.

  1. What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

 

  1. If you were going to leave a note for your grandchild to open on his or her 18th birthday, containing three key pieces of advice about life, what would you write?

 

  1. Do you ever look around at the greater population and think, “If only they knew what I know”? What do you want them to understand, and how did you come to understand it?

 

  1. Do you ever tell stories to groups of people that keep them riveted, or even make them laugh? Do you ever get requests to “tell that story again”?  What are your most popular stories, and why do you think people want to hear them?  Do most of these stories have something in common?

 

  1. Are you able to complete this sentence?: My life was never the same after ______.

 

  1. What are you an expert in?

 

  1. What was the single biggest turning point in your life?

 

  1. What’s the most unusual situation you ever found yourself in? How did you adjust to or cope with it?

 

  1. What’s your favorite memory? What about that memory is so special?  What about that memory do you think other people would relate to?

 

  1. How have you changed the most?

 

  1. How can your life experience help other people?

 

  1. Did you play a role in a major historical event? What was your role?  How did it affect your life afterward?

 

  1. What one thing are you most proud of in your life so far?

 

  1. What’s one thing most people have difficulty with, but that you were able to master?

 

  1. Did you ever say to yourself, “From now on, I’m living my life differently”? Did you stay true to your word?

 

  1. Most of us have moments when we sigh and say, “Ah, those were the good old days.” When were your good old days?  What’s the one event that, in your mind, defines those days as “good”?

 

  1. Did you achieve something that took immense patience and dedication? How did you get through it?

 

  1. Did you make it to the top of your profession? How did you get there?  What was it like when you finally got to the top?  Was it everything you thought it would be?

 

  1. Can you complete this sentence?: Most people would never believe this about me, but I ______.

 

  1. When have you completely surprised yourself?

 

If you’ve been thinking hard, chances are you’ve identified several areas of your life that could translate into separate memoirs.  If this is the case, don’t let it overwhelm you.  Don’t tell yourself, “I’ll never be able to choose one narrow focus!”  Here’s what I want you to remember: you can always write another memoir about another subject.  Remember that many authors have written several memoirs.  Look at Josh Kilmer-Purcell.  His first memoir, I Am Not Myself These Days, was about his days as a drag queen.  He’s also the author of The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir.

If you’re having trouble choosing a focus, remember that your writing career doesn’t have to end with this one book.  Just decide which focus is calling to you most strongly right now.  Start there.  Write that memoir first.

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). 

 

Memoir Writing: Which Stories to Tell & Which to Leave Out

salim73So you’re writing a memoir, and maybe you’ve begun to feel overwhelmed. Your life is just so…big, right? You’ve experienced years and years worth of stuff. You can’t possibly write about all of it, because you’d be spending the rest of your life in front of a computer. Some stories you definitely want to include, but others will have to be left out.

With so much material to choose from, how can you possibly decide?

Let your theme be your guide.

Many memoirs have an overarching theme, and it’s a good idea to keep yours in mind when you’re writing. Not only can it help you decide which stories to tell and which to leave out, but it can also help keep you from wandering off on writing tangents that don’t really belong in your memoir.

What is a Theme, Exactly?

Think of a memoir as a necklace – say, a string of pearls. Each pearl is a story from your life.  Those stories are strung together on a ribbon or a chain. Think of that chain as your theme.

You could potentially tell thousands of stories about things that happened to you in your life, but if the theme of your memoir is conquering cancer, you probably don’t need to tell the story about your first slow dance in the sixth grade – unless it has some bearing on your battle with cancer.

How Themes Show Up

Don’t know what your memoir’s central theme is? That’s O.K. Typically, a memoir’s theme will reveal itself after you’ve started writing.  In fact, once you get clear about what “theme” is, I urge you to promptly forget about it.  At least for a little while.

Themes are often unconscious. They bubble up in the back of your mind while you’re busy with storytelling. A theme shouldn’t be over-thought.

But you should also keep in mind that many memoirs, if you look at them closely, have more than one theme lingering just beneath the surface. Some themes might appear in some chapters but not in others, ebbing and flowing throughout the pages of the book. Nevertheless, there should be one major theme that ties all of your anecdotes together.

memoir-plantThink about a gardener planting a seed.  The gardener tucks the seed safely under a layer of moist soil, then leaves it alone. Sure, he’s always there in the background, making sure the ground is watered and gets plenty of sun. But he doesn’t go outside and poke at the ground ten times a day, looking for signs of life. At least not if he wants to grow a healthy plant.

Consider this blog post the sunshine and rain your theme needs to be stirred into a seedling, and then into a robust, blooming plant. Read it, understand it, then let your theme be urged to the surface gently, in its own good time.

That said, keep an eye out for those hints of green emerging from the soil. If something like a theme strikes you while writing, or even while washing the dishes or driving to the supermarket, simply notice it.

Examples of “Theme” in Memoir

Here are a few:

  • Abandonment is something you never get over
  • American women sacrifice their happiness to body image concerns
  • You can’t stop change
  • A sense of community is disappearing from our towns and cities
  • Determination is admirable but it can also kill you
  • Faith heals emotional wounds
  • Denial leads to eventual unhappiness
  • No matter how wide the generation gap, music can bring people together
  • Heroes are an example to our children
  • Immigrants are hard-working people
  • A jealous spouse leads to an unhappy marriage
  • Peer pressure helps shape who we are, for better or worse
  • Some people will do anything to survive
  • Experiencing war was horrifying, but it made me into a man

death be not proudWant some more specific examples? O.K. Take Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther. In this memoir, Gunther writes about his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of seventeen. Johnny endured multiple surgeries and great discomfort during the fifteen months between his diagnosis and death. However, he was a brave kid. Despite the difficulties he faced, Johnny continued to engage enthusiastically with life, all throughout his illness. He continued to socialize, kept up with his schoolwork, and remained intellectually curious. And he was mindful of keeping his fears to himself in order to spare the feelings of others.

I’d say the main theme of this memoir is facing death with courage.

However, you could also argue for some additional themes in Death Be Not Proud. For example, you could also say this memoir is about relishing life. Johnny had a deep interest in science and never stopped engaging his brain with the wonders of the world around him – even when that brain harbored disease. He continued with his scientific experiments throughout his illness. He didn’t fear dying so much as he feared not living – because he loved the experience of life so much.

We could identify yet another theme in Death Be Not Proud: childhood versus manhood. As Johnny faces his illness and impending death, he is described by his father as existing somewhere between childhood and manhood. In one way, at the age of seventeen, Johnny is between childhood and manhood. In another way, Johnny continues to love life with the guilelessness of a child, yet he rapidly develops an elegant maturity in dealing with his circumstances.

So, we have a pretty clear overarching theme here: facing death with courage, but interwoven in Johnny’s story are the additional themes of love of life and existing somewhere between childhood and manhood.

Exercise: Inviting Your Theme to Identify Itself

The next time you have a quiet moment, sit and think about the memoir you want to write. Visualize it in your mind as though you’re watching a movie. Keep a pad of paper and a pen in your lap while you do this. If it helps to close your eyes, go for it. If you associate certain songs with key moments in your life, listen to them while you do this exercise. Imagine they are the soundtrack of your memoir-movie.

On that movie screen in your imagination, what images do you see? What bits of dialogue do you hear? Who are the characters on-screen? What’s going on?

Without breaking your stride too much, jot down a word or two that will help you recall these images later. You might even be clever enough to do this without opening your eyes.

Next, look at your notes and ask yourself, what stories do these images, snippets of dialogue,  and characters represent? What is this “movie” about? Write down your answers.

Now, look over everything you’ve written. Do you see certain themes emerging again and again?

What themes keep coming up in your stories over and over?

If you see the same (or related) themes repeatedly, there’s a good chance those will be the main themes of your memoir. But keep an open mind, because after you actually start writing, other, stronger themes may emerge.

Later, when the first draft of your manuscript is finished, you’ll begin the editing process. At that point, you may want to look for stories in your manuscript that have no connection with your main themes. You may find they don’t gel with the rest of the book. That’s a good indicator that those stories should get cut and maybe saved for a future memoir.

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).