inspiration for writing / memoir / showing vs telling / writing about memories

An Editor’s Comments Through the Process of a Memoir

This is part 8 of my series on “An Editor’s Comments.” These are actual comments I’ve made to clients, and are directed to their particular needs, so they are sometimes quite different than what you’ll find in a style manual or other editing book. I hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful! If you want to learn more, check out the rest of the articles in the “Editor’s Comments” section and the “Various Editor’s Tips” section in my “Writing and Editing Articles” table of contents.

Using Quotations or Ideas From Other Books as Inspiration for Your Memoir

I notice that in your first draft you use quotations from each of the interviewees in the book that got you started writing your own memoir. You use the quotations as “spring-boards” from which you consider issues and events in your own life. You’ll need to be aware that if you intend to include these quotations when you write your memoir, you will need to get written permission from the author of the book and possibly from the interviewees. If you were only quoting the odd line from the book you might be okay, especially if you included a bibliographic note. But as you have included many quotes, some quite lengthy, from throughout the book, you will need to get permission to use them. If you can’t get permission, you could possibly use the main thoughts you gleaned from the interviewees as a kind of “outline” for your writing. If you do go with the “outline” route, though, you’ll still need to indicate the sources of your inspiration.

Also, using the quotations from the different interviewees of the book which inspired you to write, your story tends to jump around a lot throughout your life. One moment you’re talking about your childhood, then your post-married life, then your teen years, then your children. While I “get” that you are reflecting on and responding to the interviewees’ observations, this approach can be quite confusing for the reader, who will end up flipping through the pages sometimes, trying to figure out where some new piece of your story fits in. Perhaps, if you still want to follow the method of using quotations as an outline, you could reorganize the order of them to reflect the chronology of own your life.

Showing and/or Telling

I was quite mesmerized by the first pages of your memoir, as you “show” your life through “story.” Though you continue to do so from time to time, more and more I found you “telling” or “explaining.” Your ability to “story-tell,” as evidenced on the first pages, is very strong and effective. When I again read those initial pages, I can feel what you are feeling. I can experience vicariously what you are experiencing. But as you move away from story/narrative and into “telling,” it begins to sound like a clinical description. When you go back-and-forth from story to clinical perspective, it is jarring to the reader and interrupts the flow of the story. There are times in your story, of course, where a clinical perspective is necessary–but perhaps you could do even those parts in more of a story-type format. Instead, for example, of saying, “Dr. X said and did this,” you could write it as it happened: you sitting in her office as she has a conversation with you and gives her clinical viewpoint. Write it as a dialogue, including questions you ask her and your reactions (show them through actions as well as dialogue).

Related to that, when you outright state your opinion of a person, it takes away from the power of your story (and, sorry to say, it sometimes sounds “whiny”). You are such a strong story-teller, as the first few pages demonstrate, that if you continue writing your memoir as “story,” you will not have to “explain” your reaction to and feelings about a person—for the story itself will “show” the reader, as they see, hear, feel, touch, smell, and taste through your eyes, ears, heart, nose, mouth and physical reactions. They will “sense” what you “sense.” You are very capable of strong description that draws in the reader. You do not need to “analyze” situations for the reader, as they will sense your analysis through your story.

Using Dialogue and Description

In this same vein, use dialogue often. That small conversation in the third paragraph of the manuscript is so powerful—it expresses so much about what is going to happen in the rest of the story, and about your relationship with this important person in your life. In fact, in my opinion, the 3rd paragraph could be the first paragraph: it really grips/hooks the reader—and then the first and second paragraphs could follow it. You have a real talent for using dialogue—and you should use it throughout.

The same goes with your ability to write descriptively, as when you describe the winter sunshine. (Oh how I relate to that in my own life! Your description arouses my own feelings about the grey winter and the early spring sun). Use your ability to write descriptively. Tell us more about those fields outside your childhood village. Describe your own tidy little childhood home, in contrast to the neighbour’s unkempt one. Tell us about the different places and experiences in that far-off city you moved to after marrying. Carry the reader into those places with you. And describe events: take us with you into them and write about your experiences as if you are there right now and are allowing us to be there with you, experiencing them through you.

Personal Catharthis and/or Helping Others?

I think when you first wrote this, you were perhaps mainly writing it as a cathartic exercise. But at the same time I think you knew that someday someone might read it and not only be interested in it but be helped by it, as you have been helped by another author’s story. I believe that now you feel ready to take your story to that next step: sharing it with others. So I have this suggestion: stop for a moment and think about who exactly you want to write it for. Who is your ideal audience? Age? Gender? Educational level? Cultural background? Life experiences?

For example, I am sure you are writing for those who, like you, have suffered through similar life experiences. Right? Well, that covers a lot of people. Now, can you think of one person (or maybe two or three people) you’ve met whom you would like to have read your story? Why do you choose those people? Another question to ask yourself is your purpose: are you writing to entertain, to help, to encourage, to warn? When you focus on a certain audience, as you write, you can do it as if you are talking to them personally, telling them your story, and telling it for the reason(s) and in the way you would tell it to them face to face. This will make it easier to write—and will also make it powerful and personal.

Thinking About Your Theme

You might also want to consider the question, “What is my theme?” What is the key idea(s) you want to express through the book? Try and write down what you would write as the “blurb” on the back cover of the book—no more than 3 to 5 simple sentences that tell about the book in a way that will grab the attention of the person browsing the bookstore or library shelves, so that they will want to give your book a read. (Of course, you will be careful not to “give away” the most interesting and climactic events; you just want to give the reader enough of a “taste” that they want to experience the “whole meal”).

Once you have created a blurb, try boiling it down to one sentence. And when you’ve done that, try reducing it to one word, or at most, one phrase (or perhaps two). Then write that word or phrase in big letters where you’ll see it while you write–perhaps alongside the name(s) of your “ideal reader(s).” Then make sure that everything you include in your story is directly connected to that theme. If you start writing something that isn’t directly connected, ask yourself if it is important enough that it needs to be included even though it’s a bit of a “rabbit hole.” Why is it so important? If you find this happening a lot, you may need to re-analyze what you really want the book to be about, and for whom you are writing it—and then go through the “narrowing down” exercise again.

Working Through Strong Emotions and Memory as You Write

Because you originally wrote for cathartic reasons more than to help others, there are things in your story that maybe are too personal, or too strongly “your opinion,” or too angry. Not that you shouldn’t use your emotions in the story—you should, absolutely, but as you do, always try to think of why you are expressing those feelings, and how they are going to affect your readers and your purpose for writing.

There are always emotions to deal with when writing a memoir! Working out those emotions through poetry, which you enjoy doing, is a good idea. You can also focus on writing about one little incident. Save those poems and “incident stories” in a folder, because later on they will be valuable to refer to as you continue to write your full manuscript. You could start an expandable file case in which you label the sections by year(s) if you want to proceed chronologically, or by “topics” if you want to proceed that way. Then just drop your little “bits and pieces” like the poems and incidents into the appropriate files in the file case, and you can easily retrieve and use them when you are working on that section of your memoir.

What Happens When It Gets Really Personal?

Up until this chapter, the manuscript has read like an interesting story—but in this chapter, it has become much more “personal.” I understand you were going through deep psychological/mental health issues at this point in your life, and that your close family members were also going through issues. But this chapter really feels like a sudden change in tone and style, leaving the reader wondering what just happened. It feels like you are unexpectedly and suddenly spiralling downward—which I’m sure you were, considering what you were going through—but I think you need to make some kind of “transition” which prepares your readers for this sudden change of direction in your life. Perhaps you’ll want to pull together and summarize the previous events in a few sentences so the reader can realize how everything has piled up, or you might include a conversation with a family member or doctor that describes how your life seems to be unraveling and why, or perhaps you’ll even want to do a bit of “telling” in a couple transitional sentences. If you include some kind of transition like that, I think it will prepare the reader for the “new direction” the story flow takes.

Also, you are stating some very personal things about close family members, as well as people like doctors and employers, that could land you in “hot water” if you left them clearly identified–or at least lead to relational breakdowns after the book is published. Are you prepared to deal with those kinds of issues, or should you reconsider some of your statements? If these parts of the story are very important, you may want to consider changing names and/or leaving out clearly identifying details (places, institutions, dates, etc.). When you initially wrote this manuscript for your own mental health relief, it was okay to include such details and sharp opinions. But if you are planning to have this story published and have the public read it, you really need to be careful about what you say about people.

I think with replacing names, places, and dates, the key thing is to remove any “identifiers” that could result in causing certain people offence as they recognize themselves (or others recognize them and “report you”). If you wish to honour certain people by leaving their names the same, while changing a lot of other names, my thought would be that just to be safe and consistent, you might totally change the names of the “offended” people, but keep the first name of the “honored” people and slightly change the last name. This way, everyone is being treated relatively the same, but the “honoured” people will still recognize themselves easily. Then, in your “dedication” page at the front of the book, you could thank those especially “honoured” people, using their real names. You will also need to include a note that you have changed names and other identifying details for the sake of the people involved. You are not, in this way, being dishonest about your story, but you are protecting the people in your life, protecting yourself, and protecting relationships that you wish to continue in a positive way. In the end, it is up to you—but these are suggestions you’ll want to consider.

Later…

I have checked through your name list, and I think you’re on the right track. You have chosen names that fit each character’s nationality, personality, etc., and while they are somewhat similar in many cases to the originals, they are different enough that I think you should have no problems. And, oh my goodness! You HAVE kept the latter part of your life interesting and enjoyable to read about, even with all its trials. You have been so wise to take out parts that would be overly hurtful to people close to you, or that might cause lawsuits from some people who you’ve dealt with in your life. This rewrite of your memoir is much gentler than the original, with the angriest thoughts toned down or removed, and yet the story is still strong and interesting and will be relatable for many readers. I think it was important for you to initially SPLASH your frustration and anger out in the first draft, but once you had done that, you have shown such wisdom and forgiveness and humbleness and compassion in this new draft.

What Next? Publish Widely? Share With a Few Close People? Or?

I would suggest you need to be sure within yourself that having your book widely distributed is something that you are really comfortable with. You have mentioned sometimes that you really needed to do this project for yourself, to sort out your own life; and that you’d maybe want to distribute it to a small group of people, particularly as a “thank-you” for those who have helped you along the journey. You also expressed concern that you don’t want to endanger your relationship with your close family members. Now you are being encouraged by some of your beta readers to share it with a larger audience. I believe that with all the work you’ve done on this memoir over the two-plus years, it is now certainly suitable for that and could be very helpful to many. But in the end, it really is your story and how much you want to share it–and how–must be up to you.

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