Marion Roach Smith, the master memoirist, teacher, and mentor, kindly invited me to contribute to Writing Lessons, her series of writing advice columns. Check out the post here and then poke around for some great advice from others, including Marion herself. I’ve also posted my advice below. Have a look: it’s easier than whatever work you should be doing.
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It’s a particular kind of torture for me to read anything I’ve written once it’s in print and impervious to revision. But I do love to give advice. So the other day I forced myself to open A Walk Down the Aisle, my memoir about getting married. Notes fell out from readings I had given a decade ago, and the text itself was riddled with cross-outs, arrows, and marginalia. I persisted, read a little. The writer was evidently a younger version of me–sweeter, more earnest, a little tentative—but the editor was the same: totally ruthless.
Why so many cuts and corrections just after publication? Hadn’t I been satisfied with the text for even a minute and a half? I had. Then I started giving readings. And that’s where I began to understand what my job as a writer was: to entertain.
That’s right, a writer of memoir is an entertainer. What? Did you think your job was to instruct or speak truth or heal old wounds? No, sorry. Books are a form of entertainment. And if you want people to choose what you’re offering when they could be shopping for sweatpants in their underwear (or vice versa) while watching So You Think You Can Cook, you have your job cut out for you.
As advice, “be entertaining” is about as helpful “be charming.” I realize that. But it’s not as bad as “be pretty”: there are some concrete steps you can take.
Suppress your research. Most of the paragraphs I cut when faced with an audience contained neat summaries of the research I had done. All that stuff I read and learned about weddings in the course of writing that I thought I had to include for “legitimacy.” If you need to prove to your readers that you’ve done your homework, add a bibliography: don’t make them read your notecards. Leave in outside facts or another author’s words only if they advance your point and are entertaining in their own right. And then still cut half.
Make us laugh. Don’t suppress the funny part of you, whether it’s goofy or snide, even (especially?) if your subject isn’t funny in itself. At one of my first readings, I asked the professor/host what excerpt to choose: funny or serious. And he didn’t hesitate: Funny, he said. Because everything you write is serious. In other words, the meaning, the import, the thoughtfulness are there either way, so why not give people a good chuckle too?
Unleash your opinions. Don’t equivocate. Don’t soft-pedal. People love strong opinions, even ones they disagree with. Ever read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? Well, everyone else in the country did, and they all hated it. Right through to the end.
Finally, and most important,
Read your memoir out loud. First to yourself. You will find awkward syntax, repeated words, and spots that bore even you, the person who thought this story was so interesting it was worth writing about. It’s amazing what you’ll find. Then, read it to someone else. Are you rushing to get through extended passages on fly-fishing? Are you thinking you might have gone into slightly too much detail on the childhood history of your great-aunt’s Lithuanian violin teacher? Are you hearing a light snoring sound?
It’s painful, but it works. And it works a lot better before it’s in print. Take it from me.