Countering the memoir’s kiss of death

When talking to my students (and clients) about their memoirs, I notice we all tend to avoid the 800-pound gorilla in the garret: boredom. Sadly, far too many of the memoirs being produced today suffer from this condition. They just aren’t terribly interesting.

headless3The really sad thing is, it’s not the life story that’s boring so much as it is the written record of it. Too many people jump into the writing and assume that the only way to approach the project is chronological. They then cough up their version of events in a way that’s almost guaranteed to put most readers to sleep.

Is there a cure? And if so, what is it?

It’s the same cure fiction writers have been using for millennia, or longer, if you count verbal tradition. The cure is good storytelling. That means several things, not the least of which is tension. (More about that anon.)

Good storytellers give their readers and/or listeners enough description to make even the strangest environments feel natural. Log cabins, for instance, aren’t just crude, drafty old buildings bereft of plumbing and other creature comforts. They’re structures built with logs, mud, blood, sweat, and almost certainly, tears. The furnishings could be anything from clutter to cultured; the shuttered windows may or may not have had any glass, and the ancestors who lived there may not have had too many qualms about sharing heated space with livestock, prized or not. Making such settings come alive isn’t as difficult as one Bio vs BSmight think. What it requires is imagination.

But “Wait!” you’re tempted to say. Imagination in a memoir? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t that like dipping your brush in the paint jar labeled “fiction?” No, not at all! What’s required is a close look at the story being told in order to find the bits that need color. Or more specifically, the bits that need amplification–the sensory bits. If you make the words you paint with more exciting, it stands to reason that the writing itself will become more exciting.

But that’s not all. The memoir writer who truly wants to avoid penning something boring needs to be picky about the specific parts of the story to relate. If you’ve ever skipped over passages in a book, or thought a scene in a film or TV show dragged, you’ll have an idea about the parts to gloss over or ignore. If nothing unusual happened, then for everyone’s sake, leave it out! Or, lump it all together in one, short throw-away paragraph like: “My high school career was as exciting as a yearbook from a school no one’s heard of–it’s not worth discussing.”

On the other hand, if the high school years were the best of your life, then revel in ’em! Put Splatthe emphasis right there. The same goes for the other interesting chapters in your life. Focus on those where something happened. Imagine trying to read a novel that had no action scenes. (Seriously? Ick. Why bother?)

Further, just as there are good and bad characters in fiction, there are good and bad characters in real life–your life, for instance. When you’re talking about them, you owe it to your readers to bring those folks to life. Don’t stint on the details that make the difference. And, chances are, many of those details are sensory. Use ’em!

Sadly, I’ve run outta time, space and steam for this session. We’ll deal with the subject of tension in the next go-round. Stay tuned!

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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