Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fast-Tracking Memoirs - Four things to avoid

About every two weeks, I write a new Adventures in High School (AIHS) post for Blame it on the Muse. (The fourth, Odd Odyssey, went public today.) A blog entry every other week isn't much of a burden in itself, but it does add to my load and I mean to be efficient. I've already come to some conclusions on what not to do.
  1. Don't work from an outline. I tried this, and I found myself fretting about how little I had to say and the things I couldn't remember. What I discovered is that the act of re-envisioning moments from high school filled in details and provided answers I couldn't imagine in the abstract.
  2. Don't be clinical. Memoirs may have many qualities, but, above all, they must be emotional. My chief guide to exploring a memory is not the shape of the story or its completeness or the lesson learned. It's my visceral reaction.
  3. Don't pause. Memoirs have the quality of stories told aloud. Even more than for other works, it is essential to keep moving forward in the telling of the tale. In fact, I've found dictating (using Dragon Dictate) helps me to catch the nuances of the best anecdotes.
  4. Don't worry about the facts. Searching for names, exact addresses, and other details is a distraction (and often a sly way to dodge an unpleasant or embarrassing bits of the story). Take care of these later on. Or even ignore them. This isn't journalism. And, if you really name names, you might make enemies. Feel free to bend, embroider, exaggerate, and lie.
These are pitfalls to avoid so you can gain productivity, but there are some steps you should take, too. Edit the piece down to the essentials. The temptation is to tell the whole story. Almost always, this means beginning too soon, throwing in less interesting explanations and digressions, and carrying on well after the natural ending. Memoirs are not documents of record.

Memoirs are perspectives. They have a point, which might not be obvious before the draft is completed (and which may necessitate a lot of rewriting so it is clearly and elegantly included).

I think a good memoir also is a nod to why the experience matters in retrospect. Presumably, the writer knows more now, and that should be part of what is between the lines. For instance, in my AIHS posts, the actual experiences often included pain, discomfort, and distress. If these moments had been captured immediately, they would have come off as whines or lamentation. Today, they're just funny.

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