The client’s writing was masterful—clear and charming—and her story was compelling.
But by giving every incident equal weight, her pacing threw the reader out of the real story.
The paragraph where she described a close relative’s attempted sexual assault was sandwiched between paragraphs of equal length related to other aspects of life as a seventh-grader, one about the dog that showed up on her doorstep and one about how her science teacher never smiled.
As observant as the author was, her work would be much more powerful if she delved deeper into the story behind the facts.
We read (and we read memoirs in particular) to learn how others handle situations and grow from them so that we might have more light to shed on our own lives.
And to do a good job as memoirists, we must stop thinking in chronological slices, as if our lives were a flipbook where the illustration on each page gives an equal portion of the story in real time.
For example, if I were writing my memoir, I would approach it like this.
The most important interaction I ever had with my mother lasted three seconds.
What happened was that she kissed the back of my hand. It was the last thing that happened during our last time together.
My parent’s didn’t hug or say “I love you.” They were aloof and distant. They “did” love but rarely “exclaimed” love.
My mother was diagnosed with dementia at 86 and functioned well until she went into steep decline in a matter of hours the following year. Her eyes were glassy, and she forgot how to chew or swallow food. She looked like a baby sparrow before it sprouts feathers.
I put my hand over hers when I spoke to her, never sure how much was getting through.
That day, as I told her I had to leave to meet Daddy for lunch there at the facility where she lived, she raised my hand in hers and kissed it.
Those few seconds open up all kinds of issues related to the three relevant areas of my memoir: my mother’s point of view, my point of view, and the combined point of view found in our interactions.
Because of that, I would give this incident a great deal of weight—in terms of word count, probably about the same as I would give to her in the entire section that covered my life after I left home for college.
Every time I mentioned my mother, I would include something about the physical nature of our relationship. I would include her pressing me to the wooden pew to keep me from acting up in church when I was two, for example. I would show how her coming of age during the Depression in a loving but stern Protestant family shaped her worldview, and the hints she gave that being a housewife thwarted her creative freedom.
Likewise, I hope my client chooses to take us a little deeper into the story of her relative’s ugly treatment of her so that we might learn more about her life and our own.