Your Memoir: Four Things Not to Write and One Thing Not to Leave Out!

by Pamela Jane on March 10, 2015

Editors on Editing LogoPost #13 – Women’s Memoirs, Editors on Editing – Matilda Butler and Pamela Jane Bell

Tips for Writing Your Memoir

Late last year, Pamela Jane Bell and I teamed up to create the First Editing Service (FES). As she edits the manuscripts of her own clients as well as the FES clients, she reflects on tips that will help memoir writers. She’s agreed to share her musings on her monthly Women’s Memoir article. These tips will help point you in the right direction.

And you might ask, First Editing Service? Isn’t that a rather brash name since there are many other editing services? Maybe. But our slant lets us use that name. We only edit your FIRST page or FIRST 10 pages. Hence First Editing Service. If you are interested in getting Pamela’s take on your work rather than waiting until you have finished your memoir, you’ll find additional information at the bottom of Pamela’s post.

–Matilda

memoir editor

Four Things to Leave Out of Your Memoir and One Thing to Definitely Include

By Pamela Jane Bell

How do you know what to put in - and what to leave out?

How do you know what to put in - and what to leave out?

“The best memoirs, I think, forge their own forms. The writer of any work, and particularly any nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out…” Annie Dillard, author of An American Childhood.

But how do you know what to put in and what to leave out, especially when you’re so close to your story?

Following are a few guidelines:

DO Leave Out:

1.  Everything

To quote Annie Dillard again,

“You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on to the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

As fascinating as a story or anecdote may be, you can’t throw everything into your memoir.  Notice if you’re veering away from what is essential to your story, and ask yourself how each passage or chapter adds richness, depth, or important information. Like a novel, a memoir has a theme, a plot, and a specific focus.  However, contrary to the venerable writing advice to “kill your darlings” – you do not have to kill all your darlings, just the ones that are running around unattached.

2.  Something that makes you deeply uncomfortable

Leave out the kitchen sink, unless it's part of your story

Leave out the kitchen sink, unless it's part of your story

Someone who read an early draft of my memoir, remarked, “I have the feeling that there was more going on between [me and one of the characters] than you’re letting on.”  She was right; there was more going on.  I thought about it for a while.  Did I want to tell that particular story?  Ultimately I decided I did not; it wasn’t critical to my memoir, and would not be missed if omitted.

If you are deeply uncomfortable about writing or revealing something, pay attention to that feeling.  Imagine yourself giving a talk about your book at a signing or conference. Do you feel comfortable talking and taking questions about what you wrote?

I’m not suggesting that you leave out everything sensitive or embarrassing. Those things are often the igniting spark, and carry great emotional impact.  But if you feel profoundly uneasy writing about something, think hard about whether it really belongs in your story.

3.  Relentless darkness

I like darkness.  Darkness is good – it contrasts with light; it glitters and draws us in.  But heavy, unforgiving darkness makes for tedious reading.  Contrast the darkness with something light, ironic or funny, (most comics have a very dark side). Don’t try to be funny or make something funny that isn’t, just attempt now and then to see your story from another angle, to vary the mood or pace.

WM34.  Casual reminiscences

Many memoirs appear to meander, as though the author is having a casual conversation with her readers while strolling through a garden on a summer afternoon.  A meandering conversation while strolling through a garden sounds ideal.  But a memoir tells a story – one specific story.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be fast-paced or terse, but it should be focused.

Some outstanding writers can get away with meandering or appearing to meander, such as Proust in his Remembrance of Things Past.  But this apparent meandering can be deceptive.  Even Proust has a theme.  Moreover, he’s a genius and geniuses can get away with things most of us cannot.

NEVER leave out:

What you are passionate about

A memoir is a record of something that happened to you in the past, and how you see it in the present­ – something that you feel intensely about and want to explore and find meaning in through your story. Whatever you do, don’t leave that out!

Finally, remember, there are no absolute rules for writing.  The only criterion is whether or not it works.

First Editing Service for Memoir Writers

*FIRST EDITING SERVICE

Pamela Jane Bell and I recently launched an unusual editing service. We edit the FIRST or FIRST 10 pages of your memoir with the conviction that practicing what you are doing wrong just leads to bad practice. So let us catch problems that occur in your first one page (or ten pages) and we’ll give you a roadmap that will help you navigate the rest of your journey more smoothly.

We put you on the right path, right away.

To learn more about this innovative service, click here now.

Here’s what one client wrote Pamela:

I wanted to thank you for your insightful editing comments on the first page of my memoir along with the synopsis. … In terms of the memoir page, your comments actually solved a dilemma for me as I have toyed with the beginning for a while. I like the solution you offered and made the change you recommended in the order of the paragraphs and presto, problem solved! So thanks so much! M.G-W.

Are You Asking Yourself If You Need an Editor?

Every writer needs an editor. This is true of professional writers. This is true of occasional writers. WHY an editor? Here are just 2 of the many problems that writers face and editors can help clarify:

Problem #1. Writers get overly fond of metaphors, even failing to notice when they get tangled up with each other.

Pamela catches this in the FIRST 1 or 10 PAGES, and puts you on the right road.

Problem #2. Writers want to start at the beginning, even when that part doesn’t engage the reader. Back story can always come later, but we fail to notice.

Pamela provides feedback on your apparent story structure and your opening.

Learn more about EIGHT other problems that Pamela catches. Plus check out our FIRST EDITING SERVICE [click here] and see if it is right for you.

Here’s what another client wrote Pamela recently:

I want to thank you for your brilliant comments on my manuscript. I know that I am, at times, too close to the story and can lose the perspective of the reader. After all, he or she was not along for the journey! –C.L.

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