Memoir Writing and a Different Perspective

by Matilda Butler on May 28, 2013

Writing Prompt LogoPost #176 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts and Life Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Memoir Writing Can Benefit from a Different Perspective

While exploring various resources (I wanted to say “trolling for information” but checked and found that trolling now has an Internet-specific meaning: “posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community” and that definitely wasn’t my intent), I ran across a New York Times article about Andrew Wyeth. Since I’ve been to his studio and museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania a number of years ago, I was interested to read more.

In the article, I was struck by the following paragraph:

“To give a sense of how the painter worked in his studio, conservators have placed a carton of real eggs beside Wyeth’s easel. (Artists mix egg yolks with pigments and water to create tempera paint.) A mirror that offered Wyeth a different perspective on his work is on the wall across from the easel. When he was in the studio, classical music played: Bach, Mozart and Rachmaninoff were among his favorites.”

memoir-writing promptWhile interesting about eggs and music, it was the idea of a mirror that intrigued me and just might cause you to stop and think as well. It seems that like visual artists, writers are always facing our work. Especially with memoir, we know it is our story and our words and we rarely think about them (see them) from another perspective. And while we can’t use a mirror to look at our work (reading that image would definitely slow down the writing process), we can consider how our writing looks to another person. What would your writing look like from an agent’s perspective? A publisher’s perspective? A reader’s perspective? A reviewer’s perspective?

To us, our life story makes complete sense. We know all about the people in our story. Boy, do we ever know about them. We remember all the emotions as we lived the story we are writing. We probably hear the voices–the dialogue–in our head, especially in the emotional scenes. With a bit of reflection, we can probably recall many of the sounds or the smells associated with each scene. And of course, we know exactly where we were, when we were there, and what the place meant to us.

But have we taken the time to ensure that when reflected in the mirror the story is all there? Have you examined each of those five writing elements –character, emotions, dialogue, the five senses, and time/place?

Some of you reading this post may start shaking your head. “No, no.” you say. “Write your story and don’t worry about what other people may think. Doing that will cause you to self-censor your writing.” In some ways, I will agree with those comments. During the first draft, you probably just want to keep going. And if you are using the tools in Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep then you have a process for moving forward and for ensuring that you are using each of the five elements mentioned above.

However, before you begin revisions, read through your manuscript and evaluate it from the perspective of someone else. Choose any of the roles I mentioned above. Specifically, do not assume the role of a family member because that person is likely to have shared too much of this story. Instead, choose a role (and then become a specific person in that role) and read. Does the story engage you? Are the people well-etched? Do you care about them? Are actions well motivated? Does the story reach you emotionally? Are you right there in the scenes–tasting or smelling or hearing or seeing–with the author?

Take notes as you read. This will give you a good starting point for revisions.

Memoir Writing Prompt

1. Take a scene or vignette that you have written. Print it and take it into another room from the place where you normally write.

2. Imagine you just bought this and you’re eager to read it.

3. Don’t be the author. Be the reader. Does the story work? Does it engage? Is it interesting? Do you want to read more? Be honest. Take notes.

4. Now rewrite as if you are the author who has just spoken with a reader who has some good suggestions for you.

5. REMEMBER: This is to improve your writing. It is not a roadblock. After all, this is just your first draft (as you inform your reader-self). You know there will be changes. You just want a new perspective and this is a good way to get it.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Visman - wangiwriter June 2, 2013 at

One of the things that we often do when writing our memories, is to assume too much knowledge in the reader.
Your great idea of looking at the story from another perspective should also include looking at where we have assumed an existing knowledge of information on people, places, cultures, historical artefacts and events, etc that the modern reader may know little about. When writing of using a telephone for example, the modern reader may assume it to be a one-piece home phone or a mobile (cell) phone instead of a big black clunky item that has numbers you enter by turning a dial; or oa wall-hung handle-turning contraption where you are on a party line.
That – the phone – is an easy thing to explain; social and cultural influences are much more subtle, but are perhaps even more important to portray correctly.

Matilda Butler June 2, 2013 at

Linda: Great comment. We agree — take a step backwards from your writing and consider how often informational or cultural assumptions may cloud the understanding of your readers. This includes taking the perspective of a person 20 or 30 or 40 years younger than you. Then go back and slip in brief descriptions or clarifications. Even colors have different meanings in various cultures — personal space is used differently — etc.

Thanks Linda.

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