Post #236 – Memoir Writing Tips – Matilda Butler
More Memoir Insights from Nora Ephron
I’ve long admired Nora Ephron. Her screenwriting talents were impressive. One year ago today, Valentine’s Day, my partner and I watched three favorite films that showcase her writing prowess (and just happen to be romantic) — When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle. A fun day.
I recently learned more about Nora Ephron’s early writing experiences from Chip and Dan Heath’s 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The authors interviewed Ephron and she recalled for them the first day of her high school journalism class when the teacher gave the students their assignment. They were to write the first sentence of a newspaper story — the sentence called the lead (AKA lede) — that all-important beginning. The teacher provided the necessary facts:
“Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”
The students began to write the first lead in what many hoped would be a successful career in journalism. The authors say that Ephron and all her fellow students began to pound away on their manual typewriters reordering and condensing the facts into a single sentence: “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento…blah, blah, blah.”
Nora Ephron continued her story saying that the teacher picked up all the pieces of paper and scanned them before tossing them aside. He looked at the students and said, “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday.’”
I immediately saw how the teacher had moved the students away from just the “factual story” to the “readers of the story.” In other words, what in the story mattered to the reader.
Ephron went on, “It was a breathtaking moment. In that instant I realized that journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn’t enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it mattered.”
Here’s Your Memoir Takeaway
When you write, think about your readers…the meaning of your story for your readers. Consider your story from their perspective. True, the memoir is about you, but it needs to be told with the perspective of your reader in mind.
Now, go back and read the first sentence in your memoir. Can you improve it? Then go to the first sentence, the lead, of each chapter. Imagine you are a reader rather than the writer. Does the sentence engage you and provide you with meaning?