“No Running Near the Pool” — Advice to Memoir Writers

by Matilda Butler on September 22, 2015

catnav-alchemy-activePost #82 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Matilda Butler

Memoir Writing Tip: “Slow Down”

We rush and we rush and we rush. We get up when the alarm goes off so that we can be sure to hurry through the rest of the day — tend to family, do errands, cook meals, help friends, work at the job, and more. So it isn’t surprising that when we work on writing a memoir, we feel we should rush through the story. The way we tell a story simply mimics our days.

Memoir Tip: Slow Down Your StorytellingBut wait. This memoir writing tip is all about: SLOWING DOWN. NO RUNNING.

What’s Wrong With Running?

The problem is that when you rush through a story, you leave out all the details that brings your readers into the story. When you rush, you are thinking about you, your life, your story. Sometimes you may be so intent on “getting the story told” that you neglect to let the reader see the story unfold. You neglect to let the reader see the story that you see in your head. You should be thinking about your readers and how to bring them into the world you are describing.

A Jacqueline Winspear Way of Slowing Down

Let me be specific by sharing a few examples from a book I am currently reading–Leaving Everything Most Loved. I’m a fan of Jacqueline Winspear’s books. In particular, she has a well-tuned sense of using details to construct a scene. These details are not crucial to the story…to the plot. But they make the scene so real that I feel I can see and hear and at times even smell [especially in this story] the scene. The plot could be distilled to a few sentences or paragraphs. The pleasure comes from the experience and feeling a part of the story.

Do you know Jacqueline Winspear? If not, her protagonist is Maisie Dobbs, an investigator working on private cases and sometimes working in conjunction with Scotland Yard. This particular book is set in 1933 London.

Here are a few paragraphs that will show you what I mean about slowing down the story so that details can bring the reader into the scenes:

Maisie Dobbs maneuvered her MB14/28 Tourer into a place outside the bell-shaped frontage of the grand country house. She turned off the engine but remained seated. She needed time to consider her reason for coming to this place before she relinquished the security of her motor car and made her way towards the heavy oak door.

The redbrick exterior of the building appeared outlined in charcoal as the occasional shaft of sunlight reflected through graphite-gray clouds scudding across the sky.

The author could have had Maisie already inside the building. Instead, we find the type of car she is driving, we have her turning off the engine, we see that she likes her car (”security of her motor car”), and we have a marvelous description of the building and the day (”sunlight reflected through graphite-gray clouds scudding across the sky).

Then a page later…

She stepped from the motor car, which today did not have the roof set back, as there was little sun to warm her during the journey from London. Her shoes crunched against the gravel as she walked towards the heavy wooden doors. She rang a bell at the side of the door, and a few moments later a hatch opened, and the face of a young novice was framed against the ancient grain.

“I’m here to see Dame Constance,” said Maisie.

The nun nodded and closed the hatch. Maisie heard two bolts drawn back, and within a moment the door opened with a creaking sound, as if it were a sailing ship tethered to the dock, whining to be on the high seas once more.

As someone who has coached and taught many memoir writers, I know how easy it is to skip over these kinds of details. Yet think about the difference between:

I drove to my mother’s house and knocked on the front door. [This type of sentence always makes me wonder how the person got from the car to the house.]


Her shoes crunched against the gravel as she walked towards the heavy wooden doors. [You can hear her walk from her car to the front of the building.]

Once Maisie is inside, she is taken to a sitting room. Here’s the description:

The small sitting room had not changed since her last visit. There was the rich burgundy carpet, threadbare in places, but still comforting, a moldering coal fire glowed in the grate, and a wing chair had been set alongside another hatch. Soon the small door would open to reveal a grille with bars to separate the Abbess from her visitor, and Dame Constance would offer a brief smile before bowing her head in prayer. Maisie would in turn bow her head, listen to the prayer, and echo Dame Constance as she said, “Amen.”

From a plot point of view, this is detail that just slows down the story. And yet it lets the reader come into the room along with Maisie. How might you bring your reader into the scenes in your story?

And finally, here’s a small detail that helps the reader both see Maisie in the particular scene, but also has a small insight into her as a person and how she feels in the scene.

Maisie picked at a hangnail on her little finger. It was a childhood habit almost forgotten, but which seemed to claim her when she was most worried….

The author has set these scenes. Therefore, we don’t have to listen to the heavy wooden door as it opens and closes when Maisie leaves. We don’t need to hear her shoes crunch across the gravel as she returns to her car. We don’t have to hear the car door open and close, the engine start. We can already see and hear that because the scene was carefully set for us. We are already there. That means that details at one point can be so evocative that other details can be left out.

What Details?

memoir writing tipsHow do you know what kinds of details to use? One methodology is explored in our book: Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep. If you are interested in exploring this approach, just follow the link to find out more about Writing Alchemy, including its table of contents.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Margaret September 27, 2015 at

I’ve had teachers say that I did too much telling and that I should do more showing. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I never really understood what they meant. So thanks for this post. Now I can see that by slowing down and adding details, I will be showing the reader more of what I see in my mind.
Great information.

Matilda Butler September 27, 2015 at

Thank you for your comment. So many people have had your experience. They know they should “show” rather than “tell” but they just don’t know how to do it. I’m glad this post helped you.

Viga Boland October 6, 2015 at

great post Matilda. I’m so guilty of the rushing in syndrome. Thanks for the reminder.. Will share with my Memoirabilia group.

Matilda Butler October 6, 2015 at

Hi Viga: That’s a special comment. I am delighted that you will share with your Memoirabilia group. [Great name, by the way.]

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