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How to Keep your Memoir Writing Sharp and Vital
by Dr. Allan Hunter

Return to Creative Nonfiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

One of the most difficult challenges for Memoir writers -- for any writer at all -- is keeping the writing sharp and engaging for readers. Partly this is because when we revisit our memories there is a strong tendency for us to assume that others already know what we know -- if we're describing life in the 1960s, for example, we might assume that everyone knows what a Buick looked like in those days, or that they can guess. When we do this we rob our readers of a whole realm of description that leaves whatever we write sounding vague. Vagueness, cliché, and imprecision will leave readers yawning and detached.

The answer, of course, is to put in details -- but which details? Here are several techniques for avoiding this pitfall, derived from three decades of advising writers.

The first thing I ask writers to do is to look at the adjectives on the page. 'Wonderful,' 'spectacular' and words of this sort tend to be used as shorthand by writers, but the trouble is they don't work that well. What is a 'spectacular view' or a 'wonderful occasion'? Unless we get some first-rate details it could be practically anything. On one occasion I had a writer describe his homecoming party as a 'party like you wouldn't believe' -- and the trouble was I didn't believe it.

After some careful questioning he admitted that he'd actually hated the party, because he'd been away so long he couldn't connect to anyone there. So he'd used the clichéd phrase to cover his sadness. When he started to describe the actual party in real detail a whole other picture emerged, one that was poignant, vital, and alive. The writing had power and focus. This taught me to always look behind the feeble adjective and the cliché because hiding there, in the background, was the real story.

The second technique I use is to ask writers to look at photographs of themselves and others from the specific time periods. By looking I don't mean a casual flip through an album; I mean taking the time to single out specific pictures and ask what they could possibly convey, and then taking the time to try to figure out what the expressions were saying. Sometimes the most useful pictures are of themselves as children, since children know a lot more about what's going on in a family than they can express in words, so they show it in other ways.

Pictures of oneself at age five or so can be extraordinarily fruitful. One woman recalled how her grandparents had made her hold a teddy bear for the snapshot, even though the toy bears were not usually allowed in the girl's hands -- and the ferocious grip she had on that bear jumped out of the picture! It was the proof she needed, she said, that the women in the family were always treated as second-class citizens, and that the family pictures were frequently staged to try and hide this fact. It confirmed what she already felt, and it gave her a window into the past.

The third technique is what I call the 'Writer's Shelf,' and it is exactly that -- a shelf on which one places the small physical souvenirs one has. If you can, put this shelf near where you write. Looking at those objects every day tends to help us focus on what actually was the case rather than what we wish was the case, now, all these years later. Any sort of small item can go on this shelf: Old letters, pencils, bus tickets, anything. Maps and pictures of homes and buildings also belong on this shelf. Study them, and you'll recall the physical reality of that time period in detail, and this will help you to convey this to your reader. The most famous exponent of this was James Joyce, who had a map of Dublin at hand when he was writing Ulysses, in far away Trieste, Italy. He boasted, in his delightfully tongue-in-cheek way, that if Dublin were to be wiped off the face of the earth that very day it could be reconstructed from his novel. Behind this lies something more important, though: as he recreated the city in which he'd spent his youth the map kept him honest about just what the city was like, stinking alleyways, damp pubs, and all, and he didn't fall into the exile's trap of sentimentalizing his experiences.

Another, similar, technique that works well is that I ask writers to think in terms of what I call significant details. So I ask them to write short exercises with titles such as 'A History of my Shoes' or 'A History of my Eyeglasses' and -- this one works especially well for men -- 'A History of my Cars'. What this does is ask us to take a fresh look at those things that were such an integral part of our lives that perhaps we overlooked them only too easily, yet they certainly reflect some vital aspects of who we were. One woman wrote about the orthopedic shoes her mother insisted she wear at age 12, and about how she would walk to the end of the block before she hid them under a mailbox and changed into her 'good' shoes for school. In focusing on this she was drawing a scene that was richly resonant of the way her family functioned and that alerted the reader to the felt and lived world she was describing in a way that was absolutely convincing. It was the sort of significant detail that spoke volumes -- and which the writer might otherwise have never mentioned. Those significant details function like tiny snapshots of a whole series of tensions, and like any snapshot, they're worth several thousand words of prose.

Of course, detail just for the sake of detail is boring. What writers come to recognize is that memories lodge in our minds because there are always strong emotions attached. It's emotion that causes us to recall what the campsite felt like that rainy day, or how good the coffee tasted at the end of that long hike. The writer's task is, almost always, to give the detail and then let the emotion arise.

This is vital because otherwise the writer is telling us what the feeling is, rather than evoking it. If you describe the scene, picking on the right details, the emotion -- whatever it is -- will emerge without the writer having to tell anyone what to think.

A final and sometimes rather elusive technique is to provide descriptions that appeal to the senses of touch and smell. That 1960 Buick we started this piece with had those blue, slippery, plastic bench seats, and in warm weather they gave off a synthetic smell of cellulose thinners and hairspray. When the car went round a corner the kids on the back seat (my brother and me, especially) would slide helplessly from side to side on those slick surfaces, giggling with delight. And when that car started up with that odd, low rumble that made the rear view mirrors shake, the exhaust that wafted into the passenger compartment seemed to be mostly raw gasoline with a fair amount of soot mixed in -- quite different from the cleaner leaner-burning cars of today.

When a reader encounters details like these it creates an unconscious sense of knowing that the writer is being straightforward, that this is not staged or prettified for anyone's benefit. And that's when your reader will trust you.

The details will keep us honest as writers, every time. And they'll help you connect with your readers much more readily.

Find Out More...

Grab That Memory Before It Slips Away! - Uma Girish

How to Keep your Memoir Writing Sharp and Vital - Dr. Allan Hunter

How to Write a Travel Memoir - Aditi Bose

Copyright © 2010 Dr. Allan Hunter
Excerpted from Write Your Memoir; the Soul Work of Telling Your Story
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Dr. Allan Hunter is a professor of literature at Curry College, where he teaches memoir writing for the Blue Hills Writing Institute. He is the author of Life Passages, The Six Archetypes of Love and Stories we Need to Know. Dr. Hunter's latest book is Write Your Memoir; the Soul Work of Telling Your Story (Findhorn Press, 2008). He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.


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