Taking honesty to a new level (in your writing)

Writing an awesome memoir requires being honest with the reader.

This is pretty basic, Memoir Writing 101. You’ve got to reveal your true self through your story, because if you don’t, readers will know it. They might not be able to put their finger on it, but they’ll know something’s off. If you’re not completely and utterly honest, your voice won’t feel authentic and the story won’t work.

So we know the importance of being honest with the reader. But what about being honest with yourself?

During my last round of revisions, I kept feeling like something was missing from my story arc, from my tale of personal growth. It took a lot of digging, but I finally realized I wasn’t being completely honest with myself about why I chose to travel alone.

I’m not going to tell you exactly how this plays out in my manuscript because it’s crucial to my book’s theme, and I don’t want to give it away. It has to do with my deep-down fears and how they affect how I live. But my point here is that it took me this long — I’ve been working on my memoir now for a year and a half — for this light bulb to go off in my head. It took me this long to peel back the layers (cue the onion analogy) and see my story for what it really is, and to see myself for who I really am.

Let me tell you, I never expected to confront — or even think about — my fears through this memoir. After all, I’m writing a fun story of adventure travel! But the story arc gets stronger every time I peel back one of those layers. And I’ve peeled back so many by this point that I’m recognizing pieces of myself that I didn’t know existed. I never knew I had grown in this particular way until now. That’s the coolest thing about writing memoir — It has forced me to analyze myself, my motivations and my goals, and helped me learn more about me.

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So next time you sit down to work on your personal essay or life story or even understand the motivations behind a character in your novel, take the whole being-honest approach to the next level. Don’t just ask yourself whether you’re being honest with readers. Think hard about whether you’re being honest with yourself.

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Memoir tip: lose the play-by-play

Feedback is hard to come by during the query process, as I explained in a post last week.

Several agents rejected my manuscript after reading sample chapters or even the entire project, but most of them didn’t say why. Actually, perhaps I should rephrase that. Not many of them offered a helpful why. Several said the project wasn’t right for them, or that they liked it but didn’t love it. I have no doubt that they were being honest, but those comments left me in the dark about what I could do to improve the manuscript.

I did, however, get a few gems of feedback that I’m now using to revise. One comment in particular really resonated with me, made me think, she’s so right, I can improve that. And I want to share it here because I think it might help you, too.

This agent said something simple: that my manuscript read too much like a report home and not enough like a story.

Bam. That was it. One sentence. It hit home, made me think about my project in a new way. From the beginning I’d struggled with what to leave out, a challenge that stumps a lot of would-be memoirists. For some reason, this agent’s feedback helped me see that I could leave out even more of the day-by-day reportage. (Agents, see what a difference one line of feedback makes for us writers? We appreciate every little bit!)

It can be difficult to prevent memoirs — particularly travel memoirs that take place not over a lifetime but over a set period of months or years — to sound like, “I did this, then I did this, and then I did this.” How do you avoid that? I’m not exactly sure. I know it has something to do with focusing on the story rather than what happens every day, as this agent pointed out. And I think it also has to do with leaving out details that don’t propel the story forward. We’ve talked about that here before, that if a scene doesn’t contribute to your theme and story arc, leave it out. Even if it’s your favorite scene. Even if it moves forward your chronology, or moves the reader to your next destination. We don’t need that day-by-day play-by-play. Cut it! Snip, snip, snip.

Sven Birkets, author of The Art of Time in Memoir (worth reading), says I’m not the only writer who struggles with losing the play-by-play:

Writers just starting to work with memoir often have a real difficulty with this crucial distinction between event sequence and story. The impulse to tell sequentially works with gravity-like force, generating structures that sag from the tedium of “and then… and then…” recounting and produce dense thickets of ostensibly relevant information. The writers get the dreaded feeling that everything belongs, that important moments only make sense when all the facts have been presented.

[snip]

Not only is the sequential approach a chore for the writer, but it’s often a deadly bore for the reader. The point is story, not chronology, and in memoir the story all but requires the dramatic ordering that hindsight affords. The question is not what happened when, but what, for the writer, was the path of realization.

Since receiving this feedback, I’ve read a handful of memoirs, and with each book I’ve paid close attention to how the author eliminated “the first day we did this, the next day we did that” and created a story. Two memoirs I think do this particularly well: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and The Lunatic Express.

Does anyone else struggle with this in their writing? How do you overcome it?