A Memoir Shouldn’t Preach

Started talking to an enthusiastic new author yesterday, and the work ties nicely into this blog. Here is something you might already know: show don’t tell. Though I think the concept is better expressed: experience, don’t philosophize. Show don’t tell is a writing tip you can get in any book or site dealing with writing basics, but let’s take a look at how the old adage applies to writing (or ghostwriting, in my case) a memoir or any first person account of events. Keep in mind that I’m assuming you aren’t writing a book of essays but a book that you want to read like a novel–something where the characters grab you, suspense builds, and readers are eager to turn that page and see what happens next.

Often, a first draft will be chock full of sections that are essentially essays. This is where the author steps outside his story and talks about how he believes people should live. For instance: watch less T.V., play more sports, have more adventures, value friendships, take your mother’s advice, live for the now, think about the future. The list goes on. These topics might sound trite, the way I’ve listed them here, but really they’re not. Each writer has his or her unique viewpoint on such advice, based upon unique life experience, which is what makes these messages fresh and unique each time they are reworded and expressed in a new way. Take Keith Richards’ memoir, Life. The message, if you ask me, is simply: life is all about friendships. He is certainly not the first person to say that, but the message sounds completely new coming from his perspective.

It’s important to include these essays in a first draft because it helps you work out what your book is really all about, at its core. But once your first draft is finished, your best bet is to go back through the book and separate the sections that are essays from those that are part of the actual story. Highlight or cut and paste into a separate document. Whatever works for you. Then simply read each essay individually and ask yourself, “when did I learn this lesson? What experiences taught me this?” Your next job is to write those experiences into your memoir so that the reader lives them with you and learns the same lesson you learned. You want to stay away from telling readers what to think, but rather guide them through your life, and they’ll have to see the world from your perspective.

Essays are, pardon the expression: easy. They really are. Here is what I think! Everyone pay attention! And essays have their place, but that usually isn’t in the middle of a memoir or novel. If you want your memoir or novel to have a message, let the characters’ lives embody that message, and never state it out loud. The human brain is programmed to learn by deduction. If this happened, what does it mean? If I failed while doing my best, how can I make a paradigm shift in how I see “my best?” We’re basically natural-born scientists. So let your readers make these deductions for themselves by experiencing your life, day by day or event by event. 

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