Sometimes I really have to squeeze my memoir ghostwriting clients for details of their lives. Clients want to write these books, they really do, but when I interview them, they tend to talk in terms of analysis or generalizations about the memory, rather than in terms of the details I need to know in order to write a memoir. A client will say, “The move challenged all my preconceived notions of how life should be lived,” instead of, “our new home was a tiny, one-room apartment, surrounded by other tiny apartments, in a loud building that smelled of mold.” That, of course, is why they hire me to ghostwrite books. The biggest part of the job is conducting the interviews in such a way that I get the information I need. Most people who aren’t writers don’t understand the subtlety involved in writing a memoir. Especially if people have been in business of one kind or another their whole lives, they think writing is all about analyzing a situation and coming up with conclusions. In reality, my job is the exact opposite of that.
When interviewing ghostwriting clients, I often become aware of just how difficult the directive to “show not tell” really is. They often want to tell me what it all meant without even telling me what kind of tree they were standing under or the color of the dog that attacked them or the socioeconomic level of the neighborhood in which they grew up. What they don’t understand is that readers, not writers, are the ones who decide what it all means. As writers, our job, ideally, is to present the information from our own viewpoint. We can tell readers what the scene looked like, smelled like, sounded like. We can tell them how we felt about the incident, and why. But we can’t tell them that the situation was good or bad. We can’t tell them how to feel. Because, ultimately, nobody can tell anyone else how to feel, whether you’re writing a book or complaining about a personal problem. The magic of reading and writing is that when readers pick up the story of someone else’s life, they combine that information with their own values and limitations and philosophical viewpoints, and they decide for themselves whether an event in someone else’s life was good or bad or indifferent. And that is as it should be.
In my work as a ghostwriter, I wish I could even get my clients to go deeper. Most of them simply don’t realize that what makes their lives unique is not really the events they lived through or witnessed, but the way they viewed those events, as unique human beings. They way clients approached problem solving, and the way those techniques changed over time, and why: these are the type of things I’m looking for when I tell someone’s life story. I want to see a scene where you attempted to solve your problems one way, then another scene, where you tried to solve problems using a different technique. It doesn’t matter whether the memoirist was successful in his or her attempts, what matters is that readers can see the wheels turning, the mind learning, the child becoming an adult, slowly but surely. Clients often want to emphasize heroism–the moments when they did successfully solve a problem. But that’s not what readers want to see. They want to see the failures that lead to the success. They want to see the process. Clients, at first, think this type of inquiry leads nowhere, because they just don’t think their problem-solving methods, as children or young adults, were unique. But they are. They always are. Each of us takes outside influences and combines them with whatever it is that makes us US, and the result is, inevitably unique. This is why well-written memoirs, even those by people who aren’t famous, are intrinsically interesting.