I may not always succeed, but I like to think I have some idea of what makes writing (specifically first-person-type writing) interesting—or boring.
Yesterday, Paul showed me a self-published memoir he’d helped edit, something for me to page through while he polished his shoes (seriously).
Ostensibly, the woman who wrote it had led a fascinating life—a stint in the military, lots of travel, a significant inheritance that funded said travel—but I wasn’t compelled to read the book. Its structure was super-linear (i.e., then I went here, then here, then here!), and Paul said she shied away from including personal details. (Her divorce? Never mentioned.)
We had a little discussion about what makes a good personal story, whether it’s a memoir, an essay, or a blog post. (#JournalistRomance, amirite?) The verdict:
Personality. Your writing should sound like you. The anecdotes you choose to include should be ones you’d tell your closest friends in conversation. Just because your audience may include strangers doesn’t mean you should censor yourself. You’re telling your story—if readers don’t like it, at least you gave them something distinctly “you” to dislike. And leaving out or glossing over the negative stuff makes you seem less than human.
Anecdotes. Back to those anecdotes: One quirky tale of how you yelled a spell from the Harry Potter books on a scary ride is worth a thousand day-by-day recaps of a weeklong vacation. Details like this are how you distinguish the story of your trip to Orlando (or wherever) from the stories of the millions of other people who’ve been there.
Order. Another reason those day-by-day recaps suck: No one cares to know every detail of every moment of every day.* Lead with the anecdote. Hook the reader. You can fill in some other details later. (To see a good example of this, check out my coworker Robert’s recap of the Big Sur International Marathon.) This applies to memoirs, too. Roald Dahl does it right in Boy: The stories are in chronological order, but they’re not overly detailed summaries. Instead, they’re memorable snippets—I can still picture him opening his mouth “like an ass” to get his adenoids sliced out, without anesthesia or numbing agents of any kind. Shudder!
Commit these standards to memory. Not only because they’ll make you a better writer, but also so you can call me out when I don’t follow them myself.
*I realize I did this type of recap for my Barcelona trip. Whoops. I’m bored just thinking about it.