“The important thing [in writing memoir], is not the life, but the meaning extracted from it.” – Ellen Boneparth
I haven’t yet figured out the true secret of writing memoir, but my struggle with this book has clued me into what went wrong in my early personal essays. When I first began crafting essays, I simply culled events from my writing practices and stopped there. I edited each piece down to the details of funny or sad things that had happened to me, my family, our dogs, my friends, the neighbors, etc. While these events were funny or sad, they didn’t really have a point. The resulting pages were anecdotes, not essays.
When I began graduate school in creative writing, I made the same error in my critical papers. Recognizing that an author had used a particular technique excited me and so I simply pointed it out. I didn’t analyze it, ruminate over it, roll it around in my mind. I didn’t explain what it meant or voice my opinion. I didn’t go far enough.
Now, when I revise, I reread the pages and question each section: What’s the point? Why does the reader need to know this? How does this contribute to the theme I’m presenting? What am I really trying to say?
In the early days, I found these questions daunting. Reticent to let the reader know what I felt or thought about each interaction, I stuck to the facts. As I push toward the third year of work on this project, opining becomes easier and easier. Without this musing aspect, the work is lifeless. My job as a writer is to filter the material and shape it in a way so that the reader knows the point I’m trying to make. I don’t hit her over the head, but gently guide her. “Over here,” I say. “The point is over here.”
If you find that your essays are lifeless and dull, don’t throw them out. Just ask some simple questions. What does this mean to me? Why do I think this is important? What do I really want to say? That’s what your reader really wants to know.