Getting stuck next to a compulsive talker is one of the worst things that can happen at a dinner party or on a long bus ride. Even worse: the self-centered compulsive talker. What makes this experience so awful? The person’s desire to tell his or her story, without thinking about which aspects might be interesting to the listener. This experience translates directly to the page. The worst books and articles are those that seem to have been written only to satisfy the writers’ egos.
In recent years I have mostly written character-based history. The first source materials I turn to are memoirs and biographies. When I’m researching people from long ago at the library, I’m often the first person to check out their memoir since the 1920s or 30s. If I check out a biography, it has almost always been borrowed much more recently. Biographers are driven by something different than memoir writers. Biographers craft their stories, emphasizing the dramatic rise and fall in a someone’s life. They usually put more energy into pleasing the reader. Memoirists, by comparison, are sometimes driven by the desire to get their lives down on paper.
In memoir, ego is too often a key element of the process. The impulse to write memoir is the impulse to resist death, to leave some trace of ourselves on earth. These impulses are entirely understandable, but risky motivations for a piece of writing. They make it too easy to forget the most important person, the reader. The reader wants to be delighted, enlightened, entertained – to have his or her attention held throughout the act of reading.
Many memoirs don’t work because the things that most of us tend to celebrate about ourselves are less interesting than those things that hold readers’ attention. For example, a happy marriage makes less interesting reading than an unhappy childhood. Failure is often more interesting than success. Nobody is going to be interested in your high school or college years simply because you lived them. They’ll only care if something really significant or unusual happened to you there.
A first thing to ask yourself about personal narrative is: What portion of my experience will resonate with other people? Most of the memoirs that really work are about one aspect of the authors’ lives, one particular element of the human experience. My own experience in memoir writing is just one book, “Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son.” It’s still in print 20 years after it was written, almost certainly because it’s not “The Memoirs of Adam Hochschild.” It deals only with one aspect of my life, my relationship with my father. It’s also short: slightly more than half the normal length for a book.
A lot of people write me letters about “Half the Way Home.” For the most part, these readers don’t say what I would like them to say: “Oh, your book was so beautifully written.” Instead, they usually go on for three or four pages telling me about their relationship with their own fathers. These letters tell me that people read memoirs because they want to compare the author’s life with their own lives.
Before you decide something is worthy of inclusion in first-person narrative, test it. Tell the story to a half-dozen friends and see how they react. What questions do they ask you? Do they draw the same lesson from the experience that you did? I’m a big believer in using friends as a sounding board. If you have already written the story, ask them: Does this work for you? Where do you get bored? Where are you interested?
Our experiences are meaningful to us merely because they happened. They are meaningful to other people because of their larger implications, their echoes. If you don’t find something that will have a clear echo or significance for someone else’s life, don’t write about it. To find those echoes, hold those experiences up to the light and examine them carefully. This is the first and most important lesson for writing about personal experiences.
Adapted from the presentations “Memoir: What Goes in and What Stays Out,” from the 2001 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and “Turning Personal Experience Into Narrative Writing,” from the 2002 Conference. Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call.