Describe the World Around You

When remembering your own life, you see things through your own eyes. But when you write about your life, you must transmit what is in your eyes to your reader. Until you tell them, the reader doesn’t know you lived in a high rise. If you neglect to explain your world, you might come across as a disembodied being, floating in mid-air.

The stage on which your life played out is not composed of disconnected facts. The people, places, institutions, even the weather, played a role in shaping your life. But until you started writing your memoir, you may not have thought in detail about the way the world affected you. As you explore your memories, when you see your world, don’t brush it aside. Turn towards it, and explore how your environment influenced you.

Weave the background into the story as seamlessly as possible. If you live in a high rise, your interaction with someone in the lobby or on the elevator can give the reader insights into the way you felt. When you sit on a sofa, describe it, just enough so the reader doesn’t think you’re sitting on air, or standing all the time. And then when you describe how Aunt Mary slept on the sofa for two years, the background becomes part of the story.

Suppose you proposed marriage after a romantic dinner in a restaurant. As you were getting ready to pop the question you hoped the crying baby at a nearby table would quiet down, and then you had to wait for the check so the waiter wouldn’t interrupt you. The action in the restaurant creates dramatic tension that emotionally engages the reader.

If you are a soldier in a war, tell who you answered to. Taking orders and giving orders is different from ordinary life, and your clear, detailed description of those relationships helps the reader become involved in your experience. These details were obvious to you. But they are not obvious to us. We need you to show us.

Sometimes the background moves into the foreground. Your world may become a compelling, informative, or entertaining part of your story. Transport the reader to foreign lands or behind closed doors to see aspects of the world they have never experienced. By offering your background, you expand your reader’s horizons.

How do you know the difference between filler and compelling stuff that makes the reader turn the page? Keep it relevant by tending your emotional connection with the reader. Will this scene help them relate to your fears or desires? If you remember building model airplanes, consider how you felt when you were building them. Were you romanticizing war, enjoying the pride of puzzle solving, or were you escaping into your room to get away from the tension? It wasn’t just a model plane. As you peel bits of hardened glue off your fingers, you provide a window into your world.