by Jerry Waxler
Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn about the power and importance of memoirs and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.
In her memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh is a masterful fretter. She worries. She feels overwhelmed and helpless. She second-guesses herself. Maybe I shouldn’t have been a stay-at-home mom all these years. Was my move to Belize really best for all my children? Her thoughts feel incredibly honest and revealing, a window into her many misgivings.
By sharing her thoughts, Sonia Marsh allows us to see into her soul. She also provides an intriguing example for writers who are trying to figure out how much of their thought process they ought to include. When I started to write my own memoir, I assumed I knew the answer to this question.
I was taught that to write a story, you must “show don’t tell,” a piece of advice that was repeated so often it sounded like a mantra. In order to draw readers into the world of the story, the writer is supposed to create scenes complete with sensory impressions of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Since we don’t smell or see thoughts, and hear them only silently, I assumed I wasn’t permitted to reveal them.
However, years of attempting to follow this rule produced disappointing results. My critique partners complained that my story seemed remote and impersonal. I wasn’t revealing enough about my own thoughts and feelings. Finally I got the message.
In a workshop hosted by First Person Arts in Philadelphia, my fellow critiquers complained once again that something was missing from my scenes. Teacher Lise Funderberg, author of Pig Candy explained it to me this way. “If you don’t tell your readers why the scene is important to you, they won’t know why it should be important to them.” I went home and revised the passage. When I read it aloud at the next session, the eight people around the table stood and applauded.
Based on this new insight into my own memoir writing voice, I began to pay attention to the presence of thoughts in memoirs I love to read. I discovered that I often enjoy “hearing” what is going on inside the authors’ minds. However, I was not sure if they were telling me their thoughts or showing me. After years of attempting follow the rule I have come to the conclusion that it is far more ambiguous than it first appears.
For example, in the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, the author teaches her students about the nuances of Vladimir Nabakov’s literature. Is she showing herself teaching, or is she telling us the literary theory? In my opinion, she is doing both at the same time. This happens a lot in real life. We tell each other all kinds of things. We even talk to ourselves.
When Frank McCourt walks alone around the streets of New York in his memoir ‘Tis, his observations of the city often amount to him telling himself what he sees. He demonstrates the paradox of the “show don’t tell” rule by both violating and obeying it within the same thought-filled passages.
One of my most striking examples of “telling as a form of showing” comes from the memoir In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas about a young woman attempting to grow up. Susan blamed her disrupted childhood on the narcissistic excesses of her parents. They were children of the 60s, swept up in the notion that the world would be a better place if they acted as selfishly as possible. Susan Gregory Thomas became fascinated by the problem that the boomers thought of themselves as happy-go-lucky kids, but from her vulnerable position all she saw was a generation of really, really bad parents. Her view of the generations made her a spokesperson for Gen-X, a role she took seriously. Since she believed so deeply in the importance of these generational influences, it naturally became an important part of her memoir.
Susan Gregory Thomas’ telling is different from Sonia Marsh’s. One author tells about her analytical expertise and ideas, and the other about her own interior dilemmas. However, they share one thing in common. Their thoughts about the world have contributed to excellent stories, demonstrating the appropriateness of thoughts in the memoir genre.
Both examples reveal the blurred distinction between showing and telling. By telling her thoughts, (or is it showing them?) each author let us participate in her inner process. Because this rule is so important in understanding the art of storytelling, in my next post I will explore the difference between memoir and fiction writing and show how it influences the show-versus-tell decision.
Examine your own manuscript for places that seem flat, and that might benefit from more insight into what was going on inside your own mind. Consider adding emotional depth and texture to the passage by sharing your own thoughts. After all, the first-person point of view lets us see the world through your eyes. Why not add the inner sense of hearing, and let us hear your thoughts as well? (Don’t add thoughts of the “narrator,” meaning the person you are today. As much as possible, limit your thoughts to the main “character” in the book, meaning the person you were during the scene.)
Footnote: For another article about the importance of ideas in memoirs, see my post about Colored People by Henry Louis Gates learned some things about life: His relationship to girls changed in this scene:
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page Author of Freeways to Flipflops
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page Author of Pig Canday
First Person Arts Home Page
My Article About Reading Lolita in Tehran
Susan Gregory Thomas Author of In Spite of Everything
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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