How Excellent Must Your Memoir Be?

by Jerry Waxler

This is the fifth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one

When I decided to write my memoir, I entered a new chapter of my life. The beginning was easy. I just needed to gather the information and search for anecdotes and timelines. However, from the very beginning, I knew it would be my responsibility to create the illusion that readers were actually participating in the events. To meet that responsibility, I needed to learn many new language arts, such as scene building, sensory description, dialog, and story structure. As I learned, I continued to polish my manuscript, organize it, and incorporate feedback from critiques and edits.

Occasionally I think I’m getting close and I send it out to an editor for feedback. It always comes back with suggestions and concerns. After one recent submission, my editor told me about a weakness in my craft. She said my manuscript would be greatly improved if I developed my dialog with what she calls “beats.” Instead of just “he said,” then “she said,” I need to allow readers to see the characters. It would look something like this.

“blah blah blah,” he said, as he reached for a glass of water.

“blah blah, blah” she said, signaling to the waiter to bring the check.

Her instruction provided a wonderful teaching moment and another important step toward stylistic excellence. I could see what she meant. In the fiction I enjoy reading, the author interweaves all sorts of action into the mix. I now needed to follow her suggestion, and review my manuscript in an attempt to create more compelling scenes.

This project of turning life into a story has given me some of the most creative years of my lifetime. I love pushing my skill to higher levels, forcing me to learn how to create the same effects that I have been enjoying as a reader for years. But I also have mixed feelings about this new round of improvements. The techniques of scene-building require that I remember ever-increasing details from decades earlier. Would the value of my story really be that much greater if I remember the glint of light through a window, or the sound of water dripping from the sink, or a foot tapping nervously?

And another question arises. I have to decide if I really want to spend more months or even years increasing my ability to put talking characters into a room so readers can see the background. I want to present my case to a higher authority. “Isn’t it sufficient just to repeat the conversation?” But I know the higher authority is the reader, and if I can create a story worth reading, I will have succeeded.

Someday, my memoir will be ready and I hope when I finally do publish it, it will offer readers as interesting a journey as possible. Exactly, when I will cross that chasm from a private life to a public one will rely on a complex interplay of esthetic judgment and courage. Until that moment, readers and I will remain on opposite sides of the chasm. At some point, I will have to take the leap.

As the memoir wave continues to grow into a tsunami, and increasing numbers of people are feeling the desire to share their stories, each writer will face this decision. And when I read self-published or small-published memoirs, I am on the receiving end of their sense of timing. Should they have waited longer? Wasn’t it wonderful and sufficient that they had come this far and given me a story about the years of their lives?

For example, when I read “Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe”  by Dawn Novotny, I attempted to learn all sorts of lessons from her life story. And I also attempted to learn from her decision to publish. As a story reader, I notice gaps in language and storytelling skills, issues that would not have survived the editing process of a traditional publisher. As a result, many episodes violate the storyteller’s mandate to “show don’t tell” and would have received all sorts of skill-building suggestions from my editor. If Novotny had waited until she had reached a higher bar, she would not have had the satisfaction of sharing her story, and I would not have had the satisfaction of reading it.

I’m glad she chose to publish it, because her memoir puts things in perspective, and helps me remember the power of the memoir revolution. Everyone now has the option of taking this fascinating journey of writing a memoir, and then actually moving it from the privacy of a manuscript to the public sharing of a book. Novotny has taken the plunge, and realized one of the great benefits of modern times. We are allowing ourselves the freedom to get to know each other, our mistakes, our pain, and our wisdom. When we pass each other on the street, our stories are invisible. In the age of the memoir, we discover that we all are living our stories.

After every memoir workshop I’ve taught, students say, “People are so interesting,” or “I didn’t realize people had such extraordinary experiences.” Dawn Novotny’s memoir shares yet another one of those remarkable stories. It happens to touch on the lives of some of the people we know as household names, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe Dimaggio. But even those famous characters spill over into real life, with its complexity, dreams, faults, and emotional challenges.

The fact that it is not perfect story crafting is only one aspect of the book. It is in fact, a passionate, interesting, and engaging journey through a person’s life. Every memoir teaches me lessons, first about the variety of human experience, and second, about the craft of transforming life into story. Now in the age of self- and small-publishing, I also learn about the courage to step out from the shields of privacy and share our lives with readers.


Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

11 thoughts on “How Excellent Must Your Memoir Be?

  1. “When we pass each other on the street, our stories are invisible”
    What a powerful thought, Jerry! It stopped me in my tracks as I was reading and processing in my mind, your words this morning.
    Years ago I had the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Berg at a reading of one of her many books “The Pull of the Moon.” Weeks later we spoke by phone for nearly an hour. Her words in both conversations, “just write” scream out to me. When I begin to feel like a chemist working on an alchemy of gigantic proportion, my memoir, I step back, remember what she said, and remind myself that I’m not re-inventing the wheel, but writing my story. If I don’t keep that thought in my writing, it may never leave my word processor. I can’t allow that to happen. I think Dawn Novotany had the right idea. At some point we must stop dotting i’s and crossing t’s and put it out there. If only I could follow my own advice!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Judy. You’ve got me thinking! First, yes, please just write. That is really good advice, and not always easy to follow. It helps to recognize that first drafts are imperfect. That leads to the second step. Editing is an under-reported stage of “writing” – it’s a whole different skill, and it has to be done. So if someone could yell “just edit” that would be good advice after you have the whole thing on paper. Finally, the decision about when to actually put the thing out in the world is yet another stage. None of it is easy, and that’s part of its charm. At every step, memoir writing forges a stronger, deeper sense of your own truth. Jerry

  3. Hi Jerry,
    Appreciated your article and wondered if you could comment on an intriguing situation: My memoir (not yet published) includes a significant portion that delves into an amazing near-out-of-body progressive vision that I experienced as a child. This experience, which reads like a fantasy-thriller novel, is now being considered for a possible movie. Meanwhile since multiple critics have said combining two distinct genres may result in a marketing disaster (and it’s very important to me for these works to reach a large audience) I am now considering splitting the manuscript into two separate books – a memoir of my regular life experiences, and a fantasy-thriller novel for the near-out-of-body adventure. What do you think?

  4. I guess I’m thinking that if people write their first draft as ‘the real deal,’ they’ve got no business writing! I can’t imagine ‘just edit’ not being a natural part of the process. Do people really submit their first draft? One can’t edit until they’ve written something TO EDIT! Cripe, I edit and rewrite emails to friends sometimes!!! So, just as a baby begins talking, then crawling, then walking, those steps are crucial to their development. Our story is the same. There’s editing, then editing, then editing!!! Really? There are writers out there who don’t know that???

  5. Hi Judy, If you gather a 1,000 people who want to tell their story, some have never even attempted to write any story while others have published successful novels, and there is everyone in between. I admire and encourage every willing soul to take the next step from wherever they are toward where they want to go.

    I have met many beginners who say they are “bad writers” but their main failing is that they have not yet figured out editing is part of the process. As you observe, good readable writing is the result of writing plus editing. The word “writing” actually includes both types of work.


  6. Hi Leanna,

    Thanks for the comment. Your question is indeed intriguing. Like all aspiring memoir writers, you are facing the classic question of how to shape life into story and visionary experience presents a special type of challenge. For a couple of examples of the way other authors have handled it, consider American Shaolin by Matthew Polly in which the author explores his fascination with transcendent phenomena, and Expecting Adam by Martha Beck who shares a visitation from angels. How it would work in your particular case will be your creative decision. I like your idea of a fantasy-thriller devoted to exploring that experience. This type of book allows you free rein to explore and embellish, and give audiences the opportunity to let go and jump in without worrying too much about Reality. On the other hand, if you want to portray the experience as an important step along your real-life journey, the way Matthew Polly and Martha Beck did, you can include it in the memoir. Or you could do both.

    Best wishes on your writing,

  7. I’m only halfway through your post and feel compelled to comment already.

    I always feel it would have been much easier to write my memoir as a story, as you describe, had I written it 3 decades earlier. It’s extremely hard to remember some details, and sometimes I have a firm “knowledge” that so and so was “like this,” but can’t come up with more than one example of so and so behaving “like this.”

    I press on—with your post and with my memoir.

    Thank you for your thoughtful posts.

  8. Jerry, delving into the mechanics of writing a memoir, you’ve uncovered some interesting questions. I agree about showing, not telling and adding “the beat.” But yes, do readers really need to know about the glint of the light? Was the glint really there? Does it matter whether or not it was? Does the light add to the story in some let’s say, symbolic way? These are the choices that make or break a story.

    Those reading memoir must recognize that this is one person’s perspective, colored by time. The memoir writer was not recording conversations in his or her life so as to be able simply to retype them in the book. The writer’s job and integrity is to regain the basic truth of the story.

    Leanna, I understand your dilemma: fantasy or memoir or both? Jerry made an interesting comment on the blog at regarding my guest post related to my memoir, Adopted Reality. Jerry noted that memoir is basically a psychological genre. My story tells of my descent into insanity — as I’m going insane. It doesn’t make 100% sense, because my bipolar mind was making delusional connections. However, I was sure to insert a lucid chapter soon after, just so the readers can get a break from the distrubing crazy talk. But, the delusion, and my recollection of it, is absolutely integral to the memoir. The rest of the book is spent uncovering the circumstances that lead to the breakdown.

    I think you can do both and have it be a psychological/fantasy thriller. Try reading other memoirs of this type to get an idea as to how they handled the fantastical aspects of their stories. People combine religious experiences all the time in memoir, and no one bats an eye! Good luck …


  9. I can really identify with this, Jerry. It is such a long process to learn the necessary skills! So much craft, so much logic, so much inspiration, so much slogging.

    It has been very rewarding for me, too, though I get impatient and sometimes discouraged. Then every once in a while I get it right, every once in a while see how far I’ve come and it’s great.

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