by Jerry Waxler
In fiction writing classes, we learn that to create a powerful bond with readers, every bit of information must directly serve the power of the story. While that prevailing rule dominates genre fiction, I have found that successful memoirs often violate it. Memoir readers are curious about the world, and so we also want formation that satisfies our intellectual curiosity.
I first heard the term “nonfiction bonus” from children’s book editor Ellen Roberts who was referring to the fact that story readers enjoy learning. After I thought about the concept, I scanned my book shelves and realized all the things I learn. In Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields, I learn about postpartum depression. In Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love I learn about the neurological details of the stroke-induced aphasia that afflicted her husband. In Running the Books by Avi Steinberg, I learn about the culture inside prisons, as well as historical notes about the prison system.
Sometimes, a history lesson is a side effect of a great story. In Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers, I learn about the radical fringes of the anti-war movement. In Colored People by Henry Louis Gates I learn about the waning days of the Jim Crow culture in the south. In Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire, I learn about the history of the Cuban revolution.
I’m not the only one who enjoys learning from memoirs. In the epilog to her memoir, Rachel Simon said that Riding the Bus with My Sister touched a nerve among people who wanted to learn about caring for a sibling with mental disabilities. This powerful nonfiction bonus motivated Rosie O’Donnell to star in a movie based on the book.
The nonfiction bonus in the Orchard by Theresa Weir apparently didn’t bother Oprah who recommended the book through her television show and magazine. I don’t mind either when Weir explains pesticides and the economics of the small farm. These added facts might slightly briefly slow the dramatic tension. But they more than make up for any detrimental effect by lending the book an air of authority and providing insight into an issue about which I am eager to learn.
Most memoirs follow the model of Riding the Bus or Orchard, in which the nonfiction bonus takes back seat to the primary value of the story. However, in some books, the priority is reversed – information plays the primary role, and the story is merely a container for it. When reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, I was eager to learn about international memory competitions. His story helped move the information along, and I loved both aspects, the information and the story.
The distinction between story and background information is blurred even further in Jon Robison’s memoir Look Me In the Eye. The story is about growing up with Asperger’s so it’s impossible to distinguish the drama of his life from a description of what it is like to live with that condition. Robison’s condition was finally diagnosed properly when he was an adult, a diagnosis which helped him understand a great deal about his own childhood. Many readers were able to learn from his experiences how to make sense of their own childhood, or to understand their children. The nonfiction bonus was so important in this book that his memoir is filed in the bookstore not under Biography but under Psychology, and Robison frequently lectures on the challenges of Asperger’s and the autism spectrum.
This Dilemma Might Inspire Maturity
This balance between story and information has an important implication for many memoir writers, who, when telling about their lives, also want to explain things about their world. I empathize with their desire to embed information in their story, and also agonize with them over the disturbing conflict. Should they tell a “pure,” “tight” story and leave out the information, or is that information indeed an authentic and important way to fill in the blanks? I face similar questions in my own memoir-in-progress. Whether I’m telling a story about my new job as an engineer, or my discoveries on a spiritual path, I want to make my experience available to a reader, not just as sensory information but through the intellect as well.
The most interesting nonfiction bonus in my own manuscript is the historical perspective of how the decades have changed me. In the early 60s, still under the spell of the Leave-it-to-Beaver, and Father-Knows-Best generation, my entire focus was on doing well at school. In the late 60s, my trajectory was thrown radically off course by the counter-culture and war protests. In the 70s, I tried to recover from the chaos of the previous decade by immersing myself in the spiritual searching so popular in that era. In the 80s I returned to the workforce to establish my place in the emerging computer industry. By the late 90s, I had grown weary of cubicles, and was ready for the next step. And in the 21st century, my life shifted toward the exciting possibilities for positive-psychology and self-development that is starting to emerge in the new millennium.
With our current emphasis on short-term consequences, I believe my longer view offers an important perspective about the way life unfolds across time, but I wonder how much I can fit in to a compelling story. The dilemma has me stymied, forcing me to read more memoirs and seek more insights. This is not the first puzzle I have had to solve in order to write my memoir and every time I solve a problem, I feel like I have matured, both emotionally and creatively. It looks like there may be a nonfiction bonus not only for the readers of my memoir but also the writer, as my effort to write my story is turning into one of the most invigorating chapters in my life.
How about you? In your journey to tell your story, what dilemmas have you faced between wishing you could convey specific information, and the fear that your information will drag the story down?
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.
I can’t tell you how helpful this post is, Jerry–especially as I struggle to place my father’s story and that of my childhood in the larger context of organized crime in western PA during the 1970s. Thanks so much!
I’m so glad you found value in the essay, Kathy. And what an intense environment in which to grow up! While the rest of us watched mob life glamorized on television, you had to face the daily realities. Telling your story will connect a lot of dots, both for you and your readers.
Hi Jerry – A few beta readers of my memoir told me I need a forward explaining the treatment of paralytic polio in the 1960’s when my story takes place. I agree, and will do the necessary research. I can’t put much more into the finished manuscript, because the voice is that of myself at age five, and the confusion and mystery of the treatment is part of the experience. I may also write an afterward to inform people that polio is not eradicated, as is most commonly believed, and the importance of global immunizations.
Thank you for this post, it was great!
Hi Gail, I’m glad the post was helpful. I empathize with the dilemma about how to put in information that you cannot have known. This is one of those challenges that keeps us striving for excellence without really knowing how to achieve it. It’s maddening and invigorating. Good luck! Jerry
P.S. For your research:
Another memoir about growing up in the mob: Here I stand by Jillian Bullock
Another memoir about coping with polio: Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley
This is one of the best essays about memoir writing I’ve ever read. It has given me insights as to how to approach my memoir. I think I’ve been struggling with this issue but couldn’t really verbalize it, and you have. Thank you, I find your blog extremely helpful.
Jerry, This is such a relevant and thought-provoking question that I find myself struggling with in my own memoir writing process. Certainly weaving in details of time,place,politics,etc adds layers to the narrative and yet we are told to engage the reader in scene with dialogue, sensory details- have the reader be with us in the moment so they feel they are part of the scene not just reading about it. Wow, I don’t have the answer. I just finished reading two novels to learn more about the fiction tools that worked. Chasing Sylvia Beach and Dakota Blues, both debut novels. Among other things, the one thing that really struck me was the richness of the details about the time periods and cultures that were woven in. Chasing Sylvia Beach is a romantic fantasy involving time travel to 1937 Paris and Dakota Blues is a woman in midlife crisis who travels back to Midwestern roots and finds herself. In both novels, the backstory was woven in flawlessly and added richness to the narrative. I want to be able to do the same in my memoir! This is actually the topic of my blog post next week. I hope this all makes sense. I really don’t have the answer but I’m very happy you asked the question. I am looking forward to the discussion. BTW, your memoir sounds fascinating. I am so intrigued by your notion of evolving through the time periods.
Hi Valorie, What a wonderful compliment!! Thank you. I love this “virtual community” of aspiring memoir writers, where we help and support each other. Best wishes, Jerry
Thanks, Kathleen. It’s true that there is no “answer” – that’s what makes the whole project so exciting. We do our best and then share our best, and continue to learn from each other. Thanks for your interest in my memoir-in-progress. It has taken me time to understand the underlying structure. Now I have to execute it beautifully. Jerry
Jerry, such a timely post! I’ve been pondering this very question in my writing. My difficult and abusive relationship with my mom hinges a great deal on her childhood and the losses she experienced there. The time period, the things that happened following her father’s death when she was just six, the poverty, her hearing and vision deficiencies, hard scrabble living, etc. all combined to make her the person I experienced. There is little to go on, but I did find a handwritten “life story” she had jotted down which may be helpful. I’m hoping because I too enjoy a memoir that teaches me something. I think I’d like to focus on the continuing cycle of dysfunctionality so need to do some research as well as fact-finding here. Thanks for nudging me this morning!
What an interesting idea. I had never thought to dissect it like this before. In my own memoir, I suppose the bonus is information on WWII, code breaking, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. As I wrote it though, it was impossible to tell the story without those details. In fact, with memoir, I think that you’re so close to the story that you tend to leave out things that need further explanation; that’s what my editor was constantly telling me – “expand on this.”
When I was writing Breaking the Code, I was drawing on my own relationship and journey with my father. As we experienced what we did and my father began to tell me his story, I realized that I couldn’t really “know” him without knowing the foundation on which he stood at the time. This led me to research things like Katakana, WWII in the pacific, and even the more simple things like what a Quonset hut was. But now, in thinking about this (because of your post), I realize that I needed an editor to then tell/remind me to include those things in the final book that people would read. It’s interesting to me now, that I knew the importance of those details when it came to understanding my father’s experience, but that that didn’t automatically translate into knowing that my reader would need those details as well. Does that make sense?
Thank you for this thoughtful post. You made me think! ~Karen
Thanks for compliments, Karen, Krystyna, and Sherrey. I’m glad the ideas resonated with your experience. I think this post struck a nerve because it lies at the fault line between fiction (pure story) and memoir (great story with a hefty dose of reality). It creates a deliciously rich landscape for exploration. Jerry
Super post Jerry. I was thinking along these same lines just the other day, about all the fascinating insights and wisdom I’ve derived from reading memoirs. Aside from historical and factual information, I benefit from experiencing new points of view “from the inside.” Reading memoirs about alternate lifestyles of various sorts engenders compassion. Reading of tribulations engenders gratitude for escaping them and respect for those who make it through. Those who overcome challenges expand my toolkit of coping skills. Reading memoir helps me feel even more connected to people in general.
Thanks for this provactive post and vive la memoir!
Great article! It’s really relevant for me since my memoir deals with learning about Slovenia through the life and guidance of a friend of mine who’s a folk/rock singer there. I feel like I’m forging a new genre, the memoir/biography because so much is lost if I don’t write about his past.
Thanks Sharon and Ruth. It’s terrific to hear you say you are forging a new genre. I love that aspect of memoirs. We are all unique, and so, it makes sense that our attempts to express a unique life will come out in new and surprising ways. Just as memoir writers are seeking the unique wisdom in each life, so are memoir readers opening ourselves to the variety of expression. Jerry
(For another biography/memoir see Andrew X. Pham’s Eaves of Heaven, a ghost-written account of his father’s life in Vietnam.)
Jerry, I love this post. The “nonfiction bonus” isn’t something I’d ever thought about specifically, yet it was my motive when writing my memoir, The Invisible Storm. It strikes a similarity to your description of Robison’s memoir, Look Me In the Eye, which I have not read, but now want to!
My memoir is about my battle with – and overcoming – PTSD. My motive in writing it was to 1) give hope to others who are suffering, that one can break out of the prison of PTSD, and 2) to give insight to those who don’t have PTSD (but maybe know someone who does), into the terrifying, anxiety-driven world we with PTSD experience.
To accomplish that took incredible honesty, objectivity, and vulnerability. The PTSD-experience is something people don’t talk about much. For one, there are no words to describe it when you’re living the nightmare. I couldn’t find the words until I was on the other side of the darkness. But since publishing my memoir, I’ve heard exactly what I dreamed of hearing: “I get it now.” Those words were most validating coming from my family, who was lost in how to help me (and caused painful conflict) when I was suffering the most.
With your memoir, Jerry, I imagine the value will be in how you changed over the course of those decades for the better, or your self-discovery. I love to read a memoir where the author grows and changes because of their experiences. You’re so right – the VALUE the story gives is so important! With my memoir, I did NOT want to tell a sob story. I wanted to inspire strength, healing, and change in someone else. I think when you start your memoir with that strong motive, you’ll find it weaves itself in as you write, because to accomplish that, you must be vulnerable in your writing to allow the reader to understand the depths of you, and the fullness of the challenges you experienced.
Well, that’s my opinion anyway! Sorry for my mega-long comment, but your post was really wonderful and inspired a few words. 🙂
Thanks for your comment and compliment, Juanima. Part of the hell of PTSD is the fear that people will never understand. Memoirs build the bridge and connect people with each other. It’s generous of you to share this crossing with your readers. Jerry
P.S. Other memoirs about PTSD: Alice Sebold’s Lucky told much about her journey after rape, and Brook Shields’ Down Came the Rain after post-partum depression.
I read Brooke Shields’ book right after it was published because I was trying to understand the postpartum I suffered. Having been brainwashed to believe I was demon possessed, I needed to understand the symptoms on a very personal level.
Nobody wants to read a 20 page data-dump. In thinking about it, I suppose pacing is an important factor. Introduce a scene, share a little history, then what is happening currently and then how it fits with the history. The information needs to be relevant to the scene and more “shown” than “told”. Then you can build on it in the next scene. This is how I did it anyway, for what it’s worth. 🙂 Good luck with your memoir, Jerry. If it’s anything like your posts, it will be fabulous.
Grace, Thanks for sharing the background of your story and succinctly summarizing the entire process of memoir writing. This might be the most compact explanation I have ever read. So if you write memoirs the way you write comments, I’m sure your memoir will be terrific too. Thanks so much for your compliment about my blog! It’s one of the best comments I’ve ever had, another testimony to the quality of your writing. 🙂 We writers are a simple bunch. All we want to do is please strangers with our words. I love this mission, and I love that memoir writing is turning so many of us into aspiring writers. The more of us who strive to please each other, the more interesting the world! Jerry