Read memoirs like a writer – Purpose of a scene

by Jerry Waxler

Sometimes a memory from days, months, or years ago will pop into the foreground. For a moment I’m back in the original experience, often from my childhood home, my dad’s drugstore, or walking around the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to college. Once I’m in the scene, I can look around to find more detail. In fact, this is a good trick to cultivate to gather material for writing memoirs. When I work with such memory glimpses in my memoir workshops, it almost always results in interesting, and often revealing moments in a person’s life.

Recently, I finished reading Expecting Adam by Martha Beck, about how her Down Syndrome baby changed her life. A few days later a scene from the book started playing in my mind. Martha is in a hospital examination room with her husband, waiting for a nurse. While they are waiting, her husband fools around with the equipment. Here’s a passage from the scene that jumped into my mind:

“This must be the ultrasound thing,” he said, picking up the metal detector. It had a plastic handle, which was attached to a flat metal disk. John held the disk to his ear, then rubbed it along his forearm. “Put that down,” I said. “You’re going to break it.” “No I’m not.” He poked the buttons on the keyboard.

It intrigues me that I remember a moment in Martha Beck’s life, a woman I’ve never met. Remembering a scene from another person’s life is a perfect example of why I read memoirs. I can now glimpse a bit of her world. But as a writer I want to know more, not just about her life but about how she told her story. I’ve been trying to “read like a writer” for years, and frankly, I have been failing miserably. Once I’m inside a fictional story, I enjoy suspending my disbelief, and don’t want to disturb it by figuring out how the author got me there. It’s different when I read memoirs. When I connect with a real person telling me about a real life, I seem to be able to keep my wits about me. This lets me absorb not only what they are telling me but how. By watching my own emotional response to the story, I am gaining deeper insight into the story teller’s knack. So what does Martha Beck’s scene in the hospital teach me about writing?

The first thing I notice is that the repartee is so relaxed it reduces the tension of being in a hospital. While John is putting Martha at ease, the scene is putting me at ease. The ordinariness of it makes it easy for me to be there with them.

Second, it gives me a glimpse of their relationship. In this one snippet, I learn that John uses humor to distract his wife from an awkward situation. He’s a nice guy.

Another function this interchange played was pacing. The episode takes place at a crucial moment. She’s about to have her amniocentesis, and since the book is about her baby’s genetic defect, the reader knows the medical procedure is important. But instead of jumping ahead to the test, she takes a small detour, slows down, and brings us into the room with her. It’s a classic technique of pacing, and something I should have known from years of reading fiction. But I didn’t really learn it until I saw it in a memoir.

Fourth, the scene shows her physical surroundings. A memoir isn’t just about introspection. By showing me the inside of a hospital, or a classroom, or a school psychological testing office, she shows me the places where her life happened.

Fifth, it shows me her uniqueness. Lots of people have prenatal tests. If she had rushed through it, Martha’s experience would have been just another one. By slowing down and describing personal details, I feel like I know what that moment was like for her in particular, rather than a person in general.

Sixth she is teaching me a technical fact. When John played with the ultrasound equipment, I started seeing it and even touching it. Once I became oriented to the machine, I gently and enjoyably learn a little about sonograms and amniocentesis. For example when the technician saw how the fetus was positioned, she marked an X on Martha’s abdomen at the spot where the needle could be safely inserted. I always wondered about that.

Now that I’ve learned these writing lessons, I can try using them to enrich a scene of my own. I might want to teach something to the reader, show the nuance of a relationship, and by adding this sort of detail, the reader can relate to me not as a general person but a unique person, telling a story that can only be told by me. In a story I submitted to Ronni Bennett’s story site, I dig through my memory for a scene that will help the story in some of these ways. If you’re interested in submitting stories, or reading reader-submitted stories check out this site.

3 thoughts on “Read memoirs like a writer – Purpose of a scene

  1. Excellent essay! I agree, as a memoir writer and reader, I feel the same about connecting with others’ true stories. Listening to my own personal response helps me gain greater insight into not only the author’s life but my own as well.

  2. How curious that you interpret John’s antics with the ultrasound device as an attempt to put Martha at ease, which it apparently did. Had I been in Martha’s position, I probably would have found it stressful, especially when he started pressing buttons. What if he broke something!

    I mention this to show that whatever we write, each reader will interpret the words in a personal and unique way. We can take the greatest pains to clearly express our own truth, but readers will read THEIR own truth, which may be quite different from what we experienced and meant. But — once written, the matter is out of the writer’s domain.

    My truth is a gift to my reader, to be understood and used in the best way for her. Maybe John and Martha’s gift (to me), amplified by your replay, is to remind (me) to lighten up! Is this a great world, or what?

  3. Unbelievable. Just when I thought I was on my way and didn’t need any more resources, I read a post like this and my writing world is opened up just a little bit more. That was great.

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