What Is the Nonfiction Bonus in your Memoir?

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.

Writing Prompt
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?

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