It’s easy to forget that a lifestory or memoir really is all about you. “I didn’t want to say too much about that, because I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging,” is a common response to the urging to the question “Why didn’t you say more about that?”
Most of us learned early that bragging was to be avoided, and those who were fortunate enough to achieve unusual success in life or receive rich blessings often hesitate to elaborate on them in lifestories. The inverse is just as true: nobody wants to sound like a whiner! And yet, to give nothing but fleeting mention of triumph or tragedy is a form of insincerity and leaves readers wondering what the real story was.
It boils down to a matter of telling rather than showing. The problem arises when you are “reporting” on your life, focusing on facts to the general exclusion of feelings and insights. The solution is to put more of yourself in the story. Tell your readers what you thought and felt at the time. What did this event mean to you? Why was it important? How did it affect your life?
I’m reminded of an occasion my senior year in college when a friend I’d met in a small, intimate psychology class received notice that she had not only been admitted to Columbia for grad school, but had received a full fellowship. I happened to call her within minutes after she received the letter, and she couldn’t contain her joy. I was genuinely thrilled for her, but when she missed the next class meeting, I decided to keep silent, to allow her the added joy of seeing their faces light up with delight as they heard.
When she did see the class and realized they didn’t know, she turned to me. “Didn’t you tell them?” she asked. “No. I wanted to let you tell them yourself,” I replied. She looked crestfallen and her report had an edge of disappointment.
This is a great example of how things not said may loom larger than what is, resulting in misunderstanding. I personally valued the joy of sharing my own good news and in that close-knit group didn’t think of it as bragging. How would I know that she didn’t see it the same way? I also sensed that she thought my reticence was due to jealousy on my part — further proof of the danger of bragging. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Sure, we would all have liked to have been in her shoes, but that didn’t diminish the joy I felt for her.
Circling back to writing, the same potential for confusion exists for unwritten details. If you just report that you won the Pulitzer Prize and move on to something else in the next sentence, I’m going to feel shortchanged, and maybe a little angry when I read that. I may feel like you didn’t trust me, the reader, to understand.
If you elaborate with something like, “When I hung up the phone, I could hardly breathe. I sat there with tears streaming down my face as I realized that all those weeks, months, and years of pounding away on my Underwood had finally paid off. The ultimate critics had bestowed the ultimate honor. As contradictory as it sounds, I was overwhelmed by a mixture of humility and tumultuous joy. I simultaneously sank with grief that my mother had not lived long enough to share this joy and felt my spirit rise like a hot air balloon, soaring through the sunny sky. I wanted to run and shout, stop strangers on the street. I wanted to crash down the solid walnut door and storm unannounced into the Publisher's office. Instead, I took a deep breath and strolled into the press room with wicked anticipation and glee.”
Just remember, whether triumph or tragedy, if readers think it is a big deal, they are not going to believe you if you say it wasn’t. Let us know how it was a big deal to you, or if it really wasn’t tell why not.
You don’t likely have anything as dramatic as a Pulitzer to report, but small things that brought elation or devastation matter too. Don’t hesitate to “brag.” Just be sure to package it in context and let us feel your response. Remember, this is your story, and it really is all about you!
Write now: a few paragraphs about a great victory or joy and/or devastating event. Recreate the whole scene as you heard, and and describe what you thought and felt and how you reacted.