The Tip of the Iceberg


The material that makes it into a finished memoir is like the tip of the iceberg, representing only 10% to 20% of the relevant material. Deciding what to include and what to omit is a major challenge for anyone aspiring to write memoir.

Many factors go into this decision. Three of the most important are retaining focus on the primary story, controlling length, and respecting personal privacy of self and others in the story. My purpose here is not to explore these factors, but to share my experience reading a memoir that disappointed me by leaving too much ice under the water, resulting in a flat, confusing berg of a book that probably won’t get much notice.

I won’t identify the book, and say only that it was about the disintegration of a marriage and the author’s eventual realization that although she couldn’t fix the marriage, she could and would fix herself. Bravo!  I hope that writing the memoir was a big step along that path.

The disappointment springs from the fact that the author stayed so intensely focused on the month or six weeks during which the marriage ground to its ultimate conclusion that she failed to include background information that would put these weeks of personal agony into context. I know the couple had moved to a new state a year or so earlier, but nothing about their life together prior to the move, and little about it in the new location prior to these climatic weeks. She fleetingly mentions that she used to have a good job, but I had no idea what that was.

She mentions money in an account that belonged to her that she’d promised to give her husband – or something like that. His mother knew the whole story, but he didn’t, and readers know only that there is a mystery. She never says what it is or how it happens that there is still money belonging to her in an account he purportedly had drained.

More mysteries arise in the concluding chapters when she infers that he had left her a few times before, but again, no details are given.

Then there is the matter of sex. Now I’m one of the last people to suggest that sex is a necessary component  of a memoir, and I’ll be the first to blush if you include details. But when a couple is slipping into bed together the first night of a reconciliation and she seems thrilled at the fact he’s simply lying there beside her drifting off to sleep with her hand on his shoulder … a key element is missing. I don’t know if this is normal and a reason they remain childless, or perhaps she’s omitting  a key detail, or … Shucks, if nothing happened, let us know that much. There was just no contact at all beyond a couple of pecks and sterile hugs.

These are not the only loose ends, but they are the major ones. I have no idea why so much was left out, but I felt teased and led on. I wanted her to go back and finish the book. It was quite short as it was, barely over 200 very small pages – maybe 33,000 words. It could have been half again as long without seeming wordy.

It’s not possible to write a story that doesn’t leave a certain number of unexplored side paths, but a well-crafted one gives enough of a view up those paths to round out the main story without distracting side trips.

One of the roles I play for my coaching clients is pointing out where they have holes in their stories and loose ends such as this one had. Editors should be able to do the same. But you don’t need to rely on paid professionals. When you think your story is finished, as good as you can make it, you should have two or more trusted people read it to find structural inconsistencies, loose ends and holes in the story.

Family members may be great for proof reading, but the best hole finders are people who don’t know the history you are writing about. People in your reading group will be great helps, but I’d suggest calling in a couple of people who know are completely new to the manuscript. Listen to their input, then make your own decisions about what to do.

These extra eyes will make sure the important ice is on the top of your berg, your readers will feel satisfied, and your book will receive the notice it deserves.

Write now: make a list of people you could call on as beta readers when you have a finished manuscript. If you aren’t close to that stage, let the list be an incentive and keep scanning for willing and able readers in the meantime..

Photo credit:  Liam Quinn


Linda Austin said...

Yes, it is a great idea to let someone unfamiliar with your past life read the manuscript. If they are confused or need more details, surely all the other unfamiliar readers will be, too! Good advice.

SuziCate said...

excellent advice. There's a fine line yet a big difference in holding out not to give too much info and not giving enough. I'm disappointed when I read something and I am left filled with questions.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Seems strange nobody talks about this. All the discussion tends to cluster around issues of privacy.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz said...

This is a great post. When I was writing, Breaking the Code, I left in just about everything. I included my father's letters in their entirety and I told about every revelation he had told me about.

The interesting thing is that in the beginning, there was far too much information for the reader to stay interested. And the hardest part for me was to cut information out. I mean, it all seemed important to me. But if you are desiring to be published, cut you must.

Also, if there are emotions that you feel like are too personal, beware that cutting them out may leave the reader feeling like you've held back. So, it's a balancing act.

Another thing I tended to do, and didn't realize it until my editor forced me (kindly) to delve a little deeper, was that I also had a tendency to hurry through things that were difficult. My editor would comment something like, "Wait a minute. This is a huge revelation. You need to spend more time here." Memoir is just so personal and so different. And this post is way too long...sorry. ~Karen

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for reminding us of the other side Karen, of the need to put enough "ice on top" to form an eye and mind-catching berg. You also make a compelling case for the value of strong editors.

Jerry Waxler said...

Hi Sharon,

You have put your finger on one of the hardest things about memoir writing, what to include and what to leave out. I like your image of an iceberg. It helps me remember that by showing part of life, we are not eliminating anything. Another analogy might be to look at life through a straw, an image I remember from a Kurt Vonnegut book, in which he complains that at any given time, we are only able to see a small bit of the world. Memoirs are valuable precisely because they open out that vantage point so we can see more of the vista, including what led up to it, and what happened afterward. I am currently struggling with this exact issue in my own memoir, because I believe the larger picture is more interesting than the narrower one. It's so hard to know the "right" way. The one thing is absolutely true is that only readers can decide.

Memory Writers Network

Sharon Lippincott said...


I love the straw analogy, but more for scenes than the total story. I'd compare it more to a series of "straw shots" connected by threads of narrative to skim over the omitted details. In that analogy, she stuck to the bull's eye rather than showing the entire target.