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