Mark Twain’s Advice to Memoir Writers

Sharon&MarkWhile strolling through the Twain on Main Festival in  Hannibal Missouri a couple of weeks ago, I ran into Mr. Twain himself. My writing hero graciously offered to pose for a picture, as you can see.

My husband let the cat out of the bag when he told Mark, “She’s a writer too.”

“What do you write?” he asked. “ Mysteries? Fiction?” 

When I told him I write lifestories and memoir, he confessed that he’s written a bit of that himself. “Do you have any advice for lifestory and memoir writers?” I asked this legendary icon.

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” he said without missing a beat. “You see, I like a good story well told. That is why I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

“Telling stories is a great skill,” I agreed, “and you’re the best. May I ask you a question about writing?” He nodded. “What advice so you have about editing stories?

“Do it!” he said. “We write frankly and fearlessly but then we ‘modify’ before we print.” He paused and went on. “You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.”

“That’s what I thought you’d say. Anything else?” I asked.

“Yes. The time to begin writing a story is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

“That’s a challenge I’m going to keep in mind for sure,” I told him. “And what about one of my favorite topics, writing description?”

He smiled mischievously. “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.”

“Mmm, nice!”  I waited expectantly and was not disappointed as he continued.

“When you catch an adjective, kill it.” He saw my eyebrows raise. “No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

“You and Steven King would get along well. He tells people to kill adverbs.”

“Steven King? Never heard of him, but he gives good advice.” He reached in his pocket, pulled out his watch and none too subtly glanced at the time. “Sorry my dear, I must excuse myself. If you are genuinely interested in my thoughts on the subject of writing, I hear people have been keeping track of remarks I’ve made various times and places. You can use some new-fangled thing Google thing to track them down.”

“Great idea Mr. Twain. I’ll do that right away, and thank you for your time and advice.

Write now: select a story you’ve already finished to your satisfaction. Follow Mark Twain’s advice and write that story again, based on what you clearly and logically perceive that you really want to say. Kill as many adjectives (and adverbs) as you can in the process.


Cathy Scibelli said...

What a terrific post! I think Mr. Twain's advice is great and I'm going to follow it. And I'm also very jealous, you met my favorite author! I've been to his house in Connecticut, but he's never been home when I've visited.

Amber Lea Starfire said...

Oh, what a fun post! Thanks for brightening my day! I'm including this post in today's Blogtalk at (scheduled to be posted later this afternoon).

Linda Hoye said...

What a lovely post, Sharon!

kathleen said...

This is wonderful! I love Mark Twain's ageless wisdom. In fact, I just used one of his quotes while preparing a blog post. What a delightful visit you had! Thanks for sharing.

SuziCate said...

I often run across wise quotes from Twain. What a lovely post and a delight to my morning.

Linda said...

Delightful. And full of good advice. Thanks for such a fun read.


Linda Austin said...

Now this is a good story! Love it, and totally agree with Mr. Twain's sage advice, even if I did just use an adverb and a couple adjectives. I'm sharing this.