It’s All About STORY

Story Story

I was stunned when conversation at my book club drifted into comments on memoir in general. I’d just mentioned that I’d been appalled at the proliferation of typos and other errors in a memoir I recently read that was, sure enough, self-published.  “I cringe when I read something like that because it casts all self-publishers in a bad light.” But even so, I’d been mesmerized by the story and seconded the recommendation of a previous reader.

I could never have anticipated the ensuing, spontaneous discussion. How I wish I’d had my phone’s recorder running. I did scribble a few notes, summarized below:

“I’m more forgiving about sloppy writing and errors in memoir … I’m more interested in hearing their story than how they tell it.”

“I can overlook a lot of structural stuff because the story is what counts.”

“Memoir is about real people, things that actually happened. Most of them are not professional writers and I don’t expect them to sound like one.”

“Flaws make memoir credible. If it’s too polished, I wonder how much truth got scrubbed out by editors.”

“You can’t critique a memoir because you haven’t walked in that person’s shoes. I’m just fascinated by other people’s stories.”

Wow! I recognized an opportunity to listen and learn rather than steering the discussion. I kept my astonished thoughts to myself to avoid biasing things.

Members of this group are voracious and discerning readers. Every Tuesday afternoon 12 – 20 women (men are welcome, but never attend) meet at the library. A high number have advanced degrees. Several are retired teachers or professors. A few of us also write. But most of all we read, widely and constantly. We each read whatever appeals to us and report back to the group, some in more detail than others. At least half the gals at any given meeting report on more than one book. Rarely does anyone pass.  A significant percentage of the reports include some form of the observation, “It didn’t work for me, but other people may like it.”

In general we collectively hold books to high standards, so, I have full respect and regard for their thoughts about memoir. I cannot imagine a better qualified focus group to address this issue, especially since it arose spontaneously. They don’t write, teach or promote memoir, so they have no reason to be anything but frank.

Perhaps today’s comments ring even more true, because in thinking back, I recall a couple of memoirs that got a thumbs down after comments like “It was too dry and didn’t have much to say.” Celebrity memoirs full of false humility that fails to mask self-promotion also get blasted. The story has to ring true.

Does this mean we should forget about editors and publish first drafts? Of course not! I take it to primarily mean that we should make sure our heart and soul stays in our story and that it retains our unique voice. We still need beta readers to find holes, inconsistencies, and parts that don’t make sense or ring true. And I don’t think these gals will mark you down for a tightly written manuscript with a compelling plot and story arc, strong tension and character development, rich scenes, and no typos. All those fiction devices work, but only if the story rings true.

The bottom line in their remarks is STORY. It’s all about the STORY. Those dry, flat memoirs that got ripped lacked STORY. Do what you need to do to make your story clear, focused and active, and don’t hide it under too much gloss and device. But take heart that if you do slip up a bit, or can’t afford thousands of dollars for a top-notch editor, or you’re just writing for family. Don’t despair. Write it true, write it real, and write from your passion and heart.

16 comments :

Laurie Buchanan said...

I just Tweeted this OH-SO-INTERESTING post. Who knew?!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Laurie. How often do we get a chance for input like this, especially without asking? Wow!

kathleen pooler said...

This is fascinating, Sharon, both your group's responses and your analysis. I will share.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Kathy. I hope the group's thoughts can make a difference for lots of memoir writers.

Amy said...

Very interesting! As someone who does get put off by grammatical and punctuation errors, I might have been in the minority there. I find it too distracting to read something that is filled with errors. My brain is always stopping to edit instead of just reading.

Sharon Lippincott said...

I'm in your camp, Amy. That's why I was so stunned to hear these comments right after I'd pointed out that I had to get past the sloppiness before I could get into the story. On the other hand, since at least half my students never intend for their work to be read outside their family and maybe friends who find out about it, they can be reassured that families will be forgiving.

Also, those of us who see all the errors are becoming a minority. To some extent we always were, but for the past generation or more, spelling and grammar have not been emphasized in schools the way they were for generations ending with the boomers. Times, they are a'changin'.

Soulscyences said...

I find this amazing! Avid readers who forgive multiple errors in any genre sound like aliens in my mind, but in memoir, because the story, the story the story is what counts? What a surprise. Thank you for this information. I'll be sure to pass it along to other memoir writers with a side note about getting their work to the best standard.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for your thoughts Soulsyences. Aliens. Yes, that works. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that suspicion has been lurking in the back of my mind. My experience has been that the more I edit a story of my own, the more I come to understand it differently and the more its shape changes. And definitely when I edit for others, I'm always wary of interjecting my voice over theirs.

So I'm fine with minimal editing, but for heavens to Betsy, at least get the rocks (typos and grammar errors Word would pick up) out of the way!

Anna Savoy said...

Wow! Yes, surprising. Enlightening. Really provokes thoughts about my own book which lies deep within me. My snob mentality toward writing mechanics is real. Was real. I think differently now.


Amy said...

It is sad that proper English grammar is no longer taught in schools. What people fail to realize is that grammar and punctuation actually do contribute to clarity of expression. Anyone who has ever read something with missing (or extra) commas or run-on sentences can certainly attest to that!

But alas, text talk, emails, and emoticons have changed how people write and probably how they think!

Audrey Denecke said...

I'm torn. I do want to bring my story to the public in its best possible form. And, I hope if I self-published, there would be support for editing away any glaring errors (beyond my knowledge or the help of Grammarly and other similar tools). At the same time, I want to write a story that so captures the reader any remaining errors would be overlooked.
Yet, I must confess to being stunned at the frequent misuse of there vs.their, no vs.know, and similar errors.
I do hope story ultimately prevails.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amy, I agree it's sad that grammar isn't being taught, at least in public schools. My granddaughters still study it, thank goodness. I've noticed that email and texting have changed the style of many or most even in the senior generation, but I don't think that's what prompted the book club remarks.

But hey! English is a fluid language. I can't make heads or tails of the Canterbury Tales and find many of the classics a drag. The other day I realized my conversational vocabulary undergoes constant upgrading. I routinely use words, temrs and phrases today that wouldn't have made sense even twenty years ago. I suppose we have lots of worse things to survive just now. :-) (See, I would not have put an emoticon in a comment until ... maybe today.)

Sharon Lippincott said...

Audrey, sounds like you are on your way to a presentable story. For whatever it may be worth, editing help with self-published books comes at a price. Usually quite a steep one. It may be included with plans at hybrid presses like She Write, or you can buy it independently from publishers like Amazon. Or you can find an editor in the wild through references and online searching. Again, there will be a fee.

Or, find writing buddies you trust and barter. Edit for each other. I'd suggest a team of two or three if you go that route. Just remember, it's YOUR story, so don't let anyone bully or guilt you into changing anything that doesn't feel right to you.

Write on!

Amy said...

Believe me, I am as guilty of using text talk and emoticons as anyone! But it always troubled me when law students would send me an email using those forms. It's one thing when texting with someone or writing to a friend or relative (or posting a comment online ;) ), but someone writing to a professor asking for a reference letter or seeking clarification on a subject discussed in class should be putting their best foot forward!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amy, in an attempt to look at all sides, I suspect the student thinks s/he is putting a good foot forward. S/he'd smile in person, and probably feels at least a little bit connected to you to ask in the first place. The purpose of emoticons is to replace those smiles we miss in personal contact. I'd be more concerned if said student were putting smileys in cover emails. They definitely don't belong in print publications. Well, maybe ... if you're writing a piece that includes an email from someone as a quote ...

Yes, times are changing and our generation's attempt to impose our values and expectations about what may seem trivial issues to someone who may be two generations younger is only going to cause us grief.

Amy said...

You're right. I am a curmudgeon! But I never scolded those students, just scratched my head. And it was the use of emoticons as much as things like---Hey, Professor, Can U write a reco 4 me? I need it tmw or ASAP. TX!! UR the best!

Bah, humbug!