Like Watching a Stranger’s Travel Slides

Writing memoir is an interesting mix of ingredients. It’s personal story. It’s heartfelt expression. It’s writing in your true voice. But when we want others to read what we’ve written, it has to be all of this and so much more.

How do you move a story from the personal — what happened to me/what happened in my life — to a story that will attract and hold a public while staying personal? What draws a reader who may not know you and keeps them turning the pages and wishing for more when the story ends?

It reminds me of something that happened in the early 1980s in San Francisco at The Kitsch Museum, on Church Street. Here, aficionados of this art form of the bizarre, the tacky, and the outrageous, came together one night for an art opening. I think of it not because of the dog skin rug there (I promise you, I only HEARD about this, I did not attend!), but because of the kind of “punishment” given some of the people attending. You only went that night if were willing to play by their rules. If staff wandering the crowd overheard anyone mention or discuss anything of a social or political nature the offender had to go and sit in “The Room” and watch strangers’ travel slides.

Strangers’ travel slides. Hmmm. Is a memoir a different form of a strangers’ travel slides?

It can be. I’ve seen people write like this hundreds of times. It MUST be interesting, they say. It was to ME!

When do the slides become interesting even when you don’t know the writer and you’ve never been to that part of the world (i.e., never had that experience)?

It’s all in how your memoir is crafted.

I find that few people come to the craft of memoir aware that it is exactly that — a craft. It’s like being inspired to paint watercolor. You may have that drive inside you to paint, but if you don’t know how to mix colors or add the right amount of water to get the essential contrasts, you may end up with no more than blotches of beautiful color and a picture of something important only to you.

You may have heard “it’s all in the details,” and in ways, that’s true. Natalie Goldberg, memoirist and author of the best-selling writer’s standard, Writing Down the Bones, believes that specificity leads a reader into seeing and believing, and I agree. But when it comes to memoir, it’s all in the “right” details. And there’s so much more. It’s the shape of the story inside each chapter, the shape of the chapters that make up a whole book. Besides these essentials of structure, it’s also about how the stories are told, the balance of narration and scene, the use of vivid verbs, compelling dialog, the creation of characters a reader can almost reach out and touch they’re so real.

It’s so important to tell your story, and to tell it true. But remember to tell it in a way others will understand and enjoy reading. Let your travel slides show be one readers can’t wait to see.