By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Memoir Writer as a Boring Drunk

I started this post sometime back and kept it as a draft, but even though the book I set out to write for my client is about to be submitted to a publisher, (more on this in my next post where I reveal his identity!) I love the point, so here it comes, late to the party.

A quote I came across by Annie Dillard has sat on my shoulder these last months, whispering admonitions into my ear as I veered from the comforting path of "editing" onto the fearsome trail of the re-write. It was a journey I had balked at undertaking.

Ms. Dillard says this about the memoir: "You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader's arm, like a drunk, and say 'and then I did this and it was so interesting.'"

Now, even though it was not my story I have told this time around, I took her advice to heart. I asked myself, in trying to glean from my client his entire story, was I including passages of no real import? Was I boring the reader?

As I discussed in an earlier  post, a conundrum was set at the outset of my task when my client presented one goal to me and his wife another: i.e., he wanted a book he could present to all those people at conferences in Europe and South America and Asia who told him he had a fascinating story and suggested he write a book about it, and she said she wanted an account of the paterfamilias's life and achievements "for the family."

My published writer friend, Amanda Owen, urged me to clarify the goal at the beginning (Is this a ripping good tale with universal themes well told or a family legacy that captures all the details of a  life to be enjoyed by generations?) but I went in thinking I could nail my two birds with one well-flung stone and that the thing in itself would become clear as we moved along.

Once I had a solid manuscript, both my red-headed, bat-loving editorial muse and my stern, standard-bearing "grammataton" of an editor told me that the life tree I had cultivated for my client needed yet more pruning, or at least shaping.

So, as I headed into the dark territory of not just "revisions" but of a rewrite, I began with the following tips from readers and masters:
  • Heed Dillard's advice and hack away any anecdote that leads nowhere.  Ditto with characters who appear only as an acknowledgement of their existence but do not further the central conflict or plot in any way.
  • Revisit the transitions from one chapter to the next to see if they hint, as they should, at what is to follow.
  • Check for paragraphs that earlier seemed substantial but now reveal themselves to be hangers-on that do not further the narrative.
  • Scrutinize a problematic chapter (very dear to the client's heart) and find a way to integrate its key scenes (lessons) into other sections.
  • Eliminate commentary or reflections at the end of a scene and let the action of that scene speak for itself.
  • Ensure that all revealing details of notable, real people are changed or removed, or make sure that permission is granted for their use, especially in sections about medical cases. (Imagine HIPPA as an evil trail guide holding my feet over the fire while I read.)
  • Keep an eye out for bland and/or meaningless words (such as "things") that escaped the first cuts. 
I followed all of these points and more, and also ended up starting the story at a later date and using a brief flashback to catch up to the point in time at which I began. Now, like a mother loathe to nudge the nestling over the edge, I am giving it a last go-over before I release it to the publisher. Then it will be up to the reader to say whether or not this chronicler for hire has made her narrator into a boring drunk or not.


  1. Glad you pulled this one out of drafts and shared it. Great insights and practical advice galore. Kudos!

    Peggy Mullan

  2. Thanks for the comment Peggy. This is what comes from the gracious people who agreed to read all or part of it. You get so close to the writing, you can't see some of this stuff. Or you might see it, but can't bring yourself to axe it until someone points it out! Less really is more.