How Real Can I Be?


Do you have a question about writing memoir? Send it to me in a COMMENT to the blog post, or email me at suzannesherman@sonic.net. Visit my website, www.suzannesherman.com, for more.

Q: I’m not sure how I sound in my writing. In my journal I write anything I want. No one’s going to read it. But I want people to read what I’m writing now, and I’m worried I swear too much. — How Real Can I Be?

A: Dear How Real:

Let’s start by looking at fiction.

In fiction, the writer knows everything about the story but should appear absent on the page. In fiction, the writer knows all about everyone and everything. The writer is the omniscient narrator, able to see into every character’s mind and share their thoughts or words to move the story along. Even if she’s writing in first person and the written perspective has to be limited to the central character, the writer knows everything going on with all of the characters and uses it to create story. Readers want to be taken away by the story, not feel led by a writer right beside them.

Memoir is different. Here, the writer wants to be known. She isn’t there only to be beautifully and invisibly present and carry the story. She belongs on the page. The reader wants to know the person writing. The writer’s reflections are valuable here. Opinion has a place. And the voice of the writer has to be true and come through for memoir to serve one of its great purposes: communicating a story and an experience.

That said, what about swearing?

As in fiction, in memoir swearing can fit used now and then. Used more often it becomes dully repetitious. And unnecessary. Trust the reader. We get the picture with a few good strokes of color.

The same is true for other filler words — “like,” “um,” “you know,” “well,” “anyway” — so common when we’re speaking. Whoa! But I’m from LA, you may say, and, like, that’s how we talked there!

And it’s true. I grew up in LA and I’m sure I can sound like it.  Another fact I’m not entirely proud of, I use filler words all the time when I’m talking. But in my written dialog, those words never take up room on a page, and I don’t need to write the word “like” often to be real on the page. There are a lot of other ways to do it.

Filler slows writing. It’s everyday,  ordinary. We read to leave the ordinary. As memoir writers, we edit the ordinary to trace storylines and reveal voices that are real but which only includes what is needed now that it’s a story from real life and not real life itself.

We write memoir to share ourselves and our stories. Be real, but save the unedited for your journal. If you or someone you’re writing about swears a lot, keep it light in the writing. Use it like a strong spice in cooking: a little goes a long way.

9 responses to “How Real Can I Be?

  1. Great advice, Suzanne, and especially appreciated since I often write as I speak (or at least think) and, sad to say, that can be pretty pedantic and boring. I’m trying to figure out how to loosen up without losing what I feel is the precision of meaning I’m trying to express. ‘Tain’t easy! LOL

  2. Hi, Sam. You’ve heard it said we are our own harshest critic, right? Look out for pedantic, don’t assume boring. And if you’re paying attention to precision of meaning, as you say you are, you are on a good road!

  3. Actually, typing in filler is slow (think of all those commas!). Speaking is one thing, writing that dialog as spoken shows all the imperfections and annoyances in speech, so yes, please edit for ease and enjoyment of reading.
    I’ve heard a lot of comments regarding swear words, and agree to use sparingly. Too much turns a character into a caricature. Swearing is fine, but I’d still consider your audience, which will get narrower the harsher the swearing – do you really want to use the f-word or can you use a variation (even f-ing sounds better, IMO).

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re right about those commas, but with filler words, they’re not even the worst offenders. We get away with a lot when we speak; it’s different put to print! Re the swear words, I think writing something like “darn it” or “f-ing” communicates something entirely different about a character, and “f-ing” doesn’t seem to translate in dialog. That can also look like a judgement on swearing by the writer. I stand by use it or don’t use it, reflect the character but use only enough of their speech style to convey their voice and style.

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