What Really Happened?

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’ve heard of showing versus telling, and I’m really stumped. I used to write stories that were event-based: what happened. Like when I picked up Jimi Hendrix at the airport when he was just getting really popular. I described what we talked about, where we went, what we did. How do I balance narrative about events as I create my chronological path with writing about who those events made me and how I felt about it then and now?  — How Do I Show What Happened?

A: Dear How Do I Show What Happened?:
I like your example about picking up Hendrix. A significant event in your life, a stand-out on your personal timeline. It was probably sensational spending time with a star. But it affected you long after. That is information you would have to tell readers. Without your telling it narratively, readers won’t know why one thing led to the next and they certainly won’t know how you were affected by an experience.  And in memoir, reflection is essential.

In a novel, one event leads to the next, characters develop along with the plot through plot complications, conflicts, and resolve of conflicts. In a life story, particularly one you’re writing chronologically, events may not lead one to the next because you’re not following as tight a plotline. But every event you write about should have a reason — for you — to be written.

Try writing up a timeline (see my SCN post How Do I Shape My Memoir?). Look at the events you included on it. Can you answer the question: What did I learn from this at the time? How did it affect me? Did it shape who I became (or am now)? As you write each story about your life, include that reflection. Write it in.

You could think of good memoir as having three key parts:

1. Narrative, or “telling,” which provides context and a sense of continuity, which links, leads in, and paints the broader strokes of time passing and scene changes;

2. Scenes, or “showing,” which bring the story to life with details from the time you’re describing in narrative. As the writer, you get to go there again in memory and draw from experience (with a touch of imagination) and bring a sense of presence to your reader;

3. Reflection, where it fits. Some stories won’t need your reflections — what it meant to you/to others/its affects then and later. But many could. Be sure to always ask yourself this question when you’re writing: How did this affect me? Your feelings will deepen the story, make it realer, even remind you about or help you realize the event’s value.

Memoir is mostly the story. The story is the base. Reflection is an important spice. Reflection can come at the end of a story/chapter or it can be intermixed. Example: You write about driving in a car with Jimi Hendrix. You’ve described him and all the rest from that day. Your reflections can come in the middle of that story, like: “I’d never been asked to do anything this exciting before, and with the adrenalin racing through my system for every minute of those three hours I had the feeling I never wanted to do anything ordinary again.” At the end of the story you might conclude with another reflection, something like: “Sleeping didn’t come easy that night, and it wasn’t just excitement over what had just happened. I couldn’t have named it then, but I was changed. I would understand more about how this day affected me years later, all I knew now was I liked living outside the box, I wasn’t as shy as I’d always thought I was, and I wanted more new experiences in my life.”

Reflect before you write about an event and while you’re writing it and chances are your reflections will fall naturally into place, balancing your narrative, as you write about what happened. Memoir is your opportunity to see in, to connect the dots, and to share about it as you share about yourself in the stories of your life.


There’s more about writing and memoir at http://www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a American Girl: True Stories of Girlhood 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And this fall I’m offering a one-on-one program through Story Circle Network, so check out the September class schedule  and sign up to get personalized help with your writing.

3 responses to “What Really Happened?

  1. Thank you. Your comments are very useful as I, in fits and starts, have begun my memoir.

  2. I believe this might help me with the very young years I’ve written about in my memoir. Recently a fellow writer critiquing my work said the early years were kind of random and jumpy, which is exactly what I intended because this is how memory works at a very young age. However, what you’re saying is that I could write a bit of reflection to those early years rather than leave it up to the reader to piece it altogether at the end.

    Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Completing my memoirs/ it’s a thoughtful process « sherrylcook

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