Hello, readers –
I don’t want to disturb you, if you are one of the countless many rushing to get your tax forms postmarked by the time the post office closes, so I shan’t burden you today with a description of what tax time is like for the full-time writer. There will be time enough for that tomorrow, after everyone’s had a good night’s sleep.
In the meantime, please be extra-nice to postal employees today, because this is one of their most stressful workdays of the year — would you want hundreds of panicked last-minute filers rushing up to your workstation all day? — and I shall devote today’s posting to a writing insight I had over the weekend.
As many of you know, I have a memoir in press and a novel on the cusp of making the rounds of editors. In my freelance editing business, I regularly edit both, as well as doctoring NF books, so I consider myself pretty savvy about the tricks of the trade. This weekend, as if to remind me that I should always keep an open mind, a deceptively simple but undeniably useful rule of thumb popped into my mind while I was editing (drum roll, please):
The weight a given fact or scene should have in a manuscript is best determined by its emotional impact upon the book’s protagonist, rather than by its intrinsic or causative value.
Is that too technical? In other words, just because an event is important in real life doesn’t mean that it deserves heavy emphasis in a story. In a memoir, events are only relevant as they affect the central character(s); in a first-person novel, this is also true. Even in a third-person narrative told from a distant perspective, not every fact or event is equally important, and thus the author needs to apply some standard to determine what to emphasize and what merely to mention in passing.
To put this in practical terms: if you were writing about characters who lived New York in September of 2001, obviously, it would be appropriate to deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center, because it affected everyone who lived there. To some extent, the attacks affected everyone in the country, and in the long term, people in other countries as well. However, not everyone was affected equally, so not every book written about New Yorkers, Americans, or world citizens during that period needs to rehash the entire 9/11 report.
This may seem obvious on its face, but in practice, writers very often misjudge the balance between personal and public information in their manuscripts, as well as between historical backstory (both impersonal and personal) and what their protagonists are experiencing in the moment. In fact, it is a notorious megaproblem of memoirists and first-time novelists alike.
Sometimes, balance issues arise from a genuinely laudable desire to ground the story believably in a given time period. Memoirs about the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, tend to include extensive disquisitions on both the Vietnam War and hippie culture, the writerly equivalent of director Oliver Stone’s amusing habit of decorating crowd scenes from that period with a visible representative of every group in the news at the time, regardless of whether members of those groups would ever have attended the same event in real life: a protest march including Abbie Hoffman flanked by Gloria Steinem and several Black Panthers, for instance, with perhaps a Rastafarian, two of the Supremes, and Cat Stevens thrown in for good measure.
I bring up movie-style time markers advisedly, because, as I have pointed out before, how movies and television tell stories has seeped into books. On a big screen, stereotypical images are easier to get away with, I think, because they pass so quickly: have you noticed, for example, that virtually every film set in a particular year will include only that year’s top ten singles on the soundtrack, as though no one ever listened to anything else?
Frankly, I think this is a lost opportunity for character development, in both movies and books. Music choice could tell the reader a lot about a character: the character who was listening primarily to Smokey Robinson in 1968 probably thought rather differently than the character who was listening to the Mamas and the Papas or Mantovani, right? Even if they were smoking the same things at the time.
To use an example closer to home, in high school, if my cousin Janie and I walked into a record store at the same time, she would have headed straight to the top 40 hits, probably zeroing in rather quickly on big ballad-generating groups like Chicago. She was always a pushover for whoever used to warble the “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” equivalent du jour. I, on the other hand, would have headed straight for the razor-cut British bands with attitude problems, your Elvis Costellos and Joe Jacksons. I am quite sure that I was the only 7th-grader in my school who was upset when Sid Vicious died.
Quick, which one of us was the cheerleader, me or Janie? And which one of us brought a copy of THE TIN DRUM to read on the bleachers when the football game got dull? (Hey, it was a small town; there was little to do but go to the Friday night high school football game.)
Such details are very useful in setting up a believable backdrop for a story, but all too often, writers spend too much page space conveying information that might apply to anyone of a particular age or socioeconomic group at the time. It’s generic, and thus not very character-revealing.
If I told you, for instance, that Janie and I both occupied risers in the first soprano section of our elementary school choir, belting out numbers from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, much of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, and, heaven help us, tunes originally interpreted by John Denver, the Carpenters, and Woody Guthrie, does this really tell you anything but roughly when the two of us were born?
Okay, the Woody Guthrie part might have tipped you off that we grew up in Northern California, but otherwise?
When books spend too much time on generic historical details, the personal details of the characters’ lives tend to get shortchanged. (And, honestly, can’t we all assume at this point that most readers are already aware that the 1960s were turbulent, that people discoed in the 1970s, and that it was not unknown for yuppies to take the occasional sniff of cocaine in the Reagan years?) It’s a matter of balance, and in general, if larger sociopolitical phenomena did not have a great impact upon the protagonist’s life, I don’t think those events deserve much page space.
I think this is also true of minutiae of family history, which have a nasty habit of multiplying like weeds and choking the narrative of a memoir. Just because the narrator’s family did historically tell certain stories over and over doesn’t mean that it will be interesting for the reader to hear them, right?
You would be amazed at how often memoirists forget this. Or so agents and editors tell me.
This is particularly true of anecdotes about far-past family members. If your great-grandmother’s struggle to establish a potato farm in Idaho in the 1880s has had a strong residual impact upon you and your immediate family, it might be worth devoting many pages of your memoir or autobiographical novel to her story. However, if there is not an identifiable payoff for it from the reader’s POV — say, the lessons she learned in tilling the recalcitrant soil resulting a hundred years later in a certain fatalism or horror of root vegetables in her descendents — the reader may well feel that the story strays from the point of the book. James Michener be damned — consider telling Great-Grandma’s story in its own book, not tacking on a 200-page digression.
I think we all know that the earth cooled after the Big Bang, Mr. Michener. Let’s move on.
Because, you see, in a memoir (or any first-person narrative), the point of reference is always the narrator. Within the context of the book, events are only important insofar as they affect the protagonist. So even if the story of how the narrator’s parents met is a lulu, if it doesn’t carry resonance into the rest of the family dynamic, it might not be important enough to include.
In my memoir, I do in fact include the story of how my parents met — not because it’s an amusing story (which it is, as it happens), but because it is illustrative of how my family tends to treat its collective past primarily as malleable raw material for good anecdotes, rather than as an unalterable collection of hard facts. “History,” Voltaire tells us, and my family believed it, “is a series of fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”
I don’t say whether this is actually true or not; as a memoirist, my role is not to make absolute pronouncements on the nature of truth or history, but to present my own imperfect life story in a compelling way. So in my memoir, I reproduce the three different versions of the story of how my parents met that I heard most often growing up, with indications of the other dozen or so that showed up occasionally at the dinner table during my most impressionable years. I include them, ultimately, because my family’s relationship to its own past was a terrific environment for a child who would grow up to be a novelist.
Most of us are pretty darned interesting to ourselves: it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to your own family dynamics, whether it be amusement, acceptance, or disgust. That’s human; it’s understandable. But as a writer dealing with true events, you have a higher obligation than merely consulting your own preferences: you have a responsibility — and, yes, a financial interest, too, in the long run — to tell that story in such a way that the reader can identify with it.
Remember, fascinating people are not the only people who find themselves and their loved ones interesting; many a boring one does as well. And if you doubt this, I can only conclude that you have never taken a cross-country trip sitting next to a talkative hobbyist, a fond grandmother, or a man who claims his wife does not understand him.
Quoth D.H. Lawrence in SONS AND LOVERS: “So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.”
So if you are writing about your kith and kin, either as fiction or nonfiction, take a step back from time to time and ask yourself: have I gotten the balance right?
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini