"Details are what makes prose terrific," Eileen Pollack said as she launched into our first class as part of the Memoir Intensive. She was discussing the three elements of a book length memoir--language, form, and aboutness (What is it about? What questions are you trying to answer?).
Avoid "It was" and "There are" constructions and words like "thing," "situation," and "process." She said she had marked every appearance of the word "it" in our manuscripts that we were supposed to eliminate 19 out of every 20 appearances. "If you are talking about a dog, I'd rather read the word dog seven times in the same paragraph than see the pronoun it, because the word 'dog' is more concrete and makes me think of a dog."
There are many forms for the memoir. Story, journey, profile, spatial ordering are some examples.
There are three kinds of writing in a memoir: scenic, expository, and meditative. The essentials of scenic writing are characters and dialogue. Action, setting, and sensory details are features as well. The scene changes when you move in time and/or space.
Expository writing is the telling part, so memoir can't simply follow the old cliche "show don't tell." Expository writing should be used to explain something, summarize, or to give a notion of habitual action. Expository writing should also be filled with specific and dramatic language describing setting and sensory details. The opening paragraph of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is an excellent example of detailed expository writing:
In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
She spent most of her time on Meditative prose saying that this was the area all of our memoirs needed to work on. This prose is analytical and creates meaning by sharing what you are thinking and feeling. It also requires specificity, but this is difficult. It is the hardest prose to write. We need to make meaning while avoiding language that is obvious, hackneyed, or cliched.
There are several levels of meditation in most memoirs. What were you thinking and feeling at the time the events occurred? What were other people thinking and feeling (you may have to do research and ask them)? Now, looking back, what are you thinking and feeling? And what are you currently thinking and feeling in the present?
This parallels with Robin Hemley's advice last year that there needed to be two authorial voices in the memoir--you as a character when the events occurred and you now as the author commenting and reflecting upon them. I must admit that this advice was difficult for me as I wrote all year. In fact, I edited out most of my contemporary-voiced commentary and analysis. I may struggle with incorporating this meditative voice, though I look forward to learning from Eileen how to do that well.
It is the meditative prose which created aboutness. You have to let the readers know the meaning of the raw material they are reading. And the point of writing is for you as the writer to discover and learn something. Memoir is NOT your clever dinner party stories that you tell all the time. Ask: What don't I understand about my own experience? We need to be human beings digging at our own experiences, making meaning of them, coming up with the questions, though we may never answer the questions, only explore them. Knowing your questions helps you figure out what to include and what to leave out, because you know what is relevant.
As you read non-fiction you like, hone in on the meditative answers to questions and learn from how that author did it.
She indicated that early in the book you will need to devote pages to raising your questions. This parallels Robin Hemley's advice about writing a preface. I must confess that I wrote many prefaces over the course of the year (Robin said you should write many prefaces, as they help you organize your thoughts as to what the book is about), but ultimately I chose to eliminate the preface and get the introductory parts into the first chapter of the story. I plan to review what I've written and see if there is enough of the meditative prose creating the aboutness. After the class yesterday one of my classmates said he thought it was there, in the character of my grandfather.
So, we didn't get to workshopping my book yesterday. Instead we will get to in on Monday, the next time we are together.