July 11, 2019

Oh, the Mistakes We’ve Seen!: Memoirs (Part 2)

by Kiana Marsan

 “Oh, the Mistakes We’ve Seen!” is part of a series of BlueInk Review blogs offering advice and insight into self-published writers’ most common errors, as seen in the more than 6,000 reviews of self-published books that we have provided since our inception in 2011.  Below, we have compiled excerpts from our more unfortunate reviews, each of which expose common writing blunders. 

So what makes the bad review rear its dreaded, beastly head?  Here are some more traps you should avoid at all costs when writing a memoir:

 Rambling anecdotes:

Many authors write like they talk, recalling their lives in a rambling style. This is a useful approach to overcome writer’s block, but it doesn’t result in a polished, developed piece of writing. As with any other genre, memoirs must be logically organized and flow in a carefully-considered way, rather than randomly. If an anecdote doesn’t illustrate a point toward your narrative’s main agenda, it’s not worth keeping.

Here are some examples we’ve seen of authors losing their train of thought:

“In the chapter that appears to be about his father’s experience in medical school, the author tells us that the tale ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ frightened him as a child. He goes on to talk about problems he had in kindergarten, then returns to his discussion of his father’s medical career, at which point we learn that another doctor told his father, ‘You should keep an eye on your brother because ever since he had that goddamn car accident, he has been taking those prescription drugs.’ Readers never know what happened in the accident, and [the author] soon moves on to the subject of a girl he used to like who ate raw onions.  And so it goes.”

 “[This memoir] contains a few bumps in the road that threaten to derail the narrative arc of his tale. At times he veers off course, sharing poetry that doesn’t always relate to the story at hand and throwing in a rant against abortion along the way. Some holes in his story also make you question his memory.”

 “The memoir’s main flaw is in its digressions. Consisting of dated entries, blog posts and photos, the book often loses focus as [the author] discusses her passions, namely, bike riding and her pet dogs. She devotes a chapter to ‘The Armstrong Saga,’ for example, which includes her blog post defending Lance Armstrong after news broke of the doping scandal.”

Too many mundane details:

A memoir isn’t your personal diary;  don’t confuse the two. A memoir has underlying themes that tie the work together as a whole. A diary, on the other hand, will lack this coherence and neglect storytelling devices.

Too often, we see writers who can’t tell the difference between the two. In their memoirs, they give play-by-plays of life’s trivial moments. Readers have to slog through mundane details like what traffic was like that day or how annoying a cold was to get to the heart of the story. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

When thinking about what fits and what doesn’t in your narrative, ask yourself: does this move my story along to a greater purpose?

Here are some instances of writers treating their memoirs as personal diaries:

“The text seems secondary, a series of shallow details and introspection rather than description or storytelling that brings characters alive. [The author] writes that booking the right flights was difficult; carrying grocery bags on the metro was painful; hearing gunfire in Tahrir Square was scary; her solitary Christmas was sad. Then she lingers over details of her meals, her outfits, and getting home when protests caused road closures.”

 “Unfortunately, [poignant] stories are buried under lengthy, unnecessary descriptions of meals cooked, houses bought and sold, and irrelevant conversations with friends. At more than 1,000 pages, this is a shelf-bending book. Its sheer vastness is certain to intimidate and deter many readers.”

 “His writing relies heavily on his travel journals, resulting in tedious descriptions of his weeks-long trips; he seems in some chapters to mention every shower and bumpy mini-bus ride, which serve to obscure any larger message.”

Including the names of everyone you ever met:

Everyone gets excited to see their name in print. But, the purpose of your memoir isn’t to get your Aunt Suzie famous or to give shout-outs to everyone who has ever crossed your path. Your memoir should be attempting to convey a greater purpose.

It isn’t necessary to introduce every person that has meant something to you in your memoir, even if that person is going to be reading your book. All name-dropping will accomplish is boring your reader and making it more difficult for them to determine where the heart of your story lies. Save the list of names for your acknowledgements page.

Here are some examples of memoir writers engaged in tedious name-calling:

“The final pages [of this memoir] seem aimed at family and friends: [The author] offers her family tree; a four-page list of friends, neighbors, and pets; the text of her mother’s obituary, and information about the high school scholarship fund in her mother’s name, among other personal information.”

“Multitudes of people are mentioned in [this] book—neighbors, employers, coworkers (and often their spouses and children), as well as many family members—so many that, at times, the book reads like a genealogical record. The large cast of characters distracts from the anecdotes of Joy’s life.”

“The narrative would be better were it not for the author’s sometimes tedious examinations of every tiny bump and leaf on the family tree, complete with charts, documents and photos.”


 

Kiana Marsan is a second-year undergraduate student majoring in English & Literary Arts at the University of Denver. She is an intern at BlueInk Review.

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