8.28.2018

Negative Vibe

One reason for writing a memoir is sounding off about a subject that has offended the author. While journalistic skills may come into play, this sort of book tends to be deeply personal. In inexperienced hands, that may mean too much passion stains the storytelling.

The attitude of the author can torpedo the entire enterprise. If she is railing against the police for its failure to enforce gun-control laws, for instance, care needs to be taken in balancing points of view. No matter how well intentioned—the author may want to save other children from gun violence—a constant barrage of negative opinions can have an effect quite different from what was meant. One possible outcome is that the reader starts to dislike the author for complaining so much.

Journalists follow a rule that applies in this case. They try to get opinions from both sides of an issue, no matter how obvious the injustice involved. A memoir cannot employ the same even-handedness, but it can achieve balance in other fashions. Rather than quoting from researched sources, the writer can employ personal correspondence that expresses the opinions of friends and family members. The chances that all of the author’s siblings feel the same way on all issues are quite unlikely, and allowing a contrary opinion can temper the narrative.

Another useful technique is inserting more details. Often what is dragging down a manuscript is the author’s tight control of the narrative. He ventures his opinion of an incident without diving deeply enough into what happened for the reader to experience it for herself. If you take the time to think of details that fill a scene, you can let the details express your opinion without commentary. For instance, a dingy, banged-up hallway in a hospital ward can express the author’s dismay at a relative’s medical treatment all by itself.

Dialogue is another useful tool. Following the same lines as details, the addition of what people said at the time pulls the story free of the author’s grasp. Such conversations permit the expression of other opinions. Moreover, a confrontation let out in the open can make an author’s case just by what is said—no opinions needed.

The progression from outrage stewing in the mind to outrage expressed through skillfully told situations is a variant of a novelist’s dictum to show, don’t tell. You let the reader convince himself that the issue needs correction. That's how you really change people's minds.

Exercise: In order to fully place a reader in a given scene, don’t work from what you’ve written already about it. Lean back in your chair and close your eyes. Imagine the scene and then try to identify a detail that jumped out at you at the time. Write that down. Keep leaning back and closing your eyes, allowing yourself to dwell in that place until you have compiled a list of details.

“The smaller the mind the greater the conceit.”
—Aesop

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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