11.13.2018

My Favorite Days

As baby boomers reach retirement age, many of them reflect on a life well lived—and decide that others would like to read about it. A seasoned perspective can be interesting, although the amount of wisdom gained with age does not increase by nearly as much as statues of historical figures might indicate. That’s why a memoir that careens from one golden memory to another can so easily fall by the wayside.

Compressing a life into a nonfiction book equals the difficulty of shrinking a fictional life into a novel. Forget about the limitation of how much can be packed into 300 pages. The imperative really consists of finding a way to tell a story that is cohesive over that span. That’s why many published memoirs focus on a particular subject, such as a street in Vienna between the two world wars. The narrow compass limits the equivalent of funny anecdotes told at a party.

Finding a central theme will not suffice by itself, however. That’s because memoirs proceed as a function of time, and that presents plenty of opportunities to digress along the way. Introducing a new person into the story might bring to mind the party-filled boarding house where the author was living at the time. Off we go for a page or two as the author recalls the chief raconteur of the house.

By itself, the story might be very droll, but when the author continues to head down side alleys that glow with memory, the reader becomes distracted, losing the story thread. The enterprise is revealed for what it is: a sounding board for an old gas bag. The only way to elevate that type of memoir is by having an incredible number of exceptional incidents.

Once a focus is obtained, the element of wisdom gained comes into play. Success in the genre depends on stellar writing. After all, anyone can look back on highlights in their past. Since so many incidents are common to a wide range of people, the writing depends on unusual circumstances, to be sure, but also how the writer comments upon the event. If an older man tries in vain to sell his children’s wooden swing set, for example, what commentary he makes about the futile effort—how young parents view swing sets, among others—can make all the difference in the reader’s enjoyment. The more widespread the insight, the more readers feel included, warmed in the author’s grasp.

Exercise: If you have already written a fair amount of sprawling material, take a step back from the individual pieces and ask yourself: what do I really know, based on what my life has entailed? If it is Western-Eastern business relationships, for example, how could I present those incidents in a way that would shed light on the larger picture of how Western and Eastern mores have influenced each other?

“There is in me an anarchy and frightful disorder. Creating makes me die a thousand deaths, because it means making order, and my entire being rebels against order. But without it I would die, scattered to the winds.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


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