3.10.2020

Too Much Information

Memoir writing by its nature encourages a reflective author to make personal revelations. More than any other nonfiction genre, the memoir depends on a writer’s precision to make the stories satisfying, and part of that stems from searching within yourself for the thoughts that filtered each experience. Yet that sensitivity does not lessen the need for having compelling subject matter or an interesting life.

When editing a memoir by a naturalist, I suggested in a series of notes that he tell us more about his personal growth over the course of his career. I felt that readers would want to know what someone traveling alone for months to different habitats felt like when he wasn’t collecting specimens. He had different companions for each trip, and I asked him to show us what living out in the wild was like during off hours.

Since his personal side was so severely curtailed in the draft I saw, I did not expect the torrents of writing that filled out the revised draft. With all the right intentions, the author divulged his private affairs in a variety of contexts, both at home and abroad. While he was as entertaining as ever, I was reminded of the phrase: “Be careful what you wish for.”

I had intended that we be shown only glimpses into a private realm. When you write too much about your personal life, you may imperil what is unique about your accomplishments by lading on material that is typical. After all, drinking too many beers in the high desert isn’t much different from drinking in a generic Irish pub. Readers don’t need to know that you’re an ordinary Joe.

Quite the opposite is true. When an author takes us to a new realm, or a brilliantly conceived realm, a form of hero worship begins. We all need heroes. A reader identifies with your experiences vicariously, placing herself in your shoes as you show the wonders of the worlds you have discovered.

By all means, tell us more about your cabin mate from Belgium. Just remember that we also have met people from abroad, and that isn’t why we picked up the book. You can tell a droll anecdote in a half page. That’s about as long as your reader will want to tarry before getting back to all those unique discoveries you have made.

Exercise: If you have interesting life experiences, you reveal quite a lot of your personality merely through telling these tales. Sprinkle in personal details here, there, and everywhere. If you take a paragraph to describe your beaten-up backpack, for instance, that adds a personal element that we can grasp. A paragraph about a friend can be told while you’re on your way to your next unique adventure.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


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