On Monday, Bliss wrote about fleshing out back-story for works of fiction and the importance of knowing more about your characters than the readers do. Having just finished reading two powerful memoirs (Alison Bechdel's “Are You My Mother” and Michael Ian Black's “You're Not Doing It Right”) I thought we might tackle the reverse issue of streamlining the information you have to share with readers only what they need.
Bechdel's first brilliant memoir “Fun Home; a Family Tragicomic” focuses on her childhood, specifically her relationship with her father. Her writing is heavy on themes and literary references, but these are woven tightly into the narrative and serve the story. In “Are You My Mother” she traces the same path, now delving deep into the complicated relationship she shares with her mother. Again, she builds the story on larger themes, heavily referencing Virginia Woolf's “To The Lighthouse” and the work of psychiatrist Donald Wincott. This time however, the references nearly overshadow the story, competing with rather than complimenting the narrative. What works so beautifully in “Fun Home” overwhelms “Are You My Mother” and the balance seems lost.
In “You're Not Doing It Right”, Michael Ian Black strings together a collection of smaller stories to create a narrative He draws from early childhood to the early days of fatherhood to create a unique and honest portrait that is unflinchingly human. Rather than laying out all the details in order, he gives you each piece as it becomes necessary for the story at hand. He shaves off corners, barely speaks of his work and keeps the narrative moving and focused. Even when it seems that he's wandering off down some unrelated alley, he wraps it back 'round to the place he left off with a deft twist and deeper meaning.
The old adage, “Begin at the beginning.” is, on its face, disastrous advice for most memoir writers as there is no natural beginning in real life. Even birth is preceded by generations of family history and all the baggage that comes with it. When I set out to write about my youngest child after her death, I struggled to find a “beginning”. Even now, years into the project, I find myself constantly reassessing the process, working to streamline the natural back-story and keep larger themes from overtaking the story itself. I have narrowed the scope of the work to the final two years of her life, have edited out whole chunks of our story, red-lined important people and walked myself back from rants and lectures that felt natural when I first wrote them but still had no place in the story.
First drafts are for EVERYTHING. Shove it all in there, get it all out. Write what feels honest even when (especially when) it feels scary. Second drafts are the time for backing away, teasing out the good stuff and shoving the rest aside. If you want great examples of that, check out “Fun Home” and “You're Not Doing It Right”. If you're interested in a peek at my efforts, you can see them HERE. And as always, if you have suggestions, questions or tips of your own, make liberal use of the comment box below. We love that, you know.