WEAVING BACKGROUND INFO INTO MEMOIR

I am currently editing a lengthy first person point of view memoir and was asked for advice re weaving in historical info, etc., for background. It occurred to me that if I exclude the specifics of this particular project the info might be of  interest or perhaps even useful to those working on Memoir material. This was not written for publication and has not been as carefully edited as it might have been, but I think the content is fairly clear.

1ST PERSON POV IS A GREAT UNIFIER

Of course in many ways it's easier to maintain a sense of unity when the work is in first person POV, since everything is seen from the point of view of one single character. The first person POV also has some limitations, of course, but probably works best when the protagonist or your main memoir character is sophisticated and insightful; if not, of course, it’s difficult for the author to go beyond the viewing capabilities of the protagonist.

THE ICEBERG PRINCIPLE

Many of the same points I would make apply to non-fiction as well as to fiction; mostly applying, to some extent, fictional techniques to non-fiction. And what comes to mind on top of everything, of course, is the tip of the iceberg. So remember Hemingway's "iceberg principle" −  once the reader sees the tip of the iceberg the rest of the iceberg is implied and need not be mentioned. Relying somewhat on the iceberg principle is one way in which "show vs. tell" works, since otherwise, if you showed everything, your book would be thousands of pages long. Showing, of course, has a greater credibility. Thus, better than suggesting that so and so is a rotten character  you have him kick a dog....

WHAT 'WORKS' IN WRITING − THAT IS, WHAT SELLS, OFTEN IS UP TOO-CLOSE AND TOO PERSONAL

Of course in today's milieu, up close and personal often works best. In a large historical context, in literature, we've obviously gone from the epic tales to the personal tales; from Don Quixote or War and Peace, say, to Kramer vs Kramer or Sleepless in Seattle.  Yet we often get so up close and personal as to miss the larger story. From my own point of view, anyway, this seems a common problem nowadays. As a current relevant example in non-fiction book material, I think this happens to some extent with the author/journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, who spends a great deal of time (and space) showing, so that we get a kind of intimate picture and may think we're getting the main story when we'd probably often be better off with less intimacy and more analysis. Thus instead of Woodward giving the book on Bush's case for war in Iraq, so that we could see it, I'd have preferred if he had offered more analysis and challenged what lacked credibility or common sense. Similarly, in many ways, under the guise of "objectivity," the media has often become like a mere stenographer passing on political pap.

Yet from the point of view of drama and what captures the reader or audience, in some ways a "close up" of one starving child in Biafra is more dramatic than the story of tens of thousands of starving children in Biafra, or wherever. The reader tends to prefer the single story, easier to grasp, yet doesn't always make the connections and oft times misses the larger story. The story of those tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands going hungry (or of someone dying of AIDS every two minutes in parts of Africa), is lost completely.

DRAMA GRABS AND HOLDS THE READER, BUT CREDIBILITY AND MEANING (OFTEN ONLY FULLY COMING WITH THE LARGER PICTURE) ARE ESSENTIAL

The reader today doesn't have the patience of years past. Even a well-known author, someone as successful today as was Dostoyevsky in the late 19th century, couldn't begin to emulate the patterns of the past. The Brothers Karamazov, one of the world's great novels, starts out, as I recall, with Dostoyevsky giving the reader almost one hundred pages of family background. Without this, if he'd had to weave all of this info into the storyline, I think even Dostoyevsky would have been hard pressed to make it work.

STYLES OF INTERRUPTION, INTEGRATION, DISINTEGRATION (WITHOUT CREDIBILITY)

The first movie to make a great impression on me as a young boy was Fantasia. It still stands up as a great film. Yet no filmmaker in his right mind would start out such a film today with a long, passive, somewhat boring speech, the way Fantasia got under way with an introductory talk by Disney.

Years ago as a kid I used to go to live radio shows in Chicago, i.e., “The Whistler,” “Chicago Theatre of the Air,” etc. “The Whistler,” a drama, worked well enough with brief commercials. “The Chicago Theatre of the Air,” as I recall, was broadcast from the Chicago Tribune Building and ran no commercials then but was interrupted with a long boring speech, maybe about midway, or wherever there was a decent break point, with a long boring speech by Col. Robert  McCormick, publisher then of the Chicago Tribune.

Sometimes there are few good choices and the best choice is to minimize the material. Or to integrate it. Sometime back I wrote a paper on Dreiser  In this paper I drew some comparisons between Dreiser's An American Tragedy − one of his early books and regarded by many, old timers anyway, as the great American classic novel. Or at least one of them − and Dreiser's final novel, The Bulwark.  In many ways The Bulwark is tighter, better written, deals with equally significant and compelling material and yet almost everyone with a literary background has read (or at least heard about) An American Tragedy while relatively few have heard about or bothered to read The Bulwark. Curiously, An American Tragedy offers some of the worst sentences ever written in the English language − I'm guessing Dreiser may have been drunk when he wrote them − and in a number of ways The Bulwark was better edited. Yet the American Tragedy had great credibility, with an ending that seemed inevitable, as compared to The Bulwark which in important ways lacked credibility; it's ending coming as a kind of  editorial conclusion tacked onto an alien set of arguments. So to some extent the final info (or additional info) is acceptable as it is more integral to the overall story. It’s less acceptable as a loose appendage.  And even less acceptable if this info is not consistent with the story, or the lessons of the story.  And worse yet if it is not believable. No amount of craft or polish can salvage a meaningless story.

WHAT COUNTS IS REALLY NOT SO MUCH WHAT ADDS TO THE STORY AS WHAT 'MAKES' THE STORY!

  • A brief sum-up. But please excuse repetition and typos.
  • Keep it short.
  • This varies some according to the work but mostly in memoir I prefer to see things in "real time," since related copy becomes more a part of the story than an interruption to the story.
  • Depending on how extensive the copy might be, some of it might work into a preface or afterward. When the copy is reasonably related it's often better to put these pieces in one clump −  or at least fewer clumps −  since probably the same info (and same amount of info) in one clump or fewer clump seems less repetitive. Think Set Theory. Put a set of vegetables in one bowl; a set of fruits in another bowl; cold cuts on a separate plate….
  •  I’ve mentioned the image that I like of reading the main story as though walking on stepping stones. Dostoyevsky is the master at having endless tributaries (side stories) and yet with Dostoyevsky you never loose the main river. What often happens in many complex works is that the reader loses sight of the main river, after which the story no longer seems to flow forward. But perhaps even worse than having too many side trips, I think is having a side trip that's too long − in which case if there's too much space between stepping stones then the reader falls, so to speak, in the water.
  • Some inserted material − if it must be inserted − might go well, or better, where you already have a break. That is, at the beginning or end of a section; even at the end of the book. Or as a supplementary book.  Sometimes, if it's just too long, a book of related material can be broken into several volumes.

By Ron Kenner — WEAVING BACKGROUND INFO INTO MEMOIR
www.RKedit.com