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Memoir As Road Trip
How to make sure your readers join you for the ride
Before we get to the latest MFA Lore post, I’m pleased to share my interview on ’s Substack . I chatted with Katie about the underhanded treatment of Asians in Hollywood when my father and Anna May Wong were being replaced by white actors in yellowface. We also discussed the tricky business of inspiration (which comes up again in my post below) — where does a good idea come from, and how can you tell if there’s a book in it? Head over to Katie’s newsletter HERE to read my answers and see some fun Hollywood stills from the ‘30s.
Now, on to Memoir As Road Trip, distilled from letters to several of my former MFA students, which I hope may be of use to you, too.
While backstory holds the emotional heat, subtext, like kinetic energy, generates meaning in the gap between past and present.
Every great memoir operates like an incredible journey. It doesn’t take us flying down a superhighway at 80 mph, pausing only for pit stops in anonymous rest areas. Nor does it pull off the road at every single town. No, the best memoirs speed us to one unforgettably meaningful location after another, where they allow us to get out, walk around, spend a few days learning, seeing, sensing, and reliving the history that made that place important. At every stop in a memoir, we suspend the linear itinerary in order to time travel back inside a particular set of memories.
On the best road trips we tend to miss a lot of the repetitive scenery, and that’s okay because we’re so busy reflecting on the sights we’ve already absorbed and how they relate to each other. Patterns of significance and momentum whet our appetite and propel us on to the next discoveries, which steadily gain in personal resonance because of the scenes that preceded them. There’s a natural circuitry to this process, regardless of the trip’s— or memoir’s— structure or length.
Some memoirs span generations. Others whizz by in a single year, month, or even day. But all have this in common: by the time we reach the final destination, we are not the same, and the culmination of the trip is not simply getting to the end but is the sum total of all we’ve seen and heard and discussed en route.
The question is, how do you persuade readers to come along for this amazing ride?
Turn the emotional ignition
What ignites all compelling dramatic writing, whatever the genre, is a powerful sense up front of the author’s own emotional drive to investigate the subject. Whether that drive stems from passion, pain, confusion, or anger, the book’s first order of business is to establish the reason why the author must pursue this topic, ergo what the reader stands to gain.
In a memoir, you want your readers to care about your past struggles, whether adventurous or painful, and that means sharing your own urgent need to understand those experiences. Convince us that telling your story is necessary for you to be whole, sane, healthy, alive – that your entire being depends on making sense of what happened to you and how you got to where you are now. I’m not exaggerating.
This principle holds true even if the author never overtly appears behind the wheel— if, say, the I-narrator hides behind their younger first-person protagonist all the way through the book. In most memoirs, though, both I’s are present, usually with the adult narrator clearly seated in the driver’s seat and turning the key. This key-turning is the author’s invitation to the reader to hop aboard.
Just look at how Jeannette Walls ignites her narrative engine in the opening of The Glass Castle:
We learn immediately that the I-narrator is an adult of some means, possibly overdressed, riding in a taxi to a party. But the sight and mention of “Mom” now “rooting through a Dumpster” promises a very different memoir trip, back to a childhood that can’t have been more different from the narrator’s life now. The narrator reinforces that promise by invoking blustery wind, a steaming manhole, blocked traffic, and faceless strangers rushing past. Her younger I-protagonist lived through hell, is what this subtext is signalling, and that’s the real story Walls has to tell. Are we with her for this journey back to hell? You bet, because she’s fired up all our deepest cylinders of empathy, curiosity, and emotional engagement—in a single paragraph.
Walls’s I-narrator sets the rules and establishes the reason for our journey. She’s the driver of this story vehicle. She’ll prompt the questions, interrogate her past, peel back the layers in search of answers that she does not know when she starts the trip. What is Mom doing in that Dumpster? Why is she even in the same city as this daughter? How on earth did the narrator survive with such a parent? That is the central mystery that motivates the I-narrator to take her younger self — and us — on this journey.
What ignites all compelling dramatic writing, whatever the genre, is a powerful sense up front of the author’s own emotional drive to investigate the subject.
When we read a memoir we need to feel as viscerally connected to the author’s mission as if we were reading a thriller. To engage our interest and empathy, you’ve got to convince us that your story matters so much that we must make this journey of inquiry with you. To hold our engagement you need to slowly and steadily reveal why this inquiry matters. And that requires a steady hand on the wheel and careful calibration.
Once underway, early drafts of memoirs often move like a straight shot with a windshield camera indiscriminately recording every passing moment. Few stops are long or selective enough to leave meaningful impressions. [I’m reminded of a trip I made in India, where the driver got us from one planned sight to the next but never stopped the car in between. Even if he slowed to 5 mph, I couldn’t take a decent picture or get any real sense of place.] The camera’s bound to catch some memorable images, but where are the patterns that would reveal the deeper stakes, the personal yearnings and needs and losses that define a great trip? Where’s the commentary and perspective that connects the dots of meaning? For the journey to matter, we need the I-narrator to control the momentum and guide us to the particular stops that trace the heart of the story.
That guidance relies on the deeper layers and mechanisms of narrative, particularly backstory and subtext. In The Glass Castle, Walls must escort us into select moments of her childhood and, through subtext, indicate how and why she both suffered and survived. While back story holds the emotional heat, subtext, like kinetic energy, generates meaning in the gap between past and present. Notice your own reaction as you read this excerpt while remembering the scene in the taxi:
If you read this passage as I did, you’re instinctively horrified by the love this child clearly has for her father, by the danger this love poses for her, and by the unimaginable journey this girl must have made to become that woman in the cab. All of that reaction is gleaned far less from the words of this memory than from the interstitial subtext that links it to the front story.
Tune up your narrative vehicle
The goal when writing memoir, then, is to keep backstory, subtext, and front story working smoothly together to propel forward motion until, when we finally arrive at the end, we can see how everything that’s important connects to the beginning. If you’re not sure your current draft is getting you to that understanding, here are a few tips for an editorial tuneup:
Review the whole manuscript and highlight the scenes/moments/encounters—stops along the way -- that changed the course of your life by inspiring or forcing you to make a crucial and difficult decision. These turning points deserve the most page space.
As you select these scenes, allow the I-narrator to reflect on the consequences of each one, and consider how those consequences informed and redirected your journey. Make sure your memoir transmits these reflections.
Once you’ve identified the turns that are crucial, survey the material between them, and figure out what you can condense or cut entirely. Superfluous characters, conversations; redundant bits of information all can go. The reader does not need to take note of every roadside attraction.
Once you’ve pared down the front story and identified the essential pillars of backstory, you can start revising proportionally, concentrating on the incidents that changed you in the most meaningful ways. As you do this, think hard about how each of these key scenes connects to the others. What patterns do they form? What do they reveal about you? What secrets do they expose in your life, in relationships, in the world that your past self inhabited? In any good story, one thing leads to another. That’s crucial. And consequences are the connective tissue, so concentrate on consequences as you revise. If an event produced no significant consequences – no insight, decision, action, or change – then it probably doesn’t belong in the memoir.
As patterns emerge, mentally circle back periodically to the beginning, and consider how these patterns lead from the beginning to the end. What tracers from your starting point keep firing and flaring along the way? What changes in the way those early experiences appear in the rear-view mirror? How do those changes inform the appearance of the road ahead?
This process of awakening and connection as your narrator travels backward and forward ultimately will define your reader’s journey.
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