Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #98: “The Memoir Project” by Marion Roach Smith

Dear kids,

You may never want to write a memoir, but if you do, here’s your go-to reference: The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith.

My Highlights:

  • However, I am quite sure that if you tell the truth, you will feel something real. “Feeling something real” is where I prefer to live, trying to palpate the small moments of life, the moments of intuition, the places where we fail and where we change.
  • What Ernest Hemingway taught us in the last century still gives good weight: What you leave out of the story is perhaps more important than what you put in.
  • Let’s say your one sentence—your argument (and all books are an argument, no matter how small)—is that life is really hard unless you get a good cat to live with. Great. Here’s how that will break down. By each phrase: Life. Is hard. Really hard. Unless. You get. A good cat. To live with.
  • When Quiller-Couch penned it, he was making the distinction between style and plain bad writing: “Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament.” Later, he gave us his famous instruction: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Elmore Leonard later qualified this for a modern audience: “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”
  • Print out your draft and write in the margin what each paragraph does. This is called indexing. “Introduces Louis” is a good index next to paragraph one; “height and weight” might be next to paragraph two (which you now know you’ll kill if that’s all it does). Moving on through the piece, you’ll see if the points of the argument are laid out and if the math adds up to your conclusion. Have you repeated yourself? Have you established the same fact, though phrased it differently?
  • Pencil in hand, touch each word in every sentence, make hard decisions. Is there a shorter way to say this? A cleaner, more precise way? Each phrase needs to be assessed and judged. Look at that last sentence. You could edit it down to say, “Assess each phrase.” But that sounds dictatorial. Is that the tone you’re after? Then do it. If not, if something slightly more friendly is intended, leave it. You are editing as much for tone as you are for space, excavating down to the uniquely you, keeping in mind that yours is the voice we are listening to, and if that voice changes radically throughout the book, we’ll notice, and we won’t like it.
  • . . . While I’ve heard a bazillion pitches over the years, the one I keep always in mind when I write and edit is simply “I left.” Perhaps you left a way of thinking, a husband, or a habit. Perhaps you left one house and moved into another, and in doing so upped the ante on anything from your decorating to the drama in your life . . . We are fascinated by how people change and need little more than the moment of intuition to the moment of exit to keep our interest. “I left.” Paste it to your wall and refer to it as you edit.



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