The Things Between Us: A Memoir

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But talking about them in symbolic terms turns them into something else: they become a collective narrative that demands to be the most righteous or the only legitimate way to look at the world. A student, the granddaughter of east-European immigrants, once mused whether, had she been born in a different era, she would have been among the people who had turned in her Jewish neighbours to the Nazis. That she did not first imagine the other scenario, in which she was a heroine hiding her neighbours and saving lives, was refreshing. To follow any beacon in any given time without questioning first is as alarming as it is to follow propaganda.

Near the beginning of Becoming , Obama writes that she shared a bedroom with her brother Craig. One cannot but wonder how this would have sounded to the young Michelle and Craig. The question, though, is whether they retain this independence when increasingly the pressure to belong is accompanied by the pressure to use the approved language.

Recently, I talked with a scientist whose laboratory had been visited by a high-profile figure in the current administration. Some in the laboratory protested, in a way that made anyone who disagreed with their approach look as though he or she condoned, or even supported, the administration. If a child is killed by a passing bullet near his home, the street is not a safe space.

If a child is bullied at school, the school is not a safe space. But to transform the laboratory into a contaminated space that threatens the well-being of the people working in it — one wonders if language thus used only becomes a self-soothing way of looking at the world from a moral high ground. I cannot help but think about my son and her friend.

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Before the election, I had a conversation with a student from West Virginia. Where she grew up, she said, there was an abundance of widows, not only old women but also middle-aged and young. Men die in West Virginia, was the simple way she put it. The most memorable characters, however, stay life-sized. Democracy can be treated in all sorts of metaphorical manners; but an election, vote by vote, is a mathematical reality. Yet what is the unnamed in the slogan? One has no doubt that Michelle Obama exercises freedom of thought.

One wishes that her memoir made a similar demand on its readers. What if she had chosen to forgo the vocabularies of empowerment and inspiration and patriotism?


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After all, she is a person who can make herself heard. The language she chooses to use will be incorporated into hundreds of thousands of minds and become infallible truth. And the girl at the beginning, who refused to put disingenuous words into her poetry: I did in the end hear her read a poem, at the memorial service of a friend of hers. The realest life has no use for symbolic language — that was my thought when I heard her words. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Books. The more of that you offer, the more successful your book will be.

Think transferable principles in a story well told.

A Magazine of Literature and the Arts

All people, regardless of age, ethnicity, location, and social status, share certain felt needs: food, shelter, and love. They fear abandonment, loneliness, and the loss of loved ones. Regardless your theme, if it touches on any of those wants and fears, readers will identify. I can read the memoir of someone of my opposite gender, for whom English is not her first language, of a different race and religion, who lives halfway around the world from me — and if she tells the story of her love for her child or grandchild, it reaches my core. Many writers tell me they fear their theme has been covered many times by many other memoirists.

Write on! Trust your narrative to do the work of conveying your message. Let your experiences and how they impacted you make their own points, and trust the reader to get it. Beat him over the head with your theme and you run him off.

The things between us : a memoir / | Wake County Public

You can avoid being preachy by using what I call the Come Alongside Method. Give him credit. So feature anecdotes from your life that support your theme, regardless how painful it is to resurrect the memories. The more introspective and vulnerable you are, the more effective will be your memoir. My father was a drunk who abused my mother and me. I was scared to death every time I heard him come in late at night.

As soon as I heard the gravel crunch beneath the tires and the car door open and shut, I dove under my bed. I could tell by his footsteps whether Dad was sober and tired or loaded and looking for a fight. I prayed God would magically make me big enough to jump between him and my mom, because she was always his first target…. Worry less about chronology than theme.

Tell whatever anecdote fits your point for each chapter, regardless where they fall on the calendar. Just make the details clear so the reader knows where you are in the story. You might begin with the most significant memory of your life, even from childhood. As in a novel, how the protagonist in this case, you grows is critical to a successful story. Your memoir should make clear the difference between who you are today and who you once were. What you learn along the way becomes your character arc. It should go without saying that you write a memoir in the first-person.

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Tell both your outer what happens and your inner its impact on you story. You might be able to structure your memoir the same way merely by how you choose to tell the story. Take the reader with you to your lowest point, and show what you did to try to remedy things. If your experience happens to fit the rest of the structure, so much the better. Great novels carry a book-length setup that demands a payoff in the end, plus chapter-length setups and payoffs, and sometimes even the same within scenes. The more of these the better. The same is true for your memoir. Virtually anything that makes the reader stay with you to find out what happens is a setup that demands a payoff.

Even something as seemingly innocuous as your saying that you hoped high school would deliver you from the torment of junior high makes the reader want to find out if that proved true. Avoid using narrative summary to give away too much information too early.

Is the memoir market oversaturated?

To me, that just took the air out of the tension balloon, and many readers would agree and see no reason to read on. Better to set them up for a payoff and let them wait. Not so long that you lose them to frustration, but long enough to build tension. Usually a person painted in a negative light—even if the story is true—would not sign a release allowing you to expose them publicly. Changing names to protect the guilty is not enough. Too many people in your family and social orbit will know the person, making your writing legally actionable. Change the location. Change the year.

Change their gender. You could even change the offense. If your own father verbally abused you so painfully when you were thirteen that you still suffer from the memory decades later, attribute it to a teacher and have it happen at an entirely different age. Is that lying in a nonfiction book? Thoroughly immerse yourself this genre before attempting to write in it. I read nearly 50 memoirs before I wrote mine Writing for the Soul. Are you working on your memoir or planning to?