We humans write memoirs because we want to share important aspects of our lives. We want others to understand how the world has looked to us, how we have experienced life. But readers have trouble becoming drawn in by a memoir if the author simply writes down the unadorned facts. Travel memoirs are especially prone to staying at the level of travelogue—where the writer went and what he or she did—but any memoir can fall down in the task of showing the meaning behind the facts.
Even the most fascinating moments can be turned into dry reading material. I once knew a man who spent many weeks traveling through Europe and parts of Asia by bicycle. He sent accounts home, hoping they could be published. I’m sorry to say that my acquaintance excelled in making a thrilling journey sound dull.
I wanted to know who the people were whom he had met along the way, what their lives were like, how they had responded to my friend. I wanted to be able to see in my mind the scenery that had surrounded him as he rode. I wanted to know what he’d thought about as he journeyed, whether he was sometimes homesick or afraid. In short, I wanted to share his trip vicariously.
Instead, I found itineraries listing the cities and towns he’d traversed, accounts of the meals he’d consumed, and statistics about the length and geography of each day’s biking. All this was a start, but it didn’t rise to the level of consistently engaging. I could have looked in an atlas to get a sense of his route. I wanted to be able to find my friend within that route, but he was almost entirely absent.
I’ll share an example of the kind of writing I’m complaining about—writing that is fine for a first draft but does not yet engage the reader. Like any memoir writer, I write because I want others to see how and why elements of my life have mattered. This passage does not yet achieve that goal:
I went to Pisa for two weeks to study Italian in a language school. I stayed in a convent (in this case actually called a “monastery”) a few miles outside of town. My room was inexpensive, but there were a lot of mosquitoes.
The first morning (a Saturday), I didn’t like the breakfast. After breakfast, I walked into town, which took a long time. It was really hot. I climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, ate lunch nearby, and walked almost all the way down to the train station so I’d know where my school was when Monday came.
Pisa is mostly famous for the Leaning Tower and the other buildings in the so-called “Field of Miracles,” but I liked the whole city a lot, especially the Arno River, the little church called Santa Maria della Spina, and the Tower of Famine, which is famous for a count who was imprisoned there during the Middle Ages and supposedly ate his sons and grandsons.
(And so on. . . .)
I can take this first draft and begin to pull in my readers. Here are some of the strategies I might use to help my readers understand what the facts I’m presenting mean to me, why they matter. I can . . .
Choose details that help to recreate a mood:
For the first week, I stay about three miles outside the city limits in the guest quarters of a monastery for nuns—the Monastero di Santa Maria madre della Chiesa e di San Benedetto. When I arrive, in the evening light I see the nuns, wearing long gray habits, strolling silently around a lush courtyard behind a high iron fence.
Just before total darkness, before the pink in the sky has completely faded, I hear the high, sweet voices of the nuns singing in their chapel.
Let the word choice convey an attitude:
The monastery-provided breakfast—yesterday’s was two small, bedraggled apples, coffee and milk served in thermoses, a basket of leftover rolls (one already half consumed), and a partly used package of cookies—won’t be available until 7:30, by which time I hope to be drinking tea in a bar near my language school.
Compare one experience to another:
Back home, I commute by car along the congested thirteen miles to work, passing several strip malls, fast-food restaurants, a couple of modern churches, and nondescript entrances to neighborhoods and apartment complexes. But in Pisa, rather than being a necessity to endure, the commute is essential to the experience.
Use pictures to aid the reader’s imagination:
Tell enough about an experience to let readers vicariously come along with me:
Just south of the piazza I find a bar for a pot of tea and a spinach omelet between thin layers of focaccia. I join the half-dozen men and women standing at the counter with their coffee and reading a newspaper or watching the television news on the set mounted on the wall. The morning-show hosts speak rapidly, and I can only get the gist of their words. Even on my first day of school, standing at the bar feels like a routine. And as out of place as tea seems in a nation of coffee drinkers, I will never find an Italian bar unable to supply a small pot, hot water, and a teabag for my tè caldo.
The second week of school, I move to the Albergo Clio, a one-star hotel on an alley near the south bank of the Arno. My sense grows of being a part of Pisa, of the ongoing life of the city. At night, as I do homework exercises or write in my journal, I love hearing dishes and silverware clattering in the neighbors’ kitchens, my neighbors. Teenage boys sit outside in the warm air and talk until midnight. A rock band practices. A miniature garbage truck faithfully, and noisily, collects trash at 6:15 every morning.
Tell what I like (or dislike) about an experience; directly state my feelings about something:
The best part of getting on the bus is the ordinariness of it, as if I do this every day.
The Leaning Tower is to me the most magical and captivating of all structures. Imagine passing it every day, a part of ordinary life! During my two weeks in Pisa, I will walk to the Tower daily to share time with it.
I am uncharacteristically calm and confident today. In Pisa, I find myself relishing the moments as they happen, with no desire to rush toward a more promising future. I stay inside the Pisan moments and savor the experience. I wasn’t nervous about walking into the school, announcing myself to Pier Luigi, and I’m not nervous about working my way through the test choices—the answers I know, those I think I might know, and those about which I haven’t a clue. I just rip along, not second-guessing myself or fearing the quality of my effort.
On the Monday of our second (and last) week together, Simon asks me, “Would you like to go to the bar for coffee during la pausa? Lots of people do.” Riding down on the rickety elevator with Simon and me, Jacek tells me, as if in warning, “I’m a priest.” Yes, I know. What does this fact matter, except to make the jolly company all the more interesting.
Asked why Italian women are so strong, Annamaria responds, “Because we have to handle Italian men!”
As I walk around Pisa, I whisper, “I’m so happy; I’m so happy; I’m so happy.”
Tell a story:
The taxi driver who stops for me has been having a bad day, to which I add. As I am getting in the taxi, I don’t think about the fact I am still wearing a small backpack. I bump the car a little with it, but the pack is soft. The driver says indignantly, “Per favore, signora!” I think he is kidding and chuckle, but he really is angry with me. I apologize, explaining that I’m tired. “You’re tired!” he says and launches into a tirade (in Italian) about how tired he is and how terrible it is for tourists like me to have so much baggage when millions of people are starving in the world. He has a point. I apologize again, say that I’m not a bad person and don’t want to hurt him or anyone, and explain about the strike and long trip. . . .
Directly state the effect on me of an experience or encounter:
In Pisa, I don’t change permanently, but I do change for as long as I remain in that Italian city.
I am older than most of my classmates. I am the only American. I am the only tea drinker, the only vegetarian. Back home, I have nearly always tried finding my place in a group by adjusting as needed to fit in. At the Istituto linguistico Mediterraneo, I find my place in the group by being myself. With my first pausa at the Bar Sapori, I join our ephemeral community as a full-fledged citizen, abandoning my role of observer from the sidelines. My usual shyness, giddiness, and exaggerated civility evaporate in the hot Tuscan air.
In other words:
If you think about what the facts of your life have meant and mean to you, and if you work to share this significance, you will probably end up presenting a meaningful account to your readers.
And remember that readers, too, have to do their share. They have a responsibility to try to put themselves in your place as they read about your experiences. For one thing, they need to tune in to the connotations (the emotional overtones) of the words you have chosen to use. For example, in a writers’ group that I attended, a participant complained that a writer in the group had not expressed her feelings about the events she had described. In fact, however, it was the critic who had missed the many cues, such as the writer’s referring to her teenager as her “baby boy” at a point in the story when she was worried about him. We knew from this word choice that she felt tenderly toward her son and was stressing his vulnerability.
So as you write, don’t let the need to include the “whys and wherefores” in your memoir become a burden and undue challenge. Simply do your best to help readers understand not only what happened but also why the scenes you are describing matter, especially to you.
Next: Writing even if you “can’t write”