By Jerry Payne
August 10, 2020
The material in a memoir is personal in a way that material in other genres doesn’t even approach. And if you put yourself out there personally, you want to make darn sure people are getting what it is you’re saying. You don’t want to take the chance that they might misunderstand you. You want to be very clear. And that, of course, means leading the reader by the hand and spelling everything out for him or her. That seems like a logical approach doesn’t it? The only problem with it is that it’s the exact wrong approach.
A compelling book is a creative partnership between reader and writer. It’s not a one-way street. To be interesting for a reader, the reader needs his or her imagination to be engaged. Sometimes that means that what gets left out of a narrative can be as important as what gets put in.
Maybe an example would help. Consider these two paragraphs:
1) The doctor broke into a smile and said, “Congratulations. You’re cancer-free.” It had been two long years of living with a presumed death sentence. Now it was over. I looked at my wife. She was trying to say something but all she could do was cry. I had the same problem.
2) The doctor broke into a smile and said, “Congratulations. You’re cancer-free.” It had been two long years of living with a presumed death sentence. Now it was over. I looked at my wife. She was trying to say something but all she could do was cry. I had the same problem because the sense of relief was enormous. It was mixed with a great sense of joy. Hearing the words “cancer-free” was absolutely wonderful. Both of us were so happy that tears were streaming down our faces!
It’s not hard to guess which paragraph does a better job of engaging the reader by allowing room for the reader to imagine. And the beauty part is, engaging the reader takes fewer words. That doesn’t make it easier to write, however. Ironically, it often takes more effort to cut than to add. But the reward is a more absorbed reader. And a more appreciative one. When you allow the reader the grand privilege of creating along with you, rather than beating her over the head with every detail, you show respect for your reader. The second paragraph above borders on insulting.
This was Ernest Hemingway’s “Theory of Omission.” There have been few writers as skilled as Hemingway when it came to determining what to leave out. He was a true master at it. In fact, there’s a story of Hemingway winning a bet among fellow writers that he could write a powerful short story using just six words. Here was his story in its entirety: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn. The story of the bet is most certainly an urban legend, but it’s no coincidence that it’s tied to Hemingway. “Baby Shoes” gets its power not from its words, but from its lack of words. It’s left to the reader to imagine why these shoes are for sale. What tragedy is behind the fact that they were never worn?
Now, when you’re writing about an important event in your life, you don’t have to pare it down to six words! But you do have to be cognizant of whether or not you’re allowing enough “white space” for the reader to properly engage his or her own imagination. If the imagination is engaged, the emotions are engaged. As readers, we connect with the writing more. We don’t just read what the author wrote, we feel it, too. Get your readers to feel your writing and they’ll stick with you all the way to the last page.
More is less. If you’re not sure whether something is necessary, it probably isn’t. If you feel the need to further explain, resist. Let your reader connect some of the dots. Your reader is smarter than you think.