Examples of “Show, Don’t Tell” in Memoir

Open book to show, don't tell

In our last blog post, we talked about why that old saw, “Show, don’t tell,” still applies in memoir and in good writing in general. Now let’s look at some examples.

Clarity: Chekhov + do tell

  1. First, let’s clear up two misconceptions.
    The origin of the “show, don’t tell” concept is credited to writer Anton Chekhov, and that is correct. However, the quote attributed to Chekhov is: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That’s someone’s pithier interpretation of what Chekhov factually wrote to his brother, but it represents Chekhov’s meaning well enough.
  2. We don’t really mean not to tell. Of course your memoir is telling all sorts of things. “Show, don’t tell” just means that when you convey the feelings of the character—in a memoir that’s often your own feelings—the most effective method is to show with a vivid description rather than to tell with subjective words, typically adjectives, like sad, happy, angry and all the rest.

“Show, don’t tell” examples

In The Yellow House, author Sarah M. Brown skillfully uses her location for changing buses as a way to let the reader know how she felt about her place in society. She trusts readers to picture this location and her demeanor even though they may not be familiar with the businesses she identifies in the passage:

I was deposited at the corner of Downman and Chef Menteur where I waited to transfer to another bus. The stop, an uncovered bench the size of a love seat, was just in front of Banner Chevrolet car dealership’s lot full of buffed to shining cars, prices on yellow bubble numbers plastered to windshields, deals none of us could afford. We who were waiting for the always-late bus stood still in our places while others flew by—off the Danziger Bridge, off the interstate onto Chef Menteur, heightening the reality of our immobility.

When you show, you get to write detail the way you would if you were writing fiction. Do it well, and the reader will see exactly what you’re seeing—details the reader probably wouldn’t even notice in real life. William Finnegan is a master in his memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life:

I passed a graveyard. In the cemeteries in Tonga, late in the day, there always seemed to be old women tending the graves of their parents—combing the coral-sand mounds into the proper coffin-top shape, sweeping away leaves, hand washing faded wreaths of plastic flowers, rearranging the haunting patterns of tropical peppercorns, orange and green on bleached white sand.

It’s okay to blend show and tell

Don’t feel that you have to “fix” every sentence that veers out of show and into tell. Judge your writing on the merits of the whole. The better you learn the rule, the more you’re permitted to break it. From Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids:

When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience. I could never have predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly twenty-two-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems.

There’s a lot of telling in that paragraph. Smith tells you that she felt a sense of kinship; she doesn’t describe a scene that illustrates that sense. She candidly says that she couldn’t explain that feeling and never could have predicted it; she doesn’t show you any of that bafflement through dialogue or action. But look at that last sentence—it’s all show. She describes who she was at that moment. As the reader, you put yourself in her place. You understand the distance Patti Smith feels from the established rock stars she just encountered, and simultaneously you sense the meeting of the minds because she’s a poet, perhaps a lyricist. You also have the advantage of knowing the level of success Smith eventually attains. This is a good example of effectively blending telling and showing.

Giving yourself permission to blend show and tell instead of limiting yourself to showing will help you to keep your writing momentum going. You don’t want to get so attentive to the writing process that it interrupts the flow.

Is “Show, Don’t Tell” in Memoir Good Advice?

reader demonstrating show don't tell reaction

If you’re a writer or trying to be a memoir author, you’ve heard the advice to “show, don’t tell.” It’s easy to think you know what it means until you sit down and try to put it into practice. But as with most writing, it is important to “show, don’t tell” in memoir.

Too many adjectives

Especially in a memoir, we want the reader to know our deepest feelings about the experiences we’re describing. The natural way to convey our reactions is to use adjectives—it made us sad or happy; we felt afraid or angry; we were surprised or baffled. It’s okay to pepper your work with adjectives like these, but it’s just not that effective. When you spoonfeed the reader your emotional intent, the reader doesn’t become as engaged as when the reader organically experiences the same emotions.

As you get better at “showing, not telling,” you’ll find that you rely on adjectives less frequently. You’ll describe everything that occurred, but you’re not an objective observer. You’re you. It was your eyes that saw the event take place, your ears that heard the accompanying sounds and conversation, your heart that took it all in. And then it all gets filtered through your memory. So telling the story in itself lets the reader know how you felt about it.

Trust the memoir reader; don’t authorsplain

The product that comes out of all that is a biased and detailed account. The emotions you felt are exactly the same that the reader is likely to experience. You don’t have to “authorsplain” how the events made you feel. Readers are smart. Did the joke strike you as funny? The reader already knows this, because you described the way you laughed uncontrollably. Were you feeling jealous of someone? The reader senses that when you mention that in your mind you were picturing yourself strangling the person. Did you feel ashamed of yourself about an incident? The reader feels your shame because, after all, who wouldn’t be ashamed of doing what you so vividly just described?

Your reaction is important

The other clue is what happens next in your story. Instead of telling the reader about your shame, maybe you reported that you slouched, turned and left the room without saying a word. If you were afraid, you could describe your hand shaking. Even a simple “a huge smile crossed my face” is better than “I was so happy to hear this.”

The role of the confidante

Dialogue can be useful, too, in letting the reader know what’s going on in your mind. Relating an experience to your friend can let the reader in on your thoughts that might not be as obvious. It’s still tricky. Telling a friend “I’m so happy” is no more compelling than saying it directly to the reader. But in skilled hands, dialogue can be a useful device.

Watch this space for more “show, don’t tell” in memoir!

Check back soon, and we’ll give examples of passages that show vs. those that tell. That will make everything crystal clear!

Your Memoir Resolution for the New Year

Be an author on Write My Memoirs

Every year around this time, Write My Memoirs lights up with a rush of new members. I always love seeing that.

Of course, it’s not difficult to figure out what’s going on. In the first few days of the new year, people are signing up because their New Year’s resolution is to finally, finally write that memoir they’ve been promising themselves. It’s a great resolution! If you’ve made it, we are here to help you fulfill the goal.

How will you make sure you won’t let yourself off the hook and abandon this resolution? Polls show that many resolutions have gone by the wayside by as soon as February and more by halfway through the year. Your resolution to write a memoir does not have to be one of those statistics.

It’s that “one bite at a time” approach that will probably work best for you. Write up one story. Your chapter doesn’t need to have a name; in fact, you don’t even need to assign the story to a chapter yet. Write up the easiest story in your life. Then you will have that written!

The next step will feel easier – just another story from your life, or you can go chronologically and write up whatever happened after the story you just wrote. You can wait until the next day or the day after, but don’t wait a full week. Make writing your memoir part of your routine at least 3 days a week.

You can keep yourself accountable by sharing your goals or your writing on our Write My Memoirs Facebook page. We would love to hear how your memoir is coming along.

Good Reaction to Our Grammar Course!

Thumbnail images of Grammar Course lessons

If you’ve been a member of Write My Memoirs for a while, you know that we don’t do any hard-selling. The site is free to use, and we’re not constantly emailing you to push our writing, editing and self-publishing services. But our new Grammar and Writing Course can really help you, at such an affordable price, so we’re tooting our own horn here!

People who have taken the course, consisting of eight video lessons plus a free intro lesson, say it has helped them identify their weaknesses in sentence structure, punctuation and word usage. The practice materials are yours to review any time you forget a point, and you also can rewatch the videos.

Who benefits most from our course? The course is designed for native speakers of American English, so residents of the U.S. will probably get the most out of it. The content aims at people of all ages who have a middle to advanced level of English knowledge but still aren’t writing in a polished, professional manner. Can non-native speakers learn something? How about native speakers whose grasp of English is closer to the beginning stage? The short answer is yes! If you want to improve your writing, no matter where you’re starting, the course is worth taking. It’s just $39!

Take a look at the free Introductory Lesson. You’ll see me, the instructor, and I’m a little goofy and nervous in that first lesson, which covers parts of speech and parts of a sentence. As you proceed through the other eight lessons, the topics get a lot less dry. You’ll have a chance to practice everything and access the answers to the quizzes. When you finish, you can email us a few paragraphs of your writing, and we’ll send you back our edits and suggestions. What a deal! Sign up for the course today!

Take This Quiz to Find Out Whether You’re Writing a Memoir or an Autobiography

Woman wondering what to call her book.

A common question authors have about memoir is whether they’re writing a true memoir or an autobiography. At Write My Memoirs, we don’t make much of a distinction. If you’re writing about your life, you’re writing about your life. Call it a memoir, autobiography, life history—we don’t think it matters much.

But authors continue to want to know how to label their book, so here’s a little quiz for you to take to reveal whether, according to conventional thinking, you’re writing a memoir or an autobiography.

Answer TRUE or FALSE:

  1. My story begins with my birth and continues to present day.
  2. My primary goal in writing my book is to provide information for my children and grandchildren to “know where they come from.”
  3. I would like generations in the future to have a reliable record of what life was like growing up when and where I grew up, as well as what adulthood was like during my lifetime.
  4. Even though my life hasn’t been that unusual, I want to get all the facts down.
  5. I want to tell all about my life in my own voice.
  6. The hurdles I overcame in my life holds lessons for other people.
  7. Even though I am not yet 50 years old, I want to write my book now.
  8. I will devote much of my book to one part of my life that was very unusual.
  9. Something happened to me that I feel compelled to write about.
  10. Everyone asks me about one episode in my life, so I decided to write about that.

As you may have figured out, this list of 10 questions starts heavy on autobiography and progresses incrementally to memoir.

Give yourself 1 point for each time you answered TRUE to questions 1 through 4.
Give yourself 2 points for each time you answered TRUE to questions 5 and 6.
Give yourself 3 points for each time you answered TRUE to questions 7 through 10.

Scores

1-8: Your book is an autobiography.

9-16: Your book is more of a memoir.

17-20: Your book may not have enough of a theme. Rethink whether you want to focus on one part of your life or write a comprehensive book that gives relatively equal treatment to all parts of your life.

Hope this helps! At Write My Memoirs, we want to help you write and publish the best book you can have to represent your perspective of your life.

Memoirs of Summer 2020 Have a Familiar Ring

Cover of Loni Love memoir

What do Jessica Simpson, Madeleine Albright, Ihlan Omar, Colin Jost and a whole lot of people you’ve never heard of have in common? They’re all authors of memoirs published this summer. Coming out of one of the strangest summers we’ve ever experienced, what’s different about these memoirs compared with previous ones?

Nothing.

People write about themselves for many reasons, but by the time you publish a memoir it’s because you think someone may be interested in reading about how you solved a problem, came out the other side of a challenge, managed a particular situation or just plain lived as you. That’s as true in summer 2020 as in any other time.

For celebrity authors, the book will sell well if there’s a big reveal. Hey, Jessica Simpson, what was it like to date John Mayer? André Leon Talley, what’s it like to be a Black, gay fashion editor at Vogue?

No matter how fascinating the life, for a memoir to be a good read it still must be written well. As a comedian, Loni Love has an easy time making I Tried to Change So You Don’t Have To entertaining. TV and movie director Barry Sonnenfeld knows how to stage a scene, so it’s not much of a leap to exercise a flair for description while writing Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother. It’s right in journalist Eilene Zimmerman’s wheelhouse to report on her husband’s addiction in Smacked.

Google “memoirs summer 2020,” and you’ll pull up a long list of autobiographical tales that all sound tempting to take a look at. Many of the authors are first-timers, and one summer you may find yourself on one of those lists. Meanwhile, keep writing! And keep reading. These memoirs will inspire you to craft your story as candidly and compellingly as you can.

New Look, New Grammar Course!

Info on Write My Memoirs Grammar and Writing Course

You may have noticed that our home page has been updated not only in graphic design but also in featuring our brand new Write My Memoirs Grammar and Writing Course. This digital, eight-lesson course offers a free Intro Lesson you can take to get a foundation in parts of speech and parts of a sentence. It starts out with a tongue-in-cheek “What Not To Do” letter from me to you that demonstrates a lot of very bad grammar.

If that’s your kind of fun, you will enjoy the whole course! We examine some grammar errors in classic rock lyrics, too. Most of the examples throughout the course model memoir elements, since they describe my own life. As I crafted these examples, I had fun remembering events from my childhood, which I’m lucky to say was a happy one.

I based the principles and practice exercises presented in the course on an in-person, classroom course I taught for 20 years to adults in a continuing education program. Whether you’re writing a memoir or you need to write for work or school, I feel sure you’ll get your money’s worth with this $39 course!

Music Triggers Memoir Stories

piano

Every now and then when you hear a song, does it take you back to a particular memory? I think we all have that experience. One of the biggest summer songs some years back was Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” which recounts the singer’s fun summer years ago when he met a girl and blasted songs on a Michigan lake beach. At the end, it includes this lyric: “Sometimes I’ll hear that song, and I’ll start to sing along, and think man I’d love to see that girl again.” It’s hearing the music that revives the emotion.

As we write our memoirs, we pay a lot of attention to the sense of sight, making sure to convey a scene just as we witnessed it. In some scenes, we also remember other senses. How did the meal taste? What were the aromas in the house at the time? Don’t forget the sense of hearing! As you write about an era of your life, listen to the music you were hearing at the time. This may trigger unique memories, and you can include some references in your memoir if you think it will help the reader to connect.

Music has always played a huge role in my life, so I really relate to someone who includes special songs when writing a memoir. From some pre-Beatles tunes right through to today’s top 40, songs provide a sort of déjà vu for me. Coloring your life story with details like that will make it interesting not only to read, but to write as well.

Image: ©Vladyslav Makarov

Should You Hide Identities in a Memoir by Changing the Names?

Person hiding behind hand

Today’s blog is written by a guest blogger, memoir author Lani Cox. We asked Lani the question in the title. Lani writes:

What’s the purpose in telling your story? If it’s to connect to your readers, then I don’t believe using real names is as important as you might think. Even if you’re writing something journalistic, names can be switched out. Interestingly, the more you try to write objectively (as much as you can when telling your life story), the more your readers will respect your attempt to protect the not-so-innocent.

I’ve written two memoirs. In the first, I wrote about my experiences as a Waldorf teacher. In the second, I’m writing about my family. For the former, I changed the school’s name but left the city accurate, as there were several schools I could have been referring to. I also chose to change all of the names of the faculty and students.

For the second memoir, I haven’t changed anyone’s name, although I do not reveal the identity of my mother’s former boyfriend. I’ve simply referred to him as my stepfather, since he raised us. All of this could change, but there’s no reason that I can see to change anyone’s name, because I’m not saying anything damaging.

You could make the argument that you can’t predict how people will react to being written about, no matter what you say, and you would be right. I think, for this reason, it’s best to err on the side of caution, because you will more likely regret using a real name than not.

So I’ve made a judgment call. If I’m sharing what could be construed as negative behavior, I feel it’s best not to specify who it is. When I wrote a short piece about a classmate from grade school who teased me for my drawing, I was shocked when she told me she read it. This made me feel embarrassed and realize that you never know who’s reading your writing!

For my family memoir, it’s very easy to figure out who is who, so I don’t see the point in fibbing. Also, a couple of the folks I’m writing about have passed away. Of course, it’s not foolproof, but I feel that more and more readers are becoming educated that a memoir is your point of view, not the final truth on the matter.

What’s the purpose in telling your story?

 

Image by Nadine Shaabana for Unsplash

Is Your Story Worthy of a Memoir?

Memoir cover

So many people are not sure whether the story of their life or one episode of their life is special enough to be “memoir-worthy.” If you’d like to document your life so that your family and friends will have all the facts straight, every story is memoir-worthy. But what if you’re hoping that your book will land on the best-seller list or provide the foundation for a hit movie?

This is the first of two guest blog posts by memoir author Lani Cox, who supplies guidelines for knowing whether your story has the potential to sell.

How can you tell if what you want to share is worth telling? In a word: feedback.

I’ve written two memoirs. I self-published the first one, and for the second one, I’m trying to learn from the mistakes I made the first time around, so I’m taking my time. But with both, I’ve gleaned valuable insight from various sources.

Share it with a writers’ group

When I first started writing for public consumption, I joined a writers’ group. Most people were supportive, and if you have a negative experience, please don’t let that put you off. These days there are many avenues.

When I lived in the expat community of Chiang Mai, Thailand, I started my own group. My ad went unanswered for a long time—so long that I forgot about it until the day that a fellow writer contacted me. The group grew from there, and it was a wonderful experience. I’m still friends with the ladies I met through the group.

If there aren’t any writers’ groups in your town (as it is currently for me), try online groups and websites like Wattpad.

Share it on a blog

Something else I did was start a blog, uploading a chapter at a time. I started getting comments,  emails and shares as I was writing about the alternative world of Waldorf education, maybe because there wasn’t a lot of other information about it at the time.

A second blog about my expat experiences has led me to explore even more topics. Being part of a writing community is a great way to learn about other people and see what resonates with them. You also can learn a lot about putting yourself out there. These days, that is so important.

Share it with your friends

Before the internet took over our lives, I listened to the stories my mom and grandma would tell. I retold them to friends and to anyone who would listen. This was a more organic approach and planted the seeds of my storytelling future as a writer. You most likely already do this but, if you don’t, I’d encourage you to open up to others. Making connections is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing memoir.