I have just finished judging ten short memoir entries in the PNWA’s yearly writing contest. In general, the entries I’ve received over the last few years have been getting better and better, and this year was no exception. Unfortunately, I don’t think I had the pleasure of reading what will be this year’s winner. Though some pieces were quite strong, none of them sufficiently answered one critical question: why is this story being told? This question is usually harder to answer in memoir and personal essay than fiction. The writer knows she has a story to tell. She already knows all the events in this story and that in living them something meaningful was revealed to her. It is likely that in her mind that meaning is tied up in the events themselves, the way a soup’s flavor is contained in the combination of its ingredients. If she could but feed us the events we would know that meaning too.
But of course a writer cannot feed her reader all the events – that is, every thought, every word, every gesture. Memoir and personal essay is in this way the art of highly selective inclusion. And what gets included and what does not depends completely on the answer to the question: why is this story being told? Until the writer understands this clearly, the soup will be unfocussed, for there will be either too many of one kind of ingredient, or not enough of another.
And usually the one ingredient there needs to be less of is the writer herself. Though she was the one who lived these events, though she was the one who suffered and rejoiced, though she was the one who learned to see where she had been blind – the story is not about her. She is the husk the butterfly of perception leaves behind when it flies. The butterfly will be about everyone, and belong to everyone, and when she really learns why the story is being told, what she thought she was and had will seem so small and dull compared to what she found and gave.
Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.