Writing Memoir? Use the Algorithm and Act Like Galileo in Walmart
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012

Earlier in the week, a She Writes reader made an astute comment on one of my posts.

“Much of what you say I've heard before," wrote Julie Farrar.  "I don't mean that in a negative way.  It is just universal writing wisdom -- if you want to write, then just write.”

Julie is absolutely correct in this comment. The first six points of my Memoir Manifesto should sound familiar to anyone who thinks about her writing.  And if points seven through ten continued to do so, I would not have what is known as a “differentiatior” -- something that makes me unique as a writing teacher.

While my call to eschew all writing prompts and exercises distances me from most other writing teachers, it is not enough to make me unique. And you want your writing to be unique, particularly in this age of memoir, where it seems that even people’s dogs are being heard from.

How to do that? How to be unique among memoirists? Think in propinquities. Look for the angle shot. If the day on which you want the essay to air is Thanksgiving, for instance, don’t give me a turkey and gravy story or a photograph of the day, but rather a sidelong glance at how you learned new ways to be grateful.

It was thinking in propinquities that brought me points seven and eight of my Memoir Manifesto. Here they are.

Use the Algorithm

By asking yourself what your piece is about, you reduce the essence of the tale to a single totemic emotion such as “pity” or “joy,” a single experience such as “freedom” or “redemption,” or even a single phrase such as “the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.” That may take some time. But you can do this now: You can decide on a genre—humor, perhaps—and choose how to illustrate it.

Here’s how you do it. Say aloud to yourself, “This is a piece of humor, and the illustration is that day at the proctologist," or "This is a tragedy, and the illustration is finding those Polaroids,” or “This is about how anger withers the soul, and the illustration is my Uncle Henry’s struggle for revenge.”

What will not work is the phrase, “This is a tragedy and the illustration is my marriage," which is too big. On the enormous topic of your marriage, look instead for the moment it shifted—the discovery of the Polaroids that revealed where it is your spouse would rather be; alone, trying to snap the safety clasp of your bracelet after the death of your partner—and we will see the tragedy. Capture the moment of "aha!" and you’ll find one specific story that you can drive forward.

Do you see what is happening here? You are shifting yourself—your story—into a new  position of importance, where you are no longer the center of the tale. The story’s theme now occupies that place of prominence—the “what is this about” being the main attraction.

Look back a few sentences and insert your details into the phrase,“this is an (x) and the illustration is (y).” This is my algorithm for success. Use this, and see how the story is about something, and you, in turn, have become that story’s illustration. Understanding this essential shift is the difference between writing good memoir and boring our socks off. And the key to making this shift? Simply accepting that you are not the story. You are the illustration. You are the picture in the frame, the lozenge in the wrapper. Get that, and when you do, you will see how your story—the illustration of the theme—gets shifted to the second phrase of this sentence, and by extension, to its proper place.       

So ask yourself, “What is this about?” applying that question to one scene, a single event, or a singular appreciation of something in your life.

Act Like Galileo in Walmart

Imagine Galileo standing in Walmart amid the deep fryers, digital cameras and lawn chairs. All he wants is the one small part he needs to perfect the telescope. Then he’ll prove that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, as was standard message of the church in his time. Seeking a small item to prove a big theory, Galileo must not get distracted by the Christmas icicle lights and stainless steel slow cookers, the ionized hairdryers and six-time-zone watches. He must go into Walmart, get only what he needs, and come back out. Then he’ll convince us to see the universe the way he does.

Yours is the same assignment. You must speed-shop your overstocked whiz-bang subconscious, snagging only those items tagged by the subject you’ve chosen, leaving all those other pretty, shiny, digital, marked-down objects on the shelves. It’s as though you must carry a custom-made magnet, attracting merely the smallest, precisely charged metal shavings. This is not easy. But mastering the skill of a good quick grab is essential to your success.

After all, if life is lived in the small moments, you’re going to have a whole lot of stuff to sift through to illustrate your big point, which is precisely why most people write badly about the big events, typing sentences like “It was the saddest I ever remember” or “I’ll never forget the day that...”

Even in life’s big experiences—birth and death being the top two—how we live consists of individual moments in which we can find some truths. Consider a recent funeral and how you’d write it. To hook me, you must display how it moved you, honoring the great journalism tradition: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me it was sad; show me how sadness looks, and let me do the math.

"Oh," I should say to myself at the end of your piece, “now that’s sad.”

Tomorrow: Points nine and ten of the Memoir Manifesto.

Marion Roach Smith is the author of four books. Her most recent book is The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (Grand Central, 2011) 

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  • Tina Barbour

    Marion, You gave me great advice, but now I feel so anxious! Didn't you write in your book that after getting one edit back on a book manuscript, you went to bed for a week? That's how I feel, and I don't even have a whole manuscript yet! :-) I keep thinking, how am I going to work this out? Ugh!

    I finished The Memoir Project, and when I did, I walked into the den where my husband was and said, "This is the best book on writing that I've ever read." And I meant it! Thank you so much! Anyone else reading this post: Read. That. Book. 

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Grace. Ah, that other manifesto. I'm working on it. And when I write it, it will allow for some other kinds of transcendence. Ha!

    Delighted, Tina. Cool, right? Such fun to figure this out together. Thanks for letting me in on your work. Go get 'em.

    Yes, Marcie, redemption is a fine topic. Do your research and the possibilities will amaze you. 

  • Marcie Bridges

    Nice to meet you as well, Marion, and thank you for your thoughts. I had actually read points 9 & 10 prior to posting and agree about "bouncing back". I will definitely follow your advice and look up "redemption" in those three sources. Thanks again!

  • Tina Barbour

    Oh, yeah. That kind of made my brain do a twist. It's unexpected. It turns the whole "you can live well in spite of (name problem)" on its head. "Living well" as the topic, and my OCD the illustration. Woza indeed. Gotta work with that. Thank you!

  • Grace Peterson

    Now Marion, You can't leave this series without sharing your "Other Manifesto." Okay? I say this as my kitchen sink is stacked with dishes! :) Transcendence--my word for the day. Love it! 

  • Marion Roach Smith

    HeIlo again, Grace. You do just that.

    Hi, Marcie. Nice to meet you. I love the admission of lurking. We are do it now, don't we? Looking in on a blog to see what light we can find. Oh, I think you are most definitely on your way there. Redemption. Perfect. Small but powerful. "Bouncing back" has the transcendence all good memoir must provide. See that link for points 9 & 10 of my Memoir Manifesto here on She Writes. Redundant? Look up "redemption" in the dictionary, thesaurus (the book version of both, please), and in Bartlett's Quotations. Research it thoroughly, and see it grow before you, showing you its complex texture. Great job.      

    Hi, Tina. Yup. "my life" is too broad. Take on that assignment and you'll clean your kitchen instead, and no writer should have a clean kitchen. (Part of my "other" manifesto. Ha!) We are utterly intrigued by the "living well with" phrase. That's interesting. Try flipping the OCD into the "y" spot, as in "This is about living well, and the illustration is my struggle with OCD." Woza. Now that gets my attention. Do you see why?  

  • Tina Barbour

    I've learned so much from your posts and your book. They have given me a new way of thinking about my memoir writing. I need help, too. My use of your algorithm gives me something like this: "This is about living well with OCD and depression, and the illustration is my life." Too big? Is "my life" too broad? Am I trying to jam too much into the suitcase?

  • Marcie Bridges

    I've been lurking around all week, but wanted to comment because I need help. Here's what I have: This is a story of redemption, and the illustration is bouncing back after a rough relationship. But then I think of you saying it could be too big and wonder if I shouldn't try to figure something else out. I also wonder if 'redemption' and 'bouncing back' are redundant...?

  • Grace Peterson

    Thanks, Marion. I like this. I'll tell 'em. :) 

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Good job, Grace. Ah, anxiety gone awry. Can anxiety go well? Maybe "this is about anxiety and the illustration is my erroneous decisions". If you want to expand the algorithm add a "z" at the end, as in "this is about x, as illustrated by y to be written in a z," the "z" being blog post, personal essay, letter home, book, etc. Fill in all three and you're on your way to publication. And tell 'em I sent you.  

  • Grace Peterson

    Great stuff, as usual. I copied and pasted your algorithm. For me, it's: "This is about anxiety gone awry and the illustration is me with my plethora of erroneous decisions."  ... Or something like that. :)