How to be old—we're all learning

Balancing description and action in a memoir—writing tips

Six sisters — precious family photos trigger detailed memories for a memoir

How should you balance action and description in a family memoir? Let’s assume that you’re writing a personal story of your life, constructed one fragment at a time. The intended audience is your family, not the general public. (You may fantasise about a best seller, but it won’t be this book.)

You’ve started, right? That’s the main thing. Because until you actually start writing, you risk driving yourself nuts by over-thinking. By contrast, after you begin, you have raw material, something to work with. There’s a world of difference.

If you were writing a novel, description should be doled out parsimoniously. “Show don’t tell,” say the experts. Dialogue and action rule, description is usually minimised, and readers deduce the details from dialogue and action. It’s a literary game we play.

But a memoir for your family is very different in this respect. Family wants detail! They want to know what life what like for you, sixty years ago. Whatever you took for granted will seem extraordinary to them.

Family reads differently, too. The thrill for them won’t lie in your literary style but in discovering who you really are, underneath your familiar old face, and how you lived, and what you did and why you did it, long long ago. They don’t want subtlety: they want the nitty-gritty of facts and feelings told in your very own voice.

So one challenge that arises when you start writing a memoir is how much detail to include, and how you’ll do that.

Either way, the two elements of action and description will get tangled up together in your memoir. Be alert to this, so you can keep action and description in balance.

Description: some successful memoir chapters are mostly detail

What detail-chapters do is describe exactly HOW you used to do the laundry, build a fence, milk the cows, learn to drive, or use the telephone. A vivid description of almost any everyday activity in the 1940s or 50s will be an eye-opener for young readers and will bring a rush of memories for your contemporaries. A memoir can take any shape, and it would be perfectly legitimate to write the whole thing as a series of “HOW” chapters. The following topics popped into my head as activities that happened regularly, or daily for a long time in my own childhood:

  1. How Mother made dinner for eight people in twenty minutes
  2. How Dad helped to fight grass fires
  3. How Mother brought us hot soup for our school lunches
  4. How we home-schooled during a polio epidemic.

Did you notice that all these hypothetical titles conceal a hint of an anecdote? If you take the “HOW” route, you’ll probably find the same: one particular incident stands out in your mind. Don’t fight it: you can insert the story.

But description rules. Allow yourself to recount any number of static details. For topic 1 you might describe the stove (brand, colour, size, stoking, flue, problems, quirks, fuel, efficiency), kitchen size, shape, lighting, location, atmosphere, function, the weekly budget, shopping list, recipes, times of day, cooking utensils, tea-towels, dish-cloths — carry on, minute details are the whole point of this kind of memoir.

Action: other memoir chapters aim to tell a little story

All four of the suggested topics could be written differently, as a single anecdote. For example, you might write about all the action on a particular day—the first day of the first grass-fire, or a particularly hot day during the polio epidemic. The titles of your chapters would be a little different, maybe for example:

  1. When Mother made dinner in twenty minutes
  2. The day Dad helped to fight a grass fire
  3. Why did Mother bring a billy of soup to school?
  4. Home-schooling on the hottest day of summer.

You tell the story, what happened and who did what. So far so good. But readers of your memoir want details, because they weren’t there!

They need to know that your mother’s bicycle had a skirt guard on the back wheel and over the chain and a woven basket over the front wheel. That the soup was made in a single giant pot with water, salt, a beef bone, barley, carrots, leeks, kumara and chippewa potatoes fresh from Dad’s half-acre vegetable garden, quietly boiling at the back of the stove top on a rusty flat element for hours. That she never used onions because she regarded them as vulgar. That she put the soup into a tin billy and slung it over the handlebars of her rattly upright bicycle. That she biked over rough metal roads to the school, that frost still hovered in shady places and she might have to crunch through icy puddles. That she served the soup to her daughters in a tin mug so we would have something hot for lunch.

Detail, judiciously inserted, makes any story buzz. Hoever, too much detail, and the action will sink beneath its weight. Incidental detail is often slyly inserted as adjectives — but whatever you do, don’t overload any sentence with adjectives. That’s tempting, especially if you are trying too hard to write in a “literary” style. The adjectival tactic kills the reader’s interest and often produces a nauseating tone.

Overloaded with incidental detail: “Our beautiful green-eyed mother carefully poured the organic beef and fresh vegetable soup into a white enamelled billy with a navy rim. She lifted the heavy utensil full of hot nourishing organic liquid food on to the upright handlebars of her skirt-protected bicycle.” No no no. That’s a horrible style. Not like that. To dodge the problem, here’s a rough rule of thumb: separate action from detail.

4 tips for balancing action and description in a family memoir

  1. A personal family memoir requires some action and plenty of detail.
  2. Details often require a sentence of their own.
  3. Don’t cram a lot of adjectives into any sentence.
  4. If you get bogged down when writing your memoir, try separating action and description into their own sentences or even paragraphs. Some sentences or paragraphs relate nothing but action (when somebody does something, or something happens), others are dedicated to description.

P.S. I’m writing for new authors here, giving some simple tricks to get you over the first hurdles of writing a memoir. 

P.P.S. Friday is usually poem day. Thursday is when I usually post something about writing. Got mixed up this week.