WHAT MAKES GOOD MEMOIR? I get this question all the time when I teach, including in a recent class, which reminded me that it’s time to limn that line here between what is merely some great scene versus a scene that is ready for the writing.
At some point in every memoir-writing class, I tell my students about a male architect I barely knew when he married a friend of mine. For their wedding he not only designed, but also sewed, his wife’s crushed white velvet, floor-length, cut-on-the bias dress, and made her white pillbox hat to match.
Consider that scene for a moment: Another bride, another groom, another musty old church filled with people in their 30s shooting looks at the dress, the hat, this Olympics of sewing on the part of the groom, the guests getting real wide-eyed at one another, raising their palms skyward and their shoulders to their ears. Here comes the bride, and is that groom in the tux and the slender Italian eyeglass frames straight or what?
Great scene. But what is it about? A fine collection of images, but what does it illustrate? Is it a tale about the way we live now?
Just because something happens doesn’t make it interesting. Don’t believe me? Tell someone your dreams. Unless you’re paying them to listen or haven’t slept with them yet (but might), chances are they’ll go to some lengths to avoid this download of your subconscious. Call my husband. He actually gets up and leaves the room if someone tries to tell him a dream. I think that’s why we’re married. So I don’t always have to be the rude one. He looks at this watch, nods, and actually says, “Oh, look at the time,” and leaves.
What is this about? The illustration–the crushed-velvet wedding dress, the tall groom, the whispers rocketing around the old stone church–needs a context, a frame. Ever notice how the perfect frame can bring out the color in your oil painting, your photo? Same with writing. The frame, the reason for the tale, is the same thing. And the question you now must tape to your wall is, “What is this about?”
What is the wedding story about? I had no idea until I recently found a place for it in my new book, having previously picked up that story a thousand times and had a look, each time putting it away again. It is gorgeous, it was there, and suddenly (or not) I was able to tuck into a tale, though not until it made sense, in context. Until then, it was merely a spare part waiting to be sewed onto something else.
I’ve got a million of them, thank goodness. And so do you.