Memoir tip: lose the play-by-play

June 21, 2010

Feedback is hard to come by during the query process, as I explained in a post last week.

Several agents rejected my manuscript after reading sample chapters or even the entire project, but most of them didn’t say why. Actually, perhaps I should rephrase that. Not many of them offered a helpful why. Several said the project wasn’t right for them, or that they liked it but didn’t love it. I have no doubt that they were being honest, but those comments left me in the dark about what I could do to improve the manuscript.

I did, however, get a few gems of feedback that I’m now using to revise. One comment in particular really resonated with me, made me think, she’s so right, I can improve that. And I want to share it here because I think it might help you, too.

This agent said something simple: that my manuscript read too much like a report home and not enough like a story.

Bam. That was it. One sentence. It hit home, made me think about my project in a new way. From the beginning I’d struggled with what to leave out, a challenge that stumps a lot of would-be memoirists. For some reason, this agent’s feedback helped me see that I could leave out even more of the day-by-day reportage. (Agents, see what a difference one line of feedback makes for us writers? We appreciate every little bit!)

It can be difficult to prevent memoirs — particularly travel memoirs that take place not over a lifetime but over a set period of months or years — to sound like, “I did this, then I did this, and then I did this.” How do you avoid that? I’m not exactly sure. I know it has something to do with focusing on the story rather than what happens every day, as this agent pointed out. And I think it also has to do with leaving out details that don’t propel the story forward. We’ve talked about that here before, that if a scene doesn’t contribute to your theme and story arc, leave it out. Even if it’s your favorite scene. Even if it moves forward your chronology, or moves the reader to your next destination. We don’t need that day-by-day play-by-play. Cut it! Snip, snip, snip.

Sven Birkets, author of The Art of Time in Memoir (worth reading), says I’m not the only writer who struggles with losing the play-by-play:

Writers just starting to work with memoir often have a real difficulty with this crucial distinction between event sequence and story. The impulse to tell sequentially works with gravity-like force, generating structures that sag from the tedium of “and then… and then…” recounting and produce dense thickets of ostensibly relevant information. The writers get the dreaded feeling that everything belongs, that important moments only make sense when all the facts have been presented.


Not only is the sequential approach a chore for the writer, but it’s often a deadly bore for the reader. The point is story, not chronology, and in memoir the story all but requires the dramatic ordering that hindsight affords. The question is not what happened when, but what, for the writer, was the path of realization.

Since receiving this feedback, I’ve read a handful of memoirs, and with each book I’ve paid close attention to how the author eliminated “the first day we did this, the next day we did that” and created a story. Two memoirs I think do this particularly well: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and The Lunatic Express.

Does anyone else struggle with this in their writing? How do you overcome it?

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    11 Replies to “Memoir tip: lose the play-by-play”

    • Karen Walker says:

      This was a huge issue for me while writing my memoir, Alexis. The first editor who read my manuscript said I needed to just tell my story. Then the question was, should I tell it chronologically with flashbacks. Where should it begin, etc. I can see where a travel memoir would be especially challenging in this area. Good luck with your revisions.

    • Eugenia Kim says:

      Hi Alexis, what a good post.

      I love Sven’s ART OF TIME IN MEMOIR: THEN, AGAIN. Everything lies in that comma in the title. The quote you pulled is perfect, especially “the question is not what happened when, but what, for the writer, was the path or realization.” Memoir is less about events than it is about thinking and internal change, and you choose what to snip when those daily events and situations didn’t contribute to that change and that idea you’re chasing. When you’re writing the first draft, though, you rarely know what idea you’re chasing until you’ve reached the end, and sometimes not even until after a few weeks have passed and you read it again. This is part of the beauty of writing memoir–sometimes you don’t know what you’re saying until you’ve written it down, and the words will reveal the meaning you’ve been chasing.


    • alisha says:

      I’ve found this advice really helpful – it IS so tempting to want to keep every fascinating detail in! But having permission to chop is really freeing. Not that it’s easy!

    • Marianne says:

      I struggle, yes I do.

      I had a story structure from the outset which plotted the key events in my story – which were not necessarily the same events that I would have told you were the most important things that happened to me at the time.

      That map has been altered many times but I keep going back to it to decide what comes out and what stays in.

      I struggle. But I hope I’m getting closer.

    • My autobiographical writing is in the form of comics vignettes; quite a lot comes out as I tell contemporary stories, contrasting now with then.

      As a naturally introspective person, I use a lot of self-analysis of how past events & experiences have coloured my opinions, personal philosophies & decisions. I think I intuitively do what you recommend.

      My trouble is that, as I recollect moments from my youth & young adulthood, I relive them emotionally. There were no great traumas, but a wealth of naïveté, so much so that I suffer under the weight of regret as memories flood in. I lose good chunks of time to this & end up retreating to non-autobio writing.

      Is there a way to increase my emotional distance (other than upping my antidepressants) so I can get more personal stories out?

    • great post, as usual. Look forward to working through this issue and the others you have been nice enough to explore here on your blog, in the next few months.

    • Dana Brown says:

      My memoir came out of a journal writing experience where I was accounting for every relationship I’d been in since childhood. (Guess I should mention my memoir is about how someone as fabulous as myself managed to stay single for 50 years and navigating the ups and downs of life.) I knew the book wouldn’t work just going through the list chronologically but it was a great jumping off point for me.
      Thanks for your posts. There are 21. 3 down and 18 to go! Wheeee!

    • Birkets is right about the gravity-like pull of the urge to write a memoir stuck to chronology like a bandage to skin. I read a ton of memoirs, but one that’s helping me shape story, rather than report, is Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas.

      And I’ve just ordered Birkets’ book.

    • Richard says:

      Hi Alexis,

      You’ve touched on a very important point, but I think you didn’t go far enough. I believe giving a specific example how the agent’s advice related to your work would elevate your point greatly.


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