Allyson Latta: The Best Memoirs Don’t Preach

I regularly check Allyson Latta’s web site for meaningful ideas for memoir writers. In her guest post that follows, Allyson explains how preachiness mars a memoir and she offers practical strategies for avoiding it in your manuscript.
– Lynette

Allyson Latta - photo by Keane Shore

Allyson Latta – photo by Keane Shore


We were sitting cross-legged on the floor in my apartment, three young women in our early twenties, debating as usual.

It was what we did in the evenings, a form of entertainment when, as university students, we couldn’t afford much else. The more controversial the topic, the better. On that occasion, it was abortion.

My two classmates were vehemently against abortion, under any circumstances. I argued that there were situations where it might be the only viable option. They were passionate and unyielding; I was outnumbered. As the discussion progressed I began to feel preached at, and a little resentful.

A year or so after that discussion, I was taken aback to discover that each of these women, as a teenager, had undergone an abortion.

While I empathize with their not wishing to disclose everything to me during that earlier debate, if they had trusted me with the truth of their experiences – and the fact that they had come to regret their actions – I would better have understood their vociferousness. What they had gone through couldn’t help but colour their views. Their personal stories would have given context to the discussion.

The past we see as meaningful shapes our thinking and who we become. As memoirists, we strive to structure and render vividly such life-shaping incidents. We endeavor to say something revealing and true – emotionally true – about ourselves, and in the process, humanity. But a potential pitfall is preachiness.

Just as holding back relevant backstory can render someone’s argument moralistic-sounding, so too can a writer’s heavy-handed delivery of a “message.” Preachiness, says Denis Ledoux, director of The Memoir Network, is the “negative underside” of theme. Every effective story, beyond its ability to entertain, has an underlying theme or themes, but in the desire to drive home our points, we can easily sound didactic.

Which presents the memoirist with a dilemma. Don’t we write our stories because we believe we have something important to say? Don’t we ache to impart some essential wisdom gained through our personal challenges? How, then, to do this without sounding self-righteous?

As teenagers we didn’t take kindly to being lectured to, and as adults we don’t much like it either. We have Aesop’s Fables if we want unwavering moral lessons. But in reading memoirs we’ll skim over boring, moralizing passages, or perhaps even toss the book aside. We crave something deeper: a story that connects us with the world of the writer and encourages us to reflect on aspects of ourselves in a new way.

Like most readers of memoir, I look for a believable narrator, one I care about, and a plot that sweeps me along. I want to be taken somewhere I haven’t been before, scene by scene. And those scenes need to bring to life the writer’s challenges and struggles, the consequences of those actions, and finally, a satisfying (if not always tidy) resolution. I want to see, and more importantly feel, the narrator undergo some sort of transformation.

Underlying themes – and this goes for fiction as well as memoir – resonate only when the characters and story are compelling. It never works the other way around.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee manages to condemn racial discrimination through a fictional story that’s as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago. In the acclaimed memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed explores truths about forgiveness and the healing power of solitude and physical challenge without clobbering us with preachy passages.

Each author, first and essentially, tells a good story well.

The path we travel as writers of memoir can be one of gratifying, if sometimes gut-wrenching, self-discovery. Yet we will almost certainly be humbled at what we find difficult to express, or can never know. “The first product of self-knowledge,” said Flannery O’Conner, “is humility.” Those words might be worth tacking above our writing desks.

The best memoirs don’t preach. They don’t purport to have all the answers. They’re honest, vulnerable, and searching, and even as they attempt to illuminate, they allow space for reader to breathe and interpret.
***

Ways to avoid preachiness:
1. Write to entertain. Don’t sacrifice story for theme.
2. Eliminate words like moral, message, lesson, and teach from your vocabulary.
3. Encourage the reader’s empathy for your characters’ struggles.
4. Focus on breathing life into your experiences on the page, not on exhorting readers.
5. Be honest; be brave. Don’t be afraid to expose your weaknesses. Readers will relate to your vulnerability. They will be more influenced by what you say if they believe you’re being emotionally truthful.
6. Use scenes, action and dialogue to make your points.
7. Write with compassion. Give voice to various sides of any issue, through your actions and those of other characters.
8. Portray yourself and other characters as multi-dimensional: not all good or all bad. Acknowledge and explore the complexity of their issues and attitudes. Oversimplification can come across as preachy.
9. Ask questions. Dani Shapiro, author of the memoir Devotion, said, “I wanted to use my own self, my own life, as a laboratory, using both my history and my present to ask myself some of the deepest questions I could.”
10. Avoid lecturing and putting speeches in your characters’ mouths (unless a particular character is prone to pontificating). Maintain your story’s pace; don’t get bogged down in persuading readers to your point of view.
11. Use humour, where appropriate. Some of our greatest lessons are learned through laughter.
12. Read your work out loud. You’ll home in on preachy passages.
13. Avoid tied-in-a-bow or over-explained closings. Your story will have a stronger and more lasting impact if you allow readers to glean its significance.
***

Allyson Latta is an independent editor of literary fiction and creative nonfiction. She teaches memoir writing online for the University of Toronto (formerly also for the New York Times Knowledge Network) and is available through UofT as an online mentor. Her love of travel has led her to teach English in Japan and creative writing in Arizona, Chile, Costa Rica, and Grenada. Books she’s edited have won national and international awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Allyson holds a degree in Journalism, and worked as a reporter and magazine editor/writer before turning to book editing. Her website, www.allysonlatta.com, was recommended in The Writer magazine and features essays, interviews, and resources for memoir writers.

She hopes this guest post doesn’t sound preachy.
***

Lynette here, again. Have you found yourself moralizing in your memoir writing? Did you purge it from your subsequent drafts? Please share your own tactics—-or anything else–about avoiding preachiness in your memoir writing.

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