April 23, 2012

“But that’s the way it happened”-- Working with memoirists


In the current online Introduction to Developmental Editing class, we’ve been discussing narrative pacing and shape, a challenging subject, but one that if you’re working with book-length memoirs and novels is pretty crucial to understand. Memoirs especially can have some serious issues when it comes to what to put in and what to leave out. Here’s how I’ve been trying to explain it:

If your editing client is a memoirist you may hear a lot about the frustration of trying to work with life as it is. This is occasionally what makes memoirists invent characters and incidents out of whole cloth. Yet even the most rigorous of truth-tellers has to admit that by choosing certain stories and leaving out others in order to enhance the themes, reality may have been altered.

Authors are usually the best judges of what they want to reveal or delve into in terms of personal information, but they’re not always the best judges of what works as a story. Your novelist clients may argue with you about character and plot, but they will not forcefully assert, “This has to stay, because it happened that way.” A memoirist will. A memoirist may also feel that a hundred little details and a complicated discussion of family history are necessary for the reader to understand the dynamics of the events. How do you, as the editor, honor the writer’s experience while still trying to help shape a narrative so that it has maximum power and movement forward?

I love hear others’ experiences and opinions on this subject—that’s one of the joys of teaching. I learn so much from other editors in their thoughtful assignments. A reminder that when we talk about editing memoirs we’re talking about ethics, the nature of memory, and what makes a book different from a life.


Our next Introduction to Developmental Editing class starts next week, May 2nd. See our website for details or contact info@authoreditorclinic.com with questions. Hope to meet some of you online.

--Barbara Sjoholm

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