When I teach memoir workshops, one of the topics we discuss is the difference between fiction and nonfiction writing. When we write memoir, writers tend to approach the writing with a stiff spine and a list of facts to impart upon the reader, and that can lead to factual, though lifeless writing. Unfortunately, one of our first inclinations as memoir writers is to turn off the reader with dull, encyclopedia factual accounts of events.
If you have ever read a school biography project, these tend to start with the facts: date of birth, place of birth, and parent’s names. Invariably, the writer has lost the reader by the end of the first paragraph because the writing, although factual, functions as a better sleep tonic than engaging piece of writing.
For whatever reason, many writers fall into this pattern when we write nonfiction, especially memoir. We tend to think of life as a series of facts rather than a series of stories with full sensory details and depth of emotion and thought. All too often, the result is writing that fails to inspire the reader.
So, how do we fix this situation? Memoirists, like writers in every genre, can use fiction-writing techniques to capture and keep their reader’s attention. We can use our fiction story-writing skills when we write nonfiction to bring our personal stories to life. Though they are factual, they need not be boring.
If you have not yet read Eat Like a Fish by Bren Smith, I recommend that you pick it up. He documents not just his life stories as a Newfoundlander fisherman turned sea farmer but lays out his philosophy around providing highly-nutritious food during climate change and restoring the ocean’s plant and animal diversity.
I picked up the book because I wanted to learn about his ideas on sea farming, but when I found was a crisp, lively writing style that engaged me from the book’s beginning. Smith had me hooked from the first page to the last, as he took me along the journey of his life from Canada to New England to Alaska and beyond.
What tools did he use to pull me into his memoir? First, he used sensory details and deep descriptions in his writing. He gives the reader a sense of the images, sounds, and tastes in the events that he experienced, and that brings us into the story right away. When I read his narratives, I’m there watching the scene and taking it all in. He’s showing me what is happening rather than telling me what the facts are.
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Second, Smith focuses on the story not on the facts. Of course, he includes the facts of his life in the stories, but the focus is always on the story itself. As a Newfoundlander, he has an unfair advantage over the rest of us mere mortals. Newfoundlanders are famous for their storytelling abilities and lovely ways of reorganizing language from a dull series of words into lyric poetry. When you read the examples I cited below, you’ll see what I mean. The man can write a story!
Let’s take a peek into the book Eat like a Fish and see how he does it. Below I included two quotes from the book. What I want to point out here is that he pulls the reader into the situation with just a few words and with just one paragraph leaves us with a vivid sense of the story. We didn’t need a laundry list of facts and figures to get a sense of what was happening, what the tone was, or how Smith felt in this time of life. He is able to tell a story in just a paragraph. Take a look at the examples below.
Bren Smith’ Eat Like a Fish
The ER nurses wouldn’t let me be. The first day I pushed my cart into their domain, they swarmed, demanding to know my story. They were all ages and sizes, but all shared a mix of warmth, strength, and irreverence. They made fun of my teenage silence and anger, forcing me to unfurl. I’d join them at the nurse’s station, listening to gossip about new patients, shitty boyfriends and husbands, grim tales of bad sex, frustration with sloppy and arrogant doctors. They were great storytellers, able to slide from ridicule to compassion mid-sentence. During that time in my life, they were my ballast. No wonder I later married a nurse. Page 28
I had been welcomed by the new urban class of “foodies,” a strange, ritualized culture marked by the trancelike state they’d go into after the first bite of a new dish. A slight smile curled onto their faces as the oyster liquor hit their taste buds. Their eyes would close. A moment of silence. Then a practiced attempt at poetry, as they detailed the swirls of flavor. Never one to fetishize food—I still ate at the gas station most nights—I found this new and, at first, alienating. But, God, how they loved my oysters, my pea crabs, my slipper shells. I’d quickly become proud of the food I grew, and adopted their culinary dialect. Page 107
I love this book, and I loved reading it. It filled me with fog and mist and green leaves and salty sea and cold sand. As I was reading it, I had a clear sense of the place in life where he was, the ideas he was wrestling with, and the life questions he had. Those types of stories and types of storytelling give the reader a glimpse into one’s life, and that’s one of the most powerful effects that we can have. When we pull the reader into our little corners of the universe and give them a peek behind the curtains, we create a level of intimacy and clarity that readers seek. A memoir reader wants to know about you, wants to know your stories, and wants that revelation of self. When you tell a story for the sake of the story, you can give them what they want without boring them.
Smith, Bren. Eat Like a Fish. Knopf, 2019.
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