William Zinsser on Memoir Writing

Though I’ve never met William Zinsser (Writing About Your LifeOn Writing Well), he’s been one of my mentors over the last year. In addition to sharing a Deerfield Academy history, his writing and teaching have propelled me toward a simpler and deeper understanding of the memoir I am writing. If it didn’t sound absurd, I might even suggest that Zinsser advice has served as Rosslyn Redux‘s midwife!

In a recent blog post, “How to Write a Memoir” tackles my current mega-challenge, organizing and reducing my memoir.

Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never get written at all. (The American Scholar)

According to Zinsser, writing a memoir necessitates a “series of reducing decisions“, starting with pruning out all non-essential characters. If they don’t absolutely need to be in the memoir, remove them.

You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don’t need to be there. (The American Scholar)

More easily said than done! One of the most transformative aspects of the almost four years which my wife and I spent consumed with renovating our new home in the Adirondacks’ Champlain Valley was the proliferation of stories. So many lives have touched (or been touched) by this historic property. Rather than a home, we inherited a museum-full of lives, histories, artifacts, stories. It was a humbling and fascinating experience. And I wish to preserve as many of these stories as possible.

Early on I saw the memoir as a literary museum à la Plutarch’s Lives: Rosslyn’s Lives. Less ambitious in some respects, but more so in others. I’ve struggled with letting go of many of these stories, not for good, but from the memoir. Out of the memoir and onto the Rosslyn Redux website where I’ll aggregate and curate as many stories as I can before they disappear.

Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important”…. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life. (The American Scholar)

This is helpful, almost a permission to focus and reduce. And yet it is far more easily prescribed than administered! Even on the simplest level, my wife frequently grows frustrated with my omissions. I remind her that my story is different from hers. What may continue to anger her about an error we made or a contractor who disappointed may have become humorous for me. Perhaps she’ll find time to record her own memoir?

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