The Right Details Enhance Your Memoir
I’ve been thinking again of looking for the right details to enhance your memoir. Of course, details are crucial in the what of a memoir as well as in the who, the where, and the when. They are the facts of your memoir, but there is an expanded role for details in memoir writing. Here are two larger roles that details can serve.
1. The right details can lead to psychological insight, to a deepening of the story.
I was recently in a restaurant and I saw a father take his napkin and wipe the chin of his son who was perhaps eight years old. The gesture seemed a loving gesture and I remembered fondly having a boy that age. Then the boy picked up his napkin an wiped his chin himself. By then, there was nothing on his chin to wipe, but the boy seemed determined to take care of himself. “I’m a big boy,” he seemed to be asserting. This little detail—the father wiping the boy’s chin and the boy insisting on doing it himself—struck me as a snapshot of the current state of their relationship. For the father, the boy is still young and in need of his attention.
I remember holding on to my son’s tender youth. The son however does what all children do: he reaches for age, for being older, for proving he can do it himself. He wipes his own chin even if it no longer needs wiping. The differing energies of the two added up to an interesting detail for me. This moment I had witnessed was a snapshot of a parent-child exchange, of our different functions and needs in a relationship.
2. The right details can reveal concealed facts which in themselves can deepen the story.
As I was showing my mother the manuscript of her memoir, we came across a photo of her at about 8 years old. I had selected the photo as a portrait of her at that age. My mother said, “Did you notice the medals pinned to my dress?” As a matter of fact, I had not. The medals had appeared to me as a sort of blotch on the dress and I had overlooked them. “I earned them” she said, “for doing well at school.”
My mother had spoken to me on many occasions about how she had quit school in her junior year of high school and about how sad she was now to think that her parents had not urged her to continue her education. Her family culture was more of the quit-school-and-go-to-work kind than it was of a kind to promote education. Her pride in signaling the medals to me revealed to me (once again!) about the sense of loss she had about having quit school. “They were more interested in the money I could bring into the household,” she said. (This was in a time when adolescents turned their pay over to their parents.)
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