You’ve probably heard the writing advice “show don’t tell,” but both showing and telling are necessary. If you’re writing a memoir, you’ll need to determine when to inform readers (tell them) and when to craft a scene from your life (show them). And you’ll need to do that with seamless transitions between the two.
In my own memoir, for example, I begin the last chapter by telling readers about wanting to know what might happen next in my career and whether I’d ever meet Mr. Right.
Then I get right into the scene by showing readers the setting of a Halloween party I attended with a self-proclaimed psychic. Notice I’m showing by appealing to readers’ five senses:
Each year, the homeowner spent weeks transforming his house in Sylmar, California, by adding ghoulish displays, spider webs, and purple lights in large trees. And each year, decked-out partygoers sipped boozy punch from red plastic cups, listened to music in the backyard, snacked on veggie plates, and flirted with abandon.
I continue showing by crafting the scene of the psychic’s actual reading. Dialogue is key, as is the room’s appearance, the psychic’s demeanor, my Halloween costume, and how my mood shifted during the conversation. Here’s part of that scene:
. . . I peeked inside the room with curiosity. What did this enchanted woman look like? . . . Would she predict my future or tell me what I already knew? Would she make me sob in this silly cheerleader outfit? She was calm and poised when I set my red pom poms on the floor in front of a large desk and sat across from her. She sat behind the desk wearing a flowy skirt and long sleeves. She had kind eyes and seemed smart before saying a word—kind of like how I imagined it would have felt to sit in front of Toni Morrison.
“Is your mind always this cluttered?” she asked before I opened my mouth.
“You think a lot,” she said.
She asked to hold a possession of mine, so I handed her the keys from my purse—or was it my cell phone? She said she wasn’t a fortune teller, and not everything she’d pick up on would be correct, kind of like the psychic I’d visited with my mom when I was fourteen . . . I was skeptical of psychics as a teenager, as I would be at thirty-seven at the Halloween party, but I also found them intriguing . . .
[She] leaned in and asked my date of birth.
“June 8,” I said.
She nodded and mentioned something about “her Geminis.”
“What do you do for a living?” she asked.
“I’m a trade magazine editor.”
“But that’s not what you want to be doing five years from now.”
“No,” I said.
“You want to write.”
“You have to stop being afraid of failure and just be concerned about enjoying the process,” she said. “Your heart is always right, but you’re always trying to listen to your head. Always trust your instincts.”
She added, “Angels are around us all the time, but you have more angels around you than most people, and you won’t let them help you.”
I don’t believe in angels, but something about her conviction made me want to cry. I looked around the room in case I noticed any dead friends hanging out. If by “angels,” she meant “real people who are still alive,” she wasn’t wrong. I’ve always had trouble asking for help . . .
“Are you in a relationship?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“And this is a source of sadness for you.”
“You’re in pain because someone hurt you.”
“More than one person,” I said.
She leaned in closer and asked the most poignant question of the meeting: “What if your husband is waiting for you to find your voice?”
“Write that down,” I said.
Don’t Skip Weighty Specifics
When I work with clients on their own memoirs, they sometimes simply tell about important parts of their stories, skipping over the meaty details. It’s my job to remind them where they need to slow down and write scenes. Saying “I felt scared” during labor, for example, doesn’t have the same impact as showing the delivery room, what the doctors and nurses said, how the new mom felt in her body, what the room smelled like, and whether she interacted with her husband while breathing during contractions.
Another example: a writer telling the reader her parents are alcoholics who neglect their kids doesn’t elicit the same empathy as choosing a specific occasion when her parents were on Lake Powell drinking on their houseboat all afternoon, letting their teenagers race around the lake on jet skis, threatening their own and others’ safety before running out of gas on the far side of the lake where strangers had to rescue them because their parents were nowhere to be found.
When It’s Okay to “Tell”
Not every incident in your memoir needs to become a scene. If an author wrote about every time her parents got intoxicated, her book would be too long and redundant. Tell parts of your story when you need to condense time, provide context, pick up the pace, or ground the reader between scenes. Expand only on important episodes or turning points in your life that explain something new about the characters, conflicts, and themes of your memoir.
Showing versus telling involves trial-and-error choices you make as you write and revise your life story. What are the most dramatic moments? How do they connect? What does the reader learn from this scene? Is the scene imperative for the reader to understand the deeper meaning of the story?
Readers decide what to think and how to feel based on a well-rendered portrait of your life. Let them. If you dig deep and show the emotional aspects of your life, not offering any easy answers, readers will trust you and take the ride.