Lately, we have encountered a memoir or two that are long, explanations of someone’s life. How interesting are explanations? Think of your mother explaining to you why you should get a life. Think of the person you are meeting for lunch explaining in detail why he or she is late. And think about somebody telling a joke or a story and setting it up with a long explanation. Boring right?
If we can hardly keep ourselves in the room when people we know launch into explanations, why would we want to curl up with a book full of them?
Instead, the trick is to tell a story, complete with setting, characters and dramatic action. Here is a paragraph near the beginning of THE HOUSE AT SUGAR BEACH, a highly acclaimed 2008 memoir of growing up in Liberia by Helene Cooper:
Our house at Sugar Beach was plagued by rogues. From the time we moved into the twenty-two-room behemoth my father had had built overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, they installed themselves as part of daily life. It wasn’t hard to figure out why; we were a continent away from civilization at eleven miles outside of Monrovia, my mother was hell-bent on filling up the house with ivory, easily portable if you are a rogue, and our watchman, Balabo believed that nights were meant for sleeping, not guarding the house.
In this one paragraph you are already gripped by a story: This family is rattling around in a huge mansion overlooking the ocean. It is a long way from town and full of valuable ivory. Already, the reader is set for confrontation between the rogues and the family.
If instead of telling a story, Cooper had explained, the result might have been something like this:
We moved into the house at Sugar Beach in 1973. It had twenty-two rooms and overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. My father had it built eleven miles outside of Monrovia. It wasn’t very safe there especially because our night watchman, Balabo, was more likely to sleep at night than guard the house.
No story, no drama.