It must be hard to remember when you are telling your life story that you do not live alone in a bubble, that there are other people in your life. We say this because we edit memoirs – life stories – that really seem to have only one person in them and that is the person whose name comes after by on the title page.
Anyone else who appears is a shadowy figure, not described and often, not named. These books are full of characters like my mother, my father, my sister, my friend, my boss, my son, my therapist, my parole officer, my cleaning lady, my colleague, my grandmother and so on. In one book we edited, there was a whole group of characters referred to as my aunts. Thereafter, John/Jane Memoirist wrote blithely about going to visit my aunt or my aunt sending me a letter as if these individual aunts were only a single cow in a herd.
This practice can come across as egocentric, although we don’t think our memoirists are really that stuck on themselves. They are simply writing about their lives. Logically, there should be a lot of my fill-in-the-blanks in a memoir because the characters in your life story are there because of their relationship to the you. But that doesn’t mean they should be passed over without names or descriptions.
This practice makes for incredibly boring reading. Names help to define people. Referring to my friend is completely different from referring to Charles Wentworth or Abdullah Ibrahim or Jimmy Bob Jenkins. See how the names change your perception of the anonymous “my friend”? Adding names alone will make your memoir richer. (If you want to protect someone’s identity, assign them a fake name.) Your book will be even more enjoyably readable if you also include physical descriptions of my mother, my boss etc. and tell some stories about them. Details matter.
Here is a passage from the memoir THE COLOR OF WATER by James McBride
“At some point in my consciousness, it occurred to me that I had a father. It happened around the time my younger brother Hunter was born. I was five years ahead of Hunter, and while the arrival of a new baby in the house didn’t seem to shake anyone – Hunter was the eleventh child – it was the first time that an elderly, slow-moving man in a brown hat, vest sweater, suspenders, and wool pants seemed to float into my consciousness. He picked up Hunter and held him in the air with such delight it made me happy to watch him. His name was Hunter Jordan, Sr., and he raised me as his own son.”
Now look what happens to this passage when you take out all the names and the descriptions of other characters:
At some point in my consciousness, it occurred to me that I had a father. It happened around the time my younger brother was born. I was five years ahead of him, and while the arrival of a new baby in the house didn’t seem to shake anyone – he was the eleventh child – it was the first time that I noticed my stepfather. He raised me as his own son.
Without the naming and description of Hunter, Sr., the passage looses all its punch and meaning.
Ultimately, your memoir, your story, isn’t just about you; it is also about the people in your life and the more interesting they are as characters, the more interesting you will be too.