The lighter side of editing

The lighter side of editing

Thursday, April 14, 2016

In Memoir, Don't Ignore the Larger Context

Yes, this is interesting...
Quite a few years ago, a colleague of mine proofread a memoir whose author had been a young Jewish girl in Poland during the Second World War. Sounds compelling, right? Sadly, in this case the story was more frustrating than compelling, because the author made absolutely no mention of the war or its effects on her or her family. Instead, her story focused entirely on the young girl’s direct experiences, most notably (or at least most memorably for the proofreader) her being bitten on the leg by a goat.

Leaving too much out 

I don’t mean to suggest that this author’s life story was not worthy of being written down, and I’m sure her descendants will love that detail about the goat, but it felt like a big part of the story was being left out. Surely it would be frustrating or confusing for the reader to know that larger events—horrific events—were happening in that time and place but the author had decided not to include any word of them in her life story. And what about a future reader who might come to the story with no knowledge of that history?

...but don't forget to
mention this too.
Now, I suppose it’s possible that somehow this girl’s family shielded her from any knowledge of events surrounding them. Perhaps she was just too young to be aware of much beyond her leg and her goat. But surely the Holocaust and Second World War warranted a mention, even if it was only to say that as a young girl the author was blissfully unaware of these things.

Your story comes with a context

Your story is just that—your story—but it takes place in a larger context of place and time. That larger context matters to your readers, so give them at least a taste of it. You don’t need to provide an extensive background on world or national events; a few well-placed sentences can often do the trick, and the focus can be local if that is what is most relevant to your story.

Some of the older guys were getting drafted and going to Vietnam, and some of them didn’t come back. I wasn’t thinking much about that, though, not with the state baseball championship just a week away.
 That was the time of the Big Snow, January 1945. Almost four feet of snow on the ground, roads would get cleared only to drift over again, a neighbor across the way took sick and died because the doctor couldn’t get to him. And there sat I, stuck in our old farmhouse, about to burst with my first baby.
 The above sentences provide some context without going into unnecessary detail. They’re just enough to let the reader know a little more about how your story fits into the bigger picture. Whether you’re writing primarily for your own family or for a wider audience, your readers will appreciate that information—along with the more personal details of how you were bitten by a goat or stuck in the snow or threw a baseball through the living room window.

Picture credit: Goat photo and German soldier stock images from GraphicStock.

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