This reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines the first memoir by internationally acclaimed author Maya Angelou, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS.
1. Have a Theme
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
This memoir, one of many, is focused on Angelou’s early years—from four to sixteen. She tells the reader about her family, about how she came of age, and what values she was taught. But what makes this book powerful isn’t the series of stories—it’s how Angelou centers the stories around a theme: race in segregated America during the 30s and 40s. The above quote is from the fourth page in the book, after Angelou shares an early memory of church. The line is harsh, but it tells us where the memoir is going. Angelou is going to show us the rust on the razor and let us experience the pain of growing up. She returns to this time and again, powerfully using her life story to explore a broader issue. A good memoir needs a theme to bind it together. The theme gives it coherence. Find your theme and write accordingly.
2. Characterization matters.
“Bailey’s laugh had worked its way up through his body and was escaping through his noes in short hoarse snorts. I didn’t try any longer to hold back the laugh. I just opened my mouth and released sound.”
During this story, another church adventure with her brother Bailey, Angelou paints a vivid picture of herself as a child. She is beautifully characterized. Like fiction, the narrator of a memoir needs a distinct characterization, so that the reader can easily recognize his or her presence both inside and outside of the story. Angelou’s laughter cannot be held in—she has to release it. This laughter is liberating. That is part of Angelou’s characterization—she will not be restrained. Characterize yourself so that your readers can always find you.
3. It’s okay to not have a perfect memory.
“I don’t remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up.”
This journey took place when Angelou was four. Naturally, she doesn’t remember much of the journey. She supplements what she doesn’t know with what probably happened and what people have told her. But she’s honest with the reader. She doesn’t try to fool us into thinking she remembers what happened at such a young age. She tells us what she does remember and fills in the remaining gaps as best she can. You can’t remember everything that’s happened in your life and write it perfectly. That’s not the point of memoir. Write what you know and then fill in the gaps. Use family and friends. Look at the culture and history of the time. Write based on how you know your family responds in situations. Be honest with your reader and they won’t mind that you don’t know it all.
Have you hit a wall on your work-in-progress? Maybe you know where you want your characters to end up, but don’t know how to get them there. Or, the story feels a little stale but you still believe in it. Adding a plot twist might be just the solution.