Nothing is Really Wasted: Tips on Researching Your Memoir

If you’re at an early stage, each piece of research in that fat file calls out to you: “I’m so interesting. I just have to get into your book.” Here's how to include the right information to make your book better.
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Do you have a humongous file of material sitting on your desktop? Is it crammed with stuff that relates to your book . . . notes from your reading, and maybe some thoughts about a film or a television program you’ve just seen, all of really important?

And then one day you find that the already fat file has swelled to two hundred pages!

Aargh.

Yes, I’m talking about myself and the process of writing my new book, WHITE MATTER: A Memoir of Family and Medicine. But if you’re reading this piece, I’m talking about you too.

This guest post is by Janet Sternburg. Sternburg is a writer of memoir, essays, poetry and plays, as well as a fine-art photographer. She lives and works in Los Angeles and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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Follow her on Twitter @HawthorneBooks and @JANETSTERNBURG.

If you’re at an early stage, each piece of research in that fat file calls out to you: “I’m so interesting. I just have to get into your book.”

You’re overwhelmed. You despair of ever sorting it all out -- of ever getting it all in. And meanwhile, like the little shop of horrors, the file keeps growing.

Know this: It IS all so interesting.

Truly.

And know this too: You’ll need to speak back to the clamoring voices: “No, you can’t go into my book. You’re (sob, sob) just too much!.”

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I had to do that with my memoir WHITE MATTER which I spent the last ten years writing. I felt that I had been given an unbelievable story, one that only I could tell, and I had to honor it by delving into it as deeply as possible: that meant research. The book is the story of my growing up with two lobotomized relatives, my mother’s sister and brother. I asked, “If my relatives had been so good and kind, how could they have done this to their siblings?”

I found movies in which lobotomy makes a surreptitious appearance, perhaps most obviously in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston sees a scar on the forehead of his unresponsive friend and wheels around to accuse his ape captors: “You did this to him! You’ve removed his frontal lobes.” Then I went on a long reading excursion into what I thought of as Famous Relatives of The Lobotomized, among them Tennessee Williams (his sister), her tragedy transformed into The Glass Menagerie. I spent a long period reading up on new findings in neurobiology, then made a dip into philosophy to read about the problem of evil.

I began to write the book, inserting this material.

Then one day I realized: the research was choking my story.

Here is what I learned from that stage, and I pass it on to you as a guideline: If you hear a voice in your head, saying -- even in the tiniest whisper -- “Oh boy, aren’t I smart!” -- that’s your signal to cut. That piece of research doesn’t serve the book’s needs, only your own. All it does is bounce back -- to you and how impressive you are. And you are not what comes first. First comes the story.

Here’s another guide: try reading a chunk of the book aloud, a few pages where a problematic piece of research is stubbornly clinging. You’ll most likely hear if it interrupts the story, if it leads you to wander away from the narrative you’ve been working so hard on laying down. And you’ll know that the piece can’t stay.

Wait a minute -- perhaps you’re saying that this sort of advice is old-fashioned, that a story isn’t everything? What about new hybrid forms that combine memoir with historical and essay material? That’s actually a pretty good description of my new book and yes, these kinds of books can be more expansive: think of an accordion that can stretch way out. But there has to be some principle, some core idea, and yes, some story for the writer to compress so that, like the accordion, the book can make its music.

Here’s a very important tip. As you go along cutting out the chunks of research, do not delete them! Put them back into that fat file. You’ll never know when you’ll need them. As I did, only a short while before the book went to press, when my editor phoned me and said, “I think the book could use more of the medical material. Could you go back and find it, and look for places to get it into the manuscript?” The subtitle of my book is A Memoir of Family and Medicine; he was saying that family was doing just fine but I had scanted the medical side.

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I might have balked if a) I didn’t trust him so much, and b) if he wasn’t echoing what another editor had said about my earlier memoir, again as I was nearing the end: “I think you know more than you’re telling.” He was right. Clearly then this was my writerly problem that I needed to solve.

I went back into the file, now labeled “outtakes” and spent an intense week sorting through material, boldfacing possible candidates (far easier to do now that the story had achieved its shape), then making a file, slender this time. Then I cut and pasted. I wrote transitions, and decided whether the flow was broken or enhanced.

With the new material artfully added (what a fellow writer has called

“feathering” ) the book took wing. I had taken away too much – valuable essay and factual material,– so that my story would flow better. But the book actually flowed better when it become fuller, when I allowed myself to become more of a thinking and feeling person on the page, capable of moving nimbly among many kinds of material.

Know this too: it’s about stages: Cutting, while necessary and valuable, was not the final word as I’d originally thought, but instead a stage in the process. At a later stage you may find as I did that your book is now asking for something else, not the collective voice of “I’m so interesting,” but a kind of partnership along the lines of “What if we try this here?” And don’t forget, you can always use the leftover research for when you give talks about your book. You never know . . . Nothing is really wasted; it just has its own time.

In the meantime, enjoy the way your own mind works, its twists and turns. Don’t berate yourself for collecting too much material; enjoy the fact that it’s your own curiosity that has led you to it. And that’s a wonderful quality. Cherish it.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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