The Heart of Memoir Writing: Takeaway

Every single manuscript evaluated for acquisition has to pass a single litmus test: Does the story have a takeaway? Here's what you need to know and apply to your memoir.
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When writers hear the word “takeaway” it evokes something specific. It speaks to what your reader gets from reading your work. What they walk away with. We originally started using the term "takeaway" in our memoir classes because of Brooke’s background as an acquiring editor, where every single manuscript evaluated for acquisition had to pass a single litmus test: Did the story have a takeaway?

This guest post is by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers, PhD. Warner is the publisher of She Writes Press and the president of Warner Coaching Inc. She is the author of What’s Your Book? and How to Sell Your Memoir. Myers,PhD, is the president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, a memoir coach for the past 16 years, and the author of Don't Call Me Mother,The Power of Memoir, and Journey of Memoir. Together Warner and Myers are the co-authors of Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Motivation and Craft for Memoir Writers. They teach together online at WriteYourBookinSixMonths.com, and they’re co-leading THE MAGIC OF MEMOIR, a weekend-long conference in Berkeley, October 2015.

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As we developed curriculum for the various memoir classes we teach together at WriteYourBookinSixMonths.com, we started to see something interesting. Many of the memoirs we were reading were heavily reflective. Reflection happens in memoir when the writer is making sense of their experience, synthesizing it for the reader. But there was something more, something deeper and more nuanced in the reflections we were seeing. Writers were offering wisdom, insight, and universal truths. So we appropriated an industry term for this all-important element of craft, and we’ve been teaching it to memoirists ever since.

[Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story]

Reflection Vs. Takeaway

Reflection happens between scenes, and sometimes after scenes. (While a whole scene can be comprised of the author’s reflective thoughts, we don’t recommend doing this.) Reflection is an internal moment where writers explicitly tell the reader how they feel about something, or what something meant to them, which is why it’s best when it’s supplemental to a scene.

Reflection can be analytical, but it’s often emotional. Some critics of memoir believe that reflection is the navel-gazing part of memoir, and it is possible to be overly reflective. In an article called, “Writing the Z-Axis,” Sean Ironman refers overly reflective writing as the “bar essay.” This kind of writing, he says, “reads as if the writer is on the barstool next to you rambling about their life over a Guinness.” This can happen in chapters, too, if reflection is not offset by all the good elements of scene-writing. That said, reflection is critical in memoir. Without it, you fall more easily into the trap of just relaying your experiences. Without it, you do not connect on a deeper level with your reader. Because memoir readers have come to expect an intense level of intimacy and sharing, the modern memoirist needs to learn how to connect through reflection.

Takeaway appears within a reflection. Takeaway can be a reflection, but not all reflection is takeaway. Now let’s unpack that. This means that wherever there is reflection, there is an opportunity for a takeaway, but it doesn’t mean that necessarily all reflections are going to be takeaways. In our teaching, we often describe the takeaway as the arrow that pierces the reader’s heart. If you’re a reader of memoir and you’ve experienced a really good takeaway, you’ll recognize these moments as the ones where you experienced a chill, a deep level of connection, or when you needed to put the book down for a second to sink into the powerful truth the author has just revealed.

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To further distinguish the two, reflection is a moment of inner musing—thoughts and feelings written for the express purpose of making sense of experience. The takeaway is something for the reader. It’s a nugget where the writer offers the reader a moment of connection, and in that connection they’re mirroring back a human experience—thus the arrow to the heart. These moments are not about the author; they’re for the reader.

Here are two passages from Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which showcase reflection and takeaway:

Reflection:

I felt that perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me… The wilderness had a clarity that included me.

Takeaway:

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer and yet also, like most things, so very simple, was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”

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How To Start Writing Takeaway

If you want to learn how to incorporate takeaway into your memoir, start first by learning how to identify takeaway. See if you can find sentences and passages like these in the memoirs you love. Takeaways don’t need to be full paragraphs, and they are never full scenes. They’re moments within the narrative when you tap into something bigger than yourself. They’re moments when you think about your reader and attempt to connect them to something bigger than your book.

Consider this profound takeaway from Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion:

“I didn’t know that there was a third way of being. Life was unpredictable, yes. A speeding car, a slip on the ice, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever. To deny that is to deny life—but to be consumed by it is also to deny life. The third way—inaccessible to me as I slunk down the halls—had to do with holding this paradox lightly in one’s own hands. To think: It is true, the speeding car, the slip on the ice, the ringing phone. It is true, and yet here I am listening to my boy sing as we walk down the corridor. Here I am giving him a hug. Here we are—together in this, our only moment.”

Shapiro is explaining the nature of paradox, how two seemingly opposing things are true at once. It’s reflective, and it’s a universal truth. This kind of paradox is something we all know, something we’ve all experienced, whether or not we’ve experienced it in exactly this way.

When attempting to write takeaway, think about your message. What do you want your reader to get out of the scene, or out of the chapter? What do you want them to know, to understand? How can you connect with them on a heart level? Takeaway is always more about the heart than the head. You can explain something in a deeply intellectually satisfying way and change the way a person thinks about something, but there is nothing more resonant for a reader than experiencing a heart-connection moment. These connections and how an author articulates are a tipping point that can elevate a memoir from being well-received to something that changes lives.

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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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