But for some reason, sometimes even people who have accepted this advice in other forms of writing don’t believe that it applies to memoir. When I was speaking about memoir writing, and specifically about my work helping people to write and self-publish their memoirs, to a large group at a retirement community a year or so ago, one woman relentlessly pushed this point with me, asking how I, as a ghost writer, could possibly communicate the innermost feelings that her memoir would surely be expected to reflect. I explained once again my process of interviewing my clients, walking them meticulously through the stages and events of their lives, uncovering memories and anecdotes and details in order to commit their story to paper.
“But I don’t see how your retelling of what I did could possibly show how I was feeling,” she insisted.
I would argue the opposite. When clients are telling me about their lives, their actions tend to communicate how they were feeling far more accurately than any emotive adjectives or adverbs would – and my job as memoir ghost writer is to ensure that I faithfully re-create those scenes from their lives in order to reflect their emotions and moods, their moments of fear or concern or anxiety or excitement or anticipation or joy, as fully as possible.
And so when a client tells me how he or she was feeling at a particular moment and I don’t feel as if their narrative has brought us sufficiently to that emotion, I ask them to back up a step or two, describe what was going on. A client recently told me that the moment she glimpsed the man who would later become her husband, “there was a sense of immediate attraction.”
“And what happened at the moment you had that sense?” I asked her.
“We were in an art gallery when we spotted one another across the room. He ran across the floor, lifted me up and spun me in a circle. Everyone else in the room burst into applause.”
That’s a show-don’t-tell moment: the action reflects exuberance, passion, excitement and a sense of promise.
I thought of this again when a different client told me that even as a young girl attending Catholic school in France in the 1930s, she had a mischievous and slightly rebellious streak.
“What’s something you remember from that time?” I asked her.
She laughed. “The girl who sat in front of me in the classroom had long braids. Once I tied her braids to the back of her chair without her noticing until she tried to stand up.” This same client later helped smuggle downed pilots from the British Royal Air Force across continental Europe to Gibraltar, where they could board ships back to England. A rebellious spirit, indeed – and the actions to bear it out.
I think too of a client who described how as a little boy he spent hours in a grass ravine near his family’s apartment, examining every leaf, rock and insect he could find – this intellectual curiosity led to his earning a Ph.D. in physics. His wife, in turn, told me that she loved living in a tiny apartment full of relatives when she was a little girl because she could listen to the grownups talking over her as she fell asleep – and she grew up to be a lifelong extrovert, exuberant in her enthusiasm for meeting people.
So indeed, as we look at memoir as a reflection of who we are, we might think of our innermost selves – our souls or spirits or essence – as consisting more of feelings than of actions. But I would argue that this is not the case. “Show, don’t tell” is as relevant in memoir writing as in any other kind of writing. Show me what you did, and in doing so you will find yourself demonstrating who you are and what lies in your heart.