Thursday, July 6, 2017


At this point, I have taught Freshman Composition close to 30 times. In each of my classes, I have asked students to write about themselves. Any teacher can tell you that patterns emerge in student work. When I place an all-caps sentence at the bottom of an assignment that says "READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY. PLEASE DON'T DO 'X'", it is because the previous class all did 'X'.
It is not their fault. Their instincts tell them to think of their lives as one large story because they have always lived as the star of that story. Your job in writing about your own life is to defy those instincts, avoid the following mistakes, and find a way to tell your story that isn't cliche or trite.

This is the list of the common mistakes I have noted across a thousand memoir assignments collected from 500+ Freshman students over the past 7 years.
  1. Do not expect to tell your whole life story. 
    • Many students seem to have never been asked to write about themselves, and they see this as an opportunity to unload the goddam trailer onto the page. This often includes a list of relatives, places they lived, jobs they had, and salacious family history.
      • Allow yourself to write a little of this for yourself. Sometimes this "listing of details" can help you get into the right mindset. However, you must remember that this is scaffolding, a part of your draft that, while useful to get the thing built, eventually has to be stripped away. [I will create a separate post on the idea of scaffolding]
  2. Important people in your life will be entirely unimportant to your story. Ditch them.
    • There is no reason for a story by a person with 4 siblings to be longer than a story by a person with one sibling. It is possible that each relative added something special to their life, but it is also likely that you are spreading your reader's attention and memory too thin. Save the full family tree for the autobiography... maybe.
      • Allow yourself to cut out a family member or friend from a cherished memory. Is it really important that both of your best friends were there to hold your hand after your first breakup? Or should you focus on the friend who reoccurs several more times? Remember, your loyalty is to the story.
  3. The logistics of your life are likely useless to your story. This includes locations you have lived.
    • Some individuals moved seven times during childhood? That's probably worth one sentence. Did they have seven crucial experiences in those locations? That's probably fine as well. Do they need to take their reader out of the action every other paragraph to tell them that you moved again, describe the new house and new circumstances? Definitely not.
      • Allow yourself a private timeline on a separate document. It's okay to color code, highlight, and X-out all over that document. For some writers, and perhaps for you, a visual timeline can help reveal how convoluted your life path has been, and thus, how tiresome it will be for your reader.
  4. Your current partner is not perfect. Do not write about them as if they are. (This includes dead relatives)
    • A perfect spouse (parent, friend, or whatever) is not only unrealistic, it is bland as fuck. All writers, indeed everyone, has had tough relationships in the past, and sadly, many of those relationships were abusive. It is wonderful that many individuals find their way out of those situations and into healthier circumstances. However, a perfect partner provides no tension, and maybe worse, no story. For the writer who lived the story, this is a happy ending. For the reader, it is often a deus ex machina, a cheat.
      • Allow yourself a little melodrama every once in a while. Save it in a separate folder. Share it with your spouse. Come back to it and laugh. Don't expect an effusive love note to make its way into your final draft.
  5. Your love for your children is not unique, special, or interesting. 
    • In only 6 of my classes were the majority of students under 21. Perhaps it was a factor of teaching during the economic recession, but in almost every instance, my students were primarily 21+, mothers, and often raising children on their own. This lead to a profusion of memoirs about how much they loved their kids, how they would die for them, how there was nothing more important than being a good mother. This is all fine and admirable, but loving your children unconditionally is the absolute minimum that is expected of a parent. It is entirely indistinct in the scope of human experience.  I'm sure that writers who are parents feel they must mention their children. I have been told as much by many parents. Still, these stories are cliche and unremarkable.
      • Allow yourself to write about those you love, pets and children can be a wonderful focus for your story. However, the story is never "Look at how much I love these things. They are so special."
  6. Just because it happened, does not make it a useful detail to your story.
    • It may be a compelling and useful detail that the writer learned to ride a horse at 5 years old, but what about the paragraph concerning who the horse belonged to, and the fact that it stayed in a different stable on the weekends, and the fact that their uncle who taught them to ride got divorced? Are these important details? Well, maybe. That all depends on what the story is actually about. The important thing to remember is that a particular detail never belongs simply because it happened. 
      • Allow yourself to let go of the reality of your memory for a bit. It is okay to forgo the story about the horse entirely if all that is important is that you broke your ankle. Or maybe it is a story about the horse, and your injury can be skipped over. Or maybe it's a story about your relationship with your uncle, and there will be no ankle and no horse. It is okay to let these things wait on the sidelines of your memory for their own story.  Speaking of injuries...
  7. Your life-changing injury and/or addiction will probably not make a good story.
    • An injury and recovery will be as boring to a reader as it was for the writer to go through. These are particularly difficult to critique because the writer often sees a major injury as a life-defining experience. Besides, everyone loves a good injury story. While this may be true, injury stories are only interesting for two reasons. First, because the gory details are titillating, but often only good for a quick, thrilling bar-story. And second, because we care about the person to whom the injury happened. If the injury and tough recovery are the story, the writer risks dumping the reader in a pile of unremarkable aphorism. Yes, it took impressive courage. No, the reader won't care unless they already care about the character.
      • Allow yourself to explore these events, but I have found it useful to explore them in light of character transformation, and surprising details. What was the specific aspect of the experience that no one expected? What was surprising about how you changed throughout the ordeal?
This is by no means a complete list, nor is this advice absolute. I cherish the occasions when my students break the rules and surprise me. I read fantastic student essays about motherhood, injuries, and the intricacies of big families. However, at the core of these pieces there was always an understanding of the pitfalls and a careful attention paid to the elements that make a good story good.

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