The reader is not in the writer's head


One of the biggest weaknesses I see in memoir and creative non-fiction is that the writer assumes every detail that is important to them is also important to the reader. It's not. Salient detail is what counts.

To understand why you mention your primary teacher Miss Oliphant's charm bracelet seventeen times in a 2000 word memoir, I'd have to be in your head, and I'm not. Nor do I want to be. I want writers to crystallise the universal out of their personal experience. Is the charm bracelet horribly creepy because you hear it jangling along behind the small school desks and you know that if your work isn't judged neat enough you'll be shaken? Then show me the fear we all felt when we were small and wanted to please an authority figure - don't simply shake the charms at me and expect me to do the work.

The best writers get into our heads, they don't make us climb into theirs. Stephen King universalises fear; Gustave Flaubert shows us the pain of hopeless love; Hilary Mantel reveals the weird underpinnings of everyday life. They do it by making sure their charm bracelet is like my frighening teacher's hissy breath or your terrifying dinner-lady's wobbly chin; they symbolise the item but anatomise the feeling. What a weak writer does is anatomise the item but then leave us to symbolise the feeling.