Editing memoirs: Are any memories too trivial?

This question came up on the Life Writers’ Forum Yahoo group lately about editing out memories. A few of us answered that it depends on the audience, and felt that the writer was not particularly qualified to decide if a memory was too trivial to include. My mother would sometimes snap at me, “Who cares about that?!” if I asked too many questions about something she thought trivial. Well, her memoir is now in a number of university libraries. Life writers often encounter people who think little details or stories – or even their whole lives – are too trivial. Ha, what do they know? What they don’t know is context.

I’ve just finished reading Laughter Wasn’t Rationed by Dorothea von Schwanenflugel Lawson who survived WWII in Germany. The book is 526 pages long. It is a small press book, probably a one-book publisher. If a larger, traditional publisher would have taken it on, the manuscript would have been slashed and hacked at until only the most important and most interesting stories would be left. But in whose opinion? I found the little details of everyday life during and around WWII to be very revealing – a German civilian personal narrative is not common. Ms. Lawson included historical details I had never heard of. She had many stories of foraging for food, helping others, avoiding rape, working for the enemy after being conquered. She had Hitler jokes. Which of these would not be important enough to include?

Yes, memories can be left out if they do not contribute to the overall theme or message of a larger story, if they tend to duplicate each other, if they do not help explain a personality or the history or culture of the time, or if you are aiming at a big publishing house. Other than that, asking others for their advice before deleting is a wise move. In cooking up a story, those extra bits can make for good gravy.

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About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), and cats
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2 Responses to Editing memoirs: Are any memories too trivial?

  1. I had a pretty hard time when it came to really editing out some of my dad's stories. But in the end, it had to be done. I can always include them in something later. But for clarity's sake, at times, things just have to be taken out. If this book were just for family and not for publication, I would have done it differently. So yeah, it totally depends on the audience. Nice post! ~Karen

  2. Linda Austin says:

    Thanks, Karen. Yes, it does depend!

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