One man could sail around the world and not hold a single reader with his memoir. E.B. White could describe a row across Central Park Lake and hold a reader breathless.
It’s not the events of your story. It’s the story of your events--in you.
Location: a party at a house by the harbor.
The conversation: it might go something like this.
One of the men turns to me—about my age, getting grey—we’ve been chatting boats. “You’re the one who’s just published that memoir.”
“Yes. I enjoyed doing the book. But I only had the time after retiring. Lot of work. I suppose not everyone could do it.”
"You know, I’ve tried to write a memoir. People say my life is amazing. Can’t seem to make it into a book though. I could use your advice.”
“You’ve sailed across the Atlantic, right?”
“Three crossings. Once solo in a 28-foot sloop. France—Azores—Cape Verdes—then downwind to the Caribbean.”
“So what’s the point of your memoir?”
He looks puzzled. “I just said.”
“I don’t mean to be argumentative, but no, you didn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve told me what happened, not what the point is.”
“People say I tell what happened very well.”
“I expect you do. There’s a lot to tell about. All that sailing. I’m sure you’ve done a good job at what is not the job.”
He looks, perhaps, offended. “What do you mean it’s not the job?”
“What I mean is you’ve begun the job—to tell the story—but that’s not the real job. You’ve got your story so one event flows into the next event. That’s good.”
“Thanks.” And then, “I think.”
“But the real job is harder.”
“Because the real job is answering my question—what’s the point?”
“Why can’t I just tell the story and be done?”
“Because no one wants to read a sequence of your events. ”
“I don’t understand. Why do I do this then?”
“What someone wants to read is what that person needs to read.”
“How am I supposed to know what that person needs to read?”
“One thing everyone needs to read is the truth.”
“The truth about what?”
“About you, and about the point.”
“But the truth about me is what I wrote down already.”
“No, it isn’t. What you wrote down is a sequence of events, which you have ordered so they flow. That’s not the truth. That’s a sequence. And nobody wants to read a sequence of your events.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Tell the point.”
“What is the point?”
“Ah, that’s the big question, is it not?”
“Oh, come on. We’re going around in circles.”
He steps aside and pours himself another drink. I think he may have left the conversation, but he circles back. “Anyway, the truth right now is that I hate my boat as much as I love her. Maybe I’m too old.”
I pause, thinking there's truth right there if he developed it, but I ask, “What’s the point of your nautical life—of this sequence you have written down?”
“The point? I’m just trying to tell my story here. People say my life is amazing. That’s what I’m trying to tell about.”
“You really want my advice?”
“Take the sequence, each chapter, just as it flows now, and go back and rewrite it again. By the third or the fourth chapter I'll bet a new conception of your story will begin to emerge in your writing. Your concept of your story will have matured. That new concept is the point. Or at least it will be a new step toward the real point."
“Ah, that point thing….
“Yes. That point thing. Then, when you're all done, you'll need to go back to the beginning and do what I just said all over again another time."
"Eventually, you'll know what the actual point actually is. And that's what leads to the truth about you. The truth is the reason why people will need to read your book. So they can have truth in their lives. They need to have truth in their lives, and your book gives it to them.”
He muses. “It’ll take a lot of pages to write it again and again.”
“It takes a lot of days to cross the Atlantic. What’s the point of doing that? Just to get to the other side?”
"No." He pauses. “It’s being out there on the ocean and in tune with the ocean—for me, that’s in tune with God—and even more so when I’m alone.”
“So that’s the truth you need to talk about. Your focus needs to be on the truth, not on successive positions at noon. People will read your book, if it contains the truth about you and about your soul, so they can have the truth in their lives.”
“But what do I do with all this mass of paper? By now, I’ve got maybe a thousand pages on my desk!”
“Yes, you do have lots of pages. Now cut every sentence from the thousand pages that does not reveal the truth.”
“But what if I love those sentences by now?”
“You will love them. But your love is self-indulgent. You’re in love with your love of your sentences. Cut anyway.”
“In the Caribbean, did you ever take on board a huge bunch of green bananas and hang them in the rigging and, when they ripened, need to eat them as fast as you possibly could before they rotted?”
“What happened when they rotted?”
“Threw them overboard.”
"See? Even though you loved them?”
“Even though.” He smiles. “Okay, I cut.”
“That’s what you’ll do if you want someone else to read your story.”
“I thought I wanted that.”
"Don’t back away now. Now people will read your story—and will value it—because now you are telling the truth.”
“Yeah, one more thing. Just go through and make every paragraph a pleasure to read—vivid, humorous, whatever it takes to make each paragraph a pleasure to read.”
He rolls his eyes. “Then am I done?”
“Oh, sure,” I smile. “Then you’re done.”
We shake hands.
As he turns away, I say, “But when an editor gets hold of it, you’ll have three or four more rewrites yet to do.”