Saturday, March 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Creating an Evocative Mood in a Memoir

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Seven

This week’s questions:

I am trying to be evocative without over-doing it or being too obvious. Can the reader picture this scene and/or feel a part of it? How can I create a certain, in this case reflective, mood?

Market/Genre: Memoir


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I stopped daydreaming and went back to my task. I was almost finished with the bedroom. Pulling out the contents of the bottom drawer in the chest of drawers in Aunt Grace’s closet, I found more nightgowns, silk and cotton, and more colorful sweaters, carefully folded with scarves next to them that matched. Yes, that was Aunt Grace. Organized.

Under the sweaters in the corner of the drawer I felt a cache of papers and materials. Probably more old bank statements I can toss, I thought. Aunt Grace squirreled away practically everything, including bills and notices long past their dates. But no, it was an assortment, a collection of memorabilia, carefully saved treasures from her family’s past: letters, postcards, photographs, church bulletins, birth announcements, wartime V-mail, and dry, yellowing newspaper clippings. As I pulled the bundle out I saw it was contained within a brown cotton hair-net, a thin, pale blue ribbon woven through it and tied in a bow to make it into a bag. Yes, that was Aunt Grace: she lived through the Great Depression and she learned how to re-use everything. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” she would sing-song in her light southern drawl, as she hung up yet another only slightly soiled paper towel to dry. Then she would laugh self-consciously, her thin, blue-veined hands flying up to cover her mouth.

Perhaps it was only the gardenia-scented sachet nestled in the drawer with the nightgowns, but I thought I felt Aunt Grace’s presence at that moment. I instantly loved this invention, this hair-net pouch.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I stopped daydreaming and went back to my task. I was almost finished with the bedroom. Pulling out the contents of the bottom drawer in the chest of drawers in Aunt Grace’s closet, I found more [nightgowns, silk and cotton, and more colorful sweaters, carefully folded with scarves next to them that matched. Yes, that was Aunt Grace. Organized.] I get a visual here, but perhaps add some other senses as well.

Under the sweaters in the corner of the drawer I felt a cache of papers and materials. Probably more old bank statements I can toss, I thought. Aunt Grace [squirreled away] I like image this evokes practically everything, including bills and notices long past their dates. But no, it was an assortment, a collection of memorabilia, carefully [saved treasures] Another image you could possibly play with from her family’s past: letters, postcards, photographs, church bulletins, birth announcements, wartime V-mail, and dry, yellowing newspaper clippings. As I pulled the bundle out I saw it was contained [within a brown cotton hair-net, a thin, pale blue ribbon woven through it and tied in a bow to make it into a bag.] Perhaps use this first since the bag would be seen before the contents? Could fit nicely with the treasure image [Yes, that was Aunt Grace:] You just used this phrase, so perhaps cut she lived through the Great Depression and she learned how to re-use everything. [“A penny saved is a penny earned,” she would sing-song in her light southern drawl, as she hung up yet another only slightly soiled paper towel to dry. Then she would laugh self-consciously, her thin, blue-veined hands flying up to cover her mouth.] Like this, and it feels more reflective.

Perhaps it was only the gardenia-scented sachet nestled in the drawer with the nightgowns, but I thought I felt Aunt Grace’s presence at that moment. I instantly loved this invention, this hair-net pouch.

The questions:

Note: It's only fair to mention that I'm not a memoir reader or writer, so this is a market I'm not familiar with. Those with experience here please chime in. You can also check out Meghan Ward's blog, Writerland, as she writes about memoirs from time to time and has some good posts over there,

Can the reader picture this scene and/or feel a part of it? How can I create a certain, in this case reflective, mood?
I'm getting visuals with the descriptions of the closet and the clothes, the trinkets in the hair-net pouch, but there's not a lot of specific-to-this-closet items yet. The details are fairly general for any closet anyone cleaned out, save for the hair-net pouch. (that's a great detail) Perhaps be more specific about an item or two that means something to the narrator. Maybe even what this means to her as she does this chore.

You might also consider adding some other sensory details. Until the very end, sight is the only sense used. But old silk feels different from cotton, and you have the rough wooden drawers, cedar scents, musty odors, sachets, all kinds of possible smells and textures you could work with. Smell is a huge trigger for memory, so scents that lead to memories is another way to bring in that reflective mood.

(KA Stewart did a great guest post on exercises to help you notice sensory details here)

There are some interesting phrases here you might consider playing with to personalize this even more and bring in that reflective mood you're going for. I really like "squirreled away" as it made me picture how the items might have been found. It also lends itself to further characterize Aunt Grace as a "saver" of things.

I also loved the treasure image--memories and keepsakes as priceless finds in a hidden cache. This easily lends itself to reflection as the items spark memories. And the treasures were found in a treasure (the hair-net pouch) so it's doubly evocative.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

7 comments:

  1. I like the picture of Aunt Grace as a woman who saves EVERYTHING due to living through the Depression. My grandfather lived through that and as a result passed thriftiness down to my mother. As Janice pointed out, the hairnet bag is a fantastic detail!

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  2. Until the last line, when the writer "loves" the hair-net pouch, we don't get much feeling from writer herself. I'd be interested to see the writer react earlier to what she is seeing. Why was she daydreaming? What is she feeling, going through Aunt Gracie's things? Was this a beloved aunt, or a distant, hated figure, or even someone the writer didn't know well at all?

    I suspect this story will be not Aunt Gracie's story, but the writer experiencing her family history via Aunt Gracie's treasures. (And maybe I am way off-base.) If that is the case, I'd like to see more of the writer.

    If you haven't read it already, pick up William Zinsser's On Writing Well, which is a fantastic tool for non-fiction.

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  3. Pardon me - make that Aunt Grace.

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  4. Thank you so much Janice, I get it. I think I am on the right track and this has given me much confidence to continue. Papillion and Rachel, thank you for your kind comments. If anyone wants to read the entire prologue, about 1,000 words, I would be thrilled to send it along. Thanks again, invaluable thoughts you shared! JanO

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  5. I loved the hairnet detail also. It was personal and unique. But my attention wandered a bit at the "penny saved" comment. It just felt a bit generic. I know it's memoir, and you need to be true to your character, but I would love something surprising there.

    An example, FWIW - my elderly, sick, depression-era mom was out visiting at a moment when we were adding on to our house, so there was a ton of noise from a contractor tearing down walls. I apologized, thinking it might keep her from resting. But she said she found the sound comforting. Her words: "That's the sound of a man working. There's no more beautiful sound in the world." Given her history, it made perfect sense, but her reaction both surprised me and deepened my appreciation of her and how she views the world. Would love a similar detail that draws me into the uniqueness of the Aunt.

    Anyway, the writing is lovely, so just something to mull over. Good luck!

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  6. Couple quotes from my Depression-era grandfather for you; I don't know if you can use them, Jan, but for what they're worth:

    "It's not how much you make; it's how much you hold on to."
    "A dollar's a lot of money if you haven't got one."

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  7. Jan, most welcome, glad it was helpful :)

    Rachel, great quotes!

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