Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Include the slime and grime in your memoir, too

Do you want to write stories people will read, stories people will enjoy? Stories that will stick?

If so, write with zest and zing and sparkle—but don’t stop there.

Craft a believable story: include the stink, the slime, the sludge.

And don’t leave out the grime, the guts, the grunge.

Maybe your story is about children clawing through heaps of garbage searching for something to eat. Raw sewage flows between row after row of rusty, crumbling, patched-together dwellings. Describe the stench. Go beyond smell: Include the other four sensory words—sounds, feels, tastes, and sights.

In A Walker in the City, published in 1951, Alfred Kazin has returned to his childhood home in the Brownsville district of Brooklyn. He writes with passion and energy about everyday sights and experiences. He creates vivid images and includes sensory details.

He wrote, “The greasy, spattered front steps, just off the Chinese hand laundry in the basement, led into what must have been the vestibule of a traditionally stately Brooklyn Heights mansion. Despite the metal shields holding up the battered front door, you could see that it once had been a beautiful door.…”

“… I would lie in bed listening to tugs hooting three blocks away; the harbor was all around me.… The evenings were lonely and even a little terrible as I lay on a couch in the other room.…”

“ … I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue, smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps.… An instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.

“It is always the old women in their shapeless flowered housedresses and ritual wigs I see first; they give Brownsville back to me. In their soft dumpy bodies and the unbudging way they occupy the tenement stoops, their hands blankly folded in each other as if they had been sitting on these stoops from the beginning of time, I sense again the old foreboding that all my life would be like this.” (from Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser)

This summer, if you’re polishing already-written vignettes, look for ways to use specific words, precise words, compelling words.

Write with passion, gusto, and zeal.

Include the tang, the spice, and the pizzazz—but avoid sugar-coating.

Don’t shy away from the disgusting, the vile, the mire.

Be real about the bite, the wound, the burn, the sting.

Always remember Donald Murray’s words: “Revision is not punishment.”

Revision is your opportunity to polish your manuscript and make it shine.


  1. I'm sure I could use more slime and grime in my writing. This is good food for thought.

    1. Hi, Olive Tree --

      Well, at least some of the grime. We need to be realistic and honest instead of sugar-coating situations. See more discussions below in the comments.

      Thanks, Olive Tree, for stopping by.

      Blessings to you and yours,

  2. Excellent examples,Linda! All of our lives can be filled with "slime and grime" and we need to be willing to reveal it in order to make our stories believable. Thansk so much for another "tweetable " post :-)

    1. Believable stories, yes, that's what we're after. If we don't share at least some degree of the ugly stuff, we can't portray the depths of how good the good stuff was and is.

      Ah, Kathy, thanks for your patience with my Twitter failings. I WILL figure it out one day!


  3. So true. We can't shy away from the "ugly" parts. At the same time, since the overall purpose is to uplift and build faith in God, we need to be careful that we don't wallow in the mire to the point that it makes the muck seem appealing. We show the trials so that we can show the victories over them.

    1. Exactly! I can't emphasize that enough: My goal (and I suggest this blog's readers' goal) is to make our stories all about what God has done, make our stories a celebration of God. That's when God really shines. :)

      This, of course, brings up the question, "Just how much of the ugly stuff should I share?" I'll go dig through old materials and prepare a blog post about that.

      Thanks, Lia, for stopping by. I always appreciate your wisdom and insights. :)