Wednesday, August 15, 2012

“One of the great challenges of the writer is to produce a text that will …”

Donald M. Murray tells about reading a World War II story and interpreting it through his own experience as a paratrooper in that war.

His wife worked in the Pentagon during World War II and when she reads the same book, “she will read a different book,” says Murray in The Craft of Revision.

Murray continues, “When my daughters, who were … raised during the Vietnam era, read it, they will each read a still different text.”

In the same way, your memoir’s readers will interpret your stories through their own experiences and historical eras.

Murray says:

One of the great challenges of the writer is to produce a text that will cause readers to draw on their different experiences and still understand what we have to say.”

How can you write stories from your past that will resonate with readers growing up in a different epoch? Perhaps some of your readers have not yet been born!

“The first step,” Murray says, “is to recognize that our world may be different from the reader’s.”

In addition to recognizing readers will live in a different historical setting, he says, “We must recognize that our readers may not share our religion; our political party; [or] our economic perspective.…”

In writing a book about World War II, Murray says, “I must remember that my readers may not know what an M-1—our rifle—was, or a C-45—the two-engine troop-carrier plane from which we jumped. They may never have heard of the Maginot Line … or the SS …; may not even know of the Holocaust.…”

Imagine the year is 2040 and your great-grandson, age twenty-five, is reading your memoir.

Will he understand that when your house caught fire in 1962, you could not run outside with your phone to call the fire department because phones were attached to the wall with a cord? And that’s why you had to stay inside to call for help, and that’s why your pajamas caught fire? And that’s why your legs have scars?

If you came of age during the Vietnam era, especially if you or a loved one was drafted into the military, you’ll want readers to understand the political, social, and religious factors that divided and rocked our nation during those years. (You’ll probably need to explain what the draft was, too.)

Charlie Hale has compiled several brilliant pieces about both World War II and the war in Vietnam, including I Remember: Viet Nam, my friends, and Memorial Day.

Over at Diana Trautwein’s blog, she writes “It was the mid 1960’s and the escalating war in Vietnam brought deep soul-searching for many men of draft-able age. My husband had a unique up-bringing which led to an unusual choice, a choice which took him far away from the jungles of [Vietnam].… A saving grace in the draft process was to register as a 1-W—a ‘person opposed to bearing arms by reason of personal religious conviction.’ And that’s exactly what my husband had done.… He had registered as a conscientious objector (CO) … [and] that meant two years of service offered in lieu of joining the military. My husband wanted to do those two years somewhere far from home.…” (from An African Journal—Post One: Beneath the Surface)

If you want to witness a master craftsman make history come alive, take seven minutes at Charlie Hale’s blog for his video, The Images, Stories, and Songs of War. He uses black and white photos, songs of the era, and his concise narrative to capture both World War II and Vietnam—and their stark differences. It is a riveting piece.

Learn from Donald M. Murray, Charlie Hale, and Diana Trautwein. Capture the social, political, religious, and economic milieu of your life stories. Your history and your world are different from those of your readers but with a bit of effort, you can do what Murray says: “produce a text that will cause readers to draw on their different experiences and still understand what [you] have to say.” 


  1. Thanks so much for the shout out, Linda. I am humbled to be in such august company!

  2. Hi, Diana, your writing--including all the time and effort you put into it--is inspirational and you are a role model for so many. Thanks for your ministry in our lives here at SM 101, and in so many others!


  3. Linda and Diana,
    You have captured the transformative power of memoir in this post- transporting readers to another time and place in a way that helps them connect with their own stories. Very inspirational and enlightening post. Thank you both!

    1. Oh, Kathy, you are so dear, so encouraging. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your heart with us.

      I hope your memoir is coming together well. Bless you as you persevere and make so many decisions..... I think you must be in the most difficult "space" right now, but hang in there. You can do it!