Saturday, April 18, 2009

Strunk & White #1: Place Yourself in the Background

The Elements of Style is a venerable book. Its simple design reflects the principles that the authors espouse within its covers. Coming in at 105 pages, index included, this slim volume travels well. In Section V, the authors tackle “An Approach to Style.” Their first recommendation? “Place yourself in the background.”

When my writing group bandied this point around the table, more than a few faces were perplexed. How does a writer place herself in the background, especially if she’s writing in the first person? When I tried to think of examples of stories in which the writer overwhelmed the material with her own personality or quirks, I came up blank initially.

After I pondered this whole writer-in-the-background question, I did come up with a few answers. For instance, if you’ve studied advertising, you know that a brilliant ad may backfire on your product because consumers may remember a slick or clever ad but not the product being advertised—unless the product is front and center. Think of those commercials that leave you with the memory of the hip song they feature…. and nothing else. In contrast, think of the Geico ads. We love that lizard, but we never forget he’s selling Geico insurance. Likewise, any device we use in our writing should enhance the story or poem, the details supporting the work, not diminishing it.

The question remained, though, on how to place yourself in the background of a first-person memoir. Since this is my favorite genre, and the one in which I most often write, I thought first about memoirs that work. Frank McCourt’s Angela's Ashes, perhaps one of our best-known modern memoirs, is not just about McCourt. It’s about poverty and despair and hope and escape, about the struggles of not just McCourt, but his family and his country. Like any good story, a good memoir is multi-layered. The narrator may be the “I” of the story, but he isn’t only telling his story. He is a part of the story.

In contrast, I read a memoir a couple of years ago by a Miami psychic. Everything good about the book was on its jacket. The premise was exciting: an alleged psychic’s years as a consultant to drug dealers and other Miami characters. And that’s the whole book. Ms. Psychic never had anything insightful to say about her abilities. She didn’t paint a picture of Miami, or drug dealers, or really much of anything other than the narrative of her daily life—I went to my shop, I gave readings all day, I had dangerous customers. It put me in mind of the quote: “There are no boring lives, only boring writers.”

How do you place your story front and center?
Picture courtesy of stockers9 at

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