Non-fiction memoir is a slightly different animal to fiction. Here there may not be much of a plot, not a character arc other than the development of the individual concerned over time, shaped by their experiences. What readers of a memoir are looking for are vivid, interesting anecdote, lessons learned, relatability, universality. Without being preachy, what’s the “message” of the memoir, what are readers going to take away from the book?
Title: Say Nothing-My Brief Career in an Irish Asylum
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction (Memoir)
Language: US English
In 1994, when I was well and truly past my sell-by date, I left California for a job as a therapist in a crumbling, ancient Irish asylum. I didn’t mean to. I was sweetly conned by the elderly, gangly interview chairman who provided a whiskey recommendation but omitted the word “asylum” from the job description. It was my first exposure to our conflict of cultures; Americans who can’t shut up and the Irish, who provide only the most necessary of information; it’s a skill honed from 800 years of English oppression, or so I’m told.
Ireland wasn’t my first choice. I hoped for a job in the serene English countryside. But my degree was under a ten years of dust and I was certain that I couldn’t pass their eight-hour exam. Ireland’s desperation for speech therapists made my latent skills attractive. They needed a body and I had one.
I was assisted in my job search by a bespectacled, ginger haired, bi-polar hitchhiker from Tralee that I’d picked-up the previous year on a trip to Dingle. I didn’t mean to. Three nights before I was locked in a hotel bar in Waterford having my plans derailed by The Residents Rule. I was chatting with a gentleman about my trip to Killarney when it got to be closing time. The barman, who was asking for room numbers, began to work his way in our direction. I was not a guest so I started to pack up my things but my companion reached over and rested a gentle hand on my forearm. The barman asked for and received the requisite number from my neighbor and then looked to me for the same. I began a wordy defense that I “was on my way” and “not staying” – but as I opened my mouth, the gentleman slid his hand down my arm, guided his elbow to the space between us and jabbed me in the ribs in one smooth maneuver. I choked on my honesty and blurted out “my” room number, a sloppy inversion of the one just given. The barman walked away leaving us in the grace period extended to hotel guests to keep the party going. As the night wore on, my companion insisted that I bypass the tourist trap of Killarney and head straight for Dingle. I agreed and after thanking him, left him still sitting there at some God awful hour of the morning. I wondered what the barman would say when he let me out of the door and onto the street; I was obviously not a guest of the hotel. I needn’t have worried. I had provided only the most necessary of information, it’s a skill.
I reached Dingle in the evening. I left my car in an open field that was passing as a car park and walked straight up the road to the first bed and breakfast with the light on. I was greeted by Mrs. Sweeney who brought me in and sat me at the kitchen table. She was wearing an off white housecoat and a pink hair net that barely covered the curlers wound tightly around her head. A filter-less cigarette dangled from her lip as we sorted out the keys. She balanced an unbelievable length of ash over the table as she took my name. She was in a hurry, having to be up to the church to sort out the flowers for tomorrow. She stalled then and told me that I must be wanting tea and something to eat. She was adamant about this and went off to put on the kettle. When she returned with the tea, she started rummaging around the kitchen, pulling open the doors of a tall, crammed cupboard and causing a loaf of bread to roll off the crowded shelves and onto the floor. While I had admired her steadiness at ash balancing, I did notice a good bit of it was dusted off the bread as she retrieved it from the floorboards. Wiping it on her housecoat, she put it on the table and cut off a chunk, leaving it on a side plate next to the semi melted butter already on the table. Before leaving she redirected me to my keyring, drawing my attention to the picture of a smiling Pope John Paul II. I was not to worry. Everyone in Dingle knew that her bed and breakfast was the home of the pope, if I lost the key, it would come right back to her.
I visited quite a few pubs in Dingle that night. Great music and loads of conversation. I made the most of my first night in town. Mrs. Sweeney had said that I was the only guest in the house but in the morning, the bespectacled, ginger haired Conor appeared at the breakfast table. He was dry and witty and not the least bit short of an opinion on Yanks. All Yanks. Conor paid for his breakfast, he was not a guest, and then suggested that he spend the day with me in Dingle. I did not see us as traveling companions but his persistence won out and we spent half the day meandering around pubs and shops. Conor knew a fair bit about Dingle and its peninsula and suggested that we travel out the road to the beehive huts. He was also looking for a lift to Tralee and took it upon himself to map out my afternoon drive. We loaded up the car and headed out of town. Rounding a corner, he spotted a young woman hitchhiking at the side of the road. Conor became agitated at seeing her and ordered me to stop. Pulling over, I rolled down the window and offered her a lift. She seemed pleased until she saw Conor leaning across me waving his hands and claiming my generosity as his own. Her smile vanished. I couldn’t quite read the expression on her face but to me it looked like fear.
Editorial critique: This is well-written, not much for a proofreader to do. The problem I see with this as an opening to a memoir is that it rambles a bit. It is a memoir, not some formal business proposal, so it’s not that I want to see an executive summary of what the “message” in the memoir is going to be, but I do think that some kind of indication as to what the message is going to be is important. Why should people (an agent, or even simply a reader) read this particular memoir? What are they going to get out of it? This opening is a set of loosely connected, well-observed, atmospheric anecdotes, but I couldn’t discern any any kind of sense of a thematic link. There’s not a strong narrative link either. The story jumps from wide-angle distant perspective, “In 1994 … I left California” to a very specific close-first-person PoV “I choked on my honesty” within two paragraphs. Again, this change of focus is quite normal in a memoir. You discuss a change in lifestyle in broad focus and then zoom in to illuminate a particular part of it in a much tighter perspective, but this skips from distant past, 1994, to moving to Ireland and looking for a job, to somehow going back a year and describing the picking up of Conor in Dingle. It jumps about, and doesn’t allow the reader to settle.
I’m going to award it a silver star. You could easily send this out to prospective agents as it stands. It’s very well written. Yes, perhaps a quick proofread might give it a final polish, but my concern would be that if they’re not wholly drawn in by your anecdotal descriptions, agents are going to be sitting back after this first few pages and wondering what this memoir is actually “about”. You might say, “it all becomes clear in the next few pages”, and that might be true, but what if they don’t read that far?
Thanks for posting.