When Michelle Obama sits down to write her memoirs what ought she to do to make the writing interesting? Hint: fame and power in themselves are not enough to intrigue a reader.
Writing her memories of her years in Washington will be challenging to Mrs. Obama but not as hard as some people think. If she is willing to follow the five simple steps I will outline below, she can succeed at writing an interesting and meaningful autobiography. (More and more people–in fact, many who at first think they couldn’t–are succeeding at exploring and honoring their pasts in this way.)
These five suggestions are among the most powerful–and easiest–to implement in personal and family history writing.
Good luck—to Michelle Obama and to you!
1) Make a memory list. This is a list of everything she (or you) can remember about the people, places, and actions of a particular memory, era, or “character” in her life. Anything the writer can recall is important enough to include. It’s crucial to jot down 3-5 words for each item on the list (“royal blue suit” “scent of eucalyptus”). The memory list will eventually be hundreds of items long. Creating this list will stimulate the First Lady to remember more than she can now think possible. It will provide her with the details to make her story full and memorable. Once she has a memory list, she just pick an item and begin to write! And so will you.
2) Show your story; don’t tell it. Good stories engage us actively. Do this by recording action like a movie camera: show your “characters” (whether heads of state or family) moving, talking and interacting rather than simply describing them. Mrs. Obama ought to write “Secretary of State Clinton paced back and forth in front of the window, looking up and down the street for an answer to give the President,” rather than “she was stumped trying to find an answer.” Now really, which do you find more interesting to read!
3) Use all five senses. Instead of writing that the stateroom at Buckingham Palace was “lovely,” give the reader details: color, style of furniture and curtains, lighting and decorations. Now, they can “see” the details for themselves. Use the other senses, too: smell, sound, taste and touch.
4) Use dialogue. When you express thoughts and feelings in the “characters’” own voices, you make dialogue sound clear from the page. It’s okay to approximate or recreate a conversation especially if you take the time to remember unique phrases or pronunciations. Keep it short (it will be more believable and easier to write). Do not, however, make us read long dialogue. It will sound like you’ve put words in the other’s mouth.
5) Replace adjectives with dialogue, action, or setting. Mrs. Obama will gain vividness and immediacy as a result. Change “he was aggressive” to dialogue: “He said ‘We’ll nuke them out of the sky’.” Turn “she was angry” into an action: “the ambassador struck the table again and again with her fist.” Replace “we were poor when I was a child” with details of setting: “The torn green and black linoleum barely covered the center of the room.”
If Michelle Obama writes a memoir, she will find the rewards are there, waiting for her and for the country–understanding and appreciation of who she and her husband are and where they’ve come from, affirmation and celebration of what they achieved. If The First Lady follows these five tips—as you should, too—she will produce a story that is not only full of names and dates of famous people but a story that comes to life and intrigues the reader.
And remember: practice makes perfect. Any writer who wants to preserve personal, family or national history, must write, write, write. Set yourself a time to write and honor your commitment. Your readers will be so glad you did.