It’s easy to forget that a memoir really is all about you and step back from the story at key points. “I didn’t want to say too much about that, because I don’t want to sound like I was bragging,” is a common response to the urging to the feedback “I’d like to read more about that.”
Most of us learned early that bragging was to be avoided, and those who have been fortunate and rise above the ordinary may hesitate to elaborate on successes in memoir. The inverse is equally true: nobody wants to sound like a whiner! And yet, to limit and account to the bare mention of triumph or tragedy leaves readers wondering what the real story was.
Bragging boils down to a matter of telling rather than showing. When you “report” on your life, focusing on facts with no mention of feelings and insights, the result may sound like bragging. If you just report that you won the Pulitzer Prize and move on to something else in the next sentence, I’m going to feel shortchanged, and maybe a little angry when I read that. I may feel like you didn’t trust me, the reader, to understand.
The solution is to put more of yourself in the story. Tell your readers what you thought and felt at the time. What did this event mean to you? Why was it important? How did it affect your life? Whether triumph or tragedy, if readers think it is a big deal, they are not going to believe you if you say it wasn’t. Let us know how it was a big deal to you, or if it really wasn’t tell why not.
Use a short scene to put heart and humanity into a successful moment, for example:
When I set the paper aside, I could hardly breathe. I sat there with tears streaming down my face as I realized that all those weeks, months, and years of pounding away on my Underwood had finally paid off. The ultimate critics had bestowed the ultimate honor. As I pondered this extraordinary news, I was overwhelmed by a mixture of humility and tumultuous joy. I simultaneously sank with grief that my mother had not lived long enough to share this joy and felt my spirit rise and soar like a hot air balloon in a sunny sky. I wanted to run and shout, stop strangers on the street. I wanted to crash down the solid walnut door and storm unannounced into the Publisher’s office waving my letter. Instead, I took a deep breath and strolled into the press room with wicked anticipation and glee.
You may not have anything as dramatic as a Pulitzer to report, but small things that brought elation or devastation matter too. Don’t hesitate to “brag.” Just be sure to package it in context and let us feel your response. Remember, this is your story, and it really is all about you!