When we write creative nonfiction about our lives, we immediately take center stage in the narrative. We must feel confident and comfortable in that role. After all, it’s our experiences, our memories, our confessions that propel the story forward; shyness need not apply here.
Yet the problem with being “onstage on the page” is that it can be far too easy to forget your audience when you’re standing up there, blinded by the bright lights. When a narrative is so author-centric that it fails to provide any takeaway for the reader, the writer transforms from the star in the spotlight to the bore who cornered you at a party. Without room to contribute to the conversation, the audience fidgets, loses interest, and looks for any excuse to leave.
Because that’s the secret behind great memoirs and essays, isn’t it? The best ones aren’t monologues; they serve as a conversation between author and reader. The writer leaves room for the reader to laugh, to marvel, to process new information, to interpret events on their own.
This is the true heart of the “show, don’t tell” mantra: We paint a picture instead of listing facts. We write scenes, not soliloquies. We do this because we respect the reader too much to shove information at them. We trust them to do the work, to follow our clues without telling them the answers. We know how important it is to leave room for them in the narrative, to invite them into a world instead of corralling them into a corner.
Every time we read a new piece of writing, we enter a partnership with the author. We strike a deal: We provide our time and attention (and, often, money) to the work, and, in return, the author provides something we crave. Perhaps it’s a laugh, a lesson, a source of hope, or a new way to see the world.
Take a hard look at your latest draft. Imagine your audience, the future readers yearning to hear your story. What do they need? What can your story offer them? How can you better include them in the conversation?
Billions of readers exist in this world, willing and eager to uphold their end of the bargain. Make sure your work does the same.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.Originally Published