December 19, 2018

Why and How to Do More “Takeaway” in Memoir

(c) Shutterstock

Takeaway is the most important part of memoir writing that most memoirists don’t know how to do, or don’t do well or often enough. In my memoir classes, I share with students that I came to be so obsessed with takeaway first as an acquiring editor for Seal Press, because I knew as soon as I got to an editorial meeting, the marketing team would ask, “What’s the takeaway?” If it wasn’t apparent, the book wasn’t acquirable. Later, as I began to teach this genre and shepherd more authors through the hard work of completing memoirs, I started seeing takeaways on the page. I began to understand that takeaway was both big-picture—what will the reader get out of your book?—and also more micro. It’s something writers can learn as part of the craft of memoir. It’s a form of reflection—specific kinds of reflections that turn outward and serve as little arrows that pierce readers’ hearts. Often when I read takeaway in memoirs, I’m compelled to stop and take a moment. These are deep, connective moments between writer and reader, when the writer moves beyond writing just her own story and acknowledges and reaches for universal human truths.

Here are five ways to execute takeaway on the page:
• Connect or relate to your reader
• Show the nature of something, sort of
like a philosophical musings
• Show a universal human truth
• Convey a bigger picture message
• Teach or inform

I’ll share short excerpts here, since the best way to begin to write takeaway yourself is recognizing what it is.

From Bella Mahaya Carter’s recently released memoir, Raw:

In this passage, Carter goes to a therapist seeking answers about her anxiety. She uses her own journal excerpt to show a universal human truth.

“So how do I work with this?” I asked.

“With love. With compassion. With grace. With surrender. You work with it by leaning into—not away from—it. You ask your anxiety what it’s here to teach you. You listen. You try to choose love over fear, over and over again. This will be a life-affirming practice for you, especially when you’re struggling.”

I had the feeling that Joanna “got” me. She saw me. She didn’t think I was crazy. She respected my intelligence and creativity. She talked about how simple awareness can be curative and called a journal excerpt I shared with her a “high truth.” It went like this: “You cannot clear what you’re not aware of. Your habits and behavior patterns have their way with you—until you become aware of them. Once you realize what’s going on, they dissolve. It’s like shining a light on a shadow. The light of awareness makes the shadow disappear. Be gentle with yourself as your awareness blossoms. You are healing.”

In this passage, in the book Body 2.0, Krista Haapala writes about a particular flavor of pain she experienced going through cancer: “endurance pain.” This passage is designed to show the nature of that pain in a way that invites the reader to intimately know it.

Endurance pain will not relent with change, as indeed this flavor of pain has changed you. Loved ones may find you unrecognizable. You will see life through different eyes. In fact, endurance pain affords us the incredible opportunity to shed many useless cultural constructs, like superficial success, unfulfilling relationships, and external validation.

Here comes the tricky part: endurance pain, by nature, is all-consuming. It seeps into every cell. It colors your every thought. It affects your every action. Although it is a deep existential challenge, the beautiful gift of endurance pain is that you can consciously, intentionally shape how this pain changes you. You can choose to use it as a catalyst for the most intense and influential reframe you may ever have experienced.

As a final example, I share this passage from Paul Kalanithi in When Breath Becomes Air, which showcases how to do takeaway in scene, as Kalanithi shows through this interaction with a teacher how the mistakes often shape who we become:

Seeing the body as matter and mechanism is the flip side to easing the most profound human suffering. By the same token, the most profound human suffering becomes a mere pedagogical tool. Early on, when I made a long, quick cut through my donor’s diaphragm, our proctor was both livid and horrified. Not because I had destroyed an important structure or misunderstood a key concept or ruined a future dissection but because I had seemed so cavalier about it. The look on his face, his inability to vocalize his sadness, taught me more about medicine than any lecture I would ever attend.

If takeaway is unfamiliar or elusive to you, don’t worry. It is for most. One easy way to write takeaway initially is to allow yourself to slip into the second person. Although takeaway is not limited to second-person writing, it’s easiest to access that way. It’s easier to muse on the nature of things and universal human truths if you allow yourself to write to the reader, or to the larger collective experience by using “we” or “us,” as Linda Joy Myers does in this passage in her memoir, Song of the Plains:

It’s more than eyes and hair, the curve of a cheek, the shape of a lip, a smile, a happy temperament. We inherit many things in our genes, but here’s a question: how much is nature versus nurture? Science tells us that our cells are marked by what has happened in the past long before we became embodied, and we carry fragments of our past history from ancestors whose names we don’t know. Yet we come into the world with our own story set in the stars, our own fingerprints and personality, our own magic and shine.

Try implementing takeaways to start or end scenes. Know that one takeaway per chapter is sufficient. Learning this craft element is not so you can flood your memoir with so much takeaway that your readers becomes overwhelmed by it. Takeaway can be as simple as a single sentence in which you ponder something bigger, when you take a beat on the page to make sense of an experience through the lens of the universal.

I’ve found with my own students that mastering takeaway is about trusting themselves as writers. You have to believe that it’s okay to have an opinion, to make an assertion. There is no takeaway without stating what you believe to be true. People fear that takeaway is preachy, or “telling,” but done well it never should be. Done well it’s an opportunity to take the reader to realms beyond your story, inviting them to consider their experiences and how they see the world—and in this way, takeaway alone has the power to impact readers in ways that no other aspect of memoir writing can.

Comments

  1. Thanks for enlightening post,as always.
    Trying to implement your teachings in my upcoming memoir.

Speak Your Mind

*