Don’t Be Mad

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment


Brevity‘s Book Review editor Debbie Hagan reports from the Power of Narrative conference at Boston University:

Katherine Bouton

Katherine Bouton

What happens when the narrator in your memoir sounds angry and strident? The reader will likely back away. Katherine Bouton, former deputy editor of the New York Times Book Review, shared this and other tips at the Power of Narrative conference this past weekend in discussing how to create an engaging narrative voice.

In 2010, Bouton had left the Times and began writing about a serious hearing loss that she’d kept under wraps for decades. When she sat down to share this secret and write her memoir, she let go of all this shame and anger that had been welling up inside her for years. Unfortunately, the voice came out too strong to be empathetic.  By the next draft, she figured it out, and Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 Million Other Americans–Can’t Hear You was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2013.

Bouton shares these tips in creating a tone that engages readers:

Temper your voice.  While writing a memoir may seem like your own personal therapy, readers don’t want to be part of those sessions. They’re not interested in someone who’s self-absorbed, wallowing in her misery. “Anger makes it very hard for readers to care about you,” Bouton says. Instead, she recommends we provide good information and write with authority.

Write in an active rather than passive voice.  “What makes a memoir work is how you respond to what happens to you,” says Bouton.  Instead of just playing the victim role and bemoaning what has happened, take responsibility. Tell readers how you responded to what happened and how you have changed.

Use reporting skills.  Because Bouton had been a science writer, she knew how to research and report facts. However, it didn’t occur to her to report on herself.  When she realized that she needed to treat herself as a subject, she not only researched her own condition, but interviewed ten other people with hearing loss.

Use humor. Be able to laugh at yourself.

Finish on an up beat.  “Most memoirs need a positive, if not a happy ending,” says Bouton.  Even if yours isn’t a tale of triumph, it’s important to leave readers with some hope or insight.


Debbie Hagan is editor-in-chief of Art New England magazine and book reviews editor for Brevity.  Her essay “Blind Curve” appears in the April issue of Brain, Child.




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