For years, the word filler was, at least to me an evil word. I tend to come from the Hemingway school of thought that you keep your writing concise. That was a young me. While I still believe in this line of thinking, what changed is distinguishing two words: filler and fluff.
The filler is something within the text such as background information, a new character, thoughts; basically context.
Fluff is adding irrelevant words or information. For example, “The man who brought me my umbrella is the same man who was holding the umbrella and then handed it to me. That was the man, the stranger, the guy, who handed me the umbrella.” That sentence sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, you might be surprised how often I see sentences like these.
So, why does fluff exist?
Fluff exists because people are trying to expand their story so it appears longer, therefore providing a degree of legitimacy to their story.
Everyone has stories and when we tell them out loud we think those stories will occupy hundreds of pages in a book. But, few people, when they sit down to write, can put out even fifty pages. For some this is difficult and so they begin to “fluff” up their manuscript. But, instead of creating fluff, what the writer should be looking for is additional relevant context to build their story. A.K.A. filler.
Filler is everywhere. For example, maybe you’ve overcome personal obstacles which ultimately led to you becoming a successful business owner. Fluff may be spending three pages to write about your morning commute to your business every day, making sure to talk about every stop light and the time a kid rode his bike right in front of your car. Whoa! That got my blood pumping that morning! but, it did little to get your story moving. So, instead of fluff, maybe you can talk about how you got to your obstacle. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Well, when people write their memoirs, it’s amazing how often they talk about the problems, how difficult those problems were to overcome, or how they can now laugh at those problems. But, what writers often forget is How did I get to that point? Perhaps, “getting to that point” was embarrassing. Maybe, “getting to that point” came with skeletons still hidden in your closet. Who knows, but for the reader, that’s a key component that is missing.
Embarrassment, skeletons, whatever. What I want to do is share three ways you can add context to your memoir – filler – that will not only help you fill pages, but will also improve your writing.
Pretend the reader doesn’t know you:
Most people do not write their memoirs for the general mass of readers. They write their memoirs for friends, family and to pass on their legacy to future generations – family generations. So, when someone picks up your book they may already have an idea of who you are.
Well, assume for a moment the reader doesn’t know you. That means that the sentence, “Aunt Em tussled my hair every Christmas” may sound okay, but doesn’t provide much description or context to the story. But, adding a little more context, “My aunt Em couldn’t help but tussle my lollipop red hair every Christmas. She told me that it reminded her of the Raggedy Anne doll she had as a kid. That was the doll my mother sold to the neighbor. In retaliation mom’s firstborn was the reincarnation of that doll.”
This is an actual memoir I worked with a client on. My client’s used the rivalry between her mother and her aunt to explain why she is so competitive as an adult. In her initial memoir draft, she simply said that her aunt tussled her hair. Yet, after our interviews, there was a specific reason. Her aunt was taunting her mother – always reminding her mother that thoughts of the doll would never be forgotten.
Add another character:
I can sit back and listen to my Grandma Joan talk about her past for hours, and every time I go to Arkansas to visit hers that’s exactly what I try to get her to do. At 90 years old she was the quintessential renaissance woman. She was a painter, a poet, and an amateur archeologist. She grew up during the depression, traveling with her family between Oklahoma and California. She raised six kids – essentially alone – in the Ozarks from the ’40s to the ’70s – two of them deaf. She was a feminist, suffered from depression, had an abusive and cheating husband, and in her 50s, when her kids were grown she decided she would travel the Mississippi River as a Riverboat cook.
Going to her house as a kid – and as an adult – meant stepping back in time with a house filled with arrowheads, Native American pottery, oil paintings, and thousands of little treasures she’d found and collected over the years. She told stories about ghosts, haints, and little people.
You would think that her memoirs would fill volumes and you’re probably right. I’m assembling them now. But, the one thing I noticed is that when she told her stories she stuck to the same people. So, I probed a bit. And strangely she had a short-lived friendship with a man named Sy. Sy lived down the road from the old farm and he had been a mercury farmer out West with an interesting life he never jotted onto paper. But, why was Sy important? He and my grandma would exchange letters even though they only lived a few miles away. It was these letters of encouragement and friendship which helped keep a single depressed mother afloat for years. To her, Sy was as important as a warm shower – which she really could have used in a farmhouse without running water.
But, in all the stories she told me, Sy only came about as a whim, I luckily asked about.
So, remember, in your memoirs to try and find those people who may have played a short yet influential role in your life. My grandma rarely talks about Sy, but when she does she has a smile and her face lights up. That’s important.
Don’t forget your thoughts
It is amazing how many people will tell a gut-wrenching story, but only provide the facts. “My best friend died of cancer when I was ten-years-old. Ever since then I knew I would be a doctor.” Oh yeah? Well, how about you tell us about that friend. Tell us how you would ride your bikes for hours in the summer. Or, how he would only collect Atlanta Braves baseball cards because he’d met Eddie Mathews one time – or at least that’s who he thought it was. Talk about how you watched him slowly deteriorate and how you mowed lawns every day during the summer so you could buy every Atalanta Braves baseball card that Topps ever made for him. Tell the reader that his tombstone is etched with you and him riding your bikes together and that his mother gave you his baseball cards which you still keep locked away and pull out when you think of him decades after he died.
And yes, this is a real story…
Your life is not just a note on what happened, and it’s not just about you. Your life is about the world around you and how that world changed, improved, affected and made you the person you are today. Forget the fluff – but never forget the filler.