The book I’m most proud of having worked on is the memoir of a holocaust survivor – Mark it With a Stone by Joseph Horn. As you might imagine, he had a gripping, important story to tell. But when we met, he was a businessman and lacked the narrative skills he needed in order to tell his story effectively. He also warned me before we began that, because the events he was writing about were so traumatic, he might find it hard to tolerate criticism.
But he was motivated. Horn had once watched a fellow inmate in a work camp scream, “No, I must live, I must tell!” just before he was executed. Horn lived. And he told. I was able to coach him gently through revisions that made his narrative more effective, the book published, and a copy is now in the library of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
His story raises an interesting question, though – what does it mean for a memoir to be accurate? One of the largest issues we dealt with was the matter of dialogue. He wanted to be absolutely scrupulous, telling stories precisely as they happened. But in his original draft, his characters only spoke when he could remember what they said word-for-word. Since the manuscript was written years after the fact, this meant he used very little dialogue – mostly bursts of highly memorable lines like, “I must live, I must tell!” Nearly all the rest of his conversations were narrative summary, and many of his scenes felt flat and distant as a result. He was telling the story to readers rather than letting them experience it. [Read more…]