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Be Selective – In Memoir as in Baseball

Biff Barnes

It’s more years ago than I want to remember. I am standing in the batter’s box of the University of San Francisco baseball field. The pitcher’s next delivery is a curveball which bounces in the dirt. The count goes to three balls and one strike. I step out of the box, look down to the third base coaching box where Coach Dante Benedetti claps his hands and yells to me, “Be selective.”

Courtesy of Ken Lund under Creative Commons (Extra credit if you leave a message below identifying the batter in the photo)

Good advice to a hitter ahead in the count. Remember you don’t have to hit every pitch. Just look for the right pitch and hit it well. Be selective.

I heard that advice in my head as I read the New York Times Book Review today. I was perusing Elizabeth Samet’s assessment of Hospitals, Hotels and Jails: A Memoir by Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead. None too complimentary. It was when I came to Samet’s comment that, “Narrative momentum stalls in a welter of mundane details and contradicting memories,” that I heard Coach Benedetti’s shouted advice.

Being selective is what writing a memoir is all about. The memoirist’s job is not to get down every detail of every event down on the page. It is to find the meaning of those events and discover the lessons they have to teach. Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home despite chronicling the loss and grief of her friend and fellow writer Caroline Knapp’s death from cancer, ultimately is a book about the power of friendship. Richard Russo called Andre Dubus III memoir Townie “a meditation on violence.” Having settled on the memoir’s theme, the writer can be selective as to which events and details will best explicate that theme. That decision made a lot of excess baggage can be left behind.

Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, put it well when she wrote, “Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened.”