From Memories to Memoirs, Part 10 — Structuring Your Memoir 11


Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction. ~ William Zinsser, On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition)

I am often asked, “How should I structure my memoir?” My answer: It depends on the story you have to tell. As unsatisfying at that answer may be, it’s important to remember that memoir writing can be a messy business and there is no one “right” way to structure memoir. That said, there are a number of different ways to approach structuring a memoir. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common approaches.

Chronological

The easiest way to structure a memoir is in chronological order, beginning at the earliest point in time and progressing to the latest point in time, but this is not necessarily the best or most effective structure. Beginning memoir writers often rely on this structure because it is the simplest, and stringing memories together according to when they happened makes sense. However, this structure can lack dramatic tension or, at worst, end up in a boring repetition of “this happened, then that happened.” Remember, just because something happened, doesn’t make it important or interesting. If you want to use a strict chronological structure, make sure that each scene is so tension-filled and compelling that it leads naturally into the next and will keep your readers interested.

One variation of the chronological structure is to open the story with a dramatic event, a glimpse into the the story’s climax, then drop back in time and relate the events (dropping hints of the drama to come) that brought the narrater to the dramatic climax — completing the story with a surprise twist. If handled well, the tension of wanting to know how the story turns out can keep readers turning the pages. Many novelists successfully use this technique.

Another variation is to carry two timelines forward simultaneously (past and present, or far past and near past), alternating chapters, until the two timelines meet and merge in the final chapters.

Reverse Chronological

You can reverse the order of events chronologically, starting with “how things turned out,” and working your way back in time to “how it all started.” This structure can be tricky to pull off. If you’re considering a reverse chronological structure, ask yourself, “What does this way of telling my story add to the reader’s experience?” If telling the story backwards in time enhances character development, dramatic tension, or gives readers important and necessary windows into the narrator’s journey, a reverse timeline may be worth exploring.

Thematic

Stringing scenes along one or more thematic threads is another way to structure a memoir. The scenes do not have to occur in chronological order and, in fact, can jump all over the place in time as long as the jumps are not confusing to the readers. Done well, the theme or themes tying the story together may not even be obvious until near the end of the memoir where readers experience a “light bulb moment” when everything becomes clear. Themes may include any elements that the scenes have in common, such as relationship conflicts, illness, geography, or repetitive historical events.

Associative 

Associative writing works a lot like memory itself; one memory leads to another (often one image leads to another), and in a not-very-straightforward manner. Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother is an excellent example of a memoir written using this kind of associative structure. The memoir begins with the narrator seeing her brother for the first time after many years. He is lying in a hospital bed dying of AIDS. She uses the line, “He was not born in this hospital … he was born at home,” to jump to her memories of his birth. One paragraph later, she writes, “that night, of course, the routine of our life was upset,” and quickly morphs from writing about routine to writing about her father. All of this occurs in the first page, but it happens so naturally — the way we remember and talk about things — that the reader is never confused and simply goes along for the ride.

Every memoir is a journey of transformation. Click To Tweet 

My recommendation? 

First, read lots of memoirs, and read them with an eye to structure. How is each memoir structured? What ways appeal most to you? Would any of those structures work for your memoir? Why and why not?

Second, experiment. Once you have some scenes written, write a title or summary statement for each scene on an index card (or use software, such as Scrivener  that allows you to easily manipulate the visual structure) and play with their order; you may discover new connections and ways of moving from one scene to another.

The Bottom Line

This is where I come back to my original answer, “It depends.” Ultimately, you need to figure out what works best for the story you are telling. And you may need to write a number of  “first drafts” before the right structure for your memoir emerges.

Writing a memoir is, in and of itself, a process of discovering how to write and structure your story so that your readers care what happens to your narrator and the other characters in his or her life. And every scene must add to the larger picture of the narrator’s transformation, because — in the end — every memoir is a journey of transformation.

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This is the last in a 10-part series on From Memories to Memoir. How has this series helped you bring you bring your memories to life through writing?

Photo by Mykl Roventine

 


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11 thoughts on “From Memories to Memoirs, Part 10 — Structuring Your Memoir

  • Linda Thomas

    This is helpful and timely for me as I write my second memoir. For now, in this one I “carry two timelines forward simultaneously (past and present, or far past and near past), alternating chapters, until the two timelines meet and merge in the final chapters.” I’ll save your excellent post and share it with others.

  • patsy ann taylor

    Your suggestion to read memoirs, is the best! Read, read, read. And for those just beginning, I recommend Amber’s memoir: “Not the Mother I Remember”
    This memoir is an excellent example of how to write about a family’s difficult moments in a respectful but honest way.

  • Barbara Toboni

    Thank you, Amber. This has been a very helpful series. I picked up a lot of tips, and, although I’m not writing a memoir I do keep journals. These articles are going to be in my favorites for writing help.

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    Amber–I particularly needed this piece! I have numerous short memoirs and vignettes, and I believe they are powerful and need to be shared. However, I struggle with how to tie them all together 🙁 I’ve instinctively avoided the chronological structure because I sensed it was dynamic enough. The reverse chronological doesn’t seem to be a match for me either. So I’m guessing the thematic approach would work best. I’ve yet to find a way to string the the memoirs together.
    I assume I’ll come upon the right thematic threads at some point. Your article at least put into words what I’ve experienced; I’m grateful for that.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Hi Sara. Selecting memoir pieces to include in a larger work is very similar to selecting works for an anthology. You can group pieces by theme in different parts or chapters, or you can select pieces that all speak to one theme, such as place, family life, or romantic relationships.

      For each piece you’re considering including, I recommend writing a summary (no more than 3 sentences!) and keywords representing the core ideas on an index card. You can even color code the keywords for greater visual impact. Then spread out the index cards on a large table in any order that seems logical. Play with different groupings and see what comes to you. Let me know if this helps.

  • Jing Li

    Hi Amber, I love your website – wonderful! And can’t believe that I didn’t find it until now. The best memoir writing tips/advice I’ve ever read! Thank you so very much. They are extremely helpful to me as I’ve been trying to write my memoir and need all the professional help I can find. It’s an honor to know you in person, too. I loved the way you write. You’re an all around excellent and awesome editor, besides your heartwarming smile and personality. Hope to have more opportunity to work with you in the near future. Jing