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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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