KNOWING HOW TO CHOOSE your memoir structure is essential to your book’s success. Period. Full stop. And this is why I am devoting several weeks here on the blog to explaining this to you. But I am not doing it alone, this week bringing you a well-published author whose work will inform you on memoir structure and the fine art of developing one. Ready? Read on.
How to Choose Your Memoir’s Structure
by Amber Lee Starfire
When you set out to write a memoir, choosing its structure may be the most important — and angst-inducing — choice you have to make. Structure is the framework around which you build your story. If the structure is weak, the story won’t hold up. If the structure is strong, you can take all kinds of experimental liberties with the narrative, and the story will still be coherent and hold together for your readers. .
It took me a long time to arrive at the structure for my first memoir, Not the Mother I Remember. My challenge was to incorporate three voices or points of view (POV) — my childish POV, my adult-reflective POV, and my mother’s as expressed in her writing. Ultimately, I decided to begin with my adult-reflective point of view and a catalyzing event (finding my mother’s journals and letters), and then go back to the beginning of the story and braid the three voices together chronologically. I’ve been happy with that structure.
In my newest memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak: One Woman’s Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom (February, 2018), I began with a scene from the middle of the story, a major turning point. Then I went back in time to explore how I had arrived at that point in my life. But I didn’t adhere to a strict chronological structure. The purpose of my memoir was to explore and understand the needs and influences in my life that led me and thousands of other young people in the 1960s and 70s into the Jesus Movement, so I associatively dip into the backstory of my childhood from time to time and include theme-based chapters where it strengthens the premise of my story.
Below are some examples of structure you may want to consider for your memoir.
Variations of Chronological
Strict chronological. The easiest structure is beginning your story at the earliest point in time and progressing to the latest point in time. However, this structure can lack dramatic tension or, at worst, end up as a boring repetition of “this happened, then that happened.” If you want to use a strict chronological structure, take extra care that each chapter contributes to the main message of your story and contains enough tension for your readers to want to continue reading.
Open with the turning point. Open the story with a dramatic event, then drop back in time and relate the events that brought the narrator to the dramatic climax. Many novels and movies use this technique quite successfully.
Two timelines. Another variation is to carry two timelines forward simultaneously, alternating chapters, until the two timelines meet and merge in the end.
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 telling the story backwards 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. Themes may include any elements that the scenes have in common, such as relationship conflicts, illness, geography, or repetitive historical events. 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 transitions between jumps are strong and do not confuse your readers.
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. As with a theme-based structure, pay particular attention to transitions and
Choosing Your Memoir’s Structure
Ultimately, you need to figure out what works best for the story you are telling. And you may need to play with a few ways of arranging your story before finding the right one. Ideally, you’ll know your approach before you begin writing, but you might also need to do a lot of writing (or pre-writing) before you fully understand your underlying themes and the focus of your story.
Analyze the structure of one of your favorite memoirs:
- Draw a timeline and locate the events of each chapter on the timeline. Does the author move straight through her story chronologically? Or does the narrative move back and forth through time?
- Identify the theme or themes for each chapter. Are the themes organized in clusters or are the themes threaded throughout the story?
- If the memoir includes more than one voice, note how the author organizes the voices and the transitions between them.
- Look at transitions between chapters and between events on your timeline. What mechanisms does the author use to effectively transition from one theme or time to another?
Accidental Jesus Freak, an excerpt
In two days, I would pack all the belongings I could carry and return to the United States with my husband and two children. Instead of the excitement and sense of adventure we brought to Amsterdam ten months before, we were carrying back the heavy weight of failure. We had sacrificed everything in order to make the move—our house, our belongings, most of our savings—and now we had nothing left. I was no longer sure who I was or where to call home.
I exited the doors of Youth With a Mission’s city headquarters for the last time and crossed the street to wait for the tram that would take me to Amsterdam’s Central Station. From there, I would catch the ferry to return to our apartment in North Amsterdam. As I waited, I gazed across the street at the mission and the row of tall brick buildings it sat next to. Cars and trucks and bicyclists jockeyed for space in a chaotic rush-hour dance accompanied by the beeping of horns, the dinging of bicycle bells, and friendly people shouting to one another. Women carried home bags stuffed with bread and bright bouquets of flowers for their dinner tables. I inhaled the smells of steel and diesel, familiar and comforting after nearly a year of living and working in the city. Whiffs of cigarette smoke from passersby mixed with the moist, slightly salty air of the nearby canal. I never thought I could love a city this much.
It was the last time I would hear the chaotic city sounds, the bicycle bells, the clanging of the trams. It was the last time I would see these people in this place on earth. The thought made my head swim.
I looked again at the buildings across the street. It was hard for me to comprehend how Youth With a Mission had been the center of my hopes and dreams less than a year ago. We had come in answer to an internal call to serve God with our music, but everything had fallen apart. Mixed emotions—anger, fear, confusion, and disappointment—roiled inside me like crabs thrown into boiling water. What had I done wrong that I should be punished like this? Why had God abandoned me?
That’s when I saw Floyd McClung, the charismatic leader of Amsterdam’s mission, on the opposite corner. When the light changed, he stepped confidently off the sidewalk and strode across the street. Tall and blond and well built, handsome in his suit and white shirt, he would have looked at home in any boardroom.
With a sick, empty longing, I watched him come toward me. For four of those ten months I had worked for this man in the name of God. I had answered phones and typed letters, organized transportation and hotel rooms for foreign religious dignitaries. I had learned to use the telex machine and communicated with mission offices all over the world. I had worked as one of his secretaries in a small, wood-paneled office, where he had walked past me and into his office each day as though I were invisible.
I watched as the man who had held complete power over my life and that of my husband and children for the last 312 days, who had barely spoken directly to me, advance. I expected him to pass by me, where I would remain unseen and invisible as I had always been. Instead, he stopped in front of me, a sympathetic smile plastered on his face.
“We will miss you,” he said, his voice warm and smooth. His expression had changed to one of concern and compassion, but his cool eyes looked past me, as if I were already gone and he was seeing my future. I looked up at him, willing his eyes to meet mine, willing him to see my brokenness, but his eyes remained distant. I wondered what was going through his mind. Did he feel ashamed or conflicted? Was that why he would not meet my eyes? Or was I simply not important enough to look at? Did he care at all about me or my family?
Without warning, he stooped and kissed me lightly, briefly brushing my cheek with his lips. Then he straightened and resumed walking like a man who knows his place in the world.
Stunned, I raised my hand to my cheek. His kiss burned as though he had placed a hot ember against my skin instead of his lips. It was, I thought, eerily like the kiss of Judas, a kiss from the man who had taken away my dreams and delivered me into the hands of pain and loss.
The ghost of his lips on my cheek opened a sudden abyss of grief, and I felt my knees give. The world swayed and dropped away, everything around me going soft and gray. The traffic noise receded into a fog as my vision telescoped into grainy static. I managed to remain standing by steadying myself against the pole of a street lamp and was surprised to realize, when I moved my hand away from my face, that it was wet with tears.
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
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The illustration above came to us courtesy of Public Domain Review