Compelling Chapters Knit Small Stories into Powerful Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

After I enjoy reading a memoir, I think carefully about the impression it made on me. That for me is the payoff. What do I actually remember about this journey through a writer’s life? Usually, the chapters fade into the background. They provided forward momentum without calling attention to themselves. However, in some memoirs, they jump out and warrant a closer look. I’ve already raved about the power of Slash Coleman’s intriguing and creative approach to character arc in Bohemian Love Diaries. Now, I want to rave about the remarkable power he packs into his chapters. Each smaller unit pops with energy, and yet they all hang together to create a larger whole.

Slash Coleman’s journey comes alive with vivid images like his childhood pressure to find his half-Jewish identity, his desperate need to discover his artistic expression, and his series of passionate attempts to find a mate. I believe these pressures stand out so vividly in my memory, not because he had better adventures than other people (although he did have some doozies. His experiences sound so compelling because he turns experience into powerful stories.

Until now, I have mainly focused on the power of the overall arc of each memoir. Bohemian Love Diaries reminds me to pay more attention to the power contained within chapters. These smaller units of suspense are crucial for holding a reader’s attention.

When I first started writing my memoir, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever develop a compelling story. At first, my memories felt like a disorganized pile of bits and pieces. Gradually, my sequence of anecdotes took shape. Some chunks were obvious, like when I graduated high school in Philadelphia and went to college in Wisconsin, or when I moved to Berkeley, California to try and become a hippie. As my sequences of scenes turned into autobiographical segments,  I noticed subtler demarcations. A relationship. An artistic dream. A shift in career. A search for meaning. How could I turn these life pressures into strong arcs that shape chapters?

Slash Coleman offers an important clue on his website, where he lists himself as a professional storyteller. He stands in front of people and tells stories. For example check out his excellent TedX talk about the power of storytelling. As a story performer, he has the benefit of trial and error. If he doesn’t get the expected laugh, murmur or softening eyes, he has to tyr something else.

I know about this process from the excellent memoirs Born Standing Up Steve Martin and Enter Talking by Joan Rivers. These comedians both started their careers knowing they wanted to entertain audiences. To learn their craft, they had to stand up and try. Their listeners’ feedback provided constant course corrections that led these two performers to incredible success.

Memoir writers too can improve by listening to their audiences. Consider the fabulous success of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s first memoir. The blockbusting bestseller helped launch the Memoir Revolution. In McCourt’s later memoirs Tis and Teacher Man he explains that he spent a lifetime as a high school teacher, telling his students about his childhood experience. Years of audience feedback taught him the art of telling his life.

Slash Coleman’s performances provided him with some of the same storytelling firepower. Reading his book felt like sitting in the audience watching him perform it. In segment after segment, he ends with a punch. And then, as I imagine listening to the ending of the book, I feel like I’m in a hushed audience, waiting and watching as he wraps up the whole thing.

You don’t need to stand in front of a live audience to learn if you’re on the right track.  For example, memoir writer John Grogan tells of a related technique that helped him create his bestseller Marley and Me. Grogan was a newspaper columnist, paid to look for a story every week. Not only did he develop the knack of finding the story in everyday life. He also learned what stories his readers enjoyed by checking the newspaper’s letters and phone calls to the editor.

During the early stages of converting memories into stories, we’re too close to our material. Telling stories to families rarely helps. Families know the characters and hear the same stories repeated in the same way for years. Stories told at the dinner table sound out of place in public. We need to gain some distance, and the best way to do that is to learn how we sound to strangers.

A good way to gain this perspective is to seek feedback from a critique group. Online groups are excellent for this. Their anonymity helps participants give honest responses. Face to face critique groups add intimacy, letting you look critiquers in the eye and see how they felt about the piece.  Sharing your work in a critique group teaches you what kind of impression your story makes on readers. Was there enough conflict? Were there surprises? Did the tale pull the reader into the incident or chapter?

Another way to reach readers is to develop a blog. Even if at first you have no readers, writing the blog will let you see yourself as a performer. When the comedian Steve Martin was starting his career, he went on stage and looked out to an empty restaurant. The manager told him to perform anyway, explaining that when people passed by and saw him performing, it would draw them in. Bloggers do this all the time. Without reassurance that anyone will read our work, we persist, using our imaginary audience to help us focus our writing.

So to write your memoir, look at your growing list of anecdotes organized along a time line. Muse about which segment might create the heart of that eternal story-sequence: challenge, obstacles, resolution. When you find candidate, tack on a beginning that introduces the character’s dramatic tension, and a conclusion that resolves it. Then look for an audience. See how it feels to tell it. See what sorts of responses you receive.

The feedback strengthen your storytelling sensibility enabling you to tighten each chapter and gain a compelling sense of the overall structure. Eventually, you will have a book that makes sense to readers, converting a lifetime into a story worth reading.

Notes

Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman

Click here for an article about John Grogan’s Marley and Me

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

14 thoughts on “Compelling Chapters Knit Small Stories into Powerful Memoirs

  1. Jerry, This is just side note on an element of the blog entry.

    I had trouble with Angela’s Ashes. The recall was too meticulous and the dialogue too lengthy and convoluted to be credible as remembered by an adult from when he was a young boy (wasn’t the character 6?). Can you remember in verbal detail a conversation you had 50 years ago. I know I can’t and I have a fantastic memory.

    Consequently, because I felt that Frank McCourt had given himself too many liberties, the book felt like a novel to me. It lacked the authority of a memoir, of a lived experience rather than an imagined one.

    I enjoyed Angela’s Ashes but because of the awareness of details that we were asked to believe were those of a six year old, I felt I did not entirely trust it. What else was McCourt making up to create drama?

    Thanks for the great blog entries.

  2. Hi Denis! Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your thanks. Your note raises a fascinating point.

    If a memoir makes one skeptical about the tone or truth value of a memoir, it can be a turn-off. I’ve had a few of those. For some reason, Angela’s Ashes was not one. But another blockbuster Running with Scissors had that effect, so I know what you mean.

    For aspiring memoir writers, this is an important thing to consider. If it’s TOO polished, too professional, it could seem fake or artificial. For the vast majority of us, when we look back across the decades of our lives and attempt to turn memories into stories, our written representation is a sort of folk-art, emerging not necessarily from decades of professional writing experience, but rather from decades of authentic living.

    Of course, there will always be a mass market audience for extraordinarily polished, and often sensationalist stories. For most of us, we are writing for readers like you and me, who are more interested in learning about life experience, told through an authentic, naturalistic voice.

    Terrific topic!

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  3. Thanks for your note of thanks, Barbara. When I was a kid, the most remarkable thing about old people was the wrinkly skin. Now that we’re getting older and experiencing that part of the life cycle for ourselves, we discover one of the most noteworthy features about aging is our vast repository of life experiences. Until we organize our past into a memoir, all that life experience exists as a variety of memories. After we organize it into life stories, we gain a much more visible, and invigorating relationship with all those years. Happy writing! I’m glad I was able to help.

    (I hope you’re reading lots of memoirs. That helps too.)

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  4. “At first, my memories felt like a disorganized pile of bits and pieces. Gradually, my sequence of anecdotes took shape.” Jerry, I remember this phase during my revision process and trying to discover an arc.

    I look forward to watching the TED-x video on story telling and like the way you emphasize how the pros, like Steve Martin, adjust their stories according to the audience’s reaction. I find that now, as I speak about my memoir in front of a variety of people.

  5. Jerry … another excellent piece. I really liked your comments about the “subtler demarcations. A relationship. An artistic dream. A shift in career. A search for meaning.”

    I have long thought that the best memoirs were those where the author let the story “age” long enough to know the significance of the events … to find and be able to share the “meaning” of the story.

  6. At first I didn’t even intend to write a memoir. I was journaling, writing poems, doing writing workshop assignments. I, like Sonia, had a jumble of material. However, my book began to gel in these workshops, helped along with the critique and encouragement of my instructors and classmates. My material “aged” for years before it became a book.

    I also resonate with your advice about writing a blog. I started mine four years before my book came out, and it’s still going strong. It is a wonderful way to share memoiries.

    Thank you, Jerry, for your generous advice and wonderful insights on the importance of telling our memoiries. (I look forward to your guest post on my blog next month.)

  7. Thanks for another thought-provoking and interesting post and discussion, Jerry. I appreciate your comments about allowing distance between the event and the writing and about getting feedback from strangers. I think the biggest challenge is finding the story in the midst of all the life events that shape us. Finding our stories and reflecting on their meaning seem to be the keys to helping us connect with others in a meaningful way. Denis’ comment about being too “polished and professional” is also another fascinating topic of discussion.

  8. Thanks for the comments, Mary, Madeline, and Kathleen. Many of the lessons of writing a memoir are clear to those who have been on the journey for a number of years. Then, as our project matures, we hanker not only tell our own life story, but also to help others tell theirs. Thanks for adding your voices to both efforts.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  9. Fight the good fight, Lori. Turning life into story sends is a fascinating, multi-dimensional task that leads to a lovely form of self-expression and creativity. If your stories are tight and compelling, the way Slash’s are, then you already know the knack of storytelling, and you need to extend that same knack *across* the stories. If you have not yet learned the art of making them compelling, that’s a terrific step you can take. Make your adventure stories into crowd pleasers and you are well on your way.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  10. Jerry
    I just found your site. Appreciate the article on collection of stories. I’m a retired Coast Guard Captain and for years my daughter has asked me to please start writing down all those sea stories. I admit to being a pretty good story teller. I’m working on writing. At this point I don’t have a theme or message, or major advice. Just good interesting stories of life events like, getting drunk with Earnest Hemmingway, Arresting Jacques Causteau, Singing on the Perry Como show, being part of the largest sea search in history. They are mostly stand alone stories, but I’m enjoying getting them down. Thanks for your blog.
    Dick Marcott

  11. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for this comment! This is fun! In addition to telling about how you intersected with popular culture through these wonderful cultural icons, for your daughter’s and other readers’ sake, include your own personal drama. The thrill of the meeting. The conflict between doing your duty, love for adventure, and any other internal and external struggles that keep the reader’s interest. And perhaps throw in a not-so-famous story or two to show how you grew and changed as a person.

    Some life experiences really do carry the entire weight of the story. But the more attention you pay to storycrafting, the more you will please future readers. And also you can turn the writing endeavor into a wonderful opportunity to increase your wisdom the construction of these stories. You have been telling them and thinking them your whole life. Now learn and practice the additional intricacies of writing them.

    But I’m getting carried away with enthusiasm. The first step is to get them on paper. In the written form, they will begin to take on their own lives.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  12. Thanks for you encouraging words, Jerry. I actually am working a number of “backstories” that show some of the conflict between home life and service life. Meantime I have been grateful the local college printed one (and accepted another) for their literary journal. That keeps me going too.
    Count on me as a regular fan.
    Dick

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