by Jerry Waxler
Beginning memoir writers face their mountain of memories and wonder how they will ever find a story. To achieve the goal, they brush aside their fears, and select one scene and then another. These anecdotes, when sorted into chronological order, add up and the dramatic tension begins to take shape. Completing the first draft is a huge accomplishment, but it’s not the end of the journey
To get the book ready for readers, you have to reread, edit and pay attention to critiques. You smooth the rough spots and add filigrees and flair. Gradually, you refine your voice and bring the character to life. By revising, you create order and movement, giving your story a compelling arc. You think you are finished and again, there is one more step.
When the reader opens the book, you must snare their attention and convince them they are going for an interesting ride. Within the first few paragraphs you need to introduce the protagonist and create a sense of interest and relationship as well as portents of disruption and development.
Fiction writers can achieve all these goals by inserting a shocking event. For example, mysteries often include a dead body in the first scene. The smart detective quickly shows up to put together the pieces of the puzzle. For memoir writers, the decision about where to start relies on events that were actually lived. Figuring how to create an enticing first scene can be confusing and complex.
No perfect formula
To start your memoir, you may be drawn to the earliest chronological event. This is especially enticing for any introspective author who is trying to sort out where it all began. Starting from the earliest time might feel like a root cause. However, it might not be the best place to start your story.
For example, my older sister says that our family life took a huge downturn when we moved from the apartment above my Dad’s drugstore to a row home. Before then, we were always within easy reach of Dad. After the move, he was away twelve hours a day, six days a week. This transition may very well have traumatized me for life, but since I was one-year old at the time, I have no way of authentically portraying the events.
An even more important reason for not starting too early is that you want to pull the reader into the thick of your story. An uneventful childhood, or just a few early scenes, might feel disconnected from the main action. But the solution doesn’t always seem easy. If you ignore your childhood, you run the opposite risk of portraying a character without roots. A story without any background could end up feeling shallow and lack authenticity and complexity.
I have watched many aspiring writers struggle with the challenge of finding the right place to start, and I know there is no simple answer. So I keep learning, thinking, and reading memoirs. After reading each one, I attempt to make sense of it.
First I look at the compelling emotional value at the start of the book. What tension did the beginning set up? To be a good story, the beginning and ending are a matched set. The beginning establishes the dramatic tension which drives the story forward. By the end, that dramatic tension must be resolved.
The whole project of finding the right beginning for your story, read lots of published memoirs and consider how each author resolved these dilemmas. If the story grips you, then that system could be worth a closer consideration.
But after you know the story structure that worked for someone else, you still need to experiment to see if it works within the dynamics of your life. When Boyd Lemon was trying to convey the saga of his three failed marriages, he said he had to try seven different structures in order to find one that worked in his excellent memoir Digging Deep.
In the next few posts, I’ll explore memoirs and their structures to offer some specific ideas about how this works.
This is the first essay in a series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”
How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?
Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.
More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.
Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.
How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.
Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
Order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.