How Should I Begin My Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

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.

Notes

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.

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

Order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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22 thoughts on “How Should I Begin My Memoir?

  1. Getting the beginning right is a challenge, whether memoir or biography. The beginning doesn’t have to be chronological, but it does have to be interesting enough for readers to want to continue. As you say, Jerry, memoir writers can learn a lot from fiction writers. I tell students in my library memoir-writing class of old-time western movies which often began with a stagecoach roaring down a dusty road and being chased by the bad guys. And you can’t go wrong looking at the opening action scenes of James Patterson’s novels. I advise students to not begin with, “I was born May 14, 1933 in . . . ,” although Barbara Bush did it in her autobiography. Colin Powell started his autobiography with a plane crash involving him and his wife. Teva Scheer began her biography of Nellie Tayloe Ross when Nellie was seven years old, standing on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Joseph with her family watching their house burn.

  2. Jerry, This post really hits home for me as I have wrestled with this question for the past several years.. I call it the “defining moment” when I step into my story. After multiple attempts, I finally figured it out. Start dramatic then go backward. Interesting, when it became clear, the story structure began to assemble (notice I didn’t say fall into place flawlessly!) and has gradually been building in momentum. It definitely has been a trial-and-error approach. I think it’s important for anyone starting out writing a memoir to understand that it is a process of self-discovery that comes from the writing and that remaining open to and trusting in the process is an essential ingredient for allowing your story to unfold naturally. This is such an important topic I eagerly await your future posts. Thanks and have a wonderful holiday.
    Best wishes,
    Kathy

  3. This is such an important topic, Jerry. Something I grappled with a long time with my memoir. I started with the dramatic event of the story and worked back. I also advocate editing and revising and being open to critical advice. Stepping back from the book for a while before revising is also important. It’s like having fresh eyes and a new perspective.
    Thanks so much. Happy Holidays. Madeline

  4. Thanks so much for adding your insight, Madeline. It’s so helpful to hear about your experience when writing Leaving The Hall Light On.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  5. Thanks, Kathleen. I’m sure there might be some people who know the full story when they start, but I think the vast majority of us must work it all out on paper, and that takes time. I’m glad you are sharing your process as you breathe life into your manuscript.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  6. Hi Wayne,

    That’s a great comment about not starting with “I was born on May 14, etc” – That’s definitely too early! I like that you are recommending reading stories. That’s the key. We all know what we like to read. We need to learn how to apply that knowledge to what we write.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  7. As I continue to write my memoir, I’m still struggling with getting the first pages “just right.” Drawing in the reader is so important, and no less so in memoir than in good fiction. I’m slowly learning from each of you, and my hope is that the coming year will provide more writing time. Jerry, thanks for always giving me something to take away between my teeth! :)

  8. Good post, good comments!

    An introductory chapter in which the drama rests in a partial exposition of a highlight moment (or conversely in a nadir) can work very well as a story launch. Say your introductory chapter is about winning an award or being selected for an important position or conversely you find yourself in a homeless shelter. You write that in a short and as highly dramatic fashion as the facts allow and end the intro with a wrap up like: “How did a person like me get to this point? The reader has to delve into the memoir of course to get the answer. I’ve seen this done effectively multiple times.

  9. Jerry,

    It took me seven years to mold my story from journal to published memoir. I insisted on starting my story in Orange County instead of Belize, which is where the essence of my family’s change took place.

    I refused to “listen” to the advice given to me by a Gotham Writers memoir teacher, as well as an editor of a small press who was fascinated by my story and wanted to publish it.

    I also refused to listen to my husband who kept telling me, “Sonia, focus on the adventure, not on Steve’s defiance. No one cares about that.”

    But as a mother, I found my son’s troubling behavior, and how it affected us as a family far more important than our adventures in Belize. I wanted my readers to feel “sorry” for me and my first drafts didn’t have us moving to Belize until page 100.

    My critique groups steered me in the wrong direction as most were moms who were interested in my son’s bad behavior and wanted to read more about that, or so I thought.

    Then one day, I looked through some old notes. I found a comment from my online Gotham Writers class teacher. “Sonia, what makes your story unique is that you uprooted your family to Belize. Start with the action in Belize.”

    Suddenly everything clicked. Her comment which had infuriated me three years earlier, finally made sense. I decided to start with the juicy action in Belize, where we almost capsized our boat in a storm, and I pose the central question to my theme: “Why the hell did we leave Orange County, and move to this godforsaken island where our lives were now at risk? Did I really think this was going to save my family?”

  10. Jerry … good insights and good comments. Like Belinda, I too started out chronologically with Sailing Down the Moonbeam. That forced the reader to wade through a lot of “problems” before getting to what made the adventure worth writing about in the first place. At the 11th hour, a writer friend suggested re-organizing it to put Ch 18 as the prologue, thereby telling the reader why the story was worth reading. It was exactly the right thing to do!

  11. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for this anecdote. I love this anecdote, and love that writer friend. We all need one of those. In fact, we all need lots of those. So much of good writing is in response to thoughts and suggestions from readers. It’s so cool that in the end, you feel good about the way it all turned out, demonstrating once again that the actual process of writing the memoir is a journey in its own right.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  12. Thanks Sherrey, I hope you continue to be inspired and keep writing. Thanks Sonia. I love the story of the multi-year, multi-tier saga of writing your story, and the details about pushing away advice that didn’t work for you. That’s a hard-fought battle, and congratulations for finding your own insight. I love the “everything clicking into place” – it shows in Freeways to Flipflops. This is one of the perfectly awesome things about memoir writing. Because we have so much personal passion invested in the project, the labor of love often shows in a book that is not only readable but also conveys a deep insight into another person’s life.

    This has been one of the best comment threads ever!! I went to sleep thinking of Denis Ledoux’s comment about starting with “how did I get into this predicament (exactly what Cheryl Strayed did in her Oprah picked Wild), and reflected on Mary Gottschalk’s writer-friend’s advice to start with chapter 18, and I woke up with a new candidate for my first chapter, which was one of the main stumbling blocks preventing me from publishing the first volume of my memoir trilogy. It was a nice New Year’s morning present.

    Thanks all and happy New Year. May you find and polish your story this year! :)

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  13. Pingback: How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir? | Memory Writers Network

  14. Let me join the chorus to say how spot-on this is, Jerry. In teaching college students, I see this problem—they are slaves to chronology, and they’ll even start a piece with the alarm clock ringing, getting them out of bed so they can proceed to the action. But then I made this same mistake in early drafts of my memoir! It is a hard lesson to learn. And I hope I HAVE learned it once and for all.

  15. Hi Richard, Thanks so much for your praise!! I have compassion for your college students’ and your own impulse to follow chronology. After all that’s the way life unfolds, so when trying we try to represent experience, chronology runs through its center. The hard part comes when we have to juggle time, and yet maintain the illusion of the storyteller. I’ll say more about that in my next post about flashbacks. Thanks for your company on the memoir journey. Best wishes, Jerry

  16. Pingback: Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir? | Memory Writers Network

  17. Pingback: More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir | Memory Writers Network

  18. Hi Dana,

    I’m glad you found the blog, as well! Yes, I love to teach memoir classes. Currently I have one scheduled at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA. I expect to have several more this year. I also am happy to arrange custom classes for your group. Thanks for asking.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  19. Pingback: Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir | Memory Writers Network

  20. Pingback: How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir | Memory Writers Network

  21. Pingback: Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time | Memory Writers Network

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