by Jerry Waxler
In previous essays in this series, I’ve attempted to explain the way memoir writers structure their stories. In one sense, this could be a simple question. We lived it chronologically, so we ought to tell it chronologically. And yet, one of the memoir writer’s goals is to keep it interesting, and that means learning the storyteller’s craft. Storytellers since the beginning of time have been looking for the best way to weave in various aspects of a story to keep it interesting and engage the mind of a reader. This series has offered some insights that I hope will help you on that quest.
The final method to consider is a sort of pinnacle of the attempt to tell the backstory. I’ll start out with three examples. Each one starts with the intense dramatic conflict of adulthood. Then once they hook the reader, they jump back to a chapter about childhood, describing the earlier life. Then in the next chapter they return to the adult story. Each timeframe is clearly established so you always know exactly where you are in time. It’s as if you’re reading two interwoven memoirs, one of earlier life interspersed with the later one.
The final method to consider is a sort of pinnacle of the attempt to tell the backstory. I’ll start out with three examples. Each of these memoirs start with the intense dramatic conflict of adulthood. Then once they hook the reader, they jump back to a chapter about childhood, describing the earlier life. Then in the next chapter they return to the adult story. Each timeframe is clearly established so you always know exactly where you are in time. It’s as if you’re reading two interwoven memoirs, one of earlier life interspersed with the later one.
Alternating back and forth between the past and present, these authors achieve the best of both extremes, providing psychological background of the author’s formation, and also providing a direct, compelling tension in the adult situation.
The Orchard by Theresa Weir
The book starts just as the main conflict of the story is about to begin. Theresa Weir is working in a bar, about to meet her husband-to-be. Marrying into a farm family seems wrong in every possible way, and so, we are swept along by the conflict inherent as the couple falls for each other, obviously for all the wrong reasons. It’s nonsense. A mistake. It will never work. Then, as the present-day conflict amps up to the boiling point, she returns to her dysfunctional childhood, and inserts entire chapters from early in her life when her parents essentially abandoned her. This material from childhood adds psychological depth to her character and helps her reveal the whole person, not just a small slice of one.
By starting with adulthood, she lets us understand where we’re going. Then when she weaves in the childhood, we’re already invested in this complex person. So where did all this complexity come from? She lets us live those younger years with her as well.
Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham
A young man, pursuing an engineering career, leaves it all behind so he can ride his bicycle around Vietnam to try to understand his roots. His adult life is intense, with confusion about his identity as a Vietnamese in America and his relationship with his edgy father. As he cycles around Vietnam, we realize the danger he has placed himself in. It turns out that many Vietnamese hate those who have moved to America. They have a scornful name for these hated betrayers, viet-kieu. In the thick of this adult story, he alternates chapters that show his childhood life leading up to the war, and the family’s escape from the communist takeover.
In his next book, Pham extends his inquiry across more generations. In Eaves of Heaven, A Life in Three Wars he tells the family history through the eyes of his father, a ghost-written memoir of his father. This other memoir also repeats the two-time frame method, showing his father’s early years growing up in the French version of the Vietnam War and then later years coming up to the American invasion. Taken together, the two memoirs Catfish and Eaves, describe the escape from Vietnam and entry into the U.S. from the point of view of three generations, a fascinating journey through the history of a family and a country.
Riding the Bus With My Sister, by Rachel Simon
The book is woven from two fascinating stories. The headline story is about her attempt as an adult to become close to her mentally disabled (what used to be called retarded) sister, Beth. Beth’s main activity is riding buses all day every day, and Rachel decides that if she is going to get to know her sister, she will have to ride the buses too.
Interwoven with this excellent story of love between two adult sisters is a second time frame, about growing up with an abandoning mother, who was unable to cope with the stresses of motherhood and finally ran away from the family. The two stories meet up, as the young sisters grow into adulthood.
Why interspersed backstory works so well in these three cases
All three had serious dramatic conflict in both time frames. With enormous dramatic tension in childhood. In Riding the Bus as well as Orchard, the family was under pressure from parental dysfunction. In Catfish and Mandala, the author was in a war.
And in the later time frame, each author was also under major conflict. In Riding the Bus, Rachel Simon was a high-functioning journalist who was trying to make sense of her responsibility to her sister, and also a secondary story pressure that she was also lonely and seeking. In Orchard, Theresa Weir was a misfit, with absolutely no direction in life, who married into a farm family, and had to make the leap from a drifter to a family that literally had roots in the soil. In Catfish and Mandala, the author went on a dangerous cycling tour, with native Vietnamese hating him for being an American, which was cruelly ironic because earlier he showed how some Americans hated him for being Vietnamese.
All three of these books stand out as exceptionally successful. The Orchard was an Oprah pick. Catfish and Mandala was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Riding the Bus with My Sister was made famous by a movie adaptation.
Does that mean that it’s a surefire winner and that you should copy it and use it? It’s not that easy. Finding a working structure for your memoir is going to require an organic evaluation of the way your own life experience unfolds and the story you want to tell.
Consider two combat memoirs which took very different approaches. In A Temporary Sort of Peace, Jim McGarrah’s gut-wrenching Vietnam War combat memoir, he stayed in one time frame. William Manchester’s equally gut-wrenching combat memoir Goodbye Darkness shows him returning to the scenes of his battles in the Pacific in WWII and attempting to quiet his demons. The two authors made their own very different choices.
As you continue researching your own memoir, step back out of the details and try to visualize the way your chapters and sections are coming together. Can you picture your earlier formative years as a separate story from the later one?
Write a description of each of your two stories, the backstory, in which your younger self undergoes formative experiences. Then write a description of the second time frame.
Now think about these two stories. Does each story have a good beginning, middle and end? Does the first one naturally provide background for the second? Do they flow from one to the other in time, or is there a big gap between two main stories?
Might they work as a series? Consider the way Frank McCourt wrote Angela’s Ashes about his youth, and then wrote two more books, ‘Tis and Teacher Man as a sort of de facto trilogy. Or how Carlos Eire’s two memoirs, Waiting for Snow in Havana and Learning to Die in Miami tells a long story in two parts.
Are they equally balanced or is one more important than the other? Consider the example of Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley. So much of the book was about an adult investigating her childhood, that the child’s life faded into the background and the adult’s inquisitiveness took center stage. Glass Slippers by Jeanette Walls had the opposite effect. The book seemed to be all about a child growing up, and yet, one of its greatest strengths was the tiny sliver at the end about her later rapprochement with her parents.
How the story falls together in the reader’s mind will depend on these questions of structure. Take your time. It’s your life, and if you want to turn it into a great story, don’t be surprised if you have to work at it with the same creative obsession that you expect from the authors of the books you read. And even if you started your project simply trying to tell a good story, you may find that by peering closely and with great creative passion at the structure of your memoir, you will come to understand, at a much deeper level than you ever thought possible, the structure of your life.
This is the seventh and final 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.
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