by Jerry Waxler
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One way to resolve the “where do I start” dilemma is to jump straight into the action, and then come back later to fill it in with flashbacks. Flashbacks consist of entire scenes, inserted out of chronological order. Even though life takes place in chronological order, flashbacks give you the freedom to jump straight into the thick of the action. In addition, they offer another stylistic benefit. They can increase the power of an otherwise boring scene.
Travel Memoirs and Flashbacks
In his memoir, Zen and Now, Mark Richardson retraces the path traveled by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The miles of road streaming by provide Richardson perfect empty canvas on which to paint scenes not only from Pirsig’s book but also from other times in his own life. The weaving of time, thoughts, and place feels seamless, and the pages roll by with the same grace as the miles.
I’ve since read other travel memoirs that use this technique. Andrew X. Pham has plenty to say about other times in his life during his bicycle ride through Vietnam in Catfish and Mandala and Cheryl Strayed takes advantage of both of these benefits in her artful use of flashback in Wild. She sweats and struggles with her backpack on a wilderness trail, and effortlessly integrates her remembered scenes to provide an ever deepening spiral of character development. Thanks to her impeccable stylistic control, and the neat trick of inserting the past scenes when nothing much is happening around her, Strayed uses flashbacks to her advantage.
However, even though the open road provides a blank canvas on which to paint flashbacks, not all travel writers use it in that way. Throughout Sam Manicom’s year-long motorcycle ride in his memoir Into Africa, he only briefly mentions that he grew up on that continent and provides no scenes from the earlier period, and Doreen Orion does not say much at all about her past during the road trip on her RV in Queen of the Road.
Flashbacks Require More Craft
Many memoirs follow chronological order because that’s the way life really happens. However, when you first start writing, your memory asserts its own order, or rather lack of it. During the research stage, memories jump around like lightening from one period to another, touching on a variety of scenes only tenuously connected to each other. When you first wrote this hodgepodge it might have made perfect sense. But readers won’t be able to reconstruct your life in the order that it actually unfolded.
Story reading is very different than memory, and so, a big part of the memoir writer’s job is to sort the raw material of memory back into the chronology of actual events. Gradually you will tease apart the causes and sequences of things, and present them in the most compelling possible manner. Good writers work hard so their readers can work easy.
However, as you develop your story, and continue to look for the techniques that will keep readers fascinated, you may decide the final version will benefit from a flashback, and that requires work to make sure the reader is oriented in time and space. You never want the reader to ask, “where am I again?” Such ambiguity disrupts their precious attention.
So how do you gracefully insert a flashback without disrupting the reader’s concentration and ensuring they know exactly where they are in time? If you on a hike through the wilderness, it could be easy for the reader to realize your childhood bedroom scene is a flashback. But what if your flashback scene is in the same place and with the same person? The two scenes could bleed into each other, leading the reader into ambiguity and confusion.
The movie Wayne’s World provided a comedic exhibit of how to make a clear transition. The characters signaled the return to an earlier time by making a silly noise, wiggling their fingers and shimmying the video. That exaggerated device highlights the importance of letting everyone know the timeframe is shifting.
For example a time shift in books often occur at a chapter break, or is signified with extra line breaks and printer’s marks. The first phrase of the first sentence should make obvious reference to the shift in order to acclimate the reader. For example the weather in one time frame is cold and in the other it is warm, or it could be a clear verbal signal. “Back in the earlier time, life was good.” You could even mention the date. Doing it right is crucial and it requires polish and skill to pull it off effectively.
Sometimes a jump in time can be signaled with a prop. So if you are touching a briefcase at the airport, waiting in line, and then you remember a previous scene. You jump back into that scene. Then, when you are ready to return, you feel the weight of the briefcase in your hand and hear the person at the counter asking if they can help you. One of the great ah-ha moments in cinema comes when Christopher Reeves’ character in Somewhere In Time travelled back in history to meet a lover. When he glances at a coin with a future date, the shock hurtles him out of the past and back into the future.
Perhaps You Didn’t Need to Go Back
If you don’t believe your earlier years would add anything to the story, don’t force yourself to include them. It may be that your story starts much later . Lots of excellent memoirs offer very little backstory. For example, in many memoirs about the period called launching, when the author is attempting to move out into the world, there is very little consideration of earlier years. Every ounce of their energy seems to be focused on the future.
- Publish This Book by Stephen Markeley: A young man, just out of college tries to figure out how to earn a living as a writer.
- Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook: A young newlywed moves with her husband to his job in Japan and must figure out life marriage and career.
- Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn: A young woman enters the workforce and ends up interviewing celebrities. In her new role, she still must figure out how to be herself.
In every memoir, the structure is determined by the author’s best attempt to provide a powerful story and each author uses different devices. In Dani Shapiro’s launching memoir, Slow Motion, she does provide many important flashbacks of her earlier life. At the other extreme, backstory can be extremely brief. In Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald she mentions that she travelled to India because a stalker scared her away from her home in Australia.
Do Midlife Psychological Dramas Need Roots?
Many memoirs focus on challenges later in life, when events or psychological pressures cause us to rethink our direction. For example, in Accidental Lessons, David Berner tells about his midlife crisis, during which he drops out of his successful career and marriage and attempts to reinvent himself. He writes the whole story from the point of view of a middle-aged guy in a junior position as a school teacher, and offers hardly any glimpses of his earlier life. I found the book engaging, and psychologically compelling. In her midlife course correction Sonia Marsh tackles the world head-on, and tells about her move to Belize in her memoir Freeways to Flipflops. The journey is told with very few flashbacks.
Other writers who experience a shift in awareness later in life choose to start their story from many years earlier. For example, when John Robison realizes in midlife that has had Asperger’s syndrome, it helped him understand himself. In his memoir Look Me In the Eye, he starts from childhood and describes his whole life in chronological order. When Boyd Lemon retires, he wants to make sense of the mess he made of his three marriages. He organizes his memoir Digging Deep as a series of three long flashbacks, remembered from the present.
The decision about how you structure your story will be influenced by your creative approach to the dramatic arcs of your life. Explore the possibilities by writing one or more synopses, as if you are writing a blurb for the back of your book, using third-person so it feels like you are talking about someone else. Experiment with a variety of approaches. For example, write a blurb about a memoir of your childhood. Write one about the journey of launching into adulthood. Or write about some other powerful event or period that you feel might be story worthy.
As you proceed in your memoir writing journey, hone these blurbs. A side effect of refining them will be an improved understanding of your whole project and will help you find your way amid the complexity of memories.
This is the third part of the 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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