by Jerry Waxler
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Many memoirs are contained within a wrapper story. The device is familiar from a number of stories. For example, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is told by Ishmael who chronicles the whole thing. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a sailor tells his story to a group of travelers. In the Odyssey, Ulysses tells his story to Nausicaa when he lands among the Phaeacians. And in the movie Titanic, the entire story is supposedly narrated by an elderly survivor.
By developing the narrator as a visible presence in the story, you can help the reader gracefully move back and forth between the time frame of the person writing the book and the time frame of the character who lived through the earlier events. Here are examples of the way the wrapper story has been used in memoirs.
Scene in the Present that Shows Why You Need to Tell the Story
In Colored People, Henry Louis Gates tells his children about the old days in order to help them understand where their ancestors have been.
Story of Waiting
In Tony Cohan’s memoir Native State, his father lies dying, and while he is stuck in California, he reminisces about his childhood and about his experience as an expat in north Africa. It is an unusual, complex coming of age story and reflects Cohan’s interest in the multiple streams of jazz.
Investigation into the Past
Some authors start from the present and then, following their curiosity about the past, they write a memoir about exploring their earlier lives.
Mistress’s Daughter by AM Homes: Her birth mother contacts her and the author must go hunting for her biological family.
My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley: She has cancer and takes time away from work to go back to Kansas to investigate her family roots.
Color of Water by James McBride: His mother is near death, and he realizes that unless he pries her history out of her, her childhood will be lost forever. The book is his search for her past.
Breaking the Code by Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Her father hands her a bundle of letters he wrote as a soldier in WWII. She painstakingly investigates the untold story of his years during the war.
Digging Deep by Boyd Lemon: He is retired, looking for the meaning in his life, and he decides to try to make sense of his three marriages, looking for the common thread within himself that sabotaged each one.
Travel as a Wrapper Story
The current events in a travel memoir tell a story in their own right. In addition, some travel memoirs are used as containers in which the author spends so much time exploring the past, or reminiscing about it, you begin to wonder if the story is about the journey or the memories. This dual use of a travel memoir, as both a story of a journey and a wrapper story of a previous time, is especially noteworthy in:
Zen and Now by Mark Richardson: As the author follows the path of Robert Pirsig’s original motorcycle ride, there is plenty of time for reflection about his past.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: To sort out her life, the author walks along a wilderness trail, again providing a blank slate on which to paint the story of her earlier life.
Review these methods and write a synopsis of wrapper story you might use to help you structure your memoir. For example, imagine telling your story to an interested listener, (a therapist, a lover, or a child, for example). Imagine going on a journey back to your roots and reminiscing. Or imagine investigating your past and revealing the pieces as you find them.
Two Alternating Time Frames
The travel memoir as a wrapper story introduces the potential for telling a story in two time frames at once. Another technique jumps all the way into the two-frame concept and weaves two parallel stories, one from earlier in life and one later. By going back and forth between the two timeframes, these authors have managed to start the story right in the thick of it, and then go back to give the backstory without diffusing the power of the book. I’ll describe this method and give examples in the next post.
This is the sixth 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.
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