by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
In any moment of your life, you don’t know what is going to happen next. So in an authentic story about that life, your character shouldn’t know the future, either. However, at times, it does feel important to hint at something in the future. For example, in my memoir, when my brother was first diagnosed with cancer, I want to say, “And that was the last time I would see him in good health.”
Foreshadowing seems like a legitimate element for fiction. In that fluid reality, the author inserts an ominous thunderstorm to hint at the future. But I have mixed feelings about fortune telling in a memoir. Even though the narrator knows what happens next, the character does not. To maintain the reader’s belief in the story’s timeframe, information must be doled out in a carefully controlled manner. In all but a few memoirs, that means that the narrator only reveals as much as the main character knew at the time.
The practice of foreshadowing in a published memoir is rare enough that it jumps out at me when I see it. For example, in Andre Dubus III’s blue-collar fight memoir Townie, when he describes the guys who hang out on the streets, he notes how much jail time they are destined to serve, and for what crime they will be convicted. This leap in time doesn’t spoil Dubus’ excellent memoir, but it does highlight the fact that for the vast majority of memoirs, the character does not look into a crystal ball.
Even though published memoirs avoid hopping back and forth, free-written memoir drafts often leap across time. There is an obvious reason for this tendency. Memory itself instantly mashes past and present and so, in free-writing sessions when you are pouring words in the page in whatever form your mind presents them, this mashup flows naturally. One of the first and best editing techniques a memoir writer should learn is to eradicate the innocent looking phrase “I remember.”
When you precede a scene with a phrase like “I remember”, you inadvertently ask the reader to make two leaps of faith in quick succession, first jumping into the narrator’s mind and then jumping back through memory to the original events. By deleting the phrase “I remember” the reader no longer needs to enter the narrator’s timeframe, and can go directly into the story.
Full Flashes forward — Time Travel
Thanks to the creativity of storytelling, some fascinating story devices break the rule of chronological simplicity. One of the most unusual approaches to moving through time takes place in Carlos Eire’s two memoirs, Waiting for Snow in Havana and Learning to Die in Miami. He uses an exotic form of time travel, with entire scenes from the future. For example, when Eire was little boy in Havana, his cousin who is a nice guy as a young man, is part of the counter-revolution in Cuba. Eire jumps forward into fully formed scenes later in life describing this sweet young man’s torture in a Cuban prison and his subsequent mental deterioration.
Why does this peculiar technique work so well for Carlos Eire? When you step back and look at his astonishing journey from a rich Cuban boy to a poor orphan immigrant, and then through his travails toward adult success, it makes sense that his style and structure are exceptional. Add to his own complex journey the strange fact that his father believes in reincarnation and routinely refers back to his past life. Eire grew up listening to his father reminisce about being Louis the XVI, beheaded during the French Revolution. Eire’s whole life prepared him to think about lives in interweaving timelines.
Such a technique, elegantly tailored to the circumstances of one author’s life and thought process, might sound strange and confusing in another story by a different author. Each memoir writer must make these choices based on their own voice, and circumstances.
Foreshadowing on the Outside of the Book
One place that foreshadowing occurs with complete unabashed enthusiasm is in the book’s blurb and descriptions. In fact, building up the reader’s anticipation is one of the jobs of any writer or publisher who hopes to entice readers. Books about growing up in difficult circumstances always imply that the character indeed grows up. And all memoir authors eventually gained the competence and self-confidence to tell their own stories.
The First Chapter Pullout or Prolog for a Shocking Beginning
Some authors create a sense of drama in the first chapter by pulling forward a particularly shocking moment, that is buried deep within the narrative. By moving it to the front of the book, the scene generates tension and anticipation from the first page.
For example, the first scene of Wild by Cheryl Strayed shows her alone on a mountain in deep wilderness. With no civilization in sight, she pulls off her boot and accidentally knocks it over the edge of a cliff. She stands there with one boot wondering how she is going to proceed. Then the story returns to the very beginning. The technique forces us to read through the book to find out how she survived.
Matthew Polly’s memoir American Shaolin starts with a nerve-wracking fight against an advanced martial artist. Then the story springs back to the beginning, with Polly as a mild-mannered boy, trying to find his identity in the Midwest, before heading off to martial arts training in China.
In Fugitive Days, a memoir about the anti-war movement by Bill Ayers, the first sentence of the first chapter is pulled from the worst moment of his life, when he finds out a girl he deeply admires has been killed in a bomb blast.
When reading memoirs that start with a scene pulled forward from the midsection, it feels literally like déjà vu (already seen) when the story actually reaches the moment that was previously described. My first impulse is to feel slightly annoyed when I read about the same moment twice. And then I quickly move on, willing to accept a tiny bit of annoyance in exchange for a good story. I even recommend it as a valid strategy to others.
A modified version of this method is used by Janice Erlbaum. The first chapter of her memoir, Girl Bomb, starts when she walks into a homeless shelter. Her second chapter returns to an earlier time to give the backstory that explains the first one.
Dani Shapiro’s first chapter in Slow Motion shows her in the hospital after her parents’ deadly auto accident. The jolt of the accident starts the book. Then she backs up and shows how she got into the circumstances that the accident saved her from.
List a few possible high intensity scenes that might work as first chapter pullouts or prologues. Try each of these in juxtaposition with your first chapter, and either ask from input from your critique group or simply try to imagine how you as a reader would respond to this technique.
This is the fifth 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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I believe you meant to say, “In fact, building up the reader’s anticipation is one of the jobs of any writer or publisher who hopes to entice readers,” not “job’s of any writer.” Other than that typo, this is an insightful and useful post. Thank you!
Thanks so much for taking the time to read the post, praise it, and help me improve it! I hope I’ve helped your memoir just as you helped me improve my blog post. Crowdsourcing excellence… I love it!