Compelling Chapters Knit Small Stories into Powerful Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

After I enjoy reading a memoir, I think carefully about the impression it made on me. That for me is the payoff. What do I actually remember about this journey through a writer’s life? Usually, the chapters fade into the background. They provided forward momentum without calling attention to themselves. However, in some memoirs, they jump out and warrant a closer look. I’ve already raved about the power of Slash Coleman’s intriguing and creative approach to character arc in Bohemian Love Diaries. Now, I want to rave about the remarkable power he packs into his chapters. Each smaller unit pops with energy, and yet they all hang together to create a larger whole.

Slash Coleman’s journey comes alive with vivid images like his childhood pressure to find his half-Jewish identity, his desperate need to discover his artistic expression, and his series of passionate attempts to find a mate. I believe these pressures stand out so vividly in my memory, not because he had better adventures than other people (although he did have some doozies. His experiences sound so compelling because he turns experience into powerful stories.

Until now, I have mainly focused on the power of the overall arc of each memoir. Bohemian Love Diaries reminds me to pay more attention to the power contained within chapters. These smaller units of suspense are crucial for holding a reader’s attention.

When I first started writing my memoir, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever develop a compelling story. At first, my memories felt like a disorganized pile of bits and pieces. Gradually, my sequence of anecdotes took shape. Some chunks were obvious, like when I graduated high school in Philadelphia and went to college in Wisconsin, or when I moved to Berkeley, California to try and become a hippie. As my sequences of scenes turned into autobiographical segments,  I noticed subtler demarcations. A relationship. An artistic dream. A shift in career. A search for meaning. How could I turn these life pressures into strong arcs that shape chapters?

Slash Coleman offers an important clue on his website, where he lists himself as a professional storyteller. He stands in front of people and tells stories. For example check out his excellent TedX talk about the power of storytelling. As a story performer, he has the benefit of trial and error. If he doesn’t get the expected laugh, murmur or softening eyes, he has to tyr something else.

I know about this process from the excellent memoirs Born Standing Up Steve Martin and Enter Talking by Joan Rivers. These comedians both started their careers knowing they wanted to entertain audiences. To learn their craft, they had to stand up and try. Their listeners’ feedback provided constant course corrections that led these two performers to incredible success.

Memoir writers too can improve by listening to their audiences. Consider the fabulous success of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s first memoir. The blockbusting bestseller helped launch the Memoir Revolution. In McCourt’s later memoirs Tis and Teacher Man he explains that he spent a lifetime as a high school teacher, telling his students about his childhood experience. Years of audience feedback taught him the art of telling his life.

Slash Coleman’s performances provided him with some of the same storytelling firepower. Reading his book felt like sitting in the audience watching him perform it. In segment after segment, he ends with a punch. And then, as I imagine listening to the ending of the book, I feel like I’m in a hushed audience, waiting and watching as he wraps up the whole thing.

You don’t need to stand in front of a live audience to learn if you’re on the right track.  For example, memoir writer John Grogan tells of a related technique that helped him create his bestseller Marley and Me. Grogan was a newspaper columnist, paid to look for a story every week. Not only did he develop the knack of finding the story in everyday life. He also learned what stories his readers enjoyed by checking the newspaper’s letters and phone calls to the editor.

During the early stages of converting memories into stories, we’re too close to our material. Telling stories to families rarely helps. Families know the characters and hear the same stories repeated in the same way for years. Stories told at the dinner table sound out of place in public. We need to gain some distance, and the best way to do that is to learn how we sound to strangers.

A good way to gain this perspective is to seek feedback from a critique group. Online groups are excellent for this. Their anonymity helps participants give honest responses. Face to face critique groups add intimacy, letting you look critiquers in the eye and see how they felt about the piece.  Sharing your work in a critique group teaches you what kind of impression your story makes on readers. Was there enough conflict? Were there surprises? Did the tale pull the reader into the incident or chapter?

Another way to reach readers is to develop a blog. Even if at first you have no readers, writing the blog will let you see yourself as a performer. When the comedian Steve Martin was starting his career, he went on stage and looked out to an empty restaurant. The manager told him to perform anyway, explaining that when people passed by and saw him performing, it would draw them in. Bloggers do this all the time. Without reassurance that anyone will read our work, we persist, using our imaginary audience to help us focus our writing.

So to write your memoir, look at your growing list of anecdotes organized along a time line. Muse about which segment might create the heart of that eternal story-sequence: challenge, obstacles, resolution. When you find candidate, tack on a beginning that introduces the character’s dramatic tension, and a conclusion that resolves it. Then look for an audience. See how it feels to tell it. See what sorts of responses you receive.

The feedback strengthen your storytelling sensibility enabling you to tighten each chapter and gain a compelling sense of the overall structure. Eventually, you will have a book that makes sense to readers, converting a lifetime into a story worth reading.

Notes

Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman

Click here for an article about John Grogan’s Marley and Me

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

How to Pick the Best Title for Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

When you write your memoir, you turn great swatches of your life into prose. You search for a narrative arc, psychological insights and dramatic tension in paragraph after paragraph, and page after page. But when you write a title, you must think like a poet, condensing the entire journey into a few words. To ensure your title has the maximum impact, microscope in on the phrase, searching for just the right meanings, hopefully spiced with a hint of ambiguity or mysterious depth.

Authors stare at the sky of their minds, hoping some pattern will jump out at them. But before making a decision, consider all the work a title has to do. A great title helps potential readers buy the book, love it to the last page and then recommend it to friends. To learn more, look at your own buying, reading, and recommending behavior to see the effect other titles have had on you.

The Title Is the First Line of Marketing

If a book’s title tickles my interest, I move to the next step. I look at the blurb or description and read reviews online. If still curious, I look up the author’s home page, blogs and social media. However, I continue to rely on the title as the centerpiece for all this interest.

Many factors play in my mind when I glance at a title. Is it fun? Is it somber? Is it cryptic? Sonia Marsh states in an interview about her memoir Freeways to Flipflops, readers want to go on an interesting journey. She believed that if her title had highlighted her son’s emotional problems, readers might have anticipated a bummer. Who wants to pay for that? By selecting a title with a more interesting visual image, Sonia Marsh made it easier to love the book.

Sometimes the title slows down my purchasing decision. Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi is a good example. Years ago I read Vladimir Nabakov’s book, Lolita, about a creepy man who coerced a little girl into sex. I had no interest in pursuing this topic, so despite repeated recommendations, I rejected the memoir.

The Title Guides You Through the Journey

Reading a book is like entering a contract with the author, and the terms of that contract are summarized in the terse few words of the title. Every time a reader sits down to read, the title goes through their mind, evoking an image that pulls them back into the story.

Just as the name of the “Big Dipper” helps stargazers imagine the shape of disconnected points of light, an effective title helps readers link together clues into the shape of a story that hangs together along a central premise.

For example, when I read Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley about life after polio, every time I picked it up, my throat constricted, remembering that we would resume the search for meaning in a life on wheels.

I knew The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner would be about a man who had to stop eating in order to survive an attack of Crohn’s disease. Through his year of physical and emotional agony, the absence of food continued to play a central role.

Queen of the Road by Doreen Orion was about a married middle-aged couple who took a year off to travel around the United States in an RV. That title evoked a hint of playful irony, conjuring the image of a woman sitting on the “throne” of the passenger seat, ruler of all she surveyed.

Sometimes the subtitle serves this central purpose. Every time I picked up the memoir Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair With Turkey by Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, I accompanied the two authors on a love affair with a place, an unusual experience that is highlighted in the subtitle.

Sonia Marsh’s title Freeways to Flipflops provided a perfect link through the dynamics of the story. Every time I thought of the book, I visualized this urban family trying to make sense of life on the beach.

Write
Pick a memoir off your shelf and think about what you thought before you read it, and what you thought after. Were you attracted by the title? Throughout the book, were you satisfied that the title steered you well?

The Title Lingers After Closing

After we close the book for the last time, we continue to associate the story with its title. So when you look for the best possible title, consider the image it will leave. The title should haunt readers, please them, and continue to evoke images. Ideally, the title should roll off the reader’s tongue when friends ask for a recommendation.

For example, Slash Coleman’s memoir Bohemian Love Diaries implies a series of passionate romances. The word Bohemian has delicious implications that remind me of my youthful dreams of returning to pre-war Europe, and of living life according to my own fantasy, not someone else’s rules.

Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls raises a haunting, image, somewhere between a child’s innocent hope for the future and an almost sinister reminder of her father’s mentally incompetent ability to fulfill those hopes.

Freeways to Flipflops leaves a perfect after-image. It’s easy to remember, evokes clean, strikingly compelling images of the crossing between two worlds. And it’s fun to remember the two metaphors. I want to tell friends about it partly because the title is so much fun.

When I finally picked up Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, I enjoyed a delicious weaving of life and literature. In addition, it provided a fascinating analogy between the way Humbert Humbert treated Lolita, as his “thing” and the way Islamists dehumanized the women of Iran as their “things.” Nafisi’s intense personal experience, coupled with the profound analogies she drew from literature helped me understand these powerful cultural dynamics. As a bonus, Nafisi’s love for literature took me so far into the mind of Vladimir Nabakov I feel like we have become good friends. I now recommend the book, but I completely empathize if you decide to pass. Click here to read my post on the memoir.

Ask the Story to Reveal its Own Title

If you don’t yet have a title for your own memoir, keep a list of whatever comes to mind, and meanwhile reserve your main focus on crafting your story. Perhaps the story itself will reveal a powerful title. With continued revision, the story becomes more real and accessible to your own mind. Every time you attempt to answer the question “what is your memoir about” you will find yourself inching closer and closer to a concept that satisfies your authentic intention as well as creating curiosity in potential readers.

Turn words over in your mind, and then try them out with friends and fellow writers. Eventually you will be able to explain the scope of your entire story in a catchy, meaningful phrase, a creative achievement that symbolizes to you and your future readers all the creative effort you have poured into turning your life into a story.

Writing Prompt
Free-write a descriptions of the journey taken by the main character, or ask a good friend to ask you what the book is about and try to explain it. Vary these synopses, looking for the overall lesson of the book, or some powerful transition, or a metaphor that keeps coming to mind, or something about a main character, main desire, or something about the time and place. Use these brainstorming session to reveal the power in characters and situations. Each possible synopsis might provide you with just the right phrase or idea to act as the guide post for the life of the book. Will it entice a reader, guide them through the journey, and leave them with an image after they close it that they would want to share with a friend?

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes
My own memoir titled Thinking My Way to the End of the World hints at the philosophical intensity with which I approached my Coming of Age. My self help book for writers “Four Elements for Writers” accurately described the contents, but it didn’t make sense until after you finished reading it. After revising it, I arrived at a new title “How to Become a Heroic Writer” to indicate the goal of reading it.

Sometimes the title appears from nowhere. Early in the design of my book about the surge of popular interest in memoirs, the title Memoir Revolution popped into my mind. It felt good to me and when I mentioned my working title to writers and even agents they said “Nice title.” So I kept it.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

Should this Memoir be Called: Courage of Motherhood?

by Jerry Waxler

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

When Sonia Marsh needs to save her family from potential harm-from-within, she instigates a move from Los Angeles to Belize. Her memoir, Freeways to Flipflops describes the move. To adapt and survive in a foreign land, she must learn a new set of rules. Take a water-taxi into town to shop for food, enroll her kids in a school that will prepare them for college, and find a dentist. At home such decisions were part of the humdrum routine of life. In this place they are difficult and even scary.

As I look back across the family’s journey, powerful character arcs emerge. Adapting to the foreign environment forces each character to grow along important dimensions. They start their journey with one set of beliefs about themselves and each other, and then, step by step, replace these beliefs with more empowering, complex and sophisticated ones that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

As I continue to poke and prod, trying to learn why this memoir holds together so tightly, another theme jumps out at me, hidden in plain sight. Sonia Marsh saves her family from disaster with as much story-worthy heroism as James Bond demonstrates when saving the world.

Her heroism should have been obvious but I am so accustomed to mothers playing their role in real life, and so unaccustomed to seeing them do it in literature. Now, with more careful thought I realize the Memoir Revolution is giving mothers a voice in our culture. Sonia Marsh’s From Freeways to Flipflops is a powerful example.

By shaping her year in Belize into a memoir, Sonia Marsh guides us through what on the surface looks like a zany adventure and then, page by page turns into a rich, complex story arc about a family moving into and beyond a crisis. The story casts her as one of the least typecast heroes I would expect.

Based on this theme, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the book titled “Courage of Motherhood.” I can see other slants in the book that she could have highlighted in the title. It could have been titled “Escape from LA” or “How to Save a Son” or “How Choosing One Nightmare Resolved a Worse One” or “Resolving the Midlife Crisis of a Family.” (I’ll comment more about the lifecycle of Sonia Marsh’s family in a followup posting.) Instead, Sonia Marsh called her memoir, Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island. At least the word “family” is in the subtitle.

By reviewing her title, and the variety of other possibilities, you begin to see that it requires real imagination and lots of trial and error to come up with a good one that captures your imagination at the beginning and sustains it through to the end.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the many jobs of a title and more ideas about how to find one.

Links
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes

Another look through the eyes of a courageous mother is Madeline Sharples Leaving the Hall Light On, that allows us to see through a mother’s eyes as her son falls under the horrific weight of bipolar disorder to his suicide, and then her attempt to hang on to her sanity and dignity.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

What is the Theme of Your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

Along the journey of turning life into a story, many teachers will advise you to focus on a single theme. They say, “Avoid sounding like this book is a record of your whole life. If you do that, it will really be an autobiography. In order to write a memoir, you need to focus on a single driving theme. When you can tell me what your story is ‘about’ you can call it a memoir.”

The part of this advice that I love is that a memoir is not just about the events of a life. The events themselves are simply the framework. The “real story” is under the surface, in the emotional and dramatic pressures that carry the character and the reader forward from first page to last.

When I read a memoir that has earned a place on my shelf and in my heart, I reap the rewards of the author’s creative passion and endless hours required to turn the humdrum sequence of life’s events into the magical form of a story. By offering me this memoir, the author has given me the gift of “life as a story,” a gift that inspires me to see the power, dignity and hope that make ordinary lives worth living. The memoir also inspires me as a writer. When I return to my desk, I attempt to follow the same path, and perform the same magical conversion to my own experience.

The thing I hate about the advice is actually following it. As a memoir writer, my first ten thousand steps related to pulling events out of memory, lining them up on paper, developing scenes, finding emotional connections, recognizing compelling forces. When I teach memoir writing, I look at a room of people who lived lives with all the complexity life can bring. I don’t expect or advise them to look for a theme until they are far, far along in their process.

Finding the theme, a crucial requirement for a book you buy at the store, can seem ridiculously out of reach for the story you are attempting to understand about yourself. What do you mean, “What is the theme? It was my life!” Life has so many dimensions. Must you really limit your story to just one of them?

To learn more about how this works, I turn, as usual to the memoirs I read, and realize that when I dig under the surface, even the ones that are compelling, powerful stories have more than just one theme.

The humorous, ironic memoir Man Made by Joel Stein is “about” the attempt of a first time father to embrace his new role, as well as the theme identified in the title about his attempt to understand the meaning of “being a man.”

The crazy, wildly romantic Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman is not just “about” intense romances that don’t work out. It’s about a man trying to live as if his life is a work of art.

Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother is not only about the heartbreaking abandonment by her own mother. It’s also “about” coming of age in a small town in the Midwest, about the power of extended family, and on a subtler level is about the long lens of forgiveness and wisdom that occurs later in life.

Saddled by Susan Richards is “about” a horse who saved her, but it’s also about a woman trying to find a career, and a life free of abusive men, and free of the self-abuse of alcohol.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is “about” the friendship of two women, but it’s also “about” the evolution of adults who continue to find themselves, relying on dogs, and sobriety meetings, and each other.

Many of my favorite memoirs demonstrate that discovering who you are does not end at 20, or 25 or even 50. After finding sobriety, or after having a baby, or after leaving home, or making peace with your parents, you have the opportunity to Come of Age again.

In my next post, I’ll dig deeper into the title and theme of Sonia Marsh’s book Freeways to Flipflops. It has a remarkably simple title that points to a complex, complete slice of her life. And Sonia Marsh like other memoir authors and memoir activists, is a role model who can help the rest of us follow in her footsteps.

If you are past information-gathering and ready to develop a book that will appeal to readers, you will enter this outward-facing stage of your journey. As you struggle to find the single, emotionally grabbing principle that drives your story, you will realize you are also looking for the title, and the reverse is true as well. As you look for the title, it will help you find the theme.

This “high concept” is not just a superficial marketing ploy. It will provide you with a framework that can help you relate to your readers’ expectations. Then using that synopsis, you can reread your manuscript for yet another revision, keeping in mind the expectations your title establishes with your readers.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

From Complex Memories to the Compelling Title of Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

When you first consider the possibility of writing the story of your own life, you have not yet pulled experiences out of their storehouse in memory. Over time, the anecdotes take shape on paper, and you search for a beginning, middle, and end. From within your pages emerge story arcs. How did you grow up? How did you survive some assault on your dignity? How did you move to the next step? Some themes emerge gradually and others jump out as surprises. During a reading, or during a workshop, or while you are showering, you realize how long you’ve been struggling to please your dad, or you recognize the power of some dream that you’ve always taken for granted. You see how such a theme would hold the story together and drive the reader’s curiosity.

A memoir is born. But what to call it? How do you label your journey through life in a brief title that announces to potential readers that this book is worth reading? And just as important, what title will hold your own interest and help you tighten the concept of the book?

Fortunately, like every aspect of the memoir writing process, you don’t need to face this question alone. Every memoir you read offers an example of how one author turned a life into a story, and then labeled that story in a few enticing words. Take for example, the memoir Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Before reading the book, the title might sound simple, light and breezy. I think of a fun loving family leaving Los Angeles to try out the adventure of a lifetime.

However, in these simple words, the title evokes powerful images, metaphorically comparing life in Southern California to the laid-back life on the beach. Despite the breeziness of the title, Sonia Marsh’s life was anything but simple. The book actually describes one of the most pressured, complex periods of the author’s life.

However, despite the contrast between the breeziness of the title and the difficulty of the life it describes, I never felt betrayed or misled. On the contrary, the deeper I went into the story, the more meaning I found in the title. I realized it provided a micro-guidebook, showing the family’s initial optimistic hopes for the journey, and then as I proceeded, I discovered the irony of the title. This journey was not so simple as it first appeared.

At the start of the story, Sonia Marsh’s teenage son decides he can do whatever he wants. His sense of entitlement looks like the beginning of a terrifying descent. He crosses a line when he lifts his fist to his mother and instead of smashing her face, he puts a hole through the wall. His behavior is heart wrenching and frightening.

His dad was busy at his corporate job, and had no insights into how to change his son’s behavior. So it was up to Mom to come up with the next step. Some moms might be paralyzed with fear, or turn the matter over to the police or ship the boy off to military school or call in the therapists. Sonia Marsh does something different. Like one of those mothers who lifts an automobile off her child, Marsh attempts to get Los Angeles’ Freeway culture off her son’s back by moving her family to the Central American nation of Belize. Freeways to Flipflops is the story of that journey.

This is part 1 of a three-part essay about titling your memoir.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

How to Start Writing Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

If you have ever wanted to shape your memories into stories, there has never been a better time. Thanks to the popularity of bestselling memoirs by ordinary people, many of us are wondering if we could record our past into a readable form. Before we start, though, two simple questions block the way. How do you do it? And why would anyone care? These two questions sound like insurmountable obstacles. Yet, when you make a sincere effort to find answers, you will be learning an invigorating craft, and also finding a new way to look at your own journey.

If you are not an accomplished writer, don’t let that stop you. You weren’t a professional when you started other activities. Just learn the basics and then practice, practice, practice.

The fundamental building block of all storytelling is the scene. To write about your experience, jump into the memory and report what you see, hear, feel and think. Dialog is often used in memoirs, with the understanding that the words are only a best guess at what was said. Once you start writing, you will be amazed at how interesting your account will be to a curious, empathetic reader.

Over time, you will build a stockpile of anecdotes. These may seem fragmented, until you apply the simple organizing principle of chronological order. By placing your anecdotes in sequence, the form of a story will begin to emerge.

How to make your story interesting

You wouldn’t believe your life was worth writing if by “story” you imagining the kinds of tales my dad told every night after coming home from the drugstore. He would say something like, “The doctor next door came in late again today and his patients kept begging me for information.” Such dinner-table stories vented some emotion or highlighted some powerful or humorous incident. We rolled our eyes or laughed, and that was the end of the story.

However, when you read memoirs, you’ll notice many differences between crafted stories and casual ones. Memoirs present characters who start out with some emotional challenge. The character then proceeds toward a goal, overcoming obstacles, experimenting, and learning from mistakes. By the end of a written story, the events make sense in a larger context and both the reader and the writer feel okay about the whole thing

To learn how to express your life through story, you need to reveal more information about yourself than you might typically be inclined to do in conversation. Such disclosure may seem daunting at first. Many beginners assume their revelations will create divisions and tension.  In many cases I have found the opposite to be true. Opening yourself up allows people to see you as more accessible, and can actually increase intimacy with loved ones.

Written stories also tend to explore mundane details of life far more than spoken stories do. The reason is that when you write a story, you are attempting to provide sensory information so readers can visualize who you are and where you’ve been. You can help them do so by letting them walk with you to school, or go on a first date. What kept you busy after school? Describe each room in your house, and write a scene that happened in each one. Describe your neighborhood, or the games you played with your friends. These details seem unimportant when you’re speaking, but they will help a reader feel connected to your experience.

When writing your memories, put yourself in the mind of a reader. That is easy to do since you have been enjoying stories since your parents started reading them to you as a child. By learning to convey your memories in this form, you provide readers with pleasure, provide yourself with the satisfaction of creating a written piece, and gain an insight into a craft that has entertained you throughout your life.

What you need to start your memoir

A writing habit
Write a few minutes every day. This will accomplish two important goals. First the writing will add up over time. Second, the habit will create momentum, which makes it much easier to write.

Writing prompts
Ask yourself questions: Write a scene about a bad hair day, a great vacation, a day with a best friend. By developing a list of such questions you can stimulate all sorts of surprise gifts from your unconscious.

A curious supportive audience
To write with freedom and energy, find or imagine a warm, curious audience. Your first such audience might be at a local library where you join with others who help each other write stories.

Read memoirs
By reading memoirs, you will appreciate the skill and patience with which other writers achieved the task. Every one you read provides an example from which you can draw lessons about how to write your own.

Read books and take classes about writing memoirs
There are an abundance of teachers, in classrooms, in books, and online, eager to help you get started.
Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time

by Jerry Waxler

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

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 to a chapter about childhood. 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?

Writing Exercise
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 Castle by Jeannette 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. Here are links to the whole series:

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.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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.

Writing Prompt
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.

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.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir

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.

Writing Prompt
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.
Notes

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.

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.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

Real life happens in sequence, first one thing and then another. However, when we store those events in memory, they tangle together in chaotic piles. To construct a story, we must extract snips from memory and arrange them into chronological order. We also must find their “psychological order” to convey the dramatic tension that drags the reader as well as the author through a chain of causes and their effects.

As readers and viewers, we expect protagonists to travel along a compelling arc. Now, to write a memoir, we must “go back to school” to learn how to reframe life events. Where do we get such training? In addition to instructional books and classes, we can learn from reading memoirs to see how the author shuffled events into chronological and psychological order.

Take for example, the way Jon Reiner creatively weaves events in both time and importance. His memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, describes the year during which he suffers and recovers from an acute attack of Crohn’s disease. To understand his predicament we need to know how he arrived here. The book starts with a bang when Reiner collapses from crushing intestinal pain. As he struggles to maintain consciousness, scenes from the past drift in and out of his delirious mind, adding backstory right there in the urgent startup.

Elegant techniques such as this one, and Cheryl Strayed’s memories as she hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild, rely on convincing us that the character has a powerful reason for doing a lot of thinking. Like James Thurber’s brilliant device of setting stories inside Walter Mitty’s imagination, when we successfully keep the reader inside the character’s mind, we maintain suspension of disbelief.

Remembering a scene is only one way to portray the past. You could do something in the present that brings the past into focus. For example, you could return to your childhood home the way Tracy Seeley does in My Ruby Slippers. As she walks around her old neighborhood, naturally she thinks about the past. Or you could dig up old letters your father wrote home from the war the way Karen Alaniz does in Breaking the Code. Jon Reiner uses another clever variation of this technique. He meets an old high-school flame for a lunch date. Since he can’t eat, and maybe they weren’t such great friends after all, their encounter is conflicted and interesting, and it doubles as link between the past and the present.

Backstory does not always require entire scenes. Sometimes the narrator simply tells us about something from the past. For example, Jon Reiner indicates that he is on a first-name basis with his doctors because his chronic disease has forced him into an intimate relationship with them over the years. He provides this information, at least in part, by simply informing us, rather than going back in time and showing how the relationships evolved.

Such information can seem perfectly natural to the reader, and yet, it touches on an important stylistic issue in memoir writing. Information you supply to the reader can straddle two timeframes, the one in the character’s mind, and knowledge offered by the narrator years later. If the reader thinks the information is being delivered by the narrator, it could break them out of the time of the story and yank them into the time of the narrator To become more aware of the tension between character and narrator, pay attention to the timeframe of every sentence. I’ll say more about this tension between the character and narrator in another blog post.

Move it back into Chronological order

You may be seduced into using flashbacks because when you wrote your first draft, a scene from an earlier period jumped into your mind and you let it flow into your narrative. Later, when you reread it, you think, “nice touch.” After all, your unconscious mind dished it up right there, so perhaps that’s where it belongs. But another interpretation is that your unconscious mind is reminding you of an event important enough to deserve its own scene.

Writing Prompt

Review your manuscript or free-written draft, and when you spot a mention of an earlier event, zoom in on it. Instead of simply mentioning it in passing, pull it out into its own paragraph or more and try writing it as a full scene. Then insert it into the appropriate chronological sequence elsewhere in your story. This exercise can help you share important scenes organically within the storyline.

Unabashedly Tell Some History

At the opposite extreme, instead of avoiding flashbacks, jump all the way in and tell the whole thing the way Helene Cooper does. Her memoir House on Sugar Beach is about growing up wealthy amid poverty in Liberia. The book shows the class tension that she experienced as a child in the African nation, which is then torn apart by violent upheaval. In order to help readers make sense of those events, she inserts a history lesson about Liberia, filling in important background information that most American readers have never heard.

The technique of inserting a history or biography lesson into the flow of a memoir is especially common in stories about the lives of parents. These inserted stories-within-stories provide background that occurred before the author was born.

In Breaking the Code, Karen Alaniz Fisher provides background about her father’s life during World War II.

In My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor provides a biographical sketch of her parents, neatly inserted into her own early childhood.

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight  by Linda Austin takes a different approach, reconstructing the story of her mother’s early life, based on interviews. Andrew X. Pham does something similar. In Eaves of Heaven, he describes his father’s life in Vietnam, providing a fascinating view of the wars that tore apart his family and country.

Lucky Girl by Mei-ling Hopgood is about an adopted Chinese girl growing up in the Midwest. When she meets her biological family, she tells their history and what led to giving her up for adoption.

In Color of Water, James McBride spends considerable time reconstructing his white mother’s childhood, based on interviews with her and others in her earlier life.

Writing Prompt

If you are wondering how to gracefully insert backstory, consider turning it into unabashed history. Write it as clearly as possible, and take special care to craft the transitions from your main story to this inserted one, and then back out again. Insert this snip and try it out on readers.

Just How Much History Should You Include?

Martha Stettinius’ memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic is about caregiving for the author’s mother who is losing her cognitive ability. While writing the book, Stettinius’ desire to include her mother’s history took her directly into the conflict about how much backstory to include. Advocates for concision told her to cut straight to the matter at hand, and at the same time, she intuitively felt that a story about her mother’s deteriorating mind needed to include a synopsis of her previous life.

In the final analysis, Stettinius, like every memoir writer, had to steer through these decisions, to determine not only how much to include, but also how to do it gracefully. Stettinius succeeded, as did all the authors I’ve mentioned. By working out their challenges with time, character development and suspense, they successfully set the reader’s expectation and then fulfill those expectations. These memoirs and the hundreds of others I have read demonstrate over and over that Story is a form that is flexible and expansive enough to allow us to convert the events of our lives into compelling, inspiring, and informative drama.

Notes

This is the fourth 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.