by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
When you start writing your memoir, you might not know how much of your childhood to include. However, don’t let that uncertainty slow you down. Gather anecdotes with an open mind, recording any scene that feels like it “wants to be told.” The material that pours on to the page during your research phase could influence the final decision about how to structure the book.
Material about an early period might turn into a memoir itself. It might provide important flashbacks. Or even if you don’t use it, these old scenes will provide rich background to help you make more sense of your character.
In addition to writing your draft material with an open mind, read memoirs with the same flexible approach. By reading voraciously you learn the range of life experience that each author chooses to include. You learn what sorts of memoirs you love to read.
As an aspiring memoir author, you look past the content of each memoir to its structure. How did the book start, and how did the initial scene (or at least chapter) relate to the character’s main challenge? Did it grab your attention? How would you apply the beginning and ending of the memoir to your own memoir in progress?
After you’ve read a variety of memoirs and answered these questions, you will develop a “vocabulary” of memoir structures that will give you ideas about how to construct your own. For example, in this post, I’ll focus on the amount of childhood that is included in the memoirs I’ve read.
Start from Childhood
Some of the most successful bestsellers in the Memoir Revolution were about growing up. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle all were on the New York Times bestseller list, and they all began in childhood. One reason their stories grabbed so much attention was because these children endured abusive, chaotic situations. Our hearts go out to Frank McCourt as he wanders the street hoping to find a piece of coal that might have spilled off the delivery truck so he could heat the house for his mother and siblings. We want to send in Social Services to protect Jeanette Walls, whose parents moved for no reason, choosing poverty over work.
Less prevalent are books about childhood without gut-wrenching danger. The key to storytelling is creating and resolving conflict, so if there is no monstrous father in the picture, or rockets smashing into nearby apartments, (Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filapovic) the story’s conflict must come from other aspects of the human drama.
No matter how cushy our material circumstances, we all had to grow up, and in our own way, each of us knows the emotional dangers and hardships of that process. Our attempts to find safety and wholeness amid these ordinary challenges can provide an excellent story.
Memoirs about Non-horrific Childhood
Laura Shane Cunningham, author of Sleeping Arrangements lost both her parents, a profound loss that was softened by the care of the two compassionate uncles who raised her. Her unusual freedom and attempts to find emotional wholeness makes a great story. Even more normal was Haven Kimmel’s life in a small town. In her memoir, a Girl Named Zippy, she energizes the reading experience with a terrific, ironic humor.
Tell About Childhood as the First Installment
A Girl Named Zippy was Kimmel’s successful first memoir. Her second memoir She Got Up Off the Couch essentially continued the story from where the first one left off. This strategy of writing sequential memoirs has been employed by some very successful authors,
Frank McCourt followed his smash hit Angela’s Ashes with a second memoir ‘Tis and a third, Teacher Man. Mary Karr, after the Liar’s Club, moved on to the next phase in her life in the memoir Cherry, and then recounted her long struggle with alcoholism in Lit. Harry Bernstein wrote three books about his life, starting with Invisible Wall, about being a child in England before World War I. His second was The Dream about being a young immigrant to the U.S., and his third was Golden Willow about the span of life that took him into his 90s. For each of these authors, the book about childhood was the first installment in a much longer work which added up to a de facto trilogy.
Late Childhood: Transition into Adulthood
Early childhood might feel like the most psychologically important period, when you are learning to be a person. It is also might seem too far away from your adulthood or your memories might be too vague and unrecoverable, or too “normal.” However, there is another segment of Coming of Age that creates enormous psychological pressure for many of us. During the period called “launching,” we leave our dependence on our family and enter the adult world. The challenge is that we are making decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives, but our adult minds are not yet fully developed. The launching process can make a fascinating, high energy, dangerous story, as evidenced by these:
Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum. Desperate to get away from her mother’s boyfriend, Erlbaum hurled herself out on the street unprepared to care for herself. She lands in a girl’s shelter for a year in a great example of trying to grow up too fast.
Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj. His entry into adulthood was derailed by addiction to heroin, so when it’s time for him to take a stand and launch himself into the adult world, he starts out with enormous disadvantages
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro made it all the way to college drug free and then lost her way. This is one of the best “derailed launching” books I’ve read.
Publish This Book by Stephen Markley. When he gets out of college, he has to figure out how to make a living. “I know,” he thinks, “I’ll write a book about writing a book.” It’s a fun read and at 26 years old, he happens to be one of the youngest memoir authors I’ve covered.
Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook. She marries a schoolteacher and leaves her life as a spoiled Los Angeles party girl. In Japan, she learns to be a housewife and an expat at the same time. This is a later period in launching when she has her first taste of adult responsibility.
Tell the Whole Thing in One Book
Coming of Age stories don’t necessarily end at age 18 or 20. After all, this is simply the prelude to the rest of life, and often the story of childhood merges into the next leg or two of the journey. Even though Glass Castle is famous as a Coming of Age story, with many mesmerizing scenes of Jeanette Walls’ childhood, the book doesn’t end when she moves out of her house. It ends well into Walls’ adulthood when she attempts to make peace with her parents.
Even if your childhood doesn’t have sufficient drama to make it a story in its own right, you may have a sense that it is part of your “story that must be told.” If you keep coming back to that period of your life as an important aspect of the character you need to portray then challenge yourself to find a way. Memoirs, like any creative work, allow room for your own approach. It may take you longer than you originally hoped, but over a period of development, you gradually see how to knit the whole thing together. And as you creatively knit together your memoir, you will also knit together the fragments of your life, allowing you to see the whole thing in one story.
Consider Susan Gregory Thomas’ compelling memoir, In Spite of Everything. The book offers a terrific example of a story that starts with childhood and keeps going. Her childhood seems like a magical, storybook life, disrupted by the tragic breakup of her parents, a nightmarishly chaotic adolescence, through her college years, her young married life, and then to the heart-wrenching breakup of her own marriage. She keeps this long journey fraught with compelling tension that carries the reader all the way through.
In the next few posts, I continue to dig into more of the structural decisions that will help you turn your manuscript of life events into your compelling story.
This is the second 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.
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.
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Thanks Jerry, I have recently come across your blog and its been more than helpful as I prepare myself to write my life story. I appreciate your clear, simple down to earth points made on how t prepare myself..
Your insistence on reading memoirs, lots of memoirs is taken to heart as I have decided to always have one one hand.
I understand how important it is to get it right in the beginning and not be too hasty. Being an overly ripened mature age person there is so much memory material that needs to be processed.
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I love that you are starting. Every single one of us has to start from wherever we are and proceed from there so you have lots of company. I stopped by your blog. Thanks for being so open and hopeful about your goals. Your ambition will help others who are thinking about taking the plunge. 🙂
This is an incredibly useful post. I have read many of these memoirs, and your summaries are accurate, and you make me want to read several others. Per your topic, Cheryl Strayed’s WILD is famous for the way she weaves in her backstory (some childhood and teen years but mostly early adulthood) as she recounts an arduous wilderness hike.
Since I am in the midst of revising my own childhood memoir, I found this a very useful post also. the model most like my own above is Haven Kimmel’s Zippy. She proved that we don’t have to have had abusive childhoods to capture the reader’s attention. All lives are fascinating when the stories are told well.
Another writer for this list is Jill Ker Conway. She wrote three memoirs for three separate periods of her life. Her childhood memoir is called the Road from Courrain. Also, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, is a great model for how to tell the story of childhood as an internal process, not just an external one.
Richard, Thanks for the comment. Calling it an “incredibly useful post” ought to go up on my wall in gilded letters, except who has time for such glory? I have to write my next post which is about flashbacks. It doesn’t surprise me that you like these posts. To some extent, you inspired them with your blog about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. She is certainly a master time weaver. Now we need to learn a few tricks of our own. Thanks again for stopping by. Best wishes, Jerry
I’m glad to have discovered this series on how to structure a memoir, as I’m on draft two of one and struggling with that. You’re right, sometimes it takes a while. Both you and your readers have some excellent suggestions to add to my reading list. Thanks so much for this series, and this site, they are excellent.
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Jerry, I have a question. There are parts of my memoir dealing with childhood but most dealing with adulthood. Do you think when I write of my childhood experience, I must always use a child’s diction? I generally do this but there are times my older, wiser viewpoint comes into the story. For me it makes sense that both the younger and the older/wiser view can coexist in a chapter. Thoughts? Thanks.
Hi Dwight, Thanks for the great question. So it gets straight to the importance and power of “the memoir voice” – you are trying to write a story that a reader can “lose themselves” in, to vicariously experience the world through your eyes. Consider writing about a characte in mid-20s remembering when he was 8. There are two ways to write it. Let the reader still be with the 20 year old, while remembering earlier childhood. Clearly that would be in the adult voice. Or it could be a “flashback” — that is like that movie technique with the wavy lines, and suddenly the reader is going back in time to that earlier experience. The crucial thing to keep in mind here is that you are the guide or steward of the reader’s attention – you want them to forget themselves and enter into being you – and whatever you write ought to serve that purpose. The question about childhood diction is a bit esoteric – most writers don’t bother too much with emulating early-life diction. I would not get too worried about emphasizing early life diction. Perhaps you might like to experiment playfully with it – but I don’t think I’ve read many memoirs in which this is important. So for example in Jeanette Walls Glass Castle, she was reacting to events in the naive child mind, but I don’t recall her trying to emulate a child’s voice. If you are interested in the pre-history of the Memoir Revolution, read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, written early in the 20th century, presaging the Memoir Revolution by 100 years – in it, he famously starts the story in the voice of a child, and then through the course of the story his diction grows more sophisticated. But he was a virtuoso – most readers don’t expect your memoir to be a masterpiece of literary history – they just want to experience life through your eyes. I hope this helps – there is a lot to consider in your small question. Best wishes, Jerry