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.
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.
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.
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.
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Excellent tips. My memoir is told in first person beginning when I was seven. I detail events of abuse, but as a child have no understanding of all that went on to cause the abuse. As I age in my memoir, I type bits of backstory from tales my parents tell me and later, when I’m in therapy, I revisit the abuse with all my fears, self-doubt, and self-blame and the therapist and I examine the past and I learn more perspective about what went on, ultimately healing occurs. Having another character point out things the MC doesn’t comprehend helps to flesh out the backstory.
Great post, which shows how to make clear chronological structure, rightly common, more interesting structurally and dramatically.
Thanks for the comment, Richard. I’m glad you find interest in this close look at timelines.
Heather, thanks for spelling out your method of showing the evolution of your awareness over a period of time. That sounds like it provides an interesting narrative arc in your story.
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Such informative essays, finally giving me guidelines for my Arctic memoir, a ten year writing process.
Thanks for taking the time to offer your comment, Shinan, and congratulations for your persistence and passion that keeps you engaged in the fascinating process of turning your life into a story. Even the two words “Arctic memoir” tantalize.
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