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.
Review these methods and write a synopsis of wrapper story you might use to help you structure your memoir. For example, imagine telling your story to an interested listener, (a therapist, a lover, or a child, for example). Imagine going on a journey back to your roots and reminiscing. Or imagine investigating your past and revealing the pieces as you find them.
Two Alternating Time Frames
The travel memoir as a wrapper story introduces the potential for telling a story in two time frames at once. Another technique jumps all the way into the two-frame concept and weaves two parallel stories, one from earlier in life and one later. By going back and forth between the two timeframes, these authors have managed to start the story right in the thick of it, and then go back to give the backstory without diffusing the power of the book. I’ll describe this method and give examples in the next post.
This is the sixth essay in a series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”
How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?
Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.
More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.
Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.
How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.
Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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Jerry, I was aware of this technique but didn’t know it was called a “wrapper story.” A memoir I’m working on right now uses this strategy. I’m using my son’s “tell me a story about when you were a little girl” inquiries at bedtime to review my childhood. Having that structure is incredibly helpful because I don’t have to make the stories flow one into another and can cover a larger period of time than I would if I weren’t using that wrapper. I do develop themes through the selection of stories that I share, so it will all hang together in the end, but making my presence as narrator so obvious really does create new opportunities for how to present the various scenes.
Thanks for your comment. When I called it a wrapper story, I didn’t mean to imply that this is a technical term, but just a descriptive one. Your method of telling your story to your son reminds me of the method used in Thousand and One Nights in which Scheherazade tells stories to her husband. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the Thousand and One Nights: “What is common throughout all the editions of the Nights is the initial frame story of Scheherazade telling stories to her husband, and the framing device incorporated throughout the tales themselves. The stories proceed from this original tale; some are framed within other tales, while others begin and end of their own accord.” Notice they use the term “Frame Story.”
In addition to holding your stories together loosely by telling them to your son, is it fair to assume there is a subtext of you as a character growing and learning to overcome your obstacles? By emphasizing your own character development, you offer the reader an additional dimension that holds the stories together.
Yes, that’s what I meant by the theme that holds them together. It’s fuzzy still, but basically the adult me realizes things, as she tells her son about her childhood, that help her with her current challenges.
Another example of this is in Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and Hard Place, which was the book that the movie 127 Hours was based on. He’s trapped in a slot canyon with his arm pinned by an enormous boulder. There’s not a lot of action, other than his various attempts to rescue himself. In between, there is just waiting and sleeping, when he can.
So what Ralston did was alternate between his struggle in the canyon and flashbacks to other outdoor adventures where he ran into trouble. Through these other stories, he reveals his character and shows how ending up in a situation like this was sort of inevitable. Who knew reading about a guy spending 5 days alone in a slot unable to move could be so fascinating?
Nice! Here’s another one, from an obscure book by Jack London called Star Rover. The character is in jail and realizes that when he is in extreme pain, he can travel back to past lives. He does everything he can to offend the guards, and every time they lock him in solitary and put a strait jacket on him, he returns to his fantasy about a previous life. Whew. And there’s also one of the most famous science fiction/fantasy books Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man which tells a series of stories based on the characters in a circus man’s tattoos. Fascinating possibilities. Good luck with your memoir. It sounds like you are having creative fun. Jerry
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My father is a 74 year old Indian Army veteran. He has now written his memoirs. I am working on editing the same. This book has the following sections-
(a) story of his experience in a major war at the age of 24 years (b) his experience as colonel / brigadier in various stages of career.
Requesting your suggestion please:
(1) interesting introduction idea/thought at the start
(2) suitable wrapper story / framing device
(2) every story begins with a chapter on background of the war/ events which is like a bland history lesson. how to introduce the background of each story in an interesting manner.
thanks and regards
This is a great question! To help me answer, here are a couple of followup questions:
1) Is your father available and willing to do interviews to help you fill in details. For example, if you wanted to flesh in some backstory about what he was doing the day before an event to help set up that scene, would you be able to interview him and learn that additional information.
2) What is your relationship to the manuscript? Did you know he was working on it? When you saw it, how did you feel about what he had done? Was there new, surprising information in it? Did you wish he had said more about certain things? Did editing the book create a sense of wonder and discovery about your father’s history? Would you be willing or interested in shaping a wrapper story that would allow the reader to see your journey as a son looking for his father’s history, or would you prefer to keep this strictly in his point of view?