The three most common problems in writing a memoir:
1. How do I start?
2. What do I include?
3. Where does it all go?
By starting with significant turning points you will soon find yourself thinking about important scenes that address your theme(s). Creating a structure that works helps you to figure out how to weave your scenes and moments together. It becomes easier to write a longer form work when we are focused and know how to plan out the trajectory of our writing.
1.List the most significant moments in your life, ideally those that illuminate the questions, topics, and themes of your memoir.
List 10-20 of these turning point moments—the goal is to focus on specific situations, challenges, important moments that you can turn into scenes. These will be moments that created movement in your life, big changes. And ideally for your memoir, they will address your theme. The theme might have to do with travel, transformation, recovery, or healing; the theme might be coming of age, or how your grandmother’s cooking inspired you to become a chef, or how you survived an abusive relationship. There are moments in everyone’s life that make a difference, that stand out in our memories. Since memoir is about memories, sifting through the many hundreds and thousands to pinpoint significant times helps us contain the overwhelm that can come when starting to write –or even think about writing—a memoir.
After you make your list of turning points, locate them on a timeline. Draw a long horizontal line—preferably on a large piece of paper, and divide it into decades. Then draw vertical lines where you will notate the name of the scene or turning points in the time frame. Do this for all your turning points. Notice how your significant moments may cluster; notice how the moments that created change for you are coordinating with other events—national or international. These could be a war, a tornado or hurricane, the election of a president, or the death of someone famous. Your events might coordinate with important family events like weddings, funerals, births and family reunions. List everything on your timeline that you think will be helpful to give a context to your scenes and memories.
2.Include only what is necessary. Sure, that’s simple advice but how can you do that?
You might start with your title—a working title that helps to define your theme. Wild is about one woman’s journey through the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail and how that journey helps her heal her past. In Lovesick by Sue William Silverman weaves her struggle with healing sex addiction with her memories of abuse by her father. The title of my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness shows the arc of my story and the theme of mother-daughter abandonment. To keep the focus of my theme, I edited out 55,000 words from the last draft. Eat, Pray Love is what we call a formulaic memoir that provides a clear goal for each section of the book—eating in Italy, praying in India, and loving in Indonesia. The title includes the themes and provides a structure.
Topics and Themes
List the topics and themes that your memoir covers—at first brainstorm them: for instance the list could include recovery, love, loss and a job search, all significant moments. After you list your themes, write about each one, what you think you want to say, why it needs to be included and how important you think each one is. You’ll find yourself focusing more on one or two themes.
Write about why you want to write your memoir and the message you want to deliver to your audience. That will help you get clear on your themes.
3. It’s a challenge to choose your structure but here’s a tip: most often a linear chronological structure—point A to Point B is the easiest and best way to tell your story.
For memoirs that go back and forth in time, a braided memoir is a good choice. For instance, you would weave present and past in alternating chapters. Wild is a framed memoir—where the main story is on the trail while Strayed picks up threads from the past and weaves them in through flashbacks. Coming of age memoirs often are best with a linear structure. You are growing up in the story as it progresses, learning and changing and gaining new insights. A linear structure works well for psychological development and transformation. The best way to get clear about the structure is to list your turning point dates including the locations, your age, and the year so you can see how the theme and time frames line up.
All these craft factors will come together as you work with them. It’s clear that writing a memoir is indeed a process—challenging but so rewarding! It takes time to sort things out, but every time you make lists, brainstorm, and research how other authors have solved these problems you are solving the challenges of writing, and creating success that help you write a successful book.
Learn more about craft through other articles on our blog, and at our Magic of Memoir conference Oct. 17-18 in Berkeley, CA.