"There are as many different kinds of memoir as there are motives for writing one. There is memoir written as pure story: You start at the beginning and end where you are now, a breathless headlong rush through what happened. You can start at the end and look back, or with some middle moment, an event that precipitated change and clarity, or the need for clarity. Put the point of your compass there and start circling: big circles, small circles, overlapping circles. You can put together fragments that contain moments of crisis or confusion or hilarity, or moments that stick in the mind for no apparent reason, and while they may not follow chronology in terms of time, they may make an emotional progression. Iiene Beckerman has written a perfect memoir called Love, Loss, and What I Wore, an account of her life illustrated by what she was wearing at important moments. I believe someone else has fashioned a memoir comprised entirely of lists."
~ Abigail Thomas, Thinking About Memoir

 

How are you going to structure your memoir?

No single question has driven more prospective memoir writers to reach for a glass of wine.

I wish there were a simple answer, something I could offer you as a free gift for signing up for this course, a ribbon-wrapped box containing a magical machine with a series of slots into which you would insert your myriad thoughts, ideas and stories. The contraption would spin and click and sort and purge and shuffle and prioritise and organise until--tada!--a failsafe structure for your work would emerge from a cloud of lavender-scented smoke.

Tell you what: I'll work on inventing such a machine and I'll send it to you the moment I have it perfected. In the meantime, let's lay out a few options, some examples of how other writers have created containers for their stories, and see if the lavender-scented smoke of literary instinct and intuition doesn't waft in at some point and set your wheels turning.

Having An Outline

There are some for whom The Outline Approach works well. They have a clear idea of what they are going to write about, they know the focus, they have clear parameters and they know where they are going. If you asked them to write the last scene first, they would say, pass me your pen, and they would do it. They cannot wait to lay their entire story out scene by scene, give things headings and titles, maybe buy colour coded dividers to put into a binder.

I applaud these people and admire this approach. There is a good chance that I would also admire their closets and spice racks, maybe even their basements. But I'd like to be clear about three things: 1. we do not all think the same way; 2. we do not all create the same way; 3. this approach is not for everyone.

Have a look at your closet. A glance at your spices, perhaps. Notice whether the thought of headings and titles and colour-coded dividers inspires you. What happens to your chest when I say, write the ending. It might soar. If it does, go to town with this. Write your story as a precis, a three- to ten-page summary of the full arc of your story. Go back and break it down into pieces. Label each piece. Buy a package of 3x5 index cards and assign one to each piece. Pin them all up on a story board, if you like. Attach dates if necessary. Chronology may well be your greatest ally, but you'll know off the bat whether or not it is. Follow the arc of your story with your eyes, let your heart follow along. Pay attention to any hiccoughs or breaks in narrative logic. Adjust accordingly, tweak, do some more labelling. Now, above the whole thing, do your sky writing: what is this story about besides me? That's your beacon, your lighthouse. Throughout all the writing, keep one eye on that light. Keep adjusting your boat. Keep moving towards the shore.

Brilliant. If that speaks to you, feel free to skip ahead to lesson 10 of this section "Surprise Gift: An Actual Formula" and see if that helps at all. If it does, excellent. Go to town again. (If it doesn't, that's fine. Generally, there are two camps of people in this arena: those who read that formula and think, WOW, great, and those who roll their eyes and feel they might vomit.) If you were in the wow great category, adjust your outline accordingly. As you do this, take a moment to remind yourself that no matter how perfect and watertight your outline, you may need to continually shift your original expectations and make alterations as you go. That's part of letting the story move through you. But you know where you're going. You've identified the path. All you need now is to get started. Aces.

Not Having An Outline

While there are many who swear by outlines and still others who believe them essential, there are still others who believe that structure can also make itself known as we write. That we can plan and outline all we like, but the container of something may only become clear once the substance it is meant to contain already exists in some form. For what it's worth, I happen to be one of those people, for the simple reason that that has been my experience. It has also been the experience of most of the memoir writers I know.

I'll share with you my own experience, not because I believe this to be The Correct or Higher Path, but only because it is often helpful, when standing at the foot of a mountain, to hear a personal account of someone who has just climbed down and who ended up taking a slightly different route than the one prescribed.

Every time I have written anything, be it a short story, longform essay, or a book, I have had only the vaguest idea of the form the story was going to take. In the case of both my memoirs, the form changed radically at least once over the course of the writing. In the first book, what I endeavoured to do was this: sketch (in words) a series of portraits of the people I met over the course of three months of travels in Iran. My 'sky writing' or higher story (which I never articulated, but which guided me nonetheless) might have been something along the lines of: Iran is not the place we think it is; it is a paradox of blackness and light and a thousand shades of kindness, generosity and laughter.

For the second book, I set out knowing that I wanted to write a series of scenes from childhood about growing up with a gay dad before that was hip or even a thing. I wanted the story to have a resonance well beyond my own family, well beyond just other queer families. I wanted the story to be about how families are riotously imperfect and challenging and, by their very nature, they are set up to teach us, force us, to become bigger people, to accept more fully and love more deeply, even and most especially when we do not understand. In my case, the challenge happened to be my dad's sexual orientation at a time when society said that was a no-no, but every family has something.

For both books, I began by working on small scenes, small beads of stories, getting them down and finishing them, in no particular order, though in both cases, I believe I started almost smack dab in the middle, with the scene that stood the tallest in the story. After that, I went with whatever was popping its head above the surface, wherever I felt inspired to go. When one scene was finished, I exhaled, celebrated, and tried to see what was bobbing its head out of the water next. I did not write in chronological order.

When the material began to build up and I began to see the arc of the larger story (as opposed to the arc of each individual scene), I would assemble the pieces with an eye on the larger whole. I never used story boards or index cards, but writers who use them rave about them and someday I might give them a try. I had one very unattractive and unorganised notebook, purchased at the corner store for $1.39 and the glue on that price tag took its job so seriously, I was never able to peel the price tag off, though I tried, many times, no doubt when I was wrestling with the urge to (not) write.

Near the end of the writing of my first book, I had a revelation that forced me to slash an entire subplot, change the identity of the narrator's companion, and write a chapter in the middle of the book that tips the whole conceit on its head. Three weeks later, the book was finished. Midway through the writing of my second book, I was forced to ditch my vision of the structure and focus of the book in order to accommodate the addition of surprising new material [see this chapter's VIDEO: Stories About Structure]. After that, the book came together in a couple of months.

So, there's that approach, too. It's a bit like working from a pencilled sketch on a canvas. Very vague, pencilled lines that might well change when the paint is added. The general shape is there, the focus, the main figures, but we need to set down the colour before the forms gave way to shape.

Either way, we need that lighthouse on the shore, the light that guides our story, that calls us to shore.